Another year in review from Charles’ Iphone
It’s one of my great joys in life when someone lets go of their vegetarianism to nourish themselves with meat from our farm. I’m not keeping score against the vegans – I just appreciate how good beef is to eat and what is does for your countenance.
More often than not these folks will use the term “ethical” when describing why they are choosing to do so. I appreciate this because they obviously see that we care about our animals and the land. But I also bristle at this term. I realize that what these lovely people are really trying to say is “humane” (and it is!), but I bristle because “capital e” Ethics has nothing to do with food or farming – it’s actually a very heady discipline of philosophy concerned with “systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour“.
Now the problem with this is that unless we ALL share unified first principles, worldviews and value system (and we obviously don’t), applying Ethical judgement to how people eat and farm becomes a very slippery slope. Which is why I feel we need to look at our food and how it’s grown through the lens of Ethics’ polar opposite discipline, Aesthetics: the philosophy of beauty and taste.
Beauty is hard to ignore, hard to deny, and hard not to feel uplifted and edified by. We can all generally agree on what is beautiful. There is no reason, for instance, we should feel happy just standing there watching cows eat grass, but anyone who tries this cannot deny the satisfaction it derives. Even the aesthetic conclusion of how beautiful cows are, for example, is what drives the ethical conclusion of vegans that we should not eat them.
The problem with following the logical outcomes of such an ethical conclusion is that we end up no longer having Cows at all (they’re only here because we eat them!) and we end up eating processed food instead, which is no doubt as unhealthy as it is ugly.
So while we cannot come to any universal moral conclusions about beef, we can definitely share an aesthetic appreciation for healthy animals, robust soils, and productive landscapes – the unavoidable reality of this is that cattle are the secret ingredient: the fertility drivers of the sustainable human ecosystem. Cattle are held up as deities of fertility and providence in every traditional society that raised them. The lush subjects of 19th century romantic landscapes were these organic, cattle formed environments; the beauty speaks for itself.
There is a lot of negative press about cattle, and a push for us to eat “plant based meat alternatives”. This is the voice of huge agribusiness concerns twisting the language of environmentalism in order to guilt consumers about making wise dietary choices for their families – in an effort to sell more processed “food”.
You see the big problem that companies like Bayer/Monsanto and Syngenta have with cattle is that *they just reproduce on their own*. The same goes for grass. They don’t get a cut every time a calf is born. They don’t collect royalties on hay. They don’t own the genetics, they didn’t sell the inputs, and the farmer can do this indefinitely – without their help. A farmer just takes care of his cattle and the land they live on, burns a bit of diesel, takes care of his gear, and well, nature does the rest. THIS MAKES THEM CRAZY.
Crazy enough to tell you with a straight face that a you are a bad and selfish person for wanting to eat healthy food and support local farmers and abattoirs instead of eating reconstituted canola kibble in the shape of a hamburger. Because unlike a calf, the grain farmer is entirely dependant, every year on BigAg to supply him with the genetics (seed, often modified and copyrighted), fertility (because, well, no manure) and the various inputs, enhancers and crutches necessary to coax the impressively high enough yields to be profitable in a global marketplace (herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, growth regulators, etc.)
Of course, the Canadian government has gotten on board with this program. The new Canada Food Guide treats meat about the same as candy – a health hazard you should regard as a treat. As always: follow the money. Two months after pledging the *Totality of Canadian Agriculture* a $252 million COVID bailout (mainly loans), the federal government announced $100 million in funding for a Manitoba plant protein powder factory.
The “efficiency” of the so-called plant based (which are actually fossil fuel and technology based) food schemes is a technocrat’s wildest dream: centralized chemical agriculture, delivering industrially processed food to the masses. It involves minimal nature and humanity: Satellite controlled equipment sowing and reaping genetically modified crops to be reduced to their constituent shelf stable forms for eventual consumption by consumer unit. The production and consumption of food, reduced to its lowest mechanical and economic denominators.
