Well, this past Saturday was certainly a big day for us – first market of the season!  We want to thank everyone for coming out.  It was great to see so many of you after a long winter.  I hope you enjoy your syrup and wild leeks.  We will be back regularly on Saturdays (10am – 3pm) until Strawberry season, when we will resume our Wednesday-Saturday routine (10am-5pm).

I also heard that there was something going on in England last Saturday as well???

It looks like it was worth watching – rare to see such civic pomp in our utilitarian world today.  I suppose I should remember that he is all of our King too, after all.  It’s easy to forget, but we remain ruled by the Crown – just have a look at your money, or run into trouble with the law and you’ll be reminded. 

Whatever you make of the British royal family: a worthy tradition, a scandalous waste, history’s greatest villains, the ultimate tabloid celebrities, or perhaps even shapeshifting reptilian space aliens, despite all of the changes in our world there remains, at least vestigially, symbolically a King.

I’m personally rather agnostic on the monarchy.  I’ve never really questioned or celebrated it, it’s something to me that has just always been – and perhaps, should be… To quote C.S. Lewis, of Narnia fame:

Where men are forbidden to honour a king, they honour millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.

Although the former Prince of Wales has largely been portrayed as a sort of doofus over the course of my lifetime, if you look past the tabloid headlines, you will find that he’s actually a rather thoughtful guy.  One of his passions has been the preservation of traditional British architectural styles: watch him here amusingly go off on the banal modernization of the London and Birmingham skylines…

So strongly does Chuck feel about this, that he put his (limitless) money where his royal mouth is and went and constructed a human scaled, traditionally built town from scratch: it’s called Poundbury, and resembles some of the finer parts of our own old King’s-town; and like Kingston to Canada, is consistently named amongst the “Best Places to Live” in the UK.

The classic, austere and practical embodiment of the stiff upper lip also comes out in His Highness’ wardrobe.  He’s become known over the decades for wearing a very limited and well cared for selection of clothing (I find this quite endearing).   A “green fashion” icon, the man’s worn the same shoes and coat for 40 years!  I wish I could be so easy on clothes…

But perhaps most relevant to our communication, I’d like to point out that the new King has been a longtime supporter of small-scale farming.  It’s not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Global Elites, but the 74 year old feels so strongly about sustainable agriculture that he even has his own model farm, Highgrove, in the Cotswolds, where they practise biodynamic farming and preserve rare genetics.  Above and beyond the LARPing, in 1990 Chas established the organic food line Duchy Originals and with the proceeds, gives out countless scholarships and bursaries to educate the next generation on the land.  All the while, he’s consistently come out swinging for the British family farm.

So why does King Charles the Third feel this way?  Ultimately his passion for these matters comes from what appears to be a genuine concern for the well being of his subjects; but it is not only because traditional building materials, wholesome food and a pleasing city and landscape are nice.  As much as I hate to agree with a reptilian shapeshifter, his thinking on the matter is more profound: that the handing over of basic matters like food and shelter to technocrats and financiers has ultimately generated an alienation from the natural order, which actually harms our dignity as human beings.

In his own words:

In this way, the loss of Tradition cuts to the very core of our being since it conditions that which we can “know” and “be”. For Modernism, by its unrelenting emphasis on the quantitative view of reality, limits and distorts the true nature of the Real and our perception of it. Whilst it has enabled us to know much that has been of material benefit, it also prevents us from knowing that which I would like to refer to as the knowledge of the Heart; that which enables us to be fully human.

Morgan suggested last week, “Hey you should write something about how Prince Charles likes farming” which sent me down this little rabbithole, and I was surprised at what I found down there. 

I think that a lot of us bristle at the notion of having a King because we experience such a distinct lack of leadership in every layer of our world today: a real dearth of vision and direction, we just keep hurtling forward… but towards what?  And so although our style of business is quite at odds with today’s institutions, it sort of tickles that the thoroughly neutered monarch of what was once the world’s greatest empire would get a kick out of what we’re doing here at Salt of the Earth – and I’m even more glad that you do too! Thank you for working with our family.

See you Saturday!

I am pleased to share that we will be starting our 2023 marketing season, and we will be back on Highway 2 East this Saturday!  We will be open from 10am to 3pm.  I hope you can come down to say hello!

It’s always exciting, and a big relief to start selling regularly again.  At this point in the season we’ve spent a small fortune and are waiting on some of that sweet sweet Return On Investment.  This aspect of business is, of course, analogous to what we do in the garden: we plant seeds with confidence, then invest a ton of time and energy on them, and then the real challenge… waiting for the harvest.

At this time of year, we’re watching a lot of plants growing as fast as they can to get their blooms open for the birds and the bees. Daffodils, Hyacinth, Tulips  – even the Dandelions – are all putting on a show for us.  How are they able to grow so fast, when everything else seems to be growing so slow?  The answer is underground.

Those bulbs and tap roots are banks of energy, which was photosynthesized and stored as starch and sugar the season before (this is why the squirrels won’t have mercy on your tulips).  These batteries of calories are what allows those spring beauties to so rapidly do their thing: when otherwise there is not the ambient temperatures for such rapid growth.

We’re fortunate that we don’t really have to start each spring as wee baby seeds.  Our customers are our bulbs and taproots.  A surprising amount of you have already purchased CSA Boxes and invested in our Farmstand Cards.  This out of season cashflow is a boon to our business and makes a great deal of what we do possible.  So thank you very much for your confidence and patience!  Now that we’re set up to sell, it’s your chance to get a harvest.

