To Tap or Not to Tap

Isn’t it lovely to see the sun!!!  Truly energizing. 

Everyone in MapleWorld is itching to get started.  Syrup is already being made in Southwestern Ontario.  Producers around here like to be tapped by Valentine’s Day, and I even know of one fellow in Westport that’s sweetened his pans.

“Sweetening pans” refers to the initial stage of syrup production in the evaporator.  The evaporator is where enough water is boiled from from the sap to take it from a 2% sugar solution to at least 66%.  Generally these machines work as “continuous flow”: fresh sap comes in one end, hot syrup comes out the other.  You can imagine that at the start of the season, you have to start with pure sap (or “the water” as my Quebecois friends refer to it), and oftentimes you make little to no syrup during your first boil.  What you do accomplish, though, is to set up the “gradient” that will allow the machine to work properly.

Because these different densities of syrup boil at different temperatures (the boiling point rising as it thickens), they actually don’t want to mix together in the pans, and instead “push” each other along as they lose water, just like air masses in the atmosphere.

Turning water into steam is the name of the game at the evaporator, and the sleek rigs of today are vast improvements over the cauldrons and flat pans of the past.  The biggest aid to the syrupmaker in recent history though, is the adoption of Reverse Osmosis to make boiling faster and more energy efficient. 
Turning water into steam is the name of the game at the evaporator, and the sleek rigs of today are vast improvements over the cauldrons and flat pans of the past.  The biggest aid to the syrupmaker in recent history though, is the adoption of Reverse Osmosis to make boiling faster and more energy efficient. 

Reverse Osmosis (RO) is water filtration technology, relying on high pressures and an almost solid “membrane” that you’d have a hard time believing water can actually pass through.  Unlike the unit under your sink, or those in places treating sea water, like Israel, Saudi Arabia or California, we don’t want pure water, we want the contaminant: sugar (and the associated minerals and flavour compounds in the sap).

We happen to employ an RO unit ourselves, and they are industry standard in commercial production.  As a dealer in Maple equipment, I can tell you that nothing gives a better return on investment for the syrupmaker.  However, they remain a point of contention among traditionalists, who maintain that they produce inferior syrup.   This hasn’t been demonstrated by any taste tests, trials or research, but those who reject RO will have to use 3-5 times as much energy to make the same amount of syrup.  That’s 3-5 times as long working the evaporator, and 3-5 times as much effort in the bush cutting trees and preparing firewood.

Our unit pulls about 3/4 of the water out of the sap, bringing it up to about 12% sugar before it hits the pans.  I almost cried when I saw all of that pure water pouring out of it for the first time.

Like every other aspect of agriculture, Maple Production, or as the Quebecois call it, Acericulture (sugar maples being “Acer” en francais and botanically Acer sacchrum), has modernized incredibly over the past two generations.  Gathering from pails with horses – a standard practice well into the 1970’s – has been replaced with high vacuum tubing and pumps.  A family scaled undertaking in these parts might have upwards of 3,000 taps the last time our Sugarbush was tapped.  Today, there are operations with over a million in remote parts of Quebec and New Brunswick.  And while maple remains hard work, rather than having bodies scampering throughout the woods, wireless monitoring systems, automatic valves and pumps, cameras and wi-fi controls have come to be commonplace in both the bush and sugarcamp.  Complete automation of the process is the goal, and many producers are getting close.

No matter what though, someone has to set this stuff all up, tap (and untap) the trees and make sure it all works.  Even in Quebec, where there is a strong tradition and ample government support for Acericulture – including educational opportunities – a lack of manpower remains the limiting factor in developing the industry.  It’s orders of magnitude worse here in Ontario, where although making syrup was a significant part of many farms’ economy, today it is regarded largely with nostalgia, and often as not, at best as a very expensive hobby (lingering memories of the back breaking work probably responsible for some of the hesitancy!)  Local culture and the willingness/expertise to do the work really defines maple production: Vermont’s industry is thriving, New Hampshire and New York’s are barely touched, though they share the same forest resources.  Similarly, much of the growth in Ontario and New Brunswick’s industry has come from Quebecers moving in… Quebec is pretty well out of taps!

And so while technology and human resources are important factors, none is more important than weather, and maple is unique in its precariousness.  Not only is the season so short, but a few degrees makes the difference between a dribble and a torrent, and entire seasons can be cut short and written off by too warm, too cold and ice-storms (which wreak havoc on lines, and even worse, cause the trees to lose all of their sap from their wounds).

Right now, there is uncertainty whether the warmth we are experiencing is a “false spring” or indeed the beginning of the thaw, and whether or not we will see a return of proper winter for several weeks (not that we had much of one in the first place).  We have gotten underway early in the past, and although we made a small amount of syrup for our efforts, everything also quickly froze solid: our lines, tanks, evaporator etc. and later delayed our production.  Part of me wants to avoid that, but I also have an extremely eager and energetic 17 year old who is HOT TO BOIL.  And so, it goes without saying that all of our trees are tapped, tanks are set up, and the sugarhouse is clean. 

Small Potatoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knew?

What are you up to these days?  I know many of you have headed south for either short or long spells.  I’m jealous!  It seems the older I get the more I notice what a bummer it is physically and mentally to put up with short days, grey skies and cold temperatures.  The end is in sight at least!

