Saturday, September 9, 2017
"Why can't we drive our cars out to the fields anymore?"
~Question asked at our Pick Your Own from 2012 to the present.
The glory days for the Pick Your Own fruit and vegetable business in Ontario were surely during the 1970's, '80's and '90's.
Families tended to be larger then and we had a committed group of regular customers who picked and preserved large quantities of fresh vegetables. A number of PYO farms flourished in our area to cater to their needs.
In order to accommodate the larger orders, we allowed people to drive their cars out to the fields to pick their own vegetables.
People either kept track of the number of a certain vegetable that they had picked (corn, eggplant or squash) or bushels and baskets were assigned to sell other items by volume (tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers, etc.)
Every morning , beginning at our 8 a.m.opening, I would direct my customers to different fields on the farm. They would return in time with neatly counted bags of corn and level baskets of produce.
It was surely the most simple of business models.
The reality was strikingly different for many reasons, the first being the notion of an 8 a.m..opening. This was like sleeping in until noon for many pickers.
Opening day for squash picking was a case in point. The first customers would arrive in the dark at about 5 a.m, armed with miner's head lights and flashlights. The idea was for the early bird to catch the largest squash, which we sold by the piece, lowering the price as the squash got smaller throughout the day.
One memorable year, it was raining for our squash opening, so I was short staffed (i.e., alone), figuring turnout would be light.
There were seventy cars in the field before our 8 a.m. opening; over one hundred by 9 a.m.
Which prompts a discussion of the second reality of the business: short term memory loss.
The vast majority of our customers were absolutely honest and a pleasure to deal with. There was another group, however that made me feel like the gatekeeper of an early onset farm. The memory of the number of corn and squash in certain customers' car trunks was vague at best and larcenous at worst, which meant that we had to count or measure every piece of produce in the car.
One memorable customer rolled up to our checkout with the front of his clapped out Toyota Corolla inclined at a thirty degree angle and "about five dozen" corn in his trunk. Fifty seven dozen was the final count.
Another woman checked in as a short lady and left two hours later a foot taller than her husband. Further investigation under some suspiciously lumpy seat coverings revealed that all the back car seats had been taken out and replaced with produce.
Her front passenger seat had become a veritable vegetable tower with layer upon layer of produce stowed away. Even her purse was bulging at the seams with shelled Romano beans.
Their guesstimate of "about twenty dollars" worth of vegetables that they did choose to show us in their trunk grew to an actual one hundred and sixty after we had pulled the car apart.
Other customers offered a vegetable medley in their car trunks. These were often big ol' Detroit sedans with massive trunks and large spare tire wells, into which hundreds of pounds of unorganized and uncounted vegetables reposed. Or worse: station wagons and vans.
"Give me a price, Guy!', was the usual request, which is a little like guessing how many dollars worth of guppies are in an aquarium.
Mother Teresa would have been talking to herself after a day of this. Henry Kissinger would have been in therapy.
Certain customers were repeat offenders and clearly loved the cat and mouse game of hiding produce all over the vehicle.
One such customer rolled in early one morning just as it was getting light.
His visit happened to coincide with the rather nasty breakup of our tenants in the house immediately beside the PYO check in.
Long story short: Girl meets guy. Guy goes to Milhaven penitentiary for a year. Guy is released. Girl breaks up with guy who takes it badly. Guy takes girl's SUV out in our fields and runs into every tree and rock he can find. Girl calls police. SWAT team shows up, but guy is gone.
Our customer's visit just happened to coincide with the return of the SWAT team to their vehicles in our parking lot. They were dressed in full on SWAT gear and had many various weapons and riot gear cradled in their arms.
The customer looked at me in alarm and asked, not surprisingly:
"What's going on here?!!."
It was too good an opportunity to pass up. As casually as I could manage, I said:
"Oh, we are really checking trunks out today!"
It was a fib, of course, but the look of abject horror on his face was so worth it.
He came back an hour later with his vegetables laid out like a church supper.
We still joke about it and, amazingly, he still asks the question at the top of this blog.
Future blog: Pick Your Own Stories 2: Love in a Dangerous Place.
Friday, June 23, 2017
Summer 2016: " I guess you farmers could really use some rain!?"
