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

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

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Atitlán Organics

The road up to Atitlán Organics from the lake through Tzununá past the Bamboo House up the stony dirt road to the farm is an arduous one. One needs to be dedicated to a sense of discovery and exploration to undertake it. As a form of pilgrimage to the principles of permaculture, I was determined to pay a visit. Friday mornings are scheduled for farm tours. As a group of overnighting local schoolkids wrapped up their time with excited babble, we twenty or so visitors waited in the wings, discussing our own interests and vocations - in organic farming, in seed-saving and sharing, in permaculture, in volunteering, in travelling through Guatemala and Central America....

After our stand-by, Shad was ready. Shad Qudsi hails from New Jersey. He and his partner Colleen from Rhode Island are celebrating the eighth anniversary of founding Atitlán Organics, up in this peaceful, Eden-like valley of lush fruits, greenery, plants, crops, with a heavy smattering of large rocks and boulders. The background symphony of sounds includes birds, chickens, dogs, the whistling breeze, all subsumed by the cascading waters of the river and waterfalls. The year-round flow of the river is rare for these parts where the long dry season succeeds the rains of the summer months (wet season). It is a principal reason for Shad choosing this rocky mountain-side site on which to bring his dream to life. It is a work in progress and yet much has been achieved over these first years through hard work and a headstrong steadfast vision for the future.

The enterprise that is Atitlán Organics is divided into three areas - the permaculture farm, educational courses of learning, and accommodations and restaurant. Volunteers work on the farm and stay at the Bamboo House. Visitors too eat and drink at the restaurant and support farm tours by donation. Courses teach permaculture and natural building techniques.

The farm consists currently of around two and a half acres - over a hectare - of mountain-side fields, fruit trees, and animal shelters. The challenging terrain has been very painstakingly and gradually cleared of rocks, channeled by swales, and dotted with ponds, creating habitat for a whole micro-environment of mixed plants, trees, crops, and livestock habitat.  Chickens and goats have access at different times to thirteen separate eco-systems in miniature and provide the farm with ample rich compost from the barns that continually builds fertility in the terraced fields. They also provide between them eggs, meat, milk, cheese, yogurt. Fruit trees include mulberry, banana, mango, orange, papaya, pomegranate, soursop, and, of course, coffee. Shad is focusing on salad greens as a viable and reliable source of income and two local helpers Nicolas and Juan prepare for local deliveries to stores and restaurants twice a week.

As a salad green grower myself, I was very taken by the manual salad spinner, consisting of Nicolas windmilling his arms forward and back out in the garden. (My left shoulder would not last long with the repetitive strain). Production is expanding and the nearby village of San Marcos with its base of travellers, yoga practitioners, and worldly seekers is a ready market hungry for fresh local organically-grown produce. Given the ambient climate of the lake, production can be moreorless year-round. Shad explained that the farm's situation deep in a steep-sided valley means that it enjoys less hours of sunshine than most locations. So it is that some sun-hungry crops like tomatoes and peppers have not thrived. And the altitude of over 5,000 feet above sea level creates further restrictions for certain crops.

Hats off to Shad, his local staff and his army of ever-changing volunteers for creating such an inspiring model for community living and sustainability using the solid principles of permaculture and human resiliency in this beautiful yet challenging highland lake environment. Long may it prosper and continue to grow.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Mountain-side Terraced Fields

Santa Catarina Palopó

Yesterday we visited the Mayan town of Santa Catarina Palopó. Many buildings are newly daubed in elaborately-patterned sky blue reflecting the traditional huipil colour worn by the women. This is an initiative begun last October to make the town more attractive to visitors and it certainly does the trick.

The mountain-side terraced fields perched high above the town are spectacular. The climb up steep steps past the upper residential area rewards with breath-taking views as one enters the expanse of vegetable and flower fields situated in a gentle valley bowl. Up there, on a fine, sunny, breezy day, I felt on top of the world, blown away by the beauty and ingenuity of the landscape. There are probably around 20 acres of meticulously-designed fields constructed into terraces and separated by channels for water to flow. Even now, in dry-season, water gurgles down the mountain-side in a meandering flow. Sluice gates control the side-flow into fields. One friendly field-worker (OK, all the locals are friendly) was controlling the flow of water with his foot as he prepared his field for bean planting by turning it over with a spade-like hoe. You cannot tell me that turning over the soil after winter dormancy is not good practise. These Mayans have been cultivating this land constantly for centuries, achieving prolific production always, rotating crops from field to field. The Mayan empire is long gone, of course, but these descendants continue the fine engineering and farming methodologies their forebears introduced. Their fine-tuned tweaking of nature is an inspiration.

On this day, on cursory glance, we witnessed corn, squash, tons of onions, beans, avocados, lettuce, almonds, yucca, oranges, papaya, chrysanthemums, lilies. Apparently, most produce is destined for the local big town market of Sololá. I was told that crops are organically grown, but they do use a small amount of pesticides against troublesome bugs. I noted about twenty farmers tending the fields, men and women. They use only hand tools and every harvested item is carried down the mountain on their backs. We watched as full sacks of corn and firewood were being carried down, empty as they come back up.

A huge swathe of mountain-side that is tinder-dry grass (denuded of greenery) was just left burned off by a fast-moving fire above the town a couple of weeks ago. Deforestation of these steep slopes creates such problems; thankfully, there is a lot of intact forest remaining around Lake Atitlán, especially on the iconic volcano sides.

Our twenty-minute ride back to Panajachel was in the back of a pickup track colectivo. The bench seats held mostly local townfolk, the women shy and reserved in their Santa Catarina-blue huipils, the men in their traditional textile shorts and sandals, the children gazing at us with curiosity. They are such sweet folk, always ready with a smile and warm greeting. The ride cost 3 quetzals, less than 50 cents, each.

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!