With the new additions to the family I have been more domesticated than I ever have been – and while I’m not much use with babies, the household has been treated to a deep dive into “what makes it good?”.   I have to chuckle at my own ignorance (it’s a deep well to draw from) but something that’s sort of crystalized in my mind this winter has been the use of herbs in the kitchen.  Of course, this dawns on me when I have no herbs of my own!

Over the years, I had often been surprised by the emotion displayed by our customers regarding fresh herbs.  Many of you have gone out of your way to stop me, look me in the eye and sincerely thank me for carrying fresh herbs.   I was always slightly perplexed – not that I’d refuse the praise…  I’ve also seen customers roll their eyes, become visibly disappointed – even get flustered and leave – because I failed to bring any herbs that day.  “Wow they took that pretty hard – weird,” I’d think, and consider it no further.

I had no idea what you guys were on about!  Being a rather austere cook, and spoiled with good ingredients that generally taste pleasant on their own, herbs were something I’d very rarely bother with.  Outside of obvious things, like throwing a bit of cilantro into salsa, dilling up a potato salad or adding basil to pasta, I am embarrassed to say that I have largely ignored these interesting and timeless ingredients.  It turns out people have been cultivating them for thousands of years for a reason – who knew?

Far from being extraneous additions, I’ve learned that herbs – applied wisely – can take dishes to the next level: making a good meal great, and serving to highlight and bring out the best in otherwise humble ingredients.   Not only being a cook’s secret weapon, I’m quite sold that all these herbs have digestive, nutritional, and even medicinal qualities that are probably proportional to the culinary value they add to our meals.

All this being said, I am more enthused to be growing herbs than I ever have before.  We’ve generally just produced basil, rosemary, parsley, dill and cilantro for sale.  What are other herbs would you purchase on a regular basis? It’s doubtful we will be able to meet every request, but I’d really like to know what you’re looking for.   We’ll also be making wooden planters with various herbs, so if you don’t find it in our cooler, you may find it in them. 

I find it very very funny, that I’ve spent the better part of my life growing and pondering food.. but you chain me to the stove for a winter and all of a sudden I’m like, “Wow! Mushrooms! Wow! Culinary herbs!  HEY HAVE YOU GUYS HEARD OF THIS STUFF? Wow, big revelation this week guys… WINE!  You can even drink it!”  I feel like a child.  I wonder what I’ll find out about next?  Time is ticking… maple is around the corner and the fields will own me shortly after that.

The Grocery Game

I hope you enjoyed this drop of snow, and perhaps strapped some cross country skis on or took the kids to a hill for some sledding.  Despite being a pain in the butt and a bit slippery on the roads, we’re certainly treated to a beautiful spectacle in this part of the world: we’ll be sick of it soon enough!

For your viewing pleasure, we uploaded an album of 2022 photos on our website. 

I really appreciate all of the feedback you gave me re: “Stalking Celery”.  I often forget that the reason so many of you shop with us is because you are avid, expert cooks.  It’s dawning on me we should make a section of our website where we post recipes you share with us.   I think we will start this up come summer when the real goodies start rolling in.  We will have to incentivize your submissions with maple syrup or something like that….

I also have to all those of you who so quickly took me up on signing on for CSA boxes and cards for the season so far!  It really is a remarkable thing to me, that we have such a practical working relationship with our customers.  

I suppose it’s obvious at this point, that I dwell a great deal on the food system, but when I see how seriously you take working with our farm, I have to pause and acknowledge that we are actually, indeed, a viable (albeit microscopic) part of it.  The relationship we have with you is really the backbone of this small miracle, and represents a totally different side of our operation from the capital F Farming.

Most producers (of any commodity) generally get to wave goodbye to the fruits of their labour at the end of their driveway, and devote the bulk of their time and expertise to the brass tacks of producing their speciality.   Farming on our scale does not allow us the luxury of sharing so much of the consumer dollar with middlemen and retailers, and so we take the additional steps of bringing the food to market and getting it into your hands in a pleasant way that you’ll want to repeat.

Although it is an entirely different business than agriculture proper, retailing food is something that I genuinely enjoy, above and beyond it allowing our farm to exist.  I consider myself fortunate to have made so many friends and acquaintances over the years; your encouragement is meaningful and motivating, and your feedback keeps us sharp and aiming ever higher.

For better or worse, retailing food puts us in the position of competing against the grocery chains: which due to the ubiquitous and constant nature of eating, are some of the biggest (and most ruthless) businesses in the country.   The modern North American grocery store is a wonder of abundance and logistics, which is largely accomplished through vertical integration and consolidated buying power.

Grocery in Canada is dominated by five main players:

Loblaws is the biggest player in the food retailing in Canada.   Started in Toronto as the first self-serve “Groceteria” in the country (groceries were previously kept behind a counter, and weighed out for you), they now employ over 135,000 people and although they sell under 22 different labels nationwide, you know them in the Kingston area as Loblaws, Independant, No Frills and  Freshmart, not to mention owning all of the Shoppers Drug Marts. Loblaws is famously owned by the Weston family, of baked goods fame, and in recent years has been found culpable for price fixing in the bread market.

