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  • Cam Ford, Marketing & Development Coordinator

Northern Ontario Agriculture Spotlight: JK Gardens

Kathy and Jean Genier returned to their roots when, in 2010, they moved back to the Cochrane area from Vancouver, and since then they’ve put down a lot of roots of their own. Literally. Together they own and operate JK Gardens, an organic market garden with about 3 acres in production.

Both Kathy and Jean come from long agricultural lineages. Kathy’s great grandfather had one of the largest greenhouse operations in the province at the turn of the 20th century in London, Ontario. The land the couple work now outside Cochrane is the site of Jean’s grandfather’s farm, and the buildings they’re using are the same buildings that Jean helped to build after the original buildings burned in a fire in the 1960s. Kathy and Jean met while Kathy was getting her diploma in Agriculture from New Liskeard College of Agricultural Technology. The two of them have seen a lot of the country, leaving Cochrane in 1986 and moving 24 times in 27 years before eventually returning to the old homestead.

They now have the market garden where they grow lettuce, radishes, sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets, onions, garlic, beans, peas, potatoes, asparagus, squash, corn, kohlrabi, celery, pumpkins, and herbs. That’s not all though, they also have pick your own raspberries, 100 sour cherry trees, 120 Saskatoon berry trees, 80 chokecherry trees, 11 plum trees, 4 hazlenut trees, and 700 haskap bushes that just matured into production last year. Kathy and Jean also keep 88 laying hens, three retired horses, and over the last summer they raised 100 meat birds.

There’s no off-season with an operation of this size. Even in the winter the Geniers are occupied with planning for the upcoming growing season: January is spent looking through seed catalogues, sourcing and ordering seeds. In February, still solidly within the grips of winter, they start green onions, celery, and peppers inside their house. This allows the plants to get a good start before being transplanted.

In March tomatoes are started indoors while the onions, celery and peppers are moved into the garage and kept under growing lights. The Geniers also have two greenhouses. One is an unheated hoophouse and the other is heated by a propane furnace, which allows them to extend their growing season. Around the beginning of April the furnace is started and the seedlings move out to the heated greenhouse once the temperature can reliably be kept above 15 degrees. This year they were able to start about 2000 seedlings over the season. One interesting thing that is started indoors is marigold flowers, which end up planted amongst the vegetables for their natural pest deterrent qualities. Keeping pests at bay is an important task for the marigolds, as JK Gardens doesn’t use any chemicals in the growing process.

The date for actually putting seeds in the ground varies widely. Often by the third week of May they can seed the gardens, but this year seeding was pushed back an additional three weeks into June because the ground was frozen. By the end of June everything outdoors is planted and the greenhouses are in production. The greenhouses are a huge asset to the Geniers. Without them, they wouldn’t be able to reliably grow peppers or tomatoes. Additionally, the greenhouses let the Geniers get their veggies to market before other gardeners. For example, the early start the greenhouses provide means that the Geniers can have snow peas that are ripe in early June, some 6 weeks before they’re ready for people growing them outside.

July is busy with watering, weeding and sales at the Farmers’ Market. By August the pick your own haskaps and raspberries are ready to go, and most of the veggies are in production. The downside of peak season is that the weeds are also in full production, and a lot of time is spent keeping them at bay. In August the last of the seedlings from the greenhouses are planted for late season production.

In September, garlic gets planted, allowing it to get its roots established before lying dormant for the winter, to be harvested the next summer. Otherwise everything is harvested and the greenhouses are cleaned out. The furnace for the heated greenhouse usually gets shut off in mid to late October, when it becomes impractical to keep it going any longer. By December everything is cleaned up, repairs are done, and everything is stored away ready for the next year.

The Geniers do a lot of canning in addition to selling their fresh vegetables. Between July and November they make pickles, garlic butter, and all sorts of jams and jellies. They also grow wheat grass to press into juice.

Besides the greenhouses, the Geniers also use a system of frost blankets to protect their plants. The blankets allow sunlight and water to get through, but prevent pests from getting onto the plants, and they keep the plants warmer than they would be if they were exposed. The blankets are 100 feet by 20 feet, are suspended off the ground by hoops, and come in variable weights to provide more insulation. For example, a lightweight blanket is used on the broccoli to keep pests off of them. A heavier blanket is used to protect more tender seedlings like cucumbers and squash in the spring, and then used again in the fall to protect the mature plants. In the fall the freshly planted garlic is covered and left that way all winter to provide some protection from the elements. The idea for using this sort of a blanket system came from Wayne and Patti Chalmers of Spring Hill Farms in Trout Creek, who run a similar organic greenhouse and market garden operation.

Another method of protecting their vegetables is the cultivation of trees and windbreaks. Kathy says this summer they transplanted 114 trees along the boundary of the property to protect the gardens from wind. Another benefit of the trees is that they help to create little microclimates, which are small pockets of warmth that can protect and support the growth of plants. In addition, the trees provide nests for birds, which in turn keep the insect population down in the summer, protecting the vegetables. The Geniers also leave paths of uncut grass for small sparrows to nest.

Kathy and Jean initially started growing vegetables for themselves, and have since expanded considerably. They believe that it’s worth it for people to make the effort to grow their own food, even if its just a few plants interspersed in a flowerbed at first. Too many people, Kathy says, have lawns that require chemicals and water to maintain, when that land could be used to grow food instead. Locally grown food has a significantly lower carbon footprint than food that has been shipped in from California, Mexico, or even other parts of Ontario. Kathy says that while they can’t compete with the prices of imported vegetables, they can provide their customers with produce that is healthy and very fresh. Additionally, that money spent on local food then stays in the northern Ontario economy as the Geniers in turn buy locally.

You can find JK Gardens on Facebook or at the Cochrane Farmers’ Market.

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