COALDALE, Alta. — Nature and nurture are both fully employed at the Mans Organics greenhouse and farm north of this southern Alberta town.
In the 45,000 sq. foot greenhouse and on the 100-acre irrigated farm, soil health, plant health and the interaction of insects, fungi and water are closely watched.
“We’re just a tiny farm by local standards, in a sense. But what we do is so much more hands-on, and just the fact that we have eight to 10 full-time employees, plus my mom and my dad and myself, my wife — that kind of shows you what’s all happening on the farm,” says Andrew Mans.
He and his wife, Denise, run the operation along with Andrew’s parents, Henk and Rita. The young couple were nominated this year in Alberta’s Outstanding Young Farmer competition and their enthusiasm for agriculture was likely key to that nomination.
Andrew grew up on this farm, which at one time had a small feedlot for backgrounding and custom feeding. In the late 2000s, the elder Mans moved into the organic realm and began growing onions. Andrew and Denise, who married in 2007, joined the farming operation in 2012 and the family is now in the 10th season of organic operation.
“My parents are very actively involved. We give them credit for us being here,” said Andrew. “I grew up in the house I’m living in now. So to me, taking our family back to the farm was quite a big thing. I love farming. I think it’s a privilege, myself.”
The couple have five children: Kari, 10, Markus, 8, Curtis, 7, Nicholas, 5, and Natalie, 2.
Denise admits she is not the talker in the family and with five young children to raise, her days do not usually include hands-on greenhouse and farm work.
Greenhouse produce includes tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and eggplant, all grown in-ground rather than hydroponically. During the growing season, there’s garlic, onions, winter squash, watermelon cantaloupe and wheat growing outside.
The produce is sold through direct marketing and also wholesale to various stores in Calgary and Edmonton. The crop variety has helped the Mans establish and maintain a clientele that can be served year-round, Andrew said.
Providing locally grown food is just as important to customers as the organic certification, and maybe more so, he added.
“A lot of customers we do work with, yes, they (want) organic but I think it’s equally or more important that we’re local as that we’re organic. The local thing is really big, it’s really strong. Now there’s organic and it’s local as well. I think all of our customers could get what we’re selling, but it would be from some bigger farm and definitely off season from far away.”
There isn’t a Mans family history of greenhouse operation, so there was a lot to learn when they started out. There still is, Andrew said.
“Some of it is still by the seat of my pants, in a sense. There’s something to it and I’ve got some research but until you try it, you don’t know. I’ve tried a lot of things.
“What we’re really after is how can we get that total picture of health. How can we get soil, the physics, the structure, the oxygen, the chemistry … good biology so we have a plant that’s getting fed right.”
For the Mans, seeking that goal involves careful attention to soil and plant health using beneficial insects to combat crop pests and plant biodiversity to provide nutrient, bacterial and fungal attributes in the soil.
Besides the pepper and tomato plants thriving in the greenhouse, there are hanging pots of nasturtium, alyssum, marigold, cosmos and other flowers. On the ground can be found chickpeas, oats, alfalfa, borage and other foliage.
Andrew said the flowers provide habitat to beneficial insects when they’ve done their job of killing insect pests. On the ground, the variety of plant life supports fungi and bacteria important to soil health.
“If nature does it best, how can we be more like that?” That’s what Andrew asks himself on a regular basis.
“The soil is just so much more than a place for some synthetic nutrients to go in and feed the plant. There’s so many things happening that we don’t know about,” he said.
“I think we have to almost be amazed at how little we know, and some of these things we may not have a direct answer to, but maybe we can work with nature without knowing all the answers.”
That doesn’t prevent the Mans from seeking those answers, however. On the day of a recent farm visit, he was preparing to host an on-farm seminar for other farmers to discuss regenerative agriculture and useful techniques. A similar event last year drew 60 people.
“There are more options out there. We’re doing a lot of different things. Let’s just get a bunch of people together, doesn’t matter who you are … and let’s bring in some different ideas and let’s talk about it. The interest has been really big.”
Andrew sees organic production as one method of farming and respects conventional crop production. But he also questions trends to treat symptoms rather than address the root causes of soil and plant problems.
For him, a quote by Hippocrates gives direction: let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.
“That, I think, is really what we need to come down to and if we take that into consideration with the health of our crop, what does that all mean? If our soil is not healthy, is our crop truly going to be healthy? If our crop is not truly healthy, are we producing really good food? I don’t have the answers, but let’s ask these questions.”
The Mans have no plans to expand their operation. Maintaining their customers and continually improving things at their current size are the main goals.
As the children grow up and potentially expand on their now-burgeoning interest in agriculture, Andrew and Denise are hopeful their work will carry on.
“Hopefully one of them would be interested,” said Denise. “It’s not something we’d push or make them do but they do enjoy it. Already now they enjoy coming out here and doing little jobs. It is a big privilege for children, living on the farm, just having the opportunities that they have.”