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Biointensive Growing for Smart-Scale Farming

By Tracy Frisch

Conventional thinking holds that vegetable farms must be fully mechanized and produce on a certain scale to provide a livelihood, except in extraordinary circumstances, but Les Jardins de la Grelinette (Broad Fork Gardens) in Quebec, busts this myth, using biointensive growing methods.

For more than a decade Jean-Martin Fortier and Maude-Helene Desroches have operated a phenomenally successful “biologically intensive” microfarm using biointensive growing methods.

By choice they use only hand tools and a small walk-behind tractor and employ only one or two workers. Yet with less than 2 acres under cultivation and one greenhouse and two hoop houses on their certified organic farm, this husband and wife team grosses around $150,000 a year.

Of that impressive sum, they’re able to count more than 40 percent as profit for family living. Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene are in their 30s and have two children.

At a half-day workshop I attended in the company of well over 100 farmers, Jean-Martin summed up some of their achievements.

“We work 8 to 5,” he said. “We supervise crops.” And while they do have weeds, he stressed that they never get the upper hand. As a mentor for beginning farmers for the Montreal-based sustainability organization Equiterre, Jean-Martin had witnessed struggles and discouragement on startup operations that he attributed to a lack of systems thinking.

“They were farming 3 acres with a tractor to supply 100 CSA baskets,” he said of some of these new growers. “By August, their fields were a mess of weeds, and the farmers were burnt out.”

The experience made him realize that he and his wife had an important perspective to share with current and aspiring growers. It also ignited his interest in writing a book. Last year his book The Market Gardener came out in English, garnering praise from Eliot Coleman and other leading lights in organic vegetable farming (the original French edition was published in 2012).

Les Jardins de la Grelinette is located an hour south of Montreal, where their 100-member CSA is one among dozens. Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene also sell at two farmers’ markets.

Rather than extending their season into the winter, they focus on jumpstarting their warm-season crops.

“We aim to have a fully stocked market stand by June 5,” said Jean-Martin. Having nearly a full complement of crops, including tomatoes, so early helps distinguish their farm.

The Crux of Their Success

Rather than being the beneficiaries of advantages like wealth or special market opportunities, the couple’s secret to success lies in how they approach the project of farming. They’re thoughtful and deliberate in their decisions, and they see the possibility of choices where many people might be content to adopt standard practices.

Early on, Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene developed a vision for their farm and its place in their lives. For instance, they desired ample time for family and leisure so they set out to create a farming operation in which they would be able to respect this priority.

Not working really long hours on a farm doesn’t usually happen without lots of planning and good management.

Fortunately, this couple possesses those crucial skills. And as careful observers, they are able to apply what they learn in order to refine their systems.

Advantages of Micro-Farming

Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene had many reasons to opt for a microfarm. It can make a career on the land more financially feasible by reducing the amount of land required and minimizing other entry costs such as equipment.

Jean-Martin Fortier checking on crops at Les Jardins de la Grelinette.

Small-scale farming also reduces the need for a large number of employees and all that entails — on a typical vegetable farm, payroll eats up at least a third of revenues, and supervision of a large crew is time-consuming.

Farming on this scale may also be more compatible with direct marketing than larger-scale production, where often wholesaling and working with distributors are necessary. At Les Jardins de la Grelinette, the farmers themselves maintain face-to-face relationships with their CSA members and farmers’ market customers. Their CSA uses one distribution site, and having 100 families come for pickup in a two-hour period creates the excitement of an event.

“No one will ever be able to take away my clients! These relationships will last forever,” said Jean-Martin.

But growing on tiny acreage for a livelihood doesn’t afford much room for mistakes or sloppiness, and if you’re not going to mechanize when every other vegetable farm in your area relies on tractors, then you’re going to have to become an independent thinker.

Designing a Farm of Their Own

The first year Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene farmed on their own (they spent a couple of years working on other farms), they rented land and grew a fifth of an acre of vegetables.

They began with a 30-member CSA and $20,000 in sales.

“We developed our skill set as we developed our clientele,” said Jean-Martin. Two years later they were farming on their own land. By then their CSA had grown to 60 households, they were going to two farmers’ markets, and sales had hit $80,000.

As their farm’s permanent home, they purchased a 10-acre property that’s three-quarters wooded for its flat land, good soil and favorable microclimate near the northern end of Lake Champlain. To set up the farm, they invested $40,000 for infrastructure and equipment including season extension structures, the walk-behind tractor and hand tools.

On the new site, they were able to lay out their operation the way they wanted. Cognizant that design would affect their quality of life and the efficiency of farming activities for years to come, they put a lot of thought into these decisions. They were able to design their farm to satisfy these concerns using a conceptual framework borrowed from permaculture founder Bill Mollison.

