July 15th, 2021
The series of events leading up to this season have set us up to do an inadvertent whole farm, on farm, demonstration. We are desperate for any cost cutting measures that will keep us afloat until some of our investments start to pay for themselves. It’s a painful reality after almost exactly 30 years of toil had produced a winning formula that was true to our values and made us a living only to have the rules changed by nearsighted social construct.
Those of you who have read a number of my “blurbs” know that a series of extreme weather events coupled with rapidly increasing, government generated costs (mainly in the form of a $2.50 minimum wage hike that’ll cost us an additional $175k to do the same amount of work as we did in 2018) and then Covid tossed in for good measure have made the economics very dubious at best.
Before I reveal what has been driven home for us; a disclaimer. We have grown our carrots with no pesticides for many years and continue to do so for the carrots we sell retail and online as well as some select wholesale customers. But, out of necessity, we made the decision to use herbicide on carrots destined for wholesale and hand weed only those headed for our retail and online customers. Carrots to those customers have never been and never will be anything but 100% naturally grown. So the result is we have reduced our hand weeded carrot acreage by about 75%.
WELL!! The ramifications for the farm have been huge. This year we are two men short of a full crew of foreign professionals. On top of that, we have about 6-8 fewer Canadians working on the farm this summer compared to last. But despite the significantly lower labour availability, we are in better shape at the middle of July than ever before! Weeding is all caught up on all non-carrot crops and we aren’t in a vicious circle of trying to keep up, working too many hours, becoming exhausted, slowing down from exhaustion, and then getting even farther behind. It’s a cruel, punishing whirlpool that can swallow a year's profits in short order.
Last year we definitely faced that scenario. The whirlpool grew exponentially. ....struggling to get the carrots weeded.... can’t do a great job because of time constraints... the weeded areas still have a number of weeds which greatly slows the harvesting/ bunching process.... more precious time gets eaten up.... less time to weed.... the weeds get even farther out of control. Some of the crop is completely lost to weeds.... less crop to harvest to try to pay for the stupendous numbers of hours the guys are logging.
Incidentally, they are very good sports about it. They are very happy to have the extra hours and income but work diligently because they value their employer and their job and know that we must prosper for them to prosper. I can’t say enough about what a pleasure it is to work with people like them.
If my depiction above only took a toll on the carrot crop, that would be bad enough. But the chaos and losses spill over into our other crops and customer service. We struggle to fill orders on time, messing up their schedules. They lose sales and the entire local food movement takes another little scratch.
I remember back when I was in my mid-twenties a local, semi-retired farmer, Vernon Mills, told me. “I’m terrified of weeds”. I’ve never forgotten those words. Incidentally he was, and still is, quite a guy; always looking to poke fun or stir the pot. Another famous Vernon quote concerning dutch farmers...."They should have brought twice as many, half as far”. What a guy!
So, I guess if there is a point to be made it is that I’ve spent my farming career trying to make a living while doing what I think is right. I’ve always known that it would be more profitable to just use herbicides; but, I must admit I didn’t know exactly to what extent It was affecting our operation. In a lot of ways that’s a moot point anyway. Our philosophy on natural farming is what has made us successful. But it comes at a high price. Our retail and (until this year with carrots) wholesale customers have been getting more value for their dollar than I even realized.
My sincere hope is that this will be the only year we have to do this. It has done very well to alleviate a severe lack of help but it is not how we want to farm. There is a very bright light coming to our farm in about ten days that will hopefully be the holy grail we have been looking for, to naturally control weeds without breaking the bank. It is a fully autonomous, self learning, prototype (third or fourth reincarnation I think) robot from Nexus Robotics, a new-ish company established in Halifax a few years back by a group of twenty-something visionaries.
I’ll definitely be writing about and sending pictures and videos on the robot as we get it settled on our farm and take a bold step into the future.
So next time you shop for veggies from any “naturally grown” or organic grower please be aware of the sacrifice required to produce food in a more natural way. The food economics of this country do not allow very many of them to get a fair return on their effort. This is why so many of us retail in one way or another. The process of retailing is equal to a full second business to run but it is necessary to pay the cost of growing.
I hope you all enjoy the weekend and our rapidly increasing freedoms. This little “backwater” of a province might just be the best place in the world to live after all.
But whatever you do....
Keep eating your veggies!!