ICE LAKE – A face-to-face field day hosted by the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) introduced attendees to the principles of organic farming. Three Forks Farm owners Peggy Baillie and Eric Blondin, and Our Garden’s Linda and Chuc Willson shared how they work with the land and deal with the challenges of growing on Manitoulin Island.
Three Forks Farm is certified organic and produces mixed vegetables and fruits, garden seeds and chickens. The Willsons have been growing, harvesting, storing, preserving and marketing food organically for over 30 years and make a range of natural jellies, relishes, pickles, vinegars and oils, all sourced from herbs, fruits and vegetables grown on their land or be harvested. Both farms are located in Ice Lake.
While each farm is unique, they aren’t that different either. Similarities can be found in their key messages of diversification, organic farming practices, healthy soils, natural pest control, experimentation, collaborations, access to water, knowing your market and preserving biodiversity. Farmers also face similar challenges.
A healthy work-life balance is a challenge. Ms Baillie and Mr Blondin are tackling the problem by not working evenings and Sundays and sharing their responsibilities. Mr. Blondin takes care of the nursery and Ms. Baillie takes care of the seed production. Three Forks Farm also has two full-time and one part-time staff working on the farm and three part-time staff helping at the markets. They try to hire people who have a genuine interest in farming.
The Willsons are trying to downsize their production to make things easier as they get older, and they have a succession plan in place when they’re ready to retire.
Pests and predators are a major problem throughout the island. The Willsons use row covers and mulching to help with pest control. They use fences, netting, scarecrows, noisemakers, and other low-tech methods to deter larger pests like birds, rabbits, and deer.
Both farms use some kind of fence. Three Forks has fenced 10 acres of its 100 acres with a high-strength electric deer perimeter wire fence. “We have extreme deer pressure here on the island and even with the high-strength fence, we have deer that manage to get through,” Ms Baillie said.
For the past three years, they’ve lost about $30,000 worth of crops to deer and some seed crops this year. “We’re just trying to get better and find better ways to manage,” she added.
Two herd dogs protect the chickens from predators.
All cabbage plants (kale, bok choy, broccoli, collards, etc.) at Three Forks Farm are grown under insect netting for the duration of the plant’s life because of the diamondback moth. “We use insect netting as the first layer of protection because we don’t use pesticides or insecticides,” Ms Baillie said. “Everyone wants to eat cabbage.”
They also only grow cucumbers for market production in greenhouses because of cucumber beetles and hanging nets at the entrances. They sometimes buy beneficial insects and also let in bees.
Biodiversity plays a key role in the success of both operations. Stroll the public trails at Ravenswing, the name the Willsons gave their farm, and you’ll walk through lush woods, meadows, wetlands, and a restored apple and pear orchard. You will also find blooming blueberry and apple cherry trees.
The Three Forks Farm doesn’t look like what many people think a farm should look like: there are plenty of wild and beautiful pollinator areas. “This is important to us,” Ms. Baillie said. “It’s not a neat and trimmed farm, but this is really important for the farm’s biodiversity and improves habitat for beneficial insects and also pollinators.”
Healthy soil is crucial for agriculture. Three Forks uses buckwheat, peas and oats as cover crops. They suppress weeds and make other nutrients more available to the plants in the next season. “It is better to cover your soil with plants for soil health than to have it bare and nothing to grow in it. Planting things in it will feed the microbiology of the soil, which in turn will help feed the plants in the future. We try to have catch crops when we have time.”
The chickens that Mrs. Baillie and Mr. Blondin raise as part of the artisanal chicken program also contribute to soil fertility. The chickens spend much of their lives outdoors in chicken tractors that are moved weekly. “They have so much food out here and they love it,” Ms. Baillie said. “We definitely saw a dramatic increase in fertility in the areas where the chickens were.”
The island is challenged on the ground, Ms Willson said, adding that they are very fortunate to have good ground. “There is a rich glacial deposit of it. Glacial soil is the best soil. It’s rich in nutrients.”
The Williamsons have yet to improve their ground. “We grow intensively on a small plot. Lettuce is our specialty crop that we sell at summer markets, but it draws nitrogen from the soil. So how do we change? We use compost.”
Both farms use locally produced Meeker’s Magic Mix. Three Forks also uses draff from Split Rail Brewery and applies the draff directly to the fields as an experiment. “We’re excited to add organic matter and some fertility,” Ms. Baillie said. “It works for us and it helps them too.”
Recently, the Willsons have started with cover crops. There are trails full of clover which not only adds nutrients to the soil and shades the soil but also has the added benefit of rabbits eating clover instead of the lettuce crop.
Mr Blondin and Ms Baillie both worked on other people’s farms before starting their own, which has been helpful, as has the support that comes from organizations like the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO), Ms Bailie said.
“We all eat every day,” said EFAO’s Alison Muckle. “I think it’s really important how this food is grown. I think agriculture and arable farming have huge potential to maybe mitigate climate change. Agriculture has a major impact on climate change. There are many things we can change to make farming more climate friendly so we can have a more sustainable future.”