Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Thoughts from a Seasoned Veteran after a Long Year

I have had some time to reflect on this our first season, at the end of our first fiscal year.  We are running a business after all, and we do have detailed documents with our every expense, our every sale (well, we tally up our totals at the end of a market day).  We have surpassed our expectations, but not by a huge margin, only in the sense that our season ran longer than we had expected and more money came in as a result.  I am currently in the midst of improving a rail fence for the yard the goats will graze in next summer, and I was lucky enough to find a large braiding of wire amidst some old farm machinery parts.  This can be unbraided and made into thin wires that will be excellent for securing the rails together.  Welcome to the world of a small farmer:  where the highlight of the day is not finding a sleek new pair of shoes or getting a nice hour-long massage.

What I would like to say is, I recall reading about farming through books written by farmers who clearly had made it.  I recall hearing stories about farming success at farm tours, and articles in farming magazines.  I recall things like, "well, we figured we had beef now, so we might as well try going to the farmers market.  Well sure enough, we sold out within the first half-hour and I've been struggling to keep up ever since"..."I had as my goal to become the biggest barley grower within four years, and now that I've achieved that in my first year, I have to find a bigger challenge for myself"...in fact, I just saw on TV a commercial for small business accounting software, in which an attractive woman in her late forties has had a good month at her modest sheep farm and is rewarding herself with a brand new (what looks like a) Silverado, which she refers to as her "office".  That romantic portrayal of farming comes from within the fringes of the small farming community and from the mass advertising industry.  Wholesome successes, but worldly success, on par with any other worldly success out there.  Wherever it comes from, it rings false to me.

What I would like to say is that ours is not a story of worldly success.  We are only in our first year of course and it's early to know, but we are not projecting a worldly success in the foreseeable future.  We live frugally - our senses have become sharpened to seeking out ways to reuse things, ways to use old junk, ways to save energy, ways to patch clothing.  I guess what I would like to say is, anyone looking into farming should be very aware that, just like in showbiz (the furthest business from farming) there are those very few that do quite well for themselves that land the right market spaces or TV talkshows and people gravitate to them, they sell everything in the first half hour, or their agents call them with a list of multimillion dollar roles.  For most people farming is a tough slog and like in showbiz, the person doing it always has in the back of his mind, that given how tough the first year has been, it's hard to imagine doing this in twenty years after an even tougher year.  old farmers and old showbiz people tend to show their age.

Every month, we spend a lot of money to keep the business going and to meet our personal household needs.  In peak season, it seems we are able to just about maintain financial buoyancy with the amount we make from markets.  As the season slows though, there is no cache from the busy summer.  The ultimate goal would be to steadily maintain that balance between how much is going out and how much is coming in.  It would be a bit much to expect to achieve a state where we have additional income to spend frivolously.  In the meantime, we try to be frugal enough that that the gap between the amount we are spending and the amount we are making is as small as possible.

If I could counsel anyone looking into farming, I would say be prepared for a stark experience, and make sure you are able to find something satisfying in navigating scarcity.  Also, consider that it is not all bleak.  As I was told by a friend of mine when we started this, "You won't make a lot of money but you will eat well" and this is very true.  We have had a great abundance of very fresh seasonal food, and a great food cache for winter, and farm eggs and pastured chickens.  I don't think that even those with the means to do so can truly enjoy a farm's harvest the way a farmer can.  In that respect, farming has been a success so far.  And on balance, the good seems to be outweighing the bad, if slightly, and I think I am being honest in saying I don't miss the life I had before taking on this business of farming.

Monday, 22 December 2014

...From my Cold Dead Hands

This has been such an easy winter so far.  It is slushy, ugly, grey, everything in weather that I dislike, but managing the weather conditions has been effortless, if annoying.

Last year was a challenge:

And I get a lot of advice that includes the words "Snow Blower" or "Tractor" or "ATV".  In a civilized, modern world, it seems that shovels should no longer be needed, yet I am stubbord.  I won't give up my right to shovel my lane.  For me, it may be that the appeal of the shovel against snow is similar to guerrilla tactics against a massive lumbering army.  A shovel is nimble and can be maneuvered almost as a direct extension of the arm's movement.  When snow drifts are halfway up one's thighs, one can stab the shovel in the top layer and chip away.  ATVs and snow blowers get overwhelmed pretty quickly as the little flakes of snow become a deep mass.  Tractors are very handy because they are built to overpower the elements, including snow and soil, which are forces that generally require massive horsepower or very fit, well-nourished muscles.  While the snow shovel remains my guerrilla implement in the winter, the force of the pig's snout and the digging shovel are a pretty strong combination for summer, in the absence of horsepower, mechanical or from an actual horse.

Horses would be the final frontier in potential animal acquisitions for us.  We have, however, added goats to our collection.  They are penned in the greenhouse, beside the two pigs, whom the goats probably find absolutely disgusting.  We let the pigs out the back to dig in a fenced off future garden patch, and the goats we bring out the front door and out in the open range.  But because they aren't penned in, they could wander all over if they wanted to, and they could get attacked by predators, so we stay out with them and watch them munch on grass, dead leaves, flowers, cedar and pine trees.  They have been bred, should give birth in May, and will produce nice milk throughout the summer.

The December market at Memorial Centre is finished now, and it was a good month.  We have seen our stand slowly become a little hub of regular customers.  There is an occasional lineup and it is great to be at a market that keeps you moving, thinking and talking (especially when it is below zero and your feet are cold).  Thanks to everyone who helped extend the season all the way into Stollen season.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

"It now gets dark at noon"

This is a celebration of Canadian winter.  Perhaps you've listened to "This is That" on CBC, which is a satirical news program.  Between segments, interlude music plays and an announcer says things to fill space, like "Canada:  when in doubt...portage, and "Canada:  up north and down filled."  But I like this one.  "Canada:  it now gets dark at noon."

Here are a few photos from a recent sunset, in stages, and with layers.  It began mid afternoon and kept morphing into new shades of light.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Winter Market

Sunday morning, a barn at the fairgrounds.  we have set up and it is cold, especially with the concrete floors and walls.  The lights along the ceiling are functional but somehow give a barn-Christmas ambience.  An accordion player with sheet music begins around the time that the first customers start strolling through the barn door.  The coordinator of the market is busy going around and putting things together, like the tables in the food court.   Volunteers work on decorations, including the string of lights we have donated.  People gather inside of the oval of vendors and converse.  They bring their kids and they run around.  They bring their dogs too.  Eventually there is a sustained din of chatter, and a constant movement of people in the corner of our eyes as we change money and juggle dim sum and chop sticks and the glass takeout boxes customer have brought.

Mid morning, vendors from a produce farm that is set up at the other end stop by and bring our order of Chinese cabbage, which we use to supplement our own supply of cabbage.  They have given us a good price for the bulk order and we offer a couple of buns as a gesture of appreciation, and because they are friends.  On my way back, I ask another produce vendor next to them if they have cilantro, and I am told that it is currently frozen in the field but might bounce back for next week.  It is a cilantro that is sold freshly picked and stays fresh and fragrant for the whole week, something that I have never found in a grocery store.

