Strawberry Fields

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.

The Family Business

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…

Coming soon!

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.  

Relationship Status

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.

In the Spirit

With the current weather we are enjoying it is full tilt “go time” on every farm from Kansas to Quebec.  I’m always amazed how even as far north as we are, broader weather patterns tend to dominate the continent and despite the difference in latitude just a few weeks *at the most* separate farm activities even 2,000 kilometres away.  One of the most shocking things I see as I peruse the North American agriculture scene online is witnessing field tomatoes being harvested in August in California – green as grass and handled about as gently as a load of coal – when there are vine ripe tomatoes available in all of the lower 48.  You will hopefully notice this difference soon as our strawberries come on – the first blossoms are showing!

We’ve already snuck in some early crops and now the big push to plant cool weather mainseason crops like potatoes, greens and onions is on here.  Once nighttime temperatures are consistently over 10c we will put in our warm weather friends like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and melons.  It was a very pleasant 26c here this afternoon but was barely above freezing at 5:30am in our little hollow yesterday morning.

Broadly speaking, plants don’t do a heck of a lot until it’s over 10c at night – they photosynthesize during the day, but at night the real cell division occurs. I am often shocked in the morning when I wake up the greenhouse to see how much our little transplants have grown overnight.

Agriculture in North America ploughs on despite an entirely new paradigm of doubling input pricing, logistical issues and inflation causing consumers to reevaluate their spending priorities.  I’d be lying to say it didn’t have me a bit worried.  On the whole our business has been successful despite COVID but the gravity of the runaway inflation is giving me pause.  For instance: our CSA share sign up is lagging…  This is a particular pinch for us because being a foundation of our business, we rely on those subscriptions to keep the lights on this time of year and underwrite our upfront expenses.  If you’re interested in our box program or cards I’d especially encourage it right now – it is a great way to save money, secure fresh produce and lock in prices.

Last spring many folks were stuck in the house, sitting on an unusual amount of cash they had nowhere to spend, and I suppose, looking around the internet for ways to spend it.  This spring, people are catching up with missed travel opportunities, have the kids signed up for all of the activities they missed and are getting absolutely hosed at the gas pump and grocery store.  It makes sense, and we just have to figure things out.  We do it all the time.

I first got anxious about inflation in late 2020, not because I have any particular insights into the world of economics, but because Michael Burry was tweeting about it.   Who is Michael Burry?  If you’ve seen the movie The Big Short, he’s the guy played by Christian Bale: a slightly autistic market analyst/trader who foresaw the 2008 US housing collapse and made a ton of money off of it for himself and others.

His dire predictions were causing so much of ruckus on Twitter that he eventually deleted his account, although in highsight, pumping billions of dollars of free money into the economy in lieu of actual productivity, inflation seems like a foregone conclusion that anyone could have foreseen.

At the time, I hatched a scheme because we needed $300,000 to mortgage our farm (because of the Barndominium and a couple other issues, our place is not of interest to most banks).  The idea was a “Super CSA” – I wanted to find 60 people to invest $5,000 dollars and receive $1,200 worth of food for each of the next five years – with the kicker that the food prices would be locked in at 2020 levels.   It was meant as a hedge against inflation. Fortunately (perhaps?) my likely unrealistic scheme was thwarted by Morgan’s diligent efforts to find financing and never came to fruition, because National Bank’s business division eventually took us on and I indebted myself to a faceless corporation instead of 60 individuals.

So, now, two years later, the value of your house has doubled, your car is worth more than when you bought it, your new dishwasher *might* come in two months and a 2×4″x8′ stud is back up to $9.  Fertilizer, diesel, corn and soybeans (the actual foundation of the economy) are now 2x of what they were a year ago and things are just starting to get interesting.   Someone chirped me the other day because the price of diesel was up to $2.45 and we happen to run a diesel truck.  Yes it hurts a bit, but no matter how you get around that expense is going to be transferred to every single consumer because everything we eat, wear and rely on for daily life gets to us thanks to diesel fuel – and those prices haven’t even caught up.

Perhaps most perplexing about this is that despite all of these price increases, grocery retailers like Loblaws are posting incredible profits – up 40% compared to last year.  They are reporting a distinct trend towards discount grocers and smaller, more frequent purchases.  The question for us is:  with increased costs of living everywhere, are people going to limit their discretionary spending on local produce?   Is buying fresh local food going to become a luxury item that can be dropped to save a bit on the bottom line?  Are we moving to a dollar store economy?

