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Regenerative approach to farming cultivates success for Cache Bay farmers

Field Good Farms using ingenuity at vegetable farm west of North Bay

When Isabelle Spence-Legault’s ancestors settled their Cache Bay acreage in the 1800s, the land was cleared of trees to make way for the farming that would follow.

But well over a century later, as she and her partner, Ryan Spence, continued the family tradition, they quickly discovered that northwest winds sweeping through those wide open spaces weren’t ideal for their flourishing vegetable crops.

So two years ago, through the 50 Million Tree program, the couple planted 4,000 trees on the property, and slowly, they’re returning the land to more favourable growing conditions.

“Our hope is that it will provide a shelter belt for us in the coming years and create a little bit more of a microclimate and space for animals and birds to live in,” said Spence-Legault.

“Every site is different. The best thing we can do before even buying a property… is to just look around and see where your weaknesses are.”

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Through trial and error, the duo has learned many valuable lessons over the last nine years working the land west of North Bay, where they cultivate organic and heirloom vegetables that are sold wholesale and through a pair of community shared agriculture (CSA) programs.

They shared their insights with participants during a May 27 virtual tour and webinar hosted by the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO).

At Field Good Farms, the couple takes a regenerative approach to farming, guided by principles and practices that increase biodiversity, enrich the soil, improve the watershed, and enhance the ecosystem.

The couple does the bulk of the work themselves, hiring local youth to help with harvesting.

With Northern Ontario’s notoriously limited growing time, a pair of hoophouses have been a “boon” to allow them to extend it into the shoulder seasons.

Similar to a greenhouse, the 96-foot by 24-foot structures capture solar-generated warmth, allowing the crops to be grown right up until mid-December, or even mid-March if they’ve planted crops in the fall.

“So that means a 10-month growing window in a zone that gets as low as -40 in the odd winter, but usually around -25 to -30 being the coldest,” Spence-Legault said.

“The types of things that we can grow off-season are a little bit limited, but it does enable us to put some fresh greens in our fall CSA that runs up until the second week of December.”

Hoophouses allow the farmers to turn over crops multiple times in a season, which is difficult with field planting, Spence added.

At $10,000 each, the initial cost of the hoophouses might seem steep, but factoring in capital expense and crop yields, Spence said they paid for themselves within three to four years.

“We found that, with large beefsteak-sized tomatoes, our yields went up 300 per cent,” he said. “With cherry tomatoes, our yields went up 800 per cent, and with cucumbers, our yields went up 300 per cent as well.”

In keeping with the principles of regenerative farming, the pair employs conservation tillage when possible, using management practices that leave the soil largely undisturbed from planting to harvest.

The pair grows perennials alongside their cash crops, which helps build up a healthy root system, preventing soil erosion, reducing compaction, and helping to keep the soil healthy.

Haskap berries, sour cherries, and strawberries are among the plants they currently grow, and they’re looking to add more, Spence-Legault said.

In amongst their cucurbits – vegetables belonging to the gourd family – they plant sweet alyssum, zinnias, cosmos, and solizia, all plants that help ward off pests.

They’ve also introduced a “pollinator strip,” where plants like lovage, black-eyed Susans, lilac bushes, and chokecherries provide pollinators with food and shelter. A birdhouse has even been installed for the resident swallows.

“It’s something we’re doing for pest prevention that works really well for us,” Spence-Legault said.

In the future, as seasonal temperatures heat up, the couple knows that access to water will be an issue.

Water from the surrounding conventional, large-scale operations drain into the creek running through their property. But because the couple can't guarantee it's pesticide-free, it renders the water unusable.

As with anything else they’ve encountered, they’ve used their ingenuity to address that issue, putting the resources in place to dig out a pond from which water can be drawn.

“You’ve got to be creative,” Spence-Legault said, summing up their approach to farming. “You’ve got to find what your need is and go for it.”