Our apiarist friend halfway up our side of the oval comes by for our 5 for $10 deal.  We tell him we will take a kilo of honey for payment and he brings one back to us and picks up the buns that are now fried.  He doesn't accept the $2 we offer to make up the difference on the $12 jar, but we insist and it ends up in his pocket.  He is listening to a podcast and we chat a bit about CBC programming.  We have a couple of jars stocked now through our bartering arrangement. We have also bartered for cumin cheese, Thai curry, and spelt and beet bread, among other things.  It is easier to look forward to market when you like your fellow vendors and you like what they sell.  

In the stall to our immediate left is a farmer from North east of Kingston and a longer drive away than we are, who is busy making cedar wreaths.  I get some potatoes from her.  I have not eaten a normal white potato in a while since we did not grow them this year and these potatoes of all things offer a bit of excitement to the coming week's menu for their current novelty.

We are coming into December and the market still feels like a summer market.  Vendors bring storage vegetables and greens, and cheese makers, meat producers, and prepared food vendors like us have a place to carry on our business that has no reason to slow down just because the weather has gotten colder.  And people are still coming like it's summer.

The day winds down as open skate in the arena next to us is ending and a few people stop in for snacks or novelties.  We start wrapping up and drop a few bags of the unsold chard and Chinese greens to the Lovin' Spoonful, which distributes produce to people in need.  At 2:00 we unplug the burner and dump the water in the wok we use to steam the buns.  The parking lot is slushy and I have to be careful as I haul coolers and foldout tables back to the car and load up quickly so we can get home, do the dishes and feed the chickens and pigs before it gets dark.

Photo Credit:  Memorial Centre Farmers' Market

Friday, 31 October 2014

Local Food: What is it?

Local food:  what is it?  To many farmers' markets in eastern Ontario it means food that is sourced from within 100km.  To many public institutions local food means food sourced from within Ontario or up to 50 km outside of the province (which would include parts of New York state).  To companies like Tim Hortons and A&W, it means "One hundred percent Canadian Beef!"

But what is local food at its core?  What does the experience of eating local really mean to those who care?  If you read the 100 mile diet, you see a food system that is challenging, subversive and rewarding in ways that take a certain willingness to sacrifice.  If you read this New York Times article, it means experimenting with foods that are acquired tastes, foods like cowpeas and emmer wheat, and mustard, and other highly nutritious legumes and grains and roots that are not a part of the current North American menu.

At a recent summit on Local Food, hosted by the university in my area, local food was discussed as something that might be more widely used in our public institutions, making it a central part of our larger food system.  The trouble with discussions on local food is that there is usually enthusiasm that can't quite connect to the real world - it can be embraced only once it has fully matched, in its volumes and variety, what currently exists in the food industrial food system, which is not likely to happen.

A moot discussion

The day involved group sessions with representatives from various government agencies and non-profits.  There were a few distributors, a few curious people, and a few producers.    

The central challenge, it was established, was that of taking the nebulous world of local food production, rounding it together into a functioning system, and bringing that abundance to hospitals and schools and universities.  But the assumption that made the session largely moot was that there would never be enough producers capable and well-connected enough in this region to make regional food a viable alternative to the current system of sourcing food from across the world. This is a real challenge because we are in the midst of a decades' long process of dismantling local food infrastructure.  Larger food companies can afford to set up their own processing plants for their own sprawling production needs. but small, more diverse groupings of producers in a given region cannot do the same.  In some cases, producers band together to form cooperatives, but they encounter challenges from regulators, as well as financial burdens, as few investors are interested in putting money into them.  Any discussion on local food should address these issues, but  the challenges of local production in a globalized economy centred on cheap food would not really come into the discussion. 

At various points we came back to the topic of small farms, direct-to-consumer markets, and what ordinary people want in a local food system.  One woman pointed out that she did not want to get up on Sunday morning and go the farmers market.  She wanted to have local food nearby, every day.  Just like a trusty Loblaws.  And when that happens, she suggested, she will be ready.  And so will many others, it seems.  After all, the buzz around here, as in many Canadian cities, is that people are craving local food, but they can't afford it and can't find it.

They can afford it and they can find it.

But the real issue is they don't really want it, perhaps because they don't know why they should.  Our culture is not really focused on food choices beyond the occasional blurb from health Canada about the importance of a balanced diet, or the Heart and Stroke Foundation's plugs for Becel margarine. This brings me back to the idea of local food as challenging, subversive and requiring sacrifice - all things that are not in line with a culture of hyper-consumption and overabundance.  This is attractive to me, but getting up on Sunday morning to go to a farmers' market is not everyone's cup of tea and if it isn't, then that is quite alright.

As a local food producer, I am not looking for a customer base that:  buys local food because they want to be able to say they buy local; buys local food because they think they should, or; buys local food as an occasional gesture of support.  I am looking for customers who buy from me because they like my product; they genuinely find it worthwhile from a price standpoint, and; they look forward to consuming it.  They know it is not from a cheap food model, and they know it is not always convenient to come to the market on Sunday, but it is worth it to them, and for that reason, there is a market for me, however small.

The idea that many more people would buy locally if they could afford it doesn't really pass muster.  I, along with many other people I know, including young couples with children, buy local food in spite of being in a relatively low income bracket.  For many who don't buy local food, reportedly because it is expensive, the real issue is that they don't see its merit and they don't want it badly enough to pay a small premium for it.  I am convinced of this because the first time I bought an organic chicken was during a period of my life when my finances were quite comfortable.  I had been in a natural foods store, in my early stages of interest in local and natural foods, and had called my sister later that day, asking her how I could justify buying a chicken that cost twice the price of the ones I was used to buying.  She advised me that it was not the same product and could not be compared as such,  That stuck with me, and now the price I so reluctantly paid for that chicken is normal, standard, simply the price for the luxury of eating chicken....but I digress.

For anyone who truly wants local food but does not know where to find it, a simple internet search puts one in touch with several local markets, where one can meet vendors and find out more about where to source their food, as well as connecting with CSAs for those who have church service Sunday morning or cartoons on TV.

In Conclusion

There is no question that supplying large institutions with food is a challenge, whether it is sourced locally or from elsewhere.  It has a lot to do with what is prioritized in government and in the larger culture. It's a scrappy, messy business, one that I don't understand well.  Shifts in how we source food on this scale will require changes in the attitudes of government and in society as a whole and I guess they would probably come more in response to crisis than as progressive, proactive changes. Whatever the case, a truly local option for supplying food to local institutions does not currently exist, at least that was what I gathered from the discussion.

As individuals, buying food on a day-to-day basis, the business is not as messy.  There are no board meetings, no charters to ratify or legislation to pass in order to start new habits.  But a small local food community does not advertise the way a large grocery store chain does, and sometimes it has to remind people that it does not just exist in theory - it exists as a current, viable choice.

