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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A bumper year

2009 had been a trying year, with a cool wet spring followed by a mediocre summer of only spotty heat. From the very get-go, 2010 was a bumper year for us on the farm. After an exceptionally mild winter with very little snow, spring blew in early. As Natasha noted, it was an incredibly fecund time, with  blossoms full on the fruit trees, birds busy and abundant, and seeds getting off to a fast start. The growhouses seeded in mid-March were in full production by mid-April, and I was without markets for all the arugula, lettuce mix, mescluns, spinach until the first farmers market and chefs’ awakening to local availability of produce in mid-May. The previous year had frustrated by not yielding any decent harvest of arugula until August; here we were with plenty of the stuff from April right through to December.

Natasha helped me hit the ground running with weeks of hard graft combined with stimulating, wide-ranging dialogue as one glorious spring day followed the next. We planted and weeded as the weeds grew in every bit as fecund as the plants. Grasses and sprouted grain from last year’s straw mulch blanketed the beds and made early harvests a nightmare to prepare for market. Gundi and Meredith formed a great team of salad washers, sifters, spinners, weighers, and baggers, but I did incur their wrath with each new bin of salad and grass in equal measure. We got through it and Lukash braved the heat and the picky weeding with no fuss. Perseverance paid off with an endless stream of fresh-picked, pre-washed greens, beets and carrots for two Toronto farmers markets, three Toronto restaurants, and five local restaurants each and every week, from May through November.

All through the growing and market season the weather was ideal – a lovely warm spring with regular rainfall was followed by a hot summer, warm fall likewise blessed with ideal moisture. This was the opportunity for our farm to step up to the plate, our first season selling solo. After four years with Quinte Organic Farmers Co-operative and a year in tandem with Trentview Farm, we set up at Riverdale and Brickworks farmers markets as Rolling Hills Organics. This meant stepping up production and taking over sales of Peter Southward’s grass-fed and grass-finished Dexter beef. The cattle are maintained by John McGriskin at his farm in Omemee and I order a whole beef as required, cut to our specifications. Customers were grateful for the ongoing supply of prime cut steaks, roasts, ground, and stewing and we took on new converts through the year.

Bountiful reward for the increased production was the unprecedented sales tally at the end of each market. I figured that selling out almost every market and the occasional four-figure take-home was not bad going for a small operation such as ours. Our customers went with gusto for the garlic scape, citrus basil, arugula, and sun-dried tomato pestos, created con brio by Gundi. They clamoured for more of the Seville orange marmalade made over the winter. The six blends of herbal teas found a very select audience, and late in the season, our own Northumberland Hills honey was added to the mix and well received.

On the down-side, heirloom tomatoes in the growhouses were not ventilated well enough and succumbed to leaf mould during a particularly hot and humid spell when I must have over-watered. Having pruned them way back and seen the blight continue to spread, I evacuated them all and determined never to grow them again, particularly when other growers had a spate of sundry beauties. Next year, it will be spring and fall greens and herbs only in the growhouses.

Christina was a huge help all year, at market developing relationships with customers (especially mothers and their offspring) and vouching for the flavour, nutritional value, freshness of all we showcased. And she delivered a steady stream of orders for three top Toronto restaurants whose owners and chefs she has a strong bond with. Apart from the rapport with customers and the strong sales, we had a lot of fun working together. And I have to add that I’ve probably never felt so fulfilled and contented while working hard in all my life. Being outside, preparing the ground, planting seeds, seeing plants grow, harvesting them at their peak, selling them that same day fresh, receiving compliments from customers, coming home tired but amply rewarded, sleeping like a baby…. what else could I ask for?