On The Farm
Most greenhouses can grow from the early spring into the late fall, but we grow year round. Since we installed our greenhouse lights in 2014, we have been able to harvest year round as well. At any given time, we have around 2000 tomato plants and 1400 English cucumber plants. We also grow peppers (green and red), egg plant, grape tomatoes, beans, spinach, lettuce, kale, melons, herbs, and radishes. While growing organically in a greenhouse shares many similarities with growing in a field, it provides a different set of challenges.
Our pest control strategy is focused on preventative. We do this some for sure by trial and error and learning from problems we have had in the past but also by establishing beneficial biology to compete with harmful organisms. Whereas conventional growers have many synthetic pesticides they can use to ward off diseases and insects we rely heavily on beneficials. For insect control we bring in good bugs to eat the bad bugs. For plant diseases we try to establish an ecosystem of good micro-organisms that can out compete the bad guys. We can also use tools like sticky insect traps, various plant extracts and just diligent work! Ensuring that the space is clean also minimizes the carry over of pests, so though it is tough to keep it perfect, it is always top of mind.
The beneficials we use to keep pesky insects from damaging the crops include a variety of insects, nemotodes, and phermone traps. As examples, for tomatoes we use Encarsia formosa to eat up all the small but destructive white flies. For cucumbers we use Phytoseiulus persimilis to get the pesky spider mites and Amblyseius Cucumeris for thrips that bite the cucumber flowers and fruit. If or when we need to spray for something it is using a certified organic registered product and we do spot sprays not blanket sprays.
Our primary disease control strategy is our greenhouse. We use heat to reduce humidity which is needed for most diseases to develop. In the past, we’ve had a powdery mildew problem in our cucumbers, but we found breaking the production in December and using resistant varieties significantly reduces this problem. We also use potassium bicarbonate, which is an organic product that suppresses the mildew (a cousin to baking soda or sodium bicarbonate). We also prune our plants weekly, harvest three times a week, and spot pick damaged or unmarketable fruit.
Many times we get the question "Are you hydroponic?" And no we are not. As soil is one of the building blocks of organic production and by the definition hydroponic is without soil, the two cannot exist together. We grow in a soil medium of peat moss and compost with earthworm castings and perlite. For fertility, we use various organic fertilizers including crab meal, potassium sulphate, and fish emulsion to meet the plants needs.
We have a food safety plan that we follow very carefully. Each year we have an annual audit to ensure we are following it. The regulations are strict to ensure food is safe for the public. It requires us to document hand washing, visitors, general cleanliness, that packaging materials are clean, and many other things. We are happy to adhere to these policies, but do sometimes find they take a lot of time. For example, food safety is for this reason that we are not able to take cardboard boxes back, unless it is to burn them, because we can’t prove that they were always kept in a way to prevent any contamination that could make someone sick. After all even setting your peanut butter sandwich on the box could be very harmful to someone!
To heat our greenhouses we burn locally produced and GMO free crop residues. These crop residues are left over when a local mill crushes seeds for specialty oils like the heath supplement Borage Oil. We have developed a great relationship with this mill and it works great because it is available only 5 kilometers away from our farm. Keep it local!
The boiler fire heats water and the water moves through the pipes along the floor of the greenhouse. These pipes are also used like a train track for the harvest and working carts in the greenhouse.
We had to source this boiler specially as this crop residue can be a difficult fuel to burn. It was a big investment for us but it is paying off because we have been more efficient at heating and able to better maintain the temperatures the plants need. Also we have found that the ash we get from burning these crops makes a great fertilizer. We have gotten it approved to use as an organic product and are starting to sell it to other farmers and neighbours.