2016

A peek back on the challenging drought year of 2016.  Never want to see it again – will never forget the lessons!

2015

A gallery of 2015…

Pt. II – Local Food, CSA and the Business of Farming

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.klpage6_blog_entry214-a-farm042

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. PCOrganicsMediumCheddarCheeseEN500x500.jpg.thumb.420.420.marginNow, 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.klthe-stable-1906(1)

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!!!”

Carl-Larsson-Harvesting-The-Rye

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.

pepperWhen 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…).

normandy

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.

klthe-manure-pile-1906(1)

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?

doritos-cool-ranchThe 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.

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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.

Pt. I – Local Food, CSA and the Business of Farming

I loathe the expression “Community Supported Agriculture”. And I say that as a grower who is doing it. It’s just that it sounds like a welfare program for farmers. The title is not necessarily that far from the truth, but I think that it significantly undervalues what small farmers produce, as well as what we (farmers and consumers together) are trying to accomplish.

It’s not that far from the truth because, yes, members of the community are supporting small scale agriculture in one form or another by giving their money to farmers in exchange for food of some kind… The same could also be said about our local Loblaws or Food Basics. The community is supporting another form of agriculture, just perhaps not local, healthy, organic, responsible, or really anything other than industrial and highly efficient (in a very narrow sense). All agriculture is community supported because all people eat food, and all people live in some community or another. So other than being technically correct, the CSA moniker does very little to describe what small farmers and informed consumers are trying to do when they deliberately work together to produce and direct market high quality food.

klSommar,_målning_av_Carl_Larsson*If you haven’t heard the expression before, CSA refers to co-operative arrangements whereby consumers invest in a farm early in the growing season and receive as their dividend regular shares of vegetables, meat, apples, eggs, raw milk, foi gras, emu grease, or whatever.

So when families, individuals, and groups of friends decide: “Hey, I want to eat really good, really fresh food that reflects the land around us, and the seasons we experience,” They aren’t really deciding to “support agriculture”, but they’re deciding: Let us be nourished, let us fully enjoy what the creation around us can yield, let us have health, let us savour, and relish and celebrate the fat of the land.

Or when consumers take a little look at the frightening world of the global food economy and decide to buy shares in a local farm instead of shopping at the grocery store, they are really saying: Let’s invest our hard earned money with people in our community, who will spend it here and employ people here, rather than sending our food budget away through big box stores to agribusiness multinationals.

klPOT464Or when a person realizes that they are ACTUALLY MADE OUT OF FOOD (’tis true, the you that is sitting on that chair is made out of everything you every put in your mouth), and because one is ACTUALLY MADE OUT OF FOOD, that rather than being made out of mass production, industrial chemistry and a ruthless drive for profit, decide that I would rather be a person made out of holistic integrity, and craft, and love, and healthy biology, and a sensitivity to the world around us.

What I am trying to articulate here (you tell me if I am or not), is that when eaters and growers work together to do things in a vibrant, diversified, mutually beneficial way they are engaging in something WAY more profound than “Community Supported Agriculture”. CSA doesn’t even scratch the surface of the values, or levels of intent, or amazing potential for growth and change that happens when people work together to generate a sound and sustainable, healthy and beautiful, accessible and responsible, neat and interesting, economically sensible food system.

kl52d8751e41387ec03b59194b0c168e65So, for now our working title for our farm’s CSA programs is “Farm Share“. It will have to do for now, but I think we’ve needed a new name for CSA for a while. Not that this blog post is going to change anything, but for the sake of it, let’s look at what that could be…

The CSA Model has been around for a goodly length of time now, in a number of different forms. In Elliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, (Bible of the new generation of small-scale market gardeners) he breaks down all of the different global permutations of the system – and this was back in 1988. What he called his CSA was a ‘Food Guild’. I think that’s a more fitting title (if not vague), because it emphasize 1) the craft of farming, and 2) the special relationship between growers and consumers the arrangement entails. I like it better… but still not there yet.

So, CSA is worldwide, let’s look at the titles of some of the different systems (with help from Wiki and Google Translate).

