The Perfect Mix of Wild and Domestic

By Ryan Spence and Isabelle Legault

Farming in Northern Ontario

If anyone is interested in exploring opportunities to farm in Northern Ontario you can check out Crop Up North and their snazzy video, or FarmNorth for all there is to know about setting a farm up in the North.  – Ryan

Field Good Farms is less than one kilometre from the northern edge of Lake Nipissing and almost centered between North Bay and Sudbury. For those who are unfamiliar with this area, we are about 4.5 hours due north of Toronto. To our friends in Thunder Bay, we do admit that we are less “north” than you are, but we digress.

Despite certain challenges we love farming up here. This blog will speak to what we have found to be pros and cons of farming in our region and how we have adapted our farming and ourselves.

The Climate
Choosing the right varieties meant that we’ve had good squash yields

Choosing the right varieties meant that we’ve had good squash yields

In terms of plant hardiness we are in zone 3b. Roughly speaking, our last frost is late May or early June and our first frost is mid-September. This means we have, assuming a normal year, about 105 frost free days to work with. Right away this means that we need to be careful in terms of what we try to grow. Variety selection is paramount. For example, when we buy butternut squash seed we will purchase the more expensive Tiana F1 (95 day) instead of Waltham Butternut (105 day). The added cost is outweighed by the risk of pushing the limits of our season. Instead, we seek out either shorter season varieties or cold hardy crops when garden planning.

In addition to variety selection, we use season extension equipment. We have experimented with many row covering techniques and are using both high tunnels and caterpillar tunnels to extend our season. However, since we do not use supplemental heat, we need to be careful as our mid-September night temperatures can be down to minus five or minus six for four to five consecutive days.

 

Early season Pac Choy in one of our caterpillar tunnels

Early season Pac Choy in one of our caterpillar tunnels

Through experience, sweet peppers, for example, will not withstand these temperatures in a caterpillar tunnel even with secondary row cover. Without the use of supplementary heat we need to choose the hardiest crops even when using season extension equipment. These include, but are not limited to, kale, spinach, cilantro, kohlrabi, and mizuna. We do an earlier batch of these vegetables in the caterpillar tunnels followed by a later batch in the hoop house. This year, albeit an abnormally warm year, our last harvest of spinach, cilantro and kale from the hoop house was January 9th. The interior of our hoop house also gets covered in its entirety by a 30g row cover that is suspended four feet off the ground by aircraft cable. We continue to trial season extension equipment combinations alongside cold hardy varieties to have non-storage crops available well beyond our regular season.

30g row cover in our unheated 96’ hoop house

30g row cover in our unheated 96’ hoop house

Markets in the North

Beyond the realities of the weather, another issue in our area is marketing. There just aren’t that many people in the North. We are committed to ecological growing and providing a wide variety of high quality crops to our local communities. This is potentially problematic in terms of having a large enough market for our niche products. However, to date, we have always met our sales targets. Our CSA has been our mainstay. We actually operate North Bay’s largest CSA program with 110 members. To our knowledge, we also run the North’s only fall/winter CSA program. All to say, despite a small population, there aren’t a huge number of farmers doing what we do even at the relatively small scale at which we operate.

This has both advantages and disadvantages. It is nice to sell our CSAs out each year and to have virtually no waste due to oversupply in the market. However, there aren’t a lot of similar- minded farmers around and those who are here are actually quite far apart. In short, the market is good but the social life of the ecologically-minded farmer is slightly lonely. On the upside, this has driven us to sign up for numerous local boards and committees to ward off getting too lonely on the farm.

Another downside to the market of the North is that the number of restaurants interested in high quality or specialty products is not great. We currently supply two restaurants with a reasonable amount of produce but when I look at a town like Stratford, Ontario where my family lives, the opportunities for restaurant sales are huge despite having a smaller population than North Bay.

The Pros and Cons of our Distance from the South

Beyond marketing, another tricky issue is our distance from suppliers. If I need organic seed potato, for example, I have to drive at least 6 hours (one way) to get it. That takes both time and money to do. This is the case for many of our supplies: greenhouse flats, irrigation equipment, packaging, cover crops, season extension equipment, and the list goes on. This adds extra trucking costs to our expense lines which, when added to an already shorter growing season, has us tighten our belts a little bit.

Another downside to our location is the distance from relevant agricultural events. The EFAO has all kinds of great Kitchen Table Meetings, farms tours, and training events but we are usually a day’s drive both ways from these gatherings. We’ve always wanted to take Ken Laing’s training with Suffolk Punch horses but are so far that it has yet to be possible.

Distance from the South can also be a good thing. I don’t have any experience farming in the South but we often read through OMAF emails about pests and disease moving their way into southern Ontario and creeping northward. To date, knock on wood, we haven’t seen these types of problems reach our farm in any dramatic way. The only troublesome pests we’ve encountered lately are leafhoppers after the hay is cut and the swede midge due to a lot of canola growers in our region. But by and large, our pest pressures are not devastating.

Finally, a major advantage in the North are land prices. Currently, tiled land prices in our region range from $2,000-3,000 per acre. I haven’t been looking for land down South but my gut feeling is that land up here is substantially cheaper by comparison.

Beyond the Specifics
Our friend Mike with a Pike on a Sunday outing with Ryan a 7 minute drive from the farm

Our friend Mike with a Pike on a Sunday outing with Ryan a 7 minute drive from the farm

Finally, beyond economics and farm specific pros and cons, we have to consider the idea of place. Despite a few difficulties by comparison to the South the ruggedness and access to wildlife in the north has our hearts. This year on our property alone we saw four moose, many coyotes, Sandhill cranes by the hundreds, bobolinks, blue herons and in the area we saw a bald eagle, a snowy owl, a marten and a timber wolf. Sundays are our day off so I try to get out pike fishing on the lake.

Wild blueberries dot the jagged rock outcroppings typical to our farmland and cranberries grow wild in the shallows of the lake. We feel that the North is a beautiful farming area and to paraphrase Wendell Berry it feels very much like the perfect mix of wild and domestic.