Wednesday, 27 November 2013

An Eerie Absence in the Barn

It's quiet now when I approach the little barn that houses the pigs and once housed the chickens.  There is some grunting and the odd squeal, but no more clucking and squawking.  Yesterday our yard became a sort of carnival of bright reds, of loose white feathers and fluff, and of colourful boxes of squishy innards.  As the snow and sleet slowly soaked us, we bagged the chilled birds and by nightfall, they were in the freezer.  Bags of necks, feet, livers, and digestive tract (for the dog), and then lovely meaty shells we tend to think of as whole chickens

In other news, we are on a low-tech binge:  we are clearing our 300-metre long driveway with only an ordinary snow shovel; we are chopping our own wood and splitting it with an ax and we are avoiding unnecessary car trips.  All this makes the world seem big again.  It is what an extreme version of post-peak oil might be like, one that we are choosing to live, which can be rewarding and at the same time, feel very masochistic.  I don't know much about peak oil scenarios, what they could be and what they most likely will be, but energy costs are in the news a lot lately and so is climate change.  I guess that either energy becomes so expensive that we all learn new ways of living, or oil remains cheap and places like the Maldives and the countless other much more heavily populated places near sea level will be submerged and Canada's security costs will rise.  Either way, it will be expensive and we will feel it slowly happening but no one will say:  "Starting this year, we can officially say we are in a peak oil condition."

If you live in the country and you are neither in a supply-managed industry, nor on a good pension, nor gainfully employed, you learn to be frugal.  Ideally, this makes you more resourceful and more ready for a tougher future, if you believe that is where we are headed.  But speaking with a friend who is also a farmer, also frugal and of limited financial means and also interested in the impacts that runaway energy consumption have on our lives, it was agreed that while being "on the land" can position a person to be better equipped to live with scarcity, and living simply can be satisfying, the only people prepared for calamities like power shortages or famines or natural disaster are those for whom survivalism is a hobby, something they revel in. 

These would be the people who are skilled with knives and ropes; who have created bomb-proof spaces on their properties and set up traps to ensnare trespassers.  They would be the kinds of people who would raise animals and slaughter them without anyone's help.  Very few of us are prepared for a world where big industry can't meet most of our needs, including myself and most of the people I know.

We had a trained butcher do our slaughtering:  quickly and efficiently but with due care.  Propane was running low on the scalder and our butcher just barely managed to get through without running out. If he'd had to come back the next day, he wouldn't have made it to our yard since we got a massive snowfall that night.  We were lucky.  I helped put them in the cones and watched decapitation after decapitation, which was not traumatising, but also not pleasant.  I can stomach chicken slaughter, and I can clear my 300-metre long driveway by hand, but I am not on a path to self-reliance and a rejection of the world that seems to be extinguishing itself.  I do, however, find it exciting to pare back some of the complacency I grew up with regarding food, housing, and travel, all of the things that require substantial energy inputs which, when the world is moving so fast, are so easily taken for granted.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Livestock Fatigue

"These Chickens are so annoying!" I said, portioning out their meal as they pecked at my legs.  My sister, who was visiting, stood to the side.   "Yeah, but they're so yummy!"  she said.  I have days, especially those when it's cloudy, dark, muddy and cold, when the chickens are constantly hungry, jumping at me and crowding me so closely I have nowhere to step, when I can curse the chickens with the vilest language, and wish them all nothing but suffering.  I think of the notion I've heard many times: "If thought crime were enforced, a lot of people would be jailed for their murderous desires." If thought crimes were enforced, the SPCA would be on my case.

Both XB and I do treat the chickens quite well but both of us are exasperated by them.  They don't ask much, they do not want me to say nice things to them. They are utterly indifferent to the nuances of facial expression and gesticulation.  But like any animal, they are subject to suffering and so I try to keep them comfortable and fed and give them space to roam between meals, which are frequent and met with great anticipation.  Chickens are not known to skip meals at will.

Recently, when I came to the barn to feed them, I noticed one with a spot of red on one of its wings.  I gave it a closer look and realized that underneath the wing, the bone was exposed and its skin had been badly broken.  It looked like a predator of some sort had grabbed it and fled, leaving it to languish.  I corned it and picked it up, carried it to the garage and made the little house we'd built for the chicks into its hospital room. I hoped that if it were isolated from the rest (where it would not risk being pecked to death - chickens are vicious) it would perhaps heal.  I also knew I would have to start researching the most humane euthanization methods in case it didn't.

The issue of humane treatment of animals in rural farming circles is a tricky one.  No one that I have met would condone neglect or intentional mistreatment of any animal, even chickens, which can try anyone's patience.  But vet bills can be prohibitive, and not everyone believes that a chicken's life is sacred; that giving it a few more weeks of life is worth a $150 vet bill.  A chicken might fetch $20 to $30 by the end of its 10 weeks.

I browsed through a few forums.  One chicken owner posted that her pet chicken was ill, suffering, and in need to being put down.  The owner simply did not have the funds to have it nursed back to health, to which another responded:

"I don't mean to be rude, but that is just around, find a vet who can do it,work out a payment plan.  Sell your TV, stereo, computer, whatever. That's what a responsible pet owner would do."

I can't say this dissuaded me.  The chicken is hardly a pet in our case. But, thinking back to the afternoon when I discovered the injured bird, I did have a moment, as I hauled it to the garage and the rest of the flock stood back, where I felt a pang of sorrow.  I was sad seeing the animal seemingly oblivious to the fact that it had been maimed, as she pecked about with the others.  This was one of the cute yellow chicks we picked up from the feed store in the cardboard box, one of the little peeping sounds coming through the cracks. One of the big white birds running out to greet me (for food of course), who has no arms, which makes them look especially goofy and cute as they run and which makes me forget that they are dumb and selfish.

Another blog presented the following advice:

"If you own a dog, you tend to take it to the vet if it is ill.  But chickens bridge that gap between pet and livestock.  You don't have to take a chicken to the vet if you don't want to, and I feel you shouldn't feel guilty about that."

Again, I would not have felt guilty killing it and these words weren't the words of comfort I was in need of, but for some, this is an especially sensitive topic.  The blogger then explained that over several years raising chickens, she had had to kill a few before their time was up, who had either come down with viruses or succumbed to injuries.  By kill, she meant chop off its head.

