Greening up the winter

Carla Allen
Published on January 31, 2013

A cold winter rain made things miserable outside but in the 96 x 30-foot greenhouse belonging to Evelyn and Doug Hurlbert at Riverview Produce Farms, tender green plants were thriving in the warmth.

Evelyn Hurlbert was preparing an order for the Red Cap Restaurant in West Pubnico on the day the Vanguard arrived, bundling red and green onions and parsnips.

She was fussing about the length of the onions – but after all, this isn’t spring.

This is the first winter for the new greenhouse, a structure made possible through a loan from the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board.

Hurlbert says she’s wanted a large greenhouse for years. Her success at the Yarmouth Farmers’ Community Market gave her the incentive to go for it.

An oil-fired hot air furnace heats the interior to 15 degrees Celsius. Hundreds of pounds of worm castings mixed with loam is her favorite growing amendment. She uses well rotted chicken manure as a fertilizer.

Although salad greens have been her biggest seller, she’s been experimenting with several other types of vegetables like broccolirab and bok choy.

The farm produces (seasonally) parsnips, potatoes, beets and turnips, squash, corn, carrots, mixed salad greens, strawberries, parsley and more.

Does she sell a lot of vegetables?

“Yes, I do,” she smiles.

The occupation involves a lot of hustling and hours of labour – selling at both farmers’ markets in the area, roadside in West Pubnico and to several businesses.

Retail sales are also made from their Wilson Road property. Their farm is a member of the Yarmouth Farmers’ Food Basket program which compiles weekly hampers with vegetables and fruits in season.

For all the work she and her husband put into the business, they figure their wage averages $3 to $4/hr. They hire a few employees to help during peak season.

Just before Christmas she also made close to 300 wreaths for a West Pubnico school fundraiser.

“It was a big job,” she said.

She’s laid claim to the greenhouse as her own domain.

“Nobody else works here,” she says with a laugh.

“Every Friday afternoon I harvest a crop – lettuce, spinach, celery, arugula, and pea shoots.”

The pea shoots have a growing fan base.

The delicate, juicy leaves are an alternative to more traditional salad greens.

Hurlbert practices succession planting, using hay mulch and promptly removing the rare diseased or insect-infested plant when discovered.

In the summer there is automatic irrigation but in the winter she waters manually as less is required.

She plans on installing cover cloth this winter over some of the rows, following famous gardener Eliot Coleman’s advice.

“I read his book. I learned and I don’t want to burn a lot of oil,” she said.

Peas are a big seller at the farm starting in May.

“It’s quite common for people to spend $30-$35 on bags of fresh peas in the pod each spring,” said Doug Hurlbert.

“It’s surprising what we sell up here in the woods. Our plan is to plant them early and be the first ones with them.”

Another grower, in Kemptville, has been in business for 25 years. Carmen Comeau operates Green Thumbs. Her mother-in-law, commonly known as Queenie, used to focus on bedding plants but Comeau concentrates on sustainably grown vegetable transplants, cut flowers, market gardens and wild blueberries.

   Produce will be available in February and March. The crops being raised in the greenhouses include Asian greens, lettuce, Mache, pea shoots, baby kale, chard, green onions, beets, arugula and spinach. The heated greenhouse is 1250 square feet and the unheated one is 2900 square feet.  

The plants are grown in flats rather than beds. The flats are custom made by a local sawyer with logs harvested on the Green Thumbs property. The soil mix is made on site with local peat moss, sand and worm castings.

    “A lot of these crops are transplanted into the garden after being carefully harvested in the greenhouse. This makes this practice much more feasible financially which is the biggest challenge in this area,” said Comeau.

“The climate is definitely to our advantage in this area. We can grow with very little heat from our wood boiler and we start transplanting outside starting in March.”

    She says that the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market has been a great avenue to market products at a fair price.

“The market is a fantastic opportunity to meet consumers face-to-face to hear their feedback. I strongly believe in providing the consumer with local sustainably grown food,” she said.

Due to time restrictions Comeau does not sell on the farm at this time, however her produce can be purchased at the farmers' market, starting in February.

    She has supplied restaurants in the summer months but her location is not close enough to make it feasible on a regular basis. She is presently looking for a fertile field to rent closer to the market, within 10-kilometres of town.