  • France: AMAP “Association for the maintenance of peasant agriculture”. Kinda cool. I’m not really interested in being a peasant, though I believe the context is again one of craft – and the maintenance of small holdings.
  • Japan: 提携 “Alliance”. I like it. Simple, yet boldly suggestive of the profound and powerful possibilities of the arrangement. It might be a while before the Stockwell Day taint wears off that word, however…
  • Germany: Solidarische Landwirtschaft “Solidarity Agriculture”. Oooh. Very political sounding. Very provocative. I appreciate the emphasis on unity, and the political overtones are very suggestive of the movement’s potential to bring about change.
  • Norway: Andelslandbruk “Share of Agriculture”. I always thought the Norweigans did everything better… Maybe that’s the Swedes. Anyway, let’s keep looking.
  • Italy: Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale “Fair Trade Groups”. Hmmm. Don’t you think it’s funny how the emphasis on Fair Trade products has always been on imported luxury goods, like coffee and chocolate, while every year here in Canada there are fewer and fewer farms? Think the Italians might be onto something with this, but it doesn’t capture what we’re going for either.
  • Bulgaria: Съпричастно земеделие “Participatory Agriculture”. Now we’re getting somewhere! That’s getting much closer to what we’re aiming at – and really, I think, why consumers are drawn to the CSA model. The culture has become so completely disconnected from our food and the land around us (and the deep meaning inherent to it) that what we want now -as much as healthy food- is to PARTICIPATE, to be a part of something real, and challenging, and beautiful. To see it, smell it, feel it, eat it, and ultimately make it a part of ourselves. SALT OF THE EARTH Съпричастно земеделие PROGRAM…!
  • Croatia: Grupa solidarne razmjene “Group Solidarity Exchange”. BAM! Now there’s a title. We’ve got the heaviness of solidarity in there. The group element. The notion of exchange (ie: two way benefits). What are we exchanging again…?

My notions for new titles for CSA aren’t any better, and don’t lend themselves to acronyms…

SUPER AWESOME FOOD FROM SUPER AWESOME FARMERS FOR SUPER AWESOME CUSTOMERS. SAFFSAFFSAC. “Hey did you sign up for a saff saff sack this year? They’re great!” Sadly, this might be my best one.

A TOTALLY DIFFERENT APPROACH TO EATING, FARMING AND ECONOMY. TDAEFE. Dammit, I can’t even pronounce that.

ENVIRONMENTALISM AND SOCIAL JUSTICE IN ACTION. ESJA. Less of a mouthful at least.

The I DON’T WANT MY KIDS TO GET CANCER OR WANT MY FAMILY TO STARVE WHEN THE FOOD SYSTEM COLLAPSES program. Emphasizing the health, and food security aspects of CSA. noCANCnoSTARVprog. Maybe not focussing enough on the positives?

Ok. My ideas are awful. What is missing is the essential reason I am drawn to farming. It’s the hardest part to articulate, it’s impossible to pencil out, and it’s always changing… I can’t speak for other farmers, or you (whoever you are), or anyone else, but the reason I love farming -enough to pursue it like this- is because I find it utterly amazing and magical.

klAPP783Yes, just plain magical. Absolutely amazing. Mind blowing. It speaks to a wondrous providence that seeds want to grow, and animals want to reproduce, and that we can hitch things behind horses to drag through the ground, and somehow food emerges. Not only that, but that we have the power to orchestrate and harness these forces. It’s never gotten boring. It is truly endlessly interesting. Every crop, every year, every plant, every birth, every death is a story; our lives get woven into it. Every year the farmer’s eye gets more subtle, new details emerge, lessons are learned: accumulated experience becomes wisdom.

