Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The end of the line for the animals

This morning, I brought Monty and the lambs to the butcher's. I feel both sad and relieved that they're now gone. I'm sad because they were really cute and affectionate with me and I'll miss them as they were more like pets than was wise for me this season. I'm relieved that they survived on my farm to this point (the 2 littlest goats, 2 bantam hens and one of the layers did not), and I no longer need to worry about keeping them healthy and safe from predators. I can also now leave the farm for more than a day without having to get someone to stay over and take care of them in my absence.

They were much more socialized to me than normal because I chose to stake them out on leashes at various locations around the house and outbuildings each day to get their fill while also acting as lawn mowers for me. They did a great job of eating up weeds and clearing brush. Each morning, I would pick a new spot, pound the iron stake into the ground, then walk them on leashes from their yard and shelter to their grazing plot. I would check on them periodically throughout the day to untangle them from each other and random vegetation (tall weeds, tree stumps, etc.) and make sure they hadn't knocked over their water. On really rainy days, I would keep them in their yard, supplemented with hay, but by the end of the season, Monty was big enough to just jump the electric fence, and sometimes take it down to bring the lambs out too. By the last few weeks, I would only leash the lambs and leave Monty free to roam, as the lambs acted as a leash for him since he wouldn't stray too far from them.

While I did enjoy having animals on the farm this first season, the process I chose was highly inefficient, and was only manageable for me this year because I barely had to weed my vegetable plot. I spent too much time socializing with animals destined to be meat. When I raise meat animals again in the future, I will get more, and set up proper electric fencing and automatic watering for them so that I won't have to untangle leashes each day. Instead of socializing with me, they'll have a larger herd to hang out with while they browse and graze and be less likely to follow me around like dogs.

Even though my first year with animals was highly inefficient for daily labour, I'm happy for the experience in teaching me what not to do in the future, and especially for giving me first hand experience with animal care, at a low capital cost. I know that I will be fine with handling both goats and sheep in the future, and look forward to having a flock one day where the ewes are milked and stay with me from season to season. Though raising animals is more emotionally taxing than growing vegetables, I definitely enjoy having them on the farm, and I feel much better eating their meat, knowing that they had a good life on my farm.

Monty, the first day he arrived on the farm. He definitely grew a lot since then!

The lambs, a few months back.

Me with Monty and the lambs, at dawn by the vegetable field about 2 weeks ago.

As for the chickens, I processed them all on the farm since they were quite old and not very meaty. I think I've gotten quite good at plucking them. They're all in my freezer waiting to become soup stock. Now I just have the bantam rooster and one bantam hen left which I'll be bringing to Everdale to overwinter. They're much too small to bother eating and I don't want to come back to the farm after being away for a week in the winter to find their frozen bodies. Since Everdale's willing to let them stay with their overwintering hens, they have a new home.

So that's my first season with animals...bittersweet, but that's the cost of being an omnivore. If I couldn't handle it, I would become a vegetarian.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Reflections on my first season of vegetables

I'm currently sitting in a Starbucks in Toronto's financial district, watching the rain come down, and wondering at the slower than expected speed of free wireless internet here. Maybe my frustrations with the speed of my dial-up connection at the farm have made my high-speed wireless expectations unrealistically high, and so anything other than instantaneous internet responses are a disappointment. I guess I could just blame the weather too. At the farm, when it rains a lot, my dial up speed has gone down to 14.6 kbps at times, which doesn't speak well for the integrity of the Bell line coming to my house. My latest update from the local wireless high-speed internet provider is that they're delayed in accessing provincial funding to put up more wireless towers in my area, so I'm looking at 2010 before any chance of improving my access. Surprise, surprise, promised provincial funding hasn't been released yet to get the work done. But this is not supposed to be a post about internet access (which is, surprisingly, a more important issue to me than I ever expected it to be!), but about this past season of vegetables.

Is it possible to label this first year as both a disappointment and a miracle? It was a disappointment in that I didn't have any truly saleable volume of vegetables until September (instead of June as I had planned for) and spent much of the summer praying each day that my vegetables would just grow! But it was a miracle in that by September, I actually had bountiful production from my field, and have managed to eke out close to $7000 gross (farm designation minimum) in vegetable sales to this point from, realistically, about 1/2 an acre of productive plants.

