Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Delivery woes

I'm writing this blog as Jeremy drives our vegetable packages into the GTA this week. Our 'suburban' run is a mammoth delivery route, with over 30 stops going from Brampton to Mississauga to Oakville to east Toronto to uptown Toronto to North York. From 7 am departure from the farm to last delivery in North York, the whole run takes almost 12 hours, non-stop. Then we stay overnight in the GTA before making the 2+ hour drive back to the farm the next morning. It's brutal.

Traffic in the GTA this year is worse than the past two seasons. Then, I could drive from central Mississauga to Victoria Park & 401 in about 20 minutes in the 11:30 am to 1 pm window. We tried a similar drive (from western Oakville, which I've regularly driven in the past in 30 min.) twice this year in the same time period and took an hour each time, stuck in traffic on the 401. After the first 2 deliveries with Jeremy to teach him the initial route, I made 3 solo trips, trying alternate highways each time, before settling on our current route, accepting that it couldn't be done by 1 person much under 12 hours. The route changed to using the QEW/427 and then crossing Toronto on deliveries. It's probably not any faster, but feels less soul sucking than sitting in stop and go traffic on the 401, about the ugliest road I've ever seen. I sent Jeremy on his first solo run for delivery #7, after bringing him on #6 to show him the final route. Today, at #8, both of us dread the suburban delivery day.

One new thing we're trying out this week is an off-road break. Whenever I'm on the road, I don't want to take breaks because I'm hoping (foolishly) to beat traffic if I just keep on trucking, and just generally wanting to get the whole thing done with so I can then rest without deliveries hanging over my head. But 12 hours straight without a break just isn't any good. Taking one could make the entire delivery day longer by an hour or 2, but our hope is that the time spent outside of the van and off the road will help rejuvenate for the last deliveries. I'll find out from Jeremy later tonight if it was any help at all.

I'm scheduled to do delivery #9 solo, and both of us will go on the final 10th delivery Nov. 2. We will certainly have a celebratory dinner after that! And next season, a delivery run of 30+ stops just won't happen at all. I don't have the time right now to fully plan out how things will change, but it will involve changing the delivery method from individual home deliveries to drop off points where multiple families come to pick up when they can, and very likely, cutting down on the number of subscribers.

Next season clearly isn't set yet, but even if Jeremy comes back next year, we'll likely have to cut down our subscription base from 40 packages/week to 30-35. Right now, I don't know if that will work out at all financially (this year doesn't quite do so even at 40 subscribers/week), but there's just been too much work this season for 2 people to do without feeling completely burnt out. I went from being a 1 person operation, with 20 packages a week, on a field just under an acre in size, to 2 people with 40, on a new, larger field, producing probably 2.5 times as many vegetables as last season. The packages this year have had more produce in them than previously due to the vegetable bounty, which meant more harvesting than the 2 of us could do without long hours. We both work probably an average of 10 hours/day/6 days a week for 7+ months, much of that quite physical, totalling about 3720 hours for the season. All for a gross income of $30K, maybe netting $15K after business expenses, not including labour costs. I definitely won't have netted enough income after all expenses (max. about $8500) to pay for living costs this year, even trying to be as frugal as possible. So I'll either have to just accept an increase in debt or try to find a temporary job over this winter.

It is quite a dilemma trying to figure out how to farm sustainably. While I certainly don't expect to have a solid answer figured out this early in my farming career, I do know that this year has taught me a lot about how much work is too much work. And how even so-called 'expensive' vegetables don't generate enough revenue to cover the minimum costs of living. I certainly haven't given up on my quest for a farming business that is actually economically, environmentally and physically sustainable, but I'm definitely a long way from that yet. Hopefully as the season ends in November, I'll have a chance to review these past few seasons, looking at things that worked and didn't work and hopefully coming up with ways to be more productive and to generate more income. It has to be possible for farming to actually pay the bills, or how can any new farmers be encouraged to go into farming? Because if we don't get new farmers in the next few years, how are we going to have food to eat? There are definitely days where I really wish I had a partner with an off-farm income so I wouldn't have to shoulder all the costs of owning and maintaining a property on my own, but then I have to remind myself that God led me on this path, and He will truly provide for me. I have no lack of that evidence in my life so far! I just need to remind myself to have faith...and ask everyone to pray for me ;P

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Into the home stretch

I can't believe how busy this summer has been! I completely missed both July and August for blog posting because there just wasn't any time to sit down for a moment to collect my thoughts. Reading the previous post, I realize how much has happened since then. First off, the weather did an about face and became hot and dry, almost drought-like at times. The irrigation drip lines were rolled out and used to make sure plants wouldn't die off during a 3 week stretch with no rain. But all that heat paid off in tons of summer squash! In our peak production weeks, Jeremy and I hauled over 400 lbs of them off the field each week. In multiple trips of course...even with both of us pulling the cart, 150-200 lbs were a struggle!

The hot, dry weather was also good for making sure the tomato plants didn't get blight. Instead, the tomato horn worm hit, which meant some unwelcome worm picking for me (uggh...absolutely hate the tomato horn worm!) and feasting for the chickens ;P The potato plants were also hit with potato beetle, which meant picking off potato beetle larva...yet another unwelcome task. I'm really not a bug person, so manual pest control is not something I look forward to, but it's definitely high on the farm priority list.