Monday, 27 October 2014


It's a bit like the scene after a banquet, after everyone has gone, and there are a few custodians vacuuming furiously.  The place seems so bare, when just a few hours ago it had been so lush, so nicely decorated and full of colour.  You didn't notice that the carpet and walls were so plain.

We tore out the tomato plants, the pepper plants, the eggplant plants, and the okra.  It's that time and it's kind of nice to see the beds bare, to be redone and set up with something else.  The pigs are busy digging, and the chickens are stabbing at seeds and bits and pieces of plant residue.  We will plant some hardy greens for the late fall and soon enough, we will be setting up our tomato plants again, this time stringing them to the structure so they don't lie down on the floor the way many did this year.  The place wasn't as orderly as I would like it - watering plants was a challenge when so many were slumped into the trenches and I had to get around them - and yet, we had some good results, especially cherry tomatoes, which were spectacular, if I do say so myself.

Our field has been expanded, almost doubled in size thanks to the pigs' digging.  Next year we plan to grow a few fewer vegetable varieties and grow more of each.  Enough to stock a CSA and do some wholesaling.  That last sentence is oozing with the kind of intention most farmers have for "next year," when this year's plans will be properly realized.  But we are at least further along than we would be if we hadn't already finished year 0.

In other news, I have collected the watermelon.  There were about 6 left today and they are incredible, if I do say so myself.  It's not exactly watermelon weather, but it will have to do.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Time Hurries On...

...and the leaves that are green turn to brown, sang Paul Simon.  And they become compost after they have been raked up.  We borrowed a very sophisticated mower from a good friend of ours, and it has not only mowed the grass in our front area, it has given us a pile of clippings mixed with decaying leaves that is to die for.

When we took the property in the fall of 2013 it still had a 'rural residential' feeling to it.  As one friend described it, it could easily have been transplanted into a suburban subdivision.  The lawn was manicured until about 100 feet our from the house, forming a tidy line with the field of hay.  Walking out to the hay for the first time felt like walking into a vast uncharted world, but now it has become familiar, and so has the routine of chores, of riding my bike between gardens and chopping wood along the treeline, dragging it back to the woodpile.

A couple of days ago I got the camera out for the first time in months, and shot the sunrise.  Last year I took hundreds of photos of skies, fields and I would often drop whatever building or digging I was working on at the sound of an unusual bird song, find my camera and chase it until I had a decent picture.  Farming is dangerous - beyond the risk of heavy objects falling or machines (for those who have them) getting out of control, it risks dulling some of your senses in their curiosity about the great outdoors - its sounds and smells and sheer freshness because it all become some familiar.  It also makes something as simple as visiting the local museums something that keeps eluding, going further and further into the future because there is never a good time to get away for a day.

I suspect that a guru or life coach's advice would be to set aside time for "being" amidst the spleandour, even when other mundane tasks are pressing.  But, as Paul Simon sang, time hurries on.

In spite of the grind that farming is becoming, there is an underlying goodness in the lifestyle.  I heard a CBC radio program yesterday on which the merits of organic food were debated.  There was the claim that the nutritional value was the same as conventional food, following by the claim that the research into this was largely done by large conventional food companies...there was the claim that environmentally speaking, conventional agriculture was in fact better than organic because it was more efficient, and organics also use pesticides, followed by the rebuttal that, according to the UN's findings, ecological agriculture is the only kind of farming that can be sustained over the long term, given the heavy dependence on fossil fuels in conventional growing (I should note that while the organic industry is only as organic as the regulators say it has to be, it is not the case that every organic farm sprays with pesticides, even though certain sprays are approved for organically certified farms).

The debate was not really interesting to me, I had heard the arguments before, but when you are on a farm seven days a week and it practically meshes with your very being, the question of farming practices becomes important.  Perhaps the most significant issue for me, which was not discussed in the debate, is the fact that large conventional monocropping farms do not seek to nourish soil in order to produce good food, and nor do they claim to.  It's not considered efficient, and with the times.

There is a great pleasure in building a compost pile that is full of green grasses and brown leaves, and chicken manure and bugs and worms and chickens hurrying about like kids in an arcade.  Time hurries on, and life is short, and as much as the farm grind is tiring and not often restful (or profitable), it's hard to walk away from it, in part because so much time, energy and money becomes invested in it and in part because the processes that go into nourishing soil to produce good food become vital to you as the farmer too in ways that most people wouldn't understand.

Friday, 19 September 2014


As I noted in my last post, the Ontario government has stated that farmers' markets are an extension of the farmgate.  Foods prepared for sale at a farmers' market may be made in one's own home.  Foods prepared for the farmgate must be prepared in a commercial kitchen.  When I tell people this, I get incredulous looks.  "Why?"  They ask.  "Health and safety regulations," I reply.  "Yes, but...what does that have to do with health and safety?"  

When I asked the ministry in a letter, for an explanation of this seeming inconsistency,  I was informed that the minster is aware that Ontario produces some of the highest quality food in the world....the government is keen to work with farmers like us to ensure that Ontario continues to produce the highest quality food in the world....and I was advised that if our prepared foods contain more than 25% meat, not only would we be requires to produce them offsite, in a commercial kitchen, they would need to be produced in a licensed meat plant.  The minister emphasized again how important it was to his government that they work with farmers like myself to ensure that Ontario continue to make great food, and so on and so forth. 

Ours is not a culture that makes starting and running a small business accessible and viable, given the regulatory burdens that are not plain and straightforward, designed to address issues in a way that makes sense and is reasonable. 

As small farmers, we feel squeezed by the constant demands of regulations which are costly to meet, as well as by the indifference of the general public.  At markets, we present our wares, and engage with customers, but the good humour sometimes belies the tiredness that comes from the pressures that are never really eased.  Regulations change and are made on whims without farmers' input.  The place of the small farm in our culture is a precarious one.  

Friday, 12 September 2014

Back to School!

This week marked the first time I was back on campus in more than a decade.  Amidst all of the fresh-faced, stylish young folks with text books in one hand, the other hand texting friends, I felt a bit our of place...when I last spent a full day on campus, there was no texting, it was the early 2000's, and I was expanding my mind with full days of courses and a lunch break in the old student's union, with its Subway, its greasy Chinese food takeout counter, its taco booth.  Come to think of it, it was mostly junk food, but there was no Tim Hortons or Burger King. Subway seemed out of place.   By today's campus standards, it was quaint. I usually brought a bag lunch with me anyway.

Queen's has a mall-style food court, with an array of cheap, nutrition-deficient food vendors dressed up as upscale ethnic eateries, along with the usual international faves.  And coming back to why I was on campus - I am not taking courses, I am a vendor in the farmers market.  We were set up along a busy stretch of sidewalk outside of the student library and near the food court building.   I sat at my table for the 7-hour stretch, under the canopy, my wares spread out.  We had our dim sum advertised, and people did stop and ask for some, but when we told them we were not allowed to sell it hot, presumably because it may infringe on the business of the existing food vendors, and it would have to be given to them fresh out of the refrigerated cooler, they frowned and said "oh."  Then they smiled politely and said, "okay, I was hoping to eat it hot."  Then they walked away a bit self-consciously.

