A year in review from Morgan’s iPhone
It’s been a bit windy hasn’t it? The polar jet stream is particularly apparent this time of year as we shift between warm and cold air masses on our continued journey to proper winter. In the summer, it is generally well north of us, and in the winter, generally well south. Right now it can’t make up its mind – you can check out Environment Canada’s daily map to stay on top of it – or just stick your head out the window, it’s usually not hard to tell. In the meantime it is muddy and miserable out, so why don’t I write a bit more? It’s been really fun engaging with you on these various topics – I always appreciate the feedback.
I don’t have much of an update on what’s going on in Holland – if anyone either speaks Dutch or has a good English voice on the ground, let me know! It’s worth noting that the 2020-21 farmer protests in India eventually proved to be a successful response to government regulatory attempts to globalize Indian agriculture.
In the meantime though, in light of the extremely productive, but also very intensive manner in which the Dutch farm, I wanted to illustrate a more passive approach to food production that can be found right in our own backyard. Whereas the Dutch very tightly control and even create their landscapes for the sake of high yield farming, it is also possible to produce food through more of an “ecology management” technique, that relies less on fuel, fertilizer, seeds and chemistry, and more on a careful stewardship of animals and perennial plants.
This example can be found at our friends, the Davis’ farm: Black Kreek Ranch. This is where the lamb you purchase from us is raised. Brad and Karen and their three children manage 400 acres of pasture on the Lansdowne Plain, a former seabed deposited 12,000 years ago when the saltwater Champlain Sea reached all the way up to Kingston. This soil is heavy duty clay – very tricky to farm – but can grow grass forages as well as any land in the world.
And so, while their neighbours struggle to coax corn and soybeans out of the chunky, poorly drained clay, Brad and Karen manage pastures that have not seen a plough in 30 years. They employ about 800 ewes to harvest these grasses to generate some 1200 lambs every year. The ewes are on pasture 24/7/365 where they are moved from paddock to paddock throughout the seasons. In the wintertime they harness a team of draft horses to feed hay to the flocks to avoid disturbing the sward.
The operation is a sight to behold (it’s on Kidd Rd, you should drive by in!). Not only is it an extremely beautiful, bucolic picture: the meadows dotted with newborn lambs, it is also extremely rare in this part of the world. Nearly every other sheep farmer in Ontario utilizes a more “hot house” approach to the business of producing lamb, where the feed is grown, stored, and fed mechanically to the sheep, safely indoors. This uses much more equipment, infrastructure, inputs and energy, but you don’t have to stare down a -20 Lansdowne wind behind a team of horses in February, and you don’t have to worry about predators.
Because as much as what Brad and Karen accomplish is wonderfully natural, it does demonstrate that Mother Nature, as generous as she is, has a dark side as well: coyotes, bobcats, ravens and internal parasites all take advantage of this pasture based system. It’s hard to blame them, the lamb is delicious, and so the Davis’ fight back with at least a dozen Great Pyrenees guard dogs that live with the sheep, and who, if they don’t deter the coyotes, will tear them limb from limb. The trimmings from the local butcher shop go to keep these massive pups in good condition.
Now, the Davis’ could probably sleep a bit better at night, avoid going out in a lot of rough weather, and also produce more lamb per acre if they built barns and ploughed their pastures and trucked corn to and fro to their sheep. So why don’t they? They market nearly all of their lamb into the wholesale trade at the Ontario Livestock Exchange, where other than for the health and quality of their lambs, they receive zero premium for the ecological aspects of their husbandry.
Well, here’s the thing, and you can probably guess: it’s because by doing this they are able to net enough money to raise their family, instead of paying for inputs, equipment and servicing debt. Right now, where lamb prices are down one third from last year’s all time highs, but inputs prices are doubled and even tripled, the Davis’ farm is uniquely adapted to weather these fluctuations, which like the weather, are completely beyond their control. By adopting this passive, flexible model of stewardship versus intensive cultivation, their farm is more resilient in every respect.
So not only are they able to navigate market downturns, they can also rely on their soils to improve annually, for their genetics and management to be constantly refined, and enjoy the benefits of living in the midst of a landscape with far higher biodiversity, water quality and (this is very important to me) beauty than the sterile fields of the corn/soy cowboys. Their farm reflects the timeless order of nature, rather than the latest in agricultural technology and marketing trends. Their system has the potential to work indefinitely because their number one input (rather than diesel or nitrogen) is human energy and insight.
Now it may be that the reason that we don’t see more farms like the Davis’ is that human energy and insight might be becoming more scarce commodities than diesel and nitrogen. It’s true: there is a shortage of young blood in farming, and it is only getting worse. But there is more to it than that. Farmers as a whole are full of insight and energy, but are also very much subject to forces and influences within their respective industries. For instance, there is nowhere you can go to learn to operate a farm like Black Kreek Ranch. The University of Guelph is not going to teach you how to feed hay with draft horses. When Brad and Karen (both Guelph grads) started there they didn’t know a thing about sheep, but were instructed and guided by the farm’s previous owners, Jim and Nancy Kehoe, who had evolved the farm from a dairy, to a beef operation and eventually the extensive sheep operation that my friends now own.
The same factors that make the Davis’ farm profitable also make that style of farming repulsive to institutional, capital A Agriculture: they don’t buy enough stuff, or borrow enough cash; there’s not enough money changing hands. Growing field crops (whether to sell as grain, or feed to livestock) involves constant, expensive inputs: seed, fertilizer, fuel, crop protection and the latest and greatest technology. All of the educational, government and industry support goes towards this model of agriculture. Here in Ontario, 2% of farms generate 50% of the province’s total farm revenue. These massively scaled, resource intensive farms are what all institutional and commercial infrastructure are organized around. If you want to grow soybeans, there are countless agronomists available to walk you through the purchases and processes step by step.
Farm media is a great example of this: Better Farming, Real Agriculture and all other such outlets produce content driven by the revenues of their advertisers: farm input and equipment companies – some of the biggest corporations in the world. It’s like if you pick up a fitness magazine: reading the articles you would think that good health was founded on a giant stack of gimmicky supplements and special workout clothes, rather than, say, a sound diet, simple exercise and a good night’s sleep.
The reason the Davis’ are succeeding in agriculture is because what they are doing is ostensibly simple, and very low tech. Except that it isn’t simple at all: their day to day operations involve constant, subtle decision making based on the careful observation of their flocks, their meadows, the wildlife and the weather. “The eye of the master fattens the cattle” and in this case it means being physically present (literally outstanding in their field) and conjuring the ability to actually see how all of these natural forces interplay, and have the energy and expertise to act. This is the magical part of it all.
Can we feed 8 billion people with farms like the Davis’? Well, there’s no reason we couldn’t, except for that there aren’t a whole lot of Brad and Karens around anymore, which is why I want to shine a bit of light on their farm as encouragement for themselves and others. In lieu of this sort of human presence on the landscape, we have the impressive juggernaut of the global food/pharma system to rely on, the logical conclusions of which we hurtle towards steadily. I guess I have all winter to write about it. Thank you for reading!
I hope you are enjoying the gloom of late fall, and powering through it by preparing for holiday festivities and visits with loved ones. It’s strange to think that in less than a month the days will be getting longer again – so, much to celebrate!