In late June/early July, after all the tomato, pepper, hot pepper, eggplant, cucumber, summer squash, winter squash transplants and sweet potato slips were finally transplanted into the field, I was nearly overwhelmed mentally looking at all the weeding that needed to get done. Two acres of vegetables to weed, even with two people, looked like a lot more than what I had to weed on my own in previous years. Thankfully, some farmer friends came to the rescue and on the first Saturday in July, four of us hit the field with wheel hoes and regular hoes and took down the weeds between plants for about 1/3 of an acre. At the same time, Jeremy hooked up the hiller attachment on the rototiller and hilled all 8 beds of potato plants. Jeremy got a bit heat stroked from all that activity in the heat, and I'm not sure how the rest of us avoided the same.

We celebrated our weeding/hilling achievements (and my birthday!) with some great organic, biodynamic red wine from Tawse Winery and the Fellowship cheese wheel from the cheesemaking workshop I went to at Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co. back in April. Absolutely delicious!

The carrots and beets have also done really well this season, tasting amazing and growing so much bigger than in my previous two years. When I fork up the carrots, I'm always amazed by how long and big they've grown given how hard and compacted the soil is under the top few inches. Gardening experts always say that carrots won't do well under such conditions, so I'm thankful that my carrots chose to ignore all that.

The one crop family that seems to be a consistent failure in my field this year is brassicas. This includes bok choy, cabbages, turnips, broccoli and brussel sprouts. There are a number of possible reasons for this ranging from the extremes in weather (too cold and wet to too hot and dry) to pests (flea beetle and swede midge) and most likely, to deficiencies in trace elements in the soil (to be addressed over the years with the addition of compost and building up of organic matter). I did get one harvest of bok choy early in the season, and the fall planting of bok choy seems to have germinated well, so we'll see if there will be some to harvest before the season's over! Otherwise, many of my clients have been very happy that both turnips and brussel sprouts haven't turned out ;P

Of the first time crops this year, the most resounding success has been edamame! Specifically, the Beer Friend variety that I bought from William Dam Seeds. It was a pleasure to watch the soy plants grow, from their fresh leafy stems, to their tiny, delicate flowers to the pods, fuzzy enough to pet! And it was amazing to sit down to a bowl of freshly boiled and salted pods with a beer :) I'm definitely growing edamame again next year!

There's still lots to do this season, especially if the fall stays warm. Last night was the coldest night with a definite risk of frost, which didn't happen (thank goodness!), so there will still be tomatoes and summer squash for a bit. And the fall crops need to get harvested, like the potatoes (Purple Viking and Russian Blue are already in, next are the fingerlings!), winter squash and pumpkins.

If things ever slow down, I'm going to tackle the leeks and onions which haven't gotten weeded at all this season and are completely lost in brome grass right now. I'm hoping they will be early leeks and onions for next season at this point ;P

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Starting the delivery season

I should be washing dishes right now, but realized that I had to write at least one post for June! And the topic's been on my mind for most of this month...when to start harvesting and delivering vegetables to the farm's subscribers. It was a really tough call this year as the early crops weren't growing as I'd hoped/planned. Usually, I use the timing of the sugar snap peas to determine when I start deliveries, but with the loss of my Asian greens crops (bok choy mostly) to cold, wet, flea beetle, you name it, and slow growth and sparser than hoped for germination on my salad green, spinach, herb and chard plantings, there wasn't necessarily enough other produce to deliver along with the sugar snap peas! Plus, every week that I delayed past my hoped for start week of June 21 would be a tough loss of revenue for the season.

So on Sunday, June 19th, I walked my field, saw that the first plantings of salad greens and spinach were big enough to harvest and that the first picking of sugar snap peas was ready, and decided that I would start my deliveries that week. Monday morning, Jeremy and I cut the first bed of salad greens, which didn't yield nearly enough, so we went on to the 2nd planting as well. We did the same for the spinach, hoping that there would be enough to make deliveries (now a necessity!) worthwhile. After weighing and packaging the greens, I made the decision to do a partial run for the first week, delivering to 25 downtown subscribers out of the almost 40 that would normally get vegetables on my 'downtown' week. And of those deliveries, the majority didn't get enough vegetables for a full package, so I owe them additional vegetables later in the summer when there's more produce (fingers crossed!).

This week, I again decided on a partial run, 22 out of 40, but all with full packages. We cut greens from the 3rd planting which yielded the same poundage as plantings 1 & 2 combined. And the first planting of sugar snap peas definitely came into its own, yielding about 15 lbs over 250 linear feet, with another 15 lbs from the 2nd planting of close to 400 linear feet. Next week, that 2nd planting should yield lots more too.

It's amazing how much of a difference the weather at different planting times can make. The first 2 greens seedings were done when the weather was still pretty cold, so by the time they started growing well, the 3rd had already almost caught up, and in the end, surpassed them for production. I wonder how many years it will take before I can look at a row of salad greens and get an accurate estimate on how much they'll all weigh once cut. One thing's for sure, I'm definitely increasing the linear feet I plant for early greens next year!

