Musings about our farm, organic farming, regional foods and markets.

Plus, what's in the news about foods, systems and regulations around the world.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

How Organic is Organic?

The true nature of organic farming is under assault. It always has been since it became a commercial venture.

So, what constitutes "organic" in farming? It has deep roots, worldwide, especially in small-scale family and community farming. Wikipedia states: "Traditional farming (of many particular kinds in different eras and places) was the original type of agriculture, and has been practiced for thousands of years. All traditional farming is now considered to be 'organic farming'."

Traditional, organic farming is anchored in the soil, a highly complex amalgam of minerals (rock, clay, sand, silt), water, air, organic matter like decomposing plants, animal manure, micro-organisms, worms, live insects, bacteria, fungal mycorhizzi that has evolved over centuries. Soil evolves with the cycle of the seasons guided by the movement of celestial bodies. Traditional organic farming takes place outdoors with plants and animals exposed to the full spectrum of elements (sun, rain, wind, dew, and, yes, here in Canada, snow and ice). No synthetic additives (chemicals, hormones, steroids) are utilized or sought. Fertility depends on plant compost and animal manure and resilient seed.

In the 1990s, the first regulations came into force with their de-centralized, sometimes heavy-handed mechanisms and provisions based on a very non-holistic reductionism. (Nature, conversely and, by extension, organics, is far from being simplistic). Certification, verification, commodification, standards, advocates, consultants, lawyers, government agencies and departments, third-party certifiers, now all claim their piece of a pie that expanded with all the resources and money thrown at it. With regulation came vested interests. Conventional industrialized agriculture, indoor vertical urban farms, hydroponics, aquaponics, all sought in on the lucrative "organic" markets. They were out to co-opt and take a slice of the pie that was not theirs. The result was many organic farmers opting out of (or not opting into) the regulatory system, creating a stream of non-certified farmers operating using organic methods. In Ontario, unlike other jurisdictions, organic labelling is still not policed within the province in spite of much advocacy. With powerful lobbies, political clout, and deep pockets everywhere, existing standards were challenged, diluted and made inclusive to their lower threshold. Now, in the USA (but not yet in Canada), hydroponic agriculture has been sanctioned as allowable under Organic Standards. This is one reductionist method too far removed from the true definition of holistic organic farming. We need a line in the sand.

The four principles of organic agriculture are as follows:

The Principle of Health - Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal and human as one and indivisible.

The Principle of Ecology - Organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.

The Principle of Fairness - Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.

The Principle of Care - Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

It is time to put a halt to the dilution of organic standards satisfying powerful lobby groups that do not subscribe to the four principles of true organic farming (listed above), and for government at federal, provincial, and municipal levels, as well as the market-place for organic goods to throw weight behind regulating and enforcing organic standards with integrity and teeth in order to protect organic farmers and consumers. Otherwise, organic farming will splinter into many special interest groups and bitter disputes. Indeed, why should farms spend the high fees to certify as organic year upon year under the current lax regulatory framework? (The irony is, of course, that farms have to pay to be verified as organic, whereas conventional commodity farms are highly subsidized by government). I am on the side of small-scale regenerative organic farming as espoused by the esteemed Rodale Institute, relying on soil that has evolved and matured naturally over thousands of years, even millennia to produce nutritious, delicious food.

Peter Finch

Rolling Hills Organics

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Plant Medicines in Guatemala


In this small country the size of Ireland, or Tennessee, the population is 60% indigenous Mayan, most of the rest being Ladino or Spanish. It is no wonder then that we have been well served by plant guides both in Antigua and on Lake Atitlan.

In Antigua, we were privileged to visit two very diffferent organic farms that are making the most of the appetite from locals and foreigners alike for fresh organic produce. At Caoba Farms a short walk south of the enchanting town, Alex and his team have built a resounding success of a business by growing organic food in fields and under cover and marketing through a store and weekly buzzing farmers market. Other vendors sell their products here too and Mayan women prepare excellent food from local ingredients. Alex is from here and has been growing organically (in more ways than one) for thirteen years. He went and picked some nettle for Gundi's skin irritation and offered to harvest some dandelion if we wanted to come and pick it up in a day or so.

