Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why are we organic?

Why are we organic?

I wouldn't be farming if we couldn't do it organically. My first encounter with biocides was the apple orchard sprayer at my uncles farm. I was quite young at the time, perhaps six or seven, but l remember climbing on the sprayer and peering down into the tank... and I can still remember the smell to this day. The dizzying chemical soup in there turned my stomach and I felt instinctively that this was something horrible. It is quite possible that my mind was already made up then. I knew to trust my nose as it contrasted the wonderful earthy smell of the soil in the woods and fields that I frequented, with the acrid, noxious smell of the chemicals in the sprayer.

When I began gardening I encountered the innocuous pink coating (most likely Captan) on treated corn, pea and bean seeds that were pretty much all that was available at the local garden supply stores. As I casually handled the seeds, planting my garden, this fungicide coating covered my hands and I began to itch in various places. It was only a mild reaction, but nevertheless it was another sign. I learned to avoid the pink seeds and started seeking untreated seeds.

A few years later I spent a couple of summers in PEI near potato farms and would wake up to the roar of huge sprayers lumbering through the fields. The fungicide bothered me the most and once I even had to climb down off a roof I was working on because the drifting spray made me dizzy. I began counting the number of times the potatoes were sprayed. From seed piece treatment, pre-emergence weed sprays , pesticides, fungicides, top kill and finally sprout suppressant in the warehouse it could be close to twenty applications of chemicals. How do your fries taste now? I really questioned how nutritious that potato was in terms of its life giving properties. PEI has the highest cancer rates in the country and has big fish kills every growing season in the rivers. (We have the same sort of production here in the upper Saint John River Valley.)

I have never read Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring but I did read a lot by others that were influenced by her. Family members were regular subscribers to Organic Gardening, Harrowsmith and Mother Earth News  magazines (back before they were sold out to big publishers) and I would read these enough to learn a bit about organic gardening and some of the negative aspects of chemicals. Organic just always seemed to be a more positive route, working with nature instead of fighting against it. It was author/farmer Wendell Berry more than anyone who opened my eyes to the problems of industrialised agriculture and the implications for our culture and environment.

I haven't mentioned fertilisers yet. Although these chemicals do generally not create the same human health risks that herbicides, fungicides and pesticides do, they do wreak havoc on the soil biology. Fertilisers are really generally in the form of salts or acids, containing nitrogen(N), phosphorus(P), and potassium(K), the three elements that make up the NPK values written on the bags. The problem with salts and acids is that they are highly soluble and reactive allowing them to wash out of the soil or significantly change the soil chemistry and structure. Fertilisers aren't so much bad for people as they are bad for the soil and waterways. I think the human impact comes in the form of lower nutritional quality of food grown this way. Lower mineral and micronutrient content in crops  are the result of a dead soil created by extensive fertiliser and biocide use. Fertilisers are also quite energy intensive to make, increasing the environmental impacts of agriculture.

Of course growing organically means a lot more than farming with the absence of chemicals. Organic is about care of the soil and stewardship of the land. It is about growing healthy plants and animals and nourishing healthy people. Organic carries with it a set of values that include healthy soil, healthy food, healthy farmers and respect for the environment. Organic is dedication to growing nutritious food with life giving properties. So much of our food today lacks those life giving  and health promoting properties. Organic also offers us continuity with a long tradition of farming, celebration of food and restores the cultural  and community aspects of agriculture. 
Organic certification seemed like just as an easy decision as growing organic, but perhaps not as obvious. It is quite a bit of paperwork and definitely an expense, over a thousand dollars a year in our case. There is a lot of discussion among farmers about certification and some people decide that they will not certify because it is too expensive or too much paperwork, or drop their certification once their market is established. There is some criticism of the process and its various weaknesses but I think it works overall, certainly it is a minimum standard that has real meaning. For us it was an act of transparency and accountability, but just as importantly, it is a public dedication to a set of principles and values. I also see it as an act of solidarity with other organic growers and the people who buy our products.