Summer 2017: "I guess you farmers are really loving all this rain!?"
I slogged back to the house early this morning after dumping another inch of rainfall that had fallen overnight out of the rain gauge. Rainfall sheeted down with biblical intensity from a sky that roiled like diesel exhaust overhead.
A check on the computer weather forecast informed me that Gormley was currently experiencing "light thunderstorms".
I have never heard the word "light" coupled with thunderstorms before, but I guess that it's kind of like light beer: a marketing gimmick designed to make you feel better about quaffing beers.
Sure enough, the rain gauge showed another inch of rainfall in the gauge by 9:00 a.m., but I didn't feel so bad because they were light thunderstorms.
Clifford and Keroy, our two Jamaican farm workers and I spent the rest of the morning in Stouffville, getting in grocery shopping early for a change. Too wet to do any farm work.
Apart from a few puddles, there was very little evidence that it had rained heavily in Stouffville at all, although they had experienced similar rainfall. Urban environments, with their pavement, lawns and storm drains are designed to quickly and efficiently deal with excess water.
The difference is that the two inches of rain that fell on our 150 acre main farm in the last 24 hours is over 30 million liters of water. While there are two watercourses, the vast majority of that rainfall has to percolate down through already sodden soil.
We will have to wait three to four days to even consider getting back on the land without damaging it by working it too wet.
Vegetable farmers rely on succession plantings to ensure a continuous supply of corn, beans, lettuce, and cole crops throughout the summer. Ideally we would like to plant sweet corn every three days, beans, etc., every seven days.
The challenge of doing so in the spring and early summer of 2017 has been considerable, given that we had about five days to work the land in May and about seven good days so far in June.
We are fortunate to have some well drained land that has been planted and will continue our succession plantings until mid-July, so we will be back in business soon. Sweet corn and beans will be later this year, likely the first week of August.
God willing and the crick don't rise....
Sunday, January 22, 2017
" You have to come and see this dog, she looks just like Rachel."
It was my wife's third call from the pet store in the past half hour with the same message.
The truth was, I didn't feel that Rachel could be replaced. She had been part of our lives until September 11, 2001 (yes, that September 11) when she jumped out of the back of my truck, landed awkwardly and broke her leg. The vet said that, at 14, she was too old and feeble to rehabilitate. We had to have her put down.
Reluctantly, I drove to the mall and found my wife, son and Rachel's doppelganger.
In a room populated with smaller, cuter puppies stood this gangly hound with feet that were three sizes too big for her body. Her body was three sizes too big for her crate, which was euphemistically labelled "Pointer Cross." The original asking price had dropped to one hundred dollars from three hundred.
And so, from a pet store in the middle of the city, Jessie came to us and our farm.
To say that Jessie embraced life on the farm would be an understatement. She had the run of the place, which was Big Rock Candy Mountain for that dog, who brought a manic, unhinged joy to each and every day that she spent there. Her glass wasn't merely half-full; it overflowed.
Whatever you were doing was just what she felt like doing. She was hard wired to the throttle of any farm vehicle, no matter where and how long the job. Her personal favorite time of year was during sweet corn harvest, when she had a 25 acre buffet to graze selectively.
She wasn't beyond a little devilment: ambushing my son's soccer ball in a high speed run by assault, or snatching the odd carrot from the counter at the market. We marveled at her easy athleticism and stamina.
Jessie's presence at our market was a calculated risk. Some people, especially children, are afraid of dogs, fearing that they will be bitten
Jessie put in long days at the market working assiduously to tear down this belief using her own method of dogged diplomacy.
Rather than going right up to the stricken child, she would find her tennis ball, which she would then drop in such a way so that it would roll up to their feet. Jessie would position herself in front of them, about eight feet back, sitting in a non threatening position. From there, she would see if this particular kid could put two and two together.
Most did. Parents would constantly be amazed that, in short order, their formerly terror stricken child would be joyously throwing a dog-drool soaked tennis ball and having it returned to them.
We have a large graduating class of young adults who now tell us: "I no longer am afraid of dogs because of Jessie."
Jessie had slowed down over the past couple of years, her eyesight and hearing both diminished. I turned her out early one morning as usual this past September. She came back dazed and badly torn up, having been blindsided by a coyote in the dark. Despite a round of antibiotics and treatment, she never really recovered her health and her former zest for life.