This time of year, where we aren’t quite at winter yet – but it’s miserable out – is challenging to get motivated to face the mud. I wonder what our ancestors occupied themselves with at this time of year? In Britain, this time of year was dedicated to “H&D”: hedging and ditching. Where ditches and drains were improved and maintained and the traditional “fences” of the landscape were “laid” and made stock tight. You can watch this film from 1942 to witness the process.
I wonder what my Dutch ancestors did on the first day of December? Perhaps they carved themselves a new pair of clogs – the pre modern version of the rubber boot, and the footwear of choice in a wet, muddy land. Today farmers in Holland are probably preoccupied with recent news that the government will be using eminent domain to forcibly purchase and close upwards of three thousand farms in the name of environmental protection. The European Union has imposed limits on nitrogen run off and reverting these productive farms to nature is the Galaxy Brain solution in this case. That this needed food production will simply occur somewhere else doesn’t seem to factor into these decisions – which is unfortunate because Dutch farmers do more with less than anyone – some of the most innovative and efficient farmers in the world.
Having never learned to speak Dutch, it has been difficult for me to get to the bottom of this issue, everything being poorly articulated second hand by English media. For instance, just finding out how many farms there are in Holland is tricky – I see numbers ranging from 10,000-70,000 (I think the distinction may be between farm businesses and actual plots of land). Whatever it is, 3,000 is a significant chunk of it, and it’s not as though this is being done for the sake of “doing” anything but rather being allowed to revert to “nature” which is a bit of a stretch, considering The Netherlands is probably the most un-“natural” country in the world.
The saying goes that “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.” And this is largely true. Half of the country is less than a yard above sea level and a quarter of it used to be under water. Formerly a treacherous marsh – a constantly shifting delta where three major rivers, the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt enter the North Sea – the Dutch have gradually tamed the fertile land and believe it or not, despite being a tiny country with the second highest population density in Europe, are the world’s second largest agricultural exporter by value (after the USA). It really is remarkable what they accomplish.
This legislation was preceded by months of protests, but popular support and international attention were not enough to sway the directives of the wonks in Brussels, and so we are going to witness a significant reduction in Holland’s agricultural output. The protests were remarkable, not only in their scope, but more to the extent that *you were able to get Dutch people to stop working*. A peaceful, orderly sort, it’s not easy to pull a boer off of his polder and the common message was “there is no future here if this comes to pass”. So, I highly doubt these soon to be landless farmers will stick around very long. The government is offering them 120% of the value of their farm and being stubborn farmers, “wooden shoes, wooden head, wouldn’t listen”, will take the money and set up shop where they are appreciated. The exodus of Dutch farmers is nothing new: Canada has been very much blessed by them for the better part of a century.
Unfortunately those same Dutch farmers will face similar regulatory hurdles here in Canada where over the summer the federal government resolved their intention to reduce agricultural nitrogen *emissions* (not run off) by 30%. Well, what are nitrogen emissions and why are we trying to limit them? In this case the molecule in question is N2O (yes, laughing gas), and although it is released naturally by soils everywhere, it is considered a greenhouse gas and the use of manure and fertilizer can increase what occurs naturally.
The government has made a point to emphasize this is a goal, not a law limiting access to fertilizer. What is vexing about this though, is that unlike nitrogen runoff (which can at least be tested with a water sample), there is no way to actually *measure* nitrogen emissions on a farm, and so the entire exercise becomes model-based and the only way to “achieve” it would be to reduce fertilizer use by 30%. Given that nitrogen is the most important plant nutrient (after the carbon they draw from the atmosphere) this would have devastating effects on yields. You think food is expensive now? Most worryingly, it has been suggested that these goals will be “incentivized” by tying compliance with access to Agristability: crop insurance. So don’t worry folks! It’s just a goal! Totally voluntary! It’s not like we will make it impossible for you to conduct business without compliance!
There are two presuppositions I object to in both of these cases: 1) that farmers are willfully polluting and 2) that we would be better off with less farming.
Outside of nitrogen being an extremely important plant nutrient, it is also very expensive (produced with natural gas in the Haber-Bosch process). Farmers, cheap in the first place, are also business people, and so don’t have any interest in losing nitrogen to waterways or the atmosphere. (Farmer’s wouldn’t use any nitrogen at all if they could get away with it!) There are now 8 billion people and counting on planet earth, and we can largely thank/blame synthetic nitrogen for that.
Humanity has become such a juggernaut and our lives so insulated and removed from nature, we forget that we are part of nature as well. And so as much as I appreciate a productive and human stewarded landscape, I can understand the impulse to “rewild” or preserve natural spaces. Taking existing farmland out of production will not accomplish that. There are only more mouths to feed, and the crops that were grown there before will go on to replace some nature elsewhere.
When you have such a manipulated, terraformed countryside as Holland, and given its incredible productivity, why take that land out of production? They literally built a country for intensive farming. Similarly, if you’re a Canadian farmer, why take measures that would reduce your yields by 30%? It’s not that the need or demand for food has gone down. You’ll just have to plant 30% more land (and use that many more resources to do so). In fact, when food prices are high and supply chains are disrupted, why would we grow *less* food? These seem like self defeating measures, and in practice, they are.
On March 2 of this year, on the eve of the growing season, Canada slapped a 35% tariff on Russian imports, which includes 90% of the nitrogen fertilizer in Eastern Canada. To be clear, Russian fertilizer manufacturers did not pay this: Canadian farmers (and later, consumers) did. What was accomplished here? Even if we were to give those in charge the benefit of the doubt and presume these measures are well intentioned, the obviously flawed logic and the openly hostile, top down approach to the industry they are regulating suggest these people at the very least, are not qualified.
At this point, you might be like “Wow I’m surprised Charles is so supportive of all of this industrial agriculture”. Well yes, it’s not my cup of tea, nor what I would want to do personally with a large landbase and lots of money… but I am also a fan of our current standard of living, and the accessibility of food. Measures that will restrict and limit food production means that it becomes scarce and expensive, and the poor are the ones who are going to suffer for it.
I honestly think the significant problems of our global industrial food system are most acutely social, cultural, economic – spiritual – even. Part of why I advocate for the resurrection of a local food system is that I feel people need dignified work, doing something with their hands, and to relate to the world around them – in fields, greenhouses, bakeries and butcher shops. There is actually less land in agriculture today than there was 100 years ago, and at no time has farming been more regulated or resources more carefully handled. The last thing farmers need is more regulation – let alone seizing farms or restricting their productivity.
The weaknesses of global supply chains have been laid bare at this point, and we need to be flexible and allow individuals and communities to chart their own paths. At the end of the day, those Dutch farmers are going to be ok – they looked at a swamp and thought “let’s make this one of the most prosperous places in the world”, and they did – they will figure this out. We could learn something from that perspective.
I hope that you’re taking advantage of the final weeks of summer and enjoying all of the tasty delicacies we’re blessed with this time of year. We’re pretty much over the hump with work finally, and have done nearly all we can for our crops at this point. We can now let the gardens “lay by” for the most part and wait on harvest. “Lay by” is an old expression I first encountered in the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy.