All the gardens radiate out from the central homestead, which includes their house, wash and storage area and the pond they dug. They created 10 equal-sized blocks, each comprised of 18 permanent garden beds. All the blocks are approximately the same distance from the farm’s facilities.

No matter what block they’re working in, they’re not wasting time going back and forth with tools, supplies or harvested vegetables. Having identical blocks also facilitates crop rotation.

Rotations move counterclockwise through the 10 blocks. Their decision to standardize the length and width of their garden beds (30 inches by 100 feet) also simplifies daily operations. The beds are on a 4-foot center with an 18-inch path or aisle between beds. They are narrow enough to easily step over. Beds serve as the unit of measurement for crop planning and soil amendments (measured in wheelbarrows or buckets per bed). And with all the beds the same width and length, they only need one size of row cover and insect netting.

High-Density Crop Spacing

In a variation on no-till, Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene grow vegetables in permanent beds that they formed a decade ago. The beds start out 8 inches high — a height they have found to be optimal for drainage and capturing sunlight. Every other year, they re-raise the beds, but they don’t rototill or plow them in order to keep the soil ecology as intact as possible. Instead they prepare their beds with a rotary harrow, and then they go through with a broadfork to make sure that the soil is loose and deep.

Higher-density plantings can produce higher yields as long as the soil is healthy and full of life. They space their crops so that their canopy covers the whole bed when the crop reaches three-quarters of its full size.

At this density most weeds don’t stand a chance. This plant canopy also creates a favorable microclimate for crop growth; moderating soil temperature extremes and helping soil retain moisture. A good plant canopy also protects soil from the elements.

Growing intensively in beds has the benefit of reducing inputs at Les Jardins de la Grelinette. They apply compost and other soil amendments only to the growing area, rather than wasting it on the aisles between the beds.

Their intensive bed system also minimizes the area of bare ground available for weeds to colonize, compared to a row cropping system. Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene use overhead watering (except on crops grown on plastic mulch). If they grew in rows, this irrigation method would cause a lot more weeds to germinate.

Biointensive Growing: Soil Structure

Close spacing requires amazing soil structure, Jean-Martin explains. Plowing and over-cultivation cause soil compaction, restricting the root zone and soil biological activity. At Les Jardins de la Grelinette they protect the soil by staying off their beds, except once a year when they make a quick pass with the broadfork.

When Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene first started farming, they had only a rototiller. It didn’t take long for the couple to move away from rototilling when they realized the havoc it can wreak on soil structure and organic matter. Jean-Martin likens a rototiller’s action to a blender, turning soil aggregates into powder. While the soil looks great right after you use it, in a week it will be compacted worse than before.

To prepare the excellent seedbed that’s central to their farming system, they use a lightweight 30-inch rotary harrow in place of a rototiller. It has become one of their prized walking tractor implements. They use this power harrow to mix compost and other amendments into the top 2 inches of the soil. It also performs shallow tillage, and levels and firms the soil.

Appropriate Technology

Jean-Martin considers their BCS walking tractor to be an essential acquisition for soil health. They bought it new because they’re not mechanically inclined. At $8,500 its price compared favorably with a new four-wheel tractor.

Its Honda engine can be readily serviced, and reversible handlebars allow tools to be mounted on the front or back. These tractors are becoming more popular and many different implements are available.

The couple finds various advantages in not spending their days sitting perched on a tractor. Farming with both feet planted on the ground gives a grower much greater awareness of what’s going on with his crops.

Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene strongly believe it makes more sense to do many tasks by hand. They spread compost with a wheelbarrow, a simple, dependable implement that uses no fossil fuel. It’s not unusual though for someone to suggest that they buy a manure spreader so they could accomplish this task faster. But in a time crunch, they could hire a neighbor to hand spread compost in their place.

Joel Salatin Talks Compost
Joel Salatin demonstrates how Polyface Farm runs their compost operation. Filmed at Polyface Intensive Discovery in Swoope, Virginia, in 2015.

The Changing Role of Compost

Like many organic vegetable growers, for years Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene relied on compost as their primary source of soil fertility, and they use granulated poultry manure for certain demanding crops.

Lately they’ve begun using vermicompost and vermicompost tea in place of compost. They’re also inoculating with mycorrhizal fungi, experimenting with Ramial Chipped Wood and exploring other ways to stimulate biological processes.

“It’s been a long journey to learn about soil biology,” says Jean-Martin, who has come to recognize that soil life, not compost, is the engine of fertility.