Every year, as we gradually grow our little farm, we end up handling larger and larger amounts of money (your money), and although I can’t say we really make a whole lot more (starting a farm from scratch is shockingly expensive) it does take a bit of nerve to look at some of those numbers. Inflation and commodity prices haven’t helped, and I have had to learn to passively accept whatever outrageous bill I am presented with, and trust that God is in control of all things.  It certainly gets me out of bed in the morning!

It’s very tempting for me to not grow our business.  To shrink it, even.  If I sold everything I have payments on, and scaled back every aspect of our farm, I could probably make enough for our family to scrape by on with a team of horses and a few acres of high value produce.  The problem with that notion is that although this would be extremely low stress, it would be a squandering of potential.

Salt of the Earth Farm is to a large extent a personal reaction to the low quality, homogenized and seemingly meaningless materialist culture in which we are saturated.  Maybe I’m just overly sensitive, but it angers and disorients me that we live in world where it’s hard to find a good loaf of bread, many people derive no pleasure or purpose from their work, and the commercial monoculture makes it impossible to tell where you are even geographically located…

This is obviously England:

And although the climate and building materials are extremely similar, this is clearly Japan:

And this is… ambiguously *somewhere* on the continent of North America between Alaska and Florida:

One of the most perplexing things about the past 200 years is that as beautiful and soothing as those traditional landscapes are, 9/10 people jumped at the chance to leave them to participate in industrial consumer culture.  Several generations into that transition, we’re now reaping First World Problems: existential malaise, plummeting fertility and a plethora of new and bizarre physical and mental health problems like obesity and autism.  But I’m going off on a tangent here… Focus Charles…

Agriculture is, for me, the means by which I can offer something that is tangibly good with my life. I want to generate substance, and share it with others.  Naturally, I want to do this as much as possible.  So that means growth.  Some of my fellow small is beautiful contingent repeat the hilarious and insightful author Edward Abbey‘s axiom that “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell”.   For better or worse, it’s true of all nature.  Just ask a tree.  Big is winning, and if we want an alternative, we can’t just hide out like a crocus.

To carry the tree analogy further: the longer a tree lives, and the larger and more established it becomes, the greater it’s capacity to provide habitat for other organisms.  The mushrooms on it’s roots, the moss on it’s bark, the birds in it’s branches, the badger in it’s trunk, the caterpillars on it’s leaves, and the bees in it’s flowers.  The tree creates opportunities.

This is what I want to see from our farm.  First of all, as a home for my family, and secondly as way for myself and my children to earn a living.  But it becomes very interesting when I look beyond my immediate clan. 

We’ve been quite a few young peoples’ “first real job” over the years, and I’ve watched them develop physical strength, mental fortitude, and a bit of perspective on how the world works. Two of our former employees have gone on to start their own commercial farming ventures – not that I am responsible for that, but I am very proud to be a part of their journey.  And who can forget Suzanne…. where would I be without Suzanne?  She moved here from the GTA not too long ago, but she probably knows more people in the East End of Kingston than anyone!

For Morgan and I, the relationships we have made over the past decade nearly all come back to Salt of the Earth. Our friends and social network are largely the customers and working relationships that the farm relies on.  When I see these connections transfer and grow and multiply I get quite excited, because out of these, who knows what might happen next?  I’ve written this before, but I feel the greatest success in our mission when down at the farmstand, I’ll witness people who have lived down the street from each other for years finally introduce themselves and start a conversation. 

For whatever reason, that just does not happen in the self-checkout at Walmart.  Why exactly that is, is hard to put your finger on, but it can somehow be somewhat summed up by those pictures of England, Japan, and what looks like Division Street at the 401 (actually Breezewood, Pennsylvania).   The immense momentum of the The Strip is seemingly irresistible, but it’s really just big and loud and in our face.  The small and quiet alternative, however, is something that we need to go out of our way to cultivate and I appreciate you making that investment in our farm.  See you at the stand on Saturday!

Away we Grow

As a mammal I often forget how lucky I am to generate my own body heat, and to not be dependent on ambient temperatures to animate my life.  I’m reminded not to take that for granted, as I watch nature jerkily attempt to wake up from winter: making short leaps of progress with the little bouts of warmth and sunshine, and grinding to a halt in the cool grey spells.

Things are growing here, though.  The greenhouse is filling up quickly…

Radishes are up in the field…

And the strawberries look better than any we’ve ever grown.

This most surprising crop I’ve been taking care of, however, grows inside, and has been nurtured and fertilized largely by your encouragement: the written word.  I’ve gotten a gig as a columnist at the Farmer’s Forum and this month they’re publishing something I actually wrote for you at this time last year.

So, I went back to visit Neil Banks to get a photograph of him for the article, and had the pleasure of an hour and a half of conversation with the most high energy 81 year old I know.  Neil covered a wide range of agricultural topics, personal philosophy, several genealogies, as well as a complete history of the Briar Hill (the area between Sweet’s Corners, Lyndhurst and Morton).

What struck me most about Neil’s recollections was the drastic amount of change he’s witnessed in his lifetime.  And I don’t mean social trends like women wearing pants, but downright basic stuff like seeing the power lines go in for the first time.

Generally speaking, since the modern great leaps forward of central heating, indoor plumbing, automobiles, electrification, and mass media, our lives haven’t really materially changed a whole lot from someone alive in say, 1980.  We drive to work, put our food in the fridge, listen to the radio and watch TV.  The only real difference is that today we have a bit more stuff, and carry a distracting little computer with us at all times.

