I've had alot of thoughts rolling around in my head this growing season and it really reached a pinnacle when we learned we were going to have an early fall frost this year. This is not just an isolated setback that we've faced this year - we had a cold spring, a frost in June, blazing heat throughout the summer, lack of rain, and now this early fall frost. This is very unusual weather to have all clustered together - in our previous years of farming we've come to understand that even though we might have a bad spring we can usually make it up in the summer and fall, etc. This is the only year that we've farmed in that has been like this. As farmers, we have to be very aware of the weather, from which day to plant seeds (the day before a rain) to which day to transplant (an overcast drizzly day) or which day to weed (hot and dry are best because it kills the weeds). If you were to weed on a day that was rainy, for example, most of the weeds thrown to the side will reroot and start arching back up towards the sky, and the energy spent would have been for nothing.
Frosts are a huge thing for vegetable growers to be aware of, because it can mean losing your entire crop depending on the vegetable. Certain vegetables like kale and carrots don't get too bothered by it because they evolved in a northern climate, but others like tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and basil have little resistance to it so usually are lost. The problem with unexpectedly late spring and early fall frosts is that it cuts into the time that you can have those veggies available, and it might not let you grow them at all. Every variety of vegetable has a "days to maturity" count which means (in ideal conditions) thats how many days from the seed germinating to when you can harvest it. This year we had a frost on June 3rd and on Sept 24th, that means we had 113 continuous frost free days (I know some other NS farms had an even shorter window). Compared to other years we've farmed, the last spring frost would usually be late April and the first killing frost in fall woundn't be untill well into October. This means we lost atleast a month and a half of growing time, and for some vegetables that have 90-100 days to maturity (or more), this doesn't give you alot of wiggle room. And remember that count is for ideal growing conditions, if it's too cold, too wet, too dry etc it can slow things down considerably, these plants are very tough but even they have their limits.
Every year of vegetable farming is a gamble since there is always the unknown element of what type of weather we will get, and this year has been especially volatile. We've learned some surprising things about different vegetables this year that we might not have learned otherwise - for example, our potato crop got a frost when it had around 8 inches of above ground growth, we thought for sure this was the end of them, but we noticed in about a week that new shoots were growing right at the soil level and before long they were back to their former glory. We actually got a pretty normal crop of potatoes this year despite that frost, and that blows my mind, we think that the frost might have killed off alot of the potato beetles (the main pest of potatoes) so that could have aided our harvest. Nature gives and she takes away, it's quite an amazing thing! Speaking of pests, we also had less squash bugs this year, and something seemed to be killing them (maybe a new insect predator moved in because of the heat? who knows). We've learned in previous years that starting tomato transplants in a cool greenhouse gives them a little more cold-hardiness, and that planting crops closer together reduces the bad effects of lack of rain. There is always more to learn with farming, and even though it can be incredibly nerve-wracking crossing your fingers and waiting for a decent rain, we find it endlessly interesting.
Another thing I'd like to mention is that it's difficult to make money as a farmer even in good growing years. One thing I've realized this year is that one of the main rewards to a successful year is the fact that you're able to continue doing it the next year. This is very different from alot of other jobs out there (even though every job has some element of unpredictability) - just think about some of the apple, grape and strawberry growers this year who lost all or most of their crop due to the June 3rd frost, there's not really any other businesses that can lose their entire profits for the year based on one poorly-placed cold night. There are alot of small -scale vegetable farmers that are calling it quits this year because the volatile weather has been "the last straw that broke the camels back". We feel their pain to stop doing what they love because they can't deal with this one added variable to an already perilous line of work, and I'd be lying if I said the thought hadn't crossed our minds this year as well. We are an extremely small-scale operation compared to larger farms, we have one greenhouse, very limited irrigation, we don't use row-cover, black plastic or any form of pesticides. We have just two workers (us) for the majority of the time. We also make great sacrifices for this business, we had lived in small camper for several years, we invest most of the money we make back into the farm, we work 6 days a week from May to October, and we find other jobs in the winter to support our farming "habit", while also planning for the upcoming year (which actually is happening year-round). I'm not saying this to complain, it's our own choice to do this and our reward is to make enough money to continue doing it, because we love it! Working outside, connecting with nature and keeping it healthy,seeing plants grow and produce healthy food, and being able to share this food with others as well as eat it ourselves is a huge passion for us. As well, with the future becoming more and more unpredictable in the way of climate change (or climate chaos), political chaos, and multitudes of other things, we find small-scale vegetable growing to be a sustainable and independant way of living in many, many ways, even if it's tricky in the financial sense. We wouldn't be able to continue doing this if we hadn't made so many sacrifices and if we hadn't had so much help from so many people along the way - the first would obviously be my (Adam's) parents Don and Deenie who have helped us beyond imagination, by letting us use the land and tools on their property and just constantly being supportive, and even before them my grandparents who moved onto the farm in the 50s - and after my grandfather passed away my grandmother Myrna and her 5 children all worked together to keep the farm going. The land wouldn't be what it is today without Myrna, you can tell from her photo albums that she loved every piece of that land and probably watched individual trees grow over time as you would a friend. More recently, we've been helped by a friend who is letting us rent her place for a very generous price, with other farmer friends who are aways offering advice and support, incredible farmers markets where we've made so many friends and connections and learned what community really means, as well as our CSA members and farmers market go-ers who actually buy the vegetables that we sell, we certainly wouldn't be still doing this if it wasn't for all of you! Not only just the monetary income but the spiritual fulfillment of connecting over naturally grown food and knowing it is something that other people care about - not just us!
Well, I hope if you got through this long-winded blog post it helped you understand a bit more what it's like to be a small-scale farmer - I sometimes feel that because farming has been around for such a long time there are some subconscious myths that can be in many peoples minds without them realizing it. For example that farmers charge too much for their produce or that we spend all day peacefully meandering through our fields. While it is true that there are many genuinely peaceful moments watching the sun rise through the mist or hearing the birds singing in the trees, there is also the very real underlying tension of "is anyone going to buy this kind of radish?", "is the frost going to kill off that planting of beans before we get anything to harvest?", "are we going to get any rain so we can do the next succession planting of carrots+beets?", "are we putting enough in the CSA bags so people feel they get what they paid for?". As for over-charging for produce, it is a very sad fact that farms definetely under-charge for their produce, for example - something as small as green onions can take 70 days from germination to harvest, and that is with perfect watering and compost. Tie in that with Nova Scotia's already short growing season, and now climate change, there is alot of energy that goes into producing every leaf of lettuce or basil or arugula. This is not to say anyone should feel guilty, farmers want food to be affordable too because we also have to eat to live! I'm not sure what the solution to all this is, but I think the more we all talk, communicate and understand the closer we will get to a solution.
Okay I think I've said most of what I wanted to say, these are the reasons why 2018 has been a particularly bad growing year and it lays another variable on farmers that are (many of them) struggling. Our plan is to do some improvements to the farm next year to increase our chances in gambling with the weather - these include more irrigation and landscape fabric. This is the plan for now, as we all know plans can change depending on variables - speaking of which I forgot to mention we also had our tractor break down in June (prime planting time)and our farm truck break down twice (we did an extra mini-CSA to fund the repairs only for it to break again a month later) that's just how it goes sometimes. Despite the numerous struggles, this is what we love to do and we appreciate every moment of being involved in this re-igniting of the small-farm movement and healthy food movement. Thank you for reading! - Adam