At one point in my life, I wanted to try to change the world. What idealistic person hasn’t? Every now and then it actually happens. For me at least, farming has become that outlet. I literally get to change the face of the earth -just a little bit of it. What a strange privilege. 400 acres to bring into productivity. To establish order in chaos, productivity in waste, beauty in neglect.

klwoodcutters-in-the-forest-1906(1)Not just a woodlot: a managed forest, producing maple syrup, edible mushrooms, nuts for hogs to fatten on, lumber, warmth for people’s homes…

klFER762Not just an old hayfield: intensive gardens that grow richer and more productive every year. Producing fruit and vegetables that nourish our community, that entertain and excite us, that challenge our culinary skills and imagination.

klcowgirl-in-the-meadow-1906(1)Not just some growed up bush: rotationally grazed pastures, that go from scrub land to green fields. That produce meat and eggs, multiplying herds, leather, wool, horse power to work the land.

How can I condense that into a three letter acronym? How do I articulate the profundity of our role as stewards, beneficiaries, and humble inhabitants of this earth? It is all just so beautiful.

Thanks for reading. More on the business side of small scale agriculture coming soon.

klon-the-farm-1905(1)Paintings by the Swedisn illustrator Carl Larsson, from his beautiful, 100 year old book of watercolours, “A Farm”

Farming Marginal Land Pt. II

More musings on farming marginal land… we have a great deal of it. Below you will see a map of Southern Ontario’s soil capability.  The red/orange/yellow stuff is the good stuff, and you will notice it’s near absence in our area.  I remember having a discussion with a young gentleman, who grew up on a farm in the London area (big patch of red down there…) and casually derided and wrote off our region’s potential for agricultural productivity.  In many ways, he’s right: we will never be a true breadbasket, we will never be able to grow anything and everything, we will never be able to drop a plow into the ground, and just keep going… Nevertheless, that fact remains that I was personally offended by his comment.

Ontario Soil Capability Map

Ontario Soil Capability Map – Click for a big ‘un.

Sure, maybe the Lord did not blanket our region with a mantle of A1 farmland… but it doesn’t mean we can’t farm here!  The answer is intelligence, ingenuity, a bit of hard work, some capital expense, appropriate application and patience. It can be done, and has been done the world over.

I wanted to give a few examples here, and also talk about what we would like to achieve at Salt of the Earth. Because as I discuss dealing with marginal land, as much to psych myself up, I feel it is also of great interest to the general “eat local” movement in the Kingston area: if we really are going to “eat local”, bringing marginal land into sustainable, and economically viable production should be something about which we are well informed.

As discussed in Farming Marginal Land (Pt. I), at Salt of the Earth, we have the two typical extremes of the local landscape: heavy, marine deposited clay, and thinly soiled limestone lands. Respectively, we can look at these lands in terms of being tillable, and untillable.

The tillable land is in need of drainage and organic matter.  The untillable land, should it produce food, needs grass and trees.

Let’s start with the untillable land.  What is interesting about untillable land is not that it is barren: far from it, it naturally supports timber and grass, which supports a variety of wildlife, which can include edible flora and fauna.  Adjusting these factors in favour of our traditional agriculture can make for a very productive and beautiful landscape, ie: domestic ruminants can fill the same ecological niche as wild ungulates.

Does this look like farmland to you?

Does this look like farmland to you?

A great example of turning an untillable landscape into a lush agrarian region is found in the alpine regions of Europe: France, Switzerland, Austria, Scandinavia et al., where grazing has been carried out for hundreds of years on nearly sheer slopes, with very little soil, and a punishing climate.  The freshly glaciated earth is nutrient dense, and the cool, mountain climate produce abundant seasonal forage.   Cattle, sheep and goats are grazed, milked and fattened seasonally, and fed in winter with the stored forage from lowland meadows, which, while still marginal,  are at least level and rock free enough to harvest hay from.  The respective landscapes are dovetailed and utilized to their maximum potential.

Now, I use this only as an example: perhaps it is relevant to parts of Alberta and British Columbia.  In many ways, this agriculture was also traditionally carried out in parts of the Maritimes, like the Highlands of Cape Breton Island and other rough spots in Nova Scotia, like Antigonish and Guysborough Counties: landscapes which now uneconomically produce pulpwood and are in rapid decline…  Anyway, our region is relatively flat, but the problems are similar.

A Portuguese swineherd in an attractive and productive oak parkland.

