Character(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re Back, Baby!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spice of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working with nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hungry Month of March

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

Looking westward at Brock and King St. 1910

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

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

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

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

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

Battle Between Carnival and Lent Jan Miense Molenaer, 1633

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

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

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

Did you forget that important date???

Well, if you’re anything like me you forgot that significant date… the one that comes in February every year, where we celebrate something we often take for granted every day… 

Yes, February 8th, Canadian Food Freedom day. 

Canadian Food Freedom day is a marketing exercise of sorts, developed by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture to highlight the productivity and efficiency of Canadian farmers.   The idea of “Food Freedom” is that by February 8th, the average Canadian household’s income is no longer dedicated to food spending. ie: Canadians spend on average 10.9% of their earnings on food and we are now 10.9% of the way through the calendar year…   It’s sort of a strange abstraction, but meant to point out how relatively inexpensive our food here is in Canada.  Given our sheer landmass of arable soils and well financed, high tech agriculture, one would expect nothing less.

There are only a handful of countries with “Food Freedom” days so early in the year, and are all either “First World” agricultural juggernauts like the USA and Australia, or exceptionally wealthy, small nations like Singapore and Switzerland.

(Percentage of household income dedicated to food spending)

It’s easy to imagine that in most of the grey areas on the map they’re too busy figuring out what to eat to be collecting statistics.  What’s interesting about a lot of these places is not that it’s difficult to produce food there.

Some of these places are actually quite fertile, with abundant water and year round growing seasons.   Take a moment the next time you’re in the produce section at the grocery store this time of year and note where the fresh beans and melons come from, or the pickles and canned fruit.

So, while much of the rest of humanity focuses on how to put food on the table, North Americans enjoy the mixed blessing of food abundance (and excess).  This has resulted not only in obvious outcomes like obesity, but also in eating disorders, broad cultural “fussy-ness” regarding food, and the tailoring of restrictive diets to conform to personal identity and political ideology: true “First World Problems”

I can’t help but laugh at my friend’s grandmother, a lifelong peasant in the mountains of the Bosnia, who when she learned his bride didn’t eat meat, arrived at the logical conclusion that “she must have grown up *really* poor”…

Another aspect of having unlimited cheap food lies at the heart of the truism “you get what you pay for”.   Yes, mass produced calories are cheap.  Are they tasty? I guess that depends on how you’ve trained your palate…  Are they healthy? Evidence suggests ‘no’. Do they support families in your community and create a diverse and beautiful landscape?  Not generally… although I am reminded of the retail displays they had in the Annapolis Valley, where potatoes were grown and a Frito-Lays plant operated:  you’d see signs over Doritos and chips that proclaimed “Eat Local!!!”

The impressive technological development of agriculture and the largess of our food system has not led to a renaissance in cuisine or economic growth in the forms of artisanal small businesses producing high value products… rather it has led to booms in other sectors of the economy which barely existed in our grandparents’ time.  So while we can afford to spend very little on food, we do find a way to spend it all anyway: whether that’s housing, insurance, taxes, communication, entertainment or debt servicing.  A great deal of what we direct our energy and spend our money on today are not actual “things”, but often abstract fees we don’t derive much benefit from.

Grinding poverty is in no way enviable or desirable (on the contrary), but it does make life simple, and one’s purpose very clear.   “Give us this day our daily bread” is also the default setting for most of human history, and so on some level we seem to require that sort of clarity. 

I think that this lies at the heart of what we are all doing together with this “local” thing:  forming personal relationships around the tangible aspects of our world.  And not only having a practical and cooperative social network, but using food to magnify that within our own households: making the hearth, the family, the dinner table, the grounding point and centre of our day to day life through the thoughtful preparation and sharing of food.