In the end, it was her legs that finally failed. Those marvelous limbs that had propelled her over thousands of miles were unable to lift her frail body any longer.
We spend a lot of time and energy in our lives looking for "the one." Sometimes, with luck, we get it right.
It is my experience that dogs are, invariably, "the one." Dogs don't fall out of love over time. Rather, they define love, work hard at it and embrace us, imperfect as we are, to make the absolute best of our short time together.
Although my life is poorer for having lost Jessie, it is infinitely richer for having known her.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
"DIDN'T YOU HEAR ME HONKING!!!!"
Young lady who had just sideswiped my tractor drawn plow.
Your mission: Venture out on any reasonably busy GTA road in your car. Rules of the road are to be obeyed. You will be given one hour and a dashboard camera. You will record any egregious traffic violations by other drivers: speeders, texters, road-ragers, non-signallers and the like.
The task is sadly, laughably simple. On most days, a highlight reel could be compiled long before the hour was up.
Now, let's change the rules. Instead of a car, you will be driving a tractor. A tractor pulling an implement that is wider than the lane you are in (wider than 12 feet).
You cannot travel at the speed limit, because most tractors cannot travel that fast, therefore your speed will be limited to 20 km./hour.
After an hour, you will be driving on the gravel shoulder, because your highlight reel is getting too heavily weighted towards one-fingered salutes.
Your audio track will consist mainly of Country and Western music and the sound of your breath being quickly sucked in between your teeth as yet another late-for-tee-off-time kamikaze passes you with inches to spare and narrowly avoids being rebadged as a Peterbilt.
And, every once in a while, sadly, it will change from being a spectator sport to a contact sport.
That was my experience in early October of last year. The day was perfect, sunny and bright. Traffic was light at 10 a.m. as planned. Most farmers avoid rush hour travel if at all possible. I was pulling a four furrow plow drawn by a large tractor with a cab.
Part of the route between our two farms involves travel along 19th. Avenue in Markham, a road designed for 1960's (lighter) traffic and (smaller) implement sizes. Road shoulders are tiny to non-existent between Warden Ave. and Kennedy Road.
The choke point is a narrow bridge that used to be single lane, but was given two lane stature by an
optimistic road painter when the road was paved. An unwritten first-in-first-out rule has existed for as long as I can remember for any wide vehicles approaching from either side.
Imagine my surprise when the quickly closing oncoming Honda made no attempt to slow down or yield to my much larger tractor, despite the fact that I had already traveled more that half way along the bridge.
I'll give the International Harvester plow credit for being well named. That plow effortlessly harvested the driver's side mirror and windshield molding and struck out a nice furrow along the door. The donor car was a brand new Honda Civic, still in the dealer wrap on its way to a new car buyer.
The young lady got out of the car furious at me. I would add the adjective "lucky" to her, although she probably wouldn't agree.
The spine of that plow that struck her car is fabricated of a six by ten inch tube of 3/8 inch steel. It is pulled at a roughly 45 degree angle to the direction of travel. This allowed the Honda to be deflected to the side of the road, rather than the plow demolishing the driver's side of the car.
Let me put it this way: In the counter intuitive game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, paper can "beat" rock because it is able to cover it.
In the real life game of Plow-Airbag-Scissors, airbag may cover plow, but that won't stop plow from heading through your vehicle and right on down the road if the speed is great enough. Mercifully, in my accident, both vehicles had slowed down enough to make the crash a low impact event.
Could I hear her horn? No, and really what difference would it have made? That is a "horn" icon on your steering wheel, not a "vaporize" one.
The policeman who showed up on her insistence was a picture of diplomacy and a credit to the York Regional Force. He advised her to slow down and reminded her that the signs posted on rural roads advise one to "Share the Road", not "Own the Road".
He expressed concern about the state of my plow, after seeing the car. I was unable to find any damage at all to it beyond a quarter-sized patch of non matching paint.
There were no charges laid against me, but, through the no-fault insurance laws neither were there any laid against her. I hope she learned from the experience.
I am sure that anyone who is reading this is a terrific driver. However, I would like to remind you that May-June and September through November are busy times for farm machinery on rural roads.
