Small Potatoes

– 37c here on Saturday morning.  I have seen temperatures that cold only a couple of times in my life – at least the wind had died down.  Even more remarkable was the 40 degree temperature swing in a little over 24 hours.  

Perhaps even more remarkable than either though, was that we had a big healthy calf born on that very cold morning.  Generally, we aim to see the cows give birth in May and June (it only takes a few minutes on the wrong side of the fence for that plan to be scuttled)…. We first noticed the new life when it had warmed up to a balmy -28,  around 10:30am or so.  Our first impulse was to rush the pair down to a shed with a heat lamp, but on inspection, Mother (with a big icicle of afterbirth hanging out) had cleaned and dried the calf somehow and had obviously gotten him some colostrum.

In these situations we’ve found it’s better to leave well enough alone, rather than spook both parties and interrupt Mother Nature.  Before long, the calf was nestled in the middle of the whole herd on a big bed of dry hay – all of the moms seemed to be working together on this one.  Belle, the dam, (cattlespeak for mom cow, think “Dame”) is the last animal left from the original group of Shorthorns (three cows and two heifers) that we started our herd with nine years ago.  Almost everyone has been born on the farm since then, and although we may not have the latest and greatest genetics, they are very much “our cows”: docile, eager to please, a part of the family.

This will be our tenth year growing food for our little slice of Kingston, and the passage of time is really beginning to dawn on me.  Thanks to all of your support, we’ve gotten this far.  Morgan and I have learned a lot in that time, about agriculture, business and ourselves.   Suddenly having our fourth and fifth children at once, and having my son Hiram begin to assume a man’s size and talents, impresses upon me the need to continue to grow our farm and business.

I’ve spent most of the past twenty years fixated on nature and the processes of agriculture.  I started in my late teens with a spade and a scythe, onto draft horses, trucks and tractors, and eventually onto early 1990’s levels of technology: a rudimentary website and email list, an air conditioned tractor cab, round baler with netwrap, mulch layer, and bean harvester.  There’s not much further to go at this point before you get into robots and satellites.

Having at least become somewhat competent in producing food, the economic side of the business has drawn more and more of my attention.  A little more brain and a little less brawn, I hope.  Because direct marketing of our goods has been so key to the viability of our farm, this interface – the point of contact between the consumer and their food – has become a new focus for my inquiry and fascination. 

All of the great, diverse traditions we celebrate in food are – like breeds of cattle – expressions of local cultures and their adaptation to the environment around them.  They arose before the advent of Mass Society and the post World War 2 bureaucratic state.   Preparing meals or preserves for an afternoon with your friends and family was something you did because 1) there was nothing else to do, and it’s rather entertaining, 2) there was nothing else to eat.  The unique culinary traditions that spontaneously arose from these realities were really just a bonus, that we tend to take for granted.

Modern culinary traditions, like Subway’s $5 Footlongs or the Costco rotisserie chicken, are based on ruthless economies of scale and efficiency, applied homogeneously across the planet.   They require very little time or attention on behalf of the consumer, and although ostensibly cheap, require a great deal of energy and a dizzying global logistics network.  We have a tendency to regard these monolithic structures and systems as “too big to fail” but the reality is that this is all very new and untested.  It certainly remains to be seen how they contribute to human health or happiness.

What is most vexing to me about it all perhaps, though, is that as much as we may hear about support for local food or the family farm from various levels of government, structurally, the reality is quite the opposite.  This really all hit home for me yesterday when I was contacted by a local NGO about participating in an event to promote area farms and businesses.  I suggested that perhaps I could bring some potatoes out and give people small samples to take home. 

“Ohhhh, I don’t know about that one… I kinda doubt it.  We’re going to have to run that idea by Public Health.” Now it was clear I was not suggesting I give people mashed potatoes or anything like that.  I meant a few unpeeled, uncooked potatoes.  Like hand someone a potato.   “Yeah, that’s not really something KFL&A is going to be into.”

First of all, this person is mistaken: there is no branch of government that can prohibit you from handing another citizen a potato (at least not yet), but that people think this is even remotely possible or necessary speaks to how out of control the regulatory branches have become.

Often these barriers and hurdles take the form arm’s length, or third party certifiers.  CanadaGAP is one such example: a complex, expensive and relatively new (circa 2000) food handling program directed at fruit and vegetable producers/brokers.  For mere thousands of dollars in annual fees, you get 30 page audits, unannounced inspections, impractical protocols and endless paperwork.    We do not have our GAP (Good Agricultural Practises) ticket, though, and it effectively shuts us out of marketing to a number of wholesalers, grocers and food processors.  These sorts of initiatives are really no big deal for companies with cash reserves, dedicated paper pushers and lawyers.  These additional burdens are what make many small operators say: why bother?

Navigating the many layers of regulatory hurdles has been on my mind lately, as I investigate the potential of opening some sort of year-round farm market/commercial kitchen.  It’s not exactly encouraging.   We’ve been flying under the radar selling veggies on the side of the road successfully, but the idea of operating a Big Boy year round retail outlet, where we not only sell our produce, but also value add or preserve it, is very intriguing to me.  (You’d be surprised how wide an offering of food we could actually have in the winter…) 

The French culture and cuisine that enthralled Julia Child during her time there in the 1940’s and 50’s was not the product of a regulated, inspected, sterile mass production model.  On the contrary, the microbiology of these artisanal environments is in large part what defined the character of their cheeses, sourdoughs and wines.  And while I’m not saying that this intriguing scene from Sudan I found on Google Maps is the ideal way to distribute food, it’s very obvious that applying industrial scale regulations to small producers is not doing our communities any service (especially given that it’s industrial scale production where most pathogen problems originate!).In the meantime, thanks for working with small potatoes like us!

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