Chickens' lives are okay if they are treated with decency.  There probably aren't a lot of "happy chickens," Even free range chickens who are well fed and sheltered and given adequate square footage when indoors are not suffering the way they would be in a less humane environment, but I doubt they experience self-actualization.

The challenge, especially in November, is making sure that whatever one's frustrations, the animals are taken care of as well as they were when they were younger and nicer.

In other news, the electric furnace is on now.  Does anyone know how to operate a wood-burning furnace? One of the differences between cities and rural areas is that urban dwellings are toasty warm.  The office I worked in, my own house, which was crammed between two others, a narrow place that held heat well, and shopping centres, which are notoriously sweltering in the winter.  Here in the country, houses are spread out and heating is a more contemplated matter.  Thermostats are watched more closely.  People don't walk around in shorts and t-shirts.  Winter in the country is a good setting for comfort withdrawal.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Hunting Season

I walked to the barn the other day and saw a hawk flying away from where the chickens were out pecking and clucking. I looked around for carcasses and then tried to count, hoping I would get the 52 we started with. I got 51 on the first count and 53 on the second. As I walked back, I noticed a white spot on the neighbour's's a's a....gigantic mushroom on closer inspection.

There is a lot of non-news to report each day, and there are many things that could happen: trees falling in the wrong places and on the wrong things, equipment like axes slipping out from hands and landing on limbs, hunting accidents...

It is duck hunting season and will soon be deer hunting season. The rule is, if a hunter wants to hunt on another person's property, he or she requires written consent. Of course, ricocheting bullets don't respect property lines. There are a lot of not-so distant bangs all around at dusk and I have been advised to wear bright orange if I'm in the woods at that time of day.

A friend told us a story of a woman who lived in our county, who was a bit surly and not the most gregarious neighbour. She was out gardening one evening when a neighbour came by to kindly encourage her to wear a vest. “Well, there is no hunting on this property” she responded with a huff. The neighbour responded, with the best intention, “You might want to be careful though...” because she had lovely white hair put up in a pony tail, and her head might be mistaken for a doe's behind.

We are in hunting country, where some families get their year's protein supply from the deer they shoot. Some of them prepare the deer themselves, which involves real skill. The whole meat-eating population relies on there being people out there who can properly carve up and portion out an animal, yet there aren't many people around who can still butcher a cow down to steaks: abattoirs are few and far between and for farmers at least, the danger with many is that you don't know that you will get back what you brought in.

Apart from butchery, there are other skills that are slowly being lost or degraded. I tried to find a mycological society in this region, but it looks like there are not a lot of avid mushroom hunters. It used to be (at least in Europe, so I've heard) that you could bring a mushroom to a pharmacist and they could identify it. But in North America, mushrooms have always been fringy.

Today, as I searched the fields and woods for one of the layer hens, after seeing the dog terrorizing them and scattering them about, I looked closely through each bit of grass, expecting that I would find a carcass. In my focus, I came upon a big, fresh, gilled white mushroom, alone and surrounded by tall grasses (the chicken, by the way, eventually came back out of the woods and all are still alive). The mushroom smells edible, it looks edible, and I have to keep talking my way out of frying it up, the same way my dog has to talk herself out of killing the chickens. I am working on identifying the type and if I can find solid backing in the description and spore print that it is a safe one, I will be pleased.  This is the kind of hunting I would prefer to pursue.  

Monday, 14 October 2013


Apple tree in fog
"Trees, trees, stern majesties, I rely upon you, place my reliance on you," sings Veda Hille on her album This Riot Life.  She hails from Vancouver and the trees I imagine she is referring to are massive mountain pines and firs.  The trees of eastern Ontario are different but equally impressive for their colour.  I am from Alberta where the trees are fewer and further between.  Maples still remind me that I am not from here; I didn't grow up with them and they still feel foreign.

The central fixture of our treeline is the apple tree that is set apart from the others, beside the road midway between the highway and the house.   It is healthy and full-figured.  The apples on this tree are good - they are sweet and abundant.  Thus far we have managed a good batch of hard cider, a few yogurt tubs worth of apple chips and a few jars of sauce.  We have saved about a bushel of fresh apples that will relieve our fruit budget for a while.  

XB picking apples, climbing the apple tree with cat-like agility
Frontenac is promoting its eco-tourism appeal:  fishing, hiking, ornithology, tree-gazing in fall...and most Frontenacians are pleased with the fact that this has not brought hordes of tourist buses.  There are few resorts, though there is a handful of bed and breakfasts.  North Frontenac is designated a Dark Sky Preserve.  It has a low population and is far enough away from any urban area that its skies keep pretty much unblemished.  South Fontenac is close to Kingston and the southern edge of the sky is generally glowing slightly, but the stars are still quite spectacular here.

Back to trees.  They are valuable in many ways:  they retain moisture, produce oxygen...okay, I am not revealing anything groundbreaking.  They are a good way to produce mushrooms and we will be growing some Shiitake and Oyster next season.  This invloves drilling holes in the logs, filling with spores, and then waiting and watching, ensuring certain moisture and shade conditions remain stable.  There aren't a lot of farms around that are devoting their energies to this, but mushrooms, while not as beloved in Canada as they might be in parts of Europe and Asia, are loved greatly by those who do love them.  I would recommend "Know your Mushrooms" to get a taste of what true enthusiasts look and sound like (they are interesting) and what mushrooms are really like, beneath the superficial experience most of us have with them (they are interesting).  I learned that they are the oldest living organisms recorded in the history of the earth, and they are cleansing:  it is said that oyster mushrooms can clean oil spills, and make all the toxic waste disappear without a trace.  And they are nutritious too.  And, they are delectable.  And underneath the ground, they are everywhere.

A section of the woodlot

Friday, 4 October 2013

Chickens II

The chickens we have are a variety called White Rock, which are probably the type most commonly raised and sold for meat.  They are designed to mature in 10 weeks.  Ours quickly outgrew their cardboard box and are now in a plywood contraption in our garage, with high ceilings and a pine-shaving strewn floor.  They have a branch in the middle on which to perch and are brought outdoors on these Indian summer afternoons to learn how to peck the earth for supplementary food and to learn to be real, old-fashioned chickens.