So for this season, I won't be making full subscription deliveries to all my clients until July :( I guess I should feel lucky as I hear of many farms and gardens which haven't started producing anything yet due to wet fields and a cold spring. And certainly being able to start deliveries 'on time', even if abbreviated, is a vast improvement over my first year where I didn't have enough volume of produce to bring anywhere until September ;P I should feel quite lucky that my field has produced as much as it has considering it's a new field (for me and my vegetables). It's certainly been a different experience so far as this field is much wetter than my previous one (which was a slightly sloping hill on a higher part of my farm), and having been worked a lot more over the years (by previous croppers), has a lot less organic matter and more compaction. It will definitely be a few years before it will be in a state that 'guarantees' any sort of vegetable production ;P

Hopefully as the season progresses, I won't have to stress so much over having enough vegetables to deliver to subscribers. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that there aren't any major crop failures, and that this year, the tomatoes don't get blight. So far, they're looking healthy and happy...but so much can change overnight! Sometimes I can't believe how much my life has changed, with my whole livelihood dependent on so many uncontrollable factors. But perhaps there's some peace to be found in that. All I can do is work hard and do my best and the rest is out of my hands. In my previous city working life (as in most of yours I'm sure!), so much that could go wrong with work had to do with people and politics, which is much more frustrating because you feel like maybe you have power over the outcome. I've accepted that I have no power over the weather ;P

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Field prep and planting

It's been a while since the last blog update because the past few weeks have been a frenzy of field prep, tree planting, soil blocking and seedling starting. If you've been paying attention to the weather, we've been having a very cold and wet spring, especially compared to the unusually hot and dry spring last year! In all of April, there were maybe 2 one-day windows for field cultivation and then a stretch of 3-5 days in May in which pretty much every field crop farmer in my area had to cultivate and then seed their fields from dawn to dusk. Any farmer that didn't manage to take advantage of those few days have now been waiting in vain for another stretch where fields could dry out. According to Environment Canada, some areas of Ontario had record rainfall in April. And so far, May seems to be super wet too!

I was lucky in that my neighbour who helps me out with field work once a year, was home and available the first almost dry day in April. For my farm, that was April 13, and he used a cultivator with S-tines and rolling baskets to break up the soil for the southern, relatively dry, half of my field. I say relatively dry because it was not ideally dry for any cultivation, but with more precipitation expected in the next few days I didn't want to lose my one day window to get the field ready for direct seeding. And it's definitely a good thing that it was done then because the next time the field was dry enough to be worked was May 9th! That's when the unworked northern half of the field was disked up.

In between the first and second cultivations, we direct seeded sugar snap peas, radish, salad mix, spinach, bok choy, gai lan, turnip, daikon radish, beets, carrots, chard and herbs to the field. The first sets of direct seedings were almost into frozen ground and were snowed on a couple days later. And then parts of the beds sat in snow melt puddles for days after that :( Subsequent plantings were doubled to make up for any drowning losses. It amazes me how much some seeds can actually take. The very first planting of sugar snap peas germinated relatively evenly given all these adverse conditions. I definitely expected more seed losses.

We also planted 400+ trees along the western and southern edges of the field to be future wind/shelter breaks. Many of the cedars were planted into very mucky puddles indeed! Planting trees is definitely a long-term investment as I don't expect the trees to get much bigger than their seedling size for the first 5-6 years. And I'll be lucky to see any of the oaks reach their full growth in my lifetime.

My vegetable field for the first two years was up on a hill that dried out fairly early, and the first two years weren't as wet in the spring as now, so I didn't truly appreciate what a benefit that was until this year. Each day in early April, Jeremy and I would check out the field to see if it was dry enough to start using. My first time venturing into the field when it was really wet resulted in a fall in the mud when my boot got sucked in. We really shouldn't have been walking in the field at all, to avoid compaction, but I just couldn't fathom how different things would be compared with before. Now I know!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Farming and politics

I'm currently inside the house, warming up with a hot cup of tea from a wet and icky fall in the mud, and thought it would be a good time to write about politics ;P

I attended my first all-candidates debate for my region, Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, on Wednesday night in the community centre at Keady. It's actually the first political debate I've ever attended. I've never really been one for watching the leaders' debates on tv or listening on the radio, but have chosen more to read party platforms downloaded from their websites. While I've always exercised my right to vote, and have tried to be an informed voter, I find myself more motivated to care about our democracy since getting into farming than ever before.

The debate I attended was organized by the National Farmers' Union (NFU), the Christian Farmers' Federation of Ontario (CFFO) and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), so of course, the debate questions all focused on agriculture and food policy. I didn't learn anything particularly new about the various parties' agriculture-related platforms at this debate as I do generally keep track of the issues on this front. I found the format of the debate itself lacking as the audience didn't get to participate in the process, other than submitting written questions, of which only a small handful were presented to the candidates for debate. While I understand this was done for efficiency's sake and to avoid any public outbursts, it did not make me feel engaged in the process at all.

The candidates that impressed me the most with their responses were Emma Hogbin for the Green Party and Kimberley Love for the Liberals. They seemed passionate and informed about their positions. Kimberley was especially impressive with her ability to answer questions on point and a very confident public speaking style. However, Emma was much more pointed in her views on the problems with Canadian agriculture and what the Green Party would do to address them. Essentially, organic and local agriculture, especially of small and mid-size farms, is their focus, which you can imagine, is especially dear to my heart.

