Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Growing Food in Niagara - How things change in 14 years : PART 2 The first 10 years

When my husband and I bought our country property, the land had been unused for years. What initially became the main part of my garden, had only ever been used as a pasture for cows, horses and goats. Nice to start with virgin land.

I didn't have to worry about past chemical abuses on my soil....there simply hadn't been any.  Ahh, but the clay.  That's another story.  

When I first started growing food, I grew food produced the way I wanted my family to eat.  Organically.  No chemicals, and with the goal of improving my clay soil.  I grew cover crops and green manures, added compost, manure and leaves to my soil, and mulched.  I used the word "organic" with no hesitation.

It was...and still is. But that's another story now.

I wasn't growing "local" food, I was just growing food. Organic food.

There is a huge learning curve involved in growing food. The biggest and most important thing is understanding your land and soil. Unlike the prevailing wisdom

which says to plan your garden in the winter, with my particular land that is simply unwise.

I have pockets of heavy clay, areas of a lighter clay loam, and other areas that are simply beautiful loam.  I have low spots and  hilly areas.  Because each spring is different, wet, dry, cool or warm...and sadly, poorly predicted by my farmers almanac, I need to figure out my plan when I see what my conditions are.

Early crops go in the area which dries out first, and that is weather contingent.  An ideal spring gives me many options.  Can't think of many "ideal" springs the last few years.

Initially my customer base was friends and folks who learned about what I was doing by word of mouth.

And what I was doing was delivering full bushels of my produce once a week to about 10 families. I added a newsletter that provided identification of some of the produce and recipes to use. The newsletters were pretty funky. Emily did the art work in them.  When I find one in my filing drawer I still have to smile.

If I recall correctly, I was doing this on a Friday night.  I was gone for hours, with Emily in tow.  Of course I stayed and chatted with everyone. Sat down, enjoyed a cup of tea and conversation on the way.

Home after dark most "veggie route" days. But it was fun and really something I looked forward too. 

I really didn't know that I was doing a CSA.  In fact I'd never heard of the term.
It just seemed like a good idea to me. Know that what you are growing is sold, instead of hoping it is.

The only complaint I had from people that first year was that it was too much food. No one complained about the price or quality, but just that I was overly generous with my produce.

My business evolved as the years went by.  My "CSA" numbers grew, again by word of mouth and a little bit of advertising and some timely press. I was up to about 35 families, and had to stop home delivery, instead delivering my now smaller bushels at one persons home for that particular community.

Then I developed a bit of a waiting list after a bit more press and more word of mouth.  Realistically, as one person I could only do as much as I was doing. I thought.

What I was growing too changed in those first few years. I began to be truly interested in things that were different to grow, my mom's influence for sure.

The Brandywine and Yellow Pear tomatoes, arugula (which one of my friends/customers described as skunky tasting!), and other offerings which at the time were not common place.

I joined and became active and inspired by the organizations Seeds of Diversity, Seed Savers Exchange, Kokopelli and The Henry Doubleday Research Association.  Heirloom vegetable heaven! And began saving more seed.

On an "thinking" run one day, about 10 years ago (like I needed the exercise!), I had the brilliant idea I should be selling heirloom tomato plants.  People loved the heirloom tomatoes in their basket, and I reasoned if people plant any vegetable in their garden, it's tomatoes. You just couldn't go to a garden centre and buy these plants.  So that started that.

                               And up went the first hoop house.

Two more followed.

My friend Maria, a fellow gardener felt there had to be a different way for me.  She saw the CSA as a huge amount of work for me, and together we decided we would approach Pelham about a farmers market. I believe that was 8 years ago.  But I didn't give up the CSA actually. I just worked a little bit harder.

I met many, many wonderful people over those years.  Some of those people I now count among my best friends. Some, like my friends Shirley and Phil, whom I met because of what I do, have been with me since the beginning.

The saying "it's  not personal, it's just business" I see as an opinion. In my business, it's just stupid. Success in a small business depends on it being personal, because it is what the big boys (or girls) can't do.  I strive to grow the best food I can, do what I say I do, and be honest and reliable. And beyond that, I just like meeting people and talking to them.  Perhaps that's part of the social worker in me. But it is who I am.

The transplants became a hit.  No one else was doing it.

I began growing in the winter, a la Eliot Coleman, because why should the hoop houses just sit there for the season unused?

The market grew in popularity as did my CSA. There simply weren't many organic growers in Niagara.  And the interest in the heirloom tomato plants exceeded anything I could have anticipated, with my sales doubling annually and my choice of varieties growing too.  Hasselman's Nursery in Ridgeway was my first big supporter, and soon after that, "Tomato Days" here at the farm began.

I truly never could have anticipated that things would have fallen into place the way they did. Timing, luck ? I don't know, but I felt blessed.

(next up... Part 3 "The last four years- what has the local and certified organic movement done for me?"


deangraziosi said...

Such a wonderful article on Naigra garden study. I like to see more about your long time practice experience.
dean graziosi

Cellarguy said...

Thanks for sharing your story. Inspiring! And so glad that you found the work you love, and the support you required. We plan to make the long trek to your Tomato Days this year.

I'm wondering how you feel about seed banks these days (given the possible dangers of centralization of seeds in one or two 'banks' as shown in web sites like this one: Center for Food Safety).

I hope it is a dumb question, but is it okay with you if your customers save seeds from the heirloom tomatoes you offer for sale (even though that might affect your sales)?

Linda said...

Thanks, Dean
And glad you'll be coming cellar guy!
I think seed should be saved by the people, and in the US there is a terrifically strong network of people doing that. Canada...not so much. Seed banks are a necessary backup, in my opinion. Organizations like Seed Savers Exchange do a fabulous job of ensuring safety of our vegetable varieties and there are some members who take on huge collections to keep them going extinct.
Of course, you should save seed from my plants!That really is what it is all about. Save some for yourself, then pass some on. That's how varieties stay in circulation and existence.
I appreciate you reading, and your comments.