What’s really important, especially at first? Mastering the basics! – Jonathan Bruderlein, Ferme Mélilot
last month i had the opportunity to visit Ferme Mélilot in the Eastern Townships (les Cantons de l’Est) of Québec as our first “field trip” of the season. farm visits like these are an important component of the apprenticeship position at Tourne-sol, as it provides the employees a chance to see how other farms operate, and a way for farmers to exchange knowledge and and socialize during the season. the farm is run by partners in marriage and business Johnathan Bruderlein and Jolianne Demers. Johnathan was formerly an apprentice at Tourne-sol as well so it’s a nice way to see how apprentices go on to start their own farms.
one of the most obvious and most exciting aspects of Ferme Mélilot is that Johnathan and Jolianne use horses for a lot of their power needs, instead of tractors (four-wheeled or otherwise). they currently have a team of two horses, Bill and Molly, who came to them from southwestern ontario. using horses for them is not necessarily following a dogma, as they still use a tractor for some tasks such as loading pallets and transplanting; however, draft animals reflect a different relationship to the land and animals (and a different sound on the farm) and compact the soil less than tractors do. horses also encourage what is called “bio-extensive farming” because rows of crops necessarily are spaced further apart (the rows in between them, created by horses, must be wide) than when using a tractor, which can be good for air circulation and water distribution among plants. furthermore, if you’ve ever been around these beautiful animals, you’ll know that the human-horse relationship is a fascinating and mysterious one, joyful and powerful in its own right.
jolianne led the horses out to pasture and johnathan told us about the finer points of caring for horses. in general, 1 horse = 2 acres of pasture (for a season), so with two horses, it’s useful to have about 4 acres for them to graze on. at mélilot they like to use “management intensive grazing,” rotating through smaller pastures over the season rather than using only one or two larger spaces. this way, the horses are obliged to eat everything, not just their favourite greens. this kind of grazing gives the plants in the pasture a rest as well.
ferme mélilot also has other animals, such as chickens (and sometimes pigs), as part of its 150-member CSA program (they have drop-offs in mile-end and outremont so if you live there and want some veggies, might be a good bet). johnathan provided us with some interesting tips about laying-hen management:
- instead of buying fancy organic chicken feed, feed your chickens a mixture of oats, wheat peas, and barley. this is less expensive than premium organic chicken mixtures, and the chickens like to eat it! could be a good use for any leftover green manure/cover crop seed.
- if your chickens are attacking each other and pecking at each other’s feathers, try lightly spraying their backs with a vinegar/water mixture. the smell will repel the chickens from each other and they’ll stop their pecking.
johnathan has also rigged up quiet a great invention: an auto-matic, on-a-timer, chicken coop closer. having experienced the problem of wanting to go to bed earlier than the chickens do myself, i appreciate the functionality of this little device. basically a spring-loaded lever is attached to an electrical mechanism that causes the door of the coop to close after sunset (around 9 PM). this way, the farmers don’t have to walk all the way to the coop (or keep the chickens close to the house) after dark once the chickens have already walked back into their home, but the chickens stay safe in their henhouse, away from creatures who want to eat them. genius!
My advice? Don’t have rocks! – Johnathan Bruderlein
there is a lot more to mélilot than the animals, as we soon discovered on our tour. johnathan and jolianne (and their employees) are vegetable farmers in very, very rocky soil (with a million-dollar view). their land was formerly an apple orchard, and the previous owners brought in gravel for the paths, adding even more to an already rocky soil. this makes some aspects of farming more difficult than at places like Tourne-sol, where encountering a rock is a rare event. it can inhibit constructing caterpillar tunnels because it is difficult to get the support posts into the ground (they are even reconsidering tunnels for this very reason) and it of course can make planting, growing and weeding the crops difficult. but johnathan and jolianne and talented farmers and are making great lemonade out of some tough (hard) lemons.
mélilot’s approach to the caterpillar tunnels in general was of interest to me, especially after the construction of the tunnels at tourne-sol this spring. they use a similar approach, with anchored hoops and ropes tying the plastic down, as well as biodegradable plastic in the beds and geotextile in the alleys between them (held down by those ubiquitous rocks!). however, because they have access to hay, they place that in the area between the inside and the outside of the tunnels, which acts as a weed barrier. this is awesome – we have spent a lot of frustrating hours weeding this section of the tunnel at tourne-sol this summer. johnathan expressed some concern about reusing geotextile from year to year, because it could be spreading soil-born tomato diseases.
at mélilot they also have the unusual practice of leaving the plastic on some of their tunnels until january! this extends the season (they do not have a field greenhouse), and as long as you raise the plastic off of the frozen ground with hooks, it minimizes any damage that might come from the plastic freezing on the ground.
it was really great to visit Ferme Mélilot and see how folks who used to work at Tourne-sol have started their own entreprise, using different technologies and on a trying landscape; i think the trip was inspiring to all of us. it’s important to see different perspectives and solutions to the challenges of modern, small-scale organic farming. and of course we ate a delicious lunch and socialized, enjoying the company of other farmers once the tour was done.