Canada’s second largest grocery is Empire Company, started as Sobey’s: originally a meat delivery business in Nova Scotia, and like Loblaws, has absorbed many smaller brands over the years.  Less high profile in Kingston than Loblaws, you would know its brands as Foodland, Fresh Co. and most recently acquired, Farm Boy.  Quebec based Metro is #3 nationally, but very prevalent in Quebec under a number of brands.  Besides the two Metro locations in Kingston, you’ve probably deduced they also own Food Basics as well.

The largest retailer in the world, Walmart is relatively new to groceries in Canada, but their rise has been meteoric and the incredible scale of their purchasing allows them to maintain their discount reputation.  As far as I know, the company makes slim, if any, margins on most of the grocery items, but uses the food as a draw and loss leader to maintain the convenience of “one stop shopping” and traffic for the higher profit items in the stores.

Costco is another American juggernaut in the Canadian grocery market, and although I appreciate them most for their incredible Kirkland paper towels and toilet paper, I generally hear very good things about the quality of their food products.  Although I often find the size of their offerings impractical and the prices not terribly competitive, I have to give them credit for the brilliant innovation of charging people to shop in their store – the shakedown at the end of your visit being a particularly nice insult as well!

It’s hard to think of many independent grocers left.  John’s Deli on Princess Street was a great business that is sorely missed.  Quattrochi’s is a retailer we work with a fair bit, and carry a lot of items you might be surprised to find in there.  I see a number of new ethnic stores popping up around town – but I wouldn’t know the first thing about their structure. The Glenburnie Grocery on Perth Road is a real treasure and one I hope to see for years to come. I’ve never been to Bearances but I understand they even have an in house butcher, which is quite the luxury these days. Tara’s and Sigrid’s are both well liked shops: the classic sort of “Health Food Store”; I often wonder how the spread between food and supplements goes in those places.

There’s some really nice delis and bakers that add a lot to Kingston as well: Pig and Olive, the Barriefield Meat Market, Pan Chancho and Bread and Butter all come to mind.  Pasta Genova is a unique business and Kingston institution in its own right.  I bet there are other little gems out there I don’t even know about.  Care to share them?

Something I’m sure all of these local businesses have in common with us is that we appreciate you going out of your way to shop at our establishments.  Time is our most precious resource, so it means a great deal when you share it.   I hope we can all continue to cultivate what makes it worth going out of your way for.

Stalking Celery

How is 2023 going for you so far?

It’s a slow and sloppy season on the farm for us, but there are so many little lives under foot that time just flies.  

For myself, I am spending probably more time indoors than ever before right now, trying to give Morgan a hand around the house, and preparing a great deal of food.  I find cooking very relaxing: a little domain of which I am in full control, with no weather, labour or mechanical issues to deal with… Just pleasant tactile and aromatic experiences and a manageable sequence of events with a sweet payoff.

As much as I really really enjoy preparing food, it’s something I rarely have time to indulge in when we actually have all the goodies in the garden.  So, I end up cooking with a relatively limited palate of meat and the traditional winter vegetables.  Given that my primary audience is 3 feet tall or so, a wide variety of ingredients isn’t generally appreciated anyway!

Over the years as a cook, outside of the liberal application of dairy products, I have been quite radical about relying on stuff we grow on the farm.  I am ignorant and stubborn about many things in this way.  As my curiosity expands and the question of “what makes it good?” buries itself deeper and deeper in my psyche, I have conceded some territory to additional ingredients, many of which would be considered backbones of western cuisine.

Wine: who knew that you can add wine to basically everything as you cook?  I didn’t.  I’ve also taken to drinking the stuff (was always just a beer and rye guy) and it certainly enhances your cooking experience on many levels… Of course, you can add beer and rye to your food as well, though I was never that generous – there’s something about the wine that makes you want to share the warmth.

Mushrooms: not being something I’ve ever grown, and something I’ve never had the time or knowledge to forage, I have generally neglected fungi as a cooking ingredient.  It’s something I always noticed in people’s grocery carts and wondered what the heck they’re doing with them.   As I’ve learned, they go well in almost any dish, and can either be the star of the show or play a supporting role.   Mushrooms are something we grow year round in this part of Ontario: they’re produced at scale near Ottawa and in Prince Edward County and also grown by smaller producers even closer to home.  Mushrooms are the definition of a local and sustainable ingredient, maybe we should start carrying them?

Celery: despite being one of the more difficult vegetables to produce, celery’s crunch and distinctive flavour are hard to replicate and widely applied in a variety of dishes.  Celery’s presence in French mirepoix is what has pushed my appreciation over the edge, and is now rendering it a “must have” in my crisper drawer.

Mirepoix is the aromatic foundation for much of “wet” French cooking: 2 parts onion, 1 part carrot, 1 part celery, carefully sauteed without browning to release and coalesce the volatile compounds in the ingredients.   Different cuisines have variations on this: Germans suppengrun relies on leek, carrots and celeriac, Italians soffritto adds tomato and garlic to the mix.   Garlic, onions and ginger serve a similar foundational flavour background in many Eastern cuisines.

So impressed am I with celery’s understated yet irreplaceable quality that I have resolved to attempt to grow it this season.  It is very uncommon for farms of our nature to cultivate it.  The specimens I have seen kicking around the “local food” scene for 20 years do not resemble or taste like what we find at the grocery store.   They’ve been dark green, sprawling (not tall), tough and taste about 10x stronger than what we’re accustomed to.

