Farming an acre of vegetables in Wilton, Ontario, Evan Quigley has always aimed to bring the highest quality and consistency to market with a keen eye on profitability. Evan has achieved high quality and yields with a combination of techniques and careful management at The Kitchen Garden farm.
"After a lot of trial and error, I have come up with a simple cost-effective fertility system that grows high-yielding and high-quality crops,” Evan said. Running the gamut on fertility strategies, he has been improving the poor drainage of his loamy soil for over a decade. He studied with Hugh Lovel and Graeme Sait, read a ton of books, and, as he puts it, "dove way too deep down the rabbit hole of soil health."
Evan tried everything, from too much and too little compost, compost teas, rock dust, mineral balancing, as well as weekly foliar sprays and fertigation. "There were lots of successes with a labor and input-intensive system,” he explained. "But it was expensive, complicated to manage, and at the end of the day, just too much work."
In 2018, Evan scaled back from three acres to around an acre and decided to farm solo without employees. "I realized that I needed to simplify my systems and be as efficient as possible,” he recalled. “There was no way I was lugging wheelbarrows of compost or hauling around a backpack sprayer every week to foliar spray."
Cutting out tasks felt good, but yields dropped while disease pressure increased. So, he continued experimenting and researching with lots of trial and error to establish a high return on investment with a limited budget, and importantly, limited time. Over the next few years, the ongoing R & D paid off.
Recipe for healthy soil and great crops
Evan’s low-cost recipe for healthy soil and great crop quality:
- Longer rotations with cover crops (resting production fields every other year or more) and using silage tarps and minimal tillage techniques.
- Minimal compost applications (about 4 tons or fewer of farm-made vegetable-based compost per acre).
- Correcting significant mineral deficiencies (Ca, P, K, Mg, S, B, Cu, Mn, Zn) based on soil test and off-farm mineral inputs like bone meal, potassium sulfate and lime.
- Targeted slow-release nitrogen applications to meet crop needs using mostly feather meal. Put everything on pre-plant (no more foliar or fertigation routines).
- Compost to hit P target based on soil test, for Evan ~ 8000 lbs/acre of compost
- Kelp 200 lbs/acre (biological stimulant)
- Humates 200 lbs/acre (biological stimulant)
- Wollastonite 500 lbs/acre (experimenting — biological stimulant, calcium and silicon)
- N applications, in addition to N from compost, as 25% alfalfa, 75% feather meal to target:
- 130 lbs/acre N for ‘extra’ high feeders in greenhouses
- 100 lbs/acre N for regular greenhouse and field crops
- 50 lbs/acre N for low feeders
For ease and simplicity, compost, humates, and minerals are added to the vegetable beds at planting, spreading 5-gallon buckets down the bed. Extra slow-release N (feather meal) is added on a bed-by-bed basis for medium and high feeders only. This saves money and grows the best quality. All N is applied pre-plant for ease and labor savings.
Evan adds 5 to 10 percent field soil to his compost piles and covers it with landscape fabric to hold in water and reduce the need to turn the pile because it does not heat up as much. “The field soil addition makes the pile easier to manage, inoculates the pile with field-ready biology to make field ready compost and in theory helps fix more carbon, but that’s another story and needs some more research.”
"None of this is particularly new or ground-breaking,” he notes. “But when combined, these strategies are proving to be very efficient, productive and grow the best quality vegetables I have seen."
By contrast, Evan says that large compost applications can be highly wasteful from a labor and material standpoint and even reduce saleable crop yield and quality. "When everything is in balance and the soil's physical, chemical, and biological properties are taken care of, a high-quality crop is possible,” he explained. “To ensure quality and yield, give the crop the nitrogen it needs when it needs it with a slow-release nitrogen source. You will get less waste, less pests, excellent yields and the awesome quality that customers want."
But getting a crop to market takes more than good fertility. Evan calculates there are around 10,000 tasks a year on a diversified farm between harvests and tending the crops, which makes organization and transitions from task to task essential for profitability.
Years ago, Evan and Harris Ivens, who lived nearby, started scheming about simplifying farm planning and management. Refinements over eight years led to the creation of VeggieCropper.
"After a lot of trial and error, VeggieCropper was built like your favorite tool, it's easy to use and effective, so it's not a burden to be organized and have good records,” Evan said.
Now, he couldn't farm without the task reminders and automated record-keeping. "I have time and mental space to stay focused on the big picture. I can easily order supplies on time and my bed prep stays on schedule. This gives each planting the best start and gets crops to market as early as possible.”
VeggieCropper reduced labor costs after Evan used the tool to carefully examine each crop and farm system for the weakest link and then rethink everything connected to that link.
Growing crops on geotextile fabric when possible reduces labor significantly, he said. Evan targets crops that gross $8 to $12 a bed foot for lettuce, carrots, chard, kale, and $15 to $30 for crops like tomatoes and eggplant that require special treatment, tunnels, trellising or extra washing and processing. Crops need to gross at least $4 a bed foot with good reasons (low labor, strong market, shoulder season) to make the cut. After developing efficient and consistent systems, Evan needed to go from theory to practice. VeggieCropper really shined and grew to be a favorite tool of the staff in the earlier years by providing a clear view of what was happening on the farm. It gave Evan more independence.
VeggieCropper saved $1,500 a year just by eliminating morning meetings. The crew checked the tablet and headed straight to the fields. This gave Evan more time to check in and work alongside staff, offering tips on technique and workflow which increased efficiency and quality. There was no more standing around to discuss what was happening. There were more opportunities and time for training while providing the crew with greater independence, improved work satisfaction while automating record-keeping.
More recently, VeggieCropper continues to be central to his scaled-back farm model, ranging from part-time to full-time. “I can turn my farm brain off now because everything I need to do on the farm comes in an organized list,” Evan explains. “I can also plan my season out in a huge amount of detail to make sure I am maximizing my time and sales because there is little room for error at my scale. It’s been a game-changer that I think a lot of farms could benefit from. I’m just glad VeggieCropper is out there for people to check out.”
Early on, Evan tackled the cost of production, but in the end, the market dictates. "In my area, the market is limited so I can only grow so much of my most profitable crops,” he said. “So, I grow those as efficiently as possible. I grow some of the less profitable crops to make more profit overall.”
While big profits remain elusive, Evan has found a balance to make market gardening work well enough to keep going. In addition to running VeggieCropper, he consults with other farms to improve profits while reducing costs and workload. “Profitability is essential to the sustainability of any business, and it is even more important for businesses that take care of the planet,” he said.
“There is no other job like this, nothing comes close. There is a craft and an art to growing vegetables that you can see and taste. So, at the end of most days, I find farming really gratifying work.”