As a child, I was a renovation assistant to my dad.  I witnessed framing, flooring, drywalling, the installation of exterior siding and I held one end of the tape measure a fair bit.  It made for long and cumbersome Saturday afternoons and until last week, the thought of taking on a home renovation project of my own would have made me sick to my stomach.  I don't like hardware stores and I don't enjoy handy work.  However, a mixture of the urgency of getting the chickens into a bigger space that could still be temperature controlled (they are not ready for the barn), along with the sense that maybe I could actually pull something like this off (given that we'd managed to spruce up the barn quite nicely with some scrap wood) made for a sort of exciting challenge.

We rented a U-Haul, since, unlike proper farmers, we don't have a commercial grade vehicle of our own, and went to Home Depot.  We piled two-by-fours onto a trolley until it was full and then got another for a door and some plywood.  I brought the truck over to the loading dock, we loaded it up, went back in for a circular saw and a ladder, brought it out, went back in for some insulation and gyprock for the cold storage room in the basement, which will be the next project.  We ended up at the same cashier on each trip through and she gave us a bemused smile the third time.  We don't look like construction contractors (let alone farmers); most often people assume we are students at Queens.

A day's hard work paid off and while the doorway isn't exactly straight and some of the framing is a touch off, the coop looks decent and was satisfying to build.

Because farm supplies can be costly (I had a vertiginous feeling going through the checkout again and again, the tab soaring) we have been experimenting with rural farm auctions and garage sales. The people who operate and attend most of these are rural to the bone (lots of camouflage clothing) and are likely a bit surprised to see two young Queens students stopping in.  One has to sift through piles upon piles of junk to find anything worth buying (or at actions, one has to sit through hours of bidding on thing like old dolls and candy dishes) but there are good finds if one looks long enough.  XB managed to find a chainsaw in good working order at a country yard sale for $10.  A good new chainsaw starts at around $200 so I was pleased with the find.  Meanwhile, at the auction I attended that same morning, a lightly used Stihl chainsaw sold for well above its retail value.  When people get into a bidding war, the adrenaline starts surging and reason slips.  Beware.

I am not comfortable with sharp power tools, but after using the circular saw for the chicken coop project and coming out of it uninjured, I will give the chainsaw a try.  Winter is coming.

Sunday, 22 September 2013


We have baby chickens that arrived last week and are sitting comfortably under a heat lamp, in a cardboard box that is set up as what would, in the world of chickens, amount to a luxury spa. These birds are pampered. As first time chicken minders, we are vigilant. We check on them every few hours to make sure their water containers are topped up. We keep them well fed with organic feed and sand (it helps them digest) and we keep their room as clean as is humanly possible (they are worse than the grossest rock band in that regard). We've even been bringing the box out in the afternoon so that they get some real sun and fresh air (and to give the heat lamp some respite).

Fall is a challenging time to start chickens, especially with our fickle weather patters. Within a span of three days last week, we went from heat advisories to frost advisories. A month from now, the birds will be living in a barn in the stall next to the pigs. They will not be crowded into a warehouse like those in bigger commercial chickens operations. But they will have to be tough birds.

As we tend to our domesticated animals there are all kinds of wildlife living their wild lives. The land we have has not been sprayed with chemicals in years, perhaps never has been. We have unimproved hay fields and woodland and a lot of brush. Every step on a walk through the grass seems to summon a frog's leap. The other day I was walking along a path and came upon a grass snake with half a frog sticking out of its mouth. The rest was bulging in his neck as he slowly swallowed it.

There are also lot of wasps and hornets around. Frogs and snakes don't bother me, but furry yellow insects that fly and sting and don't even pollinate do.  Recently, I woke up in the night, to a sound I couldn't identify. It was the faint whir of the traffic on the highway which I couldn't help mistake, in my semi-conscious state, for the whir of hornets presumably nesting outside the window. I spent the next while wishing they would disappear. Go away! I thought, as I drifted back into a fitful sleep.

It has been almost a month since the move. Among farmers in this area, I don't hear talk about Toronto so much as southwestern Ontario, as in, "well, we couldn't compete with the greenhouse operations in southwestern Ontario" or "we just don't have the kinds of soil they have in southwestern Ontario (or population density or climate, etc.)."  I, however, am far more aware of the difference between rural and urban life, Toronto and South Frontenac Township.  At times I get nostalgic for the bustle of the streets, a workplace with friendly kitchen banter and the constancy of social interaction that the city offers. I got an email from my old TO badminton club informing us all that the club was full and that it would be a busy fall for Wednesday night play. It got me itching to stop in, see the gang, play a few matches before walking back to the subway.

Thursday, 12 September 2013


We bought two weaner pigs last week from a permaculturalist a few kilometres away. When the two were culled from the herd of a dozen or so, the squeal was deafening. The first couple of days they darted when I came near them and looked at me with what appeared to be resentment. Pigs are smart, sensitive animals, but not in the same ways that dogs are. They do not respond to a call and they don't show emotion. The pigs like to dig, eat, sleep and oink.  Their intelligence, in my experience, manifests in demonstrations of rebellion.

The third day we had them, we came home from a farm auction after having been gone a few hours and found the door to their pen wide open. They were nowhere in sight. The rain had started as I hurried around the perimeter of our property, looking and listening, treading through prickly brush at some points, exploring spots I didn't think I would ever bother exploring. I ended up back at the house where XB was waiting, having given up searching. We visited our neighbour, an older lady who was friendly and who said she hadn't seen any pigs, and hadn't noticed any unusual cars driving up (we thought they might have been stolen). In fact, bewildered by how the door could have been opened, we became so sure they had been swiped, that we called a friend for advice on what to do in cases of animal theft. He didn't pick up, nor did the staff at the feed store. We thought about reporting it to the police but decided to hold off, thank God.

While we stood in the kitchen with no appetite, chopping vegetables for lunch, XB noticed something odd. “That wasp nest that was on the back deck, it's gone.” We couldn't imagine that it would have blown away, given that it was a calm day, or that the wasps would have flown away with their next. Nor could we imagine that anyone would want to steal two pigs and a wasp nest. It was then that we saw two piglets dart across the path from one patch of woods to another.