Fate and Food

Just like that we’re into the holiday season, and the various preparations and scrambling and spending that goes along with it.  In the uncertain world we live in, holiday food is at least something we don’t have to “figure out”.   Gingerbread, sugar cookies, pies and clementines on the coffee table and buffet; roasts, squash, goose, and gravy on the table.
Traditional meals call for traditional ingredients and the classic Canadian Christmas meal hearkens to a simpler and smaller world – and one with far fewer food options on the table.   It’s a very odd thing that in the current year, while we have more food options, gym equipment and nutritional information than ever in human history, we also seem to be becoming less and less healthy. 

Life expectancy is actually declining, obesity is considered more or less normal, and degenerative diseases like cancer and autoimmune disorders continue to plague us.  So what’s going on?  It’s anyone’s guess:  is it the food?  is it the plastics and various chemicals that saturate our day to day life?  is it an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and too much time in front of screens?

Obesity rates over time

There’s no way to know exactly of course, because it is such a complicated situation with so much “noise” and so many variables, but I tend to think that there is an intangible energetic or spiritual component to this equation. (Or maybe we were just “smoking ourselves thin”!)

Prisons are a great place to study human beings.  It is the definition of a “controlled environment”. Penitentiary food is not particularly “healthy” though it ticks all of the boxes on the conventional food pyramid.  It is high in starches and vegetable oils, and short on things like healthy fats and animal proteins.    Inmates can supplement their diet somewhat with their meagre “wages” at the commissary, but you basically have a baseline diet that reveals our shape and health is determined by more than what we put in our mouths.

The cliche “inmate physique” – absolutely shredded from thousands of chin-ups in the prison yard – is far from what you generally see in institutional settings.  On the contrary, most prisoners resign themselves to their situation, and their health and physique reflect the static and hopeless nature of their lot.  Most inmates are rather pudgy, pale and passive.   What is remarkable is that there are those who, despite the grim nature of incarceration, transcend this, and do indeed look like Greek statues and maintain some measure of mental strength and control over their own lives.
Same food, same conditions, completely different outcomes.  This is based largely (as far as I can tell) on how we let that little spark of vital energy we all have guide our attitude and actions.  Much easier said than done!   Reinhold Niebuhr’s (founder of Alcoholics Anonymous) Serenity Prayer cuts to the quick of this discernment, or where and how we can control our own lives:
God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,The courage to change the things I can,And the wisdom to know the difference.

Which reminds us of the most unpleasant truth about health: it often just comes down to genetics and luck.   The medieval “Wheel of Fortune” (when everyone ate a purely local, organic, seasonal diet and got tons of physical activity btw!) defined a worldview where no matter what we do or who we are, the outcomes of our lives are subject to change and beyond our reign.  A bit fatalistic, but fundamentally true.

So all this being said, I hope you enjoy our food because it tastes good, because it makes you happy, and you appreciate the efforts of our farm.  Unfortunately, it will not instantly transform your health, or make you live forever.  

I recall a CSA farm that went crazy one year and grew the “purple” variety of everything (carrots, kale, potatoes, cauliflower, tomatoes etc.) because of the magical health giving anti-oxidants these varietals are supposed to contain.  I can only imagine the deathbed scenario, as the angels’ wings flutter over one’s head, “But… I ate all of the purple vegetables…!?”
It is very contrary to our contemporary scientific worldview, but I am of the mind that a grateful attitude and hopeful, humble spirit is better for our over all well being than any dietary choices we can make. So as the world turns, and just gets stranger and stranger, I encourage all of us to be of good cheer.  Life is short, let’s make the most of it!   Thank you for working with us on this trip around the sun.

2022 Vision

Well, yesterday I went into a little office in downtown Kingston and they sliced the corneas off my eyes temporarily and burnt what was left down with a laser beam for about 5 seconds per eye and sent me off with some sunglasses and eye drops.

