for the 2006 Boissevain-Morton history book
The timing couldn’t have been better. Magdalene and I had just settled our family into the community after returning from 10 years with Mennonite Central Committee (8 in Africa and 2 in Saskatoon) when the Boissevain Greenhouse came up for sale. We were living on my parent’s farm (Vern and Elsa Neufeld) at the time and had just decided that we didn’t want to be involved in big tractor farming. I wanted to be a smaller scale food grower and Magdalene wanted to work as an educator.
The down side of the Greenhouse option was that we had never worked in a greenhouse before, but the up side won over because the business was situated on the property of Henry and Betty Froese just north of Boissevain – which gave us easy access to the guidance (and spontaneous childcare – thank-you, thank-you) that we needed. The greenhouse had been bought (from the Froeses) and managed by the Boissevain Association for the Handicapped for a couple years. They found the business not well suited to their clients and were eager to sell it. Along with the deal came the knowledge and generosity of John R Dyck and so we were well mentored into the business.
By the middle of the first season (spring 1993) it was clear that we were going to have difficulty with the general greenhouse practice of using high doses of fungicide and soluble fertilizer. We began experimenting with compost (we bought from John and Trudy Unger – local organic farmers) and alternative management practices to reduce our dependence on petroleum based inputs. We had to do some research and writing to get standards approved but by spring of 1994 we were inspected and certified organic by Organic Producers Association of Manitoba – the first greenhouse to do so in Manitoba.
Gaining organic certification, though, was the least of our challenges. The greater challenge was learning to grow healthy bedding plants for a business in which visual appeal and timing are crucial – all in a building that was so old it no longer let in adequate light. Fortunately the community was totally generous with us – resolutely purchasing everything we grew – whether gangly or stunted. Through this expression of community solidarity we became very fond of many local gardeners. Also fortunately (in hindsight) a tornado came along in August 1994 that wrapped the greenhouse building around some large trees on the edge of the property – forcing us to either build or move home. We decided to convert the old Revelstoke Lumber building and property on Mill Rd. into a new Greenhouse / Nursery Stock / Garden Centre business. Again, fortunately, the good weather persisted that fall into December and we were able, just barely, to get enough space under plastic to assure us a growing season in 1995.
We had some good years, then, during which we were constantly learning how to select varieties, grow adequately and market effectively. But there was trouble brewing. Magdalene was yearning to go back to University full time to get her teaching degree and I was increasingly frustrated with the heavy expectations of time away from the farm the greenhouse business demanded. I wanted to develop the income-generating potential of our home place in the Turtle Mountains. With four young children to care for and fifteen kilometers of road between our beds and a vulnerable crop in town, each greenhouse season became progressively difficult to manage – emotionally and physically. A buyer showed up one day offering to purchase the business. Accepting her offer set us free to redesign our business but the down side was that we had to agree not to grow plants for the local market – thereby losing our contact with local buyers.
I had over the years become increasingly intrigued with the growing of herbs and heritage vegetable varieties and so we set up a temporary greenhouse at home and began looking around for non-local Manitoba markets. The Manitoba Government was at the time promoting Echinacea and other medicinal and aromatic herbs as alternative crops for farmers. And so for two years I had as much business as I could handle growing for these new markets. As often happens with diversification schemes, too many farmers started growing Echinacea across western Canada and the bottom promptly fell out of the market. We adjusted by advertising to homeowners across southern Manitoba about our herb and vegetable plants – building on the organic food and self-healing movements. By this time we were renting out our straw bale guesthouse which gave us a broad community through which to spread the word. We offered to deliver plants to any major community or market garden in southern Manitoba – and we were blessed with just enough orders to keep us going through the transition.
In the fall of 1999 the Greenhouse on Mill Road was returned to us because of the financial difficulties of the new owner. We agreed to operate it one year but actively began looking for a new buyer. A Real Estate agent showed up offering to buy the land for a family hotel complex (which we later found was not the truth) but didn’t want the buildings. We dismantled the greenhouses and moved the building to our home (where they were turned into part storage and part rustic-cabin-by-the-pond). Maggie had finished her University training by that time, but didn’t have a job. I wanted to find a way to grow the herbs and vegetables I enjoyed and attract buyers closer to home. The income from the land sale gave us the opportunity we needed to take off for a year of traveling and reflection.
When we returned, I set in motion a three point plan for Room To Grow: 1. I would continue to grow for the specialty markets while keeping one eye on the slowly developing local markets for these plants. We began promoting the inherent value of our plants – growing in real soil, with great root development and transplant vigour 2. We would continue to feed the guesthouse business through the greenhouse and visa versa. 3. I would continue to be actively involved in local economic development efforts (Small Farms and Regional Heritage specifically) to do what we could for the overall vigour and sustainability of the community. The byline for our Room To Grow became: ‘RooTinG for us All’ in an attempt to tie these priorities together and to satisfy my need to be modestly punny.
Room To Grow has enjoyed the various partners in Boissevain, Minto, and Brandon that have offered outlets for our plants: B + E Stop and Shop, The Station, Boissevain Consumer’s Co-op, Boissevain Floral Boutique, Sandy Joye, Lady of the Lake and Two Farm Kids.