As farmers we are constantly up against little rules that add up and become a patch of choking weeds. Health units enforce supply management rules (the health inspector will fine a farmer for selling chicken eggs, but not for selling duck or goose eggs, for example, even though there is no reason that chicken eggs are less safe than any other egg.  They are, however, a supply-managed commodity.)  Prepared foods must be kept below 4 degrees or above 60, even if they are foods that are best enjoyed at room temperature, foods that will not perish in the four hour strech of a farmers' market. There is no room for judgment, and no room for a steamed bun sitting at 5 degrees.

A farmer may prepare foods in his kitchen if the items are sold at a farmers' market, but may not sell these items at the farmgate, even though the farmers' market is defined as an extension of the farmgate.  Items sold from the farm itself must be prepared in a commercial kitchen.  This means the farmer drives twenty minutes, hauling all of his or her ingredients, to a kitchen at a community hall or a church, cooks, packs up, hauls it home, and sells his or her farmfresh food.  These facilites generally require liability insurance on the part of the farmer, which can be around $100/month, cutting out any chance of profit.

As I sat on campus, I did some studying.  I read a bit of "The Meat Racket," a new book on the American meat industry, which has changed dramatically over the years into a handful of companies, which are vertically integrated and which control nearly every aspect of their production.  The only aspect they do not take on is farming.  They contract the raising of their animals to farms so that the farms can take on the massive capital investment required to run a factory farm, and then the farmer takes the loss on a bad batch of chickens.

This is a time when an education in food issues is more accessible than ever.  There are countless books, from The Omnivore's Dilemma, to the Hundred Mile Diet, to Locavore (and books like the Locavore's Dilemma, which offer an opposing, more upbeat view of the industrial food system), to Organics Inc...and films like King Corn and Food Inc. and the Botany of Desire.  There is much to be learned and discussed around the issues of food production and consumption, which are, after all, ever-pertinent issues.


Monday, 1 September 2014

Long Road Celebrates 1 Year

We have made it to the end of summer.  There are a couple of big ripe watermelons in our field ready to harvest, and a few more on the way. There is a second, very tenacious crop of strawberries as well.  The pigs are digging up a portion of field that we plan to use next year, and I am pleasantly surprised to see that they are doing a bang-up job.

We hosted a concert to celebrate the anniversary of the move.  The turnout was perfect - we did not break any fire codes with our attendance, but it was enough for a great sense of camaraderie and also enough to notice a rise in the room's temperature.  It was enough people to encourage us, but beyond the number of people, it was wonderful to know that we have connected with some quality people.

We made a buffet of farm-fresh snacks and chatted amongst ourselves between sets, and played a mixture of folk/roots originals, songs by the Beatles and the Guess Who (which my siblings and I grew up listening to) and a few brilliant trumpet numbers (we were fortunate enough to have a world class trumpeter in the lineup, and no that is not a joke).

Me and the band (my siblings who helped make the evening a memorable one)

A year ago our land was still unimproved hay fields and woodlot.  The vast majority of our land is still just that, but there are three lush gardens now.  We fretted about soil depth, about having to spend on raised beds, but the soil is serving us well.  We began the spring intending to sell vegetables and meat, but have expanded our operation into Frontenac county's only Dim Sum joint.  Recapping the year, it would be fair to say we have had some modest success - in any case, I am still writing this blog and the farmgate sign is still going up each day to welcome visitors.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Mid Summer

It's the time of year when the farmer's body has been moulded into a machine that gets up, works, goes to bed.  He forgets what it is to go out for a night on the town, with drinks and some kind of entertainment, like a good band.  He has only a few minutes before he turns out the light to read a passage of something unrelated to farming.

Markets have settled in for the season.  They are also well-oiled now, reliable and smooth - no longer the jerky, sputtering things they were at the beginning of the season when it was still chilly and wet and people scouted us out from the comfort of their passing cars.

And what have the markets been for us, first-time produce and dim sum vendors?  July was a good month.  Our sales increased significantly.  There are still slow days, and times when we wonder, what if people come for the novelty, and spread the word with enthusiasm, and then wash their hands of Long Road?  It's a challenge establishing returning clientele, though there are some people whom we see week in week out, and it's always nice to visit with them.  That is part of the appeal of the markets - it is a social place in a way that a big store is to a much lesser extent.  Yes, people say excuse me when they bump carts, and yes, most cashiers can do good small talk, but they can't talk for ten minutes, and there is no place for hovering around, it is a line that must keep moving.

There are locals and tourists at our markets, young and old, though it is the older people who are often the most interested in trying our food.  Often younger people come to the market and head straight for old-school treats, and steer clear of us because we are young too and maybe we make them uncomfortable.  We sell Chinese goods, but I have seen Chinese patrons come up as far as the neighbouring booth and then quickly cross to the other side.  It's funny how markets make people self-conscious in ways they wouldn't be in a grocery store.

We have some whole chickens that turned out wonderfully - small again, but top quality.  We will be fine with the chicken feet, livers and necks if the whole chickens sell out.  They are all in our freezer, interlaid with pork and frozen veggies.  It is the time of year when fall feels near and canning, freezing and making preserved vegetables becomes more pressing.  

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Fishing Adventure

It was about time I got out to the creek in the canoe, and made use of my fishing licence.  Ours might be called a waterfront property; we do border a creek, but the space between the fenceline and the shore is so dense with tall waterweeds, and so boggy, that only a rugged adventurist like myself would bother wading through it, dragging the canoe alongside in the little tributary that leads to the creek, scaling the beaver dam along the way.  I got into the canoe and paddled up to the creek and felt the exhiliration of being on the open water.  Not a soul around, just me and the vast winding waterway.  I admit, it's nearly still water, flowing so slowly you don't know which way is upstream, and the weeds are thick and get tangled in the paddle, but calm is wonderful, and there is a steady rotation of cranes and other water birds to bedazzle.

I cast my fishing line and waited, fiddled with the line, and managed to get it badly tangled.  I couldn't reel the line in, but, given how resourceful I am, I sort of grabbed it and pulled, swinging it back towards me when a fish finally bit, unhooked the fish, tossed it into the creek after seeing how tiny it was, and wondered what one does to find fish of a decent size.  I figured the lake on the other side of the highway might be better.  There is a culvert just tall enough to pass through if you duck, and just wide enough to manoever if you are very steady.  It is flush with spider webs, and I held out my paddle like a sort and swatted at them.  Some looked like black widows, longish legs and a smooth shiny body.  I came out the other side and swatted the big spider that had found its way onto my arm.  I looked back at the tiny opening and wondered why I had gone through.  Peter's Lake is not exactly Lake Louise.  It's weedy like the creek, with algae clouds that look like rocks that disintegrate when you poke them.  After catching and releasing a few more tiny fish, I went back through to my side, taxied back to the farm, and got to chores.