Today I woke up with full 20/20 panoramic vision (they actually measured this) and essentially no discomfort.  I feel like I’ve experienced the greatest miracle in my life.  Having worn glasses since I was ten, I have never seen the world like this in my memory and only wish I’d done this sooner.
You hear about Laser eye surgery and any number of things about it: it’s scary (it is!), it’s expensive (mine came to $2,400 total), it only works on some people (I don’t have astigmatism and have a stable prescription, but it worked for someone as blind as me), and that your eyes eventually revert (I don’t know anyone personally that’s happened to).  So, I feel like a real heel having not taken advantage of this technology twenty years ago.  What was stopping me?

What it really makes me wonder though, is what else am I missing???  What other magic is hiding under our noses, that could dramatically improve our lives, but for which some otherwise minor stumbling blocks hold us back. 

One thing that comes to mind in my own experience is deep tissue massage: it really is just like the movies… You get absolutely hammered: screaming and yelling, the whole nine yards… but it does amazing things that you can’t even achieve with drugs or surgery.  I went by accident the first time I got one, and came away from it pondering how many people suffer from chronic pain, opiate addiction, unnecessary surgeries etc. which could safely and readily be relieved by this?

Note the expression of gratitude!

These sorts of miracles probably fall into three categories: 1) novel use of cutting edge technology (laser eye surgery),  2) ancient esoteric wisdom (deep tissue massage), and 3) common sense traditions that we’ve let ourselves completely forget somehow over the past century.
The best example of that I can think of this third form from personal experience is preparing meals from scratch with whole foods.  Of course this is what everyone did pre-industrialization, but for many individuals and families it has become a foreign, almost impenetrable mystery.  I grew up this way to a large extent: while my mom was adept at roasting meat and boiling potatoes, we also ate a lot of fish sticks, frozen food and mac and cheese.  Cooking was considered a chore, and one to be dispensed with as little effort as possible.  Food was something to fill up on, not necessarily enjoy or appreciate.
So, when I moved out on my own at 18 and had to feed myself, I was astounded, with the help of a few good cookbooks and GARLIC, how much pleasure and interest one can take in the preparation of food.  Not only that, but that the routine can become a grounding place of relaxation, and a focal point for family; that the preparation of food is not only a complex, subtle artform and mastery of the physical realm, but also a way to show others that you love them.

If you’re bothering to go out of your way to shop with a local farm, you’re probably already well aware of this magic of the hearth, and I mention it as a reminder to myself as much as an encouragement for others.  So, as we embark on another year, I hope that we all can find, discover, remember and cultivate as many of these minor miracles as we can.

Of Shelves and Shortages

I had a dream a month or so ago… I dreamt that Morgan and I bought Quattrocchi’s.  (Such are the sorts of dreams produce farmers have).  For those of you who don’t know, Quattrochis is a long-standing institution in Kingston, as both a grocery store and wholesaler of fresh fruits and veggies. 

They’ve been in the produce business forever, even back in Sicily from which they fled – when the Mafia electrified their well and killed their great great grandfather for not paying for “protection”. They came to apply their knowledge and energy here in Kingston and before the current era of grocery titan duopoly (Sobeys/Loblaws), were a major supplier to the city of traditional staples like potatoes and apples and cabbages.

In order to store such staples, they built a warehouse on the corner of Montreal and Railway streets, which has grown and morphed over the years into what it is today.  We do a lot of business with Joe actually, and I can tell you that the insulated, climate controlled spaces – both above and below ground – are absolutely cavernous, as well as largely empty.  Because, like the rest of the retail food system, no one really sits on much inventory anymore.   In Joe’s case he heads with a box truck to the food terminal in Toronto every week, where he buys directly from huge growers and international brokers.

Walmart, Costco, Loblaws, Sobeys et al. have even more integrated and streamlined supply chains, often of course with their own store brands and multiyear contracts with suppliers.  Without a doubt this has created a very convenient and very affordable supply of food.   The economy of scale lets grocers operate on very thin margins, and they offer many products as loss leaders – pulling you into the store for ridiculously cheap food in the hope that you will buy some high markup items on the same trip.    As Joe Quattrochi has told me, “Anything you see on the outside of the grocery flyer – they’re losing money on that.”
It’s something we take for granted, but the modern grocery store is actually one of the greatest wonders of our civilization.  Imagine plucking a peasant of 200 years ago – from anywhere in the world – and dropping them into a high end grocery store.   They would probably cry.   On a less fantastic note, during the Cold War the first view of the North American grocery store was also a miraculous experience for Eastern European immigrants and defectors.

The beauty and wonder of having all of the food, all of the time, is predicated on the “just in time delivery” (JIT) model where global logistics operate with perfect coordination and redundancies in storage and handling are eliminated.   Until recently this was seen as one of our economy’s greatest strengths.   It’s been revealed recently though, to be a major weakness as well.   Once disruptions begin to appear in the system, JIT begins to break down as each interruption causes further interruptions down the line which must be made up for… causing further interruptions.
The good news is that there isn’t a food shortage, no one is going to go hungry.   There is lots of grain and beans and apples and potatoes out there.  There are lots of beeves and hogs and fowl.  What there is however, is worker shortages, reduced processing capacity and shutdowns over covid outbreaks.   There are border disruptions, a lack of parts and diesel fuel costs 50% more than it did a year ago.

Decades and decades of momentum have suddenly been lost, and we’re finding that once you shut something so complex down, it is very hard to get it running properly again.  And this was the impetus for my dream:  I want there to be mountains of food stored safely in the center of town – not contingent on an endless stream of transport trucks. 

Being a food retailer was never really my goal as a farmer.  I like creating a fruitful landscape and working with the seasons.  I like having a farm for my children to grow and learn on, and I appreciate the security I find in a pile of firewood and a spring that never stops running.  Fortunately, I married a very pleasant and friendly and organized woman who has transferred all of her experience and book learning into operating our farm business.

Believe it or not, there are now more than 500 of you who get this email every week.   We appreciate the social capital you’ve invested in the farm – we often hear from you something to the effect of “Thank goodness you guys are around – we’re really gonna need you in the future…”

Statements like that sort of startle me because if we ever got to the point where you were *relying* on our farm for your calories, the world would have more or less fallen apart.  However, with every day that passes, we do in fact move into the future, and the historical anomaly of “All of the food, all of the time” is indeed eroding.  There is a great opportunity here for local agriculture, food processors and the like.   Far from going hungry, we can use this as a way to make progress towards a vibrant and healthy landscape that feeds us.

So, while we’re not going to buy Quattrochi’s anytime soon, after eight years of work, we do find ourselves firmly entrenched in the business of selling food.   We want to continually enhance and improve the service we provide you and to diversify and expand the products we offer.
It’s been great to see your interest in the Davis’ farm products of lamb and duck meat and eggs.  They appreciate all of the positive feedback.  Last night, I went over for a barn beer during evening milking at our friends the Smith’s and we realized it was a no brainer that we should start offering their farmstead cheese as well.

Nigel and Claire are fifth generation dairy farmers with a lovely little family, and have been making cheese by hand on their certified organic farm since 2011.   They work 365 days a year and are a rarity in the landscape, not only for their farming practices, but also their highly skilled, value added production.

Nigel produces a very special product: organic, raw-milk, aged cheese produced on-farm in their own cheese house. We’ll be offering a Gouda (Pilgrimage, nutty and sweet) and a Cheddar (Nauvoo, aged, more sharp) for our deliveries from now on and at our farmstand this summer. The cheese wedges are ~250g in weight and cost $10 per wedge
You can also purchase quarter, half and whole wheels of both varieties of cheese for $35 per kg;  a wheel weighs approximately 6 kilos.  We hope you will consider investing in this premium product.

As we add more producers’ goods to our list, our own products are clearing out.  Hens are very shy of laying right now, and we will be very limited on eggs for the next couple months – so please forgive us if we’re short.   Squash are done for the season, and this will be the final week for onions.   We still have lots of potatoes, carrots, beets and sauerkraut.  Our cold storage has been working out great.  We should have these items for several more months.