Farming Marginal Land

Southern Ontario is blessed with some wonderful farmland. The Kingston area, however, is not home to much of it. Of course, glaciation is the defining aspect of the landscape in this part of the world, and where much of the best farmland is where glaciers left material, Frontenac county is marked, more or less, by the removal of it.

An old soil map of Southern Frontenac County

An old soil map of Southern Frontenac County. Click for a huge jpg to check out in detail!

To the west of us, big piles of glacial till -ground up limestone- generate the deep, sweet (neutral pH), well drained loams of the Otanabee and Bondhead classes. Here, however, most of the ground was swept clean of it’s historical covering, and results in thinly skinned limestone plains -Farmington Loam- or bare granite knolls. A lot of land was cleared in the age of horse drawn transportation and the neighbourhood cheese factory which today no longer supports any sort of economically viable agriculture, which generates the familiar and widespread red cedar rabbit scrub.

Not that there is no soil around here -there is- and some of it has the potential to be very fertile. This dirt was not the result of glacial deposition, but rather is the old bottom of ancient bodies of water: glacial lakes -the silts of the Battersea and Seely’s Bay classes- as well as the deep ingress of the Atlantic Ocean in the form of the Champlain Sea. You see, those miles of ice that covered this region actually weighed it down so much, that it lowered the terrain to sea level (for real!). In fact, 10,000 years later, the land is still slowly rebounding.

The ancient Champlain Sea, which very briefly extended all the way to the confluence of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence

The ancient Champlain Sea, which very briefly extended all the way to the confluence of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence.

The Champlain Sea didn’t hang around here very long, but left us with a few patches of arable land: heavy heavy clays, classed as Napanee, Lansdowne, and Gananoque, the last of which is what comprises our tillable land at Salt of the Earth. Other examples of these series’ are the soils of Wolfe and Howe Island, and the Collin’s Bay Penitentiary Farm.

Clay soils are notoriously difficult to farm: they are sticky, poorly drained, subject to compaction, are slow to warm up in spring, and bake into cement in the heat of summer. Agronomically speaking, though, they also have a great deal going for them, insofar as they hold fertility and organic matter far better than light soils. Clay soils have a far greater surface area, as well as chemical ‘pull’ on nutrients and water. They are harder to exhaust, and less subject to drought.

Strictly speaking, clay soils are “better” in the sense of being able to maintain long term fertility. Sandy soils are “better” in regard that they are easier to manage, and altogether more amenable to the white man’s agriculture. Naturally, a Loam soil (a balanced blend of sand and clay) with a freely draining subsoil is the best of both worlds: being both fertile and workable.

In some parts of the world, parts of Ontario even, that’s all there is: miles and miles and miles of loam. A1 farmland – everywheres! A short drive around Kingston, and one quickly sees that is not the case around here. What we are working with a Salt of the Earth are two typical extremes of the local landscape: a deposit of heavy Gananoque Clay, bordered by hundreds of acres of thinly veiled limestone, with the odd protruding knob of granite (part of the Frontenac Axis of the Canadian Shield).

Sometimes it feels like a genuine fools errand to try to wrest food from this land. Not that it is impossible, but there are impediments. Our tillable clay ground has drainage problems. Surface drainage (ie: how water that lands on the ground flows away) is impeded in some spots by irregular topography. The farmland is rolling, and there are low spots that don’t readily point to any outlet… The soil’s subsurface drainage is also in question (that is to say, how the water table, seeps, springs and hardpans influence the balance of air and water in the soil. Unlike surface drainage, subsurface drainage is largely speculative, simply because we cannot see underground. “Is it wet here because there is a seasonal seep? Bedrock blocking drainage? Or is this just the way the water table sits this time of year?”

One thing is clear: our tillable land requires new drainage. It was tiled way back when (a few sink holes have formed in the field, and you can see the old terra cotta drains in the bottom of them), but some of the tiles must be blocked, and the main ditch has largely silted up or collapsed. Malfunctioning drainage, in many ways, is worse than no drainage at all, because it collects, then traps water in your field.

And all of this adds up to mo’ money: excavator work to re-ditch the field, perhaps a ‘dozer to adjust a few contours, and of course, a tile laying machine to get the gardens evenly drained. It won’t be cheap -even only ten acres of it- but it will be worth it; it’s not even a stretch to say absolutely necessary, should we want to even continue cultivating garlic. As one of my 19th century farming idols, Peter Henderson writes: “Good husbandry is thrown away on poor drainage.”

Making marginal land productive!

Making marginal land productive!

So, several questions arise at this point: 1) what will you get for all this expense and effort? 2) why grow crops on land that isn’t ideal for it? 3) is it worth it?

1) What we will get for the effort of draining the land is reliability. Imperfectly drained land is not impossible to grow crops on: we could probably get away with it most seasons, and lots of farmers do. However, in market gardening (which is to say, mixed vegetable farming) timing is key. Timing of tillage, planting, cultivation and harvest are all very strict, which is why sand is the preferred medium for the practise: it warms up fast in the spring, in time for planting, and you can get on to cultivate (ie: mechanically control weeds) even if it’s rained for a week.

Most plants are actually happier in clay, it’s just more efficient and effective to grow them in sand. Draining a heavy soil gives us the advantage of a rich and resilient soil with an incredible potential for nutrient density, while also allowing us to push the envelope in terms of maximizing our growing season, timely and effective weed control, and ensures harvesting can be carried out when crops are at their peak. So… that’s why we’re going to bring in the big machines, and bury a bunch of perforated pipe in the earth!

2) Why bother trying to crop vegetables on land that isn’t considered “vegetable land” is a worthy consideration. In a lot of ways, doing it extensively (beyond the home garden scale) can be challenging for certain crops. The Gananoque Clay we’re working with is traditionally dairy farming land: it produces prodigious crops of hay, reliable pasture -even in a dry summer- and when broken up from grass (really, it’s most fitting crop) can grow good corn and oats (what you need for milking cows all winter).

However, the limestone derived clay we’re growing is also very much appreciated by cole crops (the brassicas: cabbage, kale, brocoli, etc.), curcubits (squash, cukes, et al), and the nightshade family (tomaters, eggplants, and so on). It is, with lots of organic matter, and proper cultivation, even amenable to root crops like carrots, beets, onions and parsnips. Remember: the main reason vegetable farming is carried out on light soils is due to matters of timing – so that planting, harvest and everything in between can take place just so. On our naturally limited landbase however, there are only so many acres of root crops we are going to need to harvest at once, which can be carried out in the appropriate window (God willing!) Clay is worth growing vegetables on.


3) And so, is tile drainage, and landforming, and so on all worth it? Well, I suppose my mother (our accountant) will be able to tell you that in a year or two! But I believe it is. Perhaps our main competitive advantage here at Salt of the Earth is our proximity to Kingston (I see many people jog from downtown to our place, and turn back…). Making marginal land productive, so close to town, rather than drive an extra half hour to some somewhat better land makes a lot of sense. All that time, and money spent on transportation adds up fast. So fast, that improving land close to markets, I believe, will pay.

The advantage is not only that we are closer to our consumer, but that our consumer is close to us. We are proud and excited about what we’re up to, and we want to share it with people. We feel our work speaks for itself, and want to make what we are doing here as accessible and open as possible. If what people want is “local” food – then that’s what we’re here to provide.

Hmm, somehow this has turned into a rant about growing vegetables on heavy soil… Interesting. I will talk about the rest of our farm’s marginal land at a later date!