Shared secrets of commercial organic vegetable production
of commercial organic vegetable production
April 17, 2008 By Karen Dallimore
Norbert Kungl’s fields
are framed by a backdrop of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. It’s a
beautiful scene, no question. But more importantly, being located next
to such a large body of water also has moderating effects on the
Norbert Kungl’s fields are framed by a backdrop of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. It’s a beautiful scene, no question. But more importantly, being located next to such a large body of water also has moderating effects on the weather, something that had to be taken into account as part of the grand strategic plan for his successful commercial organic vegetable farm, named Selwood Green after a century-old community that had existed nearby.
Kungl, a German immigrant, began his operation with half an acre of vegetables; now he grows 30 acres as his sole source of income, employing up to 25 people in the process. He was at the recent Guelph Organics Conference, held at the University of Guelph, to share his experience in commercial organic vegetable production.
Links in the Chain
Kungl looks at any farm process as a link in a chain. Every part of the process is a link, from planning, seed ordering, transplanting, fertility management, weed control and insect control, to harvesting and marketing. The key is to try to identify the weak link and do something about it. “Think about the entire process, all the little details. Your job is to fit them all together and get a strong chain.”
What to grow? How to grow it in his location? Where to sell it? How to market it? How to keep the soil in prime condition while harvesting the optimum crop?
These are just a few of the questions Kungl answers in a continuous experiment of growing vegetables while keeping in mind his overall business goal – to “provide as much a variety of vegetables to local markets for as long a season as possible.”
Kungl will grow everything from A to Z – artichokes to zucchini – with several varieties for many vegetables, such as six types of lettuce. To do this, he says, you have to be well organized. The entire season will be planned over three to four weeks during those deep, dark days of the winter when spring warmth sounds so good, and by about April 15th or 20th he will be back out on the land.
When he began growing vegetables, he recalls being “stupid but enthusiastic.” He started with big carrot crops (his favourite) but he had nowhere to store them. He makes it sound easy now, but it has involved a lot of trial and error over the years. Growing a 13-pound cabbage was exciting but it doesn’t sell, so now he plants them closer together. “(We’re) not that stupid,” he says. “(We) only make these mistakes once.”
The Plots of the Story
His blocks of fields are 200-feet long by 30-feet wide, set up for a four year rotation. The plot dimensions were dictated by the size of the floating row covers that he both curses and swears by for his operation. The covers cost between $1,100 to $1,200 per acre, and once they are cut he can still get two to three seasons out of them by being able to transfer them between plots of the same size without thinking about it. The same holds true for drip lines – by keeping the field lengths the same he keeps costs down.
All of the numbered plots are planted in the same crop in the same year. Year two is the best fertility for the plots: that is the year he will grow early potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce – the heavy feeders. Year three will see crops of medium requirements, such as onions and carrots. Year four presents the least residual fertility, which lends itself to peas and beans.
Green Manure is Number One
Which brings us back to a very important part of his operation, year one: using green manure to recharge the batteries for the other three years of growing, replenishing organic matter in the sandy loam soil, based over a deposit of gravel.
The very fact that he calls it year one indicates its priority in his operation. “Green manure is a topic close to my heart,” he says, and he will take it very seriously, giving it the same attention as any other crop. “Tilth is the basis of soil fertility.” It is an indicator of the health of the soil. Good tilth provides the air, water and warmth the microbes need to mineralize organic matter.
Kungl highly recommends alfalfa as a fertility-building crop. When he re-aligned his rows across an area that had been previously in alfalfa, the difference in those sections of the plots was visible for the next four years.
Hairy vetch can also work well as a green manure. It germinates well in dry soils with a fine but intensive root system to provide wonderful tilth. Annual ryegrass can also do a good job.
The green manure he’s sticking with, though, is oats and peas, although he warns that they are not necessarily the best bet for every situation. In the spring Kungl will plant oats and peas first. Both will germinate in cool soils, and by the time the weeds come along with the warmer weather, the oats are well ahead and will outgrow the weeds. The result is beautifully clean plots, but it only works if you can seed the oats early: two weeks later and their competitive ability is not as good. He will plant at a seeding rate of 80 lbs. of oats and 30 to 40 lbs. of peas (he recommends the cheapest field bean you can buy).
Although it is aesthetically pleasing to see “a beautiful green carpet of oats,” Kungl doesn’t want a heavy mat of organic matter over the winter. It will protect the soil but it adds another two weeks to the time it takes to warm up and dry up in the spring. As well, any precision machinery will get blocked by residue, and too much discing and harrowing to reduce that residue negates the benefits of the organic matter.