Although best known for Little House on the Prairie, Ingalls’ Farmer Boy documents a year in Laura’s husband’s childhood on a farm in upstate New York in the mid 19th century. Outside of being sweetly entertaining and beautifully written and illustrated, like the rest of the Little House series, Farmer Boy is particularly interesting because it is set across the St. Lawrence not far from us. A mixed farm of cattle, sheep, horses, swine, fowl and crops, the novel provides a very detailed account of what farm life would have looked like here at the time of Confederation.
When you reach this stage of the year in the book, Almanzo’s parents have enough breathing room that they go on a week-long journey to visit some loved ones and leave the children behind to care for things. Naturally the children get into all sorts of mischief, not to mention making as much ice cream as they like and eating melons all day every day. Our children’s daily melon consumption seems to be approaching their own body weight at this point in the summer, proving as always, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Letting crops “lay by” can be a little bit frustrating, because I always want to “do something” to swing odds in our favour. But there is only so much that can be done. When I first started farming my mother often quipped that I was crazy to do something that so heavily hinged on the vagaries of the weather. I didn’t really notice at the time how right she was: when you are just learning, there is so much in motion that you don’t really see how everything is being affected. But at this point in my career, it is challenging not to directly tie my mood and outlook to weather conditions: they are that critical.
So, we go from high stress, blistering 30c+ dry heat, to mild, sopping wet 99% humidity. The plants can relax, but pathogens love it, and you can watch diseases spread by the hour under these circumstances. It is normal and expected this time of year: just sometimes a bit hard to watch. A few days, and even a few hours of extreme weather can have profound impacts on crop development: plants really are these hardwired environmental feedback machines. Now it’s one thing to note all of this in our gardens, but weather trends actually play a huge role in the business of agriculture.
Futures trading in agricultural commodities is a giant business (which many farmers also engage in) and weather patterns in major grain producing regions around the globe directly impact these prices, which can swing dramatically by the hour. Data released by the USDA regarding planting, crop conditions and expected yields will directly affect the price of a loaf of bread: and these crops have not even been harvested yet!
Right now there is an event called the Pro Farmer Tour, where crops are being sampled across the US Corn Belt with an eye to predicting yields in the fall. From what I’ve seen on Twitter, things are looking less stellar than hoped for. The silver lining to information like this, of course, is that poor crops means high prices – and they were record high to begin with! This is good news to farmers in our area (which is really a tiny, marginal outpost in the world of commodities), because, as you may notice, the field crops in our area are looking pretty mint.
I can only get so excited about the success of industrial export corn and soybean crops, however. Although they represent continued cashflow for the farmers who persist in our area, the real wealth they generate largely is made elsewhere: by the companies who supply the inputs to grow them, and the companies who actually process these products into their final form (often one and the same). It becomes quite stark when you compare it to Farmer Boy…
Almanzo’s family produced not only crops for direct human consumption, like wheat and potatoes, but also dairied: separating milk to make butter for sale, and value-adding the byproducts by feeding the skim to pigs and calves. The farm also produced and sold means of transportation and traction (raising and breaking horses and oxen), as well as the energy/fuel they required (hay and oats). And if all that wasn’t impressive enough, they produced the raw material for textiles as well: shearing sheep for fleece to be sent off and carded, spun and woven at a mill just like the one on the Cataraqui.
So, we go from farms operating as dynamic organisms: feeding, moving and clothing their communities, to farms acting as substrates for industrial chemical conversion. It’s hard to say which system is more “sophisticated” but it’s very clear which is more aesthetically pleasing and which generated and retained more wealth in our communities. The Woolen Mill itself is a great analogy for this transformation when you observe what businesses it contains now: we went from controlling the means of production to put clothes on our backs, to offshoring it to the third world, and traded it for an economy of recreation, restaurants, spas, media and professionals. Ostensibly this took place in the name of Efficiency, but when you learn of the absurdity that Ontario sheep producers shear their flocks at a loss (it costs more to remove the wool than the wool itself is worth) it is hard to accept that any of this is actually sensible.
When you take this model of efficiency to its logical conclusion, things get pretty grim. London, Ontario is now home to the world’s largest cricket factory. Producing 28 millions of pounds of crickets per year, the plant was subsidized by the federal government and although due to lack of demand most of the output is being directed into pet food, the entire project is couched in feel good language around food security.
Founder, Mohammed Ashour: “We have a massive growth in both population and appetite for protein, while at the same time we’re seeing a significant reduction in arable land and resources to produce food. Our longer-term vision is to make sure that this is a protein source that can be available and affordable to genuinely address food insecurity in many countries around the world.”
Egghead from University of Guelph, Evan Fraser: “I think it is so exciting that we are at a moment in history where we’re really re-evaluating our food systems in general, and exploring new ways of exploring protein and more efficient ways of producing protein.”
Here’s the funny part, though. Guess what the crickets are eating? CORN AND SOYBEANS
You can watch this video from Entomo Farms in Norwood, Ontario and observe for yourself.
So when you hear our central planners talk about “food security”, know that they’re not talking about changing the food system or blanketing the landscape in diverse Farmer Boy style family farms. They’re talking about reinforcing the current industrial paradigm, all of which effectively erases local distinctions, and is ultimately dehumanizing in the way that it removes us from our environment and the people that make up the systems that support us. I am really grateful for all of you taking the time to work with our farm, and not letting your eating habits “lay by”, but rather deliberately working towards the type of diet you can savour and the type of world you want to leave for your children.
It looks like our balmy fall is over. We had a good run, didn’t we? With snow in the forecast and a projected high of 0 for Saturday, we will no longer be operating our stand on Highway 2 and resuming home deliveries for the season. Thanks so much to all of you – it was our best year yet! Please don’t be shy to get in touch via phone or email, or utilize our online store.
We had some nighttime lows down to -8 last night so it’s likely that most of our remaining field veggies are done for the season. We will inspect when things thaw out. There were still plenty of crops out there – even a small fortune in lettuce.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the current lettuce shortage – prices have tripled and a pack of romaine hearts is over $12 at our little country grocer. Restaurants across North America have begun warning that it may not be featured on their menus and retailers are limiting purchases. Fortunately, although it is a staple, and very pleasant, it is essentially nutritionally inert, and we will all be fine without lettuce for a spell. If you crave the crunch, don’t worry, there’s plenty coming: it takes only two months to grow a head of it.
But why isn’t there any on the shelves right now? Well, because pretty much all of the lettuce in North America comes from one place at any given time and it’s done poorly there lately. At this point you’re probably saying… “Wait, you’re telling me the whole crop comes from a single county? Like they don’t sort of spread the risk out and grow some in, say, South Carolina, or the Comox Valley?” Yes, that is actually the case: that we can have lettuce in the field here in Ontario (at least until last night) but not on the shelf… is indeed how the industry works.
I’ve written a bit about why they grow all of that lettuce in the southwest, (largely a mix of sunlight and labour)… but this sort of specialization/optimization is standard operating procedure with pretty much every article of commerce. We’re seeing this right now with the collapsed supply of children’s pain medications: we simply don’t make any here. The precursor for Children’s Tylenol, Paracetamol, apparently all comes from India.
