Armchair Farming

Armchair Farming

This is it. No more lame excuses that we don’t have the space to plant anything bigger than a couple of marigolds. There isn’t anywhere to hide when you have 100 acres, a tractor and a stack of farming books big enough that if artfully arranged could spell out the words “armchair farmer”. The time for saying “just think, when we have a farm we’ll be able to…” is over because that day is now. Scarier than Russell Crowe in tights.

For the past month, I’ve been thinking about where we start with it all. When I left Accenture to move to Canada I made up the story that I was leaving to become a pig farmer. Most people believed me, which either is a testament to my ability to believably blag, or a sad reflection on the IQ of your average Management Consultant. Perhaps both.

But what started as a joke is turning into an obsession. I really do want some porkers so maybe I should go all in with pigs. They fetch a good price and would work the land nicely which I certainly need done. But, for now, I know I have to be sensible and becoming the Dark Hog Lord is not the path of wisdom. Truth is I haven’t even reared a single pig yet, so planning a big pork venture isn’t very smart. Undoubtedly I’d fall foul of some rule that crushed my tender young dreams and sent us scurrying back to the comfort and high speed internet connections of suburban Ottawa. So, what we’ve decided to do is get all Belgian and decline to take decisive action this year. We’re implementing what I am calling the Continental Approach and have chosen to experiment a bit.

That doesn’t mean getting crazy with bunsen burners and doing unpleasant things in test tubes, as amusing as that might be. Instead we’re going to adopt a measured, almost scientific analysis of what works on our land and what doesn’t.

As a starting point I took our own consumption of food as a guide for what we need to grow. After all, what we eat is probably a reasonable indicator of what we could hope to sell in coming years. Granted, there are lots of things like tea, sugar and chocolate hobnobs that I’m going to struggle to grow but I think we can do a fair job of replacing a huge proportion of our food with farm-grown produce.

Obviously, I’ve been hitting the mags hard of an evening too. So hard in fact that they’re a bit sticky and definitely worn. The glossy images are a bit grubby where I’ve pored over my favourites. Finally I’ve settled on a company that can deliver, provide exotics, keep it natural and have some magnificent bushes for sale.

I’m talking high grade seeds of course: the centre-point for any Continental Approach. My initial selection was piled higher than an American trucker’s plate at an all you can eat burger bar but, after being floored by the cost, I trimmed it down to a modest $600. Now that might still sound like a lot to spend on seeds but it’s a matter of perspective. Having two growing boys and a long-established commitment to organic, fresh food we easily spend $300 each week on groceries. I am hoping we can slash that to $150 a week. So, after just 4 weeks of produce we could have broken even. By the end of 10 weeks we could be nearly a thousand dollars up. Of course it often doesn’t really work out as neat as all that, but I figure that if we can find a way to store the surplus produce I will be growing, then it might just take us through most of the year. In that context, $600 on seeds is a bargain.

I’m not just thinking of the seeds as an investment either. Back in the late 80s, my Mam had a little red Ford Fiesta. It had a tiny 950cc engine, which was the smallest size possible without it being reclassified as a go-kart. I drove that car for a year or so until my brother got hold of it and fitted it with a XR2 bodykit, Recarro bucket-seats, sports headlamps, extra wide alloy wheels, spoiler and insane sound system. It got stolen more frequently than a Star Wars pencil case but being all mouth and no trousers, the thieves subsequently abandoned it each time. So while, I fully expect the farm to become a fecund Eden-like wonderland of agricultural delights on which to feast my eyes (snakes welcome), I don’t want it to become the farming equivalent of that Ford Fiesta. I want it to be able to deliver something substantial, to have some real grunt as it were. After all, imagine how embarrassing it would be to have 100 acres and only an urban sized vegetable plot? How could I ever look the farming neighbours in the eye? It’d be like pulling up to the traffic lights in that Fiesta and finding yourself up against a V8 super truck blasting out country music driven by a cowboy with a big dick. The best you can do is smile and pretend you don’t like racing but either way, you’re still going to look like a loser.

Sorry, I’m digressing. The point is the farm needs to deliver substantially to make it worth our while and keep my ego intact. Hence the $600 spend on experimental seeds. This spring is also the start of our multi-year masterplan to combine market-garden farming, forest agriculture and permaculture with a side-order of animal husbandry. I’m going to begin with the area around the house, Zone 1 in permaculture speak. I am also planning to start some maple trees in the “dead zone” between the road and our main fields. There is about 2 or 3 acres in a long narrowish (100′) strip that I think would be perfect for a forest garden. We’re going to see Big George (the man, not the tractor) to have a chat about Long Blacks and contract hay farming and Emma has been in touch with the Bee Man to order a couple of hives.

Not satisfied with all of that, we’ll be getting into birds with guns and upping the number of chickens we keep, going from the Fiesta-like five we currently pamper to two gangs of 50 meat birds (the official term) and a laying flock of 25 to 30.

I’m also going to build a 33′ long polytunnel out of rebar and rip ties to house a veritable jungle of tomatoes and will be trying my hand at a half-acre of wheat with a side plot of barley for some home-brew beer.

By October Emma and I will possibly be wishing for the relatively relaxing year just gone building our house, but one thing is for sure: the food we’ll be eating will not have travelled half way around the world in the back of a truck, plane or canoe and it won’t cost me a small fortune to keep my kids well fed.

Oh, for anyone interested, this is what we’ve decided on for seeds:

Fruit:
Captivator Gooseberry, Canada Red Rhubarb, an All Season Strawberry Collection and Balsors Hardy Blackberry plants.

Roots:
Russet Burbank Potatoes, Irish Cobbler Potatoes and Yukon Gem Organic Potatoes.
York Turnip, Napoli Carrot, Bolero Organic Carrot, Bolero Carrot and Albion Parsnip

Alliums
Spring Garlic Sets, Ambition Shallot, Long White Tokyo Onion, Talon Onion, Norstar Onion and Red Zeppelin Onion, Lancelot Leek

Herbs:
Wild Creeping Thyme (for the slopes near the house), Sage, Oregano, Mint, Sweet Marjoram, Lemon Balm, Catnip, German Chamomile, Panorama Bee Balm, Sweet Basil and Emma will be ordering some medicinal herbs too.

Tomatoes
Kastalia Tomato, Classica Tomato, Duchess Tomato, Big Beef Tomato, Red Alert Tomato and Bobcat Tomato.

Market Veg / Salads
Kaleidoscope Swiss Chard, Viceroy Spinach, Tyee Organic Spinach, Sardinia Spinach, Cherry Belle Organic Radish, Sweet Pepper Collection, Brazen Braising Mix, Mild Mesclun Mix, Baby Leaf Blend, Freckles Lettuce, Rome 59 Lettuce, Orion Fennel, Tango Celery

Squashes, Pumpkin and Marrows etc:
Celebration Squash, Waltham Butternut Organic Squash, Cocozelle Squash, Elegance Zucchini and Warlock Pumpkin, Vista Watermelon, Goddess Melon

Legumes:
Frosty Peas, Oregon Dwarf Sugar Pod II Peas, Green Arrow Peas,, Stringless Blue Lake Bean, Hickok Bean, Provider Bean

Leafy Greens
Reaction Cabbage, Winterbor Kale, Win Win Choi, Wirosa Cabbage, Gypsy Broccoli, Arcadia Broccoli

I’m shopping for a roto-tiller to pull behind my tractor and have my eyes on a rotary seeder which should take a lot of the effort out of planting. I need the tiller by March so more on those in a future post. Until then, I’m going to enjoy the last month or so of being an Armchair Farmer.

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