So specialized is celery production that I noticed the last bunch I bought came here via airplane from Spain.  I will see what I can do with it in our gardens.  My primary resource for this experiment is the 1867 book Gardening for Profit: the first North American book on vegetable production.  At a time when the selection of vegetables on the market was far narrower than today, celery was king.  

The author, Peter Henderson, was a Scottish immigrant who intensively farmed on the New Jersey shores of the Hudson River across from the island of Manhattan.  Not only a successful market gardener, he went on to become a wealthy seed merchant and America’s leading writer on horticultural matters.  Universally beloved, he famously personally read and *immediately responded to* every correspondence he ever received (all 50,000 of them).

Another aspect of the appreciation for Mr. Henderson was for his role in the development of the fledgling vegetable industry.   This was a time when large populations were moving off the land and into congested urban, industrial centres; where for the first time they were entirely dependent on commerce for their food and fresh produce.  Generating large quantities of affordable, high quality of veggies was regarded as a valuable public service, and a healthy highlight in a relatively limited nutritional and culinary landscape.

Today, of course, we are overwhelmed with options, and the produce industry is so productive and specialized that we find ourselves buying celery from Spain.  Thanks to refrigeration, growing vegetables a short trip from the people who eat it, as Mr. Henderson did, is no longer the business paradigm, and the personal connection between growers and eaters is all but gone as well.  The logical conclusion of all of this efficiency is eventually feeding us some sort of optimized kibble ration.  

In the meantime, cooks and consumers such as yourself stand between maintaining the art of thoughtful food preparation and dining, and an ever homogenized food culture (or lack thereof), where eating is regarded as a burden or vice: rather than a pleasure to enjoy for its own sake and to share with those we love.

The only way I can express my appreciation for your continuing support of our small farm is through these little notes, and the ongoing effort we lay out towards each successive season.  Thank you for very literally putting your money where your mouth is, and making a small corner of your countryside bloom with life.

Farm Fads

Our transition to winter has been rather dramatic, hasn’t it?  I hope you were ready for it!  They were caught off guard in Brockville – they got a solid foot of snow!   We are sort of scrambling here to get snow tires on and winterize things around the farm.  That Christmas is only a month away is a rather sobering thought as well, isn’t it?   I’ll guess I will make a plug, that maple syrup and prepaid cards make wonderful gifts… we even have some nice outdoor stainless steel hearths that would make a nice big ticket item… 

But Christmas consumer purchases aside, of course the main thing we are preparing for is the imminent arrival of the twins.  We added an additional room to the barndominium and while drywalling around the crude, hand hewn timbers that make up the skeleton of our home, I am struck (as I often am) by all of the rapid changes this structure has stood witness to.

We all often regard farming as a quaint, slow and timeless tradition.  Over much of the globe, for most of history, that has largely been true;  Farmers of Forty Centuries is an amazing account of the ancient and productive farming of the Far East, for example.  North American agriculture, however, has been a story of constant change, where the intersection of markets, labour, technology, and even politics have made for agricultural paradigms that rarely last longer than a generation.

These trends can be continent wide or relatively localized.  Here in Eastern Ontario the first cash crop of significance was wheat, which commanded a strong price back in England and whose production was required in order to secure your land grant.  In the latter half of the 1800’s, as the prairies opened up, the wheat trade went west, and farmers in this part of Ontario switched to dairying.   This being before refrigeration, the milk went to cheddar cheese making for export to the British empire, and was carried out only in the summer months on cheap, abundant grass pastures.  At the turn of the century, Pittsburgh Township alone had almost two dozen cheese factories: basically spaced at the distance one could haul milk on a summer’s day with horses before it spoiled.   Farms prospered in this period, and most of the stately farmhouses in our area date from that time. There is a replica of the Mammoth Cheese in Perth that celebrates this era:

As technology progressed, dairying became a year round concern and we entered what was probably the closest thing we have had to a “Golden Age” in agriculture in these parts, where a family could farm an hundred acres, milk 20 cows or so and make a reliable, respectable living (often with mother teaching school or working at the hospital).   Mind you, you had to get up at 4:30 am 365 days a year, but you got to be your own boss and even enjoyed electricity, indoor plumbing, phone service, television, hockey, and the odd vacation.  This was accomplished with square bales, milking machines, and corn silage.  Pretty much every silo you see in these parts represents one of these units.  Now, this style of farming still required a great deal of hard work, but was relatively advanced compared to cradling wheat with a scythe or the loose hay and hand milking that supplied the cheese era  (I can’t imagine what people’s hands looked like then). 

The children of these farms were such resourceful, hard workers they largely got picked off by industry and government after being the first generation to attend post secondary.  Nearly an entire cohort leaving the farm for higher standard of living, without the toil – this era has largely come to a close.  Dairies have consolidated the landbases of many former farms and a typical dairy farm no longer knows their cows by name.  Nigel and Claire (whose cheese we sell) still name their beasts.  Other friends of ours, who milk upwards of an hundred cows in their tie stall barn actually still have nameplates over each and every one of their cows, complete with lineage.  When I remarked to Mike that that was pleasant and unusual to see in this day and age he looked at me very earnestly: “Well Charles, these are our friends and coworkers…” 

But, Nigel and Claire and Mike and Tessa, are the exceptions to the rule, and we are even beginning to see offshore workers coming in to work on large dairy farms – along with robot milkers.   For better or worse, the long term viability of the Canadian dairy industry is very much tied up with our supply management (quota) system, which effectively closes the border for most American milk products.   Were we to go free-trade with diary, Canadian dairy farms would likely see the same fate as those in traditional northern dairying states, like Vermont, New York and Wisconsin, where the industry is in free fall, the smaller farms – more expensive to operate – being unable to compete with the scale of mega dairies in places like South Dakota or Colorado.

