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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Why Certified Organic?

Unitarian Allen Goldfeder came by our stand at Brickworks Farmers Market a few weeks ago and told us about a talk he was organizing. He picked up on my passion for organics and invited me to talk about my experiences as an organic grower of food. An audience of some fifty or so First Unitarian Church attendees in Toronto came to hear a discussion on “Why Consumers Are Choosing Organics”. I was one of four speakers, the others being Sarah Dobec of The Big Carrot, Jodi Koberinski of the Organic Council of Ontario, and Tanmayo Krupanszky of the Toronto chapter of Canadian Organic Growers.

Allen introduced me:

Peter Finch runs Rolling Hills Organics, a small farm that has been certified organic for twelve years. The farm grows local fresh pre-washed salad greens and mixes, specialty vegetables, garlic and other herbs. Peter sells Rolling Hills Organics produce on Tuesdays and Saturdays at two Toronto farmers markets. The farm also supplies a handful of Toronto and local restaurants.

The following is the basis of the speech I delivered.

How did you get into farming?
I emigrated from England in 1983 – hard for me to believe, this is some 30 years ago now! I met my wife Gundi on the train, in Lake Louise in the Rocky Mountains, and that was that. It changed the direction of my life and brought me to Canada. For 16 years, we lived in Toronto and then on the Niagara Escarpment outside the valley town of Dundas, near Hamilton. We were always renting, and always having to move on.

So, 13 years ago, we made the big move, out to the country, to buy a home. We cast our net and purchased a house and land in the Northumberland Hills, an hour and a half east of Toronto, north of Cobourg, Port Hope, near Rice Lake. We were looking for a couple of acres, maybe four or five. What we found was an open-concept house heated by wood and passive solar, with a good water supply from a deep well, and 55 acres of tucked-away land. We have come to love the rolling hills, so much so that I have just finished writing a book called High Up In The Rolling Hills, A Living on the Land! Soon to be found in a bookstore near you. Gundi is a glass artist, and I was a map publisher at the time. I do not hail from a traditional farming family, but Dad was a part-time market gardener. It’s in the blood.

What is the history of your farm?
We didn’t think of it as a farm as it was mostly neglected fields and mixed woodland.
There were never any chemicals on this land. For 20 years or so, a fellow called Carman Atkinson had worked up these fields and always farmed them organically, even before the term became widely used. Now, after a dozen years of working up the fields, it’s more of a farm! We have 20 acres of pastured fields, three acres of market fields, 2000 square feet of greenhouses which extend our growing season by three months. We also love the semi-wild  8 acres of creek and wetland (conservation lands), 25 acres of mixed woodland.

Why did you decide to go organic?
For years, wherever we lived, we had had a small vegetable garden and loved the produce from it. Though we hadn’t always bought organic seeds, we grew naturally without chemicals, fertilizer. It was all aboutfood quality, health, flavour, freshness, and nutrition for us. At first, I hadn’t planned on growing at a scale to sell. The land was already organic in nature, and it was our chosen natural lifestyle that made us react against chemical farming, industrial food system. We started out with garlic, perennial herbs, a few veggies, sunflowers.

Why did you decide to go certified organic?
After a year, decided to sell oour produce at our local farmers market, in Campbellford.
A year of transition and we were certified organic. Starting out as a grower, I wanted to sell locally, at farmers markets, transition out of map publishing into make a full-time living at farming. Going organic partly a political decision: customers have a right to know what is in their food. Food labels, claims should be crystal-clear. Too often, they are deceptive and opaque. We see labels that claim natural, organic, ecological, chemical-free, and farmers that claim organically-grown, naturally-produced. Certified organic produce is your guarantee that a farmer has consistently adhered to a valid set of guidelines and been annually inspected. He or she has invested in healthy produce.
Even at the mostly organic markets we sell at, unfortunately still too easy and maybe tempting for farmers to claim to be organic, and to buy in produce from conventional sources. This, I believe, is wrong and should be better monitored and labelled than it is.

Why does the Canadian farmer choose to pay and fill out a lot of paperwork to become certified?
Yes, why do we set ourselves up for questions like
What initiatives will be undertaken this year to improve and/or maintain soil and water quality in the operation?
What steps are being taken to reduce the effects of wind and water erosion?
Are you currently using compost on the farm?
What forms of animal manure do you use?
For the crops to be sown this year, what are your seed sources?
These are all good questions that farmers should be thinking about and addressing. I believe the certification process teaches us how to be better farmers. It’s about transparency. We are all accountable for what we do, how we live. It helps our  customers to trust us as farmers and the food we produce. Certification keeps us honest. We rotate crops, use cover crops, green manures, certified organic compost from our own or local farms. Farming organically is all about the soil, working it up, constantly improving it. At our farm, we buy only certified organic seed. We encourage birds, bees, butterflies, insects, frogs. The aim is to create a holistic bio-diverse ecosystem on a small farm in harmony with nature and the land. We gladly share our space with deer, wild turkey, foxes, wolves, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, rabbits…

What is used in certified organic farming to deal with “pests”?
Certain natural substances are authorized, like diatomaceous earth, insecticidal soaps.
But I myself use no treatments, relying on entirely natural practices, such as moving crops around all the time, using floating row covers to protect against flea beetles which are a nuisance early in the season (eating holes in the arugula, for example). We have learned to see this as a marketing opportunity, labelling it “Holey Arugula”! We rely on help too from birds, ladybugs, praying mantis, etc. Interplanting with calendula, nasturtium is beneficial. Only in extremes (heat, cold, wet, dry, strong wind) when plants get stressed do we experience problems, like aphids moving in, blight on tomatoes. We ride out these extremes. We may suffer a poor harvest or crop failure, but we get over it!
We focus on building a healthy environment for the soil. Then healthy harvests take care of themselves. A mineral and nutrient-rich soil fends off disease, just as a strong immune system keeps our bodies in good health.  

Which markets do you service?
We sell our produce at Evergreen Brickworks in the Don Valley on Saturdays, Riverdale Park in Cabbagetown on Tuesdays farmers markets in Toronto, at a few Toronto restaurants through a friend and colleague who also works the markets with me, and  at a few local restaurants in our locality. This combination is enough to make a healthy livelihood for a small farm.  

How do customers respond to certified organic?
We have regular, very loyal customers who come back for what we bring. They want to know more about their food and how we grow it. They want to be healthy through food. They get the connection. Many customers want fresh, local organic, GMO-free, rightly so. Certified organic, along with bio-dynamic, are the gold standard in natural farming practice. Other customers are price-conscious, trust their non-certified farmer, are unaware or unconcerned about GMOs in food. 

Why is it important for customers to seek out certified organic?
There are GMO risks. There have been no independent, long-term studies on their effect on human health, only some on animal health. It does not look good. Only certified organic produce is guaranteed to be GMO-free. Genetically-modified ingredients should be labelled on all foods, but our governments are letting us down in this. We have a right to know what is in our food. We don’t have to buy food laced with chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilizers. In seeking out certified organic, we are making the best choice for regulated, verified health in food, honestly produced, without shortcuts. It is hard to trust labels on food. Processed/packaged foods in particular are almost certain to contain GMO ingredients. Watch out for industrially-produced items especially heavily processed meats, seafood. Most come from a long way away, sometimes halfway around the world. Only 1% of all foods – even certified organic, I hate to say – is inspected on import into Canada.

So, it’s a minefield out there. It’s important for our health to be vigilant in our food choices. Know where your food is coming from. Build a relationship with your food growers. Ask questions of your farmer, your supermarket, the labels on your food.

Local fresh in-season certified organic is your best guide to maintaining good health.