In From Seed to Market: Part 1 we had a chance to meet the incredible people behind Hearts and Roots. Justin Girard and Britt Embry radiated passion, enthusiasm and excitement on my first visit to their farm. It was enjoyable to see absolutely nothing changed on my following visit.
My second trip out to Elie, Man., took place on a beautiful early June morning. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and the fields were growing. A lot has changed since my last visit. The greenhouse has been emptied and planted in the fields and the fields are no longer black, but coming alive with shades of purples and greens.
The process started long before mother nature was ready for the plants to go into the ground. Trays with 288 cells were used to plant the seeds in a peat soil mixture. The trays were placed in a homemade germination chamber where the heat and moisture levels are controlled. This chamber allows the plants to develop more evenly and quickly and the percentage of seeds that germinate is much higher than if the seeds were started solely in the greenhouse. Once the seeds started growing they were moved from the germination chamber and placed on a homemade table in the greenhouse, where they continue to grow and wait patiently for their turn to be planted in the ground.
On top of getting the plants ready in the greenhouse, the fields need to be prepared, as well. Long rows of corn mulch are spread out to create a bed for the plants to live. The mulch looks like a long black garbage bag that has been dug into the ground and held in place by the dirt. The mulch sheets are used to help control the weeds directly around the plants and reduce the amount of weeding by hand.
Unfortunately, Girard and Embry had a few issues early on in the season. In the days after the mulch rows were laid, the wind gusts picked up and ripped many rows out of the ground. The couple then had go and fix each row by hand by placing dirt back on top of the mulch to secure it in place. This has been one of the many major set back in their progress, their pump, tiller, mulching machine, irrigation system and tractor have all broken down at least once this spring. They seem to have laughed their way threw it with their happy and positive dispositions, with Girard saying, “we have to wing it and roll with it because the show must go on.”
When planting time arrives and the spring weather is somewhat stable all hands are needed to help with the long and rigorous process. A transplanting machine is not in the lineup at Hearts and Roots, which means each and every single plant is placed into the ground by hand. The countless hours and effort that goes into the planting process makes it a true labour of love.
The first person walks along the row with a homemade poking stick. It is used to make a tiny hole in the mulch and has a special piece of wood added to help measure out the distance between each hole accurately. The second person places the plant by each hole. The first person will then return to the beginning of the row and dig a small hole in the dirt and place the plant in the ground. The smaller the hole the better to avoid weeds popping up threw the mulch.
Underneath the mulch an irrigation hose has been placed in each row. This allows for the plants to be watered and fertilized easily and allows the water to reach the roots directly, therefore, less evaporation occurs in the hot summer sun. The amount of water used is reduced and they can control exactly what is happening under the soil.
Watering and fertilizing is controlled by a machine that allows Girard to decided exactly what happens each day based on the weather forecast, which he checks up to fives times daily. The fertilizer takes about 20 minutes to push threw the lines and must be flushed out with water to avoid any microbial growth in the lines that can create a blockage and more work for the pair.
The plants are now in the ground and taking nicely to the soil, but so are the weeds. The areas in between the mulched rows are covered in weeds and ideally will not be tilled for the entire season. Tilling between the rows will cause more weeds to grow, creating a solid carpet of weeds which will create even more work. As the weeds grow, Girard uses a process called burning. He literally burns the tops of the plants with a torch which kills off the weeds. The burning can not come to close to the mulch as this will cause the sheet to melt, so weeding by hand directly along the mulch and around each plant will take much time and effort.
My favourite part of my second visit to the farm was seeing the over 30 varieties of tomato plants in the ground. Each plant has been placed in a mulched row and has been attached to a sort of frame system using clips and twine. This process is called vining the tomatoes. They will grow up the twine and create a jungle of plants that look very similar to grape plants growing in a vineyard. I am certainly looking forward to my next visit to see the progress in this gorgeous tomato jungle.
Next month, I will check in with this cheerful couple and see the progress of the plants and how the first few markets have gone. Follow me through the next few sunny months as I visit Hearts and Roots to check in as they take their extreme passion from seed to market. Stay tuned for many delicious things to come!
Melissa Hryb is the chef at Marion Street Eatery, where she specializes in hearty comfort food with a twist.
Follow her on Twitter @MarionStreetEat or Instagram @MarionStreetEatery