These pigs can run, but they get distracted every few dozen feet with roots they can't resist digging up.  We scrambled out and XB went in on their left and I from behind, both of us a rake in hand. We found them quickly and began our effort to herd them back the several hundred metres to their pen, a task that would only work if the two of us worked out a strategy. When they walked towards me, I backed off a bit so they wouldn't dart past. Then XB would come behind them and steer them towards the edge of the forest and then our roles would switch. We carried on with this pattern until after a half hour they were back inside. Along the way, they would repeatedly run off into another patch of woods, delaying the inevitable capture.  Whenever they did this, they would first huddle together, as if to discuss their own footballesque play, and then would wander on but in a more skittish fashion.  Then they would dart in different directions, as if to fake us out.  Eventually they would find a safe spot in a patch of bramble and we would have to wait them out.  They are rebellious.  My assumption is they ate the wasp nest on their jaunt, just to be extra cheeky.

Since then we have been pasturing them at mealtime. They eat their hog mix and apples that fall from our tree and dig the earth while we watch. It's a bit like the supervised hour that inmates get outside. They remain unnamed and, as cute as they are, I have not become so attached to them that I won't be able to bear their being hauled away for slaughter. They don't have idiosyncrasies that I can detect that would endear me to them. But I hated the thought that they had been kidnapped or hit by a car or shot by a neighbor who saw them digging up their garden. Though they are just pigs that eat, sleep and escape when they can, they do bring out a protective impulse. Furthermore, they are our first attempt at raising farm animals, and I would be a boost of confidence to be able to raise them right and see two healthily fattened pigs a few months from now.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Leaving TO, Becoming Rural Folk

We loaded up a 24-foot Uhaul truck and, with it filled to the brim, bolted to the 401 in hopes that we would beat rush hour. We got caught up in accident traffic just the same and that had us lumbering along for the first hour of the drive before the frenzied pace began, the truck swaying in the current of passing semis, until soon we reached the more leisurely stretch toward Frontenac. We got in around sunset, unloaded what we could until sometime around midnight, at which point we called it a day.

We woke up the next morning rural folk. The sunrises are generally beautiful here.  But we did not take a leisurely breakfast on the porch that first morning. We got back to unpacking. And hammering nails, and calling farmers and feed dealers and custom ploughers.

After a long second day of unloading countless boxes, the burden of a hectic urban routine fading, the stillness struck me and a fear set in. It was mostly neuroses, but it went deep. The question “What on earth am I doing?” which I'd asked myself in a flippant tone many times before the move, suddenly weighed a ton. Bell (the phone company) revealed, after bouncing us from department to department and giving contradictory information, that, though they had confirmed weeks before that they would be installing our internet connection at the new residence, it turned out they didn't actually offer service where we were now.

I read Thomas Pollack's War in the Country recently, which reveals much about the divisions between rural and urban Canada and the fact that the “country” is increasingly forgotten because it is seen as dying and irrelevant. This news furthered the revelation that only cities matter (I should point out that since then I have been recommended a few providers that are quite competitive and widely used where I am. It's not really out of range of the internet.)

But the fear of having grossly miscalculated on my life change still creeps in every day. For a little while that evening, I felt a dread at the image of myself 10 years from now – a sloppy yokel with junk piling up in the yard. 

Despite the general anxiety of living in a new place (which, in my experience, tends to be full of exaggeration and worst-case scenario creation) we are in a community that seems to value community. While we are in a politically conservative rural riding, where anti-government and anti-urban sentiment are not uncommon, and a smattering of xenophobia and homophobia exists, people here are mostly friendly, approachable and laid-back. There is a spirit of the back-to-the-lander movement, though nobody likes that term except me.

It's a place where, if you go up and knock on a stranger's door because someone told you she would be a good resource for learning about raising sheep, you will be greeted with only mild caution and then within seconds a warm conversation will have begun and before you know it, she will have given an hour of her time to explain her methods and happily put you in touch with several friends who can help further. And then the friends recommend more contacts. And suddenly you have learned a great deal about sheep and you sense that soon enough you will have landed a small herd because someone will connect you to a breeder who has none at the moment but who knows someone who does and will be happy to connect you.

I am encouraged to see signs of community. In the evenings, of course, I am reminded of the fact that I'm far from the distractions of the city.  I'm far from grocery stores, coffee shops, pubs, neon. The traffic zips by on the highway a few hundred metres away in one long strand and otherwise, it is quiet.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Harvest Thickens

We had another successful visit over the August long weekend:  a couple dozen cherry tomatoes; the usual abundance of lettuce; herbs; a couple of Brandy Wine tomatoes that have ripened; a pepper and a zucchini.

Our eating habits lend themselves well to a local diet so a harvest like this is not just a pittance in our food consumption. Last night, we made a dish of cooked lettuce and another of eggs and tomatoes and basil, with rice.  Now.  It can be tiresome hearing people insist that organic food just tastes better, more natural, more wholesome.  I've tended to brush this kind of talk off.  I've assumed that it was wishful thinking and that while fresh pesticide-free foods would be much healthier, they wouldn't necessarily taste any better than factory farmed vegetables.  But the tomato we used was infinitely better than any store-bought tomato I've used ever has been.  I don't expect that every time I eat produce I've grown myself that I will have this kind of reaction, but this is one that will stick.  For me, it is a new benchmark for what simple healthy food can taste like.

Without those moments, it might be easy to lose interest, especially when the imperative to grow my own food for survival isn't there, what with grocery stores packed full of food.  My grandparents ranched near Waterton, Alberta, raising sheep and growing vegetables and hay.  I've been told that my grandmother would get weary over the course of the winter, having to cook boiled cabbage and lamb for the hundredth time in a row.

The other image that comes to mind when I think of food scarcity is from The 100 Mile Diet, in which the authors find themselves at the end of a long weekend, out at their northern B.C. retreat, with no grocery store around and only a head of cabbage.  With this head of cabbage they struggle to entertain their guests, serving a fairly paltry locavore supper.

I'm not gunning for a subsistence life, but I would also like to be more involved in my own food production, to know the contents of my food beyond the country of origin label.

Friday, 12 July 2013

First Lettuce

We arrived at the old plot after a bout of rainy weather and not only did we have far fewer weeds than our neighbours, we had a few fledgling tomatoes…and a few basil plants with four or five storeys of leaves…and some healthy lettuce.  I took out the video camera and began filming but only got as far as a couple of seconds of XB telling me he was still unimpressed with the progress, as he dug up weeds around the carrot patch, when the battery died.  I wanted to get a shot of us in our first harvest, but I’ll just have to remember the not overwhelming but genuine satisfaction it brought to pick the leaves in the semi-darkness.  