No, I am not really a rugged outdoorsman.  But I like being outside, I like farming, but there is something appealing about the wild, even the relatively tame wild.  I recently walked my property line, and found a thread of wild raspberries.  While they are not as sweet as the kind you get at a garden centre, they are perhaps even more delicious for their tart taste, and they are just there, spreading slowly.  I can spend an hour in the patch, picking at them like a chicken locating worms in a pile of soil (incidentally, the chickens and I had to fight over worms as I was collecting bait.  They are incredibly quick at finding worms).  The nice thing about berry picking is that, unlike with fishing, you can count on having something to show for your efforts.  I had enough to eat as I picked, eat a few when I came in, and then freeze some for a winter day when I want to defrost them and add them to oatmeal.

Sunday, 6 July 2014


We have good quality standing hay ready for the right person to cut, bale, take away.  Price to be negotiated. So reads our ad.

Having hay cut can be tricky.  On one hand, with cash cropping becoming a more appealing use of land than grass (for some people), hay is said to be in high demand because fewer properties are growing it and, if they are, bothering to keep it healthy and uncontaminated by chemicals.  On the other hand, it can be really hard to find someone who can cut and bale on terms that are reasonable to the grower.  This is understandable to some extent - it is a pain having to bring a tractor out, spend hours riding up and down like a Zamboni on an enormous rink, bale, load, haul away at a lumbering speed and have a train of cars trying to pass you.

Our farm sign is up amidst that hay, and our fields, hidden behind alfalfa and clover, are producing a lot of vegetables.

You may be wondering how our dim sum sales are.  Word seems to be spreading because it is a unique product, it tastes good, and we use good ingredients.  Yes, that's part of what is bringing in more and more sales each week.  But sometimes people come because, driving back to Toronto or Ottawa or Syracuse from a weekend at the cottage, they notice a handpainted sandwich board along the highway that reads:

Dim Sum
Egg - Pork

And they think to themselves:  "Did I just see that?  In Murvale?"  And they turn around and check again.  "Yep, it says Dim Sum."  And they drive up the laneway, park, roll down the window, and ask with some hesitation, "Hi there...so, you guys sell Dim Sum?"

I'm glad we have added some variety to our area, and something a bit improbable.  I hope it's refreshing like a gourmet chip truck that sells beet and goat cheese salads and brisket (Harrowsmith has one) or clean, well-lighted washrooms with well-stocked soap and handtowels in a dusty service station (Harrowsmith has one of these as well).

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

New Pigs

We have two Berkshire pigs.  They were weaned young and, frankly, young Berkshire pigs are ugly. At least these are, though they are getting a bit bigger and are starting to look more like pigs and less like big rats. They were raised from birth on a pasture of about 30 acres and developed a certain wildness and lean, boxy little physiques. The first evening we had them, after having put them in a pen for the afternoon and tossed them some grass, we let them out into the barn's "common area" to give them a proper meal.   Before that, each time either of us approached the pen, they would freeze, even keeping a leg in the air.  They were extremely alert and sensitive to every sound.  As they scampered around the barn they sought only to escape, and quickly pushed the big pagewire door open and started darting around the yard.

Actually, they are quite adorable

We had lined the yard with shipping pallets, forming a tight fence, with the intention of having them out once they had learned that the barn was where they would get food and they would not want to venture far.  But on the first day, they would not have been inclined to return if they got out.  As well sealed as the yard seemed to be, there was one panel that was shorter than the others.  Lazy, well-fed pigs would never try to scale it, but these ones took a run at it and one of the climbed to the top, got its body half way over before struggling for a moment to free herself.  It was by some grace that she struggled to get herself over because it gave me just enough time to grab her hind legs and get her back into the barn.  Imagine a $100 bill floating over the edge of a ship and you grab it just before it is out of reach.

Meanwhile, farmgate sales are coming along - we are gaining customers each day and meeting nice and interesting people. The farmgate concept is not common around here and people take notice when they see one.  I visited a farm called Vicki's Veggies in Prince Edward County last week, where I saw a stunning 16 acres of pristine veggies and then the most exquisite farm store - an old garage that had been converted into a small shop with old windows in rustic wooden frames and a floor of wide wood slabs that were just crooked and creaky enough, without being dilapidated.  There is no way to replicate that.  Ours looks a bit, well, suburban, given that we are opening up our much more modern garage door and selling from the edge of the the garage's shelter (of course when you see the chickens and wild flowers all around you, your don't feel you are in a subdivision).  In any case, we are admittedly less rustic than some and maybe not quite as much the postcard image, but we do have heart just the same.

Tomatoes are getting close now, they are big and green, and in another week or two ready to enjoy.  There is nothing like a freshly picked Brandywine tomato cut up and sprinkled with a little bit of brown sugar.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Farmgate is Open

As you come up the highway, past the old stone house with the white picket fence where the old bachelor farmer lives, and past the old United Church that sits unused, and then past the cemetery, the little one right off the highway with the old wire sign, you will see the sign for the hamlet of Murvale and on your left, a large greenhouse in the distance. You will then notice a sign that reads:

Eggs - free range, organically fed
Pork - organically fed
Chinese Dim Sum -
Steamed buns and egg tarts

This is Long Road Eco Farm.  The sign now reads all of those things and cucumber.  We have turnip greens and snow peas, radishes and collards, garland chrysanthemum and oregano.  Lettuce next week and then tomatoes, mustard greens, asian salad mix, then soon after we will have squash and sweet potatoes.  There will be okra, chard, zucchini, cilantro, sweet corn, strawberries, and lots of nice beans of different colours and lengths.  There will be garlic and onions, and ground cherries and watermelon.  There will be Shiitake mushrooms, Berkshire pork and eggs from Chantecler hens.  There is a lot going on right now.

The farmgate is open and people are pulling in.  You can hear the slow crunch of gravel as cars hesitantly venture into the property, driver and passenger gazing to the left at the garden beds under row cover or black mulch cover or bare soil with vegetation as neatly weeded as can be expected, then to the right where the greenhouse doors are open and cucumber and tomatoes sprawl upwards on stakes, the yellow cucumber flowers bright.  At the foot of the driveway is parking and a chicken yard in sight.  People get out and ask about our operation, buy a couple of steam buns, some veggies, some egg tarts.  Driving back towards the highway they see the red clover, the daisies, the butter and eggs, the alfalfa, the mullein, the prairie smoke.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Fields are in Bloom

A vegetable field grows slowly enough that it catches you off guard when things are ripe and ready to pick and then eat or sell.

We have been doing a market in our area and selling Chinese buns.  The cabbage above is used for the filling, as is the smoked, cured pork we raised and prepared and the eggs we get from our hens.

I have also been selling egg tarts with organic cream and homemade pastry.  Business is not booming, our products are not quite flying off the table, and there are no lineups, but we have gotten some good feedback about the pleasantly intriguing tastes of our food.  One customer said:  "These are awesome!" That was nice.