Because we take them for granted, I think it’s hard for us to imagine how transformative the introduction of all those technologies actually was.  I can only assume it had a profound effect on the collective psyche and generated a great deal of culture shock.  The hilarious television series The Beverly Hillbillies ultimately uses this as its fundamental gag: the sudden transformation from backwards rural life to the world of modern affluence.  (I especially enjoy this episode: Jed Buys Stock)

The Beverly Hillbillies effect is still happening worldwide, as the global standard of living continues to steadily rise, and modern conveniences manifest themselves in formerly remote corners of the planet.  I suppose because we’ve grown so accustomed to our amenities and comfort, we rarely think about how we’ve reached this point, or where the materials and energy we rely on even come from. 

The reality is that although our household level of technology isn’t a whole lot different than it was 50 years ago – now the vacuum cleaner just pushes itself (and spies on us) – behind the scenes, the systems that support our historically unprecedented lifestyle have continued to grow and evolve so quickly and drastically that they hardly resemble what they were a generation ago.

A great example of this transformation can be witnessed in this little video about a Domino’s Pizza facility in Indiana.  The 50 million dollar depot produces dough, and supplies ingredients to over 300 franchises in five different states, with a fleet of 28 tractor trailers.  It’s largely automated. I’ll be the first to give credit where credit is due – modernity is indeed technically and logistically impressive –  but this does not impress me; because what are all those robots and computers and lasers actually replacing? This:

A 60 quart Hobart mixer that you can buy used for a few thousand dollars: it will knead your dough and with that “pelican” on top, slice your vegetables and shred your mozzarella cheese – everything that fancy 50 million dollar factory can do – in the corner of a small kitchen.  So accessible and reliable is this machine, that generations of immigrants to North America, (largely) first from Italy, and then Greece, and later, Lebanon, took one of these tools, parked it in a hole in the wall, low rent commercial space, and built a legacy for their family from nothing.

For better or worse, their children are now doctors and lawyers and landlords, and apparently we now have to outsource the simple making of dough to high tech and high finance.  This tale is repeated with many different cultural groups in many different industries (my own family’s story included).  The problem of course, is that as much as we want “a better life for our children”, there is only so much room at the top, and someone still has to be at the bottom.   And we all have to have a purpose: as a matter of simple dignity.

Agriculture is no different than any other industry: where technology, financing, and ample, cheap energy have displaced traditional modes of production, family structures and so on.  Thanks to your support, Salt of the Earth is an example of the 60 quart mixer in farming today: it is simple and it works.  And after all, is there anything better than a fresh slice from that little hole in the wall? Dominoes can’t touch it!

As far as the “dignity” aspect goes, I hope that it cuts both ways…  As much as agriculture provides us with a home and a purpose, I hope that working with our little business is a reprieve and respite from the world at large: where you’re greeted with a smile and earnest salutation, and that you receive something of quality and health.  If you’ve made it this far into this email, it’s quite likely you care that everything in our lives comes from somewhere, and that even the little things matter.  Thank you for reading, and thank you for working with our farm!

Jeepers Peepers!

Hello Farm Friends!

Did that just really happen?  Was that weather real?  Whatever was going on there, we made hay while the sun shines and snuck in a whole bunch of early crops: potatoes, peas, carrots, beets, spinach and herbs.  We’ll see how they take to the reality check.

The cows liked the sunshine… initially… and sprawled out on the warm, dry ground in a state of extreme relaxation.  So extreme, and so relaxed: with their heads knocked back and legs splayed out, that they almost look like they could be dead!  Given our cow’s prominent position at roadside, we have already had a few people politely knock on our door and insist we’ve got an animal in critical condition that needs attention.  Although we always go and check, they’re actually just vibing that hard.

But by the time Friday and Saturday rolled around they (just like me) were looking for shade – we had temperatures of 31c here both days.  It wasn’t just that we were soft and unacclimated to it; it was actually hot-hot!   So life goes in Ontario. 

It’s amazing how quickly the environment can transform with just a few days of sunshine and warmth, isn’t it?  The world turned greener by the hour here over the weekend and all sorts of perennials poked out of the flower gardens.  Our garlic is growing well, and the strawberries look lovely and eager to please.  The bush has a nice palette of pastels from the tree buds and flowers, and the freshly turned earth looks black and rich. 

As pretty as it is, you can also just close your eyes, and still hear that the world is suddenly wide awake.  Heck, it doesn’t even have to be daylight – and perhaps that’s when it’s loudest – as our small amphibious friends crowd recently thawed pools and waterways, noisily clamouring for romantic encounters. 

The sound of the spring peepers signals the end of maple season, and they are roaring now.  But have you ever seen one? They’re very very hard to spot!  Despite the racket they make, they’re the tiniest little guys: only an inch or so long, and weighing just a few grams.  Although you can hear them from kilometres away, and their roar can be deafening when nearby, they will all suddenly come to an immediate, still silence when they detect your presence (as though we might not have noticed they were there).  I imagine most of us will never see one.

Such is life when you’re a tender, tasty snack for birds, racoons, snakes and countless other creatures: life as a frog is about camouflage and stealth.  You want to be heard and not seen.  And so, I was quite startled by what I witnessed on Sunday evening…

The day ended with a nice warm rain shower.  We were treated to a double rainbow and I noticed that the fragrance coming off of the land was not the normal smell of spring.  After preparing supper and helping put the nuggies down for the night, I went out to the porch for my evening cigarillo.   I was not alone for very long.  The biggest Bullfrog I have seen in a while hopped out of the darkness and joined me on the porch.

Not being able to help myself, I picked him up and put him in a pail with some wet grass so that I could show the kids in the morning.  “Wow, that’s pretty funny…” I thought.  Then a Leopard Frog hopped up onto the porch with me.  “What the heck…”  Into the bucket he goes.  Then a Green Frog, then another, and another, then an American Toad, then another Leopard Frog and so on, until in all, after about fifteen minutes – astoundingly, bizarrely – 14 little green guys were piled in my bucket.  Did that just really happen?