I guess we’re going to find out.  “Sticker shock” is a very real thing.   I bought some crop inputs today and they were up 120% over last year – it sort of melted my brain.  I got chatting with the owner of the business (Willows) and heard the same thing I hear everywhere: “Demand is incredible, but our margins are getting thinner and thinner”.  Everyone in the back end of the food supply chain is essentially in a Mexican standoff: waiting for someone to blink while trying to hold onto competitive prices.

In the meantime, with record profits, the dominant grocery chains can afford to sell produce as a loss leader while drawing in consumers to purchase actually inflated processed food and consumer goods from the middle aisles.  I bought a watermelon last week, for instance, that cost $3.50.  I couldn’t help myself.  Bright, warm sunny day, I knew the kids would freak out for it.  The watermelon came from Mexico.  Now, it costs $1 to mail an envelope across town but you’re telling me you can ship a 10 lb watermelon across North America and make money for $3.50?

Produce growers are under the gun in this scenario because of the vulnerable nature of produce: it spoils.  You can’t just sit on it.  So, you have 10, 100, 1000 acres of chard, melons or whatever.  If you’re playing hardball with the Westons (or the other two players in Canada’s effective grocery monopoly), you are going to have to take what you can get – best case scenario you have a contract in place from when your inputs were half the price.  How this affects us or you remains to be seen.  All I know is that I’m weary of raising prices to even begin to compensate for expenses lest we scare off customers – if you’ve read this far in this email, I’d imagine you’d accept it, but more broadly, it remains to be seen.

I post all of this doom and gloom because it is at the forefront in my mind right now as we make decisions about our little farm and I’m sure in your own household as well.  We’ve been at this here for nine growing seasons now and the question of “are we going to make it?” seemed to have just about disappeared… but is back again.  Something that always stands out in my mind when I talk with those who run successful businesses is the often repeated idea that “yeah we’re doing great – but everything could go to hell in a heartbeat”.  The people I see actually pushing the envelope and “going for it” – whether a young company or multigenerational business – seem to all agree that you can’t take anything for granted, and the more you accelerate the more friction you generate.

If you’re fortunate enough to be a homeowner right now, I’m sure the notion to sell out and cash in must cross your mind now and again – very tempting!  But where do you go?  Out of the frying pan into the fire.  LIkewise for us – yes this is uncharted territory.  Challenging times – but what else on earth could we possibly do?  Failure is not an option.

The worst of it for me personally, is that I feel “inspired” to farm.  That is to say in the most literal sense, I am in the spirit: I feel a moving come over me when the weather is just so and God help you if you try to stand in my way of getting crops in.  I don’t care if I have a shovel or a horse or a tractor: if that ground is warm and I have two nickels to rub together to buy seed, I am going to farm.

And you can take rest in that because I am far from the only one.  I honestly believe the world turns on inspiration.  I have much more faith in inspiration than willpower.   So many of the wonders of our civilization did not come from coordinated academic research or industrial inquiry, or polls or studies, but rather strange moments of revelation or action.  And that goes from the remarkable realities that your toilet reliably flushes to that you are somehow able to read this on a little computer in the palm of your hand.  Newton under the apple tree type stuff.  Farming is no different.  Many of the families in the business of agriculture in fact represent a continuous lineage of growers and herdsmen going back to the Iron Age.   They aren’t about to stop doing what they’ve been doing for thousands of years.

And the reason they do it isn’t because farming is some sort of infinite money hack.  On the contrary.  It’s a great way to live poor and die rich and bless/condemn the next generation to do the same.  Rather people pursue and persist in agriculture because they feel very strongly about it.  It’s actually very emotional – for better or worse.  There’s pride, purpose and a whole lot of money on the table.   It doesn’t hurt that most of us are completely unemployable otherwise!!!

Sorry for the long polemic.  This is probably one of those examples of telling others what I need to hear myself.   But please take heart and ignore the hysteria out there.  Yes the world is crazy, it always has been.  Anyone with a brain who’s been watching their money closely for over fifty years tells me what we’re saying ain’t nothing compared to the 70’s – with inflation, fuel rationing, the whole nine yards… So let’s just relax, take some time to smell the roses soon to bloom and enjoy some nice meals with our loved ones.  We’re looking forward to the season ahead of us.