This stuff could probably be made by any competent chemist… I actually think the time has come for a Canadian version of Breaking Bad, where a rogue technician at Queen’s teams up with a struggling student to produce black market Children’s Tylenol, quickly coming to overthrow the leader of the Hell’s Angels and dominate Canadian organized crime… So far I haven’t heard back from any studios!
What’s vexing about these situations is how avoidable they are. Lettuce is not hard to grow – this is not like the microchip shortage. Acetaminophen is a cheap, simple, generic drug that has existed for over 100 years. That Canada cannot start cranking it out within days if need be is a huge indictment of the overly regulated, overly specialized, top heavy approach to securing basic necessities.
The same can be said for diesel fuel. High diesel prices are a huge factor in our ever decreasing buying power. Because it literally makes the world go ’round, its price is built into everything. There’s not enough to go around and so it gets more and more expensive….
Canada has the third largest petroleum reserves in the world, and given the vast and frigid nature of our country, you’d think we would be eager to simply produce more here. Something I’ve heard my entire life is “Yes Canada has lots of oil, but what we lack is refining capacity.” As though refining oil was this really magical process that you need some rare set of circumstances in order to accomplish. When diesel jumped last spring, curiosity got the better of me and I asked “how do they make this stuff anyways?” Well, it turns out you don’t actually need fairies or wizards or a secret password. IT’S MOONSHINING
You literally heat up crude oil until it evaporates then condense the vapours at various temperatures, creating the different grades of petroleum products we rely on. “Ohh no no Charles, it’s much more complicated than that!” Ok, tell that to these gentlemen in Nigeria, or these intrepid entrepreneurs in Syria. If these are a little bit rough for your tastes, perhaps you might be interested in going in with me on this small scale oil refinery, available for sale on Alibaba.
Now, of course, Canada’s oil is largely locked up in the tar sands, which adds an additional process and expense to securing crude. One of the more novel approaches to solving this problem was originally known as “Project Cauldron” – which involved detonating hundreds of nuclear warheads under the Athabasca oil patch to heat and liquify the bitumen for conventional extraction. Although later christened with “a less effervescent name” for the sake of public consumption, for better or worse, the project never came to pass. The idea is evocative of a not so long ago era of when “what if we blow it up”? was a common public policy approach to various problems. I highly recommend this 1970 news segment documenting the use of explosives to deal with the problem of a beached whale, and the unintended consequences of the “blow it up” approach.
And so while we hopefully will not have to rely on the experimental use of nuclear weapons, it’s becoming clear that the hyper specialized and hyper regulated world we have created, for all of its efficiencies, has its limitations. Seemingly simple things we perfected 100 years ago – like having lettuce out of season, making simple medications, and generating affordable fuel – are now becoming impossible, and if we continue down this path, we will end up like the barbarians, where after the fall of Rome, when as the aqueducts began to fail, there was no one left who knew how to repair them.
So, I appreciate you working with our inefficient, unspecialized little farm. Not only is it a hedge against The Leviathan, but I hope it is also much more pleasant and humane than being herded like cattle through the Costco. The above image, by the way, is of 19th century Paris market gardeners, growing lettuce in the wintertime. There is nothing new under the sun.
I’d really like to thank everyone that came out to our first week down on Highway 2. It was well worth our effort and it was wonderful to see old and new faces. We also appreciate those of you who are taking advantage of our online store – and please don’t be shy if you just want to do things the old fashioned way and just give us a ring.
We’ll be back again on Saturday rain or shine and hope for slightly better weather than last week and just in general for this season. By this point in late April, farmers would like to be in full swing: spreading manure, working the land and getting crops in. There was a small amount of activity the last couple days in our area, but after last night’s soaking everything will be parked again for at least several more days on even the highest and driest land.
Here in Ontario we hope for a bit of a drought in the spring: it lets fieldwork and planting get done uninterrupted and also makes life a little nicer for the cattle which are being turned out – not to mention their calves… There’s a saying in farming that “a dry year will scare you – a wet year can kill you” – this sounds a bit counterintuitive but also points to a lot of why things are done the way they are in agriculture.
For instance, that most produce in North America is grown in the deserts of California, Arizona and Texas seems ridiculous when you first consider it – having to divert all of that water all that way when the crops could just be grown where the water originates. However, the aspects of precise control of water, and the extremely low ambient humidity makes the desert a much more “controlled environment” to grow delicate, high value crops. You need an inch of rain? Turn on the tap. You need to get equipment or harvesters into the field? Turn it off. There are no fungal problems and the barren landscape provides no alternative host for pests and diseases. And this is why lettuce (an extremely thirsty, delicate crop) is a billion dollar industry in… Arizona of all places.
And so while Arizona might dominate the winter lettuce trade, the trend continues northward up the Pacific coast and mountain valleys. Whether the Central and Salinas valleys, the Willamette in Oregon, or the rainshadow of the Cascades in Washington, they make the desert bloom with irrigation, producing high value crops ranging from wine grapes, to apples, to Walla Walla onions, to grass seed. A migrant Central American labour force also happens to follow this trend north and south with the seasons but that is something for another article.
Even in Canada, in the northernmost tip of the Great Sonoran desert: the arid Osoyoos Valley in British Columbia, stone fruit orchards and vineyards thrive where homeowners don’t really need a lawnmower. Such are the advantages of a desert climate when it comes to growing dainty crops.
Dry conditions are not only advantageous for horticulture, but it is no coincidence that the cattle industry tends to be centered in drier regions as well. Quite simply, looking after large amounts 1000lb+ animals is just a lot easier when there is no mud. It is wet and cold and uncomfortable for the cattle, a potential death trap for calves, and a great way to mire and destroy farm equipment. It is also why traditional cattle husbandry in this region is very “barn centred” and the only extensive “range” type beef operations in these parts are possible on very rocky or sandy ground.
At the moment, our beef cattle have some rocky hills to climb up onto and fortunately aren’t yet due to calve. Our hens have dry, elevated homes on wheels to sleep and lay in, but we’ve essentially had to sacrifice an area for them to debauch during the daytime, this wet spring – rather than constantly moving them about, to only extend that effect to more areas. The longer I raise livestock, the more I understand why farmers tend to want to just stick them in a building…
The closest thing produce growers in this area can do to approximate the “desert effect” is to grow their crops on sand. Sand is referred to as a “light” soil and is great because it warms up quickly in the spring, and unless the water table itself is high, is freely draining, meaning that farmers can get back on the land quickly after rains to till, spray, harvest etc. The problem with sand is that it is droughty, and lacking the particle surface area of “heavy” soils to hold nutrients, tend to be infertile and acidic.
Heavy clay soils can hold onto a great deal of nutrients and moisture, but can be very tricky to till and plant into, warm up very slowly and are prone to compaction and poor drainage. The “just right” and most desired soil type, in theory at least, is “Loam”, and according to our soil tests this is what we have here. Our gardens were formed on the bottom of a shallow, warm lake some 10,000 years ago, and not only do we have a nice balance of soil particles, but a great deal of calcium and organic matter as well.
Organic matter, “humus”, is the real life blood of a living soil and helps ameliorate the deficiencies of any sort of dirt: making sands more moisture retentive, clays more friable and so on. You maintain and build organic matter with cover crops, compost and manure: we’ve got lots of black gold on hand here – we just need some strong winds and bright sun to hang around so we can get it spread on the land. It always comes along… eventually.