Above and beyond its impersonal ugliness, this system is impossible to locally scale. There is no potential reality of a quilted landscape of small legume farmers, carting their peas and soybeans and lentil crops to the nearest protein extractors, from which it goes to the family run fake meat artisans…. The farming techniques, the processing, the marketing – they’re too large, too rigid, too technical – all non transferable to small, flexible systems. You cannot runs a soybean processing facility with a handful of people, knives, a bandsaw and a couple of coolers.
On the other hand, a quilted landscape of crops, perennial forages, and woodlots, supplying meat to local abattoirs, sold to local butchers and grocers is entirely feasible. How do I know that? Well, it was the de facto order of things until a generation or two ago… The main problem with that system was that it kept wealth in communities, instead of centralizing it into fewer and fewer hands. The next time you come to visit our farm, swing through the village of Delta, and look at the size and quality of the pre-WW1 housing. The amount of embodied wealth in a community of that size is almost impossible to consider in hindsight… but it might be because they made almost everything they needed within their community?
Anyhow, back to Ethics and Aesthetics. Is it possible to raise beef un-aesthetically??? Yes, and this would not be the first time our anceint relationship with cattle has been subject to disorder…
Like any issue in agriculture today, most of this comes down to scale. The nature of the beef sector, as a centralized and export driven commodity (Canada exports over 40% of the beef it produces) means that we handle production and slaughter on an industrial scale. How centralized is it? Well, COVID brought the weaknesses of this system to light this past spring when outbreaks caused plant shutdowns, leading to cattle backlogs, high prices, and bare shelves. Many Canadians were startled to learn that 85% of our beef goes through only three plants (of course, none of which are owned by Canadian companies!)
Now the aesthetic variables here I can only speculate on, because although I have spent a fair bit of time poking around small local abattoirs like Quinns, I have not experienced the full meal deal of a plant that processes 4,500 head a day, like Cargill’s operation in High River, Alberta. Quinn’s is a homey, cozy place, full of familiar faces, going about their work in a safe and humane manner; I have no idea how you can reconcile individual humans to a plant that can kill and cut three beeves per minute (the answer is, you don’t!).
So, how do you supply the grist for this mill? The solution to providing a consistent year round supply of fat cattle here in North America has been the feedlot system. The cattle that eventually end up your plate are born and raised on pasture. After weaning they eventually find their way to a feedlot. Here they spend three or four months eating really really rich feed (mainly grain – barley in the west, corn in the east), and gaining a lot weight very quickly to produce a tender, marbled carcass. It’s worth noting as well, that they generally don’t move around a whole lot, especially in the roofed lots of Ontario, which are stocked quite highly to economize on floorspace; after all, they don’t need them running that grain off, or toughening the “muscles of locomotion”. It’s also worth noting that if they stay there too long they are also subject to the same fate as inactive humans who overeat… (premature death).
The feedlot is the aspect of beef production I assume most people see as “unethical”, “factory farming”, etc… but are the cattle suffering? My guess would be “no”, because cattle generally want three things: to be surrounded by other cattle, to be fed and watered, and to be reasonably comfortable (sounds familiar?) and the feedlot provides for these. Now, what got me thinking about this whole matter of “Ethical vs. Aesthetic Beef” was a cold, rainy, windy night in November a day or two before we were sending a handful of animals to Quinn’s. I thought to myself, “Self, which animals are ‘happier’: those under a roof with a big pile of corn in front of them, or mine, laying down in wet field of grass with 60km winds coming out of the north?”
Now, outside of the question of “are feedlots good for the environment” or “to what extent can cattle experience happiness?” I’m sure on that evening my animals would have joined their bros under cover to cozy up for some corn. Does that make the system better? I’m not about to say that feedlots are “unethical” – I see no moral fault in them, and have no problem with anyone operating one. But… aesthetically…. are they making the world a more beautiful place? No. Does the model of centralized production and processing spread wealth and enrich our communities? No. Are the animals as vibrantly healthy as those on good pasture? No.
We are what we eat. Outside of being literally, molecularly true – this also applies energetically, vitally, spiritually. Unfortunately, it’s undeniable that we have, to a large extent, turned into a society of people who prefer to hang out inside, eating processed corn and soy products. Now, I don’t care if this sounds silly, but… this might be because we eat animals that hang out inside and eat processed corn and soy products.