A Portuguese swineherd in an attractive and productive oak parkland.

Perhaps a more relevant example can be found in Portugal.  Another rocky, temperate place, the traditional solution to this landscape is found in the “cork and pork” forest, where swine and oak trees from a guild in a pairing that yields food and a valuable export commodity.

Iberian pork raising, form J. Russel Smith's "Tree Crops"

Iberian pork raising, form J. Russel Smith’s “Tree Crops”

Swine feed on grass pasture and are fattened on the annual crop of acorns.  The oak trees are stripped every 7-10 years for their bark (cork), and trimmings, dead trees etc. were traditionally turned into charcoal.  It doesn’t have to be oak trees either (though you can’t harvest cork from anything else): this system was also traditionally carried out in association with chestnuts on the island of Corsica, and really throughout Europe, on the gleanings of field and orchard crops.  This system also carried over to North America, where the settlers turned their hogs loose in the autumn to feed on abundant amounts of forest “mast”: acorns, hickory and walnuts, chestnuts and beech nuts.

White Oak and Burr Oak at Salt of the Earth, surrounded by brush.

White oak and burr oak at Salt of the Earth, surrounded by brush.  A downside of urban farming is that you can’t really utilize fire to it’s true potential!

This model is particularly relevant to Salt of the Earth because our land is home to a relatively rare ecosystem in Ontario: Oak-Hickory Savanna.  Traditionally, this ecosystem was shaped by fire: First Nations “farmed” these areas by burning off the understory of grass and forbs: leaving an overstory of mature trees, which yielded both excellent grazing and nutmeat for the game they survived on.  Given the urban whiteman’s aversion to fire, as well as his invasive species, our Oak-Hickory Savanna does not really resemble its predecessor: buckthorn, grapes and dogwood now clog the formerly open woodland.  However, over the brush, remain impressive mature White, Burr and Chinquapin Oaks, Shagbark and Pignut Hickories, as well as the odd remaining Butternut tree (Butternuts are in severe decline).  It’s hard to say how many acres of this specific landscape we have at Salt of the Earth (I would guess about 20-40), but into the future, I would like to explore its potential as a productive model for agriculture on marginal land: replacing, through brushing and controlled grazing, the invasive shrubs with perennial forages.

Side note: for a really amazing example of great farming on marginal land, check out Walt Jeffries’ blog about his pig farm in Vermont: Sugar Mountain.  They are doing amazing things on land that had been given up on long ago, they’re even building a butcher shop!

A burr oak, and shagbark hickories: wouldn't it be nice to see multi-species grazing happening under those trees?

A burr oak, and shagbark hickories: wouldn’t it be nice to see multi-species grazing happening under those trees?

Trees do remarkably well on the thin limestone soils and breaks of boulder till at our farm.  Their roots penetrate fissures and crevices, going deep for nutrients and water.  As well as the Oak-Hickory stands, we also have a large sugarbush, with hundreds and hundreds of giant sugar maples, many capable of supporting 2-3 taps per tree.  Interspersed with the climax maples are abundant ironwoods: great fuel for an evaporator. Along with maple syrup, another edible forest product we are investing in is shiitake mushrooms.  These are raised on hardwood logs (in the 4-8″ diameter range), and do best under the moist canopy of a hardwood forest.  The 750 logs we are harvesting now will be inoculated this spring, and begin bearing when the weather warms up in 2015.  The beauty of shiitakes is that the substrate (the wood) is extremely abundant on our farm, and produced as a by-product of sustainable forest management.

Morgan out for a stroll in the sugar bush.  We will start tapping in Spring of 2015.

Morgan out for a stroll in the sugar bush. We will start tapping in Spring of 2015.

