How are our plants progressing?

Rhubarb Frost Damage - May 2016

My dad has a saying, “I’ve never lost a crop in May yet.” He was born on my family’s original homestead by Brightsand Lake and has probably had a hand in more than 70 crops in his life. He has seen wet and dry; hot and cold; rain and snow; but in all those years he has never stood at the cusp of June knowing he wouldn’t get a crop.

For the Edmonton area this spring has been a one of a kind. Extremely warm temperature in March and April meant that spring came much earlier. Trees around here were cracking bud in late March, and our saskatoons were no exception. Most years I would expect our saskatoons to flower in the last week of May. This year they flowered early. Not just early, really really early. On May 2nd I saw my first flowers. With temperatures that week near 30 C the orchard was soon row after row of white flowery columns. Within a week though the weather made an abrupt change within a span of about 50 hours we went from a high of +29 C to a low of -6 C, and on the morning of May 10th my stomach sank as I walked through the orchard to see ice crystals and frost clinging to the leaves and flowers. Frost damage can be hard to assess right away, as usually the severity can be affected by a number of factors (moisture, previous temperatures), and as a rule of thumb I like to give things a week or so to sort things out before I start making conclusions. So for the last week and a half I pretty much avoided the orchard, but this weekend I knew I needed to follow up and unfortunately (but not unexpectedly) the news wasn’t good. In terms of saskatoon berries we have probably lost 95+% of the crop, and for what might be left it probably won’t be worth picking. In essence we won’t have a crop of saskatoons this year.
Four years ago when I decided growing fruit was something I wanted to do, I did my research and weighed the risks. I went into this experience with open eyes and knew that there was always a risk that an ill timed frost could wipe out our entire crop of saskatoons. I even planned for this eventuality by planting a number other types of fruit that either flower and produce fruit after the risk of frost is gone (raspberries and strawberries) or that have higher tolerance to frost (haskaps and rhubarb). So it came a a bit of a surprise when I began looking around this past weekend I discovered the damage extended beyond my saskatoon orchard. The rhubarb went limp and turned black, the strawberries in the front went from a great stand to almost non existent (all green material was froze off) even the haskaps (the most frost tolerant of them all) had brown and crunched up leaves. My only thought is that the extreme heat and drought we had prior to the frost exacerbated the situation, by making all these plants more stressed and more susceptible to the frost.
So where does this leave us? Well lucky for us not all is lost. The rhubarb (after being cut back to remove the damaged stalks and leaves) and some of our strawberries  are coming back thanks to this weekend’s rain. In the case of the strawberries I have given them a little boost of fertilizer to help get them going even better, while my back patch (which I had planned on taking out of production) seemed to escape much damage from the frost, probably large in part due to the protection of all the weeds growing in the patch (hence why I wanted to take it out of production). It will take a bit of work, but we can bring the patch back and are already looking forward to being able to take people back there to pick and see our experimental vegetable garden patch (which is coming along nicely)!
This may not be the year we hoped for but at the same time it is far from a loss. Like most things in life sometimes our biggest challenges lead to our biggest growth. We will have berries this year, and hopefully for the first time vegetables too. The best part of facing this adversity in May is that we have time to overcome it. As a farm so many things we require for our success are out of our control. In most cases our success is determined less by what we do and do not receive, but more so how we respond to either of those things. We may have been handed some big challenges this spring but we will over come them! Someday there may come a point where I won’t be able to maintain that “I haven’t lost a crop in May” but that won’t be this year. It may not break any records but we will have a crop and we will work hard to make it the best we can!
– Tim

Drought?

I joked on Facebook recently that I know I have become a farmer because I am complaining about this wonderfully warm weather we have been having lately and saying it is too dry! Our saskatoons seem to be handling the dry weather well – in fact, if anything they seem to be blooming earlier than usual this year. Typically we would expect saskatoons to be ready for picking for the month of August. Based on how early the saskatoon trees bloomed, it appears berries should start appearing mid July to mid August this year! But when conditions are dry, the berries do not get as full and plump and the trees themselves do not grow as tall. Because we planted our 3 year Saskatoon trees 2 years ago, they are still only 5 years old. While they are producing fruit and will be ready for picking, they are not massive trees…yet!

Last year when we planted our strawberries, it was very wet. We initially planned to plant the strawberries in the back – but it was under water! So Tim and our neighbour, Bill, tilled a new piece of land in the front to use for the strawberry patch, thinking we can’t plant the strawberries under water! By the time we got the strawberry plants, the water in the back had mostly dried and we planted the extra strawberries there (the extras after we planted the entire front patch). We planted more strawberries in the front patch, which is on higher land (and thus was drier last year). Last year the front patch grew much better than the back patch. It seemed the back patch had too much moisture.

This year we are experiencing extremely dry weather. The opposite has happened. The strawberry plants in the back patch are doing so much better and blooming so much more than those in the front patch. Remember, blooms turn into fruit – so more blooms means more strawberries! Even though Tim’s degree and background is in agriculture, growing fruit is new to him. Growing plants in general is new to me! So it has been a steep learning curve for us both.

