Monday, December 22, 2008

Farm search complete!

First off, the best Christmas present I could have gotten this year...I've bought a farm! Technically, it doesn't close until February 27, 2009, but my offer was accepted and now I just have to get my ducks in order so that the money to pay for it is ready by the closing date. It's a 40 acre farm by the town of Chesley, south of Owen Sound and east of Port Elgin. The property has a 2400 square foot farm house first built in 1886, a bank barn, a drive shed, and various other small outbuildings. The house itself is surrounded by mature trees and gardens, though I have yet to see them in all their glory!

I didn't update this blog during the farm search because I didn't want to write about the process while it was happening. It was just too much of an emotional rollercoaster for me to want to get my hopes up too high before I actually managed to secure a place. I knew that if it wasn't in God's timing for me to have my own farm straight away, that it wouldn't happen, and I didn't want to assume that I could be so lucky as to farm my own land in 2009. That said...I really wanted to find a place so I could farm my own land in 2009. It takes years to set up the right growing cycles for a farm and I just want to get started. And if I got a farm now, I was guaranteed to have a farm business partner for at least the first year, Mark, which would make the whole farm startup that much easier because I wouldn't be doing so completely on my own but would have a trusted friend by my side. In my lower moments, I tried to cheer myself up by considering farm manager jobs that I could take next year instead. But that didn't really cheer me up so I knew that if I didn't get a property, I would be very depressed over Christmas. But no need to consider that 'what if' any more because I got the farm I wanted and I'm going to have the best Christmas ever!

Rewinding back to the start of the farm search process...while I was still at Everdale, I looked at a lot of Multiple Listing Service (MLS) farms to get a feel for what was out there and what the pricing was like. I did go to visit a couple properties, one close to Everdale and another one north-east of Barrie. The property close to Everdale was definitely far outside the realm of affordability, at $10,000+ per acre, which is how any property within an hour of Toronto was priced. The property north-east of Barrie had promise because it was 200 acres of land with 2 houses on it, as well as various outbuildings. I was quite excited to go and see it because on paper it seemed just right, but it turned out to be a really disappointing trip. I felt no uplifting of spirits when I looked at the land and of the 2 houses, the bungalow was basic, but liveable, while the 19th century farm house needed a lot of work. Even given the low price (around $1000/acre), I would be spending too much time and money making the buildings and property liveable to me, instead of farming. Not that I've had much experience or success in the dating game, but it felt like I had set up a date with a guy that looked really compatible on paper, only to have absolutely no chemistry with him on a face to face meeting. I certainly didn't expect that having chemistry with a property would factor so strongly into my search!

A week or so later, I spent a day with an agent who brought me to 3 farms around Durham (west) region. One of them had beautiful land, but a house in about the worst condition that I have ever seen without actually being condemned. It was a fascinating place in that the owner was clearly an eccentric collector and had a lot of items that would have been interesting to explore. The second place was a horse boarding farm with a beautifully kept house and outbuildings, but the land itself lacked fertility. The third place was right on a busy road and the house reeked of cigarette smoke. So none of these properties were suitable.

After I returned to Toronto from Everdale, I started to seriously scout out properties on MLS and booked 2 days of showings all around south Grey Bruce to see 10 different properties from almost as many agents. The first day was really positive as each property looked promising and I could see myself farming on them. I was really happy that I could feel positive about these places because my last few experiences had left me worried that I wouldn't see anything that I could like. The second day was a bit more hit and miss, with one mixup on location so that I missed one appointment. At the end of the 2 days, I was definitely tired. And soon after that, the snow hit, so I knew that if I were to be farming my own land in 2009, it would have to be one of the properties I had looked at.

Mark was with me for all these farm property visits and at each place, we performed the John Slack Dutch auger 10% hydrochloric acid soil test. All the agents were quite fascinated by this as it's certainly not something they would have seen before. Essentially, we were testing for free carbonates in the parent material of the soil, as well as looking at the soil layers for texture which would indicate microbial activity (something to be encouraged in organic farming!). On most of the properties, we had to pull up almost 4 feet of soil, which meant we were often hitting water since it's been such a wet summer. Of the properties tested, only a handful didn't 'fizz' (reaction between the acid solution and calcium carbonate) and would therefore not be worth trying to farm since the land was missing the basic mineralogical components for good fertility. I think many of the agents were quite surprised that I would be the one digging the hole (Mark and I did take turns), though honestly, most probably weren't expecting a short, Asian woman to be so seriously looking at farmland!

At the end of the 2 days and 10 properties, I knew there was only one property that would be a possibility. It was the smallest property we had looked at, with 40 acres, almost all workable, and a price tag that I coud finance without having to find outside investors. After looking at a lot of 100 acre properties, I had a better feeling for the size that I could manage. While the 100 acre properties were the best value with price points between $3000-5000 per acre, they had varied percentages of useable acres and buildings in different states of repair. And given the current and predicted future state of the Canadian economy, I didn't want to have to incur more debt than I had to. So after confirming some details about the 40 acre property, I decided to take the next step of booking a home inspection.

I went with a home inspector with an engineering background who specialized in century homes. I knew that I would be getting a very thorough inspection (it lasted for almost 6 hours!), as well as an education on how to care for a century home. The day of the inspection dawned sunny and clear so the roads were good. I also brought my mother and best friend Julia along to see the farm. And it's very lucky that I did as the early hour meant they were desperate for coffee, so I stopped the car at a gas station in Orangeville so they could get something to drink. When I went to restart the car, it wouldn't start. Just as my mother started to pull out her CAA card for us to call for help, a CAA truck pulled in right beside us. I jumped out of the car to talk to the CAA mechanic so quickly that I don't think he knew what hit him ;P Both Julia and my mom were calling it a miracle, as after he got his coffee, he had us follow him to his shop so he could check on the battery and see if it just needed replacing or if a more serious alternator replacement was needed. Luckily for me, only the battery needed replacing. The mechanic, Eric, had the battery ordered and replaced within an hour and we were back on the road! I'm so glad that we didn't discover the car trouble at 3:30 pm as we tried to leave the farm!

We arrived at the farm to a winter wonderland. There were probably 2+ feet of snow on the property, and on the house's roof! The home inspection itself revealed that the roof of the farm house needed replacement as soon as possible, but that otherwise, the work that needed to be done on the house all involved sealing the building envelope to prevent moisture penetration that would eventually rot the wooden joists for the floors. So I know I'll be doing a lot of sanding, priming, painting, caulking and mortaring come spring. But these are all responsibilities I would have to take on as the owner of a century home anyway, so I'm up to the challenge! Most importantly, the home inspection confirmed that the wiring in the house was all grounded. If it had turned out that the home still had knob and tube wiring, I wouldn't have bothered trying to buy the place as the whole interior would have to be gutted to update the wiring. I suspect that this house remained without electricity until after the knob and tube period was past. It is a heavily Amish area after all! I didn't hire the inspector to look at the barn, but he did walk through it quickly with me and felt that it was in good condition. When I move there, I'll have to get the Amish barn expert in the area to show me where some additional support may need to be put in.

The home inspection gave me a starting point for coming up with an initial offer amount for the farm. Essentially, I subtracted the immediate repair costs of replacing the roof and fixing the barn from the purchase price. After 2 nerve-wracking weeks of back and forth offer and counteroffer, the seller accepted my price and I signed the final papers on December 20th. In the end, I'm paying a bit more than my ideal price, and the seller is selling for a bit less than her ideal price, which means we're probably at just the right price. I'm just super happy that the pricing process is over and I can actually kick myself out of stasis and into farm planning gear! Up until now, I didn't know what 2009 would bring and was just trying to hold myself in neutral so that I wouldn't be too disappointed if I didn't end up with a farm for 2009. And part of me is still in shock right now and worried that something will derail this process before February 27. Any prayers or positive thoughts you could throw my way so that everything proceeds smoothly to closing would be greatly appreciated!

I don't have any pictures I can post yet as I didn't take any exterior shots of the place and I don't want to post pictures of the inside of someone else's home since the seller still lives there. But I will take exterior, wintry shots the next time I'm up there! If you feel so inclined, start planning an Ontario road trip next year and come out to visit me at my new farm :)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Return from Everdale

Monday was a bittersweet day for me as I left Everdale for the 2008 growing season. I will be in and out to help with the winter root vegetable harvest and also to continue with my farm property search, but I gave up my room in the straw bale and will no longer be spending most of each week there. The last week of 'regular programming' at Everdale included the weekly harvests and pulling in all the irrigation equipment. Now the unwinterized public buildings on site will have to be shut down and eventually only the farm managers will be left for the winter.