A couple of days later, we were excited to hop into the minibus shuttle up the dusty bending road to Cerro San Cristobal with its magnificent views over Antigua, the valley and volcanoes. On arrival we were hustled onto the terrace for lunch. The best view was obscured and lunch was not the best, despite the promise of field-to-table organic food. This destination appears to be a victim of its own success. With overflow traffic on weekends, they clearly prepare a lot of food ahead of time, and it shows. To their credit, the owners allow the public to wander freely through the organic market garden, and the bounty from the volcanic soil on steep mountain-sides is impressive, thanks largely to drip-irrigation throughout.

In town, we discovered the Pachamama Healthy Market herbal store, which advertises "Natural, Local, Fresco". Don Jorge prescribed a herbal tea blend for Gundi's skin irritation, largely to boost the immune system. It consisted of green tea, moringa, cardamom, yerba mate, nettle, plantain, dandelion, echinacea root, turmeric, lemongrass, whole black pepper. What a blend!

Here on Lake Atitlan we are getting into a happy routine, nicely ensconsed in our AirBnB home with a fabulous view over the lake. At night, the twinkling lights of the north shore villages beneath the starlit sky soothe the soul. San Pedro offers all that we need in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables from the market, organic products (albeit pricey) from international brands at the health food stores, a great selection of freezer beef, pork, tuna, fish at Smokey Joe's, and fresh-picked greens from roadside market gardens.

Over the hill in the next village of San Juan, we came across Planta Medicinales Maya, a co-operative of thirty Mayan women. In this region that is 90% Mayan in make-up, the women and girls always wear their traditional dress woven from brightly-coloured textile in styles particular to each pueblo.


Their backyard garden is a repository of local indigenous medicinal plants and herbs. We purchased some yarrow skin cream, moringa tea (for normalizing blood sugar levels, providing energy, detoxifying, promoting liver and kidney function, and strengthening the immune system), and a digestive tea (with mint, parsley, chamomile, basil, artemisia, rue, mago, lemon balm).

We are well set as we continue our explorations of this fascinating place and culture!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Celebrating Winter, A Farmer's Perspective

In celebrating the seasons, we celebrate the cycle of life. Now the winter solstice is behind us, the days are already getting longer again, although winter is just beginning. Outside the window, a gentle snow is painting the landscape white, in festive fashion bedecking the trees and freshening up the lustre of the fields.

At this winter season, I become nature’s bear, entering a period of quiet hibernation  for resting up and recharging batteries in order to be ready for the growth and activity spurt that marks springtime. It is a time to reflect on the past growing season (this one having been a challenging one for our farm with the drought), and to peruse seed catalogues and make plans and dreams for the one that lies ahead. Plants are now dormant in the fields. Perennials and bulbs face a deep freeze to be tempered by a thick blanket of snow. Storms will rage, blizzards will pass through, snow will fall. They are safely snuggled up.

Some farmers remain active with livestock to tend and feed and breed; others have heated greenhouses to maintain and have the joy of observing plants growing all winter long. All the while, at year-round farmers markets like the one at Evergreen Brick Works farmers continue to serve the public with greenhouse produce, local cheeses, eggs, other dairy, meats, stored vegetables, fruits, nuts, berries, and seeds both from the farm and from the wild. In this way, they are extending the harvest of the summer season behind them.

Processors preserve this harvest, offering teas, herbs, spices, pickles, jams, jellies, fermented foods, honeys, and, of course, maple syrup. During the summer season our farm preserves the harvest by making freezer jams from the rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, plums, and peaches purchased at market. Freezer jams have less sugar and preserve the freshness of the fruit by not cooking it. Basil pesto is frozen in ice cubes for a pasta hit in the middle of winter. We also make tomato and apple sauces, and together with friends we press apple cider from our heritage apples and their own.