Large, corporate agriculture has had decades of government support and subsidies and I can't see how that has been successful to now. In one of my previous posts, I had discussed how I had gone looking for all the 'government money' that was out there to help me farm, and had discovered that this is a hoax that many Canadians believe in, but is ultimately untrue for any farm that isn't of a large and corporate scale. If Canada's overall food system is to have any long-term resilience and sustainability, it needs to include all different scales of agriculture, and arguably, far many more small and mid-size farms. If the rate of farmer retirement continues to outpace the rate of farmer replacement (described by the moderator on Wednesday in Ontario/Canada? as 4000 leaving and 1000 replacing each year), then who's going to grow the food we need to eat in the future? The capital costs for starting a farm can be quite high, and the learning curve once you're there is pretty steep. If farmers can't be profitable because they only get back less than 10% of the retail value of the goods they've produced, then who the hell wants to get into farming? But I digress...

The candidate I was absolutely the least impressed with at the debate was the Conservative incumbent, Larry Miller. From all my blog postings, I'm sure it's fairly clear that I'm far from being a Conservative, small or big 'C', but this man was so insulting in so many ways that I can't see how anyone could vote for him. His trademark phrase is that he's a 'straight-shooter', which perhaps appeals to this region because the demographics are older and most folks don't want to hear a bill of goods? I don't want to be insulting to the voters in my region, as everyone I've met has been pretty wonderful so far, but really...why do you vote for Larry Miller??? One of his responses that sticks out in my mind from the debate, was when he erroneously interpreted something said by Emma (Green Party), to which his response was (paraphrased slightly, but not far from being quoted word for word) "...they want to tell you how many acres you can farm...the last time that happened was in Russia, and it was Communism...". I was so bowled over by the ignorance and misinformation of that comment that I was just in shock for the next few moments. But beyond that response, and others that really annoyed me, his overall message was that government just couldn't (wouldnt'!) do anything to change the way Canadian agriculture currently works (doesn't). And if you take a look at the Conservative party platform on agriculture, you'll see that it's more of the status quo, focusing on export markets, agricultural innovation (read: more expensive machines, chemical inputs and GM products) and more fields growing fuel, than food crops, if that's what's actually profitable to farmers (...only because of subsidies!). If you think having a meat heavy diet is a hugely inefficient use of land resources, then take a look at the input/output numbers for fuel cropping (I shudder).

The NDP candidate for my region is Karen Gventer, who was also at the debate, though I don't have much to say one way or another about her performance there. The NDP food policy platform itself is certainly one with a lot of content that I agree with.

The Liberals, NDP and Greens all have food policies that I can live with (for a really simple synopsis, go to: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/something-to-chew-on-a-party-by-party-breakdown-of-food-policy/article1979351/). Though none of them are comprehensive enough (all 3 could be combined, and then some), they're certainly a start, which is more than has been on the political agenda for years! I hope that rural communities, traditionally seen as Conservative strongholds, stop thinking that Conservative policies help agriculture and consider alternatives. If the polls are to be believed, the Conservatives are the front runner for my district, with the Green Party in second. If you don't want the Conservatives to win this seat again, maybe we could push the Greens to the fore, and an actual seat in Parliament. Anything other than the Conservatives and Miller again!

There was one interesting thing at the debate that I'll conclude with. Barney, a local man known for his sandwich board protests, was also at the debate with flyers on why we should purposely spoil our ballot at this election to send a message that our  democracy is a sham and that our current slate of parties to vote for is no real choice at all. Given the lacklustre performance of the various opposition parties over the course of Harper's overly powerful time in office, I don't necessarily disagree with Barney ;P Whatever anyone chooses to do with their time at the ballot box, I just hope everyone goes to do something and sends a message that we want to participate in our democracy (no matter how flawed) and not be apathetic bystanders.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cheesemaker for a Day!

Last week, Jeremy and I attended an amazing cheese workshop at Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co. (www.fifthtown.ca) in Prince Edward County. It was a whole day workshop, the majority of the time spent in scrubs, hairnets, rubber boots and with hands/arms sanitized to the elbow. Fifth Town had received their largest shipment of milk to date the night before, and when we arrived, the milk (flash pasteurized on site) was filling up the vats where they would be turned into cheese curds.

The milk of the day was goat (they also make cheese from sheep and cow's milk) and it was collected from two goat farms within a 100 km radius of Fifth Town the day before. The plan was to turn about 1800L of the goat's milk into Cape Vessey (a firm cheese with washed rind), and the rest into Nettles Gone Wild (a soft surface ripened cheese).

While we breakfasted on bagels with a sampling of their various chevre cheeses in the cheese store, we watched Fifth Town's cheesemakers add rennet and culture to the warmed milk. After we had eaten and gotten all suited up, we were allowed to enter the cheese plant. We scrubbed our arms and hands and then sanitized them by dipping in iodine solution. We then helped get the cheese moulds ready to receive the curds. We also packaged up quark (a German cheese somewhere between yogurt and cream cheese) and got to taste it. So delicious! I can imagine it making a very decadent cheese cake.