We ended our week on Friday at John Slack's farm where he showed us his setup for honey extraction and also how to shear sheep. John has Romney (wool breed) and East Friesian (milk breed) sheep, as well as their crosses, and he and his daughter Natalie sheared 2 of the Romneys as a demonstration for us. Each fleece is probably more than 10 lbs, and I got to bring home the one from the grey/black Romney. So in the next few days, I will be reporting on the fleece washing process! It's going to be quite an undertaking as sheep fleece is far from clean ;P It will also be interesting to see how well I do at sheep shearing in the future as it definitely involves some sheep wrestling!

Saturday was a day spent touring 3 farms with Farmers Growing Farmers (Everdale's farm business planning course that I'm taking with Mark...more details on the course in future posts). We visited John Sutherland's farm where all his outdoor soil fertility comes from mulching with leaves and grass clippings, and his greenhouse mixes include a layer of manure and straw for fertility and heat generation; John Slack's farm (yes, I saw a lot of Slack last week!) where he talked about soil fertility (the fizzy test which I've written about before, which Mark performed at the last farm we looked at...again, more details on the farm property search in future posts) and composting; and John Rowe's farm where he talked about needing to educate the consumer on the difference in flavour and texture of pastured grass-fed beef when compared to that of feedlot corn- and grain-fed beef. Cows, being ruminants, are healthiest if they eat mostly grasses. Corn really disagrees with their stomachs and results in overly acidic pH and meat that's higher in bad fats. The Rowe Farm stores in Toronto's Leslieville and St. Lawrence market carry a hybrid of beef that's grass-fed and then finished for about 6 weeks on grain so that consumers can get used to the taste and texture differences by moving down a continuum. But if you're ready to go for fully grass-fed beef, you can ask the St. Lawrence market location if they've got any fully grass-fed beef in stock. It's best to cook grass-fed beef using slow cooking methods of longer cooking times at lower temperatures, perfect for braising and stewing recipes that are so welcome at this colder time of year!

After all the farm tours, Saturday ended with Everdale's end of season party which included a feast of turkey, ham, pork roast and chicken wings, all meat raised at Everdale! I'm obviously an ardent meat eater...though I think I did eat some roasted cauliflower and salad that night too. Those of us who have spent a significant amount of time living and working at Everdale were presented with keys to Everdale so we can always come back :)

So I'm back in Toronto now and am looking forward to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair which will be held on the CNE grounds starting Friday, November 7. I will be helping out with both the Everdale and Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Action Committee (GTA AAC) booths. If you've never been to The Royal before, you should check it out!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Season's last big events at Everdale - Feast of Fields and Carrot Fest

Many weeks have gone by since Everdale hosted both Feast of Fields and Carrot Fest, so the details of both events aren't the freshest in my mind, but I've got some pictures to share!

Feast of Fields was a wonderful event for all food and drink lovers, with lots of tasty treats to sample, along with wines and beers. Michael Smith of Chef at Home and Chef at Large on the Food Network was there and I did have a chance to chat with him and his wife, as well as sell them a hat from Everdale's farm store. They came to visit Everdale on the Saturday before the event to get a tour of the farm. I think they quite enjoyed their visit, and Michael Smith liked the bright yellow dress I wore to the event. It was certainly bright enough to light up a rainy start to the day!

Feast of Fields site, nestled in the bowl between the cut flower garden and the Seeds of Diversity maze, before the vendors started arriving for set up

Sunday started off very rainy indeed so everyone was in rain gear for the last bits of set up. I climbed the extension ladder to hammer orange cloth onto the stage for the event, and then directed my team of decorators to add corn stalks, sunflowers and amaranth to the stage supports to decorate it (the blue tarp in the picture below was added by other people...I wouldn't have chosen to put it up!). The night before, I cut orange fabrics into strips to make bows for the hats of Everdale board members and staff, and also made a whole pile of cosmo and amaranth leaf boutonniers. I didn't get involved with any wedding decorating this year, so it was fun to have an event to decorate and improvise using all the things growing on the farm!

Michael Stadtandler of Eigensinn's Farm, speaking on stage at Feast of Fields

Everdale's food table at the event served up a pickled kebab of the vegetables that Mark preserved for the farm. The kebab included a pickled green or yellow bean, radish, beet and garlic scape. All the produce was grown right at Everdale.

Mark, me, Cathy Hansen and her daughter Emily at our shared food table

Some of the food samplings at the event included Cathy's (a neighbouring organic farmer who has an amazing market garden for about 30 CSA members...she taught me how to make onion ropes!) delicious tarlets with caramelized leeks and goat's cheese, topped with cranberries and candied walnuts; a lamb burger with chocolate and coffee, topped with a tasty homemade mayonnaise; pulled pork with some sort of plum topping served on a yorkshire pudding; ice cream from Mapleton's; baguette and roasted veg sandwiches from Ace Bakery; wild rice salad; wild boar ragout on polenta cakes; hemp brownies and cookies; venison pepperettes...and more items that I can't remember right now. On the beverage side, there were many wineries and breweries in attendance, as well as a tea place that had an amazing rooibos chai tea with soy milk. And it's taken a whole summer, but I can finally drinkand appreciate good beer! The light stuff isn't for me though...definitely prefer the more flavourful dark beers!

Me in my Feast of Fields finery, making pickled kebabs at the Everdale food table

Everdale hosted Carrot Fest a couple weekends later and I was in charge of running the bread oven. I had about 40 kids come through my station and they all got to shape and knead a ball of bread dough from a batch that I had prepared and set to rise earlier that morning. I also got the fire started in the bread oven at 8 am that morning, and with the help of others, had it blazing enough that the heat managed to last through most of the baking session that afternoon, though I did have to restart the fire from the coals once to build up more heat for the oven to last until the end. While the bread was baking or cooling, I had the kids make butter by shaking cream up in a spice jar. The kids seemed to enjoy my station and some were repeat customers!

Both Feast of Fields and Carrot Fest required a fair amount of site preparation, Everdale beautification...which generally involves a lot of lawn mowing and weed whacking! Both events were lots of fun, but we were all definitely happy to settle back to farm work after they were over.

And now that I've finally found it, here's a link to an article by Michael Smith in The Globe and Mail about Feast of Fields:

Monday, October 13, 2008

Must Read - Michael Pollan article in the NY Times

For those who would like a one stop article explaining why the production of food needs to change, this one by Michael Pollan on Oct. 9 in the NY Times is it. You can read it at:

It is a long article and is definitely worth the read! So much of what's in the article resonates with all the reasons why I'm currently at Everdale and am now looking seriously for land so that I can start farming next season. While the demand for organic and locally grown food is on the rise, that doesn't mean that people will start farming that way quickly enough to meet that demand. I'm not so foolish as to believe that I will produce enough food in my first year of farming to make any sort of an impact on the Ontario food economy. But my hope is that in 5 to 10 years, my farm will be producing enough food to support a community. For the sake of Ontario's long-term food security, we'd better hope that there are a lot more people out there like me who actually want to get into sustainable agriculture, despite all the obstacles. And I certainly hope that the various levels of the Canadian government will start to act more on securing Canada's long-term food security. While Pollan's article is written to the next U.S. president, the same message needs to be heard by our next prime minister.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! And remember to participate in democracy at the polls tomorrow!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Long Overdue Update

Time has flown in the past few weeks and I've been very lax in updating this blog. I will write a separate post about Feast of Fields (Sep. 7) after I've collected some pictures to include, as well as Carrot Fest (Sep. 20).

So what's been going on at Everdale for the last few weeks...lots of harvesting and event prep! Harvesting has become more of a routine over the weeks as we've all become more familiar with the various crops and become more systematic about gathering and cleaning/hydrocooling the crops. Lettuce heads are probably the fastest both to harvest and process. Some people will pick and cut the lettuce heads, leaving them upside down in the beds for others to follow and collect. Before the day gets hot enough to wilt the lettuce (no later than 10 am usually), the lettuce heads are hydrocooled in tubs of cold water, then packed in bins, labelled, and stacked in the walk-in fridge. This allows the heads of lettuce to remain fresh for up to 2 weeks if necessary. But generally, most are sold at markets within days of harvest. At the other end of the labour spectrum, I would consider bean harvesting to be the most time consuming and backbreaking. The beans are handpicked, which requires crouching or bending over the low growing plants and making sure to pull the bean off the plant without breaking it. For me, this usually means that I pick with one hand while I hold onto the plant with the other. Some people can pick with both hands...though I can't figure out how they do it without pulling some of the plants right out of the ground when a bean doesn't want to come off the vine. I've pretty much decided that I won't be planting beans for sale on my own farm because the harvest labour required is so annoying. So don't flinch if the cost of green/yellow beans at the grocery store seems expensive...there's a reason for that cost if they're handpicked!