Food purveyors at market prepare and serve up dishes largely made from ingredients provided by local farms in this community. By supporting such markets through the winter season, you are supporting the efforts and livelihoods of local farmers and food artisans, as well as your own vitality and health. Adapting diet to the availabilities of the season and lifestyle to the changing weathers is a good stratagem.

Living in southern Ontario as we do, traditional winters are naturally long and cold, especially for those who hail from warmer climes. They take a bit of getting used to. Despite having lived here for some thirty five years, I still have to remind myself of this as my ears fast-freeze when going out hatless in  the brilliant sunshine of minus 30 temperatures! Adapt to the prevailing conditions of winter we must. A bracing walk in the bright sunshine, whether along city streets or out in the wild woods, is manna for the soul. As trees and  food plants go dormant in our gardens and fields, we can of course escape to  southern tropical sun for respite, as I prefer to do for part of my “bear-time”. We can equally embrace the great white outdoors here by hiking, cycling, chopping wood, skating at the rink, shussing down the slopes, cross-country ski-ing along tranquil trails, and snow-shoeing across pristine landscapes. Nature is glorious in all its urban and rural diversity and enhanced by the variety bestowed on her by the ever-changing seasons.

As I reflected in my book High Up in the Rolling Hills:

Over time, spirited seasons guide us onwards,
as the hazy summer days linger ahead of sticky, humid nights;
as the autumnal winds play with leaves all transformation;
as the winter snows will tumble and coat the realm white;
as the bitter storms will rage, then blow out in a whisper;
as the fresh buds of spring will burst forth with fluorescence;
and, for ever more, as night turfs out the light,
till morning rises on the other side of darkness.    

Perhaps no season is so starkly wondrous as our Canadian winter, so we may as well wrap up warm and celebrate it!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Infernal Dry Summer

Today's field contrast: on the left, unwatered corn, beans, zucchini, on the right, watered arugula

This is one infernal dry summer. For a multitude of farmers across large swathes of southern Ontario and many other parts of the world – conventional, GMO and organic – the extended months of little to no rain will result in reduced harvests, lower yields, draining of water sources,  and perhaps the enforced sale of livestock. Naturally, lower farm income will be on the table at the end of the year, a situation dire enough for some to put them out of business.

Fellow-farmers I have chewed the cud with at farmers markets have told me they are having to truck in water. Some have drained their wells and ponds and are drawing from swamps and creeks. At least one farm has turned to crowd-funding  to ensure delivery of water to thirsty plants. Without rain, of course, these are short-term solutions which are uneconomical and unsustainable in the long run.

At our small farm Rolling Hills Organics we have switched to a much-reduced planting regime. We have watched helplessly as successive early plantings have been sacrificed to the dry, taken over by weeds which have in turn been sacrificed to the mower or tiller. With the initial weeks of no rain, it seemed counter-intuitive to till the dry soil in order to plant. As the drought conditions have gone on, however, we have found it necessary to water and till, plant and water, water and water (using our drilled well with good pressure), so as to continue to have greens for markets, albeit at reduced volume.  Early in the morning, late in the afternoon, every day we are watering. (We do not have a switch to flip as the bigger farmers do). The heat is befuddling, but the deep-seated dry is demoralizing.

There is always something that hampers production; in early summer last year, I found myself apologizing to customers for the scarcity of salad greens: “From June to September, our greens are grown in mineral-rich, glacial-till soil and enjoy sun, rain, dew, wind, heat, cold, all the elements that nature bestows. This Spring season has been unusually challenging with its extremes. Hence the tardy start with field production. We do not have commercial climate-controlled greenhouses, nor do we buy in greens from other farms. With warmer nights now finally here, next week we will be able to offer more. Thank you for your patience.”

Back to this year, when the rains finally return (and a beginning could be imminently upon us), normal service and the regular full Fall production will be resumed. As market farmers growing many different crops, we are able to be nimble in negotiating mother nature’s curve-balls. We can write off one crop while another thrives; we can plant more, or less, water more, or less. We can wait out the storm rolling through. But sometimes, the extremes are severe shocks to the farm system, and they are increasingly systemic.

