Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Zen of Hand Weeding

For most organic farmers, having to hand weed your field (as opposed to flame weeding, wheel hoeing, or hand hoeing) is the most inefficient way to weed, and is the result of not managing to stay on top of the weeds. On average this season, I've probably hand weeded about 2 hours a day, 4-5 days a week, and still have some beds that need some hours of hand weeding put in. I managed to wheel hoe for a couple days back in mid-June, and after that, the weeds have been too big to deal with that way.

Surprisingly, having to spend so much time hand weeding hasn't really bothered me. In fact, I quite enjoy it (so far anyway!). The feel of a weed being pulled up by its roots is so very satisfying...especially when it's a sapling-sized lamb's quarters or pig weed (amaranth) or when I manage to pull up some alfalfa with all its roots intact.

I think part of the reason why I'm not cursing at the weeds is because their very presence in my field this year means I've got soil fertility! Last year's barren field seemed to mock me with the fact that even weeds wouldn't grow there. And now, the kinds of weeds that are present in my fields will help me to diagnose any mineral imbalances. I've just started to read 'Weeds and Why They Grow' by Jay McCaman (I picked up my copy from Everdale today). Just reading the first few pages so far has been fascinating...such as learning that dandelions help remediate soil by bringing calcium back to the soil surface to become available as the dandelion decays. That's just the tip of the iceberg as there is much to learn about weeds and what they can tell me about my land and what it needs and if its fertility is improving with the addition of compost and growing and plowing down of green cover crops. There's just so much to learn from just observing what grows in the soil!

When I hand weed, I am reminded of how I feel while swimming laps. Then I'm concentrated on the feel of my muscles as I stroke through the water, controlling my breathing through each motion and not actually thinking about anything in particular. But my subconscious mind chugs through these moments and presents me with ideas or strings together new thoughts that pop into my conscious mind when I least expect them. Hand weeding acts like a form of meditation or prayer for me...a good opportunity to let my mind wander where it will, undisturbed by too much external stimuli. I'm hoping to extract the great Canadian novel one day, which I'm convinced is lurking in the far corners of my subconscious mind ;P

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the retirement party for Wayne Roberts, head of the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC) for the past 10 years. If you read Toronto's NOW magazine, you may recognize him as a weekly columnist and he has also written several books.

Wayne was instrumental in guiding me to a farming network. Back in 2008, when I was trying to decide on how to take the plunge into sustainable agriculture, I went to the Canadian Organic Growers conference in February where Wayne moderated a panel of experts talking about organic food production in Ontario. I did some internet searching, found an email address for him, and cold emailed him, introducing myself and asking if he had time to meet with me. Amazingly, he did. We sat down for an almost 2 hour conversation where we discussed my background and motivations for going into sustainable agriculture. Before this conversation, I didn't know if I would remain in Toronto and try to work for an organization concentrated on food and environment issues, or if I would start actually producing food.Our conversation clarified my position as a future producer of food and I was steered towards Everdale where I spent 5 months learning how to farm. Instead of figuring out this whole farming thing in isolation, I got plugged into a network of organic farmers which helped give me the confidence to take the plunge and start farming on my own.

You can read Wayne's whole retirement speech at his blog:, but the following section really stuck with me:

"As a person who never embraced formal religion, I surprised myself late one evening in March 2008, when, at 3:00 in the morning after way too many pots of coffee, I came to write my very last overdue paragraph on my dead-dead deadline for The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food. A phrase I had long mocked popped into my head: Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. I used to think this was about pacifying the poor so they would divert their attention to the next world where they would get pie in the sky when they die. But suddenly, its profound radicalism hit me.

At the most direct level, we work to bring the right of food to all and to ensure that it is shared with children, newcomers, the poor and homeless. But beyond that, we work with food because food is not about human power and triumph and glory, but about our humble animal needs that make us vulnerable and dependent on nature and make us vulnerable and interdependent with one another. That is how we humans are made – other than Vitamin D processed in our skin, our large brains leave no space for body parts that manufacture a wide range of nutrients from a few simple wild grasses and tree leaves; we can only get the nutrients we need from a wide range of foods, all of which come from outside ourselves. And, zenlike, that very need and vulnerability have been the source and inner strength of human achievement, culture and sociability. This baseline of our creation is the reason why I believe that the food movement must be militantly joyful and radically meek – not radical chic, but radical meek."