(Following AM: some of them either escaped or wound up in the Bullfrog!)

Now, I have spent enough time smoking on the porch to know that stuff like that doesn’t just happen, and so naturally, being a superstitious and fatalistic person, I have to ask: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Surely this is some sort of sign and omen.

The frog is universally regarded as a symbolically significant animal and is featured in many mythologies.  Although often associated with fertility (a little spring peeper will lay one thousand eggs, after all) it is the amphibian’s unique life cycle: the visible and dramatic metamorphosis (which normally occurs within the womb or an eggshell) that makes it such a poignant symbol.  A perfect representation of transformation, growth and change.

We had celebrated my 40th birthday the evening before my frog friends showed up (no doubt they were watching from the bushes) and between the birth of the twins, and Hiram’s rapid development, I’ve been dwelling a lot on transformation, growth, and change.  I suppose, personally, I am finally at Adult frog.

I’ve been thinking about the farm this same way as well: it’s matured a lot.  As a business we’re still really only at Tadpole (early stages), but we’ve gone from a bootstrap, seat-of-the-pants effort, to assuming our own landbase, to developing into a full fledged part of the community.   Salt of the Earth is a long way from its mature form, but all of the growth and change we’ve accomplished has been a direct result of your ongoing support and investment in the farm. 

To look at a tadpole for the first time, you’d never guess what it was going to turn into. 


Time marches on, and so does maple season.  This week will definitely be the last of sugaring – we’ll see what the weather gives us to work with. I am hoping for a few more runs. We’re onto making Dark syrup now, which may or may not be up your alley. Hiram is still drinking it out of a coffee mug and Virgil stands there all day with a spoon, so it can’t be too strong yet!  Then it’s pulling taps, cleaning everything up and then onto gardening…

The seeds that just germinated a couple of weeks ago are now starting to resemble genuine plants, and today being April 5th (my Mother’s birthday – Happy 77th!), we are about to get into the real seeding of our field crops and Hiram and I will be fiddling with tiny seeds all day.  This will go on all season from here until July, so that we always have the freshest and most diverse selection of produce for you.

I don’t mean this as a humble-brag (on the contrary, it’s foolish) but I don’t have any of the increasingly elaborate horticultural stuff we do around here written down on anything.  It all just rattle around my head, tethered to things like my Mom’s birthday and other weird anniversaries.  At this point, I’ve been at it long enough that I don’t really have to think much about gardening, and I suppose my mind is instead preoccupied with the matters of money, machines and manpower that make up the actual challenge of farming (the plants do want to grow after all).

However, because my family’s livelihood is so dependent on my orchestrating this symphony of vegetables, I do sort of have to stay in the groove.  And so, more often than not I send myself off the sleep with Peter Henderson’s 1867 Gardening for Profit, for as much as I enjoy Mr. Henderson’s frank and friendly instruction, there is nothing that will put me to sleep like reading a 150 year old horticulture manual for the twentieth time.

Despite the book’s narcoleptic quality, every time I pick it up I gain some new nuance or appreciate some aspect of Mr. Henderson’s perspective and one stuck in my mind last night.  Did you ever wonder why New Jersey is called “The Garden State”?  It was first called that in 1876 and at that time, Peter Henderson was growing vegetables in a place called Jersey City.  This is what the view from his fields looks like today:

Yes, that is lower Manhattan and also within sight of Mr. Henderson’s gardens was Ellis Island, where he himself, and millions from the Old World, made their first landing in the youthful United States of America.  A melting pot of new foods, techniques, seeds and appetites, opposite the biggest market on the continent, quickly made the “Jersey Market Gardeners” the most competitive, advanced, and productive horticulturalists in history.

In Mr. Henderson’s time, Manhattan was a gritty economic giant thanks to manufacturing and shipping – today it is a refined global hub for fashion, art and finance and produces countless entertainers.  In a similar way,  it was Peter Henderson – a humble gardener – who became that era’s rags to riches celebrity success story: a superstar farmer whose hard work, expertise and ambition became a physical embodiment of the American Dream.

Only in New York! There are cities with better soils and better climates that could have been the horticultural capital of the world, but there’s just something about the energy at the mouth of the Hudson River that launches those who follow their dreams there.

You probably remember the series of Pace Picante commercials from the 90’s: It’s chow time and the grizzled cowboys have run out of salsa.  Cookie callously hands them a generic jar of “Mexican Sauce” instead of Pace Picante (made in San Antonio with fresh vegetables and spices by people who know what Picante Sauce is supposed to taste like).  All hell breaks loose when the cowboys discover that the substitute is in fact made in NEW YORK CITY?!?!?! and go on to threaten to lynch the cook

At the time I guess all I associated with the Big Apple was Wall Street, Jerry Seinfeld and the Yankees, so I was naturally very sympathetic to the cowboys’ plight.  Historically however, in the real days of the Wild West, NEW YORK CITY actually was a centre of vegetable growing, food processing, and industry and probably made a decent salsa!  To make this all the more contentious, Pace’s corporate parent is the Campbell Soup Company, based and founded in… you guessed it: New Jersey.  (This is all really making me reconsider my salsa brand loyalties!)

It is highly unlikely New York will elevate another vegetable grower to the heights it did Mr. Henderson.  In the days when Mr. Henderson struck it rich, advanced horticulture was new and sexy and lucrative.  People were eating vegetables their parents had never heard of, and for a suddenly urbanized population, fresh produce had become a luxury and status symbol. 

Refrigeration and the unstoppable growth of America’s First City put an end to the Jersey Market Gardeners.  In Henderson’s day, “Local Food” wasn’t a movement – it was the de facto reality, replaced by the technological efficiencies and the sometimes not-so-invisible hand of the market.  That being said, I can’t thank you enough for going out of your way to invest in local agriculture.