Why don’t we irrigate I asked Tim? Why don’t we just set up a sprinkler with a strong spray and let it go? We have a dugout but it is linked to the same water source as our neighbour’s home water source. If we pump water out of the dugout to irrigate the strawberries, based on how dry it has been and how much water we would need, we run the risk of running them out of water! We need to be mindful of them and be good neighbours! Our next option is to haul water in to irrigate. It will take a lot of loads of water to do that (think 2 loads of water per row based on the size of our water tank – times 30+ rows) – but if we don’t get rain soon, we may have to do just that. Farmers, including us (am I a real farmer now?!?), are at the mercy of the weather. Based on our experiences last year and this year, we are reconsidering how we will plant our next batch of strawberries next year. We are learning so much as we go!

We got a little bit of rain this past weekend but we still need much more. So for now, I am doing rain dances, washing my car and leaving my car windows open, all in hopes of rain!

Our Chickens

A couple of years ago we visited Fort Edmonton Park as a family and saw how much all of the children there, including P, loved interacting with the chickens. When we decided to plant our u-pick, we decided raising chickens is a must! Tim did a lot of research and we both fell in love with the Favorelle heritage breed of chickens. We loved their colouring and gentle disposition. My dad found an old incubator for sale and we purchased some eggs. Last year we did our first hatch with my sister and her family chickens’ eggs. We had never incubated chicken eggs before and so everything we learned was off of the internet. Our first hatch, we made some mistakes but we had some healthy chicks born! Unfortunately most of them were roosters. This year we fixed up the incubator and with our knowledge from last year did another hatch. Our Favorelle roosters bred some of my sister’s chickens so we had some mixed breed eggs. Hens need to be fed oyster shells (mixed in with grain) in order to help them to produce strong shells which aren’t too frail and breakable. This hatch was much more successful and we had 14 healthy chicks born! Right around L’s birthday – nothing says Happy Birthday like new babies! We had one Favorelle hen and we were hopeful we would get some pure bred Favorelle chicks this year – we think we got one!

We enjoyed the incubating process, as did our sons. So a month later, we did another hatch with my sister’s chickens’ eggs, a friend’s chickens’ eggs, and our own chickens’ eggs. Fertilized eggs can be stored about a week before they need to be put into the incubator. Any longer and the eggs won’t develop. So we all collected our eggs for a week in preparation of the second hatch. It takes 21 days from when the eggs are placed into the incubator to when they start to hatch. Throughout the incubating process Tim would “candle” the eggs using a flashlight – he would be looking for blood vessels and other signs of life indicating that the egg was fertilized and that a chick was developing. During the incubation period the eggs need to be kept humid and warm, turned, and then eventually put in lock down (so no outside air enters the incubator during hatching – if it does, humidity levels drop and the egg membranes can dry on the chicks as they are hatching, suffocating them). Before “lock down” we placed our baby monitor inside of the incubator so we could watch the chicks hatching. Baby chicks can survive 2 days without food and water when they are initially born. So we would wait until many eggs were hatched before quickly opening the incubator door to remove the chicks and hatched shells. Then we would mist the inside of the incubator with a spray bottle and close the door quickly to allow the remaining eggs to hatch. We removed the chicks once a day. This time we had 31 healthy chicks born!

P is often timid and fearful with animals, but by the time these latest chicks were born, he was asking to hold them. He prefers to wear his gardening gloves to do so! I think he is nervous about their toes. L loves animals and tries to climb into the cage daily. We are using a rabbit cage to keep the newborn chicks in and we’ve had to put the wire lid on top, not to keep the chicks in, but to keep L out. The chicks have an automatic waterer and start by eating a special food called “Chick Starter.” They need a heat lamp to keep them very warm. We have kept the incubator and the baby chicks in the house during the hatches this year. I must say 31 chicks poop a lot! They can be very smelly and their cage needs regular cleaning. Now that the warm summer weather is here, we can put the chicks into the barn once they get a little bit bigger. And my sister and our friend will take some of their chicks home too!

One of my sister’s chickens (“Charlotte”) who we borrowed and is staying in our barn currently also went “broody” meaning she decided to lay on and try to hatch out her own eggs. My sister has a pet pot bellied pig who likes to eat the chicken eggs so she has been kind enough to lend us Charlotte and a couple of other hens for a little while. It is hard work for a chicken to lay on and hatch their own eggs! Charlotte laid faithfully on her eggs (and any others that the other chickens laid beside her) for days on end (a month). She would only get up briefly for water and food when the other chickens went outside. She would pull out her belly feathers to pad her nest. After all of that, she had 2 healthy baby chicks born. She would not let us see the baby chicks and continued to lay on them for at least 2 days after they were born (but we knew they were there because we could hear peeping)! Finally they started to peek their heads out from under her and come out for Chick Starter and water. It will be interesting to see how those we hatched out of the incubator are the same or different than those who Charlotte hatched out. Charlotte is a very docile little grey hen so I think she will raise very sweet babies.