Morgan mentioned I should explain what is going on in this picture.  This is calf feeding on a dairy in South Dakota.  Those are bottles on the trailers and those are calf hutches on the left.  I don’t want my neighbours to have to compete with this. 

Should dairying ever fall by the wayside in this area (let’s hope not), soybeans would most likely completely come to dominate the landscape: something they are already well on their way to do.  But, like all agricultural trends… who knows what will be next?  In other parts of Ontario we have seen various trends come and go. 

Although largely comprised of marginal land, Prince Edward County, one of the longest settled parts of Ontario, has witnessed many agricultural fads.  At one point it was a major exporter of brewing ingredients to the US: both barley and hops (as referenced by “Barley Days Brewery“).  When canning technology developed, both fruits (primarily sour cherries) and vegetables (tomatoes, peas and beans) were grown and canned well into the post war era, when there were dozens of canneries in Waupoos, Mountainview, Wellington, Bloomfield and Picton.  Sprague Foods is the modern incarnation of one of these businesses, now operating in Belleville (though no longer buying from local farmers).    That shaley limestone soil that grew such good tomatoes two generations ago is now sought after for vineyards, which in the context of The County should probably be regarded more as a lifestyle/tourism trend than a proper agricultural industry.

Further afield in Ontario, Norfolk County provides another interesting example.   Today, Norfolk is known as the garden of Ontario, where land is extremely valuable and many high value crops are grown.  It was not always this way however.  In 1920 most of the sandy land in Norfolk County had been exhausted and abandoned.  Hungarian immigrants began experimenting with tobacco on the worn out soils.  In 1925 there were 60 acres of tobacco.  In only five years, by 1930, there were 14,000 acres planted.   The industry plateaued in the 1980’s with over 25,000 acres and has been in steady decline since.  In 2008 the federal government bought tobacco growers’ quota back from them for $1.05/lb, spending $284 million dollars.   Although most growers took the buyout, as of 2020 there were still 7,400 acres of tobacco grown in Norfolk and the industry is actually making a bit of a comeback. Many growers switched to similarly labour intensive crops like vegetables, and most interestingly, ginseng: which is almost entirely exported to China and has an extremely volatile market.  Grown under black shade cloth to mimic the forest canopy, it is very evident from above around the old tobacco centre of Tillsonburg.

I personally find it odd that the same governments who were very recently hellbent to Stop Smoking now suddenly find themselves in the business of promoting cannabis smoking – the latest agricultural trend, of course.   This may have to do with the overlap of ownership between those who drafted the legislation and those who were the initial investors in the industry!   It’s hard to say, but I often question to what extent the government is actually concerned with our health…  But the state of our lungs aside, agricultural fads can have tremendous impacts on the fabric of the landscape as well.

“Sheep Fever” is probably the most remarkable North American example of the plasticity of agricultural trends and their effects on the land around us.  In the early 19th century, a number of coincident developments led to the rapid rise (and fall) of a domestic wool industry in New England. 

The first water powered woolen mill was built in Gray, Maine in 1791 by Samual Mayall.  Born in England, Mayall had worked in the textile industry and quietly took a number of well kept secrets with him to the US when he emigrated.  The English guilds were so outraged, they actually twice tried to assassinate him (rather comically by the way, once with a poisoned hat, and later with a gift of two primed pistols aimed at the opener of the box – which failed to go off), but the damage had been done, and quickly, water powered textile mills were a proven concept along the many rivers of the east coast.

Now the wool…. Merino sheep produce the most fine and desirable wool.  They produce lots of it too: the sheep having been bred to have wrinkly skin, increasing the surface area to produce fleece.  The breed originated in Spain and was part of a tightly controlled industry dominated for centuries by the Spanish nobility: breeding stock was forbidden to leave the country and hadn’t even made it to Spanish colonies in the New World.  But, when Napoleon invaded in 1808, rather than hand the industry to the French, they opted to begin exporting.  William Jarvis, American consul to Portugal, quickly became the largest buyer, and began exporting thousands of them to his farm in Vermont for sale. 

The war of 1812 and subsequent boycotting of English goods further spurred the woolen industry, and in the flurry to supply this burgeoning market something like 80% of the forests in Vermont and New Hampshire – which had been chipped away at for shipbuilding and subsistence farming – had been cleared for sheep pasture.   By 1840 there were several million sheep in New England and the hills were criss-crossed with 250,000 miles of stone walls.  At that point, naturally, the market collapsed: the price of wool dropping in half in a single year. Merino sheep had also made it to Argentina and Australia, as well as the newly opened American west.  The cotton industry had enjoyed a similar growth spurt and the widespread application of the cotton gin and human slavery made it very competitive with wool.   The industry imploded as quickly as it formed.  The farmers migrated westward to better soils and the denuded hills rapidly reclothed themselves.