Driving at speed for awhile on a 400 series highway makes one comfortable with travel at 110 kph, so that first meeting with a 20 kph tractor or combine can be memorable.
Just make sure that encounter is safe as well.
Saturday, September 17, 2016
I had a Gordie Howe hat trick at the market yesterday:
A goal, an assist and a fight.
We met our goal of selling all the sweet corn we had picked that morning. I assisted a lady who had locked her keys in her car. I also had a discussion with a man and agreed to disagree about our allegedly high prices.
Anyone who runs their own small business will have an unwanted familiarity with certain customers kvetching about prices.
Big business is protected by many layers of staff from complaints. The clerk at Petro Canada doesn't give a fig about the disconnect between the price of West Texas crude and the pump price, so no one bothers unloading on them. You might as well argue with the gas pump.
However, when someone spots the price maker in their cross-hairs, things can get heated.
In my own case, our price for squash is ten cents higher than last year. The customer suggested that there should be no increase due to lower fuel prices, which represent about five per cent of my costs. He parted with the argument that the increased use of food banks was all the proof he needed of extortionately high food prices in Ontario.
A little context......
In 1962, my father bought a fifty acre farm in North Markham Township with a partner for $24,000.
After closing, the partner got cold feet and wanted his share back. My dad paid him and left the "For Sale" sign posted.
No one called. Not a single offer for five years, until, in 1967, he got an offer for $27,000, which he accepted.
An apples-to-apples fifty acre farm across the road just sold last year for $2,700,000; a price one hundred times greater than the 1967 price.
There is a sign up on the wall in our market dating from the mid 1960's. I found it while demolishing an old drive shed on Elmer Harding's farm at Birchmount Road and Steeles Avenue. The farm has long since been blanketed by housing.
"Sweet Corn 35 cents per dozen. $ 1.00 for 3 dozen"
It is, of course, laughable cheap by today's standards and a lot of people joke about buying our corn for that price.
Let's assume for a moment that sweet corn at 35 cents per dozen had seen an increase similar to that of raw land. That would make the 2016 sign read:
"Sweet Corn $35 per dozen. $ 100 dollars for 3 dozen.
I am not the first person to make the case for the fact that the higher price of food that is not leading to increased food bank use as much as it is the exponential rise in the price of housing. My argument is an oversimplification but it merits some consideration.
In 1969, about 20 per cent of the average consumer's take home pay went for food. That figure in 2016 is about 10 per cent. Even the poorest one-fifth of Canada's population spends about 14 per cent on food, less than half the 30 per cent they spend on accommodation.(Terry Daynard; blog, Jan. 10, 2016)
Meanwhile, the price for a detached home in Toronto has reached million dollar territory, making the dream of actually owning such a house unattainable for most home buyers. Those high prices may not last, but, realistically, how much would they fall in the event of a correction?
Food in Canada ( unless you live in the far north) is still a bargain, and the fact that we live in a country where food is safe, fresh and widely available means that most Canadians have already won the global food lottery.
Keeping his stick on the ice,
P.S. Using that 100 multiplier for gasoline means that an Imperial gallon of gas that sold in 1969 for 35 cents per gallon (1 Imperial gallon= 4.54 litres) would now cost $7.70 per litre!
Saturday, September 10, 2016
" I have a love affair with tomatoes and corn. I remember them from my childhood. I only had them in the summer. They were extraordinary. "
When I was maybe eight or nine, I was given a large, chocolate Easter bunny. It was covered in brightly coloured, garish tinfoil. It was one of the most beautiful objects that I had ever laid eyes on, much less owned.
For a couple of weeks, that resplendent rabbit occupied a place of honour up on my bookshelf, beside the Hardy Boy books.
Then, one afternoon, I couldn't stand it any longer. It was time to partake of all that chocolatey deliciousness.
You know the rest of the story. The chocolate tasted like mud, which wouldn't have been so bad, except for the fact that the doggoned thing was hollow. It had all the soul of a gold digging Vegas showgirl.
I got over the crappy rabbit and yet every winter, I get duped in the very same way by tomatoes.
They look so delicious, so evocative of summers past and yet to come. But their taste is merely okay, a faint shadow of that of their country cousins who are still asleep in their seed packets.