They had elevated their soil organic matter content from 3 percent to 12 percent applying compost on their permanent beds. They wanted to avoid wasting fertility and causing pollution.

In addition, the province of Quebec restricts the amount of nutrients that farmers can apply per acre to protect the environment. Previously they had applied compost at the rate of 40 tons per acre, though each year only half of their beds — the ones where they were growing heavy feeders that season — would get compost at that per-acre rate. The following year, the other half of the beds would get a compost application.

Lacking compost-making equipment, know-how and inclination, they would buy in the highest quality compost product they could find. They appreciated that it was free of weed seed, made from a variety of feedstock and came with an NPK analysis. At $2,000 a year, they considered it a worthwhile expense. They had it delivered hot in the spring and kept it covered to conserve its nutrients.

When they were ready to find alternatives to compost, they hired an agronomist to advise them. He was the same consultant who had helped them overhaul their tomato production.

When he worked with them on the soil fertility issue, he was so amazed by the uniformity of their soil profile to a foot deep, despite not using conventional tillage, that he began doing research on permanent beds.

One of their challenges is poor availability of soil nutrients when the ground is too cold for much soil microbial activity.

“You get the simplified idea in organics that feeding the soil is feeding the plant, but when the soil is cool, actually you need to feed the plant, too,” said Jean-Martin.

Passive Soil Prep & Weed Eradication

During his presentation, Jean-Martin got a good laugh from the audience when he showed a slide recognizing the earthworm as their “employee of the month.” For almost a decade, he and Maude-Helene have been striving to replace mechanical tillage with biological activity. One way they do this is by tarping, which creates soil conditions conducive to earthworm activity and offers a great shortcut for preparing a seedbed.

Early in their farming history, they made the relatively unknown practice of tarping into an integral part of their growing system. They adopted the practice after noticing that a tarp mistakenly left on the soil in a hoop house greatly reduced weed pressure in the crop that followed. Later they discovered that tarping is more commonly used in France, where it’s called occultation.

The practice warms the soil and keeps it dark. Under a tarp, soil retains surface moisture, and capillary action wicks up additional moisture. This ideal environment induces weeds to germinate but their seedlings perish in the absence of light. When a tarp is pulled up, one finds large numbers of these invertebrates wiggling around.

Earthworms pull surface plant residues down into the soil profile (larger crop residues must either be shredded or removed for composting prior to tarping). These magnificent little helpers also leave the soil surface smooth and level.

On the downside, the tarps they use — 6 or 8 mil black plastic silage tarps (not landscape fabric) — are a big, one-time expense. And their size and weight make them difficult to manipulate, especially if they get filled with rainwater.

Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene favor 80- by 100-foot tarps rather than smaller ones as the larger ones allow them to cover more ground with fewer edges to bury. They now own enough tarps for each block to have its own.

This eliminates the chore of dragging tarps all around the farm. Tarping or occultation is a totally different process from solarizing soil. Solarization uses clear plastic to heat soil hot enough to kill weed seed, but it also destroys soil life. And at their latitude in southern Canada it would only be effective during the hottest, sunniest months when they don’t have the luxury of fallowing land.

However, they do use clear plastic over soil for another application. In preparing beds for early spring plantings, they cover them with clear plastic in October for four to six weeks in order to germinate weed seed. Then they tarp this ground over the winter so it will be warm when planting time comes around.

In a similar vein, Jean-Martin says people wonder why he insists on using a broadfork, which they dismiss as too slow. He says he can broadfork an entire block of 16 beds, 100-feet in length, in just a couple of hours.

Without turning the soil over, this tool loosens it so roots can penetrate more deeply. Of course, one reason he can go so quickly is that the beds are free of compaction from heavy equipment or foot traffic, and they are teeming with earthworms and microbial life. “If it’s hard to broadfork, then you need to broadfork,” he quips.

A Different Approach to Cover Crops

Keeping soil covered with living plants is a principle in line with their biologically intensive philosophy. While cover crops are an element in crop rotation at Les Jardins de la Grelinette, their use is less prominent than on many farms.

Approximately one bed in three is cover cropped in a given year, and every bed on the farm gets planted in a cover crop at a three- or four-year interval. Jean-Martin presented several reasons for this.

First, with soil on this micro-farm already so enriched they don’t need to further enhance its fertility. Therefore they employ cover crops primarily as a living placeholder, rather than green manures to supply nitrogen and other nutrients.

Second, they are reluctant to grow lots of biomass that will be difficult or even impossible to incorporate into the soil with their less aggressive farming practices.

