Zero Waste Initiatives
Before we started farming, Chris and I seriously considered the environmental impact of the amount of plastic that is used in small-scale agriculture these days. From convenient packaging, to tunnel covers, to ground cover tarps, to seed trays - plastic is everywhere in farming. While some plastic (such as greenhouse or tunnel plastic that can be used for several years) is important, and especially necessary in our Canadian climate, we felt there were many areas where we could cut out single use plastics while we came up with more sustainable solutions for the long lasting plastics.
Some of the more sustainable options we have adopted include:
1. We do not use single use plastic bags. Ever.
All our greens are delivered in recycled paper bags that are fully compostable. Things like beans, potatoes, and ground cherries are also delivered this way. Check out the Our Produce section for storage tips.
2. For any of our produce that is bundled or bunched together, we use natural jute twine, which is compostable, instead of using elastic bands.
3. We package our flower bouquets in plastic-free kraft paper, a by-product of the lumber industry. It is fully compostable, but can also be used several more times after your flowers go in a vase, e.g. gift wrapping, etc.
4. All of our paper bags, as well as our promotional materials (business cards, pamphlets, etc.) are printed on recycled paper, using non-toxic inks, and are fully compostable.
5. We start our seedlings in freestanding soil blocks made using a metal block maker. This eliminates all plastic seed trays and encourages healthy root growth. To learn more about soil blocks check out this link.
6. All of our seedling trays have been built with wood, completely eliminating all plastic from our seed starting process.
How We Grow:
At Catena Farm, regenerative agricultural techniques are at the root of everything we do. To the best of our ability, we try to mimic the way nature works, feeding the soil with natural inputs that feed our crops and in turn, feed us. As a thank you to the land that allows us to earn our living, we will leave her soil more enriched than when we started.
Cover Crops and Crop Rotation
Cover crops play a large role in the regenerative process. Cover crops are planted for the sole purpose of building the soil instead of producing a marketable crop. These crops scavenge nutrients from the deeper levels of the soil or Nitrogen from the air - they increase soil fertility, help decrease soil erosion, increase water retention, and build biomass.
Our growing area runs on a three year cycle. We have three 'fields', two acres each in size. Two out of the three years, we have two 'fields' in cover crop for the entire season, focusing solely on building the soil and allowing it to rest without anything taken from it. The other 'field' is our production area where we grow our crops to sell. This resting period is an extremely important part of how we grow and the benefits to the soil are tremendous.
Proper crop rotation is also an essential part of small-scale farming. Each year we carefully plan which crops will be grown in our plots by looking to years past to see which crop was there before and to determine which crop will be there next. By rotating our crops we aim to decrease pest populations and make sure each succession will compliment the previous and next in terms of individual plants’ nutrient needs. For example, we may plant bell pepper plants, which are heavy feeders, followed by lettuce, a light feeder, which we would then follow with an addition of organic amendments or a suitable cover crop.
Healthy habitats, home to all manner of birds, bees and other insects are also extremely important in farming. By planting wildflowers, trees, and cover crops we create and encourage these habitats and help build homes for helpful predators to naturally control pest populations and aid in the pollination of our crops.
No-Till Farming for Soil Health, Weed Suppression and Carbon Sequestration
No-till production (for us) means working without a tractor and never inverting the soil. These production methods are a very important part of our farming ethos. We truly believe no-till systems are best in order to maintain a healthy, functioning soil that is constantly regenerating. When soil is tilled it breaks some of the most important connections underneath our feet. These connections are called mycorrhizal, and they form a symbiotic relationship between fungal networks and the roots of plants that exchange nutrients absorbed by the fungus for carbohydrates created by the plants during photosynthesis. These fungal networks can spread over vast areas underground and are disrupted each time the land is tilled or plants are pulled with their roots intact. By not tilling, we help to keep these connections intact, thereby growing healthier plants. To learn more on mycorrhizal connections check out this link
Not tilling is also instrumental in suppressing inevitable weed pressure. By not inverting the soil, we prevent new weed seeds from emerging to the surface and germinating. This along with sheet mulching (a layering technique) is one way we naturally deal with weeds on our farm. To sheet mulch, we apply layers of compost, straw, or cover crop residue in order to keep the weeds at bay. This cuts back on the amount we need to weed and simultaneously builds biomass in the soil year after year.
By not inverting the soil we also build up our carbon ‘sink’. Every time the soil is tilled organic matter is oxidized, releasing sequestered carbon back in to the atmosphere. By only adding to the soil and not disrupting its structure, the carbon 'sink' is left intact and plants capture carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and convert it to sugars inside our crops while passing on the excess to the soil that they grow in. For more information, check out this link
In order to further reduce disruption to the soil, we harvest as many plants as possible by cutting them close to the surface thereby leaving the whole root systems in the ground. Plant roots are home to many beneficial organisms and worms love winding around them. We apply organic compost and natural soil amendments directly on top of the beds and as the root systems decompose they release stored nutrients back into the soil and provided needed aeration and a natural form of tillage. A new succession of crops is planted as soon as possible afterwards. This ensures as much carbon sequestration and soil coverage as possible, reducing erosion and nutrient loss through leaching.
Soil health is the most important part of regenerative agriculture. By practicing all of these techniques we are balancing the soil nutrients, adding soil biomass, and increasing biodiversity to reduce pest and disease pressure: All of the things nature does to maintain a healthy, sustainable ecosystem.
Farming without the use of chemical pesticides can be a challenge and managing pests is be a big deal. Many insect infestations can be controlled using synthetic sprays, but we choose to use other means to control them.
We take several approaches in order to minimize pest disturbance on our farm:
1. Companion planting: Intercropping certain varieties of plants that have been shown to help deter pests from one another.
2. Row covers: We use floating row covers for many of our crops, especially ones in the brassica family. These protect the crops from pests but let sunlight and wind through for air circulation.
3. Hand pick: There’s nothing better (I mean annoying.) than picking off some big, disgusting potato beetles, but it works so we’ll keep on with this tried and true method.
4. Increase local wildlife: Creating a farmland full of diverse vegetation increases our animal and insect biodiversity. Along with decorative flowers, we also plant flower varieties with the sole purpose of attracting beneficial insects and native pollinators and our no-till methods preserve the habitat for the larvae of these insects in the soil. In the future we plan to create permanent hedgerows around our farm to provide homes for other beneficial creatures such as birds and snakes.
At Catena Farm we believe that the health of the soil is the key to growing great produce. As our name suggests (Catena, meaning chain in Latin), the link between the sun, water, air, plants, animals, and microbiology of the soil come together to allow us to grow beautiful, nutritious produce. As farmers, we try to ensure that all of these factors play their part to the best of their ability.
Our produce is always grown without the use of any kind of chemical fertilizer, pesticide or herbicide. We try to grow our food the way nature intended and never use any kind of sprays on our crops, organically certified or not. We don’t believe there is a spray out there that can differentiate between a pest and a beneficial insect and for that reason avoid them altogether. As frustrating as some pests may be, they still play a role in nature, oftentimes as a food source for beneficial larvae or native birds.
We are not organically certified, but perhaps may be in the future. For now, our customers know that we go over and above organic regulations because we truly believe in the health of the soil, our plants, and ultimately, ourselves. After all, you are what you eat.