Last Saturday, I helped with stacking hay bales in the barn. It's really sweaty work and you can get scratched up from the straw, but it's also satisfying to see the bale stacks that reach up to the barn rafters, and which give you access to the swing about halfway up the stacks. After unloading the hay wagons, we had to move them out of the barn, which required controlling runaway hay wagons! Kristin and I actually managed to move an empty hay wagon ourselves, with Kirk steering from the back, and Rosemary throwing down the block whenever the wagon took on too much momentum down the hill. We would stop and start it so that it wouldn't get away from us, but there were some sketchy moments where I was throwing all my weight back to keep it from going too fast and had my planted feet dragged forward through the gravel like in some Indiana Jones movie! I wasn't all that confident that Kristin and I, who probably weigh at most 250 lbs between the two of us, would be able to stop the wagon from careening down the hill, but Kristin was confident that we could do it, so we did. I'm glad she convinced me because it turned out to be a lot of fun!

The last set of lambs were born about 2 weeks ago, finally! Ringo, the stud sheep, obviously took a while getting his job done for the final set of lambs to be born so much later than the others ;P But these are the cutest ones yet as they're twins, one black male and a white female. They're so adorable and tiny compared to all the lambs that were born back in July. It's amazing how quickly sheep grow! The July lambs are pretty close to being as big as their mothers at this point. Cow lamb is still as cute as ever, and the friendliest of the bunch, always coming over to be petted. The newest lambs are really skittish, so I haven't had a chance to pet them yet as I'm not inclined to chase them down in the field.

Other than the harvesting, event prep, and still to be written about events (which took a lot of time and preparation!), I've been stepping up my land search. It may seem ambitious, but I really hope that I can buy some farmland this year so that I can plan for crops next spring. Part of me thinks this will be impossible since land prices are so high, but another part of me is praying for a miracle. I feel that God has blessed me and opened so many doors ever since I left my job in April to pursue my farm dream and can't help but hope that the next step of getting some land is just around the corner. Otherwise, I'm really not sure what I'm going to be doing with myself this winter. It's scary to think that the season is almost over and that the interns and volunteers will be leaving Everdale at the end of October. I feel like the momentum I've gained over the past few months can't just come to an abrupt and crashing halt. So I will hope and pray that the land and the money will come together in some blessed fashion. So if any of you reading this blog are inclined to prayer, please pray that I'll find the right piece of land to steward!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Baking Bread

My first week back at Everdale after my two weeks back in Toronto was the usual flurry of activity, with two very wet harvest days. But the highlight of the week was working on my 'special project' on Wednesday, our seminar day. There was no field trip planned for this particular week and Wednesday was to be used by the interns for their special projects, but since Kirk and I are volunteers and not interns, we didn't have a special project to work on. So I suggested that we bake bread in the outdoor clay oven.

While I knew I was putting myself in a position of much work, I didn't fully appreciate how much time and effort would be involved! Kirk and I were also quite ambitious, preparing 4 different kinds of rising bread doughs: a 7 grain and honey dough, a foccacia dough, a whole wheat dough, and a naan dough (which we also used to make a pizza and some panzerottis).

Since bread dough requires time to rise, we started by making all our doughs and setting them in a warm spot to rise. Then we had to stoke up the oven. This required chopping up wood for tinder and then starting the fire in the oven, which Mark helped us with since I really have no experience with starting fires. We also had to soak the door of the oven in water. It took probably an hour or two and about 5-6 full logs to heat up the oven enough for baking, as the thermal mass of the bricks/concrete needed to have absorbed enough heat to keep the oven hot once the fire was pushed to the back of the oven as coals for baking.

After lunch, we prepared the first batch of dough to put in the oven. Mark showed us how to push the coals to the back, and a small cast iron pan was put in to heat up and hold water for steam. We made 2 smallish and 1 large loaf out of the 7 grain and honey dough and Mark showed us how to place them in the oven with the bread paddle, along with a splash of water for the steam pan. We then closed up the oven door and hoped for the best. Well, that oven was a lot hotter than any of us expected, so after 15 minutes, the loaves were completely blackened on the outside. So we pulled them out and decided to only put in 1 loaf at a time after that and to severely cut down on our expected baking time.

At the end of the day, we had baked 6 loaves of bread, 4-5 naan, a cheese pizza and 2 cheese panzerottis, and a pan of corn bread. Everything was delicious, including the blackened 7 grain and honey loaves. We just cut them open and people dug out the insides, which were extremely tasty. Kirk took pictures of our results, though he refused to be in any pictures himself. When I'm finally able to stay at Everdale over a Sunday (hopefully in early September), I hope to try my hand at bread baking again!

Monday, August 11, 2008

The true cost of food

In my weeks away from the farm, I did help out at both of Everdale's Toronto market sites during the week, the Narayever CSA on Thursday and the Brickworks farmer's market on Saturday. It was really interesting to meet the people who have chosen to buy their food directly from farmers and to see the different stages they're at in terms of understanding the real cost of food.

The way that produce is priced at market is based on what consumers are willing to pay, and not necessarily on the full cost of production for that produce. I often felt when selling some of our produce that the prices were too low, yet there were always some customers who would complain about the prices, even though the majority of the Brickworks customers are quite affluent. I would like to calculate the real dollar cost of producing the various vegetables that are sold and see how far that cost is from the prices actually being charged at market. From field preparation, to seed, to transplant, to weeding, to irrigation, to harvest, to cooling and storage, to transportation, and finally, the time spent selling at various markets, there's a lot of labour involved! My gut tells me that $2 for a head of lettuce just doesn't cut it, even if we're harvesting and selling almost 800 heads per week (in addition to many other vegetables). I think that's 800 heads of lettuce from over 1600 planted seeds in the greenhouse, with over 50% loss from poor germination or growing conditions over the 6-8 weeks before the lettuce heads are ready for harvest. And lettuce is a relatively 'profitable' harvest compared to more labour intensive harvests like peas or beans.

Consider that the average Ontario family only spent about 10% of their disposable income on food ( in 2007. Compare that to 13% spent on transportation. Is it really reasonable for us to spend less on the food that keeps us alive and healthy each day than on commuting? And if you look at the Consumer Price Index, the cost of fruits and vegetables have gone down in 2007 compared with 2002! ( My assumption is that the reduction in retail cost is for conventionally grown produce, not organic, and has to do with an increase in imports from other countries where labour costs are much lower than in Ontario and environmental and labour laws are less stringent than here. But that retail cost doesn't take into account the environmental cost of having that produce brought in from long distances away. Or the exploitation of farm labourers in developing countries, whose health is also affected by the pesticides that they work around each day. And the low cost of the food we eat also means that being a farmer in Ontario is a far from appealing career path. Essentially, it seems that farmers are farmers out of love or altruism, and often involves holding down another job to support their farming habit/inheritance.

How is this horribly lopsided equation to be balanced? In 2006, only 8.6% of Ontario farmers were under the age of 35 (, 48.9% are from 35 to 54, and 42.5% are over 55. There obviously aren't enough new farmers in Ontario to replace the ones that will be retiring or should have already retired. We are in a culture that values decreasing the prices of everything without considering the true costs of doing so. Why should farmers not earn a decent wage for farming? What could persuade the average consumer that they should be spending more of their income on the food that they eat so that local farming can actually be a reasonable career choice? If this imbalance doesn't change, then Ontario's food supply will be at the mercy of other countries and global forces that don't have Ontarians' best interests at heart. I'm certainly not an alarmist in terms of expecting disaster to strike or the world to dissolve into chaos in my lifetime, but the increasing cost of oil and food shortages around the world cannot be ignored.

Because of this imbalance, many of the potential farmers I've met via Everdale's visits to other CRAFT farms ( aren't concerned with producing enough food to feed others, but just to sustain themselves and their families and friends. While this is commendable in and of itself, it doesn't change the fact that there wouldn't be enough local production to feed the majority of Ontarians. Especially organically! Which is what's needed for long-term environmental sustainability. But even if there are a handful of Ontarians who are willing to take the plunge into organic farming in Ontario, access to land becomes an issue. The price of land these days seems to be based on its value for future development, and not so much on what it could produce as a farm, so the cost of the land is many times higher than the income that could be earned from farming it. There are some fairly young programs out there which are starting to connect new farmers to land owners who are willing to have their farmland put into production (property tax breaks for farming, as well as putting provincially owned land into production). I struggle with the idea of putting so much effort into land owned by someone else, who could choose to sell or take back the land after I've spent years improving soil fertility. And there is some perception that taking this route feels like new farmers are 'poor labourers' feeding the rich, rather than intelligent and hardworking entrepreneurs who are working to change the face of farming in Ontario.

