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Sundog Organic Farm

For farmers, challenges are nothing new. But from 2019-20, James Vriend and Jenny Berkenbosch of Sundog Organic Farm faced a flood of challenges.

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Sundog Organic Farm 1

Family Farm:

Jenny Berkenbosch and James Vriend (Silas Vriend 2006 (17), Eli Vriend 2008 (14), George Vriend 2012 (11))

Farm Location:

North of Edmonton, Alberta


Started farming on this land 2011 and transition finished in 2014.

Approach to Farming:

Responsive. Responding to the needs of the community, soil, plants, the environment, our family, ourselves…


  • 14-acres with 8 acres in production (6 cash crops and 2 in cover crops each year).
  •  Class 1 sandy loam soil
  •  180 varieties of certified organic mixed vegetables
  • Perennial grasses, alfalfa, clover cover crops

For farmers, challenges are nothing new. But from 2019-20, James Vriend and Jenny Berkenbosch of Sundog Organic Farm faced a flood of challenges.

In 2019, heavy rain kept falling on their market garden north of Edmonton. Parts of the land were too wet to work during the summer; meanwhile, weeds continued to grow. Their market changed location and expanded its hours – leading to a loss of customers and more work for vendors.

The following year, the pandemic hit. Sales plummeted. Sundog’s regular temporary foreign workers from Mexico couldn’t get into Canada, and heavy rain returned.

“It had been really rough,” recalls Jenny. “But we knew we needed to get things in order to make this farm work for us. We were pushed to figure something out because things weren’t working well.”

James and Jenny decided to build resilience into their farm starting with the soil.

Soil Health is Key

Sundog’s soil is ideal, a Class 1 sandy loam, and the reason James and Jenny bought the land in 2010.

“We moved here without anything on the land,” James explains. “We basically built everything. We had no services here, no trees, no grass. We built a driveway, moved a house and eventually built a shop. It’s been a tough slog, but we did that on the basis of the good soil. And, somehow [the soil] wasn’t that good.”

James grew up on the Vriend Organic Farm (run by his parents, Dennis and Ruth Vriend). Jenny worked on their farm for five summers and loved it.

“It was right up my alley,” Jenny recalls. When she was young, she also spent time with her farm cousins and told them that she wanted to marry a farmer.

At first, Jenny and James didn’t envision having their own farm. James was a cabinetmaker and Jenny was training to be a teacher while working as an artist. But the land kept calling to them. After two years of working on an “incubator farm” on James’ parents’ farm, they bought land.

Even after the three-year organic transition period was over, the soil hadn’t fully recovered from the many years of growing non-organic seed potatoes, canola and other crops. For years, the land had been heavily sprayed with fungicides and other pesticides, and received applications of synthetic fertilizers.

“I feel we’re still affected by how the land was used before, even 10 years later,” says James.

James and Jenny knew how to farm organically but that didn’t seem to be enough.

“It really hit us hard when it was so rainy,” adds James, “that something’s not right with the soil.”

Water didn’t percolate through the soil. In between storms, the soil took a long time to dry out, and when it did, Jenny explains “the soil had cracks and big, hard lumps and you had to wrestle root crops out of the soil.”

They researched drainage tile. Jenny found that installing drainage tile is “very disruptive to your land and doesn’t actually address soil issues. It spoke to me that, in years past, 50 years ago, rainfall like that didn’t do the same thing to the soil. So something was not right with the soil. And I think the drainage tile feels like a Band-aid solution.”

James explains that the past chemical use had killed soil life, the non-organic fertilizers “really burned up the carbon in the soil,” and tillage had damaged soil ecology and organic matter.

“It felt like the soil was dead,” Jenny adds.

They sought ways to improve their soil. Soil tests revealed that one reason their soil “sticks together” so tightly is due to high magnesium levels. They balanced that by adding GSR Calcium from High Brix Manufacturing. This water-soluble, fast-acting form of calcium is said to stimulate soil life and is permitted in organic production. Unlike calcitic lime that might be applied in tons per acre, only one pound/acre of GSR Calcium is needed. They noticed the benefits within a year – the soil was drying out and not crusting as much – but more was needed.