As far as cover crops go, too much of a good thing is not good: Kungl doesn’t recommend continuous cover crops. The machinery is not designed for it, there’s too much competition for water and nutrients, and it may attract slugs, among other problems. The trade off is to cover as much as possible while still providing a clean surface for seeding.
The Fertility Factor
One would typically want legumes to beef up fertility, but nitrogen is the least of his concerns. Kungl has access to local dairy manure, and fish by-products such as crab and lobster meal are available at a reasonable cost. As well, one local chicken producer provides an efficient composted manure supply.
So far the process has provided Kungl with ample fertility. Surprisingly, over the last few years, there has even been a problem with too much fertility in the fourth year. Although the wet weather has been a factor, he feels the lushness of the plants has contributed to some problems with white mould.
Kungl may apply limestone every few years, but he’s not religious about taking soil samples, which he takes every three to four years. The pH hovers around 6.8 to 6.9, and as low as 6.5 on heavier soils, and that seems to be sufficient to allow most micronutrients to be available.
Kungl recommends gypsum soil amendment every three to four years as an excellent source of available calcium that can be applied without increasing the pH, and to help increase the amount of sulphur in the soil, something that comes in handy for onions, for example.
|A planting of early greens.|
Weed and Pest Control
Kungl has found a combination of the use of floating row covers and a flamer useful to control weeds. Despite the labour involved, he has found that it is worthwhile to put on the cover, encourage the weeds to grow, take off the cover and plant the crop, then flame off the weeds a few days later, just before the crop emerges. This may cost a little in propane but it is nothing in comparison to the labour costs of hand weeding.
The flamer hasn’t proven as effective against grass weeds, which develop later and have a low growing point. The flamer will only burn off the tips of the leaves. As well, if the weeds get too big, “don’t waste your propane,” he says. You will need to resort to other methods of weed control such as cultivation.
Onions grow well under cover but so do the weeds. To tackle this problem, Kungl has been experimenting with a Rotary Brush Hoe – a contraption that looks like a street sweeper, manufactured by the Swiss company Baertschi. It rides behind the tractor and has channels to protect the onions between rows of bristles. Although it requires precision seeding and two people – one drives the tractor while the other sits on the machine to guide it through the field – it shows some promise for weed control. It doesn’t disturb the soil, and since it only goes between 0.5 to 1-inches deep, it also doesn’t bring weed seeds to the surface. Most importantly, it doesn’t damage the plants.
He’s had his fair share of dealing with bugs, too. The striped cucumber beetle ruined a couple of crops of squash, to the point where it looked like he wouldn’t be able to grow squash anymore. He screened the greenhouses to keep the beetles out, but they moved in within a day or two of transplanting and he laments that the plants never had a chance. Some varieties fared better than others but all suffered.
Never one to take guff from a beetle, this year Kungl seeded down buckwheat in cultivated strips and covered the squash under floating row covers in between. Once the squash outgrew its protective tunnel he flattened down the buckwheat with discs. The buckwheat disappeared and he ended up with a decent crop, although he admits it was labour intensive.
Off To Market
So what to grow? “Early greens – the more the merrier,” says Kungl. “They’re worth their weight in gold.” In the spring, expenses are a bottomless pit that take a while to recoup. You want early crops of high retail value to help stay in the black.
Caution: he warns, that doesn’t necessarily mean large quantities of one thing, which may be hitting a flooded market at any given time.
His focus is on retail over wholesale, where the returns haven’t been that great. In his experience in retail, your costs are one-third labour, one-third marketing, 20 to 30 per cent goes to overhead and 10 to 15 per cent goes in your pocket if you’re lucky. In wholesale, your marketing costs increase dramatically for packaging and distribution. “The returns are just not there,” he says. “You have to be sharp to keep an eye on your costs.”
September and October are the biggest months for selling. That is when the selection is at its best and most people are back into their market shopping routine after summer holidays.
Kungl will send approximately 40 per cent of his crop to the Halifax Farmers’ Market, where his booth will be “piled high” and covered with good signage. Some people will only buy if they can see the price; to not have good signs is to miss out on some opportunities.
And break up the colours too – don’t put your white radishes next to your white leeks.
Some of his customers look for specialty crops. For example, he noted that European customers were looking for celery root, which was hard to find 15 years ago. Kungl has found that he can lure in customers by catering to such specialty demand and the customer will then buy their other vegetables at his booth as well.
And if you can do something that makes you the talk of the town, why not? Last year it was Romanesco cauliflower that was all the talk. Never one to back down from a challenge, Kungl says, “If we have to grow olives, we’ll grow olives!”
Would He Do It All Again?
For those starting out he recommends market gardening as a good way to start farming because it requires relatively little capital. He encourages people to try their hand at it but cautions that, to be successful, you need to have all the links in the chain addressed and be realistic.
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