The Recipe

Maple season continues to chug along.  It’s been nice to have a few visitors.  You’re all welcome – bring your boots!

It’s also been really swell to have so many orders coming in for maple.  We’re actually in the middle of setting up a fairly fancy bottling system here, so we don’t have any of our current crop packaged for sale at this time.  So please bear with us – the electrician is coming Friday!  We’ve been very happy with the product this season and look forward to sharing it with you.

I’m really encouraged that people notice and appreciate the difference that buying maple direct from producers makes to their cuisine.  The generic maple syrup you find in grocery stores is certainly better than the corn syrup stuff, but because it’s coming out of storage and blended from many lots, it tends to lack the character that you get by going direct to the source.

This is one of those examples where I’m reminded that so many of you are low key gourmands and have a rather sophisticated appreciation for the ingredients that you cook with.   “Oh yeah, I forgot our customers are downright epicureans….”  Forgive me, I largely cook for the 5 and under crowd: who consume maple syrup like a fiends – not a refined culinary delicacy!

So, as much as I find maple fascinating in terms of ecology, farming, history, commerce and culture – it’s important to keep in mind the reason the largest robbery in Canadian history was of maple syrup of all things, is ultimately because it is just so damn special and delicious.  There are very few foods it doesn’t go well with, and it finds its way into much of my cooking in both large and small amounts.

Now, there is one, and only one, thing that I feel maple does not contribute to: mainly fruit dishes/desserts where the maple-y-ness of the syrup takes away from flavours of the ripe fruits, and refined white sugar is the appropriate strategy if additional sweetness is required.

Otherwise, yeah, coffee, ice cream, oatmeal, stir frys, barbeque sauces, maple is pretty much at home anywhere, don’t be shy!   My favourite way to use maple though, is in ways that seem entirely counterintuitive and just plain weird.  I have a great example:

When I wimped out on Ag college, and attempted to go to university (made it one semester), I found myself holding a prestigious position in the dish pit at Brewbakers restaurant in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  As is customary, you got a meal with your shift, and while it did not include the lobster or prime rib, you could get any pasta you wanted.  They had this dish called Maple Curry Chicken and I ate it almost every day – it was really really good, and I’d never had anything like it.  It was a very maple-y, rich, flavourful penne dish and I even learned to make it when I graduated from Hobart duty.  Then I moved away and I never thought about it again.

Fast forward twenty years and I got a hankering for that Maple Chicken Curry.  I’d forgotten how it was made so I searched it online thinking it might be a “thing”.  Well, it turns out the only place it is a “thing” was in Fredericton, where not only is Brewbakers still open, but they are still serving this dish.   Some local blogger had recently fallen in love with it, and somehow successfully managed to perfectly reverse engineer it in her kitchen at home. 

And I mean perfect because she absolutely nailed it – it was like a time machine (except I didn’t lose fifty pounds, have a fuzzy moustache or grow my hair back).  It’s a really great recipe, and when I went back for a refresher the other night, I saw that the recipe has gained some company online, with larger cooking sites like AllRecipes having versions of it (all posted since Lauren published her version).

Prior to this winter of domesticity, I have always been a “no recipes” cook: just using what was on hand, and with whatever techniques I’d picked up over the years from friends and acquaintances.  My mother-in-law thinks I’m an amazing cook (I’m not), but when she asks me in awe where I learned to do that, invariably it is something some hippie showed me while cooking over a Coleman or a woodstove in some sort of yurt or cabin.  And so, in my ongoing efforts to Not Be A Weirdo, I finally submitted myself to the discipline of recipes.

It had always perplexed me why, after having the printing press around for almost 600 years, why did anyone still need to write more cookbooks?  Why does anyone continue to “develop recipes”?  Is this not terribly redundant?  Have we not figured this stuff out?  How much more of this could we possibly need???

Well, I’m a big fan of The Recipe now, and this young lady’s perfect interpretation of the curry dish is a great example of why we need to keep writing this stuff down.

Other than putting tasty food in my mouth, what I really like about recipes is how they’re a perfect encapsulation of the true purpose, value and power of the written word:

1) To define and give instruction
2) To transmit information across time and space
3) To ultimately spur human activity and understanding.  

Although most writing contains at least one of these elements, recipes are one of the few forms that nail all three.

So when you go out of your way to follow a recipe, you’re actually saying “I want to understand better how to interact with physical reality”.  Now maybe you’re just hungry, but whether you realize it or not, you are demonstrating an infinitely greater curiosity and engagement with creation than the easy choice to grab a frozen pizza.

Speaking of frozen pizza, a brief aside: I have been stalking grocery stores this winter, and I’m sorry but I had heretofore never noticed what a juggernaut item these things are.   There’s like 50 feet of freezers for them in some of the bigger stores!!!  Cheap too!  A great example of industrialization and economies of scale – most of them are imported.  How many people live off of them?  What percentage of calories in our society are consumed in the form of frozen pizza? It’s probably obvious to you, but I honestly had no idea that frozen pizza had become the staff of life for postmodern civilization.

All that being said, if you’re reading recipes and seeking out good ingredients I have to assume you’re doing so because it’s gratifying and it makes sense.  Cooking from scratch, which of course has been the norm for all of human history, is now an affront to the efficiencies of a globalized world and something we need to deliberately do, and compared to picking up a frozen pizza it’s often not even cheaper – but it’s worth it.  Where so much is beyond our control, we can at least reign over our counter and stove and make something beautiful for the ones we love. 

