Organic gardener cuts out the middleman

On the Farm Alberta producer’s journey to the field began with a simple question: ‘where do you get your food?’

RED DEER — An innocent question from a subsistence farmer in Kenya in the mid 2000s affected Mike Kozlowski in ways he never imagined.

He spent months in the east African country through a Canada Millennium Foundation Scholarship project where he helped identify agricultural-related community needs.

The question and the conversation that followed initiated serious soul searching for Kozlowski, who was then in his early 20s.

The question? “Where do you get your food?”

“If my goal was to be a well-rounded human being, I felt I needed to know where my food comes from,” Kozlowski said.

Although he had relatives who farmed in central Alberta, Kozlowski knew little about the origins of his daily nourishment, other than his reply: “the grocery store.”

A few years later, Kozlowski experienced the physical labour and got his hands in the dirt while working on a Quebec vegetable farm. Fresh produce was sold at farmers markets and direct to customers through a weekly food box program. Kozlowski embraced the farm-to-fork connection between producer and end user.

He returned to Alberta, where the idea for change took root.

“I realized there was no one around Red Deer doing these weekly food boxes.”

So Kozlowski launched Steel Pony Farm in 2010. The company name pays tribute to the bicycle, a common mode of transportation in Kenya.

Today, Kozlowski’s organic market garden and fresh food box business is celebrating its eighth year. His website, steelpony.ca, explains the business: “I’m the guy who grows the veggies, you’re the ones who eat them.”

There’s no middleman — no grocery store between Kozlowski and his customers.

“We’re price makers, not price takers,” he said.

He employs two full-time and one part-time employee from May to late October on an eight-acre plot he rents a few minutes drive from Red Deer.

From the six acres currently in production Kozlowski grows 25 to 30 typesof vegetables, everything from arugula to zucchini. The garden includes several types of lettuces, a variety of squashes, onions, garlic, potatoes and pumpkins.

Kozlowski is seeing a shift from people buying at the grocery store, no questions asked, to buying from local producers. His customers want to know how their food is grown, where it’s grown, and that it’s fresh.

“There are many reasons to support local,” said Kozlowski. “People tell me there is so much flavour in the vegetables.”

He’s also philosophical.

“Why are we creating income for, say, people in California? And many of my customers; I’m also their customer.”

Kozlowski gives farm tours on his 100 percent chemical-free garden.

Mike Kozlowski shows the flame weeder, a modified purchased piece of equipment that burns weeds. Kozlowski uses the tool to burn and remove weeds that germinate before vegetables begin to show. | Maria Johnson photo

Chemical free presents challenges. In addition to weeds and insects, gophers are a problem. They burrow and dart through the surrounding pasture and into the rows. A half-chewed beet lays in the dirt.

But Kozlowski manages. The weeds are pulled or burned off with his flame weeder and the insects controlled manually with fabric covers or, as in the case of cutworms, physically dug up. Rotating crops to different areas of the garden helps reduce pests. Gophers receive the lead treatment.

Kozlowski originally intended to operate without the use of fossils fuels but encountered a few problems that caused him to adjust his thinking.

In the early days of the market garden, at a smaller location just outside Red Deer, he recalled bicycling a weighty load of potatoes into the city, up a steeply graded highway.

“My load of potatoes was so heavy I was spinning out on the pavement.

“It gave me a realization of why people use petroleum products.”

It was also a lesson in economies of scale. Kozlowski put the bicycle aside and uses his pick-up truck hitched to a 16-foot horse trailer to deliver produce to two Red Deer locations from late June through October.

“And I do appreciate my tractor,” he said.

Steel Pony Farm operates under the community supported agriculture (CSA) model, which allows members access to locally produced food. People invest directly in the farming project in exchange for regularly delivered, locally grown food. Payment is up front or in increments for a season’s worth of fresh vegetables.

Kozlowski is also a member of YYC Growers and Distributors, a Calgary based farm/producer-owned co-operative.

Kozlowski says 95 percent of his market is the family food box program. The company also supplies restaurants, but he experienced challenges.

“They open and then close their doors.”

As well, the connection can be lost when a chef that Kozlowski cultivated a relationship with has changed jobs or moved away.

He currently supplies fresh seasonal produce to two local retail outlets in Red Deer: Nutter’s Bulk & Natural Foods and Purearth Organics.

Overall, Kozlowski sees increases in business each year.

In the off-season, he spends time researching and planning for the upcoming gardening season. He believes in maintaining the health of the soil, which in turn creates healthy food, and in turn, healthy people.

He no longer ponders that simple question: “Where do you get your food?”

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