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

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

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.


Monday, November 23, 2015

A Commons Sense

A beautiful 8-minute video: "The US patent act clause 102 says that nothing can be patented if it is prior public knowledge. If the public has been aware of the material and its benefits, then it is not possible to patent. Clause 102 then goes on to define ‘public knowledge’ as only that of Americans’ and no one else. Not the billions of Indians, Native Americans or Africans, their knowledge. Their natural resources are not represented or protected by this act."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Trip down Memory Lane

In 2010 Schelle Holmes came by the farm to do a photo shoot and interview me about our certified organic operation for a feature on the now-defunct Warkworth Diner. Looking back on her wonderful photos, it strikes me how far we have come in the intervening five years to ameliorate the soil fertility. In these pictures, the fields look slightly anemic!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Holistic Planned Grazing

Here's a great 8-minute video by Christopher Gill, a rancher in west Texas. It includes amazing images shot by a drone and shows the power of this tool for managing and reclaiming land and an abundance of wildlife.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Farming, The Gandhian Way - A Tribute to Shri. Bhaskar Save

In honour of the enlightened Bhaskar Save who recently passed away at the age of 93. He was revered in India as "the Gandhi of Natural Farming."

Monday, October 12, 2015

On this glorious Thanksgiving morning,

Giving thanks for the family and friends we share, the land we inhabit, the community we share, the food we grow and eat, the gifts of love and life, and much more besides.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Tricky Transition

It is like this every year, only this year more so. We have a transition from early (spring) season greens grown in unheated hoophouses to summer field production fully dependent on mother nature. This was a tricky transition, as May early dry turned to heavy rains and saturated fields. Ongoing cool temperatures and sodden soil made it difficult to get on there with a tractor and tiller in order to plant. Early attempts resulted in salad greens rotting away, weeds taking hold, and beans not even bothering to poke their heads out above ground. In June, a month of more rains and cool days and nights. Then, as we hit July, we are playing catch-up with weeding, tilling, and planting. Finally a sequence of warmer nights and sunny days with splashes of rain and sprinklers now and again mean that greens are finally growing as they should and market tables are beginning to look more fullsome.

All this while, greens growers with commercial climate-controlled greenhouses have been able to enjoy steady, regular production whether growing in soil or hydroponically, sheltered from the cool, the wind, the rains, the intense sun without worrying about the elements outdoors, the rampant weeds and grasses choking out plant growth, and the flea beetles chomping holes in the arugula and mustard greens in the fields. In their year-round controlled environment, plants live the life of Riley, like comfortably pampered condominium dwellers, fed by a steady diet of constant temperature and moisture, clockwork heat and light, and packaged soil or pumped-up water. Just how energy-efficient are their heating and cooling systems, anyway?

Now, our field production is finally coming into its own as the greens pick up natural sun, dew, rain, wind, and mineral-rich nutrients from the worked-up organic soil. Now we’re in business.  After all, there’s nothing like the deep, juicy, bold flavour and enhanced nourishment of field-grown, especially fresh-picked from mineral-rich organic soil! 

From earth to mouth in one day – the healthiest way there is.  

Friday, March 27, 2015

Plowing the Sacred Soil

A couple of days ago, the Guardian published an article by George Monbiot, entitled “We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it”. (The full article is at ).

George complains that “there is no mention of permaculture either on the websites of the two main funding bodies (NERC and BBSRC) or in any other department.” Here, in his article on the destruction of soils, there is no mention of RoundUp/glyphosate, atrazine, DDT, 2,4 –D, other poisons often used in his preferred no-till regime. Instead, the author takes aim at plowing. “While it now seems that ploughing of any kind is incompatible with the protection of the soil, there are plenty of means of farming without it. Independently, in several parts of the world, farmers have been experimenting with zero-tillage (also known as conservation agriculture), often with extraordinary results.”

Yes, indeed, farmers have been experimenting often with extraordinary results. However, many farmers have continued with the tried and tested ways of farming that have been practised and honed for ever and a day. Smallholders the world over use simple plows to till their soil, using oxen and horses to draw them. These wise farmers have farmed organically for hundreds of years and certainly well before we all started discussing the merits of organic food.