So why don’t you make that Maple Curry Chicken?  It’s a real crowd pleaser – of course it is, it’s got a cup of heavy cream and half a cup of syrup!  Good cooking isn’t all that complicated.

Beets me!

Winter officially came to an end this week, I suppose that wind on Sunday was the Old Man slamming the door on his way out – brrr!  Maple season is now in full swing, and with the world slowly waking up, we also got into the greenhouse last week to start our first seeds of the season (primarily onions, but in the case below, lettuce).

The other new development was that Hiram learned how to make maple sugar.  It’s not as complicated as you might imagine, but through the right combination of heat and agitation, the thickened syrup suddenly transforms into granulated sugar right before your eyes.  It’s quite magical (which I suppose is the norm with all things maple).  Once it’s been sifted through a fine mesh screen, it is a nice, soft, powdery sugar, with nice tones of maple, about as “strong”, compared to white sugar, as brown sugar would be.   (We will have it for sale soon enough!)

Historically, maple syrup was a treat reserved for farmers, and maple sugar was the actual article of trade.  In a world without mass produced vessels or plastics, you can imagine that blocks of sugar would be much easier to transport and store than a liquid.  Likewise, in an era before international trade was fast, cheap or reliable, during the early years of settlement in North America, maple sugar was actually *the* primary sweetener in the localities it was produced.

Although eventually superseded in the consumer market by refined cane sugar from the West Indies (the old maple sugar boiled in giant cauldrons over open fires probably had quite the strong taste to it) maple sugar functioned as political statements in early American history.  First, leading up to the American Revolution, it became a symbol of Yankee sovereignty and a rejection of British taxation on imported Caribbean sugar.  A few generations later, the Abolitionist Movement rallied to maple sugar again, which this time came to symbolize protest against the slave trade.

Sugar is one of those things that we take for granted in the modern world: it’s so cheap and abundant we don’t even think about it.  We no doubt have too much of it.  Pure sugar, in the pre-industrial era was quite the rarity though, especially here in the the northern latitudes.  Isn’t it funny how the other traditional local source of sugar – honey – is as equally strange and magical as maple production?

In a way that is very typical of modern man, we found a way to drain all of the mystique out of sugar, and so instead of tiny insects carrying flower nectar, and ancient forest landmarks shedding their lifeblood, by the 19th century farmers and scientists developed a way to mechanize the production of sugar in the field outside of the tropics.

How did they do it?  Beets of course.  Oh you didn’t know that we get sugar from beets of all things?  Actually, almost two thirds of the sugar produced in the USA comes from beets, which have been bred to have upwards of 18% sugar content.  Lacking the romance of bees and trees, the industry doesn’t really bother advertising how the sausage gets made, as it’s all very typical of modern agriculture.

If you are curious, I highly recommend this video called The Sugar Beet Mafia, about a large concern producing beets in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota (some of the best land in the world).  Nowadays, everyone calls themselves a “mafia”, but it is interesting to get some insight into how the industry functions.  When you see the amount of money flying around in this video you know that something is up….

The way it works is as such: there is a large sugar factory in Fargo that buys all of the beets.  But you have to have ownership stakes in the factory to sell to it.  This is reasonable enough, but limits opportunity to enter or compete within industry.  As I watched this, the first thing that came to mind was “Where does the government fit into all of this?”. 

Well, the US Department of Agriculture is very vocal that they in NO WAY subsidize the American sugar industry.  It’s true: rather than giving the growers tax money, they instead get the American consumer to subsidize it directly.  The USDA first of all limits imports of sugar: only 15% of the sugar consumed in the US can come from overseas.  Even more impressive, the USDA guarantees the price of sugar (at 2-3x the global commodity price) and furthermore, allocates production to specific refiners.  It turns out it is a cartel after all…

This is actually much more typical in agriculture than most of us realize; but these are huge industries, relying on multi-generational networks of patronage (sure would be nice to be a part of one of those!).  It’s certainly quite far from pure laissez faire capitalism, and because time is a flat circle, sugar will remain a political hot button in matters of labour, taxes, markets, and these days now, as a major health concern. 

In the meantime, we will scurry about the woods, get the fire a-blazing and make sugar the old fashioned way for our friends, as we wait on the the growing season to come.

Into the Void

Maple season proper is underway!  We’ve got some syrup under our belt now, and everything appears to be working as it should.  There’s still quite a bit of snow in the woods and the forecast looks reasonable.  We look forward to sharing this year’s crop with you: as we’ve mentioned, if you’d like to come up to Lyndhurst, you’re most welcome.  We might be a bit preoccupied, but the process is quite interesting if you’ve never seen it before.  Call ahead and wear rubber boots!

As I mentioned last week, the flow of sap is extremely weather dependent and often finicky: a few degrees or a north wind often spoiling conditions.  Being an important economic activity, sugarmakers have learned over the years to push things in their favour, the most significant factor being the adoption of vacuum technology to increase yields of sap.  In nearly all commercial operations today there’s at least one large vacuum pump at the heart of the system, steadily pulling every drop it can.

The Latin word vacuum means “empty, unoccupied, devoid of” and it is a bit of a trick to wrap our minds around.  It is counter intuitive because we don’t really witness a vacuum in nature, anywhere.  Anytime space is created, something fills it up.  Your diaphragm is trying to create a vacuum in your lungs right now, and they just end up filled with fresh air.  Even in outer space, the closest thing we have to a “perfect vacuum”, there are still a few Hydrogen molecules in every yard of the void.  The concept has been debated philosophically for thousands of years: can “nothing” truly exist?