Thanks so much to all of you who continue to come out to the Highway 2 farmstand! Suzanne is officially off for the season, so we will be manning the stand ourselves for what’s left of the year; we’ll be going on a week by week basis, and given the mild temperatures, WE WILL be there this coming Saturday. Thanks as well for all of you who took advantage of our potato deal: it will be continuing. $20 for a bushel of field run, unwashed white or red potatoes – please bring your own containers/bags and we’d appreciate you letting us know so that we bring enough.
A lot of you asked how to store potatoes. Well first of all, they should be kept in the dark. They turn green in the light (they’re still alive after all) and any green spots you ever see on potatoes should be peeled off: it will give you indigestion. After that, a steady temperature is helpful, ideally about 4 degrees. For most of you this will be against the warm wall in your garage or mudroom or perhaps in an unheated part of your basement. We will be selling potatoes over the winter in smaller portions as well, but given the extra handling the prices aren’t going to be so hot, so clearing out a corner to tuck these away will be well worth it.
Another interesting aspect of focusing on potatoes a little bit is that we get a lot of feedback from our customers about our potatoes. Overwhelmingly, you point out that our potatoes are *much different* than what you’re used to getting at the grocery store – often we hear that they are much “firmer” and that they take twice as long to cook… What does this mean?
I’m not quite sure, although regardless I am glad to hear that you are enjoying them. I don’t know if it is anything we are doing in particular, or that we are growing special varieties or anything (we grow very “mainstream” potato cultivars). If I had to guess, it would be that we don’t really do any crop protection with our potatoes other than an organic spray for Colorado Potato Beetles for our early crop, and sort of let them just grow… and die (which they do rather quickly thanks to a multitude of diseases they are subject to). This runs rather contrary to industry standards: potatoes are one of the most medicated crops grown in Canada, treated heavily from the day of planting onwards. This means incredible yields of potatoes – easily double and even triple what we produce on our farm, but also a sort of “puffy” crop that did not have to contend with the gauntlet of nature on its own. Perhaps most disconcerting about this is that the insecticides and fungicides they rely on to do this are systemic… which is to say that they don’t simply lie on the surface of the leaf or seed potato, but are actually absorbed and integral to the plant itself (which is why they work so well). You can read about one such product Movento, from Bayer: the world’s largest agribusiness and pharmaceutical company.
I want to make clear to you though, that the reason a potato farmer does this is not because he is dishonest, bent on making you sick or doesn’t care. It’s economics. He has a lot of very expensive land and equipment to pay for, and the only way to do this is by growing as much potatoes as possible. We are all subject to larger forces, and he is told this is the only way; but I am going off on a tangent…
This question of what makes food “good” is currently what is simmering away on the burner in the back of my mind. It’s certainly distinct but very hard to define. Especially when you look at something as homely and bland as a potato… like how can there really be that much of a difference? When I occasionally peruse the produce section of the grocery store, I am often astounded at the condition of the produce and that a manager actually displayed that stuff with a straight face – or that anyone would think to buy it.
I believe that this lies at the heart of why so many of us find it hard to get excited about cooking: the raw ingredients are often uninspiring to say the least – even just to make a sandwich. Take another bland, starchy staple like bread. It is extremely difficult to find good bread (nor is it cheap when you find it) – out here in the sticks it simply does not exist. In the rural grocery store you have either parbaked bread full of sugar and oil, or mysterious products like Wonderbread, which really represent this ideal of the modern era; wherein we take something as simple and perfect as bread, and try to transform it into an idealized, homogenous, universal, shelf stable facsimile of a product which needed no improvement.
There may be no more divine food than fresh bread, and the main “problem” with bread, of course, is that it goes stale. This is solved quite simply by eating it and buying more. If that’s too much, we can do things like make french toast, bread pudding, or crostini. Alternatively, sourdough bread resists staleness owing to the rich microbial goop that covers the strands of gluten, but it is more expensive to produce given the prep times and more elusively, the skills needed to make it.
Products like Wonderbread, along so much of the modern culinary landscape, is a rejection and (failed) transcendence of basic physical reality. Bread goes stale, fruit is seasonal, meat and eggs are expensive to produce. Blights kill potatoes, you need talented people to make good food, and a just in time global food system is really efficient… until it isn’t.
I like to make shepherd’s pie. It’s a great dish for winter when I actually have time to cook and it’s something, other than the worcheshire sauce, I can make entirely with ingredients from our farm in the middle of winter: potatoes, hamburger, onions, garlic and carrots. Just how you prepare this mix of very simple ingredients can produce quite different results. I don’t try to embellish it too much, just a steady pursuit of the Platonic Ideal of shepherd’s pie: how the meat is browned, how the potatoes are mashed and spread, how much “crust” you put on it in the oven…
Outside of oven temperature, the most important variable here may be our intent. Am I paying attention? How do I feel about the eaters of this meal? Am I thankful for my daily bread? The answers to these questions will largely inform how we approach our food: both from a practical standpoint in terms of how much we can be bothered to learn about our ingredients and refine our techniques, but more importantly, how much we enjoy the meal itself (and the company we share it with).
Julia Child’s seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking, whose dedication reads:
To La Belle France
WHOSE PEASANTS, FISHERMEN, HOUSEWIVES,
AND PRINCES – NOT TO MENTION HER CHEFS –
THROUGH GENERATIONS OF INVENTIVE AND
LOVING CONCENTRATION HAVE CREATED ONE
OF THE WORLD’S GREAT ARTS
is a must if you are interested in this careful and thoughtful handling of simple ingredients. From the foreword:
Pay close attention to what you are doing while you work, for precision in small details can make the difference between passable cooking and fine food… You may be slow and clumsy at first, but with practice you will pick up speed and style.
Allow yourself plenty of time… If you are not an old campaigner, do not plan more than one or complicated recipe for a meal or you will wear yourself out and derive no pleasure from your efforts.
A pot saver is a self hampering cook. Use all the pans, bowls and equipment you need, but soak them in water as soon as you are through with them. Clean up after yourself frequently to avoid confusion.
Train your hands and fingers; they are wonderful instruments. Train yourself also to handle hot food; this will save time. Keep your knives sharp.
Above all, have a good time.
I find it quite telling that most cookbooks and food trends these days are focused on restrictive diets (vegan, keto, carnivore, you name it) and the overcoming of our bodies, or ideological pursuits, rather than *actually cooking food properly* so that you enjoy eating it. It is a measure of this same disconnection from physical reality that produces Wonderbread or horrific products like SQAUREAT (I’m sorry if I am the person to show you this abomination):
What I find funny (and sad) about these sorts of products is the idea that we need to free ourselves from the perceived drudgery of food preparation and proper meals. What exactly is so important that you think you are doing with your time, that you believe eating these pucks is going to give you the edge? I guarantee you that the people to whom this is attractive are extremely physically awkward and very much stuck in their own heads.
Watch Julia Child make an omelette here. You really cannot do that without being present in the flesh, connecting your eyes, mind and hands to a very careful and time sensitive task. You actually have to climb out of your neuroses and use the body God gave you to interact with Creation – also known as Normal Human Life.