I, speaking for my family and myself (and I hope for you), want to be a strong person; grounded in his environment; eating food that is healthy for me; tied to the people and businesses in my community. So, to do so, I need to eat strong creatures, grounded in their environment, eating food that is healthy for them, and handled in a way that is tied to the people and businesses in my community.
2018 was a game changer. We bought our own farm – 100 acres located just south of Lyndhurst, or about 35 minutes north east of Kingston in Leeds and the Thousand Islands Twp.
Two major reasons precipitated this move. First, to have our own piece of this beautiful land to call our own; where we can make permanent long-term investments, like planting perennials and building structures. Second, because our land at Hwy 2 had an amazing location for marketing, but very challenging soil for growing vegetables. The soil around Kingston is heavy clay, and at our location it was very depleted in terms of nutrients and structure from years of neglect as a farm (the last real farmers there probably stopped farming shortly after WWII). As anyone who even has the smallest garden will know, soil is crucial!
We continue to be blessed with the opportunity to steward the land at the Hwy 2 farm, and we’ll continue to run our farmstand there as well as keep our cattle and firewood business focussed there, which are the two activities that that land is really suited best for. Pasture land is a healthy and productive landscape, and with responsible grazing and the sustainable harvest of woodlots, we’ll continue to cultivate this farm and make the most of its potential.
The new farm at Sweets Corners is set right in the Frontenac Arch, a geologic anomaly where Canadian shield granite juts out of gorgeous former lake bottom clay loam. The farm we found has about 40 acres of cleared hay fields and about 60 acres of woods on steep granite outcrops. The land had been stewarded for the last twenty years by lovely folks who invested in building up the soil and managed the woodlot to be highly productive.
This land is our forever home, and we intend to farm here as long as our faculties allow us. This fall Charles ploughed up around 6 acres for our 2019 veggie garden. The hay fields are rich fodder, plump with alfalfa and orchard grass, for our cattle and chickens, and the woodlot is an amazing renewable resource for our selectively harvested firewood and specialty hardwood slabs. The sugar bush is still young, but in a couple years it will be producing that sweet magic, aka maple syrup.
We are full of gratitude to all of our customers for helping us make this huge change this year. We simply couldn’t have made this step forward without the supportive, positive and generous support of our community. We are looking to the future with optimism and we look forward to serving our old friends and new faces in either Kingston or Sweets Corners. Please come visit us!
Sometimes we hear concerns from folks that the CSA will be too much food for their family or that they couldn’t possibly eat all produce that every week. We also sometimes hear that “oh, we don’t spend that much at the grocery store every week”… and to that I say, “I bet you spend a lot more than you think if you actually tracked it!”
Don’t get me wrong, the CSA is not be the right fit for everyone – and maybe the Flexible Farmstand option makes the most sense for you. That said, we do have customers who do the whole Traditional CSA for just themselves or for a household of two – it’s a matter of priorities and diet. If the CSA sounds like something you’d like to try and you are new to a CSA program, you might find that you have to approach your kitchen in a new way in order to make the most of your basket. But, make no mistake, you can do it! Here are some of the major points I make to new customers:
The CSA means you are eating the freshest food at its best. Don’t expect tomatoes in June or corn in October. Make appropriate substitutions to make the most of your CSA – use garlic scapes in the early summer before the garlic is ready, use kale or swiss chard in a salad when it’s too hot for lettuce in August.
We’re often asked, “What does an average CSA share look like?” Well, each one is different, depending on the time of year, the growing season, and the varietals we chose.
A picture’s worth a thousand words, so here’s a mishmash of shots from our lovely customers over the past few years (thanks for all the photos!)
2017 was just as tricky a year as 2016 – except instead of endless sun and heat, it was endless grey and rain. Back to back record breaking years, and equally challenging…
We don’t have a ton of pics from 2017, especially early in the year, apparently because Morgan gave birth to our daughter Caledonia on June 8th and we were busy taking pictures of our little girl instead of the farm!