Your household Hoover is the first thing that comes to mind when we think “vacuum”, but vacuum pumps are actually used in a myriad of applications.  Maple producers didn’t have to reinvent the wheel when it came to applying negative pressure.  Dairy farmers utilize it for milking of course.  Good old incandescent and fluorescent lights relied on vacuum (thus the interesting “pop” when they break). It’s also utilized in countless industrial applications: for example CNC machines often use vacuum as the “clamp” to hold the material they’re working on in place, and vacuum is employed in petroleum and chemical refining in ways that I will never grasp.  A great deal of vacuum tech maple producers use has been appropriated from the healthcare sector: hospitals have giant centralized systems plumbed throughout the building, and while you might not have thought about it while you were having your teeth poked and prodded with, that little tube in your mouth sucking up your saliva is hooked to a vacuum pump too.  You really can do just about anything with vacuum!

The measurement of negative pressure is one of those areas where the Metric rationalists haven’t fully sunk their boring claws, and here in North America for most practical applications we still measure vacuum in the magical unit of “Negative Inches of Mercury” which uses the nice round number of -29 Hg as its lowest point.  For every inch of mercury you put on a taphole, you will be rewarded with 5-8% more sap.  So, if you can put -20 Hg on your trees, you will easily produce over twice the syrup you would without it.   Of course, nature abhors a vacuum, so practically maintaining such a system is a logistical feat in itself, as various forms of entropy quickly undo the best laid plans of mice and men. 

And so, sugarmakers must patrol their bushes all season, making sure their tubing systems are taut and not leaking.  Trees and branches regularly fall on lines, fittings fail, and mischievous critters big and small like to gnaw on the plumbing.  Producers are now able to run incredibly strong vacuums upward (downward?) of -27 Hg, and not only apply manual labour to maintain this consistently, but will employ remote sensors in the bush to constantly monitor vacuum throughout the system.  How strong is -27 Hg?  Strong enough that researchers can measure the loss of moisture in the soil around a maple tree under high vacuum.

Should this be concerning for the health of the tree?  Canadians have been vacuuming trees for over thirty years at this point, and everything seems just fine.  First off, most of the harm that comes to a maple tree is actually done though the tapping wound itself.  High vacuum means that producers can use narrower taps, and get more sap from a single hole in a large tree, as one would hanging buckets all around it.  Consider also that it’s very normal for trees to lose sap: go for a stroll in the bush on this nice sunny afternoon and if you look closely, you’ll see sap leaking out of snapped limbs and splits in the maples: broken branches are a part of life for trees.  Not only are maples adapted to lose sap through their wounds, we’re learning that they actually strategically release it back into the soil through their roots: the sugary lifeblood stimulates soil biology, generating more soluble nutrients for the tree to feed on.

This symbiotic relationship also characterizes how humans and maples interact.  By rewarding us with sweet sweet syrup, we reciprocate the favour: selectively thinning the forest of the maples’ competitors, opening up more space for the crowns of the individual trees to grow.   After all, it’s the photosynthesis in the leaves that makes the sugar we harvest: bigger, healthier maples mean more syrup.  It’s win win.  There are so many relationships in nature like this: where it’s really hard to see who’s benefiting more.  I would also like to hope that this sort of co-operation characterizes how we work together with you too.  A back and forth that gets bigger, healthier – and sweeter – every year. 

Where it all meets

A winter wonderland outside our windows yet again!  Let’s hope that this pack of snow helps the maple trees stay dormant and prolongs the upcoming season… This is at least what I will tell myself – I’m getting a bit tired of winter, I don’t know about you.

I think I’ve mentioned it’s been a rather quiet winter for me.  Between the birth of our twins, an unfortunate automobile accident (everyone’s fine!), our logging tractor being in the shop, and seemingly being sick almost constantly (is this… aging?), I have had a plenty of time to stew in my juices, and to think about food and farming and commerce.

In the first few years of the farm, before it was a viable business, I often joked that the whole affair was an elaborate make-work project to keep me out of trouble.   There remains some truth to that, and while I haven’t gotten into too much mischief, I have found myself spending an inordinate amount of time lingering around grocers, bakeries and butcher shops chit chatting, people watching and treating my family to little delicacies I normally wouldn’t fuss with.

Selling food is really half of my job, and it could be argued that it is even more important than the farming itself; because even if we do everything right, from seed to harvest, if the crop has no market, it has been all for nought.  Studying what and how people purchase food is important not only to the success of our family business, but I also find it endlessly fascinating.  Whether we want to dwell on it or not, the grocery store checkout is where the rubber hits the road: it’s where farming, economics and people all meet.   It’s where we trade our value, for pieces of food, which have travelled many miles, and passed through many hands, to be brought home, shared with loved ones, and incorporated into our bodies.

Not only is the checkout great food for thought for big picture meditation on how the world works, it can also be a deep insight into the individual human condition.  I suppose it really isn’t any of my business (I’m doing research, I swear!) but you can tell a lot from a person’s grocery cart.  I look on some belts full of food with admiration, and I will admit, at times scorn.  Occasionally, they are a source of great pathos: few things are more sad than the lone elderly person with a stack of frozen single serve tv dinners.  I recall noting a cart full of Ensure meal replacement behind me in line one day, and I wondered what was going on there, until I looked up to notice this man clearly didn’t have a tooth in his head.  I try to keep him in mind when I enjoy an apple or steak.
Not only is the checkout great food for thought for big picture meditation on how the world works, it can also be a deep insight into the individual human condition.  I suppose it really isn’t any of my business (I’m doing research, I swear!) but you can tell a lot from a person’s grocery cart.  I look on some belts full of food with admiration, and I will admit, at times scorn.  Occasionally, they are a source of great pathos: few things are more sad than the lone elderly person with a stack of frozen single serve tv dinners.  I recall noting a cart full of Ensure meal replacement behind me in line one day, and I wondered what was going on there, until I looked up to notice this man clearly didn’t have a tooth in his head.  I try to keep him in mind when I enjoy an apple or steak.