The saying goes that "the older we get, the more we appreciate the things that money can't buy."
Amen to that. You sure as heck can't buy a decent tomato in Ontario for most of the year.
If we evaluated tomato years as we do wine years, then I would have to say that 2013 was a terrible vintage; degraded by cool weather. 2014 was marginally better, but it was a late, short season due to another growing season of cool, wet weather. Ditto for 2015.
Then along came 2016. Whatever the heat and drought of this past summer may have taken away in yield have been given back in taste. I don't ever remember better tasting tomatoes. This year the flavor is absolutely amazing, embodying that perfect balance of sweetness and acidity.
Tomatoes are loaded with Vitamins A and C, in addition to a host of other vitamins and minerals, but it is lycopene that is getting everyone excited about them these days.
A growing body of clinical evidence has shown that lycopene (which gives tomatoes their rich, red colour) is one of the most powerful antioxidants around. This, in turn, gives them great potential as a cancer fighter, due to antioxidants' ability to protect the body from harmful free radicals.
Tomatoes are one fruit that should not be refrigerated; their flavour will be ruined. Ditto to placing them in a sunny windowsill. The best bet is to place them on your kitchen counter out of direct sunlight. They will ripen just fine.
We grow a wide range of beefsteak tomato varieties, in addition to a couple of yellow cultivars that have lower acid content and a wonderfully mild flavor.
There is also a whole soccer team's worth of cherry and grape tomato varieties that add terrific flavor and eye-catching colour to any meal.
Our fields have been in legume cover crops for two years prior to planting tomatoes this year , which minimizes the disease and insect pressure on our crop and maximizes the nutritional benefits to you.
So get them while you can, freshly picked in our market or by picking your own in our fields. It is a golden opportunity for you to eat your fill of tomatoes with soul!
Friday, September 2, 2016
One of the great ironies of growing local food is that much of the farm help required to grow it comes from thousands of miles away.
Our 1857 farmhouse has seen two families of 10 children raised in it over the years. There was little need for outside hired help back in the day; one raised their own work force for the fields along with their own food for the table.
Sadly, my wife and I are shirkers in this regard. We have but one son. Many of you have met Geoff during past summers, but he will be back at the University of Guelph this fall, working towards his Master's degree in Agriculture.
Those halcyon days of large farm families living every quarter mile along the concession roads and an abundant supply of local farm workers are but a distant memory now. The growth of the Toronto area along with an abundance of higher paying jobs has left local farmers scrambling for help.
It is not a new problem. The song "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree?) was written in 1919. Its lyrics highlight the concerns that returning World War I soldiers would not want to return to the farm after experiencing the city life and culture of places like Paris.
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was created 50 years ago to help address this shortfall in farm labor. Jamaica was the first country to enter into an agreement with the Government of Canada, administered by the wonderfully capable Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.)
Jamaica has been joined by four other Caribbean countries and Mexico as source countries for the program. Last year, 17,648 workers came to Canada to help do farm jobs that Canadians could not or would not do.
We have two Jamaican workers, Clifford and Keroy, that have been with us for a number of years.
Keroy lives on his own small farm in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, where he grows coffee and assorted fruit and vegetables. He has four children ranging in age from 8 to 24, along with a hard working wife to work the farm during the five months that he is with us.
Keroy is the quintessence of "Jamaica, No Problem." He is able to see the funny side of any situation no matter how bleak it may be. He has an absolutely contagious laugh and a sunny disposition that elevates all our spirits.
Clifford is more Type A serious and seriously driven to work hard. He lives in Kingston, not far from Tivoli Gardens, a notoriously crime ridden housing project, along with his girlfriend and two small children. Fond of parables and riddles, he has more street smarts than I would have in ten lifetimes.
Clifford has an uncanny ability to anticipate what is required on the farm next, whether it be planting, harvesting or stocking the market. I am certain that he and Keroy could run the farm without me for most of the season.
Clifford and Keroy's time away from home allows them to support their families in a way that would be difficult on Jamaican wages. Both men have been able to buy property, educate their children and operate businesses in Jamaica.
They are an important part of our family from the end of May to the end of October every year, We would be unable to farm without their valuable hard work. Please take a moment, if you don't already know them, to say hello. They are an absolutely vital part of your local food meals.