Last week, Jon and I did some volunteering and attended Scotia Horticultural Congress 2015. This was my third year attending this conference and my second year being on the Congress Planning Committee. I really enjoy the work I do with Horticulture Nova Scotia, and it's a pleasure to be involved with Marlene and the rest of the committee. On Sunday we stuffed bags, made name badges, and loaded things into vehicles, and then I helped work the registration desk Monday and Tuesday.
It's so great to hear about what others are doing. The session I enjoyed most was David Cudmore from Scotian Gold. He went through the history of the company, including some trends in apple production over the years. One thing I learned that surprised me (and AB had just told me this the weekend prior, as well) was the fact that in the 1930's apple production peaked at 9,000,000 units (of course, I can't remember if this was bushels or bins or trees), and then there was an initiative following the war where tons of trees were removed from production. Today, Nova Scotia is producing only 2,500,000 units. This is incredible when you consider the logistics- back then, they had basic equipment and storage and shipped them in barrels. Andrew remembers how they would pick and pack into barrels, and noted that the top of the barrels were "faced" (lined up neatly) for European destinations, reached by ship at that time of course. The main storage was in the basement of the house that still stands in the middle of the farmyard (where Avard and Jenny live) and there was a window in the basement of the house where he would pass the barrels through when customers arrived. How cool is that?!
I've been learning a lot more about apples and apple production lately. I find it really interesting, even though at this point I am not really interested in becoming an apple producer. Watching the trends over the years as David Cudmore presented at Congress, you can see the movement from many small farms to a few large ones. I am fortunate to be working at Noggins, which has such a rich history in the valley and such deep roots. I have realized how important these sorts of things are to me, and I count myself lucky to get to commute each Saturday in the Zippy van with Andrew and learn from such a great mentor! We chat marketing and talk shop most of the time, and he even gives me advice about starting our own farm. He's enjoying a well-deserved vacation in the Bahamas for the next month, and though things are in good hands, I'm going to miss him a lot! I will miss Beth and her sense of humour, too-- every time I see her we have a hearty laugh about something!
We got to sit right at the front table at Horticulture Congress, a table away from the honorable Keith Colwell, the NS Minister of Agriculture. His assistant Kyla is awesome, I was glad to meet her. Josh is the incoming President of Horticulture Nova Scotia so he sat next to the Minister, and so Frankie (7) sat next to Jon and I, which was entertaining! Dinner was AWESOME- a plethora of local goodness, and breakfast the next morning was the same. Spending 2 days at the Old Orchard Inn was great, and the best part of everything was just talking to other farmers.
By far, the best conversation I had was with Mark Sawler of Sawler Gardens. Though we are involved in very different types of farming, Mark and I get along great for some reason. I tease him about his mini peeled carrots and ask him hundreds of questions about production on his 500 acre conventional farm. This year was especially interesting because I sell his parsnips at market, so I wanted to hear his perspective on "spray free" and what he tells his customers about his products. He said they are a conventional product, and explained what he sprays for and how to tries to minimize the need for spray by hilling. He says that because the tops of the parsnips are so dense, when it rains the water gets down to the root and lack of air movement can cause a fungus to grow (those black rings you see in no-spray parsnips). He also talked about how they try to maximize their capacity by leveling their fields with lasers so that all the fields have the ideal slope. This way when they rotate their fields from year to year, they can make sure that production is consistent. His goal is to have his storage full by December, not over- or under-full, so he is using his infrastructure to full capacity and able to keep his staff employed.
On the note of staff, I was blown away to hear about the fact that Mark pays overtime to his staff in the packing shed. Mark seems like an excellent manager, and manages his packing crew and shed in a very "scientific management" style that I appreciate. He says his father started the overtime program, and that it works well and forces him to make the best decisions for the farm. He knows if he gets behind he can have them stay, but they will be making overtime and so the reason for working late needs to make financial sense. At the same time, his workers are less likely to experience the burnout and hard feelings associated with working late. I know all too well the pressures and hard feelings working on a disorganized farm can foster! He also makes decisions about what to pack based on the time available. If they are running close to a deadline, he'll pull out the "easy" bins, and when they have lots of time he'll have the staff work on product requiring more cleaning or attention. His staff are usually only employed 6-8 months of the year, so I again count myself lucky to be working year-round in agriculture.
I respect and admire Mark as a farmer, and I love learning from people like him who successfully manage large operations. His lovely wife Gail is interested in seeing what we are up to this year out in Windermere, and so we plan to swap farm visits this growing season (they are not far away from Waxwing). I also met his mother, who told me that when they started the company they had to put all their groceries on credit the first year. Oh, how things change! This just reinforced to me that Jon and I need to be careful farm managers this year, because these sorts of relationships no longer exist: I really don't think the Superstore would let us charge our groceries for the summer. Our credit card companies would gladly collect interest, but handshake deals are a thing of the past, unfortunately!
Overall, a very successful Scotia Horticultural Congress. Jon couldn't make it to work Tuesday and so we were snowed in at the Old O-- it was nice! With Andrew away I am working Sundays and so we're happy for snow days together. We are getting another right now: as I write this, Jon and the neighbour Darren (best neighbour ever, he has a snowblower and is generous!) are working at clearing the driveway, well over a foot of snow last night. Happy Snow Day!
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