Monthly Archives: February 2011

Shopping Spree – Chorus Frog Farm Style


One if the laments I had the misfortune of hearing too many times from a very experienced farmer on the island was that farm supplies were very expensive and hard to find on the island. He cut his agricultural teeth in California where the scale of most things agricultural is enormous and where, naturally, farm supplies are ubiquitous, plentiful and cheap. All I have to compare to Salt Spring prices and selection are other places on Vancouver Island but, even with this small sample size, I can confirm that yes, things really are expensive or non-existent here.

Because a lot of the things I need on the farm cannot be shipped here economically, I make lists of required supplies and wait until a required off-island trip needs to be taken. Since we moved here, our 13-year-old’s orthodontics appointments have been that reason, most times. Having braces is a joyous experience for a kid so we don’t mind adding to her pleasure with an ortho day filled with ferries, driving and queues. Pauline always tries to get into the act by scheduling a decorating consultation for one of her clients.

The theme of this trip was high tunnel #2 (The Big One) supplies shopping. I needed polyethylene, poly track and galvanized pipe. We also wanted chicken feed, straw bedding, lime and potting mix. This is the anatomy of our trip:

(Prior evening: Pick up Duncan’s F150 4X4 extended cab long box.)

6:30am Wake and breakfast

7:00 Go to town to drop off 12 loaves of bread baked evening before to health food store, feed vacationing friends’ sheep and cat , and pick up almost empty propane tank from transplant tunnel

7:30 Back at home. Load truck with misc stuff for trip.

7:50 Make sure 10-year-old is almost ready for her ride to school in 15 minutes. Leave for Vesuvius ferry.

8:05 Depart Vesuvius

8:30 Arrive Crofton on Vancouver Island

8:45 In Duncan, BC, exchange Mastercrap 3/8″ hammer drill for brand spanking new Mastercrap 3/8″ hammer drill (for the second time. I expect to do this two more times before I realize that I should just throw the gall-dang thing out and stop wasting my time. I mean, you get used to the burning smell after a while). Meanwhile, Pauline shops for shoes for her new job and enquires at Rona about the price of their organic potting mix she sees inside a corral in the parking lot. When the bepimpled teen clerk tells her to go back outside to get the UPC, she realizes she would rather spend her money at the ag store we like in Saanich which is only 7 hours down the road)

9:10 Load up on organic chicken feed and hay at the feed store in south Duncan

9:30 Leave Duncan and travel the Malahat Highway to Victoria.

9:50 Pit stop in Mill Bay for gas. Probably the cheapest gas in BC is on a 50 km stretch from Mill Bay to Ladysmith

10:15 Arrive Victoria. At Evergro, load 32’X100′ roll of polyethylene (which weighs 94 pounds, BTW), 228′ of polylock aluminum extrusion with wiggle wire (more on this in a future post), and 12 bags of lime

10:45 Arrive Victoria Chinatown and find parking on Fisgard for the truck with 3′ of aluminum extrusion hanging off the back (finding a spot this big here will NEVER happen again) while the girls buy 200 sheets of nori (we make a lot of sushi rolls)

11:00 Arrive Pier 1 and purchase counter-height stools for our new rental house on Salt Spring (yay, ocean view and room to spare come April 1)

11:20 Depart Victoria

11:40 Arrive Saanich and have 13-year-old’s braces tweaked. Two more appointments and they’re off. Wait one year and the next 12-year-old can start, cash permitting. I also find watch batteries (on sale!) for a Kill-a-Watt-like device that I’ll use on the farm to keep track of how much hydro we’re using which Mary and Blair are currently paying for. Meanwhile, Pauline meets her real estate agent/boss and exchanges documents. Pauline has a lot of jobs. Such is the life of a farmer’s wife.

12:00 Lunch with good friend Marty from our farm days at Haliburton two years ago. Marty’s specialty was plant starts and she made relatively good money doing so. Family commitments are preventing her from continuing this so she generously gave Pauline all of her planting schedules and sales records from the last year which has been a great resource. This is our thank you to her. In the parking lot after lunch, she slips us some salmon filets and ground moose, both harvested by her husband Steve. We slip her a raisin bread.

1:40 Leave Saanich and drive back to Victoria for Pauline’s decorating consultation at 2:00. Meanwhile, I go to Staples for a printer ink exchange and then to the plumbing supply store for 210′ of 3/4″ sched 40 galvanized water pipe which is waaay cheaper than getting it through Windsor. Right in the parking lot, I cut the 21′ lengths (no, I have no idea why it’s 21′ and not 20′) into 2- ~8.5′ lengths and a ~4.25′ length so I can fit them in the truck box better. 10 minutes before I finish cutting, Pauline texts that she is done decorating.

3:15 Pick up Pauline and head back up the peninsula to the cheapest propane filler I know of ($18 for a 20lb BBQ tank compared to $21-24 elsewhere). Then further north to one of our favorite ag suppliers, Integrity Sales, in Saanich. Pick up 6 bales of potting mix, 25 128-cell plug flats, roll of baler twine, and a couple of pounds of crimson clover seed.