The subsequent regrowth of pine actually spurred a logging boom in the early 1900’s and the subsequent regrowth from that clear cut is what forms the hardwood forests of New England today.  Agriculture is limited now to fertile valleys and intervales like the Connecticut.   The hillsides are for recreation, wildlife and maple syrup.  The old fencelines and farms are visible through the forest canopy with LIDAR (Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging).  The mills held on and adapted, and formed the basis of many small towns until NAFTA finally did that industry in as well.  What’s left is a very pretty, but generally unproductive landscape, carrying a population whose goods and wealth are not derived from the landscape.  It is very similar to our area in this regard. The food, fibre, building materials and energy coming from afar.  

So not only is the constant flux of North American agriculture extremely destabilizing for rural communities, it also puts us in a sort of uncanny valley, where we experience a broad sense of disconnection and unease stemming from our removal from the landscape.  For instance, although we are surrounded by trees, our furniture, floors and cabinetry are largely made out of sawdust and glue with a picture of wood on it.   As human culture retreats into digital life, these disconnects are largely “felt” but not in any way addressed – on the contrary they push us farther into a virtual reality.   “Real” things, like solid wood, natural fibres or whole food have become niche, luxury items which not only must be sought out, but even become status symbols: the artificial products being the scraps left for us plebs.

And so while I hope you don’t shop with us to impress your friends (I hope you do so because you like the food), I do hope you can share in the same grounding I experience I enjoy when I look out at our fields and gardens: “There’s the soil, there’s the food, this is my task.  I can see it and touch it and it makes sense”.   It’s strange that this has become fleeting, but who knows what will happen next! 

The International

I hope you are embracing the cool gloominess of fall – I am looking forward to some bright, clear days when the trees will reveal their full glory before slipping into dormancy for the winter.

When I was 19 years old, I was enrolled to attend Kemptville Agricultural College. That summer, I decided I ought to visit the campus and town.   When I found I would be stuck in a sleepy village, spending two years learning about soybeans and Holsteins, I balked at the prospect.  Instead, I moved as far east as I could, and pursued the same sort of back to the land luddite fantasies as the hippies of the 70’s  (with the same level of success).

Last week, twenty years later, as a more or less conventional farmer, and resident of a sleepy village, I found myself again on the campus of the now defunct school.   Funny how life works…

I was there participating at the International Plowing Match – North America’s largest outdoor rural expo – as an exhibitor for the company we sell maple equipment for, LS Bilodeau. Having never been to an IPM before, I was quite impressed with the affair.  The plowing competition is “International” in the same sense that Major League Baseball has a “World” Series (it’s a roving, Ontario based event) but the plowing itself generates the pretext for the important aspect of the Match: a massive seasonal gathering of the clans.

Not only a brief departure from toil, agricultural fairs, competitions and exhibitions are how farmers come together: reaffirming social bonds, developing new ones and sharing information, equipment and technologies that keep the industry competitive.  Farmers are actually more co-operative than you might imagine: the long journey from seed, to harvest to market is supported by a myriad of often multigenerational connections, and things like the IPM are where these connections are cemented and reaffirmed in a celebratory and relaxed atmosphere.

I had no idea what a huge “thing” the IPM was, though – being a first generation farmer, I am still just discovering these rituals; it holds a special place in many farmers’ hearts.  A dairy farmer visiting our booth related to me:

“I remember my first IPM, it’s just like your first girl: you never forget your first.  It was in 1974, north of Oshawa.  You came in through the gates and up over a hill, and there was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen: one hundred acres of brand new farm machinery…”

So as much as I was honoured and excited to be a part of such an exciting happening, I was disappointed to learn that the event has been shrinking over the years.  It used to be that major manufacturers set up large exhibits, with their own band stages, lounges, etc.  Today, for instance, it is only local dealers, all of whom are short enough on resources as it is, and the field of equipment was more like 5 acres than 100.

This is not all that surprising however given the general decline in the agricultural community as a whole.  A generation ago, south of us in the village of Lansdowne, there may have been 50 or so family farms active on the plain.  Today there may be ten.  So with fewer and fewer individual customers there’s less and less reason for John Deere to roll out the red carpet.  The average age at the event was also very reflective of the average age of the Canadian farmer: 56 years. 

Which points to something I find very interesting and encouraging:  there are actually massive opportunities in agriculture for those with the nerve to take them on – the brutal and expensive nature of the business being the main deterrent – but the opportunity remains: high risk, high reward.

Let’s take maple syrup production for instance: International demand outstrips supply and Quebec recently added an additional 5 million taps to their quota system.  Pipeline installation crews currently have a waiting list of almost two years.  There’s just no men to do it.  Now take Ontario – Ontario produces less than 5% of the syrup Quebec does.  It has less than 10% of the syrup makers that Quebec does.   Yet Ontario has many many more maple trees than Quebec…   There’s actually a huge swath of the province north of Highway Seven and south of Algonquin unsuitable for agriculture, but perfect for maple, that’s absolutely going to be developed in the years and decades ahead.

As the president of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers, Frank Heerkens told me: “The market is too strong – these trees are getting tapped.  The question is, who is going to do it? Is it going to be people from Ontario or Investment Firms or Quebecers???”  Just one of many examples of what sort of opportunities there are out there in Food World.  The main thing you need is an “in” and that comes from connections and social capital… maybe I’ll see you at the 2023 IPM?

What N the World?

