Friday, June 23, 2017

Too much of a good thing

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

International Harvester 1, Honda 0.

        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

Sign of the Times

 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. "    

                                                                Alice Waters

  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

Local Food and Foreign Workers

  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.


Friday, October 30, 2015

The Season of Re's

  "What do you do over the winter?"
                               Most frequently asked question at our farm.

  I found the answer to the above question while cleaning up our market the other day. Someone had left a reusable bag behind. It had dozens of words on both sides, all starting with "re".

  Winter is the season of  re's.....

   Reweld. The prefix "re" means "again" or "again and again". Any old piece of equipment covers both meanings, adding another "again" in the case of that cobbled together front mounted mower. It is similar to a Lancaster bomber in that it requires 25 hours of maintenance for every hour that it is operational.

  Reestablish. One of the ironies of growing and selling fresh produce is that (sometimes, Karen's edit) after a busy day of dispensing tips on how to best prepare and serve kohlrabi, Swiss chard and kale, we come in exhausted and order pizza. Time to reestablish healthy eating, walking the dog and getting to know my pillow a little better.

  Restore. I have a 1934 Ford pickup that has been in my shop for the last seven years. At my present rate of progress, it might be done by 2034. Time to get it back on the front burner.

  Renew, reconnect. We have forged many friendships at the market over the years. The problem is that it is tough to have much of a quality conversation in seven second bursts on a busy Saturday. We look forward to reconnecting with those friends during the more relaxed days of winter.

  Rejig, retry. Okay, so those eggplants that looked like tomatoes were a bad idea. Still, it's always fun to order new and different veggies from the seed catalogs over the winter to try next spring.

  Rejoice. 2015 was a very challenging year: a late May killing frost followed by a cool, wet June and a dry July and August. All this was followed by an absolutely miraculous warm to hot and just-enough-rainfall September. It ripened our crops to full maturity that looked like a lost cause in the last week of August. If every September was like the one of 2015, we would all want to be farmers. A cause for rejoicing, indeed.

  Remember. I was honored to be asked to say grace at my niece Heather's wedding reception a couple of years ago. The wedding was held in a barn, all beautifully appointed for the occasion. So, in keeping with the theme, I said a grace that was originally carved into the stone lintel of a barn, over a large doorway. It is original to the barn and its owner, and its sentiments are absolutely appropriate for this time of year. It reads:

                 When your barn is well fill'd all snug and secure
                   Be thankful to God and remember the poor.

  I hope that your barn is metaphorically well filled, snug and secure. We all have much to be thankful for living here in Canada. I hope we all take time to remember and do something for the poor and dispossessed around the world and right here at home.