Now we have a national standard now for organic farming, and you are not really organic unless you are certified organic. In fact, only certified orgainic growers are allowed to use the word organic and if someone tells you that they don't use pesticides or 'hardly any" spray, they are not organic. If they say they are organic, but are not certified, they are not organic. In fact a few people that say they grow organically, do not even know what the regulations are. Unfortunately this makes it hard for consumers who are trying to acquire safe and healthy food. They already have enough confusing terminology to deal with such as "naturally grown", "ecologically grown", most of which are meaningless marketing devices. Add the confusion around the term organic and it can be a bit disconcerting. Look for certified organic if you want a guarantee. I regularly see meat and produce being marketed as organic when it is not and I find it quite frustrating. Ask to see the suppliers certification if you are in doubt.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sausage making 1.0

The focus of our farm is vegetables and some small fruit, but we do have a little livestock on the farm including pigs, chickens and occasionally turkeys or geese. The decision to keep some livestock seems to be a good fit with the farm as the animals will eat any unmarketable vegetables and kitchen scraps that the farm generates...they even devour most of the weeds that we have to pull. I am always a bit uneasy about the fate of the animals, more so the pigs than the chickens, but I do eat meat and at least this way I know the animals had a comfortable life, were well cared for and were fed well. And to be honest, it just doesn't feel like a farm without a few animals around as they add a rhythm to the farm day and year that would otherwise be absent. 
Although we have raised pigs for the last few years, we hadn't found time for sausage making until this year. I spent a summer working on a farm in Italy and knew the wondrous delicacies that could be made from the  ever versatile pork; salumi, proscuiuto, pancetta, pepperonis, and fresh sausage in dozens of varieties. I did try to make prosciutto last year, but we lack the proper conditions for the final stage of curing, so it got a little shall we say... funky. So this year under the guidance of Jennifer Pazienza, we made the plunge into the less intrepid world of sausage making. 

So with two large boxes of the less desirable cuts and a bit of already ground pork Michelle and I set course for Jenn and Gerry's place. Along the way the way we picked up two enthusiastic helpers, Andi and Sylvia. Andi is a former student, now friend, and enthusiast off all things gardens and food. She happened to be home from San Franscio where she now lives. Sylvia and I have been friends for a long time since we were students together at Renaissance College. She is one of our loyal weekly veggie box customers and a great fan of the farm. It was a nice way to catch up with both of them and two more pleasant helpers could not be found I am sure.      

Sylvia and Andi deboning and trimming pork
Gerry grinding the pork.

After arrival, Sylvia, Andi and I deboned and trimmed all of the pork  and we started putting it through the meat grinder. When we had our first batch of ground pork ready, Jennifer and Michelle started blending spices into the meat. First they used a mild but savoury fennel sausage recipe that is part of Jenn's Italian heritage and is often featured in her delicious cooking. That recipe includes a bit of pancetta, essentially an unsmoked Italian bacon, that also went through the grinder. Next came a similar batch but without the pancetta. We followed with another half dozen batches including some breakfast style sausages with sage, nutmeg and a little pepper. The final batch was seasoned with some rosemary from the farm and thyme. We didn't try stuffing the sausage into casings this year and just made the mixture into patties which we like just as well in most cases. We find we often take the meat out of the casing anyway when cooking. Next time we will do some in casings for summer barbeques. 

 Michelle making patties
The whole process took a few hours  and culminated in a nice stack of sausage for the freezer..and a beautiful meal prepared by Jenn that featured a large skillet of the sausage sauteed and roasted with onions and coloured bell peppers. Yummy!          

Chef Jennifer at work     

The feast!  