Jeremy and I also got to help the plant's staff take swabs of various parts of the facility to send to the lab to make sure no unsafe bacteria had contaminated the plant. This was when we first set foot in the cheese cave which greeted us with the pungent smell of cheese molds. It was actually quite a heady smell which definitely made me want to eat some cheese! Amazing to think that as a kid, I couldn't stand the taste or smell of blue cheese, or any 'stinky' cheese ;P

Once the curds were set, we got to help cut it. The consistency was like silken tofu and the curd would break with a touch of the finger. At this stage, the size of the cut curds is important for what kind of cheese you want to make, with a smaller curd yielding a harder cheese (less moist) after aging. After the initial curd cutting was done, we stirred them in the giant vats with a large paddle as they were heated again to further solidify the curds.

Now came the wet part, packing the curds into the moulds. We would take a 'hat', a nylon mesh basket and run it through the vat, filling it with curds and draining off the whey. The hat would go in the mould where we would squeeze the mound of curds to press out some of the whey, and perhaps add some more curds to make sure the mould was nice and full. Then the caps (which press on the curds) were added.

By the time we had finished emptying the first vat of curds and put them all into moulds, it was already time to flip the first moulds that were filled! This involved flipping the moulds onto their caps, removing the mould and hat and then dropping the flipped cheese back into the hat/mould without having it break apart. I was quite nervous flipping my first cheese but soon got the hang of it. I was amazed by how much the curds had stuck to each other with so little pressure and time. These cheeses would be flipped 2-4 more times before they would be ready for brining and then aging for about 3 months. That day, our workshop helped to make over 120 Cape Vesey cheeses, and also 3 trays of Nettles Gone Wild.

After clearing all the cheese vats of curds, we got to sit down to a late lunch prepared by Fifth Town's in-house sommelier and chef. We had a mixed green salad with a dressing made with the rind of a hard cheese, crostini with cheese on top, lamb shepherd's pie (with cheese in the mashed potatoes), little shortbread cookies made with cheese and vanilla pana cotta. After our meal, we had a wine (all from Prince Edward County) and cheese (all Fifth Town's, of course!) tasting where we educated our palates on the best pairings. So much cheese for lunch! I was definitely in heaven :)

When we had cleaned up from lunch, we re-sanitized ourselves and helped with the 3rd turning of the Cape Vessey cheeses. Then we went into the cheese caves to learn about the ripening process, and to pick the cheese rounds we'd be taking home with us. I picked a brushed rind hard cheese called Fellowship that had been made back in November and is almost ready to eat. It's made of sheep and goat's milk and is currently finishing its ripening in my summer kitchen/basement. I check on it almost daily, but really only need to brush the mold around and turn it once a week or so until I'm ready to cut it open. I plan to eat it for my birthday with a strong red wine. With help of course...it is a 5 lb cheese round! If you're in my area the Canada Day long weekend, stop in for some cheese and wine :D

Washed rind cheese cave. Rack of Cape Vessey.















Jeremy standing in the brushed rind cheese cave.




















The best thing about taking this cheese workshop was getting a real feel for the different stages of the cheesemaking process. Reading about it is one thing, but knowing how things should smell and feel at the different stages of the process gives me the practical knowledge to get started making my own cheese! On a much smaller scale of course. Perhaps there will be some Black Sheep Farm cheese to serve along with Fifth Town's Fellowship for my birthday :)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The problem with GMOs

Lately, genetically modified organisms (GMO), terminator, hybrid and heirloom seeds and patent rights have become more important for producers and consumers to understand. A number of GMOs are already in our food chain, and many more are awaiting their approval to be grown in Canada. Recently, I attended a protest against the University of Guelph's EnviroPig(TM), a GM animal, which they want to put into production on farms. Its claim to utility is much reduced phosphorus in its excretions (currently an environmental problem at large hog operations).

So what's the fuss all about? Why is genetic modification so controversial? What's at stake?

This is my stab at these issues, not on a super scientific level (you can all look up scientific papers on-line if you want the nitty gritty details) but from my perspective as an organic farmer whose goal is sustainable agriculture. I'm also going to stick with discussing plants, not transgenic animals or gene therapy, etc., which are all the results of recombinant DNA technology.

On a very basic level, farmers growing vegetables or field crops (grain/oil seed/soy/etc.) have the option of buying hybrid, GM or open (or self)-pollinating (OP) seeds. Of these three kinds, they can only save seed from OP crops as they're the only ones that breed true (given the right circumstances) and aren't patented (like GM and some hybrid seeds).

An F1 hybrid is the progeny of two homozygous parents. If you remember your high school or 1st year university biology, homozygous means that the two alleles for a given trait (like seed colour) are the same. This ensures that the F1 seed that results is very uniform genetically, reliably expressing the dominant parent characteristics for which it was bred. Producing stable F1 hybrid seed requires very controlled pollination, usually by hand, to make sure that each parent breeds with the other and not with its own kind. F1 hybrids grown and allowed to go to seed produce F2 seed, whose genetics would be a mix of the original parents and the F1 seed, which makes it very unreliable for reproducing F1 genetics. It is possible to stabilize a hybrid by breeding it over many generations until you've stabilized the original F1, essentially making it 90%+ homozygous. Some F1 hybrids are actually sterile (like a mule), which means no seed can be harvested from that crop.

