Training for the next generation of small scale growers: Creating Success

Friday, December 16, 2016

How do new growers get the training they need to start into the business? What is small scale organic vegetable farming and what’s required to be production and financially successful? What does “smart farming” look like? What is the minimum knowledge and experience to be prepared to start your own operation? What can I expect to make for my efforts? 

These are just some of the questions that pop up when someone is contemplating pursuing small scale agriculture. There is no provincial or national exams to test a standardized skill set as in many trades. There is no Red Seal certification that shows you have achieved a certain standard of excellence. There are some community colleges that offer a broad approach to horticulture and field vegetable production. They are heavily influenced by large scale commercial practices and techniques while some may also provide some information on organic practices. If however you want to learn how to make a living from a small acreage intensive small scale operation, this information and training is much harder to find. Currently the best source is to find and work on these types of farms. As with learning any craft be prepared to invest 10,000 hours to become a highly proficient small scale grower. 

One of the issues of relying solely on working on multiple farms for your training is that you will get a wide variation in practices and experiences that may or may not be successful. Apprenticeships and internships are terms used on some small scale farms to explain why they pay less than minimum wages. Often they tasks people end up mostly doing are repeatitive and boring. A good training requires that the trainee be provided with all tasks that are part of the farm operations. That means participatiing in the planning, quality control, marketing and accounting tasks. This approach requires a “master farmer” be willing to share, deligate and supervise these tasks. 

One example of a community college supported program is The Tsawwassen Farm School. This is a 9-month, part time, hands-on program that teaches the art and science of small scale organic farming and direct marketing. The Farm School is delivered by the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at KPU in a unique partnership with the Tsawwassen First Nation. The unique advantage new growers have by completing this program is the offer of 1 acre of land free and the use of the equipment from the school. This is a great small scale incubator farm opportunity for those that want to give this lifestyle an try while being strongly supported.

Pattison Farms will be offering a comprehensive training program to all full time staff that we hire this season.  our curriculum will include:


  • review of previous season records 
    • determine what issues need to be addressed and prioritized
  • crop and variety selection
  • determine how much of each crop/variety to plant
  • assign planting to each bed in accordance to crop rotation practices
  • keeping records - plantings, daily field notes, scheduling tasks, customer sales and labour usage
  • identify what process have waste that can be eliminated 

Tools and Infrastructure

  • minimum requirements to deliver a quality product to customers profitably
  • placement design to enhance effective work flow
  • buildings
    • equipment and supplies storage
    • processing and packaging
    • cooler
    • propagation and season extension
  • equipment
    • tillage
    • weed management
    • seeding and transplanting
    • propagation
    • irrigation
  • supplies
    • soil amendments
    • propagation 
    • harvesting
    • packaging 

Growing Techniques

  • soil management 
    • soil nutrition
    • soil preparation for both greenhouse and field production
    • crop rotation and green manure cropping
  • transplant propagation
  • bed management for transplanting
  • bed management for direct seeding
    • stale bedding
  • irrigation
    • greenhouse
    • field crops
  • weed management
    • in-bed management
    • pathway management 
  • pest management
    • click beetle/wire worm
    • root maggots
    • flee beetle
  • foliar spray applications to aid plant health
    • kelp
    • boron

Harvesting and Pre-Packing Management

  • awareness of ambient temperature and how it affects crops
    • harvest crops which wilt fast in the coolest part of the day - lettuce mix, spinach, lettuce heads and other delicate greens
    • get them into the shade immediately after picking and spray with water if necessary to bring temperature down as quickly as possible - this can include kales, chard, beets with tops
    • wash and spin lettuce mix and spinach may at times include lettuce heads
    • place in clean bulk containers and pass onto packing team
    • if not being packaged that day then move to cooler as quickly as possible
  • clean off dead leaves and wash off dirt from roots this includes for crops such as green onions, beets with tops, carrots with tops
  • trim off tops and spray root crops with hose prior to using root veg tumbler to get worst of the soil off
  • trim and remove dead foliage from crops such as head lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli
  • check kale and chards for aphids and spray off accordingly
  • handle delicate thin skinned crops such as summer squash, tomatoes and cucumbers with light touch

Quality Control and Packaging

  • establish quality standards for each product and for various markets
  • handling of each product and packaging to meet food safety standards
  • labeling 
  • product temperature management
  • delivery of product


  • customer relationships
    • customers in control of what you grow, how much you grow and when you grow it (product pull not pushing product)
    • direct communications on a regular basis through out the growing season to get feedback and product desires
    • effectiveness of fresh sheet marketing
  • marketing to different customer types
    • retail
    • restaurants
    • farm gate
    • CSA
    • farmers market
  • pricing
  • web presence and social media 
  • forming relationships and strategies with other growers for joint marketing