Sundog Organic Farm changed their agronomic practices dramatically after watching a YouTube video by Richard Perkins.

Jenny says that just the video’s title, “No-weed vegetable gardening,” threw them off. Weeding took up “all their time and energy,” and their money. They laid off workers because it cost too much money to pay workers to weed and not see any progress.

The video presented a possible solution: a deep mulch, no-till system.

“You put down a deep layer of compost, plant into that and never till,” James describes. “The compost isn’t applied to add fertility, but creates habitat for microorganisms and controls weeds.”

“We saw how everything was connected,” James explains. “If we could get the biology going in the soil, we could get good aggregates in the soil through the glues microorganisms make. This would create space for oxygen and water to penetrate.”

“We developed a plan to transition our farm to organic no-till. We’re really excited about that and feel it’s the way forward,” concludes Jenny.” However, they’ve had a few “interesting hiccups” along the way.

Sundog Organic Farm 2

Thumbs Down on Raised Beds

James and Jenny thought raised beds could help alleviate the problem of too much moisture. They bought specialized equipment to create beds and cover them with thin plastic mulch.

“We didn’t like the raised bed system at all,” says Jenny. “We found the edges of the raised beds very difficult to maintain and manage with weeds. And we were using a lot of soil and land just to build the beds up.”

James adds that he thinks the system was designed to use herbicides. The organic option is using a specialized rototiller to control weeds, but that’s the opposite direction of where they wanted to go. They know of organic farmers who use raised beds successfully. However, they concluded that these weren’t a good fit for Sundog Organic Farm.

An Expensive Lesson

The deep mulch system requires a 4-6-inch layer of mulch. That takes a lot of compost – way more than Sundog Organic Farm produces. So the farmers looked for material they could compost and found manure from a local feedlot. James and Jenny wanted to test it before buying it but were under pressure to act fast or lose out. After buying and testing the manure (as required under the Canadian Organic Standards[1]), they found it was laced with clopyralid, a pesticide that does not break down very readily. Consequently, the manure could not  be used on the farm.

The supplier reimbursed them $7000 for the cost of the manure due to the contamination. However, it was still an expensive lesson because they had to swallow the $3000 shipping cost.

“Fortunately,” Jenny says, “we were able to find another supplier of really high-quality, carefully monitored, weed-free compost from a company called Elevate Organics.”

The initial application of deep compost is a one-time investment. During the growing season, the crops themselves create healthy soil, Jenny explains. The roots draw up the nutrients and minerals, and support the soil life that creates aggregates, and “essentially turns compost into workable soil.”

Afterwards, about an inch of compost is added each year. Due to the high cost of compost, the transition to no-till is gradual. In the first year, they transplanted long-season crops, such as potatoes, winter cabbage, onions, leeks, Brussel sprouts and squash, into the mulch. In Year 2, they will transplant shorter-season crops into the mulch. In Year 3, they can direct-seed crops, such as carrots. Year 4 will be in cover crops.

Sundog Organic Farm 3

Improving Soil Fertility

Cover crops provide fertility, protect the soil and feed soil life. Cover crops are part of their crop rotation once every four years and planted on all the land not in cash crops. For example, the land around the no-till area is in perennial grasses and alfalfa. James and Jenny also incorporate cover crops while growing cash crops. For example, a cover crop of dwarf peas grows between leeks and Dutch white clover, a perennial, covers the pathways.

The farmers also use vermicompost (worm castings) and a vermicompost liquid extract from Annelida Organics in Alberta. They mix biochar with vermicompost and apply it to beds when they plant. This may stimulate soil life and make nutrients more accessible.

“We bathe seed potatoes with the worm casting extract,” explains Jenny, “because when you inoculate the seed potato, as soon as the plant starts growing, the root system will become like a nursery for those beneficial microorganisms to grow and multiply.”

Also, when transplanting, they give the starts “a shot of worm casting juice.” Jenny describes this practice, like inoculating seed potatoes, as a quick and low-cost way to accelerate the production of microorganisms in your soil.

The vermicompost extract is added to the water when transplanting – which uses their favourite tool, the Rain-flo 1670 water wheel transplanter.