Character(s)

I hope you are all enjoying the spring weather.  Quite a bit more rain than we expected overnight – blame Hiram and I: we set up some irrigation!  But it’s been so nice to feel that sunshine, and to see the vivid green emerging everywhere.  Since last week, we’ve actually snuck in some early crops (sweet corn, carrots, beets and peas) and more broadly in the countryside, you can see that farming is now in full gear.

Despite how busy everyone is, farmers don’t seem to mind to stop and talk with you.  Two I’ve had the good fortune to interrupt lately are both living local legends.  Let me tell you about them:

Neil Banks is in many ways the last of the old school farmers.  He’s a lean and vigorous man for 80 years of age and not only successfully produces conventional cash crops, but he and his wife Gale are probably the best market gardeners I know.  They produce some of the earliest and most beautiful vegetables you’ll ever see and you may know them from Brockville Farmers Market as Corn Acre Farms.  You’ve almost certainly heard of their daughter, Wendy, who runs Wendy’s Country Market, as well as Furnace Falls Farm Retreat and the accompanying Forest School.  It’s pretty much impossible to overstate how important Wendy has been to Kingston’s “Local Food” scene.

Charlie Forman is the closest thing I have to a mentor in agriculture – although you might not know it when you look at my modest little farm   Charlie grows thousands of acres of grain, produces pelletized biomass fuel, offers all kinds of custom farming, and in his free time (haha) helps his wife Christine produce various fruits and vegetables, including a year round greenhouse operation yielding vine ripe tomatoes and nursery stock.  If you go to local restaurants in Kingston, you’ve eaten Forman Farm’s food.  Charlie is a first generation farmer, was a volunteer firefighter for many years and now sits on the city of Kingston’s Rural Advisory Committee.

Neil and Charlie are an interesting case study in farmers because it demonstrates that in agriculture there is no one “right” way.   Both of these men have distinct styles and manner of going about things.  Neil farms with equipment he paid for thirty years ago – when I interrupted him the other day, his son Jay was working up some land with a beastly Massey Fergueson that you start with a screwdriver.   Charlie runs state of the art gear he has to scour North America for and isn’t afraid to take on some payments.  Charlie is up to date on the latest research, trials and technologies.  Neil started about ten sentences with “My father always…” the last time he talked to me about farming.  Profitable, productive farming can take many shapes and there is tremendous wisdom on both sides of this coin.

Outside of being successful farmers with brave, steadfast wives, Charlie and Neil have a lot in common.  They both have great stories about being headstrong young men and being told by their principals that they would “never amount to anything” (and of course being able to satisfyingly laugh in their face later in life!); they’re both the first farm in the neighbourhood to have their fields planted and harvested, they both live well below their means, and they’ve both gambled big in farming, and won (with a bit of hard work along the way).

What they really share though is this increasingly rare quality of character.  These men are fully formed, and “who they are” in a way you don’t see too much in the wild.  And as much as they love the craft of farming, a big part of why they do it is because they cannot stand to be told what to do.  And so they traded a boss with a tie for an even harder one (Mother Nature) in order to be as In Control of Their Own Lives as possible – something very few of us can say!

But do you want to know something else they have in common?  Bear with me here… but I just can’t stop thinking about this after I realized it the other day…  They were both raised in very distinct, beautiful homes.  The type of houses you notice, and think about, and become landmarks to you. 

It’s not that the buildings are super fancy or large or even that they happen to be old.  They’re just farmhouses.  They weren’t engineered.  They didn’t get a building permit.  They were made by hand by men who lived in a world very much smaller than our own, and they fit into the countryside absolutely perfectly – like they grew out of the earth itself.   The materials came from the stones, soils and forests in the immediate surroundings.  Their character is a perfect reflection of the people and place they were created in.  This is what makes them beautiful, this intimate intersection of necessity, human creativity and the landscape.

So did these buildings make Charlie and Neil the men they are today?  I guess I’ll have to ask them.  Maybe it’s a coincidence.  But in a world of policy wonks and particle board, people like Neil and Charlie sure stick out.  I’m sure glad they’re around because their lifetimes of experience are something they share liberally and without even really knowing it.  Seemingly insignificant anecdotes or small remarks in passing from guys like these often produce “ah ha!” moments for me, firing off synapses in my brain, finally making connections that they take for granted on an intuitive level.

