AN INTERVIEW with Hugh Phillips – An Innovative Permaculture Farmer at McVean Farm, Ontario, Canada. Hugh’s journey as organic farmer started to get away from the corporate rat race to live a slower-paced, more meaningful lifestyle close to nature. Hugh uses chemical-free and sustainable growing practices. Nurturing and enriching the soil is what gives Hugh the edge in growing nutrient-rich healthy vegetables.
Danuta: When did you start farming?
Hugh: I started four years ago.
Danuta: What made you start farming?
Hugh: Me and my wife were thinking about moving to the countryside and having our children growing in the country. I’m an engineer but I could’t find a job doing what I was doing out in the country.
I would have to be like a technician, be on-call and I’d have to work random hours and that was not what I wanted. Because, I could’t find a job doing engineering I started thinking what people do in the country; oh they farm so I decided to farm.
Then, I saw this opportunity with farm-start. I applied, however, the first year they didn’t let me in because I didn’t have any experience in farming. Therefore, I helped one farmer for a year and I applied again and they let me in to the program this time.
My biggest motivation getting into farming were my children. I didn’t want my children to go to daycare and have some random person raising my kids and that random person spending 10 hours per day with my children. So now I spend time with them during the day and farm in the evening.
Danuta: How do you control the weeds?
Hugh: Look here, as soon as I harvest potatoes I throw spinach in it. This stops the weeds. I try to keep it as dense as possible, it stops the weeds. I let the lettuce go to seeds.
Danuta: Will you collect the seeds later?
Hugh: No, I don’t collect the seeds. I just sprinkle them all over the beds. I don’t have time for that, I don’t buy these seeds any more. I’m going to cut the heads off the lettuce flowers and sprinkle them all over the bed and I will have a lot of volunteers lettuce plants. That’s one of the things, I don’t have to buy these seeds anymore.
Only 10 percent of those seeds germinate. It is a lot of seeds. I just need 5 percent of them to germinate. Parsnip does very good as well as self seeding plant, I don’t buy parsnip seeds anymore. I just let it go to seeds. I don’t plant tomatoes and ground cherries anymore. That’s easier than buying and planting them every year.
Danuta: How do you organize your beds?
Hugh: I put a lot of compost. I made my beds flat and then I put the plastic in between rows of beds. Under the plastic I put wood chips.
Danuta: So every year you put a new layer of compost?
Danuta: Do you still weed out the beds?
Hugh: I have to but I don’t want to. My problem is that before I didn’t put the plastic in between the rows and the weeds from the side went into my beds. I hope that eventually I don’t have to use plastic anymore; just use the wood chips.
Danuta: What about wood chips. I heard that wood chips take away the nutrients from the soil?
Hugh: The woodchips over the years will turn to compost.
Danuta: Looking what you do here on your farm that’s beyond organic 🙂
Hugh: I started off by trying to make life easier, without having to weed out too much, with improved soil like I did, it is easier to weed out and plants grow better.
Danuta: I see you have nice Swiss Chard growing over there.
Hugh: I had black spots on the Swiss Chard leaves here. I cut the tops off, I put more compost and they come better.
Danuta: Oh, very nice.
Hugh: You can see the spots are not there anymore.
Danuta: I see your farm is surrounded with a fence. Does the fence work to keep the deer off?
Hugh: Can you see the hoops on the top of the fence? I stick them on the top of the fence in some places and in some places I put double fence. That keeps them off. With two fences you don’t need that high of the fence to keep the deer off. They do not have the depth perception.
Danuta: Do you plant winter cover crop?
Hugh: No, because with cover crop the general idea is that you till it into the soil and on my farm I don’t plow.
Danuta: How did you turn the crazy weedy land into this beautiful farming site?
Hugh: Somebody before me plowed it first.
Danuta: So it had been plowed before?
Hugh: How I see that now is that it didn’t have to be plowed . Since then all I do is I cut the weeds low and I put plastic on it. Plastic kills everything for the whole summer. It has to be black plastic. One time I put clear plastic and that was a bad idea.
Danuta: Does it mean that that particular summer you didn’t plant anything, just kept plastic covering the soil?
Hugh: Well, I started gradually. I started farming like everybody else and it was crazy so I did a few beds, just one little section. Once I realized the new way is better, I decided to forget of doing things the old way.