We have to eat, we ought to do it as absolutely well as we can. While we’re at it, why not enjoy it and share it with the ones we love? I double dare you to drop $40 on dirty potatoes, stick them in your garage and absolutely perfect scalloped potatoes (or whatever you like) this winter. Observe the differences between the white and red potatoes, notice how they change in character in storage, and play with how you treat and handle them and the way it changes your dish. I mean, what else are you doing?
And just like that, we find ourselves in June: “the growing month”. The days get longer and longer, and our crops are responding – although agriculture in North America has been a bit tricky as of late, with wet patterns slowing down planting, both locally and across many of the grain producing regions in Canada and the Midwest. Everything is about timing right now, and having all of your gear in order to make the most of these small windows is critical. The grease is flowing here, and inspections whenever we hook to another implement it is essential. A little look can save a lot of grief, as the saying goes: “Everything on the farm is a 3/8″ bolt away from three days of repairs”. Of course, I completely trashed our fertilizer spreader yesterday. Ah well, I got it for $200 seven years ago, it’s earned its rest.
This time of the year can be a real crapshoot for weather. We want some moisture to help seedings, and a bit of cool weather helps transplanted crops weather the shock of being pulled from their little trays and shoved in the ground. At the same time, some nice hot weather will really push things along and give us ample opportunity for fieldwork. Hay species are rapidly maturing and dry ground and firm fields are essential to pull the high quality early crops off. There really is no “ideal” right now: you just deal with what we get. The moisture we’ve received over the past 24 hours is certainly less than ideal.
The main concern for us right now is our strawberry crop. Our little half acre of strawbs is not an economic cornerstone of the farm as a whole, but as a means to have a “dainty”, high value crop to pull customers in before main season produce comes on, it is extremely valuable. We haven’t had strawberries for three years now (the crop we’re dealing with was planted last year), and we are trying our best to get you an as bountiful and high quality harvest as possible. It’s not easy.
Strawberries, as we know them, are a case study in globalization. I’m sure you are familiar with wild strawberries, plants like this are common in temperate areas around the world, and cherished since forever. The current incarnation of a large, juicy berry did not come into existence until the mid 1700’s: when French horticulturalists developed a cross of wild strawberry strains gathered from eastern North America and Chile. This “globalized” aspect of strawberries continues to this day, as the the growing, harvesting and sales of the delicious berry (although technically not a berry – it is an “aggregate accessory fruit” – who makes these rules?) transcends international borders and has become a year round staple for western consumers in both fresh and processed forms.
So, we went from “tiny berry that is painstaking to harvest, only available for two weeks in the Spring, and a commercial nonentity” to “Yes I expect to be able to buy fresh, completely unblemished berries 365 days of the year.” How does this happen and what does it mean for a tiny farm like ours?
When I lived in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, you would see massive fields of strawberries – yet it was very uncommon to find fresh local fruit, but… that wasn’t the point of the crop. In October and November, large harvesting rigs would be out in the mud, digging up the dormant plants – to be shipped to Florida (where they don’t have the “chilling” hours) and planted, so that Northerners could buy them in the early spring! We also happen to get our strawberry plants from Nova Scotia.
Most of the strawberries in North America are generally produced in California, and owing to the climate and constant improvements in breeding, we have accustomed ourselves to flavourless, tough strawberries whenever we like. (The same being true of Spain in the European market). The latest innovation in here in Canada for berry production has been the adoption of “day neutral” varietals (they flower and fruit regardless of day length) in the massive greenhouse complexes around Leamington. I’ve begun to see these at Loblaws under the “PC” brand, and they are at least better than the styrofoam berries from California. They are projected to become the norm here in the next several years.
But here on our farm, what we are trying to produce is the classic “June bearing” strawberry. Grown in the soil, ripened under the sun and subject to countless foes: environmental, microbial, winged, six and four legged. Of course, we are not the first to attempt this, and there are many adaptations to these problems. The two main problems with strawberries are weeds and fungus. Conventionally, weeds are controlled in strawberries with a variety of herbicides. Forgoing them in this case, we have relied on plastic mulch and a great deal of (imperfect) hand and mechanical weeding. The even more troubling aspect is rot. It can steal a crop from you at the very last minute as various metrics of weather conditions will prompt the development of pathogens that rapidly turn one of nature’s finest delicacies into inedible slime overnight. I can’t blame the little microbes – I love to eat strawberries too!
The solution to this is fungicides. Although not often considered when discussing agricultural inputs, they have been universal in the fruit and vegetable industry for some time now, and are also becoming common inputs for commodity crops like grain and legumes. The original fungicide was copper sulfate, discovered by accident as a potential solution to some of the blights suffered in the French wine industry during the 1800’s (another Globalization issue, these diseases ran rampant through vineyards weakened by an imported New World aphid brought back to Europe on North American grape vines for breeding). A botany professor noticed that some vines near roadsides, sprayed with copper and lime (as a bitter tasting visual deterrent against snacking pedestrians!) actually effectively resisted fungal diseases, and so “Bordeaux Mixture” was born.
A surface fungicide, it is quite effective, and considered “organic”, although its prolonged use can toxify soils with excess copper. More recently, “systematic” fungicides have been developed. Much more effective and long lasting, they are incorporated *into* the crops, and don’t function “on” the foliage and fruit, but rather, work inside of them. They are absorbed through the leaves’ stomata and flow throughout the the plant. They very effectively curtail spoilage (which is why you can get unblemished raspberries from Chile), but this also means that you eat them. You can’t wash them off, you can’t rub them off of your shirtsleeve. Ostensibly, they’re safe – they’ve been fed to rats and gerbils and dogs before we get to ingest them- you can read about some info on cyprodinil, for instance, to that effect.
So in lieu of selling you strawberries covered in bitter tasting copper, or full of chemicals whose names I can’t pronounce, what we have been attempting to utilize instead of these are probiotic bacteria (Bacillus subtilis) that colonize and coat the surface of the strawberries before the bad guys can. Even when trying to use “natural” and “organic” products, the spray we are using, Serenade, is brought to us by the world’s biggest drug company: Bayer – there is no escaping these guys. Current conditions are going to push mold pressure to the max, so we will see how well this stuff works.
A brief aside, it is very funny in the pesticide industry how the products are named. Organic products have nice sounding names like “Serenade” and “Entrust”, while conventional products have much more aggressive sounding names like “Viper” or “Vengeance”. I can’t help but chuckle at the marketing.
Anyhow, I don’t mention all of this to say “look how good we are and how bad big farmers are”. Conventional crop protection is there for two main reasons: 1) farmers can’t afford to lose crops. If you’re going to grow hundreds of acres of high value fruits or veg, you can’t just let them rot in the field – it’s not that they want to kill you; and 2) the fact is that consumers just will not buy blemished produce. I know we all like to think “Ah, I’m not fussy, I’d take the wormy corn or the fruit with a touch of mold” but I can tell you after hanging around horticulture for 20 years that we just really don’t. I mean why would you buy an ugly product when you can buy a pretty one instead? We eat with our eyes first after all.
