Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: A fairy tale season

Cinderella season: A situation in which competitors achieve greater success than would reasonably be expected.

  The winter of 2017- 2018 is quickly turning into one of the coldest on record.  It is -23 degrees Celsius here at the farm as I write this , yet another in a week long string of record-breaking cold days.

  December 28th was colder in Toronto (-22 degrees C.) than at the North Pole, where Santa was basking in balmy -18 degrees C. warmth.

  It wasn't supposed to be this way. Environment Canada's senior climatologist Dave Philips, who forecast a milder than usual winter, has already (after 10 days of winter!) issued a mea culpa:

   "Egg on my face is something I deal with a lot", he said in an article in the Dec. 28, 2017 issue of the Toronto Star.

  It is still early days, and we can only hope that Mr. Philips is right in the long term.

   I' m not sure why we have such a fascination with long range weather forecasts, but one thing is for sure: the word "normal" no longer applies. Several long range prognosticators hedged their bets for the 2017 growing season and said that it would be a "normal" year.

  The evidence to the contrary can be bench marked by four different T.V. and newspaper stories about the farm in 2017. Three of the four stories occurred largely due to or only because of the abnormal weather that we were experiencing. A look back:

  By the June 1st we were already two weeks behind due to a wet, cold spring. Anwar Knight, from CTV weather came early one morning to talk about the unusual spring and how it was affecting us.

  Anwar asks great questions and is extremely kind about listening to my answers. It can be tough for farmers to get our message out when we are busy, so my hat is off to him for doing just that. A wonderful envoy and genuine nice guy:

  By August 1st, we were not only two weeks behind, but our fields continued to be covered in water from relentless heavy rains. Our local newspaper had a monthly supplement in August with the headline: "Special Report, The Rains of 2017" with a picture of an odd looking local farmer taken in a brief moment of sunshine on an otherwise cloudy day.

   David Tuley, Stouffville's  economic development officer, who understands the importance of farming to the area was the impetus behind this supplement. He is another delightful man to work with:

  On September 1st, the temperature in the morning was 5 degrees Celsius, which did not bode well for a late frost (i.e. later in October.) Every farmer in Southern Ontario watched and waited for Mother Nature to deal the cards for September.....

  Most of us got four aces. If ever the word "miracle" could be applied to a month in 2017, September was that month. I keep a daily journal, which includes a description of the weather. In the sixteen days between September 12th and September 27th, the word "sunny" appears sixteen times, along with daily highs in the high twenties or low thirties.

  On September 26th, CBC news stopped by to do a story on how all the hot, dry weather was negatively affecting farmers. We had some damage, mostly due to sun scald on our vegetables, but I  pointed out that all the hot, dry weather had indeed saved our season. The loss of a percentage of some crops was collateral damage that we could live with.

  The interview was on radio and T.V., but the only record I have of it is online. A tip of the hat to CBC for taking farmers' concerns to a broader audience:

  On October 2nd, CITY T.V. stopped by dark and early to do several segments at our farm to kick off  Agriculture week In Ontario. Our Pick Your Own fields were in full on mellow fruitfulness mode.

  The season that looked like a train wreck a month before had turned into a first class ticket on the Orient Express.

  Many thanks to Kelly Ward of the Ontario Minsitry of Agriculture and Food and our neighbor and friend Cathy Bartolic of Ontario Farm Fresh for  submitting our name for the Breakfast Television piece. Both are wonderful ladies to work with and obviously focused on getting the farm fresh message out there. It was a lot of fun and a great source of publicity for our farm:

   It was a fairy tale season all right: part Cinderella story and part Goldilocks.

  2017 wound up being our best ever year on the farm, a fact that still amazes me. We feel extremely blessed and grateful for the fortuitous change in the weather and humbled by the magnanimity of a kind and long-suffering God, who had his hands full in 2017.

  A huge thank you to all of our loyal customers, who stood by us and waited until those vegetables were finally ready. It was a compressed selling and picking season that demanded a large helping of patience on your part. You didn't disappoint us.

  We wish each and everyone of you a healthy, happy 2018 that is memorable for all the right reasons.

  And, dare I say, a normal growing season.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Small is Beautiful

"Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things."
                                                  Richard  Brault
  Fall is the season of horticultural superlatives.There is a real thrill for farmers and gardeners everywhere to finally harvest those dinner plate sized dahlias or pickup bed sized pumpkins.

  Clifford and Keroy take particular pleasure in finding the biggest/ heaviest/ largest of any vegetable  that we grow. One pound peppers. Fifteen pound cabbages. Thirty-five pound watermelons. It is like the mother of all Easter egg hunts for us.

  The fly in the ointment can be to actually sell these monsters. It may take a village to breed, develop, sell the seed and grow it to harvest, but not everyone needs a single vegetable that will feed a village.

  We have grown Ultra HP, a variety of butternut squash for years. It attains impressive size, maturing to ten to fifteen pound sized monsters. Clifford and Keroy loved harvesting it, and outdid each other looking for the biggest specimens.

  They had grown more difficult to sell in recent years, so I dropped them from the starting lineup and looked for a more family-friendly butternut squash. Honeynut is the name of one of the new varieties that we trial planted last year.

  Clifford brought in the first bushel of them from the field in mid September of 2016, with a look of disgust written on his face.

  "These squash are wimps, mon!"

   (Clifford always ratchets up the decibels to emphasize certain words that he feels strongly about.)

  It was true. Inside the bushel was a collection of the smallest buttercup squash that we had ever grown, about a pound each.

  That first day, we gave some away, sold others and took a couple to try ourselves.

  They were and are, without a doubt, the sweetest and most delicious squash that we had ever eaten, and we have eaten a lot over the years. Anyone who tried them was back for more and we very quickly sold out.

 I have always been a buttercup squash guy, but these were good enough to get me to change my religion.

  Honeynut squash, as it turns out, is a cross between butternut and buttercup squash, thanks to the efforts of plant breeders at Cornell University. Before you ask: this was developed through good old-fashioned plant breeding and is not a GMO variety.

  Michael Mazourek, an assistant professor in plant breeding at Cornell since 2008 has spearheaded a move towards breeding better tasting vegetables rather than better shipping ones. The ultimate goal is to get people to eat more nutritious food by developing better tasting food.

  Honeynut squash, with its deep orange flesh, is packed with beta-carotene. The flavor appears to be maximized by roasting it until it caramelizes rather than steaming it.

  Don't forget to pick up a few to try and to add "sweetest", "tastiest" and "healthiest" to your list of fall superlatives.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Pick Your Own Stories

"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.

  Until then,



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.