James describes the transplanter as easy to use. It’s also more efficient than their old transplanter because it allows him to plant closer rows, creating greater plant density.

Jenny adds that James modified it. “He’s amazing. He cut it in half and added a section so it can straddle our six-foot-wide beds. That was an engineering feat!”

Preventing Pests

Using deep mulch may raise a concern over slug problems but that hasn’t been an issue on the Sundog farm. They have, though, encountered more cutworm issues in the deeply mulched beds.

Brassica pests are common, which isn’t surprising given that non-organic canola is grown nearby. The farmers control flea beetles, cabbage loopers and cabbage worms with products, such as Bt[2], that are approved for organic production. They sometimes use Bt for Colorado potato beetles, but not every year. They say many of the pest problems seem to go in waves, and are becoming less intense.

The new focus on soil health through organic no-till is part of their pest control plan.

“When your plants are healthy, they’re not attractive to insect pests,” mentions Jenny. “We’re trying to bring things into balance also for that reason.”

In the deep mulch system, the compost not only “adds organic matter and carbon,” she continues, “it also acts as a weed suppressant especially for annual weeds. Also, since we’re not tilling, we’re not bringing up new weed seeds anymore. And when the rhizosphere [rooting zone] is healthy in the soil, that also acts as a weed suppressant.

 “We’ve learned from a few incredibly weedy years that soil wants to be covered as much as possible. Think about natural systems such as a forest – there is an innate urge to keep soil healthy by having living matter covering it,” Jenny notes on Facebook. She explains that they’re trying to mimic this natural process.

Marketing Methods

Sundog Organic Farm sells through their farm share program (CSA[3]) and at Edmonton’s Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market. In 2021, the sales from the two marketing venues were roughly equal. From now on, however, the CSA revenue will likely be higher. The farmers’ market complements the CSA partially because it runs year-round. Also, many of their first CSA members had previously been loyal market customers. However, James and Jenny are starting to focus on their CSA to manage the risk of sales being influenced by external factors. This year, the CSA changed from 12-week to 16-week shares for the 270 members.

“I think it’s good for us to be a bit independent with the CSA,” Jenny says. “We’re at the mercy of other people making decisions on our behalf when we’re at the farmers’ market.”

Their previous market changed location which led to a dramatic drop in customers. It also required them to be at the market Saturday and Sunday. They like the Strathcona market but lost revenue when COVID restrictions limited capacity to 25%. Many past customers still haven’t returned to the market.

Market customers are also fickle, James adds. Many won’t show up if it rains or is a long weekend, whereas the CSA “creates a commitment from the customer.”

The CSA is also convenient for people who don’t want to drive in the city and find parking, and for people who don’t like crowds. Sundog has pick-up locations in Edmonton and surrounding satellite communities.

People join their CSA because they want local, organic food, and also because they can customize their shares in a few ways. Customers can pay the cost for the full season up front or in installments (e.g., 25% when signing up, 25% at season’s start and the remaining 50% over the course of 16 weeks).

Sundog uses a CSA management platform, called Harvie, that enables members to choose what goes in their box. Customers state their preferences when they sign up (which allows farmers to plan), and they can edit the contents of the basket each week. CSA members get the food they want, while reducing food waste.

“I think we have a high degree of customer satisfaction,” Jenny mentions. 

In addition to this software, the farmers keep detailed records, including their yields, sales and the return for each crop. James, described by Jenny as “a spreadsheet genius,” has created his own recordkeeping system. The records are used for their certification applications and to make decisions about how much to grow and what prices to charge.

Fall Crops in Early Summer

One feature that makes Sundog stand out from many other market gardens is their ability to store crops. At the start of the season, when most farms are just offering lettuce, braising greens and radishes, Sundog also has carrots, celeriac, potatoes and parsnips. 

Crops are stored in a huge walk-in cooler and kept just above freezing. Carrots, the farm’s best-selling crop, are washed in the fall and stored in perforated plastic sacks. There is a separate, slightly warmer, cooler for potatoes, which are kept in large wooden boxes.

Being able to store fall crops until July depends on more than the characteristics of the coolers. For example, the carrots that stored particularly well were from plants that received the vermicompost extract. James speculates that the extract stimulated plant health, which in turn improved the storage qualities of the produce. They suspect that their vegetables have high Brix values (an indication of sugar content) and this can lead to better flavour, good storage and resistance to pests.

Managing Risks

The last few years have been filled with unexpected difficulties caused by various external forces. Heavy rainfall and changes in the farmers’ market location and hours were followed by COVID, which brought drops in sales, value chain disruptions and a loss of staff through the foreign worker program.

Certain challenges are easier to deal with than others – for example, the farmers ordered seeds and other inputs earlier. Focusing on the CSA instead of farmers’ markets created more financial independence.

Adopting the organic no-till system can help mitigate risks. Improving soil health can increase the soil’s resilience to extreme weather events, as well as improve the ability of crops to resist pests, withstand stressful weather and maintain high quality during storage.

James and Jenny also anticipate that their labour requirements might drop once the no-till system is fully established and less weeding is required.

Sundog hires four to six workers each year. In 2020, their regular temporary foreign workers from Mexico couldn’t get visas so local, untrained people were hired. Due to the wet conditions, they couldn’t control weeds at the optimal time and the weeds took over.

“We ended up laying off staff because we couldn’t afford to keep them. James and I ended up doing most of the harvesting,” recalls Jenny. “We were shocked at how much the two of us could do without having to train and manage staff. Fortunately, we have a really great team this year.” This includes temporary foreign workers from Mexico and an apprentice from Young Agrarians.

Future of Sundog Organic

They have no plans for succession but it’s “a hope and a dream” of Jenny’s that one or more of their boys might want to farm.

“One reason I’m excited about the organic no-till system,” explains Jenny, “is that our kids have seen us struggle and be very stressed during the hard years. And that’s not the legacy I want to leave. I want them to see farming as something that’s hopeful and fulfilling. And that’s a really big motivator for me to change how we do things. If they decide this is something that they want, I don’t want them to have to struggle the way that we did.”

“I look out and I see the soil that’s protected with our cover crops,” says James. “I see those organic no-till beds in great condition – plants growing, the beds don’t have lots of weeds and are easy to manage. It’s a world of difference from before, even though we’re having similar weather. There’s some satisfaction there.”

“The difference is pretty dramatic,” says Jenny. “Those years were hard. I would say there’s even trauma in experiencing that stress. But when I go out there now, I feel healed.”

“I feel like our effort to heal the land is reciprocal,” Jenny smiles. “There’s healing that comes back in our direction too.”

Lessons to Share

  1. Soil health is the key to successful farming.
  2. Test inputs before buying.
  3. Independence in marketing makes you less vulnerable.
  4. It can take more time to train and manage staff than to do the work yourself.
  5. When you heal the land, it heals you.


[1] CAN/CGSB-32-311 (2020): Permitted Substances List. Table 4.2 “Compost feedstocks: …When evidence indicates that compost feedstocks could contain a substance or substances prohibited by 1.4 or 1.5 of CAN/CGSB-32.310 that is known to be potentially persistent in compost, testing of the compost before use is required or reference to scientific literature which establishes that the specific potential contaminant(s) will degrade during the composting process…”

[2] “Bt,” Bacillus thuringiensis, is a bacterium that is found naturally in soils. This biopesticide targets specific pests and does not persist in the environment.

[3]Community Supported (Shared) Agriculture in which customers pay in advance for weekly assortments of vegetables throughout the growing season.


The Prairie Farmer Profiles (Sundog Organic Farm, MJJ & A Organic Farm, Haywire Farms, Mill Creek Organics Ltd, Pristine Prairie Organics, Upland Organics, Our Farm, G & G Farms, Marshall Farms and Penny Lane Organics) were written by Janet Wallace.  The Ontario Farmer Profiles were provided by the Organic Council of Ontario.   The Farmer Profiles were developed as part of the Prairie Organic Development Fund’s Canadian Organic Ingredient Strategy (COIS).  The COIS was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, Government of Canada.  Translation services were provided by the Government of Manitoba.