by Caitlin Hall of Reroot Organic Farm
I’m Caitlin Hall and I own and operate Reroot Farm in Harriston, ON. The upcoming 2014 growing season will be my 8th as a full-time farmer at Reroot. Over the years I’ve grown the farm from a small market garden on borrowed land, to a thriving diversified farm. In 2010, I purchased my own 70 acre farm and since then have added pastured poultry, pork and beef as well as honey from our own bees to our offerings. The garden has grown to 6 acres of certified organic vegetables as well as some perennial berries, supplying a 100-share CSA and two weekly farmers’ markets. I no longer farm alone, now hosting 2-3 interns per season who are interested in learning how to farm, many who have gone on to start their own farms. Here are two YouTube videos created by past interns that give you a bit of a snapshot of our farm.
In 2014 we are planning to open our on-farm store offering our own farm products as well as organic products from neighbouring farms. We also have plans for a certified kitchen that will be used to preserve some of our harvest and create value-added products to sell in our store and beyond.
Prior to starting out on my own, I spent 3 seasons interning and working on other organic market gardens in Ontario, learning lots about gardening, the ways I wanted to farm (and the ways I definitely didn’t want to farm!). These 3 seasons were invaluable in preparing me for starting a farm on my own, and I would highly recommend doing the same for anyone interested in coming to farming from a non-farm background. The CRAFT Ontario Network is a good resource to find out about organic farms in Ontario who offer full-season farm internships. www.craftontario.ca
In 2007 I launched my first gardening season on borrowed land at Mapleton’s Organic Dairy. The benefit of having a land use agreement with an established farm such as Mapleton’s, was that they were able to do a bulk of the initial field preparation work for me with their tractor and implements. This allowed me to avoid the expense of owning my own large equipment for my first few years of gardening. If your land arrangement doesn’t include access to equipment for working up the land, it is possible to hire a neighbour to do custom work in preparing your garden site. I would recommend this as the cost is usually minimal for small acreages, and it will save you a ton of hand work!
For my first season, I had 1.5acres of vegetables, and a 20 week, 20-share CSA to supply. To begin with, I had very limited equipment and much work was done by hand. The bulk of my equipment included a spade, a hoe, a wheel hoe, a garden fork, some transplanting trowels, some harvest knives, and some harvest bins. I also invested my first year in a 20’x60’ heated double-poly hoophouse that I used to start all my own seedlings and once those were moved out, planted tomatoes for an early harvest. A word of wisdom on hoophouse erection- carefully choose your location, avoiding low spots that will flood, and areas that will be shaded by trees or other buildings. Also, carefully choose a calm day for putting your poly on. Invite lots of friends, many hands make it easier and it’s kind of like a good old fashioned barn-raising! If you hope to avoid this expense in your first year, it is also possible to hire someone to start your seeds for you or to find a hoophouse sharing arrangement. I now start seeds for 3 different market garden operations in my heated hoophouse and the income helps offset heating costs.
One expense that I hoped to avoid in my first year was that of an irrigation system. Unfortunately, the weather that first season was hot and dry and by early July I was scrambling to find a solution to my water needs, thus investing in a drip irrigation system. In retrospect, I would recommend having a good irrigation plan and a definite water supply before you start your first season. There’s nothing worse them trying to sort out an irrigation order in the middle of a heat wave while your little seedlings wither around you.
Over the years, I added to my equipment collection as needs arose and finances allowed. First, in 2008, investing in a Farmall 140 cultivating tractor for about $3000 that we now use with Planet Jr. seed drills to do all of our direct seeding in the garden as well as the bulk of our cultivating. Since then I’ve gone on to add a larger 70 horse power tractor with implements such as a moldboard plough, an s-tine cultivator, and a set of disks. I still hire out some ploughing and compost spreading to neighbouring farmers with more appropriate equipment. I’ve also added another unheated hoophouse to the operation for season extension, installed a walk-in cooler for storing produce, and switched from a drip irrigation system to an overheard irrigation system.
While good equipment and tools are certainly necessary in launching a career in market gardening, one of the biggest resources contributing to my success as a farmer is actually a network of other market gardeners. Since beginning to farm I’ve been fortunate to meet a number of mentors, more experienced market gardeners who I’ve found to be exceptionally generous with their time and advice. I met many of these individuals through the CRAFT network during my internships, at workshops and courses offered by the Ecological Farmers’ of Ontario and others, and by attending conferences such as the Guelph Organic Conference. Also essential to my success as a farmer has been the equipment suppliers I’ve been connected with. This will vary depending on your location, but where I farm I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a large Mennonite community many of whom are also market gardeners. Due to their dependence on local businesses and suppliers, I’ve come to find excellent, reliable and affordable suppliers of potting mix, seedling trays, row cover and plastic mulch, irrigation supplies and harvest crates. These suppliers are not always easy to find using the internet or a phone book, but by connecting with other market gardeners in my area, I’ve found everything I needed without ordering from very large companies that usually require large minimum orders, or paying high shipping costs.
The other piece of the puzzle in achieving a successful and viable farm operation is the marketing. It’s one thing to grow great food, it’s another to sell it and make a living. I think this piece is often overlooked by beginning farmers and can lead to disappointment. Although it is not nearly as romantic as getting your hands into the soil, creating a business plan, including strategies for marketing all of the beautiful produce you’re planning to grow should really be among your first steps. There are a number of resources out there to support you in creating business plan including FarmStart classes and Farmers Growing Farmers (which I participated in during my first season).
It’s difficult for me to narrow down the 5 most important things/tools/equipment/resources that I needed to get started in market gardening, but here’ s my best shot:
1) Irrigation System. I briefly touched on it above, but I’m a firm believer that to be a successful market gardener, you must have access to a reliable irrigation system. There are seasons you’ll barely use it but there are others that you wouldn’t be able to survive without it. There are different options for irrigation that I will cover in a future blog post.
2) Soil Fertility. This is another broad topic but again one I think is absolutely essential for successful market gardening. Fertility in your seed-starting mix and fertility in your soil is very important for growing healthy plants that can withstand any pressure from pests, diseases and weather. In a future blog post, I will cover the essentials of soil testing and options for maintaining healthy and fertile soils for the market gardener.
3) Cultivating Tractor. I put this on my list not because I think it is an absolutely essential piece of equipment for market gardening but because in my experience it is a very useful and labour saving tool that can allow you to increase your garden acreage without breaking your back. It is a versatile tractor that can be used for many applications within market gardening, and they can be found easily for less than $4000. In my blog post about this piece of equipment, I will also cover options for other cultivating tools such as a wheel hoe and rototiller if you do not wish to invest in a tractor.
4) Seeder. There are many options for seeders including walk-behind seeders and tractor mounted seed drills. I will cover what we use at Reroot Farm as well as various options available for seeders. While it is entirely possible to plant seeds by hand, it is not very efficient or precise to seed a market garden sized plot by hand.
5) Walk-In Cooler. Post-harvest handling is a very important component in producing quality produce for market. Having access to a walk-in cooler allows for effective cooling of your produce after harvesting which will improve its shelf life and marketability. At Reroot, we created a walk-in cooler using insulated panels, an air conditioning unit and a handy little device called a CoolBot. I will go over options for post-harvest handling facilities in a future blog post.