In the Land of the Black Bear, Part 12

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Bushman’s Agriculture: 1985-1990

Inside the cold frame in July

Inside one of the growing frames in early July

Aquaculture at Pheasant Lake spawned a companion project which flourished briefly towards the latter part of the 1980s.

The offal from the harvests of fish would become a powerful and productive amendment to the heavy, acidic Pineview clay which is the characteristic soil on the plateau east of the Fraser River in this district.

To produce something of agricultural value on the forty acre property in this region was a challenge.  Following local practice the Bushman would have cleared the land of the trees and light bush and seeded the land for the production of hay. Lack of knowledge, lack of agricultural experience and lack of the appropriate and costly machinery would force the Bushman to think more creatively about producing something of consequence on the land as he had done in the water in Pheasant Lake.

Old Allis, the HD 11 Allis Chalmers bulldozer, the tool which had been used to dig the pond was fitted with an “I” beam welded to its blade. The ability to raise and lower the massive blade and the “I” beam mounted on the blade expanded the potential for Allis. She was now able to punch a sharpened post as deep as 20-24 inches into wet clay. Lodge pole pines were abundant in the 40 acre bush where Allis resided. A day’s worth of logging in the bush would provide enough posts for Allis to construct a primitive greenhouse-like frame structure. Milled lumber in rural areas around Prince George was readily available at low cost and the Bushman made frames and fastened them to the posts which Allis had punched into the soil.

A fair degree of optimism, maybe even naivete, attended the project because the Prince George area is notoriously lacking in frost free day and nights. There literally is no predictable frost free month. Even July is not exempt from the threat of frost. Tomato plants are, of course quite delicate and intolerant even to a light frost. It remained to be seen if the Bushman’s hope of robust, green vines and ripe, red, round, juicy tomatoes would materialize in the transparent, framed long-houses of his making.

Allis and the Bushman found an ally, Philip Pattan, a student in one of the classes of  the Bushman’s wife, who with Brothers James and Andrew lent a hand in the greenhouse project.  In a very short time two odd but workable expedient structures sprung out of a clearing near the driveway. Each of the structures was 96 feet long and 20 feet wide. The structures would be covered with 6 mil construction grade poly which was available at hardware stores in rolls of 100 foot long. Tomato plants would be the inhabitants of these structures.

Hopes for a harvest: Frames for expedient greenhouses at Pheasant Lake.

Hopes for a harvest: Frames for expedient greenhouses at Pheasant Lake.

Mid-April, the Bushman had transplanted 50 of the 250 tomato plants which had led a sheltered life for nearly 2 months. Born 2 months earlier in peat pots laid out on trays in the basement of the house, the seedlings had been incubated by the heat from a wood stove for a month before spending another month in a makeshift greenhouse adjoining one wall of the wood stove heated basement. Bright, long April days in this northern sub-arctic environment would excite the plants. Cocooned in their spacious growing house, their virtual tropics, by day they felt generous, expansive. Their potential was promising.

The April night sky told a different story. Nights were clear and deep. This far from the lights of the city, the northern sky was black and dripping with stars, sometimes shimmering with sweeping and undulating auroras. Radiational cooling would suck frigid currents from the arctic ice fields and deposit them generously over the region. The mercury would drop into the minus values, as low as minus ten degrees celsius. Survival at night was a challenge for the plants as well as for their protector, the Bushman. Even sheltered in their spacious plastic-glazed cocoon, the first cohort of tomato plants would have to call on their resilience to survive the freezing nights. Tomorrow once again they could bask in temperatures close to forty degrees celsius in the sheltered plastic covered, expedient greenhouse frames. Placing an old wood stove in the middle of the structure and positioning the first and healthiest of the seedlings around the stove would be the Bushman’s strategy to give an early start to his protegees.

Over the next month, 50 more plants per week would be taken from the easy  environment of their origins, the warmth of the house, to their summer residences in the frame structures of the open field far from the constant care of their mentor. A total of 250  young plants were planted the first year.

By mid summer when the danger of frost had passed, the growth had surpassed all the modest expectations of the Bushpeople. Over seventeen hours of daily sunlight through the months of June and July at this latitude meant that the rate of growth was significantly more than could be had at more southerly latitudes.

 
 
Mid June in the growing frame

Early June in the growing frame

Mid July brought evidence that the efforts started in February would be rewarded. The fruit on the vines filled out to a good size, around eight ounces, and began to turn from pale green to orange.

Twenty pounds per day was normal by early August and towards the end of that months fifty pounds per day was not unusual. A mad scramble to get the harvest to some market  then followed.

Over the next 4 years the harvest grew from about 1800 pounds annually to over 3000 pounds, unremarkable by conventional greenhouse standards but gratifying from the standards of expedient structures using passive solar energy in a sub arctic environment.

As the word of the commercial availability of local tomatoes spread, marketing became increasingly a pleasant part of the enterprise since the taste of the product was recommendation enough. Soon a lively network of enthusiastic customers were telling friends and family of this superior product available locally. One single regular customer from the Hart Highway area, north of Prince George, had a standing annual order for 250 pounds of ripe tomatoes for late August or early September. There were many other customers who did canning or made sauces who had annual orders for 100 pounds.

Like all other small scale agricultural pursuits the cost of production per unit of produce and the vagaries of weather made  it questionable to consider the culture of tomato and of trout reliable sources of income. They did however, become a supplement to the teacher’s salary being earned by the hard-working Bushman’s wife. The additional income was especially welcome in summer when the monthly cheques from School District # 57 were no longer available.

What aquaculture and tomato growing in the Land of the Black Bear did accomplish was to ignite a passion for independent food production, a passion that has become difficult to extinguish since then.

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Inside one of the growing frames

Inside one of the growing frames

Growing frames viewed from driveway

Growing frames viewed from driveway

200 Tomato plants in Growing House, July1986

200 Tomato plants in growing frame, July1986

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Late June 1986

Late June 1986

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