I'm blessed in that I feel that I'm answering God's call to go into farming and have built up assets such that I could possibly buy land and put it into production. But I'm in a very different financial position than pretty much everyone that I've met at Everdale or through CRAFT so far. And I have yet to find suitable land at a price that I can afford. I admit to procrastinating on the land hunting front as I find it a bit of a depressing exercise and much prefer right now to continue working at Everdale, learning everything I can about farming. But the end of the growing season is only a few months away, and much as I'd like to think that my active and idyllic life at Everdale can go on forever, I do have to start planning for the future.

My hope is that when I do start producing food, that there will be a community of people who are willing to pay the real price of the food I provide to them, including supporting a reasonable salary for me! Realistically, this will be a group of people who do have the disposable income to pay the higher cost of food, perhaps even willing to pay a bit more so that those with lower incomes can be subsidized to access the same food. It's certainly not a solution to balancing the equation, but it's somewhere that I can start!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Beginning of full on harvest season

This past week was my 7th at Everdale, and now I'm back in Toronto for 2.5 weeks for my sister's wedding. I have really mixed feelings about being 'home'. On the one hand, I love my comfy condo and my time is certainly filled with activities and meeting up with friends., but on the other, I really miss being at Everdale...being up at the crack of dawn and working hard all day at so many different tasks. So far, this first week I'll be away from the farm, I've completely missed the garlic harvest. By the time I get back, who knows how much bigger cow lamb will be or if he'll remember me enough to come and butt me when I go to see him. And I'll definitely miss the company of all the people at Everdale. This probably isn't a surprise to anyone else, but I'm surprised by how much of an extrovert I've turned out to be ;P

I've also decided now to make this blog 'public'. So for those of you who want to set up RSS feeds, or hate logging in, you won't have any problems keeping up now! I'm counting on the massive volumes of data available on the internet to keep this blog known only to those I know.

So, this past week had a whole lot of harvesting. Lots of big crisp lettuce heads, mixed greens, spinach, chard (beautiful rainbow colours!), kale, radishes, green onions, herbs (coriander, basil, mint), kohlrabi and scapes. Since there's so much harvest to be done, we start really early in the morning before the sun gets too fierce. Then all the harvest is brought into the Hub to be hydro-cooled and stored in the walk-in fridge in preparation for the CSA pickup on Thursday and the farmer's markets on Saturday.

I got to go to my first farmer's market on Saturday. Karen and I headed down to the Oakville market on Kerr St. It's an organic farmer's market and has a good mix of farms. There's also a baker there who makes delicious herb and cheese breads. It was interesting to talk to the customers and learn about them. It was also a striking reminder of how separated the average consumer is from the realities of agriculture. We've been so spoiled by imported foods that we expect every kind of fruit and vegetable to be available year round so there's no understanding of what's actually in season at any given point in time. There were people looking for fruit who were disappointed that there weren't fresh apples and peaches available. And the explanation that right now it's mostly berries (strawberries, beginning of raspberries, etc.) and cherries that are in season in Ontario and fresh apples wouldn't be available until the fall, was met with something akin to disbelief. Any apples or potatoes (not new potatoes, those are actually in season now) for sale right now are from last year's harvest, kept in cold storage, or they're imported from warmer climes. Personally, I'm happy to be eating mostly berries and cherries right now!

I probably won't be posting any new updates until after I've gone back to Everdale in early August...though if I'm diligent with my reading, I may post a comment on whatever agricultural tidbits I glean from my readings. Perhaps there will be a comparison on the rate of knowledge transfer from book learning vs. hands on experience, though really, there's not much comparison there!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Life and Death of livestock

A warning to those who may be sensitive to the death of animals, skip reading this post if you're squeamish. The quick story is that a sheep diedand I participated in the culling of 2 chickens.

Les, the sheep who had the stillborn lamb, died on Monday this past week. We found her when putting Amber in at night in the evening. Andrew was following Amber in from the field and Amber stopped at Les' body. Mark, James and I arrived as Andrew was going to go get Gavin and Karen. We ended up burying her right beside where she died. She had been continuing to lose weight ever since she gave birth to the lamb, even though she was continuing to graze and we kept feeding her grain. We're not sure exactly why she died, but just hope that her last days were happy. She was certainly friendly, always happy to be petted as I fed her grain. The last time I saw her alive was on Saturday before I returned to Toronto for the weekend.

Lynn had 2 chickens, Marianne and Buffy, that she needed culled because they were not laying, so Mark decided that we should slaughter them on Wednesday as that's the one day each week when we're not usually exhausted from a full day of farm work. My motivation for participating in the culling was to see if I could continue to be a meat eater or should become a vegetarian. I felt that if I wanted to remain a meat eater, I could not divorce myself from the fact that the meat that I eat starts as a living and breathing animal which has to be killed to become meat for my pot. I certainly do not have any dislike of chickens and did not relish the task that was ahead.

We went to Whole Circle farm on Wednesday and when we got back, prepared ourselves for the task. A pot of water was put on to boil and we went to get the first chicken. I managed to get her from under the coop and carried her down the hill to the spot we had chosen. I held the chicken's wings and feet while Mark stretched out the neck and wielded the axe. The body does indeed move around a lot after the head is chopped off. I kept a good grip on her and moved her to a pail to drain. Then we went to get the second chicken, which Andrew killed. We then scalded the bodies in near boiling water and plucked the chickens. It wasn't as hard or long a task as we were expecting. Then Mark and I each removed the entrails from one of the chickens. One really fascinating thing was to see the developing eggs in the chickens. It led Lynn to wonder why they had stopped laying...perhaps they were still laying but eating their own eggs? Whatever the case, the birds were now cleaned and we put them in the fridge to cool overnight. On Thursday night, after a frustrating afternoon of laying irrigation lines, Mark and I quartered the chickens and I made them into chicken stew. The stew was quite tasty (with the addition of stock from chicken Mark had cooked that day in preparation for the farm celebration on Saturday), though the meat from the chickens was quite tough. Slow cooking might help to soften them up...stewing hens really do need to be stewed for a long time!

I had to leave Everdale early this week but before I left just before lunch on Friday, I helped Mark bake some biscotti to sell at the Saturday farm celebration. It's the first time I've baked using a scale to weigh out dry ingredients and I find that I quite like the precision of this method. I'm definitely going to keep my eyes open for a sale on kitchen weigh scales. It was actually rather nerve wracking to make the biscotti as I've never made anything for sale before. But they turned out quite tasty and with the right texture, so I'm happy about that! When I return tomorrow, I'll find out if any of them sold this weekend!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Birthday Bonfire!

This week started with my birthday, so it had to be a good week! Julia came up for the day with me on Monday and helped us with a relatively light afternoon of seeding in the greenhouse and hand weeding in the one acre pea field. She discovered that pulling weeds can be quite therapeutic :)

Bettina and Ken came up to the farm in the evening and we had flank steak from Rowe Farms, as well as asparagus, zucchini and apples, all cooked up on the bbq. I then gave them all a tour of the farm and then Garrett got the bonfire going so we could roast marshmallows and hot dogs. I served kirs (a Henry of Pelham white with a dash of cassis) and we stood around the fire munching on treats. Bettina and Ken brought up a black forest cake and Andrew baked a rice flour Grand Marnier cake, which ended up being more of a crumble since rice flour doesn't rise or hold together as well as wheat flour. After we were done with the marshmallow and hot dog roasting, Mark proceeded to pull trees out of his stash of burnable wood and add them to the fire until we had a good blaze going and showers of sparks whenever the ends of trees were pushed into the fire. Mark was like a magician, pulling branch after branch out of the tall weeds beside the bonfire. It's amazing how much weeds can hide! All in all, it was a very satisfying birthday bonfire :D

The rest of the week, I was assigned to bring Amber in at night. The difficulty of this task varied from night to night, with alternating nights when she would just come to her stall when I called her, and other points when I had to get a rope around her neck and pull her in, once from all the way out at the end of the pasture. That's when I found her with her calf feeding from her after 9 pm. I gave him about 15 minutes, hoping he would be finished, but he kept on drinking and Amber showed no inclination to stop grazing and come in. By the time I finally decided to put the rope on her and pull her in, with a stop to graze every few steps or so, 40 minutes had passed before I could get her in her stall. And she was rather difficult to milk most mornings as well. This was the week when Simaron and Andrew were training to milk her and they didn't encounter the greatest success, though Simaron did milk almost 5 litres from her (with Gavin) one morning. We'll see how things go this week! I'm scheduled to milk her with Gavin and Mark later in the week. I'm going to try the technique Lynn showed me and hope it works better for me than what I've been doing so far, which is exactly what Gavin and Mark are doing but with a big difference in our comparative hand size and strength.