For over four years now, we’ve been selling beef and pork direct to customers: it’s been a very interesting and rewarding experience. We know for ourselves how nice it is to have a well-stocked freezer of meat – we also realize how small the freezer meat market is and how few people are really interested in taking on such an undertaking… So, Morgan put a bug in my ear to write a blog post about it and perhaps encourage a few more folks to plug in a freezer and bring home half a hog or a quarter of beef.
Why buy freezer meat?
So how does it work exactly?
It’s pretty straightforward, but can be a little intimidating the first time. Here are the steps:
We live in a world where half of the food produced literally ends up in the garbage: a tragedy, but also ironic, because that’s where a lot of it belongs in the first place. It is a tragedy, because there are hungry people in the world -and in the meanwhile- we are not only over feeding ourselves, our livestock, and our crops, but in doing so, destroying ourselves and the thin skin of this earth that makes our lives all possible in the first place. The staff of life has been pieced out to the lowest bidder, and we’ve gotten what we’ve paid for.
We throw food away because there is so much of it, because it’s disposable, because it’s just more stuff. We don’t look at food as something special, something someone cared to make, or something that we ought to be discerning or appreciative about, let alone involved with. Food has become an industrial commodity, but we can also see food as something crafted.
I always laugh to myself when I see bucolic etchings of wagons and pastures on industrial food, or in the case below, milk cans: which I can guarantee you, 0% of the milk in that cheese was ever stored in. But that’s what those marketers are going for: they’re trying to trick you into thinking you can buy crafted food at the Superstore. Now, so although the state of the world is lamentable in many ways, I’m going to stop complaining about it: if you’ve found your way to this website you know full well that the food system is a mess. But, as messy as it is, we are still very blessed, and the world is still a great place, because we have the option and opportunity to do things differently, better, nicer, and more beautiful than is conventionally offered to us.
I had a wonderful encounter with a family who has signed up for our Farm Shares, the Footes. They graced me with a visit to the farm. They are a family of the million dollar variety: not in terms of cash, but a lovely couple with a pair of cute little kids, a boy and a girl. The Footes folks are not granola muchers, not radical, no dredlocks, no Volvo 740. Not your stereotypical organic food enthusiasts. They live in the ‘burbs, run a business: completely and beautifully ‘normal’ by every standard. But they are abnormal insofar as the awareness that not only something is wrong with the status quo, but that we have the power and choice to create something special has reached their lives. And they are excited, positive, eager and willing to change not only what they put into themselves, but also what they are going to put themselves into.
Talk about encouraging: as a young farmer I cannot overstate how inspired I am by people who want to see, and earnestly discuss, and invest in sane farming. Their interest is not ideological or political. It’s practical, the incentive is their lives: their health, their children’s understanding of food, and the coherency of their family – good local food makes sense and there is something profoundly grounding and relieving about that in this time and place.
Chatting with the pater familias, Rob, he paused and looked at his children: they were sprawled out in their snowsuits on the remains of a round bale of hay, on the other side of the gate from our draft horses. The horses were curious about the little humans, and appreciated the choice bits of hay they were feeding them. The children just basked in the size and gentleness of the big dappled grey beasts.
He paused, and noticed: “What has happened to my children!?!” He and his wife started heartily chuckling. I’m sure Rob and Tara have very nice children – but peacefully blissed out kids are not the norm in 2014… And that’s it right there: the peace of participating in something sane, sound and reasonable in a frenetic, overdriven and senseless world. A five year old can pick up on it.
The gulf between these two choices is giant. Just gaping, and the proof is in the decline, and near elimination of the mixed family farm. Traditional, multi-generational farm families, going with the flow of conventional agriculture and economics have either gotten with industrial program -specializing in a commodity, gearing up, and absorbing their neighbours’ land as they fold- or done the folding. The 160 acre farm, with pigs, cows, an orchard, row crops and grass is no longer a viable entity when the products need to be vertically integrated, produced year-round, or sold at the lowest global market price. So they’re disappearing.