4:07 Step on it for 5:00 ferry to the extent that a 20 year old F150 can be persuaded to accelerate with its rear suspension sagging under so much weight. Who knows what the evening traffic will be to Salt Spring on a Friday in mid-February?

4:10 Wait a second! That potting mix we just picked up isn’t the organic version!

4:13 Return to Integrity, unload non-organic potting mix, re-load with almost-identically-packaged organic mix while Pauline goes inside to pay the upcharge (that’s why it was so cheap!)
4:20 Leave Integrity for the second time, with double the concern for the ferry.
4:35 Arrive Swartz Bay in Lane 34 (usually 31 when it’s dead). This might be close.
4:55 Yay! Made it! Next ferry would have been 2 hours later.
5:35 Arrive Fulford Harbour on Salt Spring and drive to friends John and Lara to make sushi dinner and pick up 10-year-old.
10:30 Arrive home. Tired, but satisfied.

The shopping spree actually continued on Salt Spring the next day at Windsor where I picked up 34 20′ lengths of 1.25″ sched 40 PVC and 90′ of 3″ PVC sewer pipe for the top purlin. Why Windsor sells this stuff so cheap I cannot say but, hey, I’ll take it. Also picked up some lumber.

Two-day total for high tunnel supplies: ~$1600

Other ag supplies plus ferries, gas and lunch: ~$450

I’m sure we’ll make that up easily with all of our blue tomato plant starts and produce sales this summer. But seriously, the bulk of the total is capital expense meant to provide a means of income for several years. Many new small businesses have high start up costs and we fit that bill nicely. I do, however, look forward to being mostly built-up on this property and just concentrating on growing stuff and not spending so much cash. Despite these recent purchases for the high tunnels, this year’s expenses should be less than last year’s which were much lower than ’09, when I bought all the tractor stuff. And, presumably, this year’s revenue will be much higher than last year’s.

Mexicowichan: The Soils of Chorus Frog Farm

Recently Pauline was helping her co-workers at the Salt Spring Island Conservancy clean out some old resourses in their library. They had an extra copy of “Soils of the Gulf Islands of British Columbia: Volume 1 Salt Spring Island” survey done in 1987 so she was allowed to take it.

What a gold mine. The publication itself is comprised of a 4’X6′ full color map that depicts all the occurences of about 30 different types of soils on the island. The book describes the island’s topography, geology, hydrology etc and then discusses each of the soil types depicted on the map with comments on their suitability for agriculture.

Roads are not drawn particularly well nor are there a lot of other obvious landmarks or street addresses to help the individual pinpoint his or her property. But based on the roads that are shown and some topographic clues, plus my own observations of the soil itself on the property, I’m pretty sure that the two distinct types I have observed on the property are the same two that appear contiguously on the map, in about the same place.

The one we first encountered from last year’s initial two plots (one of which was then abandoned), is called Mexicana. From the book: “Mexicana soils are moderately well drained soils that have developed on gravelly sandy loam to gravelly loam morainal deposits overlying deep, compact, unweathered till within 100cm from the surface”. I can attest to this description in that, after harvesting many tons of stones last year, there are still many bumper crops remaining. A few weeks ago I tilled up a couple of beds. This is itself evidence of the soil type; few other soil types could be rototilled safely in January after months of rain. The second giveaway is the new crop of stones that came up when I did that.

If this were our land, I would probably plant a nut orchard, a berry patch and an asparagus patch. The fertility is probably decent but the drainage excellent. Not having to work the soil again would be a huge bonus. From the book: “The major limitations for agricultural use are the droughtiness, topography and stoniness. Mexicana soils on slopes not exceeding 15% could be improved with irrigation and stone picking to grow a small range of annual crops. Tree fruits and berries seems to do well on these soils under irrigation”.

The other soil type is Cowichan which, contrary to the Mexicana, is described as one of the best types on the island. Damp and mucky until the water table drops but…full of nutrition. “Cowichan soils are poorly drained soils that have developed on deep (>100cm) silty clay loam to silty clay marine deposits that are usually stone free.”

Under ‘Land Uses’, it goes on to say:

“Cowichan soils represent one of the most important agricultural soils on Salt Spring Island. The surface soil is well supplied with organic matter and nitrogen. They are strongly acid (pH 5.1-5.5) soils. Poor drainage is the major limitation for growing a large variety of agricultural crops on these soils and, for this reason, they are mainly used for pasture and hay crops particularly on Salt Spring Island. With improved drainage, these soils are good for growing a wide variety of crops including vegetables, berries and small fruits.”

Now, I’m not sure whether I’ve got the whole drainage thing licked on that patch but, if so, all I need is a couple of loads of lime and it should be pretty good for my heavy feeders. Having said that, tomatoes apparently shouldn’t get too much N or else they put on too much foliage at the expense of fruit but I’m willing to live with that problem.

Now to find the on-line version of the map…