I learned how to carry chickens on Tuesday night when I helped Karen move some of her layers from the horse barn to the summer animal shelter. When it's dark out, chickens are in a kind of stupor and very easy to pick up. When they're on the ground, you just pick them up around the chest and can tuck them under the arm to carry. When they're roosting on a fence, you just grab both legs and lift. They flap their wings a bit but settle down quickly once you put them down. At the summer shelter, we just took them out of the cage we used to transport them, and perched them back up on a stall fence in the shelter. It's really quite funny how easy they are to handle in the dark, especially considering I can't catch a chicken at all during the day!

Unfortunately, the chicken transporting set off my allergies for the week. It was possibly the horses, or hay, or the chickens themselves, but with farmers all around the county cutting hay that week, it was definitely a tough time for anyone with hay/grass allergies. I'm hoping that once most of the hay is baled, my allergies will settle down. I woke up a few nights from trouble breathing, which really isn't a pleasant way to wake up.

On Wednesday, we all went to John Slack's farm for a seminar on soil. John Slack sells Spanish River Carbonatite and compost. He's essentially a dirt farmer, in addition to a market gardener and raises sheep and some beef. It was fascinating to hear him talk about his soil testing methods and what makes good farm land as he's very passionate and knowledgeable about the subject. I now know a preliminary soil test that only involves a Dutch auger and some 10% hydrochloric acid which should help me in my land search to rule out any land that doesn't already have a good calcium base to the soil. He also has 4 dogs and a collie puppy on the farm so it was really fun to pet them. I may buy raspberries from him for Benita's wedding, if the ones at Everdale aren't ripe enough for me to pick before then...or if I just don't have the time or energy to pick them!

On Thursday, I helped Joseph with some construction on the seed maze and learned from James (who has a carpentry background) how one person can set up and nail in crossbars, as well as how to space and level vertical fence pieces. And on Saturday, I learned how to set up and repair drip irrigation lines in the Aberfoyle field. I love that you have to wear so many different hats in farming! It's constant trouble shooting and problem solving which is a good challenge for the mind at the same time as you're working your body. I'm feeling really fit and haven't been this tanned before in my life. Other than the recent bout of allergies, I feel extremely healthy. I recommend farm work in the open air for anyone who wants to get reenergized :)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Finally, some pictures!

Meet Jason (born on Friday, June 13)...the first
goat kid born, and the first animal I ever saw being born!

This is cow lamb and his mother. He comes running to be petted!

The planting crew after a really long day of transplanting.
From left, Dave, James, me, Mark, Harris and Gavin.
We stayed in the field until almost 8 pm, and I didn't even
realize how late it was until I noticed the sun was starting to set!

Here I'm planting cukes and zukes in the vegetable
field just below my tent.

This is me using the single wheel hoe, an invaluable
weeding tool! And a great workout too ;P It will be on my
farm warming wish list some time in the years to come!

That's it for now. It's time for me to put Amber in for the night so we can milk her tomorrow morning. Hopefully she's in a better mood tonight than she was yesterday when I had to pull her in on a lead all the way from the far end of the pasture. I was really glad she didn't start to run!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Animal tales

This week started on a sad note with the still birth of one of the lambs. Les had been losing weight for the last few weeks and we were pretty convinced that her pregnancy had ended. When she went into labour, the first part that emerged was the lamb's ear, so Karen had to search out the two front hooves and try to get the head into position so Les could actually push the lamb out. It involved quite a lot of effort on many of our parts. Dave and Andrew held her on one side and I held her on the other so we could try and lift Les' hips into a better position for her to push the lamb out and for Karen to be able to reach the lamb itself. When Karen finally managed to get the lamb's head into position, I could see its tongue hanging out and knew that it couldn't be alive. Apparently a living lamb will help in its birthing, so it's just good that we managed to help Les get it out. The lamb was female and surprisingly large considering how small Les was during her pregnancy. Les still isn't doing so well, so she's being fed grain and I try to visit her a bit each day. I hope she gets better soon.

On Tuesday, I ended up milking Amber on my own. I was the only one who woke up in time and debated if I should go or not and decided that if I really wanted to be able to milk Amber, I shouldn't wimp out just because I didn't have company. It was a rather unsuccessful milking as I was quite nervous and still need a lot of practice with my milking technique. I think I only managed to milk about 500 ml from her before my hand got tired and I lost my teat to the calf who was suckling from the other side. So I wasn't feeling all that good about my luck with animals when I left the barn.

As I was walking back to the kitchen with the milk pail, I passed Karen and Gavin in the pasture watching the newest lamb that was just born while I was milking Amber. She looks like a thorougbred horse, and is quite as skittish! She's all black with a white blaze on her nose and a white foot. So cute! It was really good to see a new lamb born successfully after what happened with Les the day before.

Earlier in the week, I had managed to grab a few minutes to talk with Gavin about staying at Everdale for the whole season. So now I'll be staying at Everdale until the end of October (with some weeks away in July and August for my sister's wedding) and am a long term volunteer and can join the interns in their seminars and visits to other farms. So my first seminar with them was all day on Wednesday when we did a lot of creative farm dreaming, drawing out what our dream farms would look like and sharing them with the group. It was really interesting to see what everyone's dream farm looked like. We ended the day with a walk around the various farm fields talking about the reasons why different cover crops were planted and the challenges of the various fields.

Thursday, I participated in my first harvest. We harvested garlic scapes, which are the flower stem of the garlic before the flower gets produced. If you want your garlic bulb to grow well, you need to break off the scape so the plant will put its energy into the bulb and not the flower. We also harvested lettuce leaves from the lettuces that had been damaged in the hail storm from a couple weeks back. Since the outer leaves were so damaged from the hail, the lettuces couldn't be harvested whole for sale. Instead, we cut the whole, smaller, inner leaves to include in a spring salad mix. We also harvested the first round of snap peas, which was very sparse since its the next harvest that's more plentiful. I then spent pretty much the rest of the day wheel hoeing, which was definitely a huge workout!

On Friday, Nyna finally had her twins. She had been having difficulties with her pregnancy so Gavin just kept Dave and Mark with him and sent the rest of us spectators away. They successfully helped birth 2 white females, Mark helping with the first one which he named Quiver, and Dave with the second, who has a black spot on one ear, so Dave named her Dot.

At the end of the day, Garrett mentioned that Aly, the goat with the twin kids, wasn't acting herself, so I got out my goat book and went to take a look at her. She was lying down and panting and looked really bloated, so I called Karen over to confirm if she thought Aly might have bloat. Karen identified the stomach which gets bloated and we got Aly up and walking with me massaging her belly to try and get things moving. We definitely heard some gurgling in her belly from the massaging and she perked up and was able to eat the hay we put out for her, so I felt good that I had managed to help her feel better. It can't have been a serious case of bloat for the walking/massaging technique to work, but really, I just wanted to avoid it getting to a serious case where you have to insert a feeding tube to add baking soda or vegetable oil to bring down the gas, or the worst case scenario where you have to puncture a hole in the stomach to let out the excess gas. And it felt really good to be able to try out such a non-invasive treatment and be able to see the animal perk up afterwards from it. And my reward...getting to play with her kids who sucked on my fingers and totally jumped all over me...probably because I smelled like Aly after massaging her so much ;P

Saturday, I got to work in the farm store for most of the day and see how the CSA worked. It was really encouraging to meet so many people who wanted to support local agriculture.

I spoke to Liz later in the weekend who updated me on the Aly situation. Apparently Aly had some sort of infection from the pregnancy/birthing, and when I saw her, had bloat on top of that. She's being treated with medication now so she should get better soon. Her udder has dried up as a result, and the kids are now being bottle fed. I'm just glad that Aly's going to get better now, as another farmer in the area had the same thing happen to her goat, but the goat died before they could start treating her. It's sad that Aly is no longer producing milk, but I'm glad she'll be getting better, and hope that I can help with the bottle feeding of the kids!