Genetically modified seed has been created in a lab using recombinant DNA technology. It usually involves the insertion or deletion of a gene sequence. Insertions via bacterial or viral vectors are usually from a different species entirely (not plant at all). The first approvals for GM crops in Canada were in the 1990s. The first commercial cultivation of GM plants was in 1996. Currently, most of Canada's canola, corn and soybean crops are GM varieties. These varieties could have resistance to commercial herbicides (so they will survive herbicide application), be able to produce their own pesticidal proteins, or do both. The majority of these genetics have been developed (or bought) by Monsanto, and supposedly, their earliest patents start expiring in 2014. Globally, the highest percentage of GM crops grown are of corn, soy, cotton, canola & potatoes.

Open (or self) pollinating varieties, of which heirlooms would be a subset, set seed through sexual reproduction, aided by pollinators, such as insects, animals, the wind, etc. Some varieties are also self-pollinating. You can save genetically stable seed from many of these varieties, provided that you practice good seed saving techniques, such as isolation distances, buffer zones, removing genetically inferior plants before pollination, etc. to ensure that you're breeding true and for the hardiest plants. This type of sexual reproduction ensures genetic diversity and the production of plant varieties uniquely suited to the environment in which they're grown. Heirloom seeds are usually older varieties (50+ years old) which have mainly been preserved through the work of home gardeners for generations. Luckily for smaller vegetable producers like me, there are many heirloom varieties available commercially these days.

The pros to F1 hybrid seeds are their genetic reliability in terms of the traits that they express, as they usually produce more uniform fruit than OP/Heirloom varieties. That said, if the conditions aren't ideal in terms of moisture, heat units, etc., they won't do any better than other plants. The cons are that you can't save any seed from them and they cost more from seed companies than OP varieties (after all, they do require more effort to produce). Some would argue that they're less tasty or nutritious than OP varieties, probably because they've been bred more for size and shape (for mass production) than flavour.

As an organic farmer, I can't see any of pros to GM seeds. Since I don't use any herbicides, resistance to it isn't of any use to me. And I shudder at the thought that a plant is producing pesticides itself that could be killing a broad spectrum of insects that touch them, thereby destroying biodiversity of the insect population. Organic farming is about having healthy soils and resilient, biodiverse ecosystems. But for me, the biggest con of GM seeds, is letting their genetics loose in the environment, potentially contaminating plant gene pools beyond our ability to remediate. The arguments for how that can be prevented include terminator seeds (so that the plants can't reproduce at all) and large buffer zones. Terminator seeds scare me because nature always finds a way to sexually reproduce, which means the terminator gene could actually make its way into non-GM varieties and cause the genocide of those varieties. Large buffer zones are both unpredictable (high winds, far roaming insects and animals) and impractical (how much land would need to be used for buffering?). Also GM seeds generally cost a lot, and must be grown with specific chemical and water inputs, all large costs.

Open pollinated varieties have the benefit of being relatively easy to cultivate for seed and in many cases, of having been around for a very long time. Their plants and fruit have been eaten by generations without negative side effects. One of the reasons why GM organisms raise alarm bells for me, is that the technology is not that old and its products have only had a limited time to be tested for adverse effects. Consider that DNA recombinant technology was first practiced in the early 1970s and the first GM crops for commercial production were in 1996. That's only 15 years of limited, though hugely growing, production of GM foods. There have been studies that show that GM varieties of soy are much more allergenic than non-GM varieties, and there are worries that GM foods can contribute to antibiotic resistance. How many more children these days have allergies and sensitivities that weren't around when you were growing up? There may be few whole GM foods available for consumption, but they are definitely used in highly processed foods, like vegetable oils and breakfast cereals. New plant varieties are created all the time in nature, but GM varieties cross species boundaries with their genetics. Outside the lab, plants only sexually reproduce with other plants, not frogs or fish.

Currently, the Liberals are trying to pass a moratorium on allowing GM alfalfa into Canada (after another bill failed to pass). The Liberals, NDP & PQ would all vote in favour of this moratorium until more scientific study can be done, but the Conservatives have stalled a vote, twice now. The Monsantos of the world have many lobbyists and a lot of money to throw at political parties. The concern with GM alfalfa (other than just an overall concern with GMOs!) is that it could contaminate Canada's alfalfa supply, thereby jeopardizing our production of organic livestock or of closing markets to our alfalfa. This is a real risk, as GM flax has already contaminated Canada's flax supply, making it impossible to sell Canadian flax into GM-banning markets. Alfalfa is mainly pollinated by bees, who can fly very far indeed in their search for pollen. It is naive to assume that cross-pollination into non-GM alfalfa fields can be prevented. Organic production doesn't allow for any GM products/inputs at all and most grazing animals are fed alfalfa, either in the field or barn, along with other grains/grasses. Generally, Ontario farmers don't even grow alfalfa as a monocrop, as their alfalfa's usually intercropped with other grasses. A GM-alfalfa crop would be a monocrop that would be sprayed with glyphosate herbicide to get rid of broad-leaf weeds. So the likelihood of farmers even wanting to buy expensive GM-alfalfa seed and its partnered herbicide are low...but there's always someone...and before you know it, there wouldn't be any non-GM alfalfa in Canada.