While my spinach, lettuces, sugar snap peas, pumpkins, kale, kohlrabi, cabbage, cucumber, radish, parsnips, ground cherries, tomatillos, eggplant, dill and fennel were pretty much utter failures, I am one of the few farmers in Ontario that actually had healthy tomato plants in the field until the end of the season. My pepper and hot pepper plants produced a good quantity of fruit (though time ran out for most of them to get to full size or ripeness), the summer squash produced plentiful and tasty squashes, and my Asian greens were a wonder in production and quality. The beets were my earliest and most plentiful staple vegetable, and chard turned out to be a great late season crop of greens for my deliveries. And my final big last carrot planting, seeded as a complete gamble on July 22 (yes, very late) given the lack of germination in previous plantings, yielded the tastiest and prettiest carrots ever. In fact, I sold 20 lbs of them to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) this week, where one of the chefs commented on how good they are. So, though this first season of vegetable growing has been hugely frustrating to me, it's certainly ended with a happy bang :)

One of my happy marketing successes this season has been selling my vegetables to the AGO for use in their restaurant and cafeteria. I've had a membership at the AGO for years, and am super happy and impressed with the redesign/expansion of the gallery. Their restaurants have a policy of trying to source produce from local farmers, so I wanted to sell to them, both as a local producer, and a fan of the AGO itself. When my condo finally sold earlier this year, I knew I wanted to celebrate with my family at FRANK, so when the sale closed at the end of July, that's where we went. I made my reservation on-line and left a note about the reason for the celebration, and also asking to meet the executive chef to talk about produce. I didn't get to meet the executive chef at my celebratory dinner (which was excellent!) as she was on vacation at the time, but I did get her business card and sent her an email. I didn't hear anything back from her and didn't push the contact since I was still waiting for my vegetables to actually grow. On my first delivery into Toronto at the beginning of September, I stopped by the AGO cafeteria for a snack (their pastry chef makes excellent treats!) and asked the cashier if the executive chef was in and would be available to chat with me about heirloom tomatoes. Surprisingly, she did come down to meet me, and the next week, I brought her an order of Bloody Butcher tomatoes. Since then, I've sold them more heirloom tomatoes (Black Krim and Bloody Butcher), and on today's final delivery, an assortment of root vegetables: Purple Haze and Rainbow carrots, Chiogga Guardsmark and Cylindra beets, and Milan turnips. While none of these orders were particularly large and who knows what will happen for next year, I was excited each time I pulled into the AGO loading dock and walked a package of vegetables to the kitchen. My favourite art gallery served my vegetables to FRANK patrons this season :)

To all those who bought vegetables from me this season...thank you so much! I hope you enjoyed every bite and have discovered or rediscovered a favourite vegetable. I will be inviting you to a survey some time in November/December to help me plan how my vegetable packages will work for next season. As I put my field to bed in the next few weeks, I will be doing all I can to improve its fertility for next year so that hopefully I'll have good vegetable production starting in June instead of September. Of course, the weather will have to cooperate too, so I'll just have to see what happens (what is the new weather norm in this era of climate change anyway?). Hopefully this winter I will be building a portable greenhouse or two for season extension next year and to mitigate against another cool summer.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Vegetable deliveries to the GTA

The past weeks have been super busy for me with deliveries of vegetable packages into the GTA. I wasn't sure how well things would work out at first...would I be ok with driving into Toronto once a week...would drop offs work out well...essentially, would it be worth it to sell my vegetables into Toronto? Now that I've mostly finished my deliveries for the season, I know that the answer to all of those questions are resounding 'Yes'es!

The response from my friends, family and all their friends, family and co-workers was incredibly supportive. My first delivery, I only had enough produce for about 17 packages, but by the end of the season, I had enough to deliver to 35+ households! I would take people's orders via email and arrange drop off points and times in Mississauga and Toronto. And since I had such a positive response to my initial email about deliveries, I couldn't even repeat deliveries to people until my 3rd week of deliveries. Having all the packages pre-ordered each week also made harvest super efficient, as I could make sure not to over harvest those crops that could stay in the field, and I had an outlet for those crops that absolutely had to come off the field for that given week. I'll need to tweak the process a bit for next year, but this was a really great way for me to test out the waters of delivering into the GTA.

One of the best benefits of making all these deliveries was reconnecting with lots of people and having a chance to meet more people who are interested in supporting local farmers and eating organic vegetables. I really look forward to maintaining and strengthening that connection next season, as it's one of the reasons why I wanted to get into sustainable agriculture in the first be a part of connecting people to the source of their food and helping to bridge the urban/rural divide.

Now, I'm just waiting for my pumpkins to turn orange, so I can make one last vegetable delivery into Toronto before the winter. I will be taking all my root vegetables off the field this week in preparation for that. I've also been preserving a lot of food over the last few weeks, freezing beans and summer squash, pickling beans, turnips and beets, and canning tomatoes and winter squashes. Hopefully, I won't need to buy much produce over the winter!

Once the field is clear, I will spread 1-2 tonnes of compost on the vegetable field to increase its fertility for next year. Hopefully I can get that done before the ground freezes!

Bins of Milan turnips...purple, white, crisp and crunchy!

A selection of the tomatoes from the farm...Black Krim is the best for colour, texture and taste, and Sun Sugar cherry tomatoes are a sweet explosion of tomato flavour!

Tasty summer squashes, Early Yellow Crookneck, Black Beauty and Flying Saucer, a great favourite for its shape!

My summer kitchen full of winter squash, tomatoes, hot peppers, peppers, turnips and summer squash before it all got packed up for deliveries.