Trees and grassland are amazing solar collectors: that’s photosynthesis for ya.  It’s definitely prettier than a field of panels… and the yields are more diverse: energy (firewood, grass pellets), furniture and building materials, sugar (maple), fungi (wild and cultivated), nuts (though you will probably never develop a taste for acorns), natural fibre (wool etc.) and of course (my favourite): meat and milk.  Utilizing marginal land for food production (especially meat and milk) turns the whole “diet for a small planet” vegetarian argument on its head.   Yes, using prime farmland to grow continuous corn and raise feedlot beef in a world of 7 billion and counting doesn’t really make a lot of sense – but that’s not beef’s fault!  On the contrary, using prime farmland primarily for human food -with forages as part of a healthy crop rotation- and putting marginal farmland to work as pasture and sustainable forestry is probably the healthiest way we could move toward a world where everyone gets to eat.

Unblemished acorns from an English Oak in Portsmouth.  I ate them unroasted: mildly sweet, with zero bitterness.  I'm sure pigs would enjoy them more, though.

Unblemished acorns from an English Oak in Portsmouth. I ate them unroasted: mildly sweet, with zero bitterness. I’m sure pigs would enjoy them more, though.

Prime farmland is the exception on the surface of planet earth. It’s a precious gift, and one we ought to steward with the utmost care and long term outlook (not that I have any say in the matter, though Morgan, as a planner with the provincial government does…).  Most of the rest of the planet is too steep, too dry, too hot, too wet, too thin, too cold, too something to produce the crops that we like to live off of: a great deal of that “too” land will produce grass, and even trees.  Turning that grass and the fruit of those trees into meat and milk is a way to increase overall productivity, liberate arable land for human food, as well as provide the healthful (and delicious) animal products that make life worth living (met any happy vegans lately?).

Anyway, that’s enough of me for now…  It’s cold as anything out there, and I’ve got CSA promo stuff to work on.  Thanks for reading!

Farming Marginal Land

Southern Ontario is blessed with some wonderful farmland. The Kingston area, however, is not home to much of it. Of course, glaciation is the defining aspect of the landscape in this part of the world, and where much of the best farmland is where glaciers left material, Frontenac county is marked, more or less, by the removal of it.

An old soil map of Southern Frontenac County

An old soil map of Southern Frontenac County. Click for a huge jpg to check out in detail!

To the west of us, big piles of glacial till -ground up limestone- generate the deep, sweet (neutral pH), well drained loams of the Otanabee and Bondhead classes. Here, however, most of the ground was swept clean of it’s historical covering, and results in thinly skinned limestone plains -Farmington Loam- or bare granite knolls. A lot of land was cleared in the age of horse drawn transportation and the neighbourhood cheese factory which today no longer supports any sort of economically viable agriculture, which generates the familiar and widespread red cedar rabbit scrub.

Not that there is no soil around here -there is- and some of it has the potential to be very fertile. This dirt was not the result of glacial deposition, but rather is the old bottom of ancient bodies of water: glacial lakes -the silts of the Battersea and Seely’s Bay classes- as well as the deep ingress of the Atlantic Ocean in the form of the Champlain Sea. You see, those miles of ice that covered this region actually weighed it down so much, that it lowered the terrain to sea level (for real!). In fact, 10,000 years later, the land is still slowly rebounding.

The ancient Champlain Sea, which very briefly extended all the way to the confluence of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence

The ancient Champlain Sea, which very briefly extended all the way to the confluence of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence.

The Champlain Sea didn’t hang around here very long, but left us with a few patches of arable land: heavy heavy clays, classed as Napanee, Lansdowne, and Gananoque, the last of which is what comprises our tillable land at Salt of the Earth. Other examples of these series’ are the soils of Wolfe and Howe Island, and the Collin’s Bay Penitentiary Farm.

Clay soils are notoriously difficult to farm: they are sticky, poorly drained, subject to compaction, are slow to warm up in spring, and bake into cement in the heat of summer. Agronomically speaking, though, they also have a great deal going for them, insofar as they hold fertility and organic matter far better than light soils. Clay soils have a far greater surface area, as well as chemical ‘pull’ on nutrients and water. They are harder to exhaust, and less subject to drought.

Strictly speaking, clay soils are “better” in the sense of being able to maintain long term fertility. Sandy soils are “better” in regard that they are easier to manage, and altogether more amenable to the white man’s agriculture. Naturally, a Loam soil (a balanced blend of sand and clay) with a freely draining subsoil is the best of both worlds: being both fertile and workable.