Overall, I think GMOs are dangerous because there's too much that is unknown about their long-term effects on gene pools, people and the environment, especially weighed against their short-sighted benefits (high yields with expensive inputs).

At Black Sheep Farm this year, I will be growing 37 different vegetable crops, 91 different varieties in total. Of those varieties, 64 are open/self-pollinating, many being heirlooms, and 27 are hybrids. Clearly, I'm not a monocropping kind of farmer ;P I hope that all these different kinds of plants will attract many different insects to my field, so lots of pollination can happen and the insects can be in predator/prey balance. And I don't even really like bugs ;P What I do love is a biodiverse ecosystem. After all, variety is the spice of life!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Vegetable subscriptions now available!

I'm finally ready to advertise this year's Black Sheep Farm vegetable subscriptions! Thanks to my talented design sister, I now have a lovely brochure with details for this year. I've also created some pages here (see right side bar) with information.


The cost and frequency of the vegetable packages is the same as last year ($40/package, delivered every second week...for a total season's cost of maximum $400). Most of the same vegetables will be grown, with the exception of parsnips and melons, and the addition of sweet corn, edamame, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, fingerling potatoes and sweet potatoes. Of course, there's no guarantee that any of these will succeed, along with the other vegetables on the list (see link in side bar), but I certainly hope they do! I'm also increasing the number of varieties of heirloom tomatoes being grown in the hopes that a larger genetic pool will mean that at least some of the tomatoes will escape blight this year.

As I will be growing 2 acres of vegetables this year (with the help of Jeremy, the farm's first intern!), I need to double subscribership for this year from 40 to 80. So if anyone's interested in a vegetable subscription, please email me at info@justblacksheep.com.

Delivery areas are potentially all around the GTA, depending on where there are clusters of interest (Mississauga, North York, Yonge & Eglinton, Bathurst & St. Clair, etc.), as well as downtown Toronto, where I walk vegetable packages all around the downtown core. I definitely get a workout on my downtown deliveries as I walk the equivalent of 7-10 km to get to my various pick up points throughout the day. So don't be surprised if you see someone dressed in green, brisk walking down University Avenue with a giant cart of vegetables on Wednesdays this year :) My greater GTA deliveries are driven as they can't all be concentrated to within a few kilometre radius...yet! I guess that's something I could aspire to in the future. I've learned all sorts of Toronto driving tricks and short cuts in the past year, thanks to poring over side streets in Google maps. Anything to avoid main thoroughfares, and rush hour in general!

I could save myself some of these delivery logistics if I hadn't decided on a bi-weekly delivery model. But the benefits of having a different delivery group every second week are too valuable to give up. First off...my sanity. Having a different delivery route, one driven, the other mostly walked, every second week gives me variety and also the opportunity to touch base with more people. Second, most of my target market wouldn't be able to finish a full box of vegetables every week given that they eat out occasionally (or often!) and also like to buy some vegetables that I don't grow. So a bi-weekly box gives them farm fresh vegetables, while also allowing them the meal space for other produce and nights out. Third, having a lower subscription price point ($400 for 10 vegetable packages over 20 weeks, versus $800 for 20) makes them somewhat easier to sell.

In terms of vegetable package size, there are enough vegetables in a package for 1-2 people to eat over 2 weeks. Earlier in the season, the packages are lighter, containing mostly greens (salad, beet greens, spinach, bok choy). As the season progresses, they get heavier as summer squash, beans, tomatoes and root crops become harvestable. By the end of the season, it's a good thing I keep increasing upper arm strength, because the addition of winter squash and pumpkins definitely makes the packages much heavier! I dare you all to beat me arm wrestling at the end of October ;P

I'm still debating on whether or not to get a Black Sheep Farm re-useable bag printed for my downtown deliveries. The number that would need to be ordered to make the per bag cost reasonable is quite high, but given that I plan to be growing vegetables for many years, it might be worth it. Both for branding and to cut down on bag losses! I definitely need to get better at getting bags back from people as I went over budget on reuseable shopping bags last year. But then I have a dilemma over what kind of bag to order. I like that the PET bags are made of recycled plastic, but they don't last too long after a few washings. I'd like to get organic cotton canvas bags, but they're quite expensive and aren't made to the same dimensions of the recycled plastic bags I like. If I do decide to get bags made, I definitely have to make that decision soon so that they can be ready in time.

It's kind of crazy how many marketing decisions have to be made on top of figuring out how to grow enough vegetables!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tax time

I quite like tax time as I'm one of those strange people who actually really likes to crunch numbers and fill in tax forms. I also paper file my taxes, after all, tax receipts come to me in duplicate or triplicate, they've got to go somewhere!

I'm quite diligent with numbers and record keeping, so all my yearly expenses are spreadsheeted, usually within a week or so of expenditure. But reconciling and properly filing everything at tax time still takes a day or so as I confirm that data has been entered correctly and deposits throughout the year have all been accounted for.