I was a lemonade vendor as a child.  I didn't have to have a permit for the stand I had at the end of the sidewalk.  I can remember one otherwise lazy summer afternoon when business reached a pitch and I ran out of popcorn and had to get another batch going.  My aunt Judy, who lived with us and who came home on the handy bus around 4:00 had just arrived and the driver bought a lemonade and popcorn.  She waited patiently.  A young couple stopped and picked up lemonades, I served them while the handy bus driver stood aside:  "There you are...popcorn will be just another moment...oh, hello sir, what can I get you..." another guy stopped for a glass and then I ran back into the house and got the popcorn out so the driver could be on her way.  Then the lull came and I felt very satisfied.  I think I made $20 for the summer (that's net profit - I think I spent another $20 on a new popcorn popper for the next season).

Being an adult food vendor comes with more stress obviously.  It's hard to establish yourself, and it's hard to go for long making $20 profit for the season. I do expect to do better than that, but business is slow at many Canadian farmer's markets.

2014 - Harrowsmith Market

1990 - Jonny's Lemonade, Lethbridge (from left to right:  Brother Patrick,
Schoolmate Reilly, and Jonathan at Right)

Sunday, 11 May 2014


Finding a bird's nest in your rural mailbox is exciting, especially when you open up the box and see a little bird sitting in the nest, on her eggs...and then the excitement ends and you realize she's the reason the mail has been strewn around the highway lately and she will have to go.  Or, should she get to stay?  I felt like a cruel human plowing over the natural world as I gently took the nest out and set it in the ditch a few feet away (this was after the bird had gone out for the day).  This poor family has been displaced, the eggs may well have gone untended, and the bird comes back, finds her way into the mail box and rebuilds.  With the sun out and the fields dry, it has been a busy couple of weeks and I haven't been able to make time for making the mailbox more nest-proof.  And so, I have this on my conscience.

The pig was evicted around the same time - and with good cause.  He destroyed the place.  He lifted the concrete tiles and dug several feet in the ground.  But he is a pig and he has his reasons.  He has been relocated to a much nicer, greener pasture, with a run-in shed instead of a barn.  He will be with us for another couple of weeks and then we will take him for slaughter.

The greenhouse is up, the fields are mostly dug up and covered or planted, though the digging is ongoing.  Each day starts around 6:30 in the morning and wraps up around 8:00 at night.  Meals are hearty:  three eggs some days for breakfast, toast, granola, a hefty lunch, a full cooked supper.  A salad and smoothie won't cut it.  And the time that goes into making proper meals cuts into TV time and internet browsing.  That's the positive side.  It also means that lying in a hammock on an afternoon off and reading a good book doesn't happen much.  This is, after all, not a hobby farm and making a farm functional requires a least a little austerity.  Every morning my fingers feel locked.  And then they loosen up and I manage to get them around the hoe or the shovel or the fork.  The paddy hat and flimsy scarf around my neck have kept me from getting seriously burnt without using glob after glob of sunscreen, but some days the angle of the hat is a bit off, the scarf gets loose and I end up a bit pinker than I hoped.   The grass is back and it's lush.  The trees are budding, and the wind has been a real pain, but the airflow is good out here.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

More Birds

We brought in a new batch of laying hens recently. The old ones became very snooty and refused to mingle with the new recruits. One hen got sick and when chickens get sick, they stand still with a scowl on their faces (if chickens can scowl) and sort of tuck their head in towards their bodies (sort of like when a thin person tries to make a double chin). We put it into a separate area, and began nursing. We gave her olive oil drops and water diluted with apple cider vinegar a couple of times a day. Eventually the head started sticking out again and she looked more relaxed and so we put her back in with the rest. It's a good feeling when you see an animal rehabilitated, especially when it doesn't require major interventions.

We have another small batch of heritage birds (Barred Ply Rock for those of you who know the varieties). They are a beautiful,  ash-colour and white striped pattern when they are grown.  For now, they are a fuzzy dark brown with some white spots.  We just taught them how to drink water, which will come in handy.

This is a very busy week:  not only do we have these to add to our roster, we will have another batch of meat birds by the week's end, as well as a dozen Asian chestnut and date trees, and a big bag each of Shiitake and Oyster mushroom spawn.  Seedlings are quickly wanting to be real planted plants, and we are doing our best to get beds ready for them, while keeping up with the continued demand of our planting schedule to keep succession batches of seedlings coming. At this point the work day is long and one thing weaves into another, but thankfully the chickens and seedlings are able to do most of the work for themselves.  As Eliot Coleman said:  "Drop a seed in the ground and it wants to grow."  

Friday, 18 April 2014

Long Road "Easter" Eggs

Have a Pleasant Easter
This Easter I completely forgot it was Easter.  I had plans to run errands on Good Friday, then realized that everything is closed.  I keep forgetting it is a holiday and have to stop myself from making farm-related phone calls about things like hogs and geese.  Most people are setting aside the day for nice ham or turkey suppers.  Farming, especially in spring, especially in the first spring on the farm, is a wheel that spins faster and faster.  There are many things that need to be done, other things that should be done, and an infinite number of things that would be nice to do.  There are plans in the works for some decorative vine work on the front yard; plans for getting firewood ready for next year so that it has time to season; cedar fencing that needs sprucing up...then there is the logo design, the wooden crates that will hold veggies for CSA and market.  The list goes on, with items jumping into my head and leaving before they are written down.  It's a perpetual chase.

That said, the farm is running.  We have a lot of laying hens laying nice eggs.  Colourful eggs of various sizes.  It's nice having a farm project that does most of the work itself.  These chickens are quite self-sufficient.  As long as they get a bit of mash, they will wander around the yard, finding earthworms, and making sure they make eggs they can be proud of.  Something like that.

I've mentioned permaculture in previous posts.  The idea that one can create a farm where the natural world works to the farmer's benefit is appealing.  Most of the time, entropy rules and the farmer tries to decide what parts of it to challenge and what parts of it to accept.  We were excited by the idea that the pig would dig up our garden beds.  He would methodically dig up the grass roots and then beg for another project.  But the pig does not aim to please.  In the greehouse patch, where we had him fenced in for a few days, he managed to dig one massive crater about six feet in diameter and leave the rest of the grass neatly intact. Then, after a long day of lying on the field, he tore out the concrete tiles in his pen and dug a hole so deep, I couldn't imagine how he climbed out.  One can't really be upset with him for the fact that his priorities differ from ours.  

Then we have beavers in the pond at the back of the property taking down tree after healthy tree.  We have been taking the trees they have left lying around for our own use.  I don't thing either party is really winning.  I wish they would stop taking the trees down; they probably wish I would stop taking the trees that took so much effort to fell.  