There was a lot to choose from; we barely made a dent in it.  I wondered though, if we were selling it, how perfect would it have to look?  How much would we have to grow to make money?  How do you wrestle for market share, when he majority of the population wants cheap food and doesn't care about pesticides as long as Health Canada hasn't banned them, and the few who want high quality produce have plenty of savvy, small-scale farmers with clever farm names to choose from?

We are slowly approaching that leap from the casual excitement for the fact that anything has produced to the more preoccupied condition of wondering how to take the produce that has produced because it had to, and make it marketable to a public that expects organic local food to be charming and wholesome and sure of itself.  There is pressure on farmers, especially those who show their faces and whose products end up on a table in a market, the famer and the product exposed to the browsing public. 

I have years of open stage experience, where I’ve stood up and played my own songs to strangers.  I’ve had nights where people have given me genuine compliments and others where the crowd has smiled and clapped and looked at me uncomfortably.   I expect selling vegetables has some parallels.

Monday, 27 May 2013

First Wilting

A rainy wednesday was followed by a dry, cool and windy Thursday through Sunday.  We came to the plot in the early evening and noticed a dullness to the green of the little plants poking out from our little patch.  A couple of plots over the green was brighter.  They had put up a fence, which indicated that they meant business.  I suspect they were coming more regularly than us.  I took some comfort in the fact the our immediate neighbours' tomatoes looked worse, were lying on the ground as if in sickly fatigue.  Our tomatoes were upright in their cages, but a couple of leaves on each plant were a bit browned, some were shriveled and dried.  The cold perhaps?  It had dipped down to just above zero and most likely had not been pleasant for the fledgling plants.  But it was the poor cucumber that was most wounded.  The cucumber beetle was out, eating away at leaves, leaving them looking like little kids with whole punches had gone at them.  Of course the beetles were doing it for their livelihood.  Our aim for future crops would be either to leave the beetles to starve by putting a row cover over the young plants, or finding a suitable predator to make the beetles their livelihood.

One recommendation I noted from an organic growers website:  consider building a bat habitat.  Now, the idea of planting deterrents like flowers is more palatable to me, but it's harder to have confidence in a passive, stationary enforcer.  We had marigolds in between the tomatoes but they were nowhere to be seen, hardly en garde.  The idea of working with bats made me queezy.  As a French speaker, I also know them as "bald mice." 

We did try to stamp out the ones we saw present on our visit, but more would come.  We couldn't be there every day to patrol them.  I was mostly stoic about the fact that one of our crops was already looking like it would fail, and early on, noting that they would be taking one for the team.  Hopefully the plants around them would continue to thrive as they kept the cucumber beetles distracted (these pests also like tomatoes, peas and beans).  But it was sad seeing something we had fostered now near death.  I hated to imagine the bamboo support structure with nothing to support.

It was sobering.  Before transplating from the insular environment that is our living room, I may have been assuming that pests would pick on someone else's crops, that the nice birds would eat pests and leave seeds alone, that as organic growers, somehow the positive live force of unadulterated seed and soil would just prevail.  We did research pests for each vegetable we planted, but with lists of deterrents and remedies that can go on for pages, ranging from the practical to the practically superstitious, we counted on luck.

For CSA farmers, how does it feel to have to throw out a patch of browning broccoli and resort to the next best brassica, deferring plans and hoping that the harvest will be enough that portions will not have to be made scanter and scanter with each failed crop?  There's the stress of farming, that we've felt already on a tiny scale.  Four failed plants that we may still be able to retry.  In the meantime, we will need to keep an eye on the other plants prone to predation.  If our abundant tomato planting were to fail, it would be a solid blow and may leave us tempted to quit for the season.  But this is our chance to see a season through and accept if it fails.  If it does and we have gained some sense of the risk of disappointment and the ways of dealing with challenges (such as pests, poor soil and bad weather, all of which we are up against) then we will have been successful test-croppers.  That is still the goal.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013


It would make for a more dramatic post if, after labouring all day Saturday, we had come back on Monday to find everything trampled or eaten by deer.  So far though, the seedlings have survived three days of ambient weather.

Highlights of first planting:

The soil, though tilled, was gravelesque.  We carved out our trenches and, by default, our beds, and began hacking away at huge clumps of rock hard clay.  I suspect that the tomatoes will do fine, and that most everything else will find enough nourishment, given that the plot has been left fallow for a couple of years, save for cover crops which should have maintained a good nutrient composition.  We added some compost to the spots where seeds were inserted, and then watered.  In the absence of softer soil, we then piled chunks of the clay around and atop which gave the spots the unsettling appearance of little tombs.

I was a bit of a hack as I crouched or sat on the unsown bed below me, resting my crossed legs in the trench as I sprinkled seeds into furrows in the row in front of me.  when in doubt, I scattered a bunch of seeds and hoped they would suffice.  As I finished the parsnips, rows abutting rows, I checked the back of the seed packet again and I realized rows were to be a foot apart. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Plot

The course has since ended, and we are now into our practicum.  We are test farmers on a local farming project where aspiring farmers can, for a reasonable fee, use a piece of land for a season and see what comes of it.  It is a community where informal mentorship is said to be abundant, which is gold to us right now.

After one of the coldest early springs on record, we drove out on a Sunday afternoon to have a look at our plot of land (most of our endeavours in farming have thus far been bookended with a good long drive).  We would be test farmers alongside a handful of others, on a small space of land surrounded by the housing developments of Brampton - the suburb of Toronto where even townhouses are seen as oppressively tiny.

The soil in this region is good thick clay, and this patch is protected from being bought up and paved.  It has a slope in the middle that then dips downward to a stretch of long, lush fields with greenhouses at intervals that are already teeming with vegetables before the last frost.  The test farmer plots are on the other side of the slope, abutting the road.  They were still wet and would not be ready until they could be plowed - at least a week yet.  There were a few plastic containers leftover from the previous year - failed tomato plants that had been planted with the pots intact. 