Make no mistake: This challenging season is not just a wake-up call that can be doused by a few buckets of water; this is a full-on jarring alarm that we cannot merely turn off to nod off to sleep again. Extended water shortages may well be a major part of our future and of farming. We need to conserve water, conserve soil fertility, moisture and nutrients, conserve crop resilience and diversity.  With no water, there is no food and no life. The big boys with their massive acreages of glyphosate-drenched corn, soy and wheat face their own challenges in assessing the unsustainability of their animal feed, ethanol, industrial processing mono-crop model.

For you farmers market customers out there: stick with us small-scale local farmers. Yes, some of us are facing challenges, we always do; but no, we are not giving up on you. We weather adversity well, coming back stronger.

We’ll have some greens on Saturday. Come early.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Overwintered greens

From Our Lucky Stars in our village of Warkworth,

We have gorgeous organic baby greens in from Rolling Hills Organics ! Come in for a satisfying Lucky Greens Salad or a slice of quiche with salad! Of course, there’s lots more delicious homemade food for lunch including some vegetarian, gluten free and dairy free options. Yes, there’s also some meat - how about Franz award winning ham and brie on a fresh baguette with grainy dijon… just as a suggestion! Make it a combo with salad and a juicy Royal Gala apple from Coates! $10.95!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sticker Shock!

Supermarket salad greens advised on January 23 that in December, lettuce in supermarkets was priced on average 21.8% more than a year before; apples 11.8% more; oranges 8.8% more. These price increases and the resulting sticker shock experienced by Canadian supermarket consumers reflect the extended drought afflicting California growers and the nosedive of our currency against the greenback.

There is no need to buy cauliflowers at $8 a head when they are out of season! Right now, Canada imports more than 80 per cent of its fruit and vegetables each year, the majority of which comes from the U.S., according to the University of Guelph's 2016 Food Price Report. This is an absurd ratio, given that Canada exports a huge amount of produce only to import the same products in a different guise, with carrots being cited in the CBC report. The 20% of our food grown here could be way higher if supermarkets were open to changing their modes of purchase, making the distribution chain more efficient by focusing on local supply.

Wheelbarrow Farm stand at Fairmount Park Farmers Market

Farmers markets utilize such a simplified supply chain. They rent space to local certified farmers who sell direct to customers on a regular basis, sometimes year-round. What could be more ideal than buying your food fresh, local, and often free of chemicals, additives and GMOs direct from the people who procured the seeds, grew the crop and brought it in season to their local market? What is more, this produce is not subject to currency fluctuations, droughts and floods and associated production and fossil-fueled delivery problems in far-off places. Nor is there a string of middlemen taking a cut.

Our farm, Rolling Hills Organics, has certified our produce as organic for the past 15 years. The ever-changing weather means that some growing seasons years are more challenging than others. And through these ups and owns that are part and parcel of small-scale farming , our prices have remained stable and have not increased in several years despite inflation in the economy as a whole. For some, our produce may appear expensive. However, when the extreme freshness, nutritional value and organic nature are taken into account, we believe that our products represent great and durable value for money and multiple benefits to health. Compare this to the spike in supermarket prices. As consumers, our family shops less and less at supermarkets as they are full of highly processed foods which are misleadingly labelled (with no mention of GMOs except for the non-GMO certified). The produce is mostly imported as we have established, having traveled an average of 2,000 miles on fossil fuels.

Yet some in the local food movement argue for food being 80% locally-produced and 20% imported, an inverse of the current industrial food system. This feels like a realistic yet ambitious target, and one worth aiming towards. Their UK-based Food Zones Chart illustrates a vision for a sustainable food and farming system that many local farmers at farmers market are already building.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

In Defense of Food

Last night we tuned in to the 2-hour PBS documentary In Defense of Food based on the book by Michael Pollan.

The main message, presented by Michael's Pollan was his long-standing mantra Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants. 

The health of the Hadza hunter gatherers in Tanzania illustrates that those of us exposed to the Western industrial food system and the SAD Standard American Diet would be well served by adopting Eat Foods grown in Nature, without additives.