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Back from a Trip to the Prairies

I'm glad that my current line of work does not require that I travel often.  In fact, it doesn't allow for much travel.  There is something about flying that irks me.  The usual irritations: security check, delays, airport food.  The hassles of the trip I took recently back to my hometown in Alberta was typical enough.  A three-hour delay on my connecting flight, a food voucher, a $10 mozza on ciabatta that tasted like cardboard. That is all irksome. Then there is the feeling that you are in a HSBC world, being propelled into its future, where corn and cotton compete as commodities, where technology and nature are one. We've all seen it in the bridge to the plane, but I have to look away.

I won't harp on that. What really pained me, on this particular trip, was a moment that was very much routine, but wasn't for me, not this time. Like Dostoevsky and the flogged horse, or Byron and the dead Goldfish, I was deeply upset by the chucking of my jar of honey at the security gate. I had forgotten about the restrictions before I walked in with my backpack, which held the honey jar in a bag of clothes. Though I am used to packing my shaving kit and its lotions in my checked luggage, and though I never bring yogurt as a snack, the honey didn't register when I was configuring my bags. I guess because I just haven't come to see honey as a lethal weapon like I have yogurt and lotion. Maybe because it was creamed and it seemed so solid. I don't know. I know that most people think, “well, you should have known better.” And they think that the people there were just doing their job when they took the bulbous jar, and tossed it into a big plastic bin, where it landed with a woosh on the black plastic lining and with a thud on the base. Indeed, they were just doing their job. I had said, “don't throw it out, it's good honey” and it was good honey, it was not pasteurized and sold in a store but was sourced from a local source, it was not a commodity to be traded along with BT corn and cotton. And they said languidly that they couldn't keep it because it would be like taking a gift, which was against their policies. And who knows if it might be laced with something or set to blow up.

When I reached for a different jar of honey at my home, the one that was to be followed by the one that got chucked, after arriving late last night and getting a piece of toast ready, I felt a twinge. Now, I'm afraid that whenever I see honey, I will feel the thud of the jar as it went into a garbage, to be trucked to a landfill. It's not an occurrence that has brought any particular resolve, like “I am never going to travel on a plane again,” though it has made the experience of going through airports sourer than it was. No, it just makes me sad.

I should mention briefly that the fields are drying and the seedlings are thriving, which is some consolation.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Seedy Saturday Rolls Around Again

Seedy Saturday is the gateway to planting season.  We gather in a church or community hall and wander the tables, labeling our envelopes, laying them out and scanning the ones left by others, intrigued by names like Purple Peacock pole beans.  A woman breastfeeds on the couch off to the side of the row of booths set up by groups like USC and Seeds of Diversity.  Lunch in the kitchen upstairs is an assortment of soups by donation.  The morning has gone by quickly, I meet many people who are interested in what I am doing.  "We are calling it Long Road Eco Farm" I tell one lady who is listening keenly, "because our laneway is the distinguishing feature of our property, and many people tell us how sorry they are to see us out shoveling."  I sometimes elaborate further on the metaphor of ecological farming as a long road with no shortcuts, just a long road with hard-earned rewards.  Of course, It has been a short road for me thus far, the metaphor will only work for me once I've been at it a few decades.

We humans are used to the idea that hard work brings richer rewards.  The afternoon lecture was given by a beekeeper who discussed the decline of the honey bee.  It is a weak creature to begin with and the combinations of neonicotinoids and loss of habitat due to sprawl, among other variables, many of which may never be know, have threatened its survival as a species of late.  Honey bees are one of many varieties of bees, and each, I learned, has different interests, plants-wise.  Tomatoes are one of my favourite crops, and are a good crop for a market gardener, especially when a greenhouse is at hand.  Bumble bees have a preference for tomatoes.  I am learning to appreciate bumble bees, to watch them and to feel my racing heart slow a bit when I can tell they are absorbed in the flower, oblivious to my presence.

I have a pathological fear of bees, and I have to remind myself that they work incredibly hard.  They have good character, they only sting as a last resort.  They are not cranky scavengers like wasps and yellow jackets, who sting on a whim.  I seize up when I see them, my tendency is to cover my head with my hands and whimper or wail.  When I learned about the dances and the waggles in elementary, I got nervous.  It's not an adaptive fear.  Bees, I learned at Seedy Saturday, do that dance to tell their mates how far away and in which direction their food source is, and then they fly.  One fact that I made a point of remembering was this: A pound of honey is the product of some 2 million  flower visits, and 50,000 miles traveled.  Unlike most other insects or animals of any kind, bees operate on a substantial surplus of nutrients in their hives, which we take for ourselves because it is so delicious. What goes through their little insect minds? Or are they too busy working to be bitter?  It seems a shame that they haven't been more richly rewarded for their hard work.

The list of interesting bee facts goes on for pages, but the one other bee fact that I learned Saturday that affects humans is how their extinction would affect what foods are available to us.  We would have about half of what we find in today's produce section. Unless we could get people to go around and dust pollen onto fields of flowers.  This, apparently, is currently happening in parts of China where bees are no longer.

Talking about seeds, pollination and pollinators can be heavy, a bit overwhelming.  It's sordid, and seedy - opportunistic pests prey on the plants and animals we like, so we find ways to kill them off, we eliminate mites and weeds, and then we find that killing milkweed because we didn't like it was in turn killing the monarchs or driving them away to places where there was still milkweed.   And we find that the neurotoxins killing the very little bugs are disorientation and weakening insects like bees.  In the thick of all of these things happening, we made a good social gathering.  I look forward to seeing how my Purple Peacock pole beans turn out.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014


It's 9:30 and on my last trip out for the evening, I gather three logs from two firewood piles:  the one we chopped, which is less seasoned, and the one we bought which is a little bit better.  I then grab one of the shovels in the snow bank by the garage and chisel away at the first fifth or so of the laneway, which is covered in snowdrifts again.  I catch sight of the dog, whom I've brought out with me and who is trotting down the path to the barn, and instead of whistling at her to come back, I decide to follow her. 

She doesn't seem to see me as I peer from about twenty feet behind her, obscured by some trees where the path bends before reaching the barnyard's fence.  She is sniffing around the door.  Then she goes around to the run-in shed, where cracks in the lower wall of the barn let her get within inches of the pig's bed.  She could whisper something to him, sweet nothings maybe.  I feel like a parent who has been in denial, who has imagined that her teenaged daughter has been secretly seeing a boy from a reasonably good family down the road, fretting that they might be going too far too fast.  And then one day I happen to see her leaving the house of a middle-aged biker. 

The dog seems to be taking a lot of interest in this pig.  His name is Doug.  Since his brother Rob was brought for slaughter two weeks ago, Doug has been in surprisingly good spirits, but he seems, well, to be more sexually restless than before.  And our dog is in heat.  She has been dropping blood spots throughout the house for weeks now. 

I have read that cross-breeding can occur within genus or even family, but not as far down as order.  That's good news.  I guess Doug and the Dog are just fond of each other and there is no way to correct that.  I might be able to find an animal psychologist and have them attend together but that would be costly and probably not very helpful.  I think for now I will just let it be.

