By Jean English
Norbet Kungl raises a large variety of organic vegetables in Walton, Nova Scotia, on a small bay across the Bay of Fundy, and markets year-round in Halifax. He is one of the premier farmers in the Northeast, and was featured as “Farmer in the Spotlight” when he spoke before a large group of growers at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference last November. The annual event is cosponsored by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
While Kungl was growing up in rural Germany, he was “always interested in farming.” About 16 years ago he came to Canada with the idea of buying a dairy farm – but found that he didn’t have enough money. He then became interested in vegetable cultivation, worked for three years on a vegetable farm, then started his own operation. With vegetable farming, “I could do it on a smaller scale to start,” said Kungl. For the last seven years, that scale has reached the point where he is earning his living by farming.
Kungl raises 25 acres of vegetables – 8 on his “Home Farm” and 17 on rented land. He has 15,000 square feet of greenhouses, including one gutter-connected, 96- by 96-foot house and two 25- by 100-foot tunnels. Because of these greenhouses, Kungl has no real off season – he’s harvesting kale just before Christmas and spinach and other greens by early spring. He picked seed ordering time as a point to begin describing his farming year.
Kungl inventories his seed and orders what he needs primarily from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, “one of the few places I can be sure to get untreated seed if it doesn’t say treated.” He makes an occasional exception. “Minute Man cauliflower,” he said, “is one of the most outstanding varieties I’ve grown, and it’s only available from Stokes – but Stokes won’t sell me untreated seed,” so he uses the treated.
The entire year is planned in a notebook by listing jobs that will need to be done each week. The list includes, for example, sowing enough to produce 2,200 to 2,400 seedlings of lettuce each week. “Every Monday morning, someone does the seeding.”
Even with such detailed plans, Kungl believes that he “is not a very good manager of greenhouses – I still have space that isn’t filled.” By refining his written plans in the winter, he hopes for “a terrific guide to see when things are in or out of the greenhouse and have plans to reseed when space is available.”
A Greenhouse Year
The greenhouses hold greens in the winter; tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant in the summer; and lettuce, Swiss chard, kale and spinach in the fall. “There should be more lettuce,” said Kungl. “I can keep it going right up until Christmas.” A balance exists between more and too much, however. Kungl tried selling lettuce only, but couldn’t compete with California for the early crop, so he decided to diversify. Some of this lettuce – as well as spinach – is grown around tomatoes when the latter are still small.
Only a small area of the greenhouse is heated for germination; this area is covered with an A-frame greenhouse within the larger greenhouse. Kungl pointed out the need to know the proper temperatures for various crops. Broccoli and cauliflower, for example, if exposed to cold temperatures, will be induced to flower, and you’ll get small heads, or “buttoning.”
Cultivation a la Coleman
In making plans for his outside fields, Kungl followed Eliot Coleman’s recommendation of making all of his beds the same size – 30 by 200 feet, in his case. He has five beds in each of the 30-foot-wide plots, and all of his cultivation equipment is set up for this system. The arrangement simplifies applying row covers: He simply folds an 840-foot cover twice and cuts it to the needed length. These same-size beds also give Kungl better control over crop rotations.
Crops are grown in a four-year rotation, with a green manure the first year (primarily annual clovers – Crimson or Berseem – usually combined with a cereal or annual rye); a heavy feeder next; a lighter feeder the third year; and peas or beans the fourth. Kungl is known for the 2 to 3 acres of green and wax beans that he grows. “Stores want the consistency and quality” that he delivers, “and they will pay a little more [for these] than for unreliable, cheaper” beans.”
Cultivating Produce Managers
Half of the farm income comes from direct sales at a farmers’ market in Halifax, but Kungl also has a rapidly growing, wholesale business, selling to a chain of 11 stores in the Halifax area. He faxes a list of available produce and prices to the stores each week, and the produce manager decides on the markup. “When the produce managers move around, more often our sales go with them than stay with the store,” said Kungl. “It’s a demonstration of how important it is to cultivate a relationship with the produce manager.”
More Fertility Despite Less Manure
In discussing soil fertility, Kungl said that he has no livestock but has collected manure over the years. “There’s nothing like a well-composted manure in a vegetable operation – but it’s getting harder and harder to get.”
He likes alfalfa as a green manure. “The positive effects are visible long after [alfalfa] is plowed under. I could see effects four or five years later.”
Kungl tries to “stay away” from winter rye “because it’s such a problem getting a seedbed in the spring” if you have to wait until the soil is dry enough to get on it and plow under the rye. When he does grow rye, he uses a flail chopper to deal with it. “It’s a lot better to mow more frequently than to wait until it’s mature.”
Vetch, said Kungl, “leaves the soil in beautiful tilth,” and phacelia is “a great crop to smother weeds. It’s not related to any vegetable family, so there are no insect and disease problems with it.” It grows rapidly and produces a “good amount of organic matter.” The problem is finding the seed. “It’s hard to find bulk seed,” said Kungl. “Stokes may have it as an ornamental flower.”
