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!