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Year in review....and looking ahead

We had another successful year this year despite some weather related and crop disease challenges. Mother Nature has a way of keeping farmers on their toes:-) We lost some crops because of the drought and we spent a lot of time scrambling to get water to everything. The strawberries with their relatively short season and high moisture needs seemed to take the worst hit with out crop down about 70%. We also lost most of our tomato crop to late blight. Fortunately the hard work and previous care of the soil paid off and there was still what could be described as a moderate bounty. We were certainly able to keep our CSA customers baskets full and we had only slight less than planned for the market. We actually ended the last few weeks of the season with better market sales than last year. After hearing from my neighbour that it was the worst growing year he had seen in the nearly thirty years since he had bought his farm, I thought maybe we were actually doing pretty well given the circumstances.

As in the past, this year brought a wonderful bunch of young people to the farm to work an learn. Andrea, Ben, Bethany, Christine, Ryan, Trudi spent all or part of the season farming with us this year, and Joe and Jordan also helped with the house construction. I think we were more than ten at the dinner table sometimes. Many thanks to them as our farm is very much a team effort and we couldn't grow such great food for so many people with out their help. Each of them brought something special to the group. I think that watching people learn about growing and food is just as rewarding as growing food itself and although not all of them will become farmers, I am confident that a season spent on this farm will be memorable and change their lives in many ways. I have watched people become more comfortable in their bodies, more thoughtful and observant, and develop skills they never thought they would. I also expect that they will never look at a plate of food in the same way.

One expects that things will get easier as time progresses in a relatively new venture, but this was in  many ways the most challenging year yet. Fortunately, challenges do teach us lessons and drive improvements.  I certainly learned many lessons this year, and many improvements are planned for 2013. Late blight and other diseases have destroyed much of our tomato crop for the last two years so we will be moving them into plastic tunnels. We also continue to refine our crop planning and marketing. Farming is a low margin business and although we have been successful, there is plenty of room for improvement in our bottom line. This year we may have taken on to many projects at once and it was a little overwhelming at times. In addition to expanding our acreage, we were building a house and also developing and running a compost project that took more hours a week than expected. Sometime the weeks did not seem to have enough hours for everything.

Although there is a surprising amount to do at this time of year, winter for a vegetable farmer is a great time for reflection and I have already thought a lot about the year to come. I  have also been reflecting on how lucky I am to be able to pursue my dream as many people cannot for various reasons. I love what I am doing. I love being on this beautiful piece of land and caring for it. I love that my community is expanding as customers become our friends. I love that I eat the best food in the world and I get to share it with so many people. I am lucky that I have friends around me that are so supportive and customers that are so appreciative. It is a good time to be a farmer.  

New Years resolution #1
Blog once a week!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The 2012 season has officially started!

Late winter and even early spring sounds are returning to the farm these days. The crows and ravens are making a lot of noise as they are now in mating season and I expect the pileated woodpeckers and partridge will start their drumming soon. We have had a resident flock of snow buntings hanging around the fields all winter. I love those little birds and love to watch them gracefully move across the fields as a flock, swooping this way and that. I was also amazed at their ability to clean the seeds off of weeds that escaped us during the summer:-).

We are now ramping up to our third season. We had a great year last year despite the damp weather and are hoping for a sunnier season this year...farmers are always hopeful about the weather:-) Our milder winter has made life relatively easy for a farmer and I am feeling rejuvenated after the winter break. Even though there are no crops to look after in the winter, there seems to be plenty to do in the winter including cutting firewood, hauling and turning compost, planning, bookkeeping, ordering plants and seeds, sorting and delivering storage vegetables...the list goes on. The pace is definitely a little less phrenetic though so there is more time for rest, recreation and reflection.  

The seeds are all here and I started planting onions and leeks around the first of March and the tomatoes and peppers are now sprouting as I write. Of course, I have planted too many and will now struggle to fit them all into my field plans:-). We will be expanding our plantings a bit this year, but not too much as we are starting to reach our limits in terms of human resources. We are going to work a bit  the fine tuning of the farm operations, seeking efficiency and making our work easier. It is always tempting to plant more than we can handle, but crops always end up being neglected or wasted somewhere as a result. We are also planning to plant a few perennial crops this year also, including dwarf bush cherries and asparagus.

