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Get Big, Or Get Small

In 1999, the Peters family reached a crossroads, with Walter and Erna eyeing retirement, and son Marlin and wife Deb looking to make a start in farming.

But taking over a 1,000-acre grain farm wasn t an appealing prospect.

We were kind of at the point where the equipment was aging, and something needed to change, said Marlin Peters, as he led a small group on a tour of Peters Market Garden on Open Farm Day.

With no huge aspirations to go deep into debt buying land and equipment, Peters and his wife decided to take over Peters Market Garden, a five-acre sideline his parents started three decades earlier. They expanded to 10 acres on the 34-acre yardsite and haven t looked back.

That s the thing with this: there is a risk in it, but if we had a crop failure this year, I m out a few thousand bucks, said Peters who, like his brother, paid his way through university by growing potatoes, corn and other vegetables.

The market garden employs the Peters, two full-time workers, one part-timer, almost a dozen nieces and nephews looking for casual summer work, and his garden-aholic mother who he often sends home early out of pity.

His most profitable crop is fresh-market baby potatoes, followed by corn.

On a one-acre plot this summer, he harvested 9,000 pounds of potatoes. Early on, they fetch $2 per pound, although that drops as the season progresses. Harvest this year began in mid-July, with the entire crop sold by Aug. 12.

Popular as can be, says Peters. It s like gold for some people. (For) the first baby potatoes of the year, I don t think there s a price point that would ever be

too much.

VARIETAL PICK

Peters grows the same variety of corn that his parents favoured, Xtra-Early Super Sweet, and tries to harvest by mid-August to coincide with the local rodeo.

None of his produce is marketed as organic, but he still tries to minimize his use of chemicals. Fertility for his rich, dark, clay-loam soil comes in the form of slow-release nitrogen granules. Aluminum irrigation pipes feed a system of soaker hoses.

He has a walk-in cooler but tries to manage harvesting to match immediate demand.

If I align it so that my store orders go out after my farmers market, I ve got an outlet for the things that I bring home, said Peters.

Online orders through www.petersmarketgarden.ca are increasing, but his marketing focus is on local supermarkets and he s moving away from U-pick.

A two-strand electric fence set low to the ground keeps raccoons out of his cornfield.

I ve always wished that I could videotape

them actually encountering the fence, he said with a laugh.

Apart from potatoes that he sometimes keeps for seed the following year, he buys fresh seed for all his crops each year as he figures the return from saving his own seed isn t worth the extra work.

A recent addition to the operation is a 64×16-foot, movable, open-floor greenhouse. Covered in 11-mm woven poly sourced from a retailer in Altona and guaranteed to last at least six years, the tunnel-like structure is made from one-inch square tubing rolled into half circles mounted on a foundation made of pressure-treated 2×6 planks. It cost about $3,000 half of which was the poly and Peters said it allows him to add an extra month to each end of the growing season for tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Fans and kerosene heaters help keep it from getting too hot or too cold.

PAYS FOR ITSELF

Although it s still in the experimental stages, Peters estimates the greenhouse will pay for itself in a year or two and he may add a few more to the operation.

His secret weapon is a tiny Allis Chalmers G row-crop tractor. A rear-mounted engine and front toolbar allows him to cultivate, weed, and spray his crops without wiping out valuable crops or getting a sore neck.

So far, running a market garden has

allowed his family to earn a good living, but he still needs off-farm work in winter.

As the operation grows, he might plant a few more acres, hire more people, or expand to other crops in the future, but he s careful to avoid breaking the sanity barrier.

Peters, 35, recommends market gardening to anyone who wants to make a go of it out in the country, but with a word of caution: You can t be scared of hard work.

daniel. [email protected]

———

Youcan tbescared ofhardwork.

MARLIN PETERS

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