An Indian man, one of two other farmers that had made it out for an informal meet-and-greet, said the pots were from one of the farmers who had quit early on in the previous season.  Most of the test farmers wouldn't make it through the summer because of busy schedules and setbacks like deer visits and long hot stretches of summer that dried out the soil and made for a lackluster harvest.  The other farmer who turned up was also from India, Both he and the first guy lived within a minute's walk from the farm.  He was full of excitement for the start of the season, said he would be getting up early every morning working a couple of hours before going to work.  The first guy, who worked a good hour's drive away from his home and neighbouring farm plot, said his wife and children would be helping with his 2,000 square feet.  he already had garlic coming up, which he'd planted the previous fall and he was clearing brittle okra plants while we spoke.  He wanted to have more land, to do more farming, but it was only his second year, and with this farm, you graduated to higher acreage over time. 

Some people were up to 5 acres, which was enough land to be a real farmer, not just one who fits it in before work in the morning and on weekends.  But 1,000 squre feet was what we had for this our first growing season and the test was to see if we finished the season with something to show for it, or at least a desire to continue the following spring. 

Just being on the land for the first time, even though it wasn't yet workable, was a pleasant reprieve from the endless, overwhelming car-and-retailscape.  This little farm's existence was a matter of effort - at keeping the apetite of suburban sprawl at bay, at instilling the will in people weary of the extreme industrialization of food to cultivate their own even when it means a steep and seemingly treacherous learning curve, which includes the ever-looming possibility that even having done everything meticulously, the crops might find a way to fail completely.

Before we left, having established rapport with our neighbours, we wandered around the area, met a couple of more seasoned farmers who were getting started on their early seeds.  A woman sat on the stoop of a tool shed, filling cells with seed and soil.  She said she was planting okra. That word again. "What's that?"  I asked.  She explained that it was a mucousy vegetable used in gumbo.  She and her husband had a couple of acres and had been working at it for a few years.  They made a living, or a partial living at it.  I could see him fiddling with the rows of a patch he was preparing.  I didn't know what he was doing but he seemed sure of himself.  Would I remember the feeling of being a novice when I was as good as them?  Would I see it through to where I was the kind of farmer from whom others sought advice and asked "what's that?"  We drove back home, the full 40 minutes in Toronto's usual aggressive traffic.  We had our work cut out for us.  But it was nice to realize that we hadn't dropped out of the scheme just yet - here we were getting ready to do some actual farming. 

Monday, 8 April 2013

Farm Tours

At this point we are well into our course with FarmStart, which we attend Saturdays at a community hall in Etobicoke.  Part of the course, indeed an integral part, is a full day of farm tours, which involves visiting two established organic or ecological farms in Ontario, where we are introduced to what a small-scale  farm in Ontario can look like and how it tends to function.  The farmer him or herself would lead us through and answer questions, in hopes of making us more aware of the kinds of things we want and do not want on our own farms, should we wish to buy a farm, as well as making us more aware of the challenges...the many challenges that keep coming no matter how wonderful farming may be.

Saturday morning we got up and drove out to the country.  It was sunny, the skies were blue and the fields along the secondary highways we took were a pristine white, with snow-dusted trees.  It was a bedazzling sight and certainly an auspicious beginning to the trip, though I tried not to indulge too much in the idyllic scenery that whizzed by, knowing it looked different up close.

We pulled up to the first farm after exiting the quiet two lane highway for a rougher, downright silent road. We were greeted by a pack of big farm dogs that had endless energy and excitement.  We walked up to see a few cattle standing in a pen and a woman in her early thirties greeted us and began the tour by mentioning that the cows were a new addition, and she was still getting the hang of raising them. As the tour progressed and we saw her chickens, her greenhouse, her pigs, it became clearer that she was not a seasoned expert but a perpetual experimenter who had put together an impressive little farm, something I envied.

There were few hard and fast rules she could give us about what to do.  She had determined over a couple of seasons that the half dozen pigs she had were the right number she could keep without strain on her land and physical stamina; the chickens were a thriving brood, free to wander and scavenge their own food, a diet which she supplemented with feed. They matured, were brought to slaughter, sold but for the few that served her and her household.  A cooler in the barn housed vegetables and remained at a steady temperature. She'd spent $500 on that.  Her boyfriend would bring his tractor from down the road to bale and pile hay in the adjacent portion of the barn and the bales were tidy and abundant, like they are in cartoon depictions of country life.  There was an apiary that was slowly establishing itself.  The farmer remarked that sometimes one of the four hives wouldn't make it through the winter and she would have to retire the failed one for the rest of the season until there were enough in the other three to repopulate it.

Somehow, out in the boonies, this young farmer was putting her 50 workable acres to good use and not ending up with freezers full of beef and pork she couldn't sell.  It was a working business and she was not rushing into the nearest city for the bulk of the day to supplement a static farm business.  It clearly helped that she had a significant other who was an established farmer from an established farm family. I didn't really find out how she could afford the land and set up such a seemingly well-functioning operation at her young age and I didn't press her for the stories of sweat and blood on the learning curve.  I suspected that there were the requisite struggles and that she was just one of the resilient ones who had made it this far.

The film "To Make A Farm" showcases three small-scale "new" farmers/faming duos over a season, all of whom do quite well on their season ( at least by small-scale "new" famer standards).  What it reveals is the fact that in spite of the successes, each farmer/farming duo hits a few crises before the harvest, some of which push them to the brink of total failure.  The smiles and laughter at the farmers market stall, where beautiful produce is briskly sold, do not reveal the tough moments. 

We drove on to the next stop, even further from the busy world.  It was a dirt road that brought us to our instructor's farm.  We drove up and parked by a beautiful old farmhouse with a large sun room at the back. A Pyrenees greeted us and as we waited for the stragglers, we took sips of maple water from a canister on a tapped tree.  There were no pigs to be seen, but there were a couple of cows and a herd of sheep clustered on the snow covered field.

"How much was the electric fence?"  asked a classmate

"Well, it cost us about $5,000.  We got it because we didn't want to take any chances with the sheep."

"I guess it does the job?"

"Well, my dog has gotten through it.  You can imagine how I felt when I saw that,"  our instructor told us in a casual tone.

There were downsides to her farm:  the land was a bit low and the neighbouring farms sprayed their crops, leaving residue to wash into the vegetables she raised as ecologically as she could.  The climate was harsher than that in more southern parts of the province, and clientele was less abundant.  Sheep were prone to many contagious disease that could unexpectedly spread and wipe out a herd, and the kind of drought Ontario saw last summer could recur in coming years, perhaps becoming more common with weird weather trends.  She relied on steady business to pay her mortgage, on a piece of land that had not been dirt cheap.  While I've often assumed that farmland would cost little and be abundant for anyone willing to subject him or herself to the hardship of working the land, it is actually quite a challenge to access a decent sized farm and then pay it off.  But our instructor, like the first farm's owner, was running a business that worked and allowed her to live in the rugged oasis she loved.