I could also be dead wrong.  They may not like each other at all, and the dog may just be visiting the barn because social contact with the pig is better than social contact with bossy humans.  Maybe she goes there to commiserate.  Or, maybe she goes to remind him that she gets to roam around while he lies in the barn, to remind him that she is privileged above all of the other animals - at least she would never be brought to a slaughterhouse.

Robbie, right, later in life.  Doug, left and tan cat above

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Prison Farm Gathering

In our careful, self-preserving culture, many of us, when we think of activists, think of scary, irrational radicals; unkempt people absorbed in lost causes, among other things.  But we ought all to be activists in some respect.  This was the bulk of the message of the Save Our Prison Farms meeting recently held in Kingston.  This is a movement that is focused and down-to-earth; one of ordinary rural people rebuffed by a government that boldly went forth with an initiative that was not grounded in clear benefits, an initiative that was ghastly, short-sighted, and an insult to many things the people here hold dear.  Kingston's prison farm was functioning at a profit; it was creating a beneficial product (supplying foods that would then be consumed within the prison system) and offering inmates skills and purpose (which the government claimed were useless because they were in the field of agriculture, and who needs skills in agriculture?)

The prison farm was also home to a large herd of purebred Holstein cattle.  Anyone who works with cattle will point out that a herd cannot simply be broken up - it is a functioning unit, not a bunch of individuals that can be mixed in with a bunch of other individuals at random.  There was no intention on the part of the federal government of ensuring that the herd would be preserved, and so farmers in the movement worked together to buy as many as they could.  The herd is surviving and growing.  Many inmates, meanwhile, were dedicated to the work; they were developing skills that, contrary to the federal government's suggestions, were transferable; skills such as machinery operation and maintenance, punctuality, attention to detail, care for living beings.  But, in the name of punishment, this was taken away.

The meeting was held at City Hall on a blustery late January evening to commemorate the handful of people who were arrested in 2010 for civil disobedience as they attempted to block the process of dismantling the farm, and the house was full.  There were farmers, prison workers, social workers, artists, scientists, aboriginal chiefs, and interested locals, all of whom brought a swell of concern and a desire for change to the room.  There was coffee on tables covered with white table cloths, there were donation jars, there were homemade donuts, and Sarah Harmer opened the evening's discussion with a couple of songs, including Pete Seeger's "Take it from Dr. King".  There was insight and focus, and there were pleas from the most active to the least active:  get involved.  Please, look at what is happening to our democracy, to the value placed on science, to logic and reason in public policy.  Bob Lovelace, aboriginal leader and professor, spoke of the distinctly Canadian quality of "standing by" as our culture becomes further degraded.
When the Harper government depicted the arts as something only dainty rich people engaged in, a decadent and frivolous distraction from the interests of the real world, they alienated a sector of the population.  When Veteran's Affairs minister Fantino got testy with protesting vets for pointing fingers at him, he alienated a sector of the population.  When the federal government insisted that farming skills are useless, as it continues to make prisons more gulags, and as it continues to devalue what is working in our society and opt for choices that leave us poorer, they continue to weave threads of alienation. 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Why would Anybody live here?

It is the absolute dead of winter.  My skin is cracking all over my hands, I have five layers of clothes on, and I am hearing every day about the infamous polar vortex and rolling my eyes because it sounds so sensational, even if it is as good an effort as any to name the phenomenon.

The pigs have been out in spite of it, and they wander slowly around the icy, snowy yard on their cloven hooves.  It looks like they are walking on stilettos, their big bulky bodies and ugly faces carried with a strange grace.  They eat, they wander out, excrete, dig, go back to bed in the piles of straw they so carefully arrange before plopping themselves down.  It was -30 last night and still they got up after a long cold night, shook in their whip-like way and begged to be fed.

The night of the Screen Guild awards, I happened to catch a few minutes (or a few hours) of the show.  All of the biggest film people gathered in a banquet for an evening of endless pomp.  What happens when the evening winds down?  Do they all head to the doors and stand around, each waiting until his or her chauffeur has finally made it to the pick-up spot, and do they have to grab a jacket at the coat check on their way out?  These questions hounded me, especially the latter, and I finally looked up the weather in L.A.  The highs that week ranged from the mid to high 20s and the lows were around 12 (Celsius that is).

If only the pipelines could carry warmth instead of oil.  Having been to L.A., I know that it is no more inhabitable than eastern Ontario, only for different reasons - it's a sprawling car haven beyond GTA standards and the extremes of glitz and poverty make it unsettling. But if I were given the chance to be one of the directors or writers or actors at the guild awards, walking out into a night thirty degrees warmer than the warmest point of my day today, I would give it serious consideration.

I have to remember to take off my jogging pants when I come in from doing chores, because the pigs come up to me and stamp their noses to the fleece.  Within seconds I am marked all over with dirt and food residue.  When the pigs' pen flooded during the melt earlier this month, we promptly moved them to a drier stall and drained the sludge.  My boots got dipped a bit further than I'd hoped and sure enough, my socks were damp when I got back to the house.  Eventually, we would like to breed animals, sheep or goats most likely, and it means more time around beasts.  Every now and then, in a hardware store or a feed shop, I find myself standing in line behind a guy in overalls who smells a bit like a cow and I know I am a long way from Hollywood.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Ice Fields

Ice storm are new to me. I never experienced anything like it growing up in the west, and the two winters I spent in Toronto were unimaginably mild - rainy but not freezing-rainy. What is most frustrating about these storms, at least when they haven't knocked out power or done major damage to house, car or body, is how sedentary they make a person. It's not pleasant being surrounded by nothing but slippery surfaces for miles on end. When you do venture out, especially in uncleared rural places, you walk in a slow Mike Duffy fashion, not briskly and upright. The ground becomes unfriendly, a rib-breaking menace.

I asked around in my community to see if anyone knew of anywhere that pickup hockey was played. With all of the lakes around, I thought surely someone had been clearing off the ice and taking advantage of a free rink. But it seems that out here, it's snowmobiling or hunting that occupies free time. Pond hockey is quaint, something hip city people might do in a post-ironic way. I thought about smashing the ax into the creek behind my house to see if it would hold, but then I decided to spare myself the long slow shuffle down to the property line. I laced up my skates and cautiously set out on the rolling surface of the hay fields instead.

I suspected that it would be too coarse and full of weak spots, so I snowplowed along, knees tight, but it was almost as gentle as the leveled, zambonied surfaces of public recreation facilities and just as solid. I skated across the field, skipping over the lines and swerving past the snowy patches, marveling at the fact that this was possible. It felt like a strange dream, from which you wake up and think, “that would be great, if only the physical world could accommodate it”. I wandered and found patches that were especially clear, and I circled for a while before moving on. Toward the tree line I hovered for a while on a long, slightly sloped stretch, rushing up and then gliding down. By then the afternoon sun had broken through the cloud cover and was glaring up from the fields. Now it was exhilarating and pretty.

Eventually blisters and sore ankles got the better of me and I packed it in. The next day it warmed up and began to melt, and soon we will have a sloppy mess. It's probably for the best.