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.


Friday, October 23, 2015

School of Hard Knocks

 " We shape our tools and then our tools shape us." 

             Marshall McLuhan

  We hand dig our garlic, beets, carrots and other root crops. A big piece of the harvest is a favourite garden fork that has a story of its own to tell......

  Dempsey Brothers Hardware Store was a Toronto landmark, located on the North-West corner of Yonge and Sheppard from 1860, until it was moved a few blocks north in 1996.

  My father, who was a builder, had his office a few houses to the west of Dempsey's and he was a frequent and enthusiastic customer. Mickey Dempsey sold my dad the usual hardware fare like paint, tools and nails but also my mom's kitchen pots, the family's foot-ware and my winter and summer wardrobe.

  Some of the clothing stock was pretty dated, to say the least, so it really wasn't a big surprise that I looked like an extra on a 1960 episode of "Leave it to Beaver" in the summer of 1969.

  One of the perks for my dad's loyalty was Mickey's very occasional permission to allow him up into the attic to select his choice of what we now call new old stock. The business had been sold to the Dempseys in the early 1920's, but a lot of stock must have been included in the sale.

  It was like entering a time capsule: racks of beautiful old skates still in the boxes, old unused shotgun shells, horse bits, bridles and hand tools in mint condition that hadn't seen the light of day for decades.

  On one visit, my dad came home with a garden fork, among other things. The fork was immaculate, still with the original label. It was to my tool collecting  father like finding a long forgotten Fender Telecaster would be to a guitar collector. It likely dates to the 1920's, and it is this fork that we enjoy using to this day.

  My father's care of his tools ventured deep into obsessive-compulsive territory. He had them stored in racks on a wall in a purpose built room, where they were to be returned after each use. They also had to be cleaned off and oiled if necessary. It was like an armory.

  The cardinal sin of tool use was to leave one outside. "It'll open up the handles!", my dad told me (repeatedly), meaning that the dew, or worse (for you), rain would immediately start the handles towards an irrevocable downwards spiral into decay.

  My young brain seemed to struggle with the notion of order and looking after tools. I remember helping my father one hot summer day to lay some hated patio slabs.

  My father went out for the afternoon. I characteristically forgot about putting the tools away and somehow day faded into twilight with a rousing game of "Kick-the-Can" going on with all the neighborhood kids.

  As I rounded the corner of the garage in full rebel yell after joyously kicking the can, my mind vaguely remembered a stiff garden rake that I had left laying on the ground somewhere close by.

  I do not know the terminal velocity of a rake whose tines are stepped on at speed, but I do know what it feels like to be a stunned mullet that has been dynamite fished, lying on the ground gasping for air.

  It certainly made an impression on me, one that I couldn't tell my dad about, but the overall effect was life altering. I started to pick up those tools and look after them, before they took care of me.

  And here it is, all these years later, and I think about how much I enjoy putting boiled linseed oil on the handles, sharpening the blades and oiling the steel  of those tools every fall before they get put away. It is, in a way, time spent with my dad.

  Which is a big part of why that garden fork lives on.



Friday, October 16, 2015

Why do we treat our soil like dirt?

    "Man, despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication and his many accomplishments, owes his existence to a six inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains"


  My doctor craned his neck to get a look at what I was reading on my last visit to his office. It has become a bit of a ritual, and has led to some great discussions about Steve Jobs, Lawrence of Arabia, plagues or whatever else I happen to be reading about.

  "Dirt", he said. End of discussion.

   In fairness to him, he knew as much about dirt as I would about performing a frontal lobotomy.

  The book is indeed called "Dirt", by David Montgomery and despite its less than riveting title, it is a fascinating read. The overarching theme is that soil is our most important and essential natural resource. It is also our least appreciated and least valued. While we all know the price of gas or heating oil, we tend to forget that soil is a vitally important strategic resource as well.

  This is not news to most farmers. I went to a day long "Soilsmart" conference in Kitchener last winter that was well attended, with speakers from all over North America.

  This would have been a huge event in 1931, when one in three Canadians lived on a farm, However, this is 2015, and the number is one in forty six. A number that will continue to dwindle.

  What this means is that, like my doctor, most people don't have the foggiest notion of why soil is so important. We treat it as a cheap industrial commodity that is available in limitless supply.

  Sadly, this is not the case, and Mr. Montgomery provides many examples of why soil degradation has taken down countries and empires, including Iraq, Greece, China, Haiti, Iceland, The Roman Empire and others. It's a long list.

  He states " soil erosion now exceeds new soil production by as much as 23 billion tons per year. At this pace the world would literally run out of topsoil in little more than a century. It's like a bank account from which one spends and spends, but never deposits."

  This steady bleed has caused many farmers around the world to dramatically change how they treat their land. I have written another blog ( "Is your farm organic?") and I will write more in the future that I hope you will read  to further your understanding and appreciation of what many farmers, including me, are doing to arrest and reverse this decline.

  We have seen our soil organic matter levels increase over the past 30 years, due to cover cropping, long rotations, no-till planting, composting and other practices. These have provided tremendous advantages to us by increasing the water holding capacity of our soil, increasing microbial activity; even helping plants fight off disease.