This years intern crew is almost all confirmed with just one position open at this point. I am really excited about our new working and learning team. A few other folks will be joining us for shorter periods of time and  it should be a very dynamic group. Intern reports from last years interns; Eric Wallace is starting his own farming endeavour in St Adolphe near Winnipeg, Liang Chen is working on developing garden programs at summer camps, and Miles Clayden is doing brilliantly at medical school in Saint John.  

We now have a waiting list for our weekly vegetable boxes (CSA) but should be able to add some folks on depending on how many return subscribers we have.  We got great feedback from our customer survey last year and are making small improvements there also. It was so great to see all the positive feedback we got when I received the survey results in January... quite reaffirming. We have to change our on line sign up  service as our old service provider raised their prices, from affordable to ridiculous, but we should have a new system up and running soon.

 Lots of other plans on the go this year including a new farmhouse and hopefully a little music festival in the late summer if all goes well.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A New Season!!

Well the days are getting longer and we have our first set of seedlings growing under lights until the weather warms enough to open up the greenhouse. Onions,shallots, tomatoes and peppers so far. The onions are already three inche tall. All the seeds arrived a few weeks ago and I attended the ACORN conference this past weekend and am excited to get things going again. New seeds and new ideas!

With all the snow, the garden literally looks like a blank 15 acre canvas waiting for us to apply a pallette of seeds, plants and mulches. I spent a lot of time crop planning this winter and every bed has been assigned a crop or cover crop. I can't wait to see this years garden emerge.

We will be trying a few new things this year including sweet potatoes, a first for us. We will also be planting a few more artichokes this year. We experimented with them a bit last year and had some success with a small planting. We will have our first strawberry crop and we should even have a few raspberries. The prospect of all those strawberries is both exciting and daunting. With luck we could have a few thousand boxes and that is a LOT of picking as well as eating.

We are expanding a little this year, slowly building on our successful growing year this year. We will be offering more CSA baskets and be selling for a longer season at the market. We received our organic certification last fall and that will help with our marketing.

There will be lots of projects this year, including a new kitchen and housing for interns and myself. One of our projects for this year is a whole farm plan that utilises the principles of permaculture. This will help insure the long term sustainability of the farm and help us to utilise resources more efficiently.

Keep an eye on our Facebook page for events on the farm We plan to hold a few events at the farm this summer. We will also be a host for the provincial open farm day. The first event will be our second annual soil blocking party. Join us Sunday afternoon March 20th in the greenhouse to help make soil blocks for transplants and have a cup of tea.

It looks like we have a great crew shaping up for the summer and I am looking forward to working with them. Miles will be joining us again this year until he goes to med school and we will have three new interns arriving in May to help and learn. Liang and Scott are coming from Ontario and Eric will be joining us all the way from Winnipeg.
Hope everyone has a good spring!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year Reflections

It seems like only yesterday that I was putting together seed orders for last year. Well, the catalogs are here again already and I am planning for next summers crops. The new year and winter weather brings a little time for reflection on the past year. It seems like a bit of a blur now, and I can't believe how it went so quickly. It was a very busy year, so I expect that contributes to the compressed perception of time.

This blog, like so many farmer's blogs completely stalled in late June as there just seemed to be no time to keep up, particularly with no internet access at the time. I mostly used our Facebook page for updates as it was much easier to use and seemed to reach more people with it's surprising popularity. It is at www.Facebook.com/jemseg river if you want to check it out. You don't need a facebook account to see it. Be sure to click on the wall tab if it brings you up to the info tab.

There were many highlights of the year and everyday was special in some way as the farm and the fields full of crops provided an endless imagery of beautiful scenes. Even in the nastiest weather, when one is immersed in Nature, you can be struck by the beauty, diversity and abundance that surrounds you. Our plateau at the edge of the valley, provided an endless supply of sunrises, sunsets, rainbows and incredible skies. The eagles, ospreys and the songbirds were our constant company. The world seems so much more real and alive when you are constantly outdoors.

The gardens did wondrously well for our first year, producing a bounty of incredible variety, despite some first year mistakes. Although I have had generous gardens most of my life, moving to the commercial scale took things to another whole level and many lessons were learned. It was perhaps the harvesting, washing and packing vegetables where the learning curve was the greatest as the volumes were large and the infrastructure a bit sparse. By mid July we were, according to my best estimates growing and selling enough vegetables to feed over 300 people, maybe even a few more at times. Each row takes on a new level of importance when it is slated to fill CSA boxes or sustain our weekly market sales.

The gardens and nature were not the only pleasant part of farming. We were blessed by having many wonderful people participate in the farm activities in different ways. Apprentices Eric and Francie endured the chilly spring mornings cheerfully and toiled through the heat and bugs of summer, exhibiting great patience, perseverance and diligence. Miles generously and gracefully did the same through the frosty mornings and cold fall rains of September and October.

Gerry's constant friendship, support and help through the whole year was invaluable and I am forever grateful. His sister Janet visited us from afar twice this summer and her support and help has been crucial to our success. His brother John even came this summer for a visit too and helped out. Thanks to Jennifer too, her enthusiastic support and wonderful cooking.

Michelle was ever supportive, helping out wherever she could and generously gave up many of here Saturday mornings to help out at the market.

Heather appeared and visited on cool and damp fall Friday evenings during the fall helping us prepare for the market and lifting our spirits.

Andi, Dan, Sylvia, Adam, Christie, Joe, Janet, Natalie, Andrew, and many others too numerous to mention came and helped with the many various tasks on the farm.

Our strawberry planting was done miraculously fast with the generous assistance and guidance of our neighbours Raymond and Cindy. Raymond generously shared his farming experience and provided sound advice throughout the growing season.

We were also blessed by wonderful customers both in our CSA and at the Boyce Farmer's Market. I was blown away by the the level of support and loyalty. Our Tuesday box deliveries were always fun, seeing everyone, telling them about the veggies we had for them that week, creating and strengthening friendships. Although Friday evenings were challenging, getting everything picked, cleaned and packed, Saturday mornings brought the excitement of the market and seeing the rest of our customers and usually meeting a few new ones. The interactions with our customers made farming feel like less of a solitary pursuit and more of a joyful community building exercise. I felt as though we were growing a wonderful community as much as crops. It was incredibly rewarding to provide healthy food to so many appreciative people.

By almost all measures,the year was an incredible success. I am sometimes amazed, particularly when I note all the times things could have gone terribly wrong. Not that little things didn't go wrong from time to time;-), but we avoided any and all sorts of real disasters. I would like to think that it was due entirely to successful planning,preparation and experience, but I know all too well that it involved a bit of luck. Farming is a hopeful enterprise in which your actions can only tilt the odds a towards your favour. Nature doesn't let you cheat... at least not for long, a lesson that modern industrial agriculture has yet to learn.

As I look forward to the new year, new goals are materializing; making the farm more profitable, producing higher quality produce, extending our growing and sales season, finding time to pursue more of our education and community building goals, planting an orchard, developing a whole farm plan along permaculture principles. Building a larger community of interns and customers. Planning more on the farm fun events. There are still some building projects unfinished and some more to begin. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges will be avoiding the end of season exhaustion that seems to plague vegetable growers and crept up on me in November. I expect the farm will operate more efficiently next year and we continue to add infrastructure that will help ease the burden. Getting rested up now in any case:-)

Much to be thankful for indeed!
Happy New Year!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Our First Harvest!!

On Saturday June 19, we went to the Fredericton Boyce market with out first harvest. We had good day, despite the lettuce wilting 30 degree C weather and a less than ideal location. A great big thanks to our first customers!! The response was very positive and many people said they would return again next week. Thanks also to Francie, for the great job working at the stand, and Andi for painting our sign!

The gardens are doing well and our first weekly boxes will be delivered this week at Renaissance College. Subscribers, come pick up your veggies at Renaissance College, 811 Charlotte St in Fredericton. We look forward ot seeing everyone.