Like a lot of organic crop farmers, Rob Fleischauer has grown very familiar with different types of tillage. Indeed, on the year he plants buckwheat as part of the six-year crop rotation on his 100-acre Gads Hill-area farm, Fleischauer generally tills the field four times before even putting seed in the ground.
Pre-planting, he’ll most often use a soil saver and cultivator. For post-emergent weed control, there’s the finger weeder for spring grains. And for the row crops, he proudly shows off an adapted rotary hoe he “invented” over three years of tinkering with angles and attachments, until he was able last year to completely clean a six-inch-high corn crop driving at four miles per hour through the field.
So, when Fleischauer was named the “Organic Crop Farmer of the Year” at last weekend’s second annual Organic Council of Ontario (OCO) award ceremony in Guelph, was it because he burned the most fuel keeping his ground and crops healthy? Certainly not.
Instead, it has been the unique crop rotation and dedication to building soil health — developed over 24 years of organic production at his Golden Acres Farm — which have given Fleischauer a solid reputation among his peers.
“I keep burning up organic matter (with the tillage), so I have to keep putting it back,” he explains, when asked about his rotation.
To elaborate, he starts with a crop of oats “and a sprinkle of barley” with peas, sold each year to an organic dairy farmer. That’s underseeded about five weeks later, after the last finger-weeding, with a mix of various kinds of alfalfa and clover.
The next year, “when everybody’s doing their first cut of hay, I go in and chop it with a bush hog. That makes my neighbours cry. And the second cut is usually tilled under before the spelt is planted in the fall.”
But the alfalfa/clover is essential for the nutrients, soil structure, and for its ability to suppress twitchgrass and thistles — “or, at least, slow the thistles down.”
With the spelt, “I make my neighbours cry again” because all the straw is worked back in. “I sold it to a neighbour for a few years, but that was when you could sell it for $25 a bale.” There were a couple of years when straw was abundant and the price went down. And when it started to come back up, “I realized it was still worth more than that turned back in.”
He has a steady market for his spelt into the organic food market. The same goes for his soybeans, which follow the spelt. Then comes corn, which he sells as feed to a pig farmer. And then, finally, he plants the buckwheat before going back to the mixed grain.
“My dad always grew buckwheat so, when I started, I grew it too.” It goes into the birdseed market, as well as for seed. It’s a summer crop — in the ground by July 10. Sometimes he’ll grow spring grain in advance of the buckwheat, and turn it in as green manure about a month after planting. “But that can get pretty tough to turn in if you get a good spring and it gets tall.” Still, “there’s something about grain. It’s wonderful for ground.” Buckwheat has some of the same effects, he says.
The biggest drawback of the rotation is volunteer buckwheat the following year. It means there’s no chance of growing barley or oats for the milling market. “So I sell it to the dairy farmer. He doesn’t mind a bit of buckwheat — it adds a little protein.”
Fleischauer operates 100 acres, which is split almost evenly by a drainage ditch. There are three separate fields on either side of the ditch. There’s also a half-acre plot of garlic, which is the responsibility of his three daughters, as well as his wife. Currently, they have about 130 different strains, mostly for the seed market but also some for local garlic eaters.
“If they had to grow only one type on half and acre, they’d be bored,” he says. “This way, it keeps them very busy and very involved, having to keep all those strains separate through the whole growing and drying processes.”
Among the other southwestern/midwestern Ontario winners at OCO’s 2012 Ontario Organic Awards — announced at a banquet in Guelph on the same weekend at the long-running annual Guelph Organic Conference, were:
• Grant Martin and Sunholm Farm of Ethel — Dairy Farmer of the Year;
• Pfennings Organics of Baden — Outstanding Supplier (a new category this year);
• recently-retired Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs organic production lead Hugh Martin (a co-winner, along with Ottawa’s Cathleen Kneen of Food Secure Canada) — Lifetime Achievement Award;
• Gillian Flies and Brent Preston of The New Farm in Creemore — Horticultural Producer;
• the Guelph-based Organic Meadow Farmers Cooperative’s “Clean Livin’” youTube video — Marketing (a new award).