Posts Tagged ‘soil’

Case Study – Three Sisters Farm

As one of my UBC Farm Practicum assignments, I took a look at the Three Sisters Farm, in Gibsons, BC, on the Sunshine Coast, which I had the opportunity to visit in April of 2013. I chose this farm because of the scale, the mixed animals and vegetables, and the different marketing methods. For another overview of the farm, see the great blog post from the Compost Diaries. All pictures are credited to Jenn Upham.

Farm Basicspic ppt

Three Sisters Farm is a 3 acre farm, cared for by UBC Practicum alumni Katy, her partner David, and her mother, Joan. Approximately half an acre is under mixed vegetable cultivation, and they had 3 goats and 70 laying hens when I visited in April, one of the goats being a week-old adorable kid named Clarence.

At Three Sisters, they focus on what they love, and clearing the land is powered by humans, goats and chickens. Due to the remote nature of the Sunshine Coast, they are able to have an on-farm slaughtering license, which reduces costs, and they never have enough eggs to meet the local demand.

Marketing and Sales

Three Sisters Farm has 3 main outlets for their products – a farm stand, farmers’ markets, and the Gibsons Farm Collective. Of these three, the collective interested me the most, as this is not one of the more common ways that small scale farmers are marketing their products, and it works very well for them. The collective is made up of three farms in Gibsons, and they sell through an online system, putting up a list of available products each week, and taking orders from customers by a specified day. The collective runs 10 months of the year, and is the biggest sales outlet for Three Sisters farm. In fact, the bed and breakfast that we stayed at in Gibsons ordered their eggs and vegetables from the collective.

The Nitty GrittyIMG_3244

The soil on the farm is glacial till, recent forest cover, with lots of coarse organic material, large clay deposits and uneven soil – some gravely, some clay. The farm uses some organic-approved soil inputs to balance soil acidity and fertility, and is increasing the use of their own compost for soil improvement. The rocky, acidic soil in this area is definitely a challenge, along with the challenges posed by a forest-covered piece of land, and planting in newly cleared soil. But after four seasons, the farm is well established within the community, and they are finding the right balance of crops that works well for their soil, climate and passion. Future plans include a fruit orchard.

Advice for a Future Farmer

In putting together this case study, Katy had some great advice for me:

  • Ask yourself, ‘What do I want to spend most of my days doing?’  Then try growing those.  Learn from farms that grow them well.
  • Try growing the things you want to grow in many different ways and in different locations on your farm.
  • Look at what there is a demand for in your area. If it matches what you want to grow, try to meet it.
  • Work very, very hard and don’t feel bad about it.  Pour all your energy into your farm dream.  Eventually after all that hard work, it will start to give back and it will make you happy.

Bending with the Wind

Beautiful straight rows of seed potatoes

Beautiful straight rows of seed potatoes

The last couple of weeks at the farm, we’ve gotten down to business. Strawberry whips and beautiful rows of seed potatoes were set in the ground under the sun, evenly spaced and properly deep, or so we hope. An interesting aspect of farming is perfect spacing – just enough space to give the plant room to grow, but close enough together to maximise production.

Planning is such an integral part of farming, and a part I’m already struggling with! Every plant has such specific needs for soil type, spacing, light, watering, etc. I spent a good few hours on our first assignment, our individual plot plan, trying to maximize how many things I could get in there, while following the structure of the sections, mimicking the farm’s crop rotation. My plan finally came together, with it’s mix of squash, brassicas, legumes, and hopefully a whole wack of carrots. Unused muscles are complaining with the spring work of bending, shoveling, and getting into shape, as the plot preparation and planting gets well underway!

This past Saturday’s windy afternoon had us outside, learning about low tunnel structures. Used to protect young crops from excess rain, keep the soil a bit warmer, and keep the pests off. Unfortunately, we had a rather windy day to contend with, which made it lucky that there were 13 of us trying to put the cover over the bent posts. We finished the afternoon trying to fit the puzzle pieces of irrigation and drip tape together.

Covering the posts

Covering the posts

Bending the low tunnel posts

Bending the low tunnel posts

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My plot only looks like a length of dirt for now, but the soil is busy getting ready for planting. Broccoli and greens are started indoors, to be ready when the plot is. Such an exciting time of year, full of promise.

Getting my plot ready for planting.

Getting my plot ready for planting


Science Wha…

This past week at practicum, we spent a large chunk of time interpreting our soil test results. Now, I freely admit that I have not taken science education since I was forced to take Chemistry 11 – about 13 years ago. So understanding the effects of

UBC Practicum Plots soil test results

UBC Practicum Plots soil test results

things like NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium), pH levels, organic matter and trace minerals in soil was well outside my ease of understanding.

Luckily, DeLisa is a patient and thorough teacher. While I can in no way claim to be knowledgeable about these things, here is a summary of what I can remember:

  • pH levels, or the acidity/alkalinity of the soil should optimally be as close to neutral as can be managed (7.0 being neutral). On the BC coast, soils tend towards acidity, so lime is applied to raise the pH level for most of the crops we grow, which are not native to the area.
  • Organic matter is very important, and especially so in sandy soils like those at UBC Farm. 10% or higher is good, and will aid in retaining nutrients and water for the crops.
  • Poultry manure is high in phosphorus, and used by most organic farmers as fertilizer for their soils, which can result in excessively high phosphorus levels, which can have a negative effect on aquifers.
  • Organically approved amendments can be used to change the various levels of nutrients in the soil as needed.

One of the important things I’m coming to understand is that farming, even organic farming, requires a lot of off-farm input, that may often come from less than ethical or environmentally friendly. Lime is mined, which always has significant environmental implications, and around here comes from Texeda Island, which isn’t too far away. Poultry manure may be sourced from factory farms, which obviously carry high environmental and ethical implications. Everything that is trucked in from off the farm obviously has a carbon footprint associated with transportation, and is often packaged in plastic. And of course, everything costs money, and when you imagine a farmer starting out, money is in short supply.

Always going in my head are questions about what can be used as alternatives, how can native species that are adapted to our soil and climate be integrated, and what part can permaculture, livestock integration, and on-farm composting play? These are not questions I have answers to, and don’t expect to be able to answer, but as long as they are always a part of my learning,  I hope to be able to integrate some of all of it into my future farm.

One of the many beneficial critters on a farm

One of the many beneficial critters on a farm