They employ the strategy of sowing cover crops at extremely high seeding rates with the sole objective of protecting the soil surface. For example, they might broadcast peas, vetch and oats by hand at five to 10 times the recommended rate. A late planting date or early termination date keeps the cover crop short.

They eliminate the cover crop with a flail mower or weed whacker. Then prior to planting, they either rototill the residue into the soil in the aisles, or they tarp the bed so the earthworms will do the work.

No Organic Mulches

Some no-till vegetable growers rely on thick organic mulches, like straw, hay or leaf mulch, but not at Les Jardins de la Grelinette. With the exception of first cut rye straw for garlic production, they don’t use them due to labor requirements and cost, the risk of weed seed, slugs and interference with crop seed germination.

They grow tomatoes, peppers and eggplant and other crops that stay in the ground for more than 100 days on a black plastic mulch such as a professional grade landscape fabric or Biotello, which is biodegradable. These plastic mulches warm the ground and serve as a weed barrier. Plasticulture is the only place they use drip irrigation.

For direct-seeded crops, the couple considers organic mulches a detriment to the “perfect germination” they are aiming for. Instead they start by making a firm, level seedbed and raking off any crop residues and stones. Then, after planting, they irrigate newly seeded beds with micro-sprinklers three or four times daily.

Vegetable Growing Without Weeding

Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene don’t believe in pulling weeds, and with their multiple weed prevention tactics they don’t have to. By only using shallow cultivation — and neither a rototiller nor a plow — they avoid bringing up buried weed seed to where they can germinate. They are also rigorous in never letting weeds go to seed. After all, a single galinsoga plant can produce 40,000 seeds!

Their preference for transplanting wherever possible gives vegetable plants a head start over weeds that might come up. Close spacing reduces the bare ground available for weeds to colonize, and well-aligned rows make hoeing easier and more effective. They use several types and sizes of hoes to move soil and kill weeds when they first emerge.

For certain slow-germinating, direct-seeded vegetables like beets and carrots, the stale seed-bedding technique has the same effect on weed seed as tarping. About 10 days ahead of seeding the crop they prepare the bed by broadforking it, followed either by watering or applying row cover or plastic in order to encourage weed seed germination.

After seeding the crop they watch for the window where weed seeds are germinating before the carrots or other direct-seeded crop start coming up. A quick pass of a 30-inch propane flame weeder takes out young weeds. This pre-emergent method is so effective that they don’t weed their carrots! The metal hood on their flame weeder protects the flame on windy days.

Maintaining a strong flame is essential to success.

Radical Redesign to Optimize Production

As a rule Jean-Martin and Maude-Helene have avoided having to expand the land under cultivation or put up more greenhouses by optimizing their existing resources. This might entail intensifying production and increasing the yields and quality of their crops, or improving soil health and nutrient cycling. Their redesign of tomato production is a prime example of this orientation.

They used to grow hoop house tomatoes with lackadaisical yields. Visits to professional tomato greenhouses opened their eyes to greater potential.

They sold their two 16- by 100-foot hoop houses (for the same price they bought them five years earlier and replaced them with a single 32- by 100-foot greenhouse).

They also hired an agronomist to teach them to graft and prune. He also taught them how to manage humidity in the greenhouse to reduce the risk of disease. Every day at 5 a.m., they dry the dew inside the tomato greenhouse by turning on the heat. Excess moisture escapes through the open roll-up sides.

Jean-Martin said their production went up many-fold. Now they harvest 1,500 pounds a week. With such a bounty, they could afford to drop the price to $3 a pound. And by grafting to disease-resistant rootstock, they alleviated the need to rotate the crop. In addition to the hybrid, grafted tomatoes they grow in the greenhouse, they also raise heirloom tomato varieties in a hoop house.

Similarly, they discarded their old system of cucumber production. Jean-Martin describes growing cucumbers in the field as “a big zero” for them.

Since shifting to in-ground production in an unheated hoop house expertly protected with insect netting, they are able to count on a weekly harvest of 120 cukes commanding a price of $3 a piece.

These days they start their cucumber seedlings at an ideal temperature in the nursery and then delay the transplant date by repotting them to bigger pots. During that interval they warm up the hoop house soil under row cover. By the time they are ready to transplant the large plants into the ground, conditions are right for them to take off immediately.

With its ecological and appropriate technology practices and outstanding production, Les Jardins de la Grelinette demonstrates that small farmers need not sacrifice their quality of life and time with their families — or forget about the environment — to achieve economic wellbeing. Under their fine-tuned system these all-too-often elusive goals are both totally compatible and achievable.

This article appeared in the December 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier is available from Acres U.S.A. Learn more about Les Jardins de la Grelinette.