Right now, in the beginning stages of the farm, I'm concentrated on food production and making sure that the farm is a sustainable enterprise, environmentally, personally & economically, but I can't lose sight of why I went into this in the first place...because I love food and feeding people and I love God's creation. The right of food for all isn't something I can devote my resources to right now, so I'm encouraged to see that there are so many people fighting that good fight. Toronto's Board of Health has recently adopted "Cultivating Food Connections: Toward a Healthy and Sustainable Food System for Toronto” – 29 initiatives that promise to create a culture of “food systems thinking” within the municipal bureaucracy, linked to the many players who comprise the urban food supply chain. This is an amazing and radical move as it acknowledges the importance of good food for our public health and pulls food production out of the corner of 'rural affairs' that it's been kept in for years. Urban and rural communities need each other to survive, and need to understand and respect each other a whole lot more.

I'm sure Wayne will continue to fight this good fight in his retirement. And I will continue to follow the progress of the great organizations out there that are concerned with the right for food for all, like the TFPC, FoodShare and The STOP, among others. If you live in the GTA and want to join this fight, check these groups out and see if you can contribute any resources!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Our food system is beyond broken if pricing is dependent on global market pricing

I read an interesting article today about how financial speculators may have contributed to a spike in world food prices in 2006/2007:

While none of these ideas are particularly new to me, the article brings together many issues in one place that underlines the horrible state that our global food system is in. Export crop pricing, government agricultural subsidies around the world (that really only benefit large agrifood corporations), trading of crops as derivatives in the market. This article mostly addresses that last bit, which I think is the scariest, because do we really want the price of food to be determined by speculation in the stock market??? Of course, we're all complicit in this whether we like it or not, because our bank deposits, pension plans, RRSPs, etc. all have their fingers in stock markets and we as individual investors have no real say, other than the biggest say of all...our demand for increased returns. So let's not demonize these institutions without considering how our own demand for high returns continues to push them to squeeze profits from any product they can find.

And that's really the clincher...if we want to earn interest on our bank deposits (little as it seems) and invest in mutual funds, index funds, etc., then our money is being invested by financial institutions who care little, if at all, for the nature of what's making the money (commodity speculation, derivatives, esoteric instruments, etc.) and only that the returns are worthwhile. Certainly, there are socially responsible investment funds and financial institutions out there (more local credit unions come to mind), but even they hold 'blue chip' and 'safe' stocks like those for the big 5 Canadian banks and other such institutions, which in their turn, profit from morally blind investing. What's the alternative? Back to stuffing the mattress or some other hidey hole with cash? Or maybe gold bars ;P

If I thought government had the power or the competence to regulate some of the sketchier investment schemes out there, I'd be all for increased regulation, but if there's one thing I hope I'm not naive about, it's that money makers will always come up with products that either fool or fly under the radar of government regulation.

Really, the only way these products won't be bought and sold is if we weren't greedy and didn't want to make high returns on our investment dollar. I wonder what a world of minimal savings but high circulation of available cash would look like...wait, I think that's how most farmers live! With the addition of high debt. A large proportion of farmers only make enough cash flow to pay down interest on their debt and can't repay capital until they retire and sell their farm land, which is valued by banks more at their development value than farm productive capacity. This means farmers are leveraged to the hilt based on high land value, but can't actually make enough money from farm products over the years to actually re-own their farmland. Again, the banks win.

Anyway, I certainly don't have the answers to all these issues. The last thing I expect is for humanity to become less greedy. Luckily, I get to spend the majority of my time managing growing plants and bringing great vegetables to people. Maybe after I've finished paying off my debts over the years, I can start saving up to buy some gold ingots to bury somewhere on the farm. Or maybe I'll find a man, get married, have kids and make them support me in my old age ;P That is how things used to run before retirement and RRSPs became the norm!