Which is a shame. The “family farm” -in the literal sense of a farm being owned by a family- is not going anywhere: 90%+ of Canadian farms are still family owned (corporations are smart enough to not own farms – such as in the case down in Leamington, when Heinz closed down, it was family farms who are left with millions of dollars of overhead, and no market for their crop). However, the “family farm”, in the sense of a place where a family is raised, and works together, is in decline: the average age of Canadian farmers is 54 – and the children that were raised on those farms are off to greener pastures.
Somehow farming lost its allure, it lost it’s magic, it lost whatever it is that’s drawn me to it and you to it – the thing that those designers were trying to get at when they put the picture of milk cans on a package of cheese that doesn’t have anything to do with milk cans. That certain something is the element of craft.
The small scale, local model of agriculture is the traditional model: in a world of human and animal powered transportation, there wasn’t really much choice – it was a matter of survival, and really the only historical exception to that rule was when imperialism and urbanization joined hands to feed big cities from far off lands (think Rome, or England, or us). Railroads made it all a lot easier, and today grocery stores and slaughterhouses are fed by transport trucks, while railcars and boats still haul most of the grain. A great deal of our imported fruit even got to ride on an airplane! Isn’t that something?
And what is most peculiar about the whole globalized food market is that somehow it all pencils out! At least in the mean time. Somehow, it’s cheaper to buy a bin of apples (about 700 lbs) from China, than it is to pay Canadians to pick them (and that doesn’t include the cost of growing them)! Of course, there are economic reasons for this: including government subsides, wage disparities, currency exchanges, trade deals, corporate control yada yada yada. But ultimately, it has been consumer demand and compliance that’s actually brought it into being. We want all the things, all the time, and we want them cheap.
Which is why the old order of the countryside -farmers who have been tilling the earth in an uninterrupted lineage since the Iron Age- are so often perplexed by urbanites… The thinking being: “You want fresh food that’s healthy – understandable. But you also want all of it year round, and you want it cheap…” This is where the perplexity sets in: “But something has to give! It is more expensive to fatten a beef in the winter! We cannot grow greenhouse tomatoes all winter for $2 a lb! This is not the natural order of things – and yet you want them, but you also want nature to be preserved!!!”
So, perhaps the first obstacle to overcome, when transitioning our mindset about food from commodity to craft, is limited availability. If we want a thriving local agriculture, a stewarded environment, and a functional community, then we need to learn that we shan’t necessarily be able to go the grocery store, and get whatever we want 364 days a years. Why? Because that’s just not how nature works, and if we keep forcing it, we’re actually going to wear it out – and we’ll be the first thing to go.
It’s funny: sometimes we say things like “We’re destroying the environment!!!” Good luck – we’re giving ourselves a bit too much credit in that assumption. Nature isn’t going anywhere: we might throw it off kilter for a minute, and proverbially shit our beds by upsetting the incomprehensibly complex biological systems that support us… But when push comes to shove, it’s going to mankind that gets knocked off the snowbank. We’re destroying ourselves. Nature will happily keep on growing and breathing and dying and renewing herself after we are long gone.
That being said, the second thing we need to wrap our minds around if we want to promote a regenerative agriculture is: non-uniformity. McDonald’s is the master of consistent product: go anywhere in the world, and a Big Mac is a Big Mac. People love the comfort and security of it. Peradventure, we desire local food, we need to take a step into the great unknown, and the possibility that the bread, meat, tomaters, etc. we purchase might not be exactly the same as all of the ones we’ve had before it. We actually have to be brave, and adventuresome: because every soil, every farm, every climate, every farmer, every variety has a distinct Terroir. That is, the culinary signature of a region’s food.
When we go to the Superstore, and buy the same fresh “PC Sweet Long Peppers” in December as in July, you can be assured that there are great lengths being taken to provide growers -in a number of different seasonal locales- with specific genetics, fertilizers, cultural directives, and so on -as well as stringent cosmetic requirements and heavy culling- in order to make such an unlikely thing possible. In every way, shape and form, the Superstore’s consistency of product is set-up to eliminate Terroir. Or, as in the case of their ‘Normandy Style’ butter: shamelessly bastardize it (the butter is Canadian, and note once again the dairying utensils which were not in any way employed in the making of this product…).
