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 :)