AN INTERVIEW with the Ffrench Family, Organic Farmers of Cookstown Greens. Located 1 hour north of Toronto in Essa township the family grows over 120 varieties of certified organic vegetables, greens, and edible flowers. The farming takes place on 100 acres of rich and loamy soil that produces quality and flavor since 1988.
Danuta: How did you become a farmer?
Mike: Before I started I did not know much about it. It was not until we started growing. My father bought into the business in early 2000. Vicky and I bought out the business in 2011 and since 2012 have been growing the farming business.
And now in 2018, we are specializing in more of root crops and leafy greens and micro-greens. Now we branched out to retailers which is now bigger part of our business. About 60% of our business is retail and 30 % is restaurants.
Danuta: When you took it over the farm it was your father who got the organic certification?
Mike: My father thought it was a good idea to become organic certified. When he bought the farm, the previous owners were already growing organically, using organic practices.
I think it was more on a business level that my father thought it will be a good idea to become certified even though nothing has really changed; they were growing organically even though they were not certified.
Danuta: How about you , were you aware about differences between organic and non-organic?
Mike: Before I started I did not know much about it; to be honest. Until we started growing I started understand about organic farming.
Danuta: I noticed that you have workers from Mexico. Are they aware about the differences between conventional and organic? I noticed people coming from different countries are not aware of the differences. They simply think that this is the same clean food that they ate back in their country.
Mike: I cannot answer that question. This is a good question…
I do talk to them. I have seen videos because some of them are farmers back at home. Most of the guys have their own farms and they do farm organically.
They also teach me a bit as well . They bring information from working on different farms . I imagine they have been around few farms, so they bring knowledge to me. So this kind of works both ways, we help each other.
Danuta: What comes to your mind that you learned from immigrant workers?
Mike: They are consistent. They like working. They really care what they are doing on the farm. They do not like disappointing anybody and they are really reliable workers.
Danuta: Is there any vegetable or herb that you learned how to grow from them?
Mike: I found some feedback this year on our tomatoes – one of the guys have a friend who grows back home tomatoes. He gives me some tips and tricks like right timing for water, right time for pruning. We can read up so much, I want to, but experience is really helpful.
Danuta: We just finished touring of your farm, we saw what you grow. Could you tell us what do YOU personally like to grow?
Mike: I like growing everything! Everything is so special. All of our roots, I like to watch them at different times of the year. I like seeding them. I like to watch them grow from babies to the harvest period. It is fascinating to know that all that come from what we have done to the vegetables. I would not say these are my favorite, I like growing all of them.
Danuta: How about eating which one is your favorite?
Mike: I love our tomatoes. They are so to die for so much flavor. Also I love our carrots too. Our carrots are so full of flavor. We have had so many testimonials where people told us that their kids do not want to eat grocery carrots anymore because they do not taste as good as ours; our carrots taste like they supposed to taste.
I go seasonally, Vicky and I try really hard to eat seasonally so eating tomatoes in tomatoes’ season , asparagus in asparagus season. It is a joy for us to know grow things from scratch and eat it when is ready not rely on something that is imported.
Danuta: What would be your advise for new aspiring farmers or gardeners who wants to grow organically?
Mike: It is challenging and you really have to invest time. I think you really want to focus on growing certain crops very well, growing organically especially if you are starting out could be really challenging because there is a lot of kind of things that could go wrong, different diseases , different soil conditions for sure.
I would try focusing on smaller crops, easier crops to begin with, grow them very well, grow small area and as you can expend and grow well. A lot of people try to grow too fast, too much, too fast and it become very overwhelming and become spending a lot of hours into growing. As a farmer you do not want to tire yourself out because at the end of the day you will not be happy.
You do not want to be burned out. It is a long summer. It is hot especially this year . So start small if you want to become a farmer grow few things really well, invest some time on your soil. The soil is the biggest part of the farming and you would like to invest into your soil first and grow from there.
Danuta: You mentioned challenges. What is your biggest challenge in growing organically?
Mike: The biggest challenge? hmm…it is probably weed control. We try to invest in certain mechanical tools. We are still putting money into developing different tools or researching in buying a new equipment. If you go for a whole season that is where the most time is spent on weeding for the whole season.
If you can get away from weeds, there is millions of dormant weeds that are in the soil that come up every year. Most of our seeds are annuals so we try to knock the weeds off before we plant our new seeds. If you can maintain your weed control then that is good.
Danuta: If you knew you would end up on deserted island, what seed, veggie or fruit would you take with you? 🙂
Mike: Potatoes seeds. from one seed you can get a lot of potatoes 🙂
Danuta: I see, you are thinking long term survival hahahha…
Mike: Exactly! Have you seen the movie “Martian” ? He grew potatoes and I love growing potatoes.
Danuta: Would you like to add anything that we did not ask you , a final thought ? Any future plans regarding the farm and growing?
Mike: On our farm, we are constantly trying to be ahead of the game. Sustainability is huge, if you are not sustainable, you are just going to run yourself that is what happened to other farm not being able to sustain themselves.
We always have stay ahead what’s coming and by that we are looking into new developments , building more equipment that either saves labor, saves water, saves energy, that is our next project.
We constantly look into how…because labor is our biggest challenge, when the wage increase, it is possible that will go up again. We really had to focus on how can we bring labor down .
I thought about new carrot harvester to purchase. It is an investment. It is not a cheap piece of equipment. But you save more, you save a lot of time. You can easily pay for that in couple of years .
Because we grow a number of different varieties of vegetables, we constantly look at improving for example – tomato planting, onion planting, packaging. We can only invest so much because of the cash flow. We are able to do that bit by bit.
Danuta: Vicky mentioned that you have 7 greenhouses…
Mike: Yes, 6 of them are run on propane gas, one is not heated. We may or may not decide to keep them going. We have one that we may keep running in winter, we grow micro-greens there.
At other one we plant seeds and then transplant seedlings. At another one we grow leafy greens. These are huge greenhouses and cost a lot of money to heat them with propane to grow leafy greens during winter.
Danuta: Just to recap what do you grow?
Mike: Onions, Summer squash, winter squash. Our root vegetables consist of carrots, parsnips, parsley roots, beets , turnips, radishes, rutabaga, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes
Leafy greens such as arugula, spinach, Asian greens, lettuce, tomatoes in summer and the micro-greens. There are probably few that I missed 🙂
Danuta: I am amazed that you grow parsley root because that is so unusual. We (myself and Vitoldus) were born in Poland and that is one of the staple roots and here is the parsnip.
At the beginning we thought these 2 were the same, because they look very alike but they taste is different and a lot of Polish soups are made with parsley root. We noticed you also grow celeriac
Mike: Yes, we grow a little bit celeriac.
For more information about Cookstown Greens Organic Farm please visit: Cooks Town Greens