As an organic farmer,  I prefer to eschew chemicals and use instead time-honoured methods like certified organic seeds, crop rotations, green manures, mulches, composts, incorporation of crop residues, and, yes, plowing in the constant and never-ending exercise of enhancing the health of the soil.

Soil is a complex and beauteous thing. When healthy, it is teeming with life of endless diversity that is exceptionally beneficial to us as human beings. Each spadeful contains a plethora of minerals, millions of living organisms, like earthworms, ants, bacteria, fungi, mycoryzzi….. George compares the production of allotment holders to that of farmers. There are a variety of reasons why small-scale produces more per square foot than large-scale. To me, there is no difference between my plowing of fields and the allotment-holders turning over the soil with a fork (an exercise I still treasure in our hoophouses). My small tractor-drawn plow digs no deeper than a fork and stirs the topsoil soup more efficiently over a larger expanse.

There is not much sweeter in farming than sitting on my tractor on a breezy, bright fall day watching over my shoulder as the two furrows expertly turn over the soil. What better way to  incorporate the brittle sweet corn stems, the tangle of bean stalks, and the mass of squash leaves, the bolted remains of the summer greens? The seagulls gather behind as the rich insect life is exposed. The act of plowing benefits the body of soil, by aerating the lungs, circulating the lifeblood, and stirring the dense nutrients, working them into a rich broth, providing balance and depth. And then the soil can go dormant. Over the winter, plant matter breaks down and the worms mix it all up. Come Spring, the ground thaws and for a while is sodden with moisture; not a good time to plow. (And when the ground is dry, hot and wind-blown in mid-summer, the plow is sleeping in the shade). Once the mid-spring soil warms and dries out somewhat, what better way to prepare a fine tilth seedbed than with a small tractor and its rear-mounted roto-tiller? The only thing sweeter than to plow is to plant the annual seed of the new season’s harvest into that same prepared soil. 
(Not my tractor, but probably about my age!)

Monday, January 26, 2015

The End of the Riverdale Road

Riverdale Farmers Market in happier days - with myself, Didi Curry, Peter Southward, and some of our lovely regular customers

The Riverdale Farmers Market has reached the end of its life. The City of Toronto that has managed the weekly summer Tuesday farmers market in recent years has decided to close up shop. No surprise really, after recent seasons of dwindling attendance from both vendors and public. But sad, nonetheless.

In its heyday, the market was jam-packed with a motley array of organic farmers and enthusiastic Cabbagetowners. We were all under the charge of the effervescent Elizabeth Harris who founded the market and oversaw it with humour, verve, commitment, community spirit, discipline, and drive.

I wrote about the experience in my book, High Up in the Rolling Hills:
It was the irrepressible Elizabeth Harris who had given me my big break as a certified organic grower all those years ago. Then as vice-president of Quinte Organic Farmers Co-operative, I approached Elizabeth to apply for the co-op to be a vendor at her flagship organic farmers market at Riverdale Farm in Cabbagetown, Toronto. She sized up what we offered, 12 small certified-organic family farms pooling their produce to market direct to the customer, and she voiced her doubts. She was used to allowing only single farms to join her family of vendors. But she sized me up too and found something she liked or trusted, so she said, “Okay, but only as long as you bring all the farmers in to sell at your stand through the season.” “Sure,” I promised having gotten a foot in the door. It wasn’t to be, of course; only one or two farmers bothered to come in at all, but the first season was a roaring success for the co-op as a fledgling sales organization. I made sure we stayed on Elizabeth’s good side—as one had to—and, over several years, Elizabeth and I developed a wonderful mutual respect. I was awed by her tight control of the market, her fairness, her discipline with slack vendors, her amazing vision in holding it all together and bringing people together.
“Peter, I’d like you to meet Jamie Kennedy.”
“Peter, can any of your farmers supply three bushels of romano beans for a dinner for seventy-five this Friday?”

