Janet Dawson and Kevin Cornish of Indian River Acres in Peterborough County have received the inaugural Peterborough Agricultural Innovation Award for their sustainable method of farming pumpkins.
Created by the Peterborough Agricultural Roundtable and co-sponsored by Sunderland Co-op, the award recognizes farmers in Peterborough County and Hiawatha or Curve Lake First Nations who have displayed ingenuity in trying something innovative and successfully achieving positive results on their farm.
Indian River Acres is a 93-acre farm located at 2275 Indian River Line that, each year, grows 12 acres of sweet corn, five acres of pumpkins, squash, and gourds, around 15,000 garlic bulbs, and 1.5 acres of other tender vegetables including pickling cucumbers, field cucumbers, beans, asparagus, beets, lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, potatoes, and zucchini.
The farm was previously a dairy and beef and show cattle farm known as Almar Acres, owned and operated by Dawson’s parents, Marg and Allan. Dawson grew up on the farm and was very involved in the beef operation. When her parents decided to retire, Janet and Kevin purchased the farm in 2010 with a vision for a vegetable farm.
“After a few years of growing pumpkins, we realized conventional pumpkin farming was not sustainable and was harming our land,” Dawson and Cornish write in their award submission. “Not only were we depleting the soil of its nutrients, but we were also experiencing significant disease transmission between pumpkin and soil, pests, and weed pressure that were causing us to use a lot of sprays. Excessive tillage, sprays, and chemicals use are not usual practices that we wanted on our farm.”
Over the past eight years, they researched and experimented with different cover crops that would not affect pumpkin growth but would provide enough coverage to prevent weed growth, provide nutrients to the soil, and protection from the wind and water run-off throughout the winter — eventually settling on rye and radish mixes as a cover crop.
The next step was to find a way to knock down the rye and radish cover crop before planting the pumpkin crop, without resorting to chemicals. They sourced a piece of equipment called a roller crimper and mounted it to the front of a tractor, and modified a sweet corn planter to be a no-till pumpkin planter that could go on the back of the tractor.
The roller crimper knocks down and terminates the cover crop, while the no-till planter seeds the soil at the same time. The knocked-down cover crop also provides a protective bed for the growing pumpkin crop, avoiding exposure to pathogens in bare soil that can cause diseases affecting fruit growth and cause deformations and premature rot.
“Since we implemented this innovative process, we have cut our machinery time in the field by more than half, have reduced our chemical use by 75 per cent, and have cut our labour time in the field by more than half,” Dawson and Cornish write, noting their innovation is an emerging practice in Ontario. “We definitely been an early adopter of this sustainable method and are at a stage where we could share our knowledge with other farmers so they could benefit.”
As the winners of the Peterborough Agricultural Innovation Award, Dawson and Cornish were presented with a plaque and $500 cheque on Monday (February 6) at Sunderland Co-operative Inc. by Garth Stoner from Sunderland Coop, Elmer Buchanan from the Peterborough Agricultural Roundtable, and Peterborough County Warden Bonnie Clark.
“I know the immense efforts, blood, sweat, and tears that go into making a family farm successful,” Warden said. “On behalf of all of Peterborough County, I want to congratulate you and thank you for your hard work and dedication to innovation in the agricultural sector.”
This is the second award for Indian River Acres in the last six months. In September, the Cornish family was named Peterborough County’s Farm Family of the Year, which recognizes a farm family that has demonstrated good farming practices, an interest in the farming community, and interest and participation by the family in the farm’s operation.
Applications are now open for the 2023 Peterborough Agricultural Innovation Award and ptboagnews.com/agricultural-innovation-award. The submission deadline is November 15, 2023.