In some parts of the world, parts of Ontario even, that’s all there is: miles and miles and miles of loam. A1 farmland – everywheres! A short drive around Kingston, and one quickly sees that is not the case around here. What we are working with a Salt of the Earth are two typical extremes of the local landscape: a deposit of heavy Gananoque Clay, bordered by hundreds of acres of thinly veiled limestone, with the odd protruding knob of granite (part of the Frontenac Axis of the Canadian Shield).

Sometimes it feels like a genuine fools errand to try to wrest food from this land. Not that it is impossible, but there are impediments. Our tillable clay ground has drainage problems. Surface drainage (ie: how water that lands on the ground flows away) is impeded in some spots by irregular topography. The farmland is rolling, and there are low spots that don’t readily point to any outlet… The soil’s subsurface drainage is also in question (that is to say, how the water table, seeps, springs and hardpans influence the balance of air and water in the soil. Unlike surface drainage, subsurface drainage is largely speculative, simply because we cannot see underground. “Is it wet here because there is a seasonal seep? Bedrock blocking drainage? Or is this just the way the water table sits this time of year?”

One thing is clear: our tillable land requires new drainage. It was tiled way back when (a few sink holes have formed in the field, and you can see the old terra cotta drains in the bottom of them), but some of the tiles must be blocked, and the main ditch has largely silted up or collapsed. Malfunctioning drainage, in many ways, is worse than no drainage at all, because it collects, then traps water in your field.

And all of this adds up to mo’ money: excavator work to re-ditch the field, perhaps a ‘dozer to adjust a few contours, and of course, a tile laying machine to get the gardens evenly drained. It won’t be cheap -even only ten acres of it- but it will be worth it; it’s not even a stretch to say absolutely necessary, should we want to even continue cultivating garlic. As one of my 19th century farming idols, Peter Henderson writes: “Good husbandry is thrown away on poor drainage.”

Making marginal land productive!

Making marginal land productive!

So, several questions arise at this point: 1) what will you get for all this expense and effort? 2) why grow crops on land that isn’t ideal for it? 3) is it worth it?

1) What we will get for the effort of draining the land is reliability. Imperfectly drained land is not impossible to grow crops on: we could probably get away with it most seasons, and lots of farmers do. However, in market gardening (which is to say, mixed vegetable farming) timing is key. Timing of tillage, planting, cultivation and harvest are all very strict, which is why sand is the preferred medium for the practise: it warms up fast in the spring, in time for planting, and you can get on to cultivate (ie: mechanically control weeds) even if it’s rained for a week.

Most plants are actually happier in clay, it’s just more efficient and effective to grow them in sand. Draining a heavy soil gives us the advantage of a rich and resilient soil with an incredible potential for nutrient density, while also allowing us to push the envelope in terms of maximizing our growing season, timely and effective weed control, and ensures harvesting can be carried out when crops are at their peak. So… that’s why we’re going to bring in the big machines, and bury a bunch of perforated pipe in the earth!

2) Why bother trying to crop vegetables on land that isn’t considered “vegetable land” is a worthy consideration. In a lot of ways, doing it extensively (beyond the home garden scale) can be challenging for certain crops. The Gananoque Clay we’re working with is traditionally dairy farming land: it produces prodigious crops of hay, reliable pasture -even in a dry summer- and when broken up from grass (really, it’s most fitting crop) can grow good corn and oats (what you need for milking cows all winter).

However, the limestone derived clay we’re growing is also very much appreciated by cole crops (the brassicas: cabbage, kale, brocoli, etc.), curcubits (squash, cukes, et al), and the nightshade family (tomaters, eggplants, and so on). It is, with lots of organic matter, and proper cultivation, even amenable to root crops like carrots, beets, onions and parsnips. Remember: the main reason vegetable farming is carried out on light soils is due to matters of timing – so that planting, harvest and everything in between can take place just so. On our naturally limited landbase however, there are only so many acres of root crops we are going to need to harvest at once, which can be carried out in the appropriate window (God willing!) Clay is worth growing vegetables on.