In 2010, the farm grossed just over $17K in vegetable, egg, meat and Christmas wreath sales. Operating business expenses totalled just under $10K and for this year, it's finally worth it for me to claim all my capital cost allowances (CCA) for the year, totalling over $13K. This brings farm income to a net loss of about $5K which, slightly decreased by my off farm income, means I can carry back a loss to a previous tax year. I'm picking 2007 as the furthest year I can carry it back to, also because that's the year in which I made the most money I'll probably ever make in my life ;P I doubt the loss carryback will return too many of my 2007 tax dollars to me, but every dollar back is welcome!

A net farm loss of $5K is about $10K less than Canada's average net farm income (-$15K the last time I looked at stats...may actually have increased to -$20K by now ;P). And that's in my second year of operation, which is essentially still a start up year, which is why I have so much in CCAs to claim! As the years go by, the yearly CCA amount will decrease. I'm hoping that for 2011, I'll have enough net income to start claiming the over $17K I have in moving expenses for 2009. Moving expenses are great because they decrease your net income as opposed to being a tax credit (which aren't much use to me any more ;P). I couldn't believe how much moving expenses could add up to, especially given that the real estate agent's sales commission on my condo is claimeable as a moving expense! And all legal fees for the condo's property sale and farm's purchase! I confirmed on the phone with the CRA today that I can carry forward those expenses indefinitely until I generate enough net income to use it up (Income Tax Act, Subsection 62(1)). I'm pretty sure I'll be able to use it up in 2011 and 2012, which means that I'll actually have enough net income to need to pay taxes in 2013, which would be my 5th year of farming. Strange to think that I aspire to paying income taxes, but to me, having a net income in the taxable range (for 2010, anything over $8943 for Ontario and $10,382 federally) means I'm making it as an organic farmer :D

If you're wondering how the average farmer can survive with a net farm income of  -$15K per year...it's because they either have an off farm job, a spouse with an off farm income, or are heavily in debt ;P Essentially, the food we buy at grocery stores is subsidized by farmers themselves. Such a broken system.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winter work

I'm sitting at my dining table, looking out the window at the snow falling, writing this blog post as procrastination from putting my tax numbers together for last year ;P I'm hoping to measure out my lower field soon with the help of Mark who's visiting the farm this week. It will be good to get some winter snow walking exercise after the excessive eating of the holiday season! In a two week period I participated in eating turducken, roast duck, follow up duck congee, roast chicken, follow up giant pot of chicken soup and a hot pot feast. Tonight, it's time for lamb and goat hock tagine! Last night I had the first test of eating straight to the freezer chard (i.e. not blanched first) and experienced a very numb tongue (a sometime reaction to eating chard, beet greens, etc.). Not sure if the lack of blanching contributed to that. Will try boiling the frozen chard before adding it to anything the next time and see if the tongue numbing still occurs. Straight to freezer kale cooked up beautifully in a pumpkin and black bean stir fry the night before.

People often ask me what I have to do once winter rolls around and I don't have vegetables to tend. I'd like to say nothing and that I'm on vacation for 3 months, but really, winter becomes the season of paper work and planning. Especially this winter since I'll have a new intern coming aboard and we'll be setting up my permanent vegetable field. That means I have to be much better planned than in the past 2 seasons as the permanent vegetable field will have 4 plots that will come in and out of a 3-5 year rotation (period still to be decided) to ensure soil fertility is increased over time. The difficult thing is to choose one way (for now!) out of the thousands of possibilities that are out there. And I have to make the tractor/no tractor decision for the season. I'm still heavily weighted towards no tractor, but then I need a plan in place for keeping down the natural flora of the field leading to the vegetables so that access won't be a problem. Right now my plan is to use sheep and goats in moveable electric fencing so I can march them back and forth across that stretch of field. But I'll have to keep an eye on when the goats get big enough to jump over the fence as it would be disaster for them to get into my vegetable field! Perhaps it would be more prudent to stick to just lambs for this year...

This year will also include work on more permaculture plantings around the farm. I will plant a cedar, silver maple and oak windbreak between the road and my vegetable field. There's also the fruit orchard and separate nut tree area to plan out and hopefully start with at least a few trees this year. A plot for future asparagus, blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb and maybe other perennial fruit shrubs also needs to be started.

This is also the year that I hope to start managing my wood lot which looks to currently be 99% spruce trees (I think that's what they are). I'll be bringing in a forest consultant to plan out cuttings to thin out the tree canopy so that light can get in to the hardwood saplings so that the planted soft wood forest can succeed to a hardwood forest. Not sure I'll live long enough to the see the results of that, but hopefully I have more than 25-30 years left in me!

And then there are all the building projects I have in mind. First off...an outdoor composting toilet and shower. Then I'll no longer have to rent an outhouse (icky chemical toilet) for the yearly farm open house, or any other event that has more than 20 people at the farm. Multi-day camping visitors would then be accomodated as well! I also want to build an outdoor bread oven (yummy, crusty loaves and super duper pizzas!) and solar dehydrator (to dry chanterelles, tomatoes, fruit slices, even make crackers!).

But before all that fun stuff, I'll have to get in a well contractor to raise my well head above ground level and seal off the top so that there's no possibility of contamination by surface water or things falling in. And at the same time, hopefully I can fix/insulate pumps/pipes/pressure bladders/etc.so that I never have to worry about anything freezing in winters to come.

Once all the above is planned, then I can start livestock and pasture planning. But I'll leave that for another post ;P