I realized that all of these farmers were smart and exceptionally devoted to their work; they were constantly running into challenges and while they were doing well by most standards measuring small-farm success, they were not living lives of leisure and secluded bliss.  They were very much engaged in their surroundings; they were busy; and they were conscious of the almighty dollar, even if they were not slaves to it.  The piece of advice she most stressed was that farms with the latest, state-of-the-art equipment were often the least successful.  Farming required being resourceful and spending on things that made money and made the farm more sustainable, not things that made one look and feel like a pro.

When the sheep came trotting unexpectedly into the barn to be oohed and awed over, we got to pet a friendly ewe.  She had a big fat belly - maybe she was pregnant - and it was a pleasure seeing her goofy smile, hearing her goofy bleat as I scratched her woolly body.  Our instructor told us that working with animals was a very calming, healthy thing, but that was already evident to all of us.

We wrapped up back at her house, where, in the back yard, there was a door to a small cavern dug into the ground.  It was the swimming pool they had converted into a root cellar.  In the corner near the entrance, they had an apparatus for cleaning off the soil - a sort of big hampster wheel connected to a stationary bike. They would ride the bike, which would spin the root vegetables and remove the dirt which would then be collected in a bucket and reintroduced into the field.

Would I ever come up with something like that?  Maybe not.  But good farmers, I have to assume, don't come up with every smart technique themselves.  They take the vast wealth of knowledge and ingenuity that has emerged and continues to emerge in the realm of small-scale farming, and try things and see what works and what doesn't.  The tours reinforced the idea that every ecological, small-scale farm operates differently and no farmer has a formula that can be transplanted onto another farm.  That is has to be a creative process makes it challenging but more appealing than the formula-based alternatives.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Organic Faming Conference in Guelph

We drove out on a Saturday morning at the beginning of February to attend the annual conference in Guelph and, like any trade show, it made for a tiring day, but unlike many trade shows I've attended, this one had me talking to people at length and listening with interest.  There were booths set up by farmers looking for volunteers and interns; there were organizations supporting bans on GMOs; there were vermiculturalists, and apiarists, and pretty much every kind of farmer; there were networking rooms for farmers' markets, and there were recruiters from agriculture programs at Universities.  There were seeds for sale and people talking about  the benefits of a particular variety of this or that vegetable.

There were many people, and a broad range of levels of involvement in organic farming.  We were novices, or maybe novices to be.  After strolling through the exhibits, we decided to participate in an hour-long speed-dating style effort to match landowners with land seekers.

First we sat across from a couple in their late sixties, both in knitted sweaters.  They were from Lancaster area and the husband was a naturopath, who moonlighted as a farmer and the wife appeared to be an old-school helpmeet.  They were looking for someone who wanted to lease a portion of the land and live in the second, currently unused house that sat a few acres from their own house.  That was as far as we got because the whistle blew and we had to move on.  The next man lived in the Niagara area, where he farmed on 80 acres.  he was 88 and spoke in a hoarse, whistly voice.  I leaned in to try to understand what he was offering.

"So you are looking for someone to take over in the next few years," I ventured.

"Well, in the next twenty years or so," he said without irony.

That was as far as we got in that round.  Next we spoke with a man who worked for an organization that paired local farmers in the Muskoka region with local restaurants in order to promote local food.  I got as far as telling him that that was a great idea.  The whistle blew and we had reached a bottleneck, as more people were seeking land than offering it, so we sat out for a couple of rounds before jumping back in some distance ahead of where we'd exited.  There was a man producing native plant nurseries, a woman raising sheep on her plot of land, both looking to share the land they had, and another woman who was growing 2 acres of market garden, who wanted someone to take over for a while while she pursued other interests.  The last woman would remain in my mind - she looked tired and itching to get away from the loneliness of farming.

Our pitch had been, "we really just want a small piece of land - 5 acres tops, with a small garden and a few chickens and a pig.  We would produce vegetables for sale, keeping the rest, and see if we can't become as self-sufficient as is humanly possible."  But we gathered that the right fit hadn't presented itself. 
One question we ask ourselves is, do we really want to take this on all by ourselves?  Could we work with other people or would we grow impatient and restless in an arrangement of compromise?  When it comes to collaboring with people in the pursuit of farming, I expect it's a bit like trying to start a band and realizing that without chemistry and shared enthusiasm, it's more work than is worth one's while.  But, what I suspect, and what I've heard, is that if you do find the right people, it can be a lot more interesting to farm with others.  I have the sense that farming solo doesn't work for very many people.  Working in a pair could work quite well, but having a few more people around might be even better, or perhaps it's about making sure that there are people around in some way, whether or not they are farming partners, and I sensed an air of collaboration in the air among these people doing their own projects but also trying to keep connected to others who shared their still relatively outsider values.

As we took a break from wandering, before we left, and sat with our organic apples from the "Stop GMO apples" booth, and took a few pictures from a storey above the main atrium.  This was our first conference, our first look at what the province's local food-sustainable ag crowd looked like when crammed together in a tight space.  It was a vibe that made me think this was worth pursuing further.

Sunday, 27 January 2013


When I first proposed the idea to XB, he laughed at my naiveté.  "You know farming is work.  It's not just fun and relaxation."  Part of the work is planning how to access land and how to transition from working day jobs in the city to working on the farm.  In fact, many new farmers I've spoken with love the actual farm work, but struggle with planning, bookkeeping, adherence to regulations and the like.  In the spring of 2012 I discovered Farmstart, which offers courses to new prospective farmers from urban backgrounds.  We signed up for their introductory hands-on farming course, which would start in February 2013.  In the meantime we continued to read up on growing, marketing, assessing soils, controlling pests naturally and the myriad other issues that farmers need to understand.  We also began checking out land in southwestern Ontario, just out of curiosity.

We made our first farm visit in November, before winter set in.  It was a 10-acre property with a newly renovated 4-bedroom house about a half-hour drive north of Brampton.  The seller, a man in his late fifties, was asking $650,000.   He explained that he did contracting work on houses all over the GTA, which meant he spent a lot of his time on the road.  This was where he spent his evenings and weekends.  It was nice, quiet, and close enough to a small service town, just off the highway heading back to the city, but far enough away that you wouldn't hear the traffic as you sat on the deck after a long day.