And believe me, I need all the help I can get!  I tried, early in my adult life, to build a home out of and into the landscape and well, it looks about like what you’d expect a shack built by a 23 year old from Belleville with no money and a chainsaw to look like…

I think Morgan is expecting a bit better effort for this round… However, given that this is where Hiram spent the first years of his life (and he’s now a 17 year old sawyer/sugarmaker/lumberjack/farmer) perhaps there is something to the “childhood home defining your character” theory.

All I really know is that we all have a long way to go.  Look around you – everything is a long way from reaching its potential.  As Charlie always reminds me: “You’ve only got thirty growing seasons or so left Charles – you’d better make the most of them”.  

We’re Back, Baby!

As I look out the window here on April 19th, in the year of our Lord 2022, and I see snow not only falling, but accumulating up here in Lyndhurst, I feel I might have been a bit hasty to announce on our sign down in Kingston that we would opening on Saturdays once again.

But, so it is written, so it shall be.  We’ll be open at 1054 Highway 2 East on Saturdays from 10am-2pm for the next month or so, extending our days and hours as the variety of products grows.  We’d love to see you there.   Along with our usual mix of meat, eggs, root crops and cheeses, we’ll also have vine ripe tomatoes from Forman Farms.

One thing about weather like this is, I suppose, that it gives me an opportunity to sit down at the computer and write.   Since last week, a few of you shared an interesting essay by Bee Wilson you correctly thought would be up our alley, about the gradual disconnection we’ve experienced from the tactile experiences of handling, selecting, preparing and eating food.

The progression from specialized vendor (ie: fruit stand, fishmonger, baker, butcher… etc), to supermarket, to online retailing was one of many threads the author wove together in her story – I had to chuckle because there are few people more zealous about direct physical contact with their food than us… while also launching an online store.  Such are the compromises of running a family farm in a world that is hurtling towards the Metaverse – the transhumanist vision of the future, where we shed the shackles of our physical bodies to explore exciting virtual realities… like shopping at Walmart.

Like many “trends” foisted upon us from our betters on high, no sane person wants this reality – I suppose unless you own stock in Walmart or Facebook.  What people at least say they want, and what we actually get seem to be getting further and further apart.  For instance, I imagine most people would *say* they want things like walkable communities with local small businesses.   Instead, we get:

This happens to be in Kingston (I’m sure most of you know exactly where it is), but for better or worse, it could literally be anywhere in North America.  In many ways we already exist in the Metaverse: severely detached from physical reality, drifting in an anonymous, placeless fog of corporate consumer culture and consumption.  It may be bland, likely unhealthy, but it offers few challenges or surprises; it is “safe”, predictable, consistent.

The impetus for Bee Wilson’s meditation on the culture’s loss of tactile appreciation for food was her own experience of losing and regaining her sense of taste and smell when she came down with COVID.  As much as I am on the same page with her when it comes to the sensual and aesthetic appreciation of food – as well as the rest of life for that matter – I feel the bigger picture with food (and the bigger loss during COVID) is social.

Man does not live by bread alone, and there’s no joy in a meal by yourself.  One of the greatest rewards I experience with our business is when I’m down at the farmstand on Highway 2, and I see two people – neighbours – finally, for the first time, introduce themselves, socialize and chat while squeezing tomatoes and waiting in line, after living down the street from each other for years. 

This “people” element is honestly why I believe the Creator allows our unlikely business to exist and prosper.  I often reflect on this when I see our employees at work as well.  I’ll witness people of vastly different ages, class, language and culture interacting, working, laughing and learning from one another.  Very few settings allow for that in today’s world.  Our farm – as much as it is a business, an exercise in stewardship, a source of calories, and home for our family – reaches its highest potential when it serves as a substrate for the gathering of people and source of strength for our community.

In the words of the most idealistic, hippie dippy daydreaming farmer of all time, Masanobu Fukuoka: “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings”

So while I am proud of the food we produce – its taste, texture and smell – and continue to apply myself to the various disciplines of my craft and nuances of business, none of it would be possible without the people (you) who go out of your way to look beyond the Metaverse and go out of your way to *work with people*.

The Spice of Life

By the time you get this email we will probably be plugging away on our last boil of the season.   We’re into the dark syrup now, and will bottle some up before Friday – we know you have been waiting for it!  