(But… and this is a loud aside: IF THE LAWS WEREN’T SO SILLY, I WOULD BE MILKING A DOZEN COWS ON THIS FARM SO FAST…)

3) And so, is tile drainage, and landforming, and so on all worth it? Well, I suppose my mother (our accountant) will be able to tell you that in a year or two! But I believe it is. Perhaps our main competitive advantage here at Salt of the Earth is our proximity to Kingston (I see many people jog from downtown to our place, and turn back…). Making marginal land productive, so close to town, rather than drive an extra half hour to some somewhat better land makes a lot of sense. All that time, and money spent on transportation adds up fast. So fast, that improving land close to markets, I believe, will pay.

The advantage is not only that we are closer to our consumer, but that our consumer is close to us. We are proud and excited about what we’re up to, and we want to share it with people. We feel our work speaks for itself, and want to make what we are doing here as accessible and open as possible. If what people want is “local” food – then that’s what we’re here to provide.

Hmm, somehow this has turned into a rant about growing vegetables on heavy soil… Interesting. I will talk about the rest of our farm’s marginal land at a later date!

Teamwork!

Discing in the Fall - Another shot of horses' rears...

Discing in the Fall – Another shot of horses’ rears…

We use draft horses here at Salt of the Earth, for both field work and forestry.  We do so because it is a joy and pleasure, they fit in well with our scale, and they make sense economically.

Currently, we keep a pair of Percherons out on the farm: Molly and Glad(iator). They’re easy, willing, if not somewhat inexperienced. They still need another fifty hitches before I think we can really call them a “team”.  Oh, and they’re big.  Really big.

Glad and Molly, their first day at Salt of the Earth

Glad and Molly, their first day at Salt of the Earth

Glad is a six year old registered Percheron: we have the papers to prove it.  He is also a gelding, which is to say, his testicles left him a long time ago (and makes his registration rather pointless).  With a name like Gladiator, I believe it was hoped that he would end up as a super stud (literally), and go on to be a prolific stallion.  But, the reality of Glad’s disposition is that, well, he’s a little dense.  He’s friendly, to a fault, docile, sometimes to the degree of laziness, and all in all, acts more like a big old dog than a work horse.  Which is why, I believe, they castrated him.  Oh well.  He’s easy to get along with, and is generally a steadying influence on his teamate…

Molly.  Molly is a mare, which is a to say female.  And as is so often the case in male-female partnerships, she is decidedly the brains of the operation.  Where Glad is the end of his line, Molly, being ten, still has the better part of a decade left of breeding in her.  And she is the sort of horse that the small farmers of this world need more of.  She is smart, willing, and very alert.  She is the type of horse that can be tricky to get a hand on out on pasture, but once’s she tied and has the harness on, she is 100% steady and obedient.  Such is her intelligence.   I wish I knew of a draft stud in the neighbourhood…

I learned (this is Charles writing) to use Draft Horses out in Nova Scotia, where there is a small religion still surrounding the beasts.  I did not receive a terrible amount of instruction from any humans, but rather, got myself a horse and teacher in one, from right around the corner.  Her name was Dixie: a cross between a Newfie Pony and a Percheron.  She was raised by a father/son team, who are horse whisperers in the most rugged, backwoods sense.  She’d done nigh ought everything a horse can do by the time she was sold to me: barrel racing, ploughing, competitive pulling, and ‘twitching’ wood in the forest.

Dixie teaching Joel Huntley to plough at the first NFG

Dixie teaching Joel Huntley to plough Glenmont Loam up on the North Mountain at the first New Farmer’s Gathering.

She was wickedly smart, had no patience for foolishness, and could walk straight as a laser.  Over time, I got with the program; it took several runaways, when she would always return directly to my neighbour’s barnyard from whence she came. “We shoulda brought Dixie over blindfolded!” they joked with me.  But in a couple years, Dixie and I were in sync, and I could not have had a more advantageous start in horse farming.

