I was really excited about a visit to an organic farm with my co-worker, Leanne, 5 minutes north of Morinville. I’ve dreamed of being a farmer in a “second life” because I just love being outdoors – well, except for prairie winters. It was a beautiful fall day and we pulled up in front of a beautiful house nestled in the corner of a large farm area. The field was a sea of colour with its varied crops.
This cute little calf came to greet us, followed soon by Jo-Anne and Ward Middleton.
They were a very hospitable couple, eager to give us the grand tour of their organic farm and share their story. They told us how they got involved in organic farming, some of the challenges involved, and how they worked to overcome them. I could tell this couple is really passionate about organic farming. You likely met them if you attended the Alberta Open Farm Days just this past August.
How it all started
Ward bought the property from his siblings and his father in 1994. Since Jo-Anne grew up on a farm, she chose to farm full time. They first grew medicinal herbs, ornamental grasses and native grass seeds. They then transitioned to higher premium organic products not only to profit from the growing natural food trend but also because they have a strong belief in sustainable farming at the core. The farm presently covers about 750 acres of organic milk thistle seeds, sugar peas, brown peas, rye, wheat, buckwheat, canola, and flax. Ward and Jo-Anne also use a myriad of innovative farming methods within their business model that include intercropping and custom cattle grazing to name a few. It was really neat to see a farm plan that Ward creates on an annual basis to manage the crops that he grows. Besides the layout of the farm, the plan detailed the date of sowing and maturity, crop yield…you name it. This farm is really well organized! One of the most fascinating things Ward discussed during our conversation was weed control.
How are the weeds controlled?
Ward admits that there are no quick fixes for weed management. Complete eradication of well-established weeds is not only unachievable but is generally not the intent of organic farmers. However, certain practices can have a significant impact on the type and number of weeds on a farm. So what are these practices, you might ask. It starts with prevention. Every care is taken to select seed sources that are free of invasive weed species and monitor their spread. Sometimes, new weeds need to be quickly destroyed by digging them up or by laying plastic over the infested area to raise soil temperatures and kill off all roots or seeds in the upper layer of soil. Mulching also creates a barrier to new plant growth in order to starve new shoots. Ward also uses crop rotation not only to control diseases and insects but also to improve the fertility of the soil. For example competitive crops like barley are alternated with less competitive crops such as flax. Varying seeding dates also limits the ability of some weed species to adapt and become a problem. Early seeded crops can become well established before those pesky weeds emerge.
An innovative, sustainable farming system
Let’s face it; most farmers could share a story or two about a season of crop failure. The Middleton farm is no exception but they’ve learned to adapt to those challenges. Ward and Jo-Anne have a diverse farm operation that includes custom grazing. They seeded a portion of the farmland that used to be a seasonal body of water prone to occasional flooding with grasses and legumes and fenced it off for rotational grazing. It’s a match made in heaven for the neighboring cattle ranches that would be forced to buy hay without that grass patch. They also raise these cute little bunnies that we had a chance to pet, a few calves and pigs. We were told that during the summer, they have a limited supply of pork and beef they sell to the public but they always run out very quickly.
Ward and Jo-Anne are also exploring new markets for a unique orange berry called sea buckthorn. I had never heard of or tasted this fruit, which is chock-full of protein, vitamin C, antioxidants and other good stuff. The berries are quite tart, sort of like sour orange with hints of mango that make tasty juices, jams and spicy jelly. Here is a plate of sea buckthorn & goat cheese bruschetta that will surely make your mouth water! The Middleton’s have rows of these bushes that could soon find their way to high end restaurants in Edmonton and Calgary someday. Ward is very involved with Organic Alberta and very keen to share his knowledge with people thinking about starting an organic farm and sharing ideas on new markets. I think this is a great opportunity for young farmers or urban families interested in small scale organic farming.
I had such great time with at Midmore Farms that I’d like to visit next summer. If you’d like to load up your pantry with healthy organic grains and try some new recipes with those sea buckthorn berries! – fresh from the field and brought to you from a friendly, hardworking farmer, visit Midmore Farms at the address below.