We realized though that with our savings and the money we would make on the sale of our house, we would still have to take out a hefty new mortgage that we'd never pay off.  At this point, we were still thinking one of us would hang onto his job in the city, while the other might get started on developing the farm.  XB works in a northern suburb and could still drive in if need be.  he has colleagues who live as far out as Hamilton, who still managed to make the commute regularly.  But it seemed to defeat the purpose of moving out to the country if we were still spending the bulk of the day navigating urban sprawl and long hours in offices.  We decided to refine out search criteria.

The second visit happened in early January 2013, after we had realized that, with all of the small university cities in the area, we could find a patch of land and make a much easier commute into a smaller, friendlier city if we had to earn off-farm wages.  We drove out just north of Peterborough on a rainy Saturday morning to meet Gabrielle, who had her 50-acre farm up for sale, and had been trying to sell it since the previous spring.  Gabrielle had an abrupt manner, but was kind and keen to give us a thorough look at the property.

We started with a tour of the 19th century house, which had been upgraded over the years.  It had a substantial add-on and included four bedrooms upstairs, a root cellar and a general coziness.  We headed outside afterwards, walking across tall waterlogged grasses  and over to the second structure, a storage shed.  Then there was a massive barn for keeping hay, and finally a long building that looked like it could be a community hall - likely suited to keeping animals.  The land was beautiful, quiet, with a wooded wetland at the outer edge of the rolling expanse and a small, vibrant greenhouse behind the house warmed by solar energy.

We thanked her for the tour.  I was impressed, but we realized that all of the buildings would require continual repair or would have to eventually be demolished and hauled away, which would cost a small fortune.  fifty acres would also be a lot more than we would need, especially starting out mainly growing vegetables.  Then there was the hydro transformer sitting in the middle of the property, a foreboding point of focus. The asking price was about half of the first place we looked at, but we passed.

Before the end of January we managed to look at another couple of farms in Norfolk county, known as Ontario's Garden.  On a wildly windy Saturday we drove past Brantford and on through an indian reserve until we reached another old farm house on a 20-acre parcel.  The realtor greeted us and brought us inside the charming house with its high ceilings and walls adorned with Christian-themed cross-stitches.  Once again, four bedrooms, a nice deck and plenty of land.  The structure of the house, we were told, was okay. The owners had propped up sagging parts, and the insurance company was willing to insure it.  But we weren't convinced that it was truly solid and the last thing we wanted was to have to do substantial renovations or live in a sagging house.

The current owners had been raising horses and growing hay on much of the used land.  There was a barn, which was sturdy but for the east side, whose boards were starting to rot because of a leak in the roof.  The price was $400,000.  We were some distance out of Brantford, the nearest city, and though there were a couple of nice towns in the area, we knew it would be a struggle to find a community and a market and way to pay the mortgage.

On our way back we checked out a 1960s-style brick bungalow on about 13 acres. The property was listed for $330,000.  The house looked solid but untended.  There was a cluster of tall trees out back, a good expanse where crops could be grown, and access to roads that led to towns.  But the area had a sketchy feel to it - it was a bit run down, a patchwork of houses that all seemed to be slowly heading toward dilapidation.  The neighbours across the road had a couple of semi-trailers in their driveway and there was a loud roaring that persisted throughout our visit, probably from some kind of machinery they were working with.  It sounded like a jet engine.   The realtor wasn't able to meet us and so we didn't get to see inside the house, but from what we did see and hear, we were hesitant.

Noise was one thing;  contaminants, planned industrial developments, mega-quarries and the like were quite another.  It would be disappointing to find a great piece of land only to find out afterwards that the environment was toxic (literally or otherwise).  Maybe it was best to hold off for now, talk to people who know about this stuff.   Still, I had a sense we would eventually go with something knowing full well that a million things could go wrong.  More likely, though, we would have the task of looking at imperfect properties - imperfect in any combination of size, location, water access and house condition - and deciding which imperfections we could best live with.

Some Background

I present a blog whose name is derived from one of the most famous odes to the quiet life.  When on the range, so goes the ode, one can expect little in the way of discouraging talk and the skies can generally promise some sun over the course of any given day.

Of course, Home on the Range doesn't mention the fact that, once land is acquired in 21st century Ontario, a new farmer still will most likely visit the cities to sell produce and to buy some goods at a Costco or Sobeys, he or she will buy gas at a Petro-Can or an Esso, he or she will curse drivers who cut him off on the way back to the range, and then there will be moments when the farmer, who hails from a hands-off world, will not know how to fix a water heater and will have to shell out for service.

It's two of us thinking about what it might be like to make a go at a market garden with some chickens for ourselves and maybe a pig or a small herd of goats.  I grew up in a small Canadian city, unacquainted with country life but for the odd childhood visit to an aunt and uncle's farm, where most of his time was spent fleeing bumble bees and holding tightly to one of the older, more sluggish horse's reigns on a short walk around the corral.   My partner, XB, grew up in the Chinese countryside during the last leg of the Mao period, where he helped raise pigs and chickens and gathered firewood to heat his family's hearth.

We've both been through the rigours of university, of jobs that require collared shirts, we've shared the start of a suburban Toronto mortgage and we've travelled a bit, across Canada, through Europe and bits of Asia.

Toronto is a great place - it is bursting with life.  But I am curious to know what life would be like outside of an urban world, in places that are bursting with life at other paces and in other ways.

We are beholden to transit systems, to industrial food systems, to property management corporations, lenders, insurance companies and energy purveyors.  On the farm, we will be beholden to most of these things, but to a lesser extent.  We will be forced to learn about the soil, the trees and the needs of animals, since they will be more directly tied to our livelihood.

We've been advised that it's hard work, it does not guarantee a significant income, and it can be lonely. We've also received our share of bemused encouragement.  But what motivates me most is that it is more a pursuit driven by an interest in the things we are working towards than it is by a desire to merely get away from the grind.

The hope is to develop a simple livelihood rooted in self-sufficiency and community.  It may be a long ways off and it may not materialize, but it's an idea that more and more people my age are batting around.  In fact, I suspect most people see a sliver of appeal in rural life and would be curious to see how our journey develops.  Here goes nothing.