She would often call up and tell me about the latest new vendors that she was excited to have visited. She had such respect for farmers and for food produced honestly and in a fresh way. And she would ask my opinion and advice. Early on at market, I incurred her wrath. She had strong rules and enforced them. Vendors were not allowed to sell before the bell rang, right at 3:00 p.m. As I tried to sneak in a sale for a customer who was running off to work, a booming voice bellowed out from the other side of the park: “Mr. Finch, the market opens at three o’clock, and not before!” Last year, held up in traffic and running late in setting up, I upheld her rule when an impending storm told her to ring the bell early. “No, Elizabeth, that’s not fair; I’m not ready,” I pleaded. She agreed to wait, and for weeks after, she deferred to me to see if I was ready before ringing the bell. A softening, maybe? I feel deep down that she truly respected her senior farmers, and I was lucky enough to have been in that number.

Elizabeth slipped away from us, succumbing to cancer, but her amazing energy, drive and spirit would remain with us as we tried to honour her legacy and continued to provide for the table she set for us so passionately. It had been an honour and a privilege to know her; hard to believe that she wouldn’t be shuffling along on a glorious spring afternoon on opening day of market in May and that her voice wouldn’t be greeting me across the park: “Peter, who do you have helping you today? I’d like to introduce you to …”

Elizabeth is now gone, as is Didi Curry, the defunct Quinte Organic Farmers Co-operative, and now Riverdale Farmers Market. I still miss Elizabeth, and it was for her that I kept Rolling Hills Organics selling at Riverdale under the very last day in mid-October last year, 2014. We were down to just four vendors on that day which turned out to be the final market, valiant to the bitter end.  

Thank you to all you lovely customers who also kept me coming in. This upcoming season, I am hoping you will find me, Rolling Hills Organics and our salad greens, herbs (and much more besides) instead on Wednesday afternoons at Fairmount Park Farm Market at Coxwell & Gerrard.... and of course at Evergreen Brick Works on Saturday mornings most of the year.

November 2015 update: Riverdale Farmers Market was resurrected in the summer of 2015 as Cabbagetown Farmers Market, running on Tuesday afternoons as before. I am delighted to hear from both vendors and customers that it was a successful well-attended season. The spirit of Elizabeth Harris lives on!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Organopónico Vivero Alamar, Cuba

We are planning to visit this inspiring model of urban organic agriculture during our four-week trip travelling around Cuba.
(originally posted at
  Cuba used to have an industrialized agricultural system, exporting sugar and citrus to Russia and importing most of its food, as well as oil, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides. Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, which combined with a US trade embargo created a crisis that Fidel Castro named "The Special Period". Suddenly cut off from all these inputs, the country turned to agricultural self-sufficiency, organic production and permaculture almost by default. Urban gardens sprouted around the island's cities, encouraged by the government, and the end result is an incredible example of sustainable agriculture.
One of Havana's largest and most successful urban gardens is the Organopónico Vivero Alamar, a Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa (Basic Unit of Cooperative Production). Covering 11 hectares in Alamar, a residential suburb, the allotment's rows of vegetables are overshadowed by grey Soviet-style blocks of flats. Though small, the garden (really more of an urban farm) is incredibly productive. As well as fresh vegetables, fruits, ornamental plants, seedlings, timber and medicinal and spiritual plants, the cooperative also produces dried herbs, condiments, garlic paste, tomato sauce and pickles; vermicompost, compost and substrates; goat and rabbit meat and mycorrhizal fungi. The Organopónico also welcomes tourists and holds workshops and courses in organic agriculture. Products are sold to local restaurants and directly to community members from the farm shop.
The cooperative that owns the Organopónico has 150 members, with 17 employees. Miguel Angel Salcines López, one of its founders and the current president, says, "The sense of belonging is central to organic production, and in the cooperative form there's even more a sense of belonging. We're less vulnerable economically because we can adapt better to the economic conditions. And we can improve social conditions for members and their families."
He says the cooperative is contributing to local development by facilitating access to healthy food at fair prices and creating jobs, especially for women and older people. They are also providing a beautiful example of how organic agriculture can be practiced in a city. Cuba's shift to self-sustainability, at least in fruits and vegetables, and its wide-scale adoption of urban, organic food growing, offer plenty of lessons in how to cope with potential future oil shortages and how communities, when driven by necessity, will organize and find ways to feed themselves. In the words of environmentalist Bill McKibben, Cuba may be "the world's largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture."

Find out more about Vivero Alamar at their beautiful website