Dark syrup is generally not the sugarmaker’s pride and joy – delicate, light syrup is how maple folks like to show off their craft, and also what commands the highest prices from wholesalers – but it definitely has its place.   We were fortunate to sneak out to our friends Jamie and Amber’s restaurant The Everly over the weekend where they feature our syrup in some of their desserts.   Great desserts, but owing to the early season syrup, a little light on the maple-i-ness.   We’ll make sure they get some dark for those desserts – you can pick up the amber in their bottle shop next door!

Traditionally the darker grades of syrup have gone for processing things like confections, tobacco, and of course to flavour those terrible knock off corn syrups like Old Tyme.  Fortunately, many of you are appreciating the robust flavour of darker grades and creating a market for farmers like us.  Personally, when we are making syrup, by the time we are making the dark stuff I am sick and tired of eating sugar no matter how it looks or tastes!  That’s how maple season goes: can’t wait for it to start, and very relieved when it ends…  Now we have five months of growing vegetables to look forward to – no rest for the wicked.

Thanks to everyone for getting their feet wet with our online store.  We also appreciate those of you who just want to shoot us an email and pay cash – as a fellow luddite I am very sympathetic and we’re happy to do things either way.

The main goal of our online store is to grow our business.  Farming is all about scale, and it’s very tricky to find the balances in production, marketing, labour and so on.   Some of you have been around since the very beginning, when we did all of our fieldwork with draft horses.  Since then we’ve come to appreciate and implement modern equipment, producing more and more food for our community, and raising our growing family in the effort.

One has to be careful with scale as well.  I saw that potatoes at the grocery store were something like $1.47 for a ten pound bag.  It’s worth noting that there’s about 35 cents worth of packaging there, so it’s obvious that someone is getting the short end of the stick in this arrangement – it’s not the grocer.   Beyond a certain scale you become sort of “stuck” with your product – you have so much, and so much money tied up into it, that you have to take what you can get just to keep ahead of the bank.

How hard do grocers play ball?  If you shop at Loblaws, you may have noticed the absence of Frito-Lay products on the shelf.  Loblaws took them off the shelf over a two month long price dispute.  Frito-Lays is owned by Pepsi, one of the largest food processors in the world.  Think about the leverage on both sides of this dispute.   Now imagine how Loblaws treats farmers…

Oh hey look!  It’s the middle aisles of the grocery store!  It’s quite something isn’t it – I recognize almost all of these products, and they’re available coast to coast 24/7 across North America, and much of the world.  Very few of them do we actually “need” however, and a great deal of it is just bad for you.   This is also a very bland and homogenized version of a culture – the complete absence of local food specialties or tradition, detached entirely from the environment.

When people tell me that they’re glad farmers like us are there because the future looks grim, I often have to bite my tongue and ask why they don’t shop with us more – we’re not going to be there for the future unless we’re in business right now.

And it’s hard to address this stuff without sounding like a mad man, because, well, all of the doom and gloom thankfully does not materialize.   We’re just seeing a slow and steady chipping away, selection and quality decreases, prices climb.  I’m not even of the mind that we’re going to see actual food shortages here (the largess of North American agriculture is really beyond incredible) but just that consumers are going to be left with fewer choices and higher costs, while farmers grapple with thinner margins and ever increasing levels of regulation and taxes.

So, not to sound like a pessimist…  I’m actually more jazzed about farming than I ever have been –  and that’s really saying something because I am a damn fool!    I suppose if anything, I just want to reiterate (as I seem to every week) that what we are doing with this local food thing is important and it matters.  Not only for social, economic and environmental reasons, but as an alternative to an alienating and boring global food system, because it’s fun, and dignifying, and interesting; “the spice of life”.

Working with nature

Well the maple season is in full swing now – you can tell because everything is a muddy/slushy mess!  These freeze/thaw cycles are great for getting sap moving, and otherwise terrible for getting anything done outside – above and beyond of being a sweet treat at the end of winter, and harbinger of spring, sugarmaking was traditionally appreciated as being *the only thing you can do on a farm* this time of year.

The frost coming out of the ground makes our dooryard and roads an absolute mess – I spread a few loads of gravel on our driveway yesterday, and I’ll bet you won’t be able to tell by the end of the week.   Amazing, isn’t it, that 2,000 years ago the Romans built over 80,000 km of roads spanning Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East that last to this day, and I can’t keep my yard solid for a season!

