When Marilyn Firth and Bruce Berry bought 10 acres on the south edge of Winnipeg in 2007 they knew most vegetable farms that once ringed the city were gone.
They also knew they’d be starting to farm at the age of most lifelong growers.
But they were convinced more customers wanted food delivered across a shorter distance to their plates again. And they were personally ready for a major lifestyle change themselves.
“Making factories go faster just didn’t feel like the right way forward anymore,” says Berry, of his decision to leave his career as a mechanical engineer in Toronto and take up small-scale vegetable production in St. Norbert.
He and Firth, a former CBC television director, have since been applying their expertise to make vegetables grow a little faster — and better.
The couple now operates Almost Urban Vegetables, growing 40 varieties of vegetables and herbs for sales to farmers’ markets and CSA customers.
And one of the tools in their tool box for stabilizing that production has been the use of high tunnels, said Firth who spoke at a Direct Farm Marketing conference earlier this year about their use of them.
The couple was early adopters of this simple, but effective way to extend the growing season and protect a portion of their crops from weather and pests.
“When we started the news wasn’t really out there as to how valuable they are,” she said. But most small-farm entrants readily put up tunnels now.
“You very quickly find out how really valuable they are to you,” she said.
Their three 20×80-ft. tunnels go a long way towards stabilizing production for their CSA and farmers’ market customers.
Most years they start planting by mid-April because the soil inside these passive solar structures has warmed up faster, said Firth.
“You gain 5 C so it can make a substantial difference.”
To maximize the space in them, they’ve developed a sequence of interplanting early crops such as green onions, lettuce, radishes with hotter-weather, later-season crops such as tomato and cucumbers.
The tunnels also make it possible to confidently grow other crops whose heat units and length of growing season doesn’t always jive with Manitoba’s.
“Some (field) crops we find are sort of a ‘make it or maybe not’ crop,” things like melons or eggplant,” she said.
Their high tunnels have also unexpectedly moved certain vegetables into higher-value categories, too. Beets, for example, do so well in them they get preferential space over their cherry tomatoes.
“We were shocked at how well we did with beets from the tunnel.”
That’s due to the other obvious advantage of growing in high tunnels; leafed veggies like beets and lettuce are fluffier and cleaner because they’re out of the rain and wind. They’ve also kept tomato crops protected from late blight longer and weed pressures are also lowered.
“There’s just less blowing into them,” she said.
The growing season isn’t over when the rest of Manitoba shifts towards winter either. Kale, swiss chard and spinach go in next. This is an ideal environment for growing kale, which becomes especially tasty as the year cools down, said Firth.
“And spinach does very well. We’ve been well into December when we’ve still been harvesting.”
They amend the soil in their tunnels yearly with compost and organic fertilizers, and irrigate using a drip system. About 20 per cent of their total production is now high tunnel grown while the rest of their vegetables remain field grown.
“No question,” Firth replies as to whether the initial investment of about $10,000 per tunnel is worth it.
Widespread adoption of high tunnels in Manitoba has now enabled farmers’ market season to start earlier and last longer too. Firth is also manager of St. Norbert Farmers’ Market, part of which is now permanently covered, which opened May 19.
That makes spring an exceedingly busy time for the St. Norbert-area couple.
Small-scale farming of any kind isn’t for everyone, says the couple, who says they’d expected more would give this a try than have done so.
“When we started we thought it would be a couple of years, and everyone would be doing this, but not a lot have,” said Berry.
But this was definitely the right move for them, he said.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Why are you crawling around in the weeds with your (engineer) background? My answer is there’s as much technical challenge in this, to me, as anything I was doing working with the software and Silicon Valley companies and their chip makers.
“And I like learning stuff and it doesn’t matter what it is.”