This coming week, I'm going to get on the Everdale computers and post some pictures so you can see what it's like at the farm. And for those of you who are local, do come and visit!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Dark and stormy week

The weather has been unseasonally cold and wet for a while, but this week has been the hardest to deal with. Everyone felt cold and damp much of the time, and I felt hungrier than usual, probably because more calories were being burned to stay warm. Dave and I were working on moving irrigation hoses and kept talking about chocolate bars and not being able to get a snack since we were at the vegetable field which is about a kilometre away from Everdale. Eventually, Andrew went back to get the truck and he brought us back bananas and dried fruit. Bananas are such great fruits for energy. I definitely have no problem with having them imported! My chocolate bar craving from this week prompted me to get my sister to buy me a box of Mr. Big bars from Costco, so I'll be sure to have some on me in the field this next week :)

There was a violent hail storm on Monday afternoon that did some damage to the leafy vegetables, setting them back by about a week or two. We were working outside, unpacking and cleaning beets, and had to run indoors when the storm hit. The hail itself looked like crushed ice and came down with enough force to make standing out in it quite painful. It crushed a lot of the vegetation in the area so that there was a heady fragrance of herbs in the air. Specifically, there was a fresh, pineapple fruity smell in the air, which I suspect came from the wormwood which grows a lot in the area, and is apparently the plant used to make absinthe.

In general, the constantly wet weather has made it harder to get work done on the farm. The tractor can't go on the field when it's too wet, so tractor-tine weeding can't happen, and neither can transplanting. So we did a lot of weeding with hand hoes, and the wheel hoe. When you've got good soil and rotate your crops, the bane of organic farming doesn't seem to be bug pests, but rather, weeds. If you stay on top of weeding until the plants have established themselves, then you ensure healthy plants producing more fruit, and also make harvesting easier. Gavin constantly checks the fields to determine which ones need to be weeded, using which method, and ultimately, has to decide if a row has so little vegetable germination and so much weed growth, that it should just be plowed under and new plantings made. So far this has been done for 2 rows of seeded carrots. Two others are being kept and will be mown at a higher level to see how the carrots grow if weeds are controlled by mowing instead of by removal.

And continuing in the spirit of experimentation which is alive and well at Everdale, we prepared and planted 6 trial plots in different varieties of switch grass. Switch grass is a fuel crop, not for liquid fuels but as solid mass for burning. It apparently has one of the most efficient input to energy output ratios of any planted crop. This set of trial plots will be watched for 3-5 years as switch grass takes a few seasons to really establish itself. The planting process was quite fun as it involved sowing the seed by hand and then having to stomp all over the plots to make sure the seed was well pressed into the ground. This happened on Thursday, the first day that the farm store was open to harvest share members, so a lot of families went by us wondering why we seemed to be dancing all over the plots. One family of girls came and joined us in the stomping fun. It was quite interesting to see the steady stream of harvest share members coming in to the farm to get their produce. These are the kinds of people who care about their food and also the farmers that produce it. Harris and Mark had driven a big truck of produce into Toronto that afternoon too for the CSA (customer supported agriculture) pickup in the Annex.

The week wasn't only about the plants and weather though. Aly had her twin male goats on Monday, and 3 new lambs were born this week. One of them looks like a cow, all black with white spots all over. Lynn got a new set of pigs this week and I'm very thankful that they haven't been testing out their electric fence boundary too much as they squeal very loudly, which would make sleeping difficult since they aren't too far from my tent! At the end of the day, I make my rounds to the various animal pens to see how the babies are doing.

I also worked with some motorized engines this week. I took the electric mower out for a spin to clear up the space around the solar panels for the solar showers (not that there's been enough sun to heat any water with this past week!). And I learned how to pump gasoline from a big tank into a small container in which I mixed about 4 litres of 40:1 two-stroke fuel. Hopefully the whipper snipper will now work, though that remains to be seen. Perhaps someone will have gotten it started while I've been gone as I had to return to Toronto midday on Friday this week.

Coming back into the city this weekend has been a bit of a culture shock. I was at Square One for a dentist appointment on Friday afternoon and walked in the door to a group of mall rats, who generally spook me even when I am in the city all the time. Then I walked through Wal-Mart as my dentist office is located in there (from pre-Wal-Mart days). It was a bit too much suburban mall crowding for me after the relative peace and quiet of Everdale. I spent that evening at Roy Thomson Hall for a TSO concert of Star Trek music, then Saturday afternoon at the Big on Bloor festival helping out with my sister's booth, and finally was at the Petite Fashionista event at a bar called Proof on Sunday afternoon and evening, again helping my sister, where I got my nails painted bright fuschia. I'm sure I'll get comments on my bright nail colour when I get back to the farm on Monday ;P I'm somewhat curious as to how they'll hold up to digging in the dirt!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The lambs and kids are arriving!

It's been another busy week at Everdale, but it's been especially exciting for me as a kid was born on Friday and twin lambs on Saturday! By the time I go back tomorrow, there may be many more lambs and kids on the farm, though I'm hoping the expectant mothers will hold off until I'm there to watch the birthings.

I saw Cinnamon give birth to her male kid,which was amazing! The kid emerged in the classic position where the 2 front hooves and the nose emerge first from the birth canal. At this point, the kid looked a bit stuck, so Gavin pulled on the legs a bit and helped push the vulva up over the kid's head and then the little guy just slipped right out. I was quite surprised by how big he was as I thought Cinnamon would be having twins. I'm not the best at estimating weight, by I suspect he's around 6-7 pounds. And he was up on his feet within the first 15 minutes or so of being born! It was really great to watch him trying to get up and seeing him look for his mother's udder. Since he was born on Friday the 13th, Garrett named him Jason, but Lynn is more inclined to Nutmeg. We'll just have to see what name sticks! That said, he may have to stay without a name as he will be raised as meat for 6 months. Male goats aren't usually kept since they don't produce milk or more animals, and if not castrated, need to be kept separate from the other animals, which requires more fencing and pasturage. The father of this batch of kids was himself only six months old and was slaughtered soon after the breeding. The meat eaters among us ate some of him earlier in the week as Lynn had roasted a leg and some ribs with rosemary.

Then on Saturday, while the last farm tour of the day was going by, Wink gave birth to twin female lambs in the field. I was laying out lines for planting pole beans in the 1-acre field at the time, but managed to get to see them while they were still in the field, and helped Gavin carry them into the barn. I kept putting the lamb under Wink's nose so she would know where it was and follow us back to the barn. They kept bleating at each other as we walked down the hill. In the pen, Mark got to trim their umbilical cords and dip them into iodine. They're absolutely adorable and have been named Darling Shannon and Sunshine, though it will definitely be hard to tell them apart! One of them (I think Darling Shannon) was already starting to do the 4-footed hop that I love watching lambs do. They're both so much more leggy than I imagined! I think they're about 4-5 pounds each. The one I carried (I think it was Sunshine) certainly weighed less than a small bag of flour.

Really, the arrival of the kid and twin lambs eclipses so much else of the week, though many other things did go on. We did a lot more seeding in the greenhouse as there's a weekly schedule of new plants to start for weekly harvesting of salad greens for market. We also did a lot of weeding using a variety of methods: tractor mounted S-tines, hand hoeing, wheel hoeing, and flame weeding. Yes, flame weeding. This is done with a flame thrower of sorts and is used on fields that have been direct seeded where the germination is still underground. The flame burns up any weeds that have started to grow on top of the soil. On Thursday, we worked a super long day, not finishing until around 8 pm. We planted hundreds, actually, probably thousands, of vegetables that day! Mostly celery and celeriac, as well as the weekly salad greens transplants and some flowers for cutting.

Given how much work goes into planting vegetables: starting seedlings in the greenhouse, planting transplants in the field, weeding and then harvest, I cannot comprehend how we buy vegetables so cheaply in stores. Consider the celery that was planted this week. They take almost the whole season to grow, and quite a few weeks in the greenhouse beforehand, 3-6 hours of planting by a crew of 3-6 people and a tractor, weeding throughout the summer, and finally harvest. And we manage to buy non-organic celery for $0.99 at the grocery store? The math just doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever. If all the celery gets harvested (I'm estimating 800 plants) and is maybe sold for $2-3 each (my guesstimate of premium pricing since they're organic and sold at farmer's markets directly to consumers), then you're looking at a retail intake of $1600-2400. From seed to vegetable, they take 130-140 days to grow, and it still remains to be seen how many times we'll need to weed them before harvest. And garlic has an even longer growing time, with planting in the previous fall and no harvest for more than 6 months in the climate of Hillsburgh. Each plant gives you one garlic bulb. The last time I bought non-organic garlic, I think I got 3 bulbs for $0.99. Again, how does this math work out?

Apparently, in industrial farming where a farmer wholesales his/her produce, the farmer only gets $0.02 on the dollar for each vegetable that is finally sold in a retail store. I cannot imagine putting all this time and effort into organic celery just to get back $0.02 for each celery stalk. And even assuming that it costs much less to plant and maintain with industrial methods (machine planting and lots of pesticides), I still can't comprehend how any farmer even pays for equipment and inputs (seeds and pesticides) at $0.02 on the dollar.