What else did those Romans know about??? We generally consider their epic achievements like aqueducts, amphitheatres, and the overwhelming power of the legions, but same as always, everyone’s gotta eat, and figuring that out for a broad and expansive empire – without refrigeration and the internal combustion engine –  is the type of thing that we just sort of shrug and attribute to slaves… because it’s hard for us to imagine elegant solutions to problems we have modern conveinences to solve.

So what did huge urban populations and armies on the move eat every day in the ancient world when they didn’t have “smart” refrigerators or Uber Eats?   Well, man does not live by the wheat of Carthage and Gaul alone – the Romans were just like us and big fans of condiments, the most ubiquitous being Garum. 

Garum is the Mediterranean equivalent of East Asia’s fish sauce and was the Ketchup of antiquity.  It’s a real case of not wanting to know how the sausage is made: basically oily fish guts were crushed and salted and left to ferment for months under the hot Mediterranean sun.  The resulting product was a staple of commerce and cuisine, a perfect example of God’s small miracles for man, the grace of working with nature: using an extremely noxious process on a highly perishable product to produce a stable, wholesome, nutritious food.

Not only was Garum shelf stable and delicious, with its savory ‘umami’ richness, these types of fermented ‘relishes’ augment and reinforce plain diets of grains and vegetables – providing trace amounts of essential fats, B12 and amino acids otherwise lacking in the peasants’ lean diet; the secret ingredients for full and robust health.  These sorts of fermented foods and beverages are universal in traditional cuisines around the world: beer, cider, mead and wine, sauerkraut and kimchi, cheese, yogurt, skyr and kefir, cured pork, pickled herring, sourdough bread, miso, natto, soy sauce and umeboshi plums…  Everywhere, forever it seems, people have been letting nature have its way with their food, not only preserving it, but enhancing its nutritional quality.  As Ben Franklin famously said of beer, “Proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”

So…. what else did the ancients know about that we should be pondering???  Well, as the world becomes increasingly unstable, wouldn’t it be nice to know the future?  Well, the Romans had a way to do that as well: augury, the divination of future events through the observation of birds. These observations were referred to as “the auspices” and of course, where our word “auspicious” comes from.

Now, I know this sounds crazy, but we’ve all experienced this haven’t we?  I recall being at a wedding once, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, where a bat was actively dive bombing the ceremony and guests.  I’ve spent a fair bit of time in there and never seen anything like it; needless to say, that marriage did not last very long…

Farmers used to do this all of the time as well: observing insect, bird and animal behaviour like nesting, migration, mating, etc. in an effort to synthesize a prediction of future weather and fortunes.  The old timers I know who carry on this tradition are remarkably accurate and have made themselves good money over the years by following a hunch they got after watching some bugs.

So what does the future hold???  I don’t know much other than that things will keep getting more expensive, especially food, as transportation and fertilizer prices mount.   Fertilizer is a particularly spicy one, as with our recent embargo of Russian fertilizer, we’ve effectively cut off 90% of the supply of nitrogen for Eastern Canada.  Like many industries, we used to produce Nitrogen fertilizer here in Ontario: there was a plant just down the river in Cardinal.  But, being a dirty and dangerous business, we decided to let someone else, somewhere else do it, and now are reaping the whirlwind.

Another example of working with nature: having a mixed farm of both crops and livestock was the traditional way to maintain and build soil fertility.  A quick jaunt around rural Ontario, with the broken fences, soybean stubble and empty barns will remind you that’s not how we do things now – and how Ontario will go forward – without cheap fertility and energy – has yet to be seen.

I couldn’t be happier to have cows right now, and I also couldn’t be any happier to have a direct market business.   Your relationship with our farm protects us from many of the vagaries of world events and the last two years have given me so much appreciation for our customers and this business model.  Thank you for your support.

The maple season is progressing nicely: if you like lighter, amber syrup, right now is the time to stock up.   There’s lots of eggs again, and plenty of meat in the freezers, and our cold storage has been working great, perfectly preserving our carrots and potatoes.   We’ve also got lots of traditional fermented food on decek as well:  Bushgarden’s organic, raw milk cheese, and our own Sauerkraut. 

First Run

Old man winter is finally relenting!  Have you ever seen snow melt as fast as it did on Sunday??? It was t-shirt temperatures with property destruction-level winds up here and a whole lot of snow got turned into water so fast it overwhelmed our culverts and ditches and there was pretty well standing water everywhere.  I hope your basements all survived!