One of my bigger regrets at the checkout came this past summer, when I saw a young man buying what I can only call rations… seven identical portions of four separate items of highly processed food: obviously his week’s victuals.  He clearly did not get outside much, and appeared very “out of his body” – I assume he spent a lot of time in front of the computer.   This was at the peak of the season, when we have just mountains of the widest variety of the nicest produce, and I felt like Bill Gates walking by a beggar.  I wanted to chase him down and give him a gift certificate and a kitchen knife and challenge him to play around with cooking and just see what happened.  Propriety got the better of me and I let him go on his way.  Perhaps this fellow was actually onto something: a sort of “optimizing” the demands of meatspace to pursue exciting ventures in the virtual realm that I can only dream of – maybe, but this sort of efficiency appears bleak to me. 

The very nature of the grocery till, towards the “self-serve checkout”, has become grim in and of itself: where a computer prompt greets you, and somehow the rampant theft that undoubtedly goes on there is bizarrely worth replacing the hassle and expense of generating a minimum wage job.  That all of the major retailers – even Costco – are herding their customers into this model points to an increasingly impersonal and alienated future for us all.  The idea, long term of course, is that you don’t check out your groceries at all – you gain entry to that store via your phone, and as you leave, the items you carry are digitally registered through the ether somehow, and charged from your account.  I guess that solves this stealing problem! If you think this sounds like a dystopian fantasy, I regret to inform you that it’s called Amazon Go, and there are 44 locations open in America and the UK.

In the face of a digital paradigm, “shopping local” probably has more to do with preserving human dignity than “food security”.  That horse left the barn thirty years ago: as it stands now, Canada imports over 30% of its food, the average meal has over 3,000 kilometres into it and you can’t legally kill a chicken for human consumption within an hour of the city of Kingston – but it would be nice to at least have someone smile at you while you paid for your daily bread.

To be perfectly honest, I’m currently spellbound by the idea of opening a bricks and mortar, year round store: a greengrocer/kitchen/bakery.  It’s David vs. Goliath stuff when I get into the weeds of doing the legwork for it, but it also seems like it could be feasible if people would actually show up…  Loblaws made $529 million in profit last quarter, I think people want an alternative…. *Deep breath*

Apparently I am getting into some mischief: for some reason I made a really weird chart for an email, and I am even doing actual Business Plans.  God help us, Spring comes soon to keep my hands busy and away from such concerns.  Any departure from where we’re heading is largely going to come down to plodding, simple work – and a bit of cooperation: thank you for working with our little farm!!!

False Start

Thanks to everyone who entered our draw for tickets to THE FAMILY OF THE FOREST, screening March 3 and 4th as part of this year’s Kingston Canadian Film Fest, and congratulations to Sandra R for being the lucky winner.  Remember, we’ve also got a $100 gift card for the farm up for grabs to attendees at the screenings!

Well, we were all very hot to trot but maple season is decidedly *not* in full swing in this part of the world yet.  Looks like it may be a couple of weeks even.  It’s not something you can really push, and those without frost proof sugar houses and sap storage will now have big blocks of ice to deal with when the season resumes. 

Early runs of maple produce some of the lightest coloured syrup of the season and its relative rarity and delicate taste makes it sought after, and of the highest grade.  In Quebec, where syrup is a supply managed commodity like milk and eggs, and the Federation is the only buyer, Golden grade syrup fetches the highest price. 

The gradual darkening of syrup over the season is caused largely by microbial contamination of lines and equipment, so being rigorously clean has been the traditional way to keep syrup as light as possible.  Farmers being farmers, syrup producers found an interesting hack to keep syrup light.  They learned that by injecting air directly into the flue pan while boiling will dramatically lighten all but the darkest syrup.   Just make sure to turn your tractor off outside where the air intake is – or your syrup will taste like diesel fumes!

And so when I was in Quebec last May for the equipment company we work for, I was sort of startled, but not surprised, to see that almost all of the syrup I saw was bright gold, almost the colour of apple juice.  So, to overcome this hack, the Federation can no longer rely on colour as the primary indicator of quality, but now takes the actual *taste* of the syrup into consideration when calculating payment to producers.

Like wines and cheeses, no two batches of syrup are alike and if you really swirl the stuff around in your mouth, you can taste a whole lot going on in there, from the start to the finish, mouth feel, aroma and so on.  So people like light syrup, some of you are crazy about the dark stuff.  I tend to prefer mid season syrup when the vanilla flavour is up and the real “maple” is starting to creep in.  Sometimes, maple syrup just doesn’t taste right, and it can happen at any time in the season, for reasons both within and beyond a producer’s control.

Now then, who decides what tastes good?  Well, maple sommeliers of course!  Only in Quebec…  What’s most interesting about this though, is that it has spurred a great deal of research (none of which I can read, because it’s all in French) into the why and how of what gives maple its myriad of subtle flavours, so that producers can make the most of their forest resource.  They’ve investigated and found that variables in sap collection and storage, boiling techniques as well as hygiene all can have strong influence on the end product.  Perhaps most surprising to me was the revelation that ageing sap (under proper conditions), as well as not sterilizing your collection mainlines will *enhance* the syrup’s flavour.  Microbes for the win!  Like wine or cheese once again, it’s human, biotic, and abiotic factors that all impart distinct flavours.

We’re looking forward to maple getting underway, and invite you to come out and check things out once we get rolling.  Especially if you’ve never seen it before, it’s well worth the drive.  Call ahead to see if we’re boiling: you’d be welcome around the evaporator.