  But the bottom line is what these practices provide to you and to society as a whole, and I will continue to hammer this point home over the years to come:

  Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People

  Your local soil zealot,




Friday, October 9, 2015

Farintosh's Squashes



   John Shales high school nickname for yours truly

  A bit prescient, was our John Shales. Little did he, or I realize how predominant a role squash was to play in my life.

  It wasn't by design or any plan on my part; just one of those random strokes of serendipity that all too infrequently falls into our lap.....

  The fall of 1977 was my first full year on the farm after graduating from Ontario Agricultural College. I had a fledgling pick your own enterprise that had just come face to face against a hard truth of marketing farm produce:

  It's a lot easier to grow produce than it is to sell it.

  I had a couple of long garden rows with a bumper crop of squash that had tempted few buyers. By late September, the end was nigh, unless I stored them in my non-existent storage room.

  Down the lane puttered an ancient, powder blue VW beetle. The driver was one Isilene Lunan, an older black woman with cats-eye glasses and an bottomless supply of good cheer.

  She was drawn to my squash field, where she picked a few and then asked for my help to pick some more.

  By the time we were done, that VW was on its knees; squash crammed into every available space. We settled up and she headed out the lane.

  Next day, Isilene was back for more squash. Again, we overloaded that bug. She was back twice more before the end of the season. I later found out that she had given the majority of her payload away to friends and family.

  "You know", she said, "I have a few friends that would like these. You should plant more next year."

  I was to be reminded of that day when I watched "Field of Dreams" years later, when that Iowa corn farmer was told to "build it and they will come."

  So, in 1978, I planted more squash and as Isilene had promised; they came. Not only in cars, but in pickup trucks and vans; all loaded with customers looking for my squash.

  I later found out that  Seventh Day Adventist and Pentecostal ladies are the gold standard of networking.

  This annual squash picking day grew to the point that, by the high water mark of 2008, thirty years later, we were growing 10 acres of squash for all those folks who kept coming every fall.

  It has turned into a reunion for both me and my loyal customers, one where I have seen small children grow up and have family of their own.

  Isilene Lunan retired to Jamaica, where she passed away several years ago.

  But her spirit is alive and well. The generosity of our customers continues to humble me every year. I am sure that more squash is given away than is consumed by them; to friends, family and older people who can no longer make the trip to the farm.

  Any squash that we have left over is taken to the food banks in Markham and Richmond Hill.

  Isilene would expect no less.




Friday, October 2, 2015


 "The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.
    The second best time is now."
                                                     Chinese Proverb

  Picture if you will, a newly planted vegetable seedling in a large open field. 

  It was transplanted into beautiful, loamy soil with ideal moisture conditions and a shot of water and starter fertilizer to settle it into its new home. The day is sunny and warm. Conditions are perfect.

  Most early mornings are relatively windless on our farm, but, by about 9:30 a.m. the wind has really picked up. The wind generally strengthens through the day, often hitting 60-70 clicks by afternoon. Visitors from the city often remark on how windy it is on the farm compared to the city they just left.

  Long before this speed has been attained, our happy little transplant is starting to undergo some serious stress. It is transpiring or losing moisture through its leaves more quickly than it can replace that water through its roots. Blowing soil damages the leaves as well.

  Left unchecked, wind will stunt the growth of those stressed transplants leaving them prone to insect damage and disease with a consequent reduction in final yield.

  This is where those windbreaks enter the picture.

  By planting rows of coniferous trees at 90 degrees to the prevailing wind, we are able to slow down the wind to a point where it is no longer damaging.

  The rule of thumb for protection from windbreaks is that: for every foot of tree height,
ten feet of field to the lee of the wind is protected.

  Our oldest windbreak is a triple row of Norway Spruce, planted in 1927 by a forward thinking Carl Reesor. It is now about 80 feet high, giving us roughly 800 feet of protection, which covers most of our farmstead buildings.

  It also shelters a 3 acre field where the benefits of a dense windbreak become most apparent.

  The microclimate that has been created to the lee of this windbreak is an almost unbelievable transformation: a virtually windless sanctuary that we refer to as "the banana belt". It is perfect for watermelon and other heat seeking crops that thrive in the lush, steamy sanctuary that it becomes every summer.

  I have added to this original windbreak over the years, planting 2000 conifers in 1984 and another 2000 trees in 2006. I used white cedar to the windward side, with a middle row of norway spruce and white spruce on the leeward side. I've also used white pine on some of the more sandy land.

  No wonder so many people ask me if we sell pick your own Christmas trees!

  My own experience is that the trees have grown about one foot per year. That assumes that you take care of them just like any field crop: our 2006 planting required extensive watering in the drought of 2007. We also weed around the trees and mow between the rows for the first 6-7 years.

  Practical people have pointed out to me that I'd better stick at the farming for awhile to take advantage of that latest planting.

  They're right, of course. I hope to do just that; after all, those fields are going to be more fun and easier to farm every year!

  Less gusty in Gormley,


P.S. Our windbreaks will be part of a Conservation Authority Tour this coming Thursday October 8, 2015.

Check out the link, you may want to be part of an environmental farm tour to hear more details about our windbreaks and other farm initiatives: