At Three Forks Farms, fresh greens a coveted delight well into fall

As winter approaches, one Ontario farm’s season extension practices lead to a bounty of fresh greens and root vegetables. 

Maureen Strickland

Woman in farm clothes crouches in rows of green vegetables enclosed in a tall plastic hoop house
Peggy Baillie, co-owner of Three Forks Farms, inspects the greens in a high polytunnel. The greens are harvested weekly for on-farm sales. Maureen Strickland/Kicker

MANITOULIN ISLAND, Ont. – At Three Forks Farms, growing greens in polytunnels and storing root vegetables leads to happy customers and a sustainable organic market garden business.

As October came to an end on the island, so did weekly farmers markets and farm gate sales.

But Three Forks Farms near Ice Lake is an exception.  

Co-owners Peggy Baillie and Eric Blondin intend to sell their products, on farm, every Friday and Saturday until Christmas, weather permitting.

They also sell at a Saturday market in Sudbury.

Rebecca Campbell, a regular customer, is a five-minute drive from Three Forks Farms.

“I’m excited about getting their arugula,” Campbell said, as she donned her fur hat before stepping outside into the chilly November air. “I couldn’t get it last week because they had sold out. I had it the week before, and it was absolutely delicious.”

Baillie and Blondin harvest fresh greens each week in preparation for the farm and Sudbury markets.  

One hundred bunches of green onions and 40 bunches each of thyme and cilantro complete the fresh greens harvest.  

Fresh out of storage are 30 cabbages, 60 butternut squash, 40 acorn squash, 18 kilograms of turnips and similar amounts of beets, carrots and parsnips.

All of this is possible through two methods of season extension.

The primary method of season extension is using six low polytunnels and one high poly tunnel.

The polytunnels are about 37 metres long and made from galvanized steel hoops covered with plastic.

The high polytunnel has two layers of plastic with a fan that blows in air between the two layers. This adds extra insulation.

Besides the polytunnel itself, which holds in heat and protects the greens from frost, the greens are also covered with a row cover. The result is a 20 C increase in temperature inside the polytunnel, compared to the outside environment.  

“We create a cozy warm environment that works really well to grow greens into the fall,” said Baillie.

The second season extension practice is a focus on storage crops. A large climate-controlled storage room means Baillie and Blondin can supply root vegetables into the winter.

Year-round work more sustainable

These practices allow Baillie and Blondin to spread the work out over an entire year, rather than pack the season into four months.

“It is a better pace and more sustainable for us as people, more sustainable for the business and allows us to build in approaches more sustainable for the earth,” said Baillie.

The work never really stops. Over the winter, they focus on the seed side of the business and some season extension experiments.  

Baillie says the pair is conducting a trial to determine how different crops can weather the winter unattended and be ready earlier in the spring.

Already one low polytunnel is newly planted with arugula, kale, swiss chard and onions. These plants will overwinter and should produce greens ready to harvest in May.  

Baillie points out that season extension does not mean year-round vegetables in Northern Ontario.

“Polytunnels are good for some crops but not all crops. For instance, there will not be tomatoes year-round,” said Baillie.   

On this crisp November day, the display table is a riot of colours from the vegetables that do work well for season extension.

Rebecca Campbell shops weekly at Three Forks Farms. In addition to vegetables, the farm produces eggs and organic chicken. It also sells local products from other local businesses such as New Grain Bread. Maureen Strickland/Kicker

Campbell snagged a coveted bag of arugula on her weekly shop. She and other customers will be able to purchase fresh produce from the farm right up until the winter solstice.

“I am ecstatic about it,” Campbell said. “It means I can eat delicious organic food right through the fall and I’m helping support local farmers.”

This support includes embracing the fact that inevitably the fresh greens will stop for a few months.

When the winter solstice marks the beginning of longer days ahead, Baillie and Blondin will take a break from on-farm sales.

And when those overwintered greens begin to grow in the warmth and longer days of early spring, Three Forks Farms will also gear up for another extended season of providing organic vegetables to their eager customers.

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