After graduating from Animal Science at UBC fifteen years ago, Colin Hughes worked in the livestock industry, but that didn’t last too long. “I couldn’t bear the cruel and inhumane way animals were treated,” he said. He became a vegetarian and began to look for a different line of work. He was hired by BC Hothouse, entering the world of conventional, hydroponic greenhouse growing. He began as an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) monitor and eventually became a grower. In 2003, he left the industry to start his own greenhouse operation. His training at BC Hothouse would serve him well, but he wanted his greenhouse to be organic, a rarity in BC at the time. Without nearby mentors, he had to rely on books by Eliot Coleman.
He leased a half-acre of farmland in Delta, put up four small greenhouses and began to grow cherry and heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants – in soil – one of the main differences between the conventional and organic greenhouse systems.
“People thought I was crazy,” he said. Apparently the hydroponic people thought it wasn’t possible on a small scale and that growing in soil wouldn’t be as productive. The organic people didn’t think it would be possible to grow that intensively in soil. Celyddon (kel-i-thon) Farms is now in its eight year and certified by the Fraser Valley Organic Producers Association.
At first Hughes sold his entire crop to a local wholesale distributor. Now he sells exclusively at lower mainland farmers markets with help from his parents and sisters. He is able to get a better return for himself that way and offer his customers fair prices, about twenty-five percent less than they would pay in the grocery store. His customers are very loyal, turning up in the pouring rain because they can’t do without his delicious tomatoes; some even stop eating tomatoes during the winter when he’s not growing. Many people love to buy the pretty purple eggplants too, but don’t know what to do with them. So he provides recipes to encourage them to experiment.
Despite his popularity and loyal customer base, he hears a few complaints from time to time about his growing methods. Some people object to the few hybrid varieties he grows, but they only make up a small percentage of his crop. Hughes buys much of his seed from the Seed Savers Exchange; many of his heritage varieties come from Gary Ibsen in Carmel, California, known for his annual tomato fest.
“A greenhouse can produce five times as much in a given area as you would out in a field. You can grow more intensively and extend the growing season,” he says.
Organic tomatoes are very hard to grow in our wet lower mainland climate as well, but he uses that natural environment to his advantage. “Too much water will puff up the fruit and you lose flavour and nutrition.” He tries to dry land farm as much as possible. He starts early in the spring when the ground is saturated. Over the summer, the soil slowly dries; by August there is no moisture in the top two to three feet of soil. “That way the plants can root five to six feet into the ground and find their own water.” He uses his drip irrigation system more for feeding the plants than for irrigating; fish and kelp fertilizers deliver the needed nutrients through the drippers.
As he doesn’t grow through the winter, he relies on natural light. In March and April, he heats the greenhouse with hot water propane boilers. “Some people object to me using energy to heat the greenhouse, but forget that I am right on their doorstep, rather than having them trucked in from further away. If a backyard grown tomato is the equivalent of walking to work and a conventional hydroponic greenhouse equal to a single occupant car, then I am the same as taking the bus to work.”
His dream is to have a zero energy greenhouse, using geothermal for heating and wind turbines to produce the electricity. While the capital outlay will be huge, Hughes knows it will be worth it. He will be able to grow out of season and reduce his current energy use by one hundred percent.
“I think a greenhouse can be the backbone of any mixed farm,” he says. “It’s the most productive part of an operation. It’s only a problem if the greenhouses dominate the farm. On a ten acre farm, a half acre of greenhouses fits in well, gives the farmer a steady income and makes the farm more profitable.” Even on a half acre, he manages to mix in a couple other crops, he grows garlic and broccoli between the greenhouses. He also grows garlic under the peppers to ward off aphids, in addition to using the very effective garlic spray.
As for the name, the Hughes family has a Welsh background. Celyddon was the forest where King Arthur and Merlin the Magician hung out, a place of refuge and sanctuary. Hughes felt the name was a good fit for what he was trying to do. Turns out, this piece of land is a refuge for more than an organic greenhouse. He shares the farm with a large horse stable that runs an equine therapy program for people with physical disabilities or recovering from addiction.
Celyddon Farms will magically reappear at the Vancouver Winter Farmers Market in April 2012.
This article first appeared in BC Organic Grower, Winter 2012, Volume 15, Issue One.