Humans began by adapting to nature to survive. Now the challenge has changed. To maintain our quality of life, we must learn to protect nature.
In the past, we tried to control our environment to achieve our goals. Today, we realize that we don't understand the impact we have when we modify the natural balance. We have often shot ourselves in the foot like that... oops!
One lesson we can learn is that Mother Nature is wiser than we are. In our defence, she has had billions of years of evolution to learn!
That's why I'm working to help biodiverse market gardening. I believe that it is by enhancing natural mechanisms that we will be able to feed the world sustainably.
For example, this winter, I had the chance to learn about year-round production. Catherine Sylvestre helped me better understand the challenges of growing vegetables in the winter and the practices she uses to achieve this.
Since managing the vegetable production at the FQT Farm, Catherine has been experimenting with continuous production. To achieve this, she chooses the right vegetables for each season.
Her discoveries become even more interesting knowing that the farm is well on its way to surpassing its goal of $100k in winter harvest this year.
I decided to write about Catherine's project in hopes of inspiring others to believe in their ability to make an impact so that sustainable eating becomes the easy option!
Why grow year-round in greenhouses?
Catherine's approach is to adapt her continuous production to the seasons. By focusing on cold-weather crops for the winter, the market gardening director of FQT can achieve a profitable, accessible model with a smaller energy footprint.
On a societal level, this model allows us to explore the diversity of vegetables available to move towards food sovereignty. My grandparents only had access to stored vegetables in the winter. Now, we have many more choices. Even in a northern country!
On the farm, we eat fresh vegetables all year round. You get used to it. It's hard to go back! - Catherine
Popularizing year-round cultivation would allow the entire population to take advantage of the freshness available at FQT Farm.
For market gardeners, this production system where cold-loving vegetables are cultivated in winter in greenhouses is very accessible. First of all, it does not require any investment in artificial light. And secondly, heating costs are much lower than for a more typical winter tomato production.
This model of continuous production is an opportunity to change the seasonal aspect of the job of vegetable gardening to a full-time occupation. Having vegetables all year long gives a boost to customer loyalty. Not to mention the employees!
Finally, the most successful farmers I have met are those who follow a well-defined system. And this system needs to be constantly refined. Catherine told me that "simplify and systematize" is a principle she passes on to her team.
On the other hand, I often hear that it is difficult to implement a system when you are always running to get everything done on time.
What if year-round production allowed market gardeners to balance the workload over the year so they could work on their production system? Not to mention the challenge of marketing. Perhaps this is an opportunity to change the sprint of the season to a more consistent and healthy pace!
After all, it is the accumulation of small challenges that leaves producers exhausted at the end of the season. Accumulating small improvements may be the answer!
If you do less, you can invest in optimizing your farm. At FQT farm, I think we can still improve our yields by 25% while reducing the number of crops planted next year. Not to mention our quality of life! - Catherine
How far have we come?
After 4 years of experimentation, where are we now? Producing year-round was quite a challenge at the beginning at the FQT farm. Catherine explains that there was very little information when she started experimenting. Everything was to be discovered!
Fortunately, there are more and more resources available on the subject. In preparing the webinar on how to manage energy costs in winter, I found several interesting sources of information such as Charlotte Giard-Laliberté's research projects at CETAB+!
The structures to protect the plants, the production schedule, the vegetables to produce, and the climate to maintain; we're starting to get an idea. The recipe continues to improve but, in the meantime, it already allows the market gardeners of the FQT farm to harvest continuously in the most difficult months: November to March.
What are the upcoming challenges?
I asked Catherine what her next projects are. Here are 4 of them:
Reducing energy costs;
The development of tools to know the number of days to maturity of different crops;
Reducing energy costs
First, Catherine has a plan to electrify the greenhouses for next winter to reduce her heating costs. A preliminary analysis shows that she would save $10,000/year per 42x100' greenhouse!
At the same time, she is looking to improve the energy efficiency of her greenhouses. Can we produce year-round with a small ecological footprint? I think so! We'll talk to her about it next year.
Number of days to maturity
The production schedule is constantly changing on the farm. Knowing when to plant your crops to be able to harvest continuously all year round is more difficult than I thought...
Shorter days have a big impact on how long it will take the plant to mature. It can take 4x longer for a crop to mature when you plant it a few weeks later in the fall. This is crucial knowledge if you want to harvest every week!
On that note, I'm working with Catherine to compare our light data with their harvest data to create a planting date calculator for the FQT farm. If this is something you're interested in, drop us a line. That way, we know if it's worth the effort to adapt the result and make it public!
Nature is more resilient to cold than we think. Unfortunately, this is also the case for pests. Aphids, for example, are still giving market gardeners at FQT farm a hard time.
By growing crops year-round, pest pressure increases. This is an aspect that Catherine is trying to improve. This year, she did 2 generations during the winter season separated by a sanitary vacuum in January to control the problems. She is pleased with the results!
The final challenge Catherine shared with me is marketing. We need to facilitate access to a diversity of seasonal vegetables if we are interested in food sovereignty!
"Right now, if you want to buy local vegetables in the winter, where do you go?", Catherine asked me. I didn't have a smart answer for her... even living just a few steps from a public market.
The basket formula works in winter too, but it's not enough if we want to popularize our local vegetables. As for the summer, other channels than baskets are needed.
To support the market gardeners, making it possible to sell their produce year-round in public markets is another solution to explore according to Catherine.
By continuing the development, we will make year-round production a widespread and profitable practice! - Catherine
How to get started?
If you are considering continuous production as an interesting project for your farm, Catherine has some advice for you.
The first piece of advice she gave me was to take advantage of the work of those who have gone before. I assume she is speaking from experience here! Starting with the calendar of a producer who already produces in winter and adapting it to your reality will save you a lot of mistakes.
I was surprised by her second piece of advice: Start planning in April! Armed with her experience, she generously pushed my ignorance a little further by explaining that she needed to plant her celery as early as June to be able to harvest it over the winter.
To replace the tired plants and reduce pest pressure, Catherine also suggested adjusting her calendar to do 2 plantings. One in September and one in January with 3 weeks of sanitation in between.
Finally, if you are late to the game or want to start simple. Start with semi-directs only!
What is most surprising is to see frozen plants resurrecting every day after a few hours of sunlight. Nature is stronger than we think. Let's adapt to take advantage of it. - Catherine
Pioneers like Eliot Coleman started 4-season production a long time ago. Passionate people are taking ideas and pushing them further. More and more, we feel a growing enthusiasm coming from producers. New possibilities are opening up to feed our world year-round with fresh vegetables.
I was lucky enough to live in Taiwan where it is easier to eat freshly picked vegetables from the garden than to buy a burger. We still have some crusts to eat, but we can get there here too!
I hope reading about Catherine's developments inspires you to experiment and share your results. Together, we'll figure out how to make sustainable eating the easy option. Producers, market organizers, and consumers. We can all participate!