When I later moved on up to a real farmy farm farm down in the Valley, to go with nice little Dixie, I got a pair of big Belgians: Dan and Kailee.  Same as the team I got now: a dumb gelding and a sharp mare.  They showed me the differences in how horses act, based on how they’re raised, and the fact that there aren’t too many like Dixie out there.

Discing some early Woodville Sandy Loam in the Annapolis Valley

Discing winterkilled oats on a knoll of early Woodville Sandy Loam in the Annapolis Valley

So, I have to admit, Dixie gave me a little thing for the greys… Probably the main reason I picked up Molly and Glad.  That, and the price.  And, of course, you get what you pay for.  So, we will see how straight my rows are next year…  And after all, a team is only as good as the dude on the end of the reins; while I may be enthusiastic about draft horses, I am far from expert.  Always easiest to get them started on gear like a chain harrow, where the straightness of the path is of no relevance…

Chain harrowing some VERY rough ground the day before garlic planting started.

Chain harrowing some VERY rough ground the day before garlic planting started.

As much as we enjoy, and believe in using drafts, we are also not religious about it, and when the circumstances necessitate it, have no qualms with hiring or borrowing a neighbour’s piece of gear to get some work done in a hurry.  To get started on such short notice, we got big help from Joe Oomen, Charles Forman, Ted Kirkby, as well as Mike and Christa over at Farewell Farm this fall, to have the fields chisel ploughed, 40 tons of compost hauled and applied, our pond dredged, not to mention some bush hogging and rototilling as well.  Thanks, guys!

So, as great as horses are, they are also many things they can’t do.  They are good at pulling things overland, and draggin pointy stuff through the ground.  They lack, however, power take off (PTO), that magical spindle on the back of a tractor that powers everything from sprayers, to balers, to grain grinders, snow blowers and shit spreaders.  They also lack hydraulics.  The compressed oil in hydraulics power those big buckets on the front of tractors, that make handling things like gravel, manure, and round bales very convenient.  Hydraulics also lifts heavy tillage gear up off the ground, and drives handy stuff like wood splitters.

And so, in the long run, if we are going to have this wonderful, mixed farm I am dreaming of, we are going to need a tractor.  Use the horses for the stuff horses are good at.  Tractor for the stuff it’s good at.   I will resume this distinction in another post…

I am always suspicious of farmers on the interweb…

Oftentimes the best farms out there have limited to zero internet presence.  Either they’re too tired at the end of the day to sit down and do the thing, or if they have a website, it’s outdated and homely. There almost seems to be an inverse correlation between farming and website quality…

I love farming.  Love it.  It is a passion in me as strong (and sometimes even stronger) as those to eat and reproduce.  You can tell a lot about a man by the way he farms: a well run operation is the culmination of vision, observation, insight, organization, and hard work; not to mention a good dose of hope and courage.  And for that reason – this is the hardass Dutchman in me – I am always disgusted by a farm with an impressive website and weedy fields.

With all that in mind, however, having attended the “Eastern Ontario Local Food Conference” on Monday and Tuesday of this past week, the importance of social media and internet presence was stressed over and over and over again.  Thick as I am, I noticed.  And it’s true: what good is having a juicy little farm if know one knows about it or how to get your stuff?

So, as I embark upon creating an online presence for Salt of the Earth Farm, I hope to use this medium for the sake of presenting the reality of our farm, and not hype, fantasy or slick packaging.  I’m not super computer savvy, and I don’t have a whole lot of pictures or videos of what I’m up to – because I’ve usually got my hands full of whatever I’m busy with (which is why you might notice that my photos often are of the backsides of horses…).  But I’m gonna try to put something together here – I apologize in advance!

Here is the present quality of my multimedia presentation (using an overhauled disc harrow in advance of garlic planting, and trying to hold a really dirty iphone while driving the team)…

So I here I go.  Stay tuned, wish me luck.  This WordPress thing seems really interactive, so take advantage of it!  That’s is the whole point of this interweb thingy, right? Connections… or being a creep?  HOLLA!