Local farmers winning battle of the fertilizers

“Know your farmer.”   Heidi Marion squinted in the sunlight at rows of vegetables growing in a tilled field where, last summer, an…

“Know your farmer.”

  Heidi Marion squinted in the sunlight at rows of vegetables growing in a tilled field where, last summer, an entire crop had failed.

Marion was explaining a favourite philosophy, that people should have relationships with the growers of their food, akin to a family’s relationship with its dentist or doctor.

“You need to look a farmer in the eye and ask them how they farm, ask them about crop rotation,” she said.

“You know your farmer, you know what you’re eating.”

And farmers know their soil. But sometimes they learn it the hard way.

In early 2005, the Wild Blue Yonder Family Farm, which Marion runs with her husband and partner Garret Gillespie, was forced to move its operations along the Tagish Road.

For three years they’d been renting eight hectares near Carcross to grow vegetables and raise livestock worth about $60,000 a year in 2004 — enough to cover operating costs and break even.

They sold meat and produce to several Whitehorse restaurants, such as the Alpine Bakery and the Cranberry Bistro, and at the Fireweed Community Market each Thursday at Shipyards Park.

They also had about 50 clients for their community-supported agriculture program, who they supplied with organic vegetables all summer.

Demand was growing, and the Wild Blue Yonder market share had outgrown its land base. It was time to expand.

More significantly, the landowner wanted to sell the farm property at a price Marion and Gillespie couldn’t afford — roughly $12,000 per “cultivable” hectare.

They found almost 90 hectares further up the Tagish Road, close to Jake’s Corner, selling for about $600 per hectare.

Gillespie estimated the new farm would break even producing $100,000 worth of goods.

But they had to close the deal quickly, their landlord having found a potential buyer.

So Marion and Gillespie rolled the dice. They didn’t take any soil samples, trusting the owner’s testament to its fertility.

It was hardly unusual for a farmer to put the money down and hope for the best.

“Every year is a leap of faith,” said Gillespie, who was raised on a farm in Ireland.

“Especially when you’ve never grown on a particular piece of land before,” added Marion.

They were in for a shock.

For at least 10 years Marion and Gillespie’s new property had been a hay farm. They discovered it had routinely been fertilized with ammonium nitrate, a common compound for commercial fertilizer (it’s also the main ingredient for a type of homemade explosive).

The following summer their first crop at the new property failed entirely. Wild Blue Yonder didn’t sell a vegetable.

“The soil was nutritionally challenged,” Gillespie said with a wry grin.

“Complete devastation would be putting it mildly.”

 Ammonium nitrate depletes soil of its nutrients, particularly calcium, he explained.

There is a long a protracted debate, in the Yukon and everywhere else in the Western world where food is grown, about whether or not fertilizer is actually good for the ground and the crops it produces.

Sure, fertilized land gets visible results, crops grow like weeds … and nutritionally, they become hollow, like plants on steroids, according to the school of organic thought.

Grass becomes sparse, plants are stunted and weeds like larkspur and arnica move in, said Gillespie.

Soil becomes less fertile for farming, he said.

Thus the debate over the term ‘organic.’

Some believe that, simply by not using pesticides or herbicides, one can call a crop organic.

But hardcore organic farmers refuse to use chemicals at all, and fertilize with nothing more than compost.

Gillespie estimated that organic meat and produce probably account for one per cent of continental food consumption, but their popularity is growing by 20 to 30 per cent each year, worldwide.

Lots of farmers and food-producing corporations are trying to cash in on that trend, “cutting corners to drive prices down,” he said.

In doing so, multinational food corporations have co-opted ‘organic’ as a marketing tool, and left the principle behind, said Gillespie.

“You have to start from the soil, building the soil.

“Consumers see organic as meaning no chemicals, but there’s a lot more to it than that.”

So, after the devastating 2005 season, he and Marion got to work rebuilding their soil.

They noted the successful weeds and the condition of plants on their land.

They took soil samples to the agriculture branch of the Yukon government, which sent the samples to a laboratory in the US, and covered the cost.

And they took out a loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada, to cover the bills.

The soil tests proved what they suspected, that their land was deficient in calcium and other minerals.

Marion and Gillespie took testing to another level and sent soil and compost samples to Soil Food Web, another US firm, which advised them to mix soil from the boreal forest (which conveniently surrounded the borders of their new property) in with their manure, to get more fungus into their compost.

It worked. They used boreal soil in a compost tea, put it in the ground this spring with plants transplanted from indoors, and got the bacteria-fungi matrix right.

“Our fields here are growing,” Marion said, with a hint of relief mixed with pride.

“That’s the good news.”

They had to bring in compost for their first test plot, and Gillespie spread rock powder from a territorial government quarry near White Mountain all over the land, to boost the calcium content.

Currently, she and Gillespie are letting their 35 head of cattle do some work for them, producing 1,000 tonnes of manure that will convert to 600 tonnes of compost.

And by 2008, at the latest, their farm will be completely organic — including the meat from their cows.

The 50 clients Wild Blue Yonder was unable to supply with summer vegetables in 2005 were given future options.

Their fees — $475 for a family share, $245 for a half-share — were carried over until this year. Wild Blue Yonder has been supplying all its clients with produce for two weeks now.

Amazingly, Marion and Gillespie’s clientele grew by more than 50 per cent after the barren 2005 season.

They now have about 80 clients.

Word of mouth, and faith and goodwill, helped to carry them through.

They hired two employees this spring and followed up on deals with Zola’s Café Dore and La Gourmandise. Super A Foods has committed to sell their vegetables, starting next week.

They bear no ill will to the hay farmer who sold them the land, believing he acted in good faith.

But the transition of their operation, from one location to another and through a gamut of fertilizing strategies, has confirmed their view that caring for land starts from the ground up.