So, let’s get used to the fact that in a local food economy there is going to be a wide variety of products, appearances, flavours, textures -many of which may be unfamiliar to us- and that rather than be revolted by them, we need to embrace them, and challenge ourselves to understand and appreciate what our farms have to offer. So, and so’s melons are sweetest around: he’s got hot sandy soil and south facing break… What’shisface’s potatoes taste incredible: he’s been applying manure and minerals for years… That pork is different: it’s red and lean and because the thing ran around and got full of iron from all the dirt it ate…
I have a fond memory of a friend of mine who, back in Nova Scotia, was drinking some milk from a cow I kept (raw milk from a little Jersey – we were probably breaking a law). Enjoying the milk, she remarked: “I can taste kale…” It was early winter, and I’d been feeding the thing kale – a super food for cows too. And she could taste it. That’s seasonal terroir.
Know what the milk from the grocery store tastes like? Corn silage, and like it’s been boiled (the pasteurization). Go from drinking raw milk to cooked milk (all legal milk is cooked) and you’ll get a flashback of your mother nuking milk for you, trying to get your whiny little butt to bed. And if you know what a dairy barn smells like -not a bad odour (I like it…), just manure and silage – you’ll also taste that too. And so, while that is what supply management milk tastes like, it’s not necessarily what Milk has to taste like. And the same goes for everything else under the sun. You up for that?
The last thing that need be accepted is that we have to do this ourselves. The government is not going to make it happen – local food is something they pay lip service to, but pretty much every legal and regulatory agricultural statute on the books works against small scale producers. The big players in food will try to cash in on it – but don’t expect them to actually participate. Dealing with as few different producers as possible makes Loblaws and Sobey’s and Wal Mart’s centralized distribution models that much more efficient. They will just put pictures of family farms on their mass produced SKUs: or as the Frito-Lay plant in New Minas, NS advocates: “Eat Local – Eat Doritos!” (Could someone tell me what ‘Cool Ranch’ is even supposed to taste like???)
So, that is why people like Mr. Foote, and his totally chilled out children are so inspiring to me: we are not alone. People are awake to this. We’re even reaching a critical mass. What’s more, as people find out about our little farm, and all the other little farms out there trying to change the world, they’re actually putting their money where their heart is, and investing in the tangible and intangible benefits of a sane and healthy agriculture.
If you have signed up for our Farm Shares, and sent us a cheque, or e-mail transfer, I thank you deeply. We are a little baby farm, and you have invested in that vision, and your funds are actually making it happen. And there’s not really another way….
We cannot get a loan from the FCC to buy a dozen pigs (this I actually tried at 21 years of age!), or a handful of cows, $3000 worth of seed, a dog to shoo deer, a team of horses, 99 hens, or a sulky plough. They will literally laugh at you. We could get half a million dollars in financing to set up an “agri-business”, but they are not in the mode of growing farms.
So, these days, I get with a snap at 5am – not necessarily nervous or scared, but distinctly serious and aware that I am now handling other peoples money, and other people’s hope and trust. And so, every choice, and purchase, and move I make needs to work towards honouring that, and to make the vision we share a reality. It’s inspiring – a bit scary – but inspiring, because I know how deeply everyone that’s working with us feels about this. I know that what I am applying myself to is part of a bigger dream – a deliberately hopeful move – with an underlying sense that health, and bounty, and harmony, and beauty are our right, our inheritance, and within our reach.
So, as much as we are producing healthy calories, and vitamins, and protein, I hope we can all also recognize that what Salt of the Earth, all the other CSAs (yes, I am still using that word…) and all the Little Small Farms out there are -just as importantly- providing is an opportunity to develop relationships. Relationships with the land, relationships with the craftspeople called farmers, and relationships with other individuals and families who care about what they put into themselves, and what they put themselves into.
Thanks to everyone that’s signed up already. You blow my mind.