“I never got the point of buckwheat,” said Kungl. “There is always something with more benefits.” Similarly, “I don’t like growing mustard as a cover crop because flea beetles and club root can increase and affect crop plants in the same family.” He has made one exception, however: He planted mustard in the fall to prepare some land for carrots the following spring. “There’s time enough in September to get most annual weed seeds to germinate. Some are smothered by mustard; others freeze later. In the spring, shallow cultivation is all that’s needed before carrot seeding.” On the other hand, “a plot covered with any biomass will take two weeks longer to get onto in spring. For early production, chop [the biomass] up by going over it just once – enough to give an early warm-up in spring. Late October is usually the time to go in and take care of a cover crop” for a plot to be planted in spring.
Annual ryegrass or oats, combined with any annual clover, is a good cover crop. The oats can be used for horse feed. Crimson clover is one of Kungl’s favorites, because it’s pretty and produces a lot of biomass and nitrogen. “It’s not until you pay as much attention to green manures and cover crops as to cash crops that you can really take advantage of these crops in an organic system.”
When additional, localized applications of nitrogen are needed, Kungl applies crab meal.
Kungl is a big proponent of flame weeding for carrots, direct seeded onions, “and as many other crops as possible.” He begins by preparing a seedbed a week before he plans to seed the crop, then he hopes for rain, which helps weeds germinate. After a week, he seeds carrots directly into the weeds. Then he keeps “a very close eye on the carrot seedlings. One to two days before they break the soil, I go in with a flame weeder and burn away the weeds.” He has a 5-foot-wide flame spreader and finds that the fuel cost per acre to use it is insignificant. “The crop gets a big jump on the weeds, and it saves a lot of time and money on hand weeding.”
He also likes roller hoes, which are very efficient in small seeded crops, and he has used a “brush weeder” from Switzerland to weed between onion rows. This is mounted on a three-point hitch; small “tunnels” protect the crop (requiring precision seeding); and nylon brushes rotate slowly and “comb” out weeds that are about 3/4-inch deep in the soil and shallower. He saw no weed regrowth after one cultivation with this tool, because the cultivation was so shallow. “It’s not good on grasses, but it is on annual weeds,” he said. The brush weeder gives the grower a “wider window of time than flaming or other methods.” It costs about $11,000 new (Canadian), perhaps $6,000 or $7000 in U.S. dollars.
Kungl uses row covers extensively. “They make a big difference in growing crucifers without flea beetles. They speed the growth up to two weeks. I use them on just about everything.” He has a unique method of securing the covers: Instead of tucking the edges under the soil, he puts soil in plastic shopping bags and sets the bags along the edges of the row covers. When he needs to pull the cover off temporarily, he simply moves the bag aside. The method “saves the edges from tearing.”
Row covers aren’t foolproof, however. Kungl “once transplanted Napa with aphids on it under a row cover. The aphids multiplied… I pulled the covers off, and within days lady beetles came and ate the aphids and laid eggs. I lost a lot of Napa, though.”
“Growing potatoes is one of the challenges in my life,” said Kungl. “Row covers have helped them along.” He has tested a machine that blows the plants back and forth and, in the process, blows potato beetles and larger larvae of the beetles off of the plants and into a trap. The machine was not convenient because he had to put it on and off of his tractor as needed. “It’s something for large-scale production,” he said. “For us, it’s easier to use Bt.”
Kungl grows carrots in beds, three rows per bed, at his Home Farm. On his heavier, rented soil, he makes hills. He combines preemergence flame weeding with appropriate postemergence cultivation equipment, and believes that with such a routine, “things like growing carrots can be done efficiently the organic way.
“Carrots,” he continued, “are one of the outstanding crops. If grown well organically, they’re so much better than anything else you can get.” He uses a Planet Junior seeder to achieve a density of 28 plants per row-foot and, so, doesn’t have to thin his crop. He was hoping to store carrots into May this year. ‘Bolero’ is one of his favorite varieties, because it maintains its sweetness.
His 3 acres of carrots are pulled by hand. “We are one of the few farms in the area,” said Kungl. “Few other jobs are available. The labor is available for us.”
Kungl grows a lot of cole crops, especially cabbage. ‘Gideon,’ a late summer cabbage, actually “produced better than we wanted, up to 11 pounds” – but those 11 pounds were juicy, sweet and perfect. “I can sell Savoy cabbage to stores, but other [smooth leafed] varieties are already abundantly supplied by regular growers.” He grows turnips “just to get by in winter,” sowing them after mid-July to avoid root maggots.
Leeks and onions are started in a “painstaking” but effective way: He sows pelleted seed, using a small, homemade vacuum seeder, into plug flats that have 288 cells per tray. When the leaves are about 2 inches high and the roots are about to grow through the hole in the bottom of the cell, he puts the flat on a loose, level area of soil in the greenhouse and waters the flat generously. The plants root right into the soil and turn into good sized plants. He waters them generously again when the time comes to transplant them to the field, then pulls up the trays and pulls the alliums from the cells. “I break a few roots but get enough extra roots for them to establish themselves.” He suggested that the plug flat could be set on top of a tray full of soil or compost instead of atop greenhouse soil.
Kungl’s operation continues to grow and become refined. He previously stored and packed vegetables in a structure that he made by digging into the side of a bank, putting a roof over the dugout, and insulating the room with straw bales. The structure blew down. Last winter he was building a stronger cold storage unit and a large packing shed.