If you have been paying attention to farm news, you may have noticed that Nitrogen has become the hot new pollutant, one that governments around the world are clamouring to regulate and restrict.   What’s going on with that?

Well, to begin with this deadly pollutant makes up 78% of our atmosphere, and is of course the most significant plant macronutrient.  If you’re a farmer or a gardener, you know it makes things grow like crazy.  An old timer I know understands it to be called “Nutrigen”, and he’s not far off: it’s got what plants crave.

Early in the 20th century, when there were less than 2 billion people on the planet, the Haber-Bosch process was developed: this allowed mankind to synthesize Ammonia (NH3) from the atmosphere.  Since then, the human population has been growing like crazy as well: today 8 billion people rely on synthetic nitrogen for their daily bread.

Unsurprisingly, something as significant as the Haber-Bosch process is energy intensive: it relies on natural gas as it’s fuel source and substrate, and its production releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide (which is the only thing plants love more than nitrogen).  So, as you see and hear politicians go on about “nitrogen” this, “fertilizer” that, please understand that they’re really just using Nitrogen as a proxy for their de-carbonification agenda.

The N that Canadian policy makers have in their targets is NO2… yes, laughing gas.  Believe it or not, all soils everywhere release NO2 all of the time, and have since time immemorial.  Unfortunately, you can’t sniff the air over the dirt and catch a buzz (don’t bother, I’ve tried!) but when farmers apply fertilizer and manure (you know, to grow food for people) the soil releases slightly more of it.  Making up a whopping 335 parts per billion of our atmosphere, NO2 is a suspected greenhouse gas.

The current federal *goal* is to reduce NO2 emissions by 30%.  Because there is no way that this can possibly be measured, the only way to achieve this arbitrary millstone -sorry- milestone, will be for Canadian farmers to reduce their N use by 30%.  And although this program is *voluntary*, it has been suggested that access to AgriStability (crop insurance) will be tied to compliance.  The only way we could make Canadian food more expensive, and Canadian farms less competitive would be if we added some sort of new, progressively increasing tax to all of the fuel that farmers use…. oh wait.

The part that should have you most worried about the war on Nitrogen though, is that it is an attack on the very essence of life.

Nitrogen is such a significant nutrient because our friend ammonia (NH3) forms the basis of all of the Amino Acids.  I apologize for repeating Grade 12 biology to you, but amino acids are what proteins are made out of.   This is, for instance, why leguminous, nitrogen fixing crops (alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, soy, etc.) tend to have such high protein contents. 

Proteins are composed of long strings of aminos, and their various charges fold them up in dizzying ways to make all of nature work.  As a familiar example, Hemoglobin: the protein in our blood that moves and exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the cells of our body to our lungs, is made up of four Polypeptide Chains totaling 574 (ammonia-based) Amino Acids. 

So how do these chains get made?  This is where is gets really amazing… The information that is translated into these proteins is our DNA.  Our genetic code is the blueprint for the length and order of all of these sequences.  What we refer to as a Gene is the instructions for linking amino acids into a specific protein.  We don’t even know how many genes we have, but it is tens of thousands, and they are all found in our DNA. 

To put it more simply, and to put it in context of fertilizer: our bodies, – not to mention bacteria, birch trees, bald eagles and belugas – we are all essentially Ammonia 3D Printers.   This is the essence and structure of all life.   Far from being a pollutant, Nitrogen is the material God has apparently chosen to express and manifest His wisdom – I would be very suspect of anyone who tries to withhold it from you.

Back to the Lamb

It’s been a bit windy hasn’t it?  The polar jet stream is particularly apparent this time of year as we shift between warm and cold air masses on our continued journey to proper winter.  In the summer, it is generally well north of us, and in the winter, generally well south.  Right now it can’t make up its mind – you can check out Environment Canada’s daily map to stay on top of it – or just stick your head out the window, it’s usually not hard to tell. In the meantime it is muddy and miserable out, so why don’t I write a bit more?  It’s been really fun engaging with you on these various topics – I always appreciate the feedback.

I don’t have much of an update on what’s going on in Holland – if anyone either speaks Dutch or has a good English voice on the ground, let me know!   It’s worth noting that the 2020-21 farmer protests in India eventually proved to be a successful response to government regulatory attempts to globalize Indian agriculture.

In the meantime though, in light of the extremely productive, but also very intensive manner in which the Dutch farm, I wanted to illustrate a more passive approach to food production that can be found right in our own backyard.  Whereas the Dutch very tightly control and even create their landscapes for the sake of high yield farming, it is also possible to produce food through more of an “ecology management” technique, that relies less on fuel, fertilizer, seeds and chemistry, and more on a careful stewardship of animals and perennial plants.

This example can be found at our friends, the Davis’ farm: Black Kreek Ranch.  This is where the lamb you purchase from us is raised.  Brad and Karen and their three children manage 400 acres of pasture on the Lansdowne Plain, a former seabed deposited 12,000 years ago when the saltwater Champlain Sea reached all the way up to Kingston.  This soil is heavy duty clay – very tricky to farm – but can grow grass forages as well as any land in the world. 

And so, while their neighbours struggle to coax corn and soybeans out of the chunky, poorly drained clay, Brad and Karen manage pastures that have not seen a plough in 30 years.  They employ about 800 ewes to harvest these grasses to generate some 1200 lambs every year.   The ewes are on pasture 24/7/365 where they are moved from paddock to paddock throughout the seasons.  In the wintertime they harness a team of draft horses to feed hay to the flocks to avoid disturbing the sward.