The good news of all of that is that we have enough eggs around to offer them for sale again!

The warm weather also brought our first run of maple this season.  It’s unfortunate that it got so warm so quickly as it was not a terribly large run.   It is the transition from frozen to thawed that lets the sap down out of the tree, and when it happens very quickly the run doesn’t last that long. So we took advantage of it anyway to get everything up and running and made a small batch of syrup – so we have some syrup for sale (500ml and 2L bottles – very limited supply!)

We post these images every year to remind ourselves and our customers of how subtle and dynamic maple syrup can really be.  If you’re used to buying maple syrup from Costco or the grocery store, you would be more familiar with a broad, general maple flavour: those products are blended from many different batches of syrup.  Different farms, years, runs and grades are mixed to produce a consistent product.

When buying syrup from a small producer however, you will often get syrup made from a single run of sap and thus very reflective of that specific bush, that specific day and also that specific sugarmaker.  Believe it or not, the colour and flavour of maple can change dramatically over the season.  This is related not only to the metabolism of the trees, but also to how the sap is handled and how clean the equipment is: later in the season pipelines, tanks and so on get gradually contaminated with microorganisms, contributing to the the darker colour and stronger flavour of later syrup.

The death knell of the syrup season though is when the trees finally come out of dormancy and break their buds.  At this point the syrup becomes inedible.  I’ve never tasted proper “buddy” syrup, but apparently it is some kind of combination of metal and medicine that’s impossible to swallow.  Maybe this will be the year I try it!   All that being said, this first small batch of syrup is high on the “Vegetal” side of flavours and might be a good place to start if you’re not used to farmgate maple.

Next week is March break, and the weather looks favourable for maple sap and boiling. Please shoot us an email/call if you’d like to drop by. We’d love to see you and your family!

The Hungry Month of March

I don’t know if it’s a personal defect, or something that comes along with participating in the annual rituals of farming, but I often find myself standing back from a situation and wondering something to the effect of “wow, I wonder what this would have been like 100 years ago?”   I imagine this perspective comes through in many of these posts.

Looking westward at Brock and King St. 1910

Even in our own lifetimes, we’ve seen the world change and morph in surprising ways.   I’m old enough even to remember having 13 tv channels, rotary dial telephones and a world perfumed by tobacco smoke.  I know many of you have seen even greater changes and perhaps hail from parts of the world where the transition to modern Canadian life seems even more dramatic.

A reality that our forefathers dealt with that we’ve been fortunately insulated from is actual periods of shortage.  Sometimes in larger measures like the Great Depression and wartime rationing, but also in smaller, annual ways, as the stored food, feed and fuel gathered in the previous season began to wane and run out.  It is quite something to hear these stories from old timers: how they ran out of hay and just had to turn the horses into the forest to gnaw bark and eat conifers, or the monotonous ordeal of eating potatoes and turnips three times a day.

Owing to our climate, late winter has historically marked this time, and earned the traditional title of “The Hungry Month of March” as the options for suppertime became fewer and further between.  This of course has been codified in the West as the religious season of Lent: a time of fasting and austerity as we wait on the rebirth of Spring.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559

Yesterday of course, many of us celebrated Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday: a last going off before looking hard at a barren landscape and our inner life.   This tension, between solemnity and hope, joy and suffering is so entrenched in our culture that this seasonal dynamic is a recurring theme in European art.  (It’s worth taking a moment to look closely at these paintings, there are countless interesting and amusing details).

Battle Between Carnival and Lent Jan Miense Molenaer, 1633

Migration to the New World threw a monkey wrench into this dynamic however.  One can only imagine the astonishment felt by the pioneers of eastern North America, as they looked at the last of their salt pork and flour, to observe the Indigenous people making pure sugar from the sap of trees… So much for The Hungry Month of March. 

And so, while still holding to the spiritual nature of this season, we certainly look forward to the miracle of maple this spring and invite you to share in it.  We should be boiling by next week, and if you or your family would like to come observe, please feel free.  Just give us a jingle and head on up.

As far as austerity goes, well it looks like the world may have a little bit in store for us yet!  At this time of year, as we begin to assemble supplies for the season and invest a great deal with relatively little income, the consistently creeping prices of everything is becoming quite distinct.   That being said, we will also have to raise some of our prices this year – we’ll do so gradually and gently.  We appreciate your understanding.