The main reason I’m hesitant to go full “better living through chemistry” on the farm is that I live here. I have little kids that run butt naked all over the place and we like to just wander out and grab our supper without worrying about how many days it was that we sprayed X. A lot of crop protectants are quite safe and generally benign to human health. Some are really bad for you though and you don’t want to be around them. So, we try to walk the middle path. The idea that there is some sort of “magic bullet” to any problem in farming is a myth: every decision has pros and cons. “Growing things naturally” has already been perfected by Mother Nature, and she grows strawberries in clearings and ditches for a week or two a year and though they’re tasty, it takes quite some time to gather a handful Growing economically viable crops in nice clean straight rows is the opposite of “natural” and so we sweat and toil and worry and sweat some more and hope to at the very least not lose money and that our customers are happy and come back next year.
Hope you had a great weekend and got out to enjoy some beautiful weather and perhaps some time in the countryside. Things are marching along here – we have some of the most advanced crops for this calendar date that we’ve ever seen. The strawberries are beginning to turn and we’ll even have some greens at the stand this weekend… best of all, we will have Suzanne back at the stand too!
Applying some horticultural black magic, here is some zucchini transplanted on May 12…
I didn’t have the chance to do a detailed email last week because I was a bit tied up catching up on things around the farm after being away at one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had.
Last year Morgan and I started working as sales reps for a Quebec maple syrup equipment company, L.S. Bilodeau. After a two year hiatus, they resumed their traditional Victoria Day weekend Open House and as a dealer, I was invited/expected to attend. I had no idea what I was getting into.
With cereal box levels of French literacy and absolutely no conversational skills, I apprehensively headed deep into the maple heartland of Quebec: The Beauce. Near the Maine border and essentially in the Appalachians, The Beauce is a beautiful and extremely productive part of La Belle Province. Outside of orderly farms and well maintained sugar bushes and woodlots, the landscape is also dotted with small manufacturing plants. The people of The Beauce are known for being an industrious and entrepreneurial type and you can see evidence of it everywhere.
Getting into this trip I did not realize these open houses were an industry-wide “thing”. All of the maple equipment companies are based in southern Quebec, and all hold these events on the same weekend as a massive sales promotion with a deep 20% discount. Quebec sugarmakers have just gotten their first cheques for the 2022 crop from the producers federation, and they are hot to buy next year’s equipment: going in clans from manufacturer to manufacturer getting the best prices they can on the improvements they want to make for their operations.
Seeing the massive crowds and the scale of their purchases it was really impressed upon me what an Industry maple is in Quebec. I mean we all know they make a lot of syrup in Quebec – they make 94% of Canada’s output and 77% of global supply – and we’ve all even heard of the Great Syrup Heist. But what marks the Quebecois dominance of the maple industry is not the trees: it’s 400 years of tradition and culture.
We actually have many more potential taps in Ontario than in Quebec (where they have essentially tapped everything), yet our approach to the resource is as a quaint hobby or small seasonal business. The reality is that maple syrup is a highly sought after product, in demand all over the world, and there is really no reason we could not be generating the same kind of economic activity (not to mention incredible land stewardship) here in Ontario. So why don’t we?
It really stood out to me at the L.S. Bilodeau Open House that they had made room for the local school board to set up a small display kiosk advertising a high school co-op program: 50% classroom / 50% on site for the following careers: livestock husbandry, forestry, and maple syrup production.
Now, could you imagine the Limestone District Schoolboard asking parents: “Hey, have you considered training your child to be… a logger???” It’s unthinkable – but look around Kingston: so much horribly managed scrub, producing nothing, and often quite hard on the eyes. You would think when a 2×4 is worth almost $10 someone would put two and two together, but we have apparently resolved that these jobs are beneath our children, and that these industries belong somewhere else.
I attended high school in Belleville, and before I came of age to go there, the school (Nicholson Catholic) had completely gutted all of their trades programs and decided to focus on “Technology” (because being able to do spreadsheets is “technology” and being able to plumb and wire a house is not). So when I dropped out of school at the start of OAC, I was very good at video editing, but very unprepared for when I got my first flat tire. We are generating a population of helpless people, not to mention missing out on innumerable economic opportunities.
This failure to capitalize on these opportunities becomes quite stark when you look at the agricultural sector. Agriculture in Quebec is dominated by livestock husbandry. At no point while in The Beauce did I not smell animal manure on the wind. It has become an uncommon odour in southern Ontario, where for the past several years, soybeans have become the province’s #1 crop. More of an industrial commodity than actual food, soybeans are largely exported abroad (China being our largest customer). Beans produce little in terms of secondary jobs or industries and despite fixing some nitrogen, are considered rather hard on the ground: a net negative for fertility, organic matter and soil structure – the good of the land winding up on another continent – but at least we don’t have to smell manure! Livestock husbandry, on the other hand, not only retains fertility and builds soil, it also adds value to the farmer’s crops: generating greater revenues at the farmgate as well as associated economic activity in the community.
The problem with all of these missed opportunities is that they require human beings who like to work. With modern technology, growing soybeans for export doesn’t really take a lot of people. Creating a purposeful rural economy that stewards and maximizes natural resources does, however. And the primary unit for us people of course, is the family. Now we can all easily envision families running farms, restaurants, construction companies or even crime syndicates. But have you ever heard of a “Family Factory”? Whelp, that’s just what you see at L.S. (Linda and Sylvain) Bilodeau. I’d suggest watching this little, rather moving video (to me at least) about the company’s first thirty years: it’s quite remarkable to see a man with skills and a vision apply himself and inspire his family to enthusiastically participate in it (see little Vincent and Marie-Christine running the big metal brake!). Particularly interesting about their business is the passion to produce extremely practical, high quality goods that last lifetimes, and are designed to utilize the abundance of nature, whether maple sap, firewood, or milk. When asked during my initial interview with the business what I liked about the company, I told them I appreciated how they saw forests as a sustainable resource and firewood as a viable source of fuel. Vincent’s eyes lit up, (Quebecios accent): “You know… eet ees like zee forest ees a waterfall…. a waterfall of gazoline, right in your backyard- would you not collect eet? and use eet? and put eet in your car?” I still smile when I recall this. Not because it’s silly, but because the truth sounds silly; I too look at the landscape around us and see nothing but opportunities.
We have this huge ancient map of “Canada West: The United Counties of Leeds and Grenville” hanging on our wall at home. Printed in 1867 (when this was “western” Canada), remarkable for not only its age and incredible accuracy, it details all of the businesses and manufacturers operating in all of the towns of the counties. When you take the time to read the fine print, you begin to see that not only were we capable of making nearly everything we needed within our own communities – turning clay into bricks, ore into machinery, and timber into ships and carriages – but it was families that took on this risk and responsibility and reaped the rewards of it as well.
Since 1867, a lot has changed. Little companies get bought by big companies. Businesses now generally operate based on maximizing shareholder returns and not the concerns of some little family or the community they were founded in. Economies of scale, global transportation and the disparate cost of doing business have resulted in the offshoring of nearly all of our essential industries: whether pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, electronics, even food processing (try to find fish in the grocery store that weren’t frozen on the other side of the Pacific). The past two years have highlighted the shortcomings of these “efficiencies” and it’s rather startling for those of us without a stock portfolio of the companies that have generated this situation.