Danuta: So you did not do any cover crops or tilling; you did it completely the unconventional way that’s written in books about organic farming?
Hugh: There are a few people out there, for example, there is one guy that plants in woodchips only; instead of compost he uses woodchips.
I tried that but his woodchips were aged. He learned about this method accidentally; he had an area where he’d just dump some woodchips and ten years later he came back, and noticed that the soil was amazing at that place. He started planting there.
He gradually started this new method; he gets woodchips and sifts them so he gets the fine woodchips. That is where I learned about woodchips from. I used to have just woodchips instead of compost. I realized that it will take me 4 years for the woodchips to break down. On top of that I would have to put fertilizer from the beginning if I use woodchip only.
I decided not to go this way. I decided to use just compost. Eventually, I want to put woodchips here in between the beds, and not to use the plastic to keep the weeds under control. I still put the woodchips under the plastic so the beds would be raised; if I did’t the beds would fall down. In early winter or late spring, I come and put a layer of woodchips between the beds. This is when I have nothing else to do.
Danuta: What do you mostly grow?
Hugh: I try just about everything. When something does well, I grow a lot more of that plant. For example, I tried growing broccoli and found it hard to grow, therefore, I don’t grow them anymore; I may try it to grow in the future.
Danuta: Would you consider the way you farm as permaculture farming?
Hugh: Oh, it is modeled after a little bit, somewhat. I’ve got ideas from permaculture farmers.
Danuta: But, it is permaculture farming because you are not interfering with the life in the soil and you’ve implemented a philosophy of working with nature rather against it such as tilling.
Hugh: The idea for me was least amount of work – the highest return. It’s just happened that permacultre is heading that way. It is not that I wanted to do permacultre, I just wanted not to do too much work. The idea here is that if you work along with the nature then nature is doing some work for you. If you go opposite to nature like I stopped this planting in rows. Everybody plants in straights rows but nothing in nature is in straight rows.
I only plant peas in a straight row because I need them to come upon the fence.
Danuta: We plant our veggies in straight rows because we have to weed out a lot ,therefore, the straight rows give us idea where we planted our crops.
Hugh: But I don’t want to weed out. I want the spinach to come up everywhere. I want everything to be covered. I do not want weeds to fight against my plants. I do not want the weeds, so if you want the weeds plant in straight row.
Danuta: Yeah, you’re right! into one of our beds which we call experimental, we transplanted lettuce and Swiss Chard. Due to the fact that the soil was rough, we did not plant in straight rows and we noticed that we had the least amount of weeds. Are you planting anything for winter?
Hugh: I will be planting potatoes. I plant them now, so they overwinter. I cover them with compost and I put plastic tunnels over the bed. It still gets cold, but ground doesn’t freeze, so the potatoes don’t get killed.
Danuta: What is your biggest challenge in organic farming?
Hugh: The biggest challenge in organic farming is that the price of food is artificially low. It doesn’t represent the real cost of growing. Only the big growers make money because they bring farm labor and pay them less than minimum wage. And then the big growers get grants or subsidies from government.
The ministry of agriculture hands out a lot of money to big companies. I’m competing with the big guys everyday. I don’t get a grant and I don’t pay anybody. The biggest challenge for me is that food is too cheap.
Also, I have to compete with food coming from Mexico where they pay them nothing. The veggies and fruits are shipped here and the organic tomatoes from Mexico are still sold cheaper than mine; I cannot even grow here cheaper then those shipped thousands of miles from Mexico…
Danuta: Which fruits or vegetables do you like to grow?
Hugh: Beets, they grow well here and I juice them as well. They taste good in the juice.
Danuta: Any other vegetables that you like?
Hugh: I like growing snap peas because they grow well so I can sell them.
Danuta: If you ended up on deserted island which seeds would you take with you?
Hugh: Seed potatoes
Danuta: Would you like to add anything else any thoughts to our interview?
Hugh: I am vegetarian and I am interested in eating healthy. But I didn’t really have a dream to be a farmer but I am now and I need to be profitable at this. The only way to do it is that you have to grow as much food as possible, and the only way to grow as much food as possible is for it to be easier. Like the industry, they use the machines to do more, I’m trying to use nature as my machine.
To learn more about Hugh’s farm please visit at http://www.foodforestorganics.com/