I also helped with moving hay from a rented barn on the Berry farm (apparently a RIM employee) and had some asthma issues. Stupid me, I didn't put the mask on until I was already feeling affected, and had left my Ventolin discus back on the farm. But I stayed calm and kept my breathing under control until we had filled up the van and drove back. I begged off working on the next hay load after that though and went to unpack and wash overwintered beets instead. I'm not sure if my reaction was to the hay or just all the dust stirred up from throwing pitchforks of hay into the back of the cube truck. I'm just glad I didn't have Gwen's job of standing in the cube and packing the hay in. She did wear an industrial respirator for the job, but it was definitely hot and dark in there!

On Wednesday, while the interns were off the farm for the day on one of their CRAFT field trips (interns have seminars on the farm and on other farms), I helped lead a school group from Oakville of 60 kindergarten kids. I was in charge of showing them how to card fleece and then roll the fibers into a lumpy piece of yarn, which I then encouraged them to use as a temporary mustache that they could store in their pockets. I was surprised by how many of the kids chose the mustache route over tying their pieces into bracelets! I was also in charge of passing out chicks for them to hold and pet, which was super nerveracking. I had them sitting in circles of 20 kids with moms (not a dad in the group!) and teachers helping out, but the chicks by this point were over a week old and starting to move around a lot more and trying to flap away, so they kept shocking the kids so they'd stand up and drop the chick. I was so worried that a chick would die from all the trauma! But they survived and I put them all back, living, with the other chicks. After the school group left, I spent the rest of the afternoon weeding the flower gardens (native plants in the beds by the community building, and cutting flowers in the big wheel on the hill) which was a good relaxer after dealing with all the kids! I cannot imagine being a kindergarten teacher.

After the interns got back on Wednesday, we took a field trip in the evening out to Val's farm where we saw her new kids and goats, her really big cow (but with smaller horns than Amber, the milk cow at Everdale) and female calf, and big work horses. The triplet kids were very cute and soft to pet. I also saw how they had set up their pasturing system in a wheel with the animal housing at the centre and different pie wedges radiating out so that pasturing could be easily rotated by moving fence gates. Then we went to to look at the vegetable garden and helped clear part of an unplanted field of its very stubborn alfalfa plants. It's super satisfying to grab hold of one of those huge alfalfa roots and manage to pull out the whole thing in one piece. Those roots grow down many feet! We were given some Cocoa Camino chocolate as a thank you which we all ate with our dirt covered hands on the ride back to Everdale.

My standard for cleanliness is definitely very different while I'm on the farm. Because I was attacked so much by mosquitoes my first week, I decided not to wash my hair with shampoo while I was on the farm but just to use water. My first shower of this week ended up being a freezing affair as Gwen was climbed up on the water tank trying to readjust the inputs. I had foolishly already soaped my face before we were guaranteed warm water, so had to finish the showering process in the cold water. Afterwards, my hair still smelled like shampoo, which just goes to show how much residue is left in your hair by hair products!

On Friday evening, Ben from the Home Alive! straw bale house starting running a weekend workshop on how to build a straw bale house. We got to tour his house along with the workshop participants, and didn't have to do any cooking and kitchen cleaning for the rest of the weekend since we just ate with the workshop group. On Saturday morning, as I was eating my porridge, Ben walks in with his wife Jennifer who I hadn't met yet. And this being a much smaller world than I ever expect, it turns out that Jennifer was in Arts & Science with me at Mac. We're going to catch up one night over coffee. Strange to think that we've essentially been living on the same farm for the past 2 weeks! I've been in to mulch the house's permaculture garden at least twice since I've been at Everdale too.

And I almost forgot, but this is the week where I've tried my hand at milking Amber. I can't remember if Gavin gave us the first lesson last week or this week, but I went once with a larger group of interns who were interested in learning and had a chance to milk a few strokes, and then on Saturday morning, I went in with Mark and we milked Amber. I probably milked about half a cup's worth and Mark milked another litre and a half. I definitely need to practice more and will be getting up at about 5:30 most mornings so I can join the milking at 6 am. I suspect Mark and I will be the dedicated milkers as the other interns haven't shown as much interest, though perhaps Dave may join us as well. While we're milking, we always have to watch for Amber shuffling around and potentially knocking over or mucking up the milk pail, or swinging her head around too much. We must be wary of her rather large horns! Hopefully she'll get used to us soon and we won't have to distract her so much with grain while milking.

I think that's it for this past week...writing up these posts, it always amazes me how many different activities end up happening each week. I feel like I've learned so much even in just 2 weeks and will be talking to Gavin this next week about the possibility of me staying with them for the rest of the season, right into October, with some weeks taken off here and there. There's just so much more to do and learn. Lynn has agreed that I can help her with the goat milking and subsequent cheese making, and at some point I'll be helping Karen with the sheep milking once all the lambs are born and we can start milking some of the ewes. I'd also like to help Mark with the creation of 'value added' products, like preserved fruits/vegetables, soaps, etc., made from the farm's produce. Dave has been really funny as he's decided that his 'value added' product will be swags of rye, which do indeed look really good. I'll probably make myself a rye wreath to put up for Christmas. Let me know if you'd like to order one as your Christmas wreath and I'll see what I can do for you!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Journey's start

I have survived my first week of farming at Everdale! It's been a really wonderful first week that has confirmed to me that I made the right choice in coming out here. This week I worked on seeding in the greenhouse, planting in the fields, setting up pea trellises, hand weeding sweet peas, compost digging, mulching and bringing the cow in at night. I've held baby chicks and turkeys in my hand (I like rubbing their fuzzy heads under my chin), learned how to pick up and hold a chicken and visited with the pregnant goats and sheep, milk cow and work horses. I can't wait until the lambs and kids are born in the next few weeks!

I also have more mosquito bites than I can count, am more sunburned than I'd like, and have been getting a real workout going up and down hills and spending a lot of time in a crouch. But because there's so much work to be done each day, my muscles haven't had a chance to get stiff and sore and I feel extremely healthy and energetic after the week of labouring outside. I have also gotten used to sleeping in a tent, using composting toilets and solar showers and am quite enjoying it all!

I set up my tent at the top of a ridge where I can see the whole farm laid out before me. So far, my tent has stayed relatively water tight, even through nightly rains and many thunderstorms. By Friday night, I was sleeping through the night, and now am a bit worried about sleeping in past breakfast! I need to buy myself a windup alarm clock, though I do think my internal clock has now been set for 6 am wake ups. I've shifted my sleep schedule from my city schedule of 2 am to 8:30 am, to 10 pm to 6:00 am. So really, I'm getting more sleep now...or at least I will once I start sleeping through the night.

Life at the farm is quite structured, with everyone gathering for breakfast at 6:45 am, a staff meeting to assign tasks for the day at 7:30 am, lunch around noon, and a finish time of around 5:30 pm. Different people are assigned to make breakfast and lunch each day, and 2 others are scheduled for after lunch clean up. Dinners are a bit haphazard, usually involving lunch leftovers, and a lot of tortilla chips and salsa. I've never seen a group of people go through so many tortilla chips and salsa before! I will be added to the cooking schedule next week, so I'll have to start thinking what I'll cook for everyone. Meals have been vegetarian and very different from what I'm used to, but everything has been really tasty and very healthy, so I'm definitely not hungry and have lots of energy for the work each day.

Farm tasks run the gamut from grounds maintenance to planting to tour group leading. Until school ends for the summer, there seem to be 2-3 school groups coming in each week, and this past Saturday was the opening weekend for tours and the farm store this summer. A large part of Everdale's mandate is to educate, which is why a lot of time and effort is spent on school groups and providing tours to the public for both the farm and the straw bale house.

I had my first visitors to Everdale this Saturday as Dy and Bob came down to see me and take a tour of the place. And since the world is always surprising me by how small it is, it turned out that I recognized another person who was visiting the farm, who turned out to be Nicole from Mackenzie Financial where I worked for 4 years when I first graduated from McMaster. It was really nice to have visitors my first week and hopefully Dy will encourage other DBRSers to come out and see me!

One of the things I was a bit worried about when coming out to the farm was getting adjusted to communal living. After all, I have been living on my own in Toronto for over 5 years now. I'm actually quite surprised by how easily I've adjusted to spending so much time with Everdale's staff and interns. There are 6 farm interns who were picked out of a pool of about 45 applicants and will be working and learning on the farm from April to October. They're a varied group of personalities with really different backgrounds, but all with a love of the environment and the will to learn as much as they can while working hard at Everdale. There are 5 guys: Carl, Dave, Simaron, Mark and Andrew, and one girl: Gwen, who I think is the youngest of the group at 21. Then there's Gavin (the farm manager), Karen and Lynn, who are some of the original founders of the farming operation. Also living at Everdale are Garrett (working on the launch of a biodiesel co-op) and Harris (assists Gavin), who have set up some great prospector tents that seem huge and luxurious compared to my little 4-person dome tent! Joseph, who works for Seeds of Diversity, is also there occasionally and is working on building a Seed Maze. Ben who builds straw bale houses, lives in the straw bale house on-site that was first built as a demonstration building at a housing expo in Toronto. Everyone is really fun to talk to and there's so much to learn from each of them. I really look forward to getting to know them all a lot better in the next few weeks!