We have been busy working on new chicken shelters. Tim built a rooster house for in the dugout area. Our Favorelle roosters and the wild ducks are happily co-existing there! He has also built a more extravagant “Chick Inn” (play on the word “chicken” – hee hee!) which has nesting boxes and an outdoor cage area. It is built on skids so that we can move it around the yard and the chickens can feed on the grass. We save our vegetable and fruit scraps and any leftover buns and bread that don’t get eaten for the chickens. They love those scraps and leftover treats! Neither Tim nor myself had any chickens growing up or had any experience with raising and keeping them. We have become chicken people through and through and are enjoying this new adventure!

Getting Started

How did we start on this journey? I grew up on an acreage in the Clymont community just west of Edmonton. My husband, Tim, grew up on a grain and cattle farm in Turtleford, Saskatchewan. While our acreage always had plenty of animals, the extent of my knowledge of plants was very little. My Mom grew a very large garden every year and I now regret that I did not glean more knowledge from her while she was still alive. I saw having to weed my row of potatoes as a punishment!

After Tim and I got married, we decided we wanted to live in the Clymont community as well. When I was pregnant with our first child, we sold our house in Devon and began the hunt. Thank goodness for a long possession date! Eventually we found our acreage. It was the land that we initially fell in love with…and soon after our neighbours. We feel very lucky to have found this beautiful land and to call it home. Initially after having our first son (P), Tim stayed home to raise him. He found himself itching to be involved in agriculture again. The u-pick idea was born!

Why did we plant the berries we did? Tim did much research, driving to many u-picks and fruit growers, talking to them about their experiences. Initially he decided upon planting saskatoons. He grew up on saskatoon pie and jam and loved them! In the summer of 2013 we had family and friends and a few hired workers come out to help us plant 2,000 saskatoon bushes. Saskatoon bushes are generally ready for picking once they are 5 years old, so we planted 3 year old bushes intending for them to be ready to pick in the summer of 2015. I also love raspberries and had raspberry bushes in my Mom’s garden growing up, so we planted 400 raspberry bushes too.

Tim also learned that fresh strawberries are highly sought after at u-picks – but they are also a lot more work. They require re-planting every 4 to 5 years, regular weeding, and picking on your hands and knees. We had a little patch of about 10 strawberry plants in our garden and we loved eating them, as did P. We decided to take the plunge. We ordered 9000 strawberry plants. In the spring of 2014 shortly after the birth of our second son (L), and with the help of hired workers, friends, and neighbours, we planted those strawberries – with a mechanical planter until it broke down and then by hand! We had more plants than we had anticipated needing for the plot we had cultivated so we had to plant in two different spots! Because strawberries need to fallow for a year (i.e. the land needs to be left unplanted for a year), we will need to plant another plot of strawberries next summer so that when those plants are fallowing, we have more plants to pick from in another spot!

With our second son, Tim is back at work and I am the one staying home. It has been a steep learning curve to say the least! I am learning a lot about plants and plant maintenance and I anticipate learning a lot more about that as well as business from an agricultural perspective. Last summer, I put L in the carrier many times and picked weeds and berries. Tim rose early in the morning before the sunrise to pick weeds and berries while the sun rose before heading off to work! I must say, it is true that strawberries are much more work. But the fruit is so delicious! Strawberries from the grocery store are large but often completely flavourless. These strawberries are smaller but oh so sweet! When we shared some of our strawberries last summer, many people commented that they tasted like they had sugar on them! They are so juicy and sweet that when we bake or make jam with them, we have to modify the recipes and reduce the sugar added!

I love adding rhubarb to my saskatoon and strawberry recipes for a bit of tartness so we have also decided to order some rhubarb plants that we will be planting this spring. We have also been asked about haskap plants and so are looking at planting some of those this summer as well! I am excited about the prospect of having so many different kinds of fruit (especially berries) in the yard that I can pick fresh and eat myself and feed to my children! We think it will be fun to pick a new fruit or two each year to try to plant and see how it does in our climate and whether our customers enjoy the fruit. Then those that do well, we might plant more of in the future!

Our best times as a family are often when we are working together. Building and maintaining the u-pick gives us a chance to work together with our children. P has already been out in the field last summer helping us to pick strawberries. While weeding, we set him up with sand toys at the end of the row but he took off his hat and started filling it with strawberries. We just need to teach him to pick the red ones and not the white ones! Both of our boys love saskatoons. When we make white chocolate saskatoon scones, P picks the saskatoons out to eat and leaves the rest behind. We are determined that our children will grow up knowing how food is grown and produced. And that they will learn how to work hard. With hard work (such as weeding and picking) comes many rewards (such as plump, bountiful, delicious fruit)! We hope you will join us on our journey as we raise our family and grow our u-pick.