It feels daunting when you start to look at the prospects of bringing industries back to North America. There are large scale examples of this, like the Intel semiconductor plant being built in Ohio to address the “chip shortage” – fantastic news. But it’s people like Sylvain and Linda – who can make something from nothing – that actually make me realize that everything is going to be “ok”. The strength and resilience of the family, where talents and inspiration are nurtured – and literally generated – is going to prove more powerful than any trade agreements or market forces. But in the meantime, we’re going to have to get our hands dirty, and unless we’re willing to do so we are going to be at the mercy of those who will. Thanks very much for working with our family, we appreciate serving yours.
Wow what a week that just went by! Truly the stuff farming dreams are made of – 6 days in a row of perfect planting conditions after a wet and bleary April and now a nice rain to cement all of the progress. Warm, dry (enough) soil and lots of sunshine. The heat was a bit much for some of us, but we – and every other farmer in the area – pounded in crops and some are even showing signs of life: carrots, beets and sweet corn are up and growing, and the transplants that’ve gone in since the end of April are over their shock and showing new leaves. The apple trees and strawberries are in bloom, the grass is growing by the hour and the cows are eating it just as fast. Things went from zero to sixty and the prospects for harvest are already in sight. The emerging weeds will keep us humble, but very exciting stuff!
I was trying to keep on top of the lawn down in Kingston on Saturday so I didn’t have much of a chance to chat this week, but as I saw all of the familiar faces I couldn’t help but reflect that over the years we’ve developed many genuine relationships with so many of you. Not that we’re best buds or go bowling or know each other’s intimate business, but just that over the years we keep showing up and you keep showing up. It really is a matter of time.
All important relationships work that way. Whether it’s your spouse and family, your work, athletics, church, you name it – it takes consistent effort and patience to get to know someone and earn their trust. I am often amazed at how this works regarding the food system. Given the universal nature of eating, the networks of producing and distributing food are well established and often multigenerational. It also makes the food business a bit challenging to enter or access. Even something as simple as those little green paper boxes you buy our produce in – you can’t just go buy them on Amazon (at least affordably).
I call a guy who knows a guy, and bada boom bada bing I have my pints and quarts. But I can’t go to PintMart. Same with cattle. Oh, say you want ten, 800 lb Black Angus replacement heifers? Yeah… maybe you’ll find them on Kijiji… maybe… on the other side of the province. Or – you can ask me and I’ll call my friend Steve and he’ll talk to so and so and somehow you’ll have those critters in your yard next week. Truly amazing!
Though it really shouldn’t be – it’s how things have worked forever: high trust, functional relationships based on good faith dealings. We’ve really departed from this model in postmodern life, where now, rather than buying, say, shoes from the same family our parents did, we search far and wide for the best deals and leave that relationship economy behind. Nowhere is this more stark than the world of capital R Relationships – where online dating has become the norm for an entire generation. I was fortunate enough to meet Morgan the old fashioned way (friend of my sister), but as people become increasingly mobile and isolated it’s not hard to see why they resort to it. But the internet is connecting you to more than your next hot date.
At this point we’re probably all well aware of Big Data and how our phones and web browsers are collecting all of our movement, purchases and internet searches to constantly tailor advertising to our specific tastes and budget. You’ve probably also had that thing happen where you start talking about something out of the blue and then you immediately get a bunch of advertisements for it before your YouTube videos… very comforting to know you have a friend in The Cloud.
So now think Tinder, but for farmers – and I don’t mean farmersonly.com – it’s called Tillable and has been generating some controversy in the Midwest the past few years as a platform to market farmland leases. Given the increasing value of grain, being the owner of farmland is an increasingly desirable position and renting your land to the farm down the road for the same old price might not be the best way to maximize your asset. Tillable to the rescue – but this has caused some hard feelings as farmers either find their payments dramatically going up, or their fields being outbid by anonymous clients online.
The power of this sort of application is further amplified by the incredible amount of data collection that goes along with state of the art farming. Detailed nutrient mapping, weather monitoring and yield records are all commonplace in 2022 agriculture. Referred to as Precision Agriculture, these are tremendous tools for farmers, and help them make the most of their resources – knowing exactly how much fertilizer or lime they need to add to specific areas of their fields, for instance. At the same time this information is being collected, aggregated and sold, so that the *actual productive value* of farmland can be determined by investors. “They” (the computer hivemind) knows exactly what any given chunk of farmland in North America is made and capable of.
Bill Gates made waves in 2021 by becoming the largest single owner of farmland in the USA, possessing almost a quarter million acres of prime land. You can be sure he did not do so by climbing out of his pickup truck to look at the state of the corn, crumble the soil in his hands and give it a sniff. Data and economics drive these decisions: the ever increasing value of farmland consistently does better than any of the major stock indexes. It’s a great place to park money.
People have asked me “Is Bill Gates trying to control the food system?” Well, beyond investing heavily in some really terrible “food” products like Beyond Meat (the fake burgers and sausages) and Biomilq (lab grown breast milk…) no, Bill Gates is not in any position to “control the food system”. First of all, there are other companies that do that already, like Cargill… (go ahead and try to learn about them – the largest private company in the USA, they operate on an international scale and are absolutely opaque despite the tremendous impact they have on all of our daily lives). Second of all, you can’t just “into” agriculture – I’ve been trying for twenty years and I’m barely competent – but despite that, the wealthy and powerful often fancy that they can prosper in agriculture… after all it’s just some dumb farmers doing it – but it really doesn’t work, and hasn’t for a long time.
Whenever you consolidate land into large holdings, whether the Roman Latifundia or Soviet Collective Farms, you end up with social upheaval like slave revolts and famines and environmental disasters like the Aral Sea – whose tributaries were steadily diverted by central planners for irrigated cotton. Centralized control and ownership of farmland is the definition of “unsustainable” and always fails – eventually.
It just is the way it is that farms need a farmer: someone personally invested in the land as their home. As per the Book of Genesis “the LORD God took the man, and put him in the garden of Eden to dress and keep it”. It’s been this way forever. That’s why long standing companies like Cargill (around since 1865) know better, to leave farmers alone to deal with the actual stress and toil of farming: it is much simpler to skim the cream off of their efforts.
Something I find very interesting about these attempts to consolidate land ownership is how often it’s done by… Canadian pension funds (who knew?). In fact, one of BIll Gates’ largest purchases – $520 million dollars, spread across 12 states – was bought from the Canadian Pension Plan. The Ontario Teachers Pension Plan is on a similar grindset – early this year they bought 870,000 acres of timber in the Southeast US for $625 million dollars. In 2019 they spent $288 million dollars to buy Broetje Orchards: over six thousand acres of productive orchards in Washington state (for reference, ten acres of orchard would be considered an “economic unit” or family sized operation). In 2017, they purchased Jasper Farms, one of Australia largest avocado producers for $177 million dollars, and in 2014 purchased 99% of the shares in Aroona farm (another Australian juggernaut, almond growers this time) for $113 million.
So, in other words, hundreds of millions of (I suppose it adds up to billions) of dollars, paid by Canadian taxpayers, workers and employers are – rather than being invested in Canadian businesses – used by these pension funds to buy massive landholdings/agribusinesses in foreign countries.
I’ll leave it to you to draw conclusions about what this all means. I just find it.. um, interesting, and makes me all the more grateful for people like you: who invest in local family farms like ours. We’re up against a lot.