As a rather sad close to this family had to put down our dog Jasmine on Saturday. She turned 14 at the beginning of May and a bone tumour started growing on her head about 2 months ago. I'm sad that cancer got her in the end and she couldn't just die of old age in her sleep. When I do finally find the place that will be my farm, I will plant lilac bushes for both Beauty (who died last fall) and Jasmine.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Getting Ready

I will be off for a month of volunteering at Everdale on Monday. I'm hoping that the weather forecast of a clear day is right so I won't have to set up my tent in the rain!

I went up to Everdale for a visit a couple weeks ago so that I could meet the staff and see the site. I couldn't have been introduced to the farm in a better light. The day I was there was the one beautiful sunny spring day between two days of rain. The air was fresh, the sky was blue, the grass and vegetation had the bright green flush of spring, and there was a lovely breeze blowing. It seems that I always see new places on their best dressed days. Kind of like the first time I ever visited England and Scotland and atypically, came back with a tan ;P

I spent the day working with various interns getting things prepared for planting and harvest. We power washed over 300 grey plastic bins, sorted through a seemingly unending supply of plastic plant pots, and transplanted Zebra heirloom tomato seedlings. I hope my transplants all made it through the process! I suspect they're probably in the ground by now and look forward to seeing how the tomatoes grow.

I also had a taste of the farm community when I got to join them all for lunch. We had a very tasty white bean chili, which apparently started very spicy indeed and was made slightly milder by the addition of coconut milk. There were also very delicious coconut flour and brown rice flour chocolate chip muffins. I look forward to joining the Everdale team for breakfasts and lunches while I'm there. Hopefully when it's my turn to help prepare the meals, they'll like what's produced! I'm much more used to conventional ingredients, and my experience cooking with beans is limited to the one Christmas where I made baked beans for my pioneer-themed open house. Before my visit, I didn't even know that flour could be made from coconut.

I also learned that there are two types of wheat, both soft and hard, and therefore soft and hard wheatberries...which I had never associated with wheat before ;P And depending on what kind of dough you need, higher or lower gluten content, you would need to use wheat made from either hard or soft wheat. When your idea of flour is a bag of all-purpose from a grocery store, you just don't think of what it consists of. I'm definitely going to be learning a lot while I'm at the farm!

The 6 interns and additional Everdale staff all have varied backgrounds and are knowledgeable on many different topics. I really look forward to hearing about them all and learning from them in their areas of expertise. It will be a huge change for me, being surrounded by people with interest and knowledge of agricultural and environmental issues, after spending the last decade in the Toronto financial industry!

In preparation for spending 5 nights a week in a tent, I sealed all the bottom seams of my 4-person tent with a liquid seam sealer I got from Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) so as to prevent leaks from the edges of the tent. I set my tent up in my condo's garden courtyard on a sunny Sunday afternoon and applied the sealant. In hindsight, I think I should have bought the paste type instead of the liquid type. And the lazy person in me thinks I should have gotten the regular tent spray from Canadian Tire instead. I hope that the sealing doesn't backfire on me because I had to pack up the tent after 2 hours of drying (as per instructions) and some parts were still feeling a bit tacky. But it was getting windy in the courtyard (my building is at the centre of some sort of vortex) and I had already chased my tent across the yard more than once already. Plus, other residents of the condo were starting to come down to use the barbeques for dinner. I don't think they expected to see a tent set up in the courtyard. I also realized in prepping my tent that my tent is not evenly remotely built for heat retention. So I'm going to have to rely on my sleeping bag to stay warm on these still unseasonally chilly spring nights. I will have the minivan with me, so I guess if I start to freeze, I can always sleep in the van. I hope I don't have to wimp out that way though! I have added a fleece earband to my list of things to bring with me.

I've been gathering various bits of gear in the past month...waterproof pants and a mosquito net hat from MEC, a pair of navy polka-dotted rubber boots bought on my trip to Japan, all my camping clothes in storage boxes, and some new bright cotton summer tank tops from Joe Fresh. Since I usually try to hide indoors on hot summer days, I discovered that I had very few tank tops that could be worn on the farm, and even those were decades old. Joe Fresh seemed to be a good balance in getting some cheap, relatively disposable summer clothes that I wouldn't mind getting stained with dirt and manure. And the bonus is that they're in lovely bright colours which are always my first choice for, I have a soft spot for the Weston family and would rather spend my money (or PC points!) on their cheap clothing than the other cheap clothing chains out there.

Unpacking my regular camping clothes did make me realize how old some of them are. I've got a royal blue Club Monaco sweatshirt and denim button up shirt that I've had for probably twenty years. Visiting a friend for the past few days, she commented that year after year, we all look the same in all our camping photos, because our group of friends pulls out the same old camping gear for each trip, so it's actually a bit hard to date the photos!

I'm debating if I should bring any snacks up to Everdale with me. I have no idea if I'll be any hungrier than usual while I'm there, or if I will eat enough at meals. In the past I have been known to eat quite a lot of food, and while I don't eat quite as much as before, I still think I probably eat a lot more than people might expect. But most of the people on the farm are guys who are much taller than me, so I just hope I don't end up outeating all of them!

To end this post, I'm correcting an omission on my first post...I missed a key influence on my list from 'The Backstory'. The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The self-sufficiency of the Ingalls family, or pioneer life, has appealed to me since childhood. Looking in my den at the pile of things I've been gathering to bring to Everdale, I think of the covered wagon that they would load up when heading to a new place and how each piece packed was important for its necessity. I think Ma only had one 'frivolous' thing that moved with them from place to place, a china shepherdess. If I spend this summer volunteering at different farms around southern Ontario, maybe I should pick my own 'china sheperdess' to make the journey with me.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Backstory

Those of you who know me well know that I'm very leery of all things internet related as I dislike the thought that strangers can learn personal details about me. So it may be a surprise to you that I've actually started this blog! Admittedly, I am starting very cautiously, with access currently restricted to people that I know. But if you have friends who you think would be interested in following my farm quest, please email me their email addresses so I can give them access. And perhaps after I get more used to publicizing my life in this way, I'll eventually make access to this completely public.

I've decided to join the world of public (or at least semi-public for now!) diarizing so that I can keep you all up to date on my journey into the world of sustainable agriculture. Since I won't have the luxury of seeing or speaking with you all as regularly as before, this blog will help me keep you all in the loop on where I'm at in the quest for my farm.

In case you are a newer acquaintance and haven't yet heard, ad nauseum, about my dream to run a farm, the following are the influences (in mostly chronological order) that have brought me to this point:
  • Watching David Suzuki on The Nature of Things for most of my childhood in Edmonton every Sunday night
  • Being read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles in elementary school
  • Reading almost every book written by Madeleine L'Engle, starting with A Wrinkle in Time
  • Mme. Boisclair's science classes in junior high which I remember (accurately or not) as having a heavy environmental focus...I learned about insulation R-values in junior high!
  • My first trip to Scotland where I learned that black lambs in white sheep flocks were culled because they were unwanted for their black wool, and their meat was unsaleable due to the bluish tinge in their skin
  • A growing understanding of what my Christian faith actually meant, especially in considering the Kingdom of God and what that meant in terms of social justice and stewardship
  • Reading David Suzuki and Holly Dressler's book Good News for a Change and Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer
  • Joining my current small group where we share our thoughts and struggles in trying to live lives that reflect love, mercy and justice, in all their sometimes paradoxical confusion
  • Finally realizing that it was time to take the leap from my safe life of financial security in Toronto
While my environmental conservation sensibilities were cultivated from an early age, the idea of having a farm didn't appear until after my first trip to Scotland one spring when the fields were full of little lambs. After learning about the culling of black lambs and reading Prodigal Summer, I joked that I would have a farm of just black sheep. But as the years went by, the idea became less and less ridiculous to me. I have spent the last few years both reading about farming, as well as keeping an eye out for affordable farm land. But this year, following increasing dissatifaction with my work in the financial industry, I finally realized that instead of continuing to just research and save money, I should just take the plunge and get out there.

I left my job at a company I had been with for seven years, took one last overseas trip to Japan, and am now preparing myself to move into a tent at Everdale farm ( and volunteer with them for the month of June. Thus my farm quest begins!