The operation is a sight to behold (it’s on Kidd Rd, you should drive by in!).  Not only is it an extremely beautiful, bucolic picture: the meadows dotted with newborn lambs, it is also extremely rare in this part of the world.  Nearly every other sheep farmer in Ontario utilizes a more “hot house” approach to the business of producing lamb, where the feed is grown, stored, and fed mechanically to the sheep, safely indoors.  This uses much more equipment, infrastructure, inputs and energy, but you don’t have to stare down a -20 Lansdowne wind behind a team of horses in February, and you don’t have to worry about predators.

Because as much as what Brad and Karen accomplish is wonderfully natural, it does demonstrate that Mother Nature, as generous as she is, has a dark side as well: coyotes, bobcats, ravens and internal parasites all take advantage of this pasture based system.  It’s hard to blame them, the lamb is delicious, and so the Davis’ fight back with at least a dozen Great Pyrenees guard dogs that live with the sheep, and who, if they don’t deter the coyotes, will tear them limb from limb.   The trimmings from the local butcher shop go to keep these massive pups in good condition.

Now, the Davis’ could probably sleep a bit better at night, avoid going out in a lot of rough weather, and also produce more lamb per acre if they built barns and ploughed their pastures and trucked corn to and fro to their sheep.  So why don’t they?   They market nearly all of their lamb into the wholesale trade at the Ontario Livestock Exchange, where other than for the health and quality of their lambs, they receive zero premium for the ecological aspects of their husbandry. 

Well, here’s the thing, and you can probably guess: it’s because by doing this they are able to net enough money to raise their family, instead of paying for inputs, equipment and servicing debt.  Right now, where lamb prices are down one third from last year’s all time highs, but inputs prices are doubled and even tripled, the Davis’ farm is uniquely adapted to weather these fluctuations, which like the weather, are completely beyond their control.  By adopting this passive, flexible model of stewardship versus intensive cultivation, their farm is more resilient in every respect.

So not only are they able to navigate market downturns, they can also rely on their soils to improve annually, for their genetics and management to be constantly refined, and enjoy the benefits of living in the midst of a landscape with far higher biodiversity, water quality and (this is very important to me) beauty than the sterile fields of the corn/soy cowboys.  Their farm reflects the timeless order of nature, rather than the latest in agricultural technology and marketing trends.  Their system has the potential to work indefinitely because their number one input (rather than diesel or nitrogen) is human energy and insight.

Now it may be that the reason that we don’t see more farms like the Davis’ is that human energy and insight might be becoming more scarce commodities than diesel and nitrogen.  It’s true: there is a shortage of young blood in farming, and it is only getting worse.  But there is more to it than that.  Farmers as a whole are full of insight and energy, but are also very much subject to forces and influences within their respective industries.   For instance, there is nowhere you can go to learn to operate a farm like Black Kreek Ranch.  The University of Guelph is not going to teach you how to feed hay with draft horses.  When Brad and Karen (both Guelph grads) started there they didn’t know a thing about sheep, but were instructed and guided by the farm’s previous owners, Jim and Nancy Kehoe, who had evolved the farm from a dairy, to a beef operation and eventually the extensive sheep operation that my friends now own.

The same factors that make the Davis’ farm profitable also make that style of farming repulsive to institutional, capital A Agriculture: they don’t buy enough stuff, or borrow enough cash; there’s not enough money changing hands.  Growing field crops (whether to sell as grain, or feed to livestock) involves constant, expensive inputs: seed, fertilizer, fuel, crop protection and the latest and greatest technology.  All of the educational, government and industry support goes towards this model of agriculture.  Here in Ontario, 2% of farms generate 50% of the province’s total farm revenue.  These massively scaled, resource intensive farms are what all institutional and commercial infrastructure are organized around.  If you want to grow soybeans, there are countless agronomists available to walk you through the purchases and processes step by step.

Farm media is a great example of this: Better Farming, Real Agriculture and all other such outlets produce content driven by the revenues of their advertisers: farm input and equipment companies – some of the biggest corporations in the world.  It’s like if you pick up a fitness magazine: reading the articles you would think that good health was founded on a giant stack of gimmicky supplements and special workout clothes, rather than, say, a sound diet, simple exercise and a good night’s sleep. 

The reason the Davis’ are succeeding in agriculture is because what they are doing is ostensibly simple, and very low tech.  Except that it isn’t simple at all: their day to day operations involve constant, subtle decision making based on the careful observation of their flocks, their meadows, the wildlife and the weather.  “The eye of the master fattens the cattle” and in this case it means being physically present (literally outstanding in their field) and conjuring the ability to actually see how all of these natural forces interplay, and have the energy and expertise to act.   This is the magical part of it all. 

Can we feed 8 billion people with farms like the Davis’? Well, there’s no reason we couldn’t, except for that there aren’t a whole lot of Brad and Karens around anymore, which is why I want to shine a bit of light on their farm as encouragement for themselves and others.  In lieu of this sort of human presence on the landscape, we have the impressive juggernaut of the global food/pharma system to rely on, the logical conclusions of which we hurtle towards steadily.  I guess I have all winter to write about it.  Thank you for reading!