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

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

Friday, December 7, 2018

Bye, bye, Brick Works

For the past twelve years (since 2007), I have been standing here at Toronto Evergreen Brick Works Farmers Market as a Saturday morning vendor.
 First under the umbrella of the Quinte Organic Farmers Co-operative, then as my own farm Rolling Hills Organics, this long run draws to a close tomorrow with my final market. By my records, I have around 400 under my belt. Some vendors like Irene, Jens, Dave, Ed, Angelos and others will have more as they are there year-round, all through long winters when we are down south or in hibernation.

I would like to thank loyal customer turned colleague turned close friend Christina Temple for her loyalty and avid support of our farm's certified organic, fresh, local produce. I have learned a lot about food, health, medicine, herbs, restaurants, value-added products from her. Thank you too to the amazing Elizabeth Harris who gave me my start at Riverdale and Brick Works farmers markets, and to Marina and Cameron for building and running the market. Thanks most of all to you cheery regular customers, vendors and volunteers too numerous to mention. You have provided a vibrant venue for business, chat, and enduring friendship.

Gundi and I have decided the time is right for a new and exciting challenge and the next chapter in our lives. So it is that we have all but sold the farm and all but bought our new home in a little cove overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. We will grow our own food and Gundi will continue her glass artistry but I will be trading in small-scale land farming for small-scale ocean farming (fish, shellfish, and sea greens) and diving into a new community. Look for me at the admirable Cape Breton Food Hub.

Cheers, and keep local fresh organic going at Brick Works!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Farmers Markets, Food Feature

From, my featured interview:

Can we assume everything at the farmer’s market is organic?

By no means. Farmers markets are wonderful places and improved signage is in the works, but customers should be aware. Labels such as organically grown, sustainable, ecological, minimally sprayed, local can be misleading. Always ask if the farmers grew all the product they are selling. If not, where was the rest grown and how.

Is everything local? How far (on average) do farmer’s/vendors source their product from?

Each market has different rules, but generally Toronto markets feature produce grown within two to three hours' drive. The 100-mile limit is a good guideline.

Talk me through the process from farm to stall.

We have a full day of harvesting, processing, packaging, sorting, cataloguing prior to market. On market day, we are up at 4.30 am for the hour and a half drive to market, one hour set-up, five hour market. Home by 4 pm, bushed after interacting with customers and other vendors in the fresh outdoor often hot air, selling, and hopefully selling out!

You vend primarily at the Evergreen Brickworks Farmers Market - how does the farmer’s market select farmers to participate? What is the criteria?

This market used to be an exclusively organic market with all vendors verified to grow organically if not certified organic by third party verification. These days, customers should ask questions of vendors to ascertain their growing methods and practices. Go with farmers you can trust.

How does weather affect the growing season and the quality of the crops? If it is a late winter, or an early frost, how does this affect the produce? What are the most resilient fruits and vegetables? Which are more likely to suffer?

Southern Ontario farmers have just been through the driest summer since records began, followed by one of the wettest. Farmers are at the mercy of the vagaries of weather and the excesses of climate change, unless their operations are indoor, climate-controlled, using large amounts of energy and foregoing natural sunlight, rain, dew, wind (Nature's elements). Extreme winters, cool springs, variable summers are conditions that outdoor farmers must face up to. Late frosts, extended cold, wet summers, heavy winters, extreme heat, lack of rain are all eventualities that must be faced up to.

What else can affect the quality/quantity of crops in a growing season?

Extremes of weather, mineral and nutritional deficiences, poor farming practice and excess pesticide use can cause bug infestations, bacterial disease.

Any trade secrets/ dead giveaways in sussing out the best of the best? If two vendors are offering the same product, how do you know which is better? Are there buzzwords on signage that we should look out for?

Talk to farmers, ask questions about seeds, organic practices, GMOs, whether chemicals were used, what the nature of the soil is, when produce was picked. Be price-savvy, but appreciate that you grt what you pay for. Skimping on price will land you a less than stellar product. Biodynamic and certified organic are the gold standards.

What does the picking process look like? How large is your team? Do you pick all your produce by hand or do you use machinery to assist in harvesting?

At Rolling Hills Organics, all produce is picked fresh for each and every market. Salad greens are picked early morning, washed three times in our pure well water, spun dry, weighed, bagged, and cooled in bins ready for transport to market. We are a small team. All seeds and plants are planted, harvested and processed by hand.

You run a certified organic 55-acre farm. Talk to us about the rise in the use of pesticides - why are you adamant on growing organically?

To taste or not to taste - is it really true that we can sample everything at the Farmers Market? How open are farmers to having you sample their product before purchasing?

Our land has never seen chemicals. No pesticides of any kind are used, since we insist on farming entirely organically, holistically, sustainably, using Nature as guide. Chemicals are responsible for many of the terrible ailments afflicting the health of consumers, whether ingested from food or absorbed from a toxified environment.

Sampling at market is subject to strict health guidelines. Some vendors offer this, and we welcome customers tasting our salad greens.

What are your top picks at the market? Do you purchase non-produce items like pasta/bread/baked goods - or do you save those for the grocery store? Why?

Naturally raised, minimally processed, organic produce and foods. There are many locally-produced, small-batch, artisanal foods of good quality available at market. 

Do farmers markets account for the primary source of revenue for most farmers? Or are there other components of the business that contribute to the overall revenue - for example, supplying to local restaurants, etc.

Most farmers receive their income from a mix of farmers markets, wholesale accounts, and sales to restaurants. We prefer to focus on farmers markets where we receive full retail price and enjoy a highly respectful and regular clientele along with a constant stream of new customers.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Farmers Markets in the Spotlight

What a perfect farmers market experience Warkworth Market at the Mews offers! it is authentically local, reflecting genuine community. With the CBC Marketplace "exposé", farmers markets in general have come under the spotlight and the fallout has not been pretty. Like any other business model, farmers markets face issues of credibility in the eyes of the consumer. They also present massive opportunities for good food, good health, the localist economy, and societal change. In many ways, they are victim of their own success as more and more consumers flock to them, away from name-brand food sources like supermarkets and grocery stores. They stand to be knocked down.

In the CBC Marketplace report, the Peterborough Farmers Market was highlighted. While most appreciated the revelation of some produce coming from the Ontario Food Terminal, the market management most certainly did not. Several small-farm vendors ironically seen as troublemakers were subsequently uninvited to participate. They have now set up their own Saturday farmers market through Peterborough Regional Farmers Network. While it is a shame for markets to fragment in this way, the intransigence of a Board of Directors in this case made a parting of the ways inevitable.

Yes, a few re-sellers maintain a presence as vendors at some farmers markets. Sometimes market management allows them under their regulations; this is especially true of long-established regional town and city markets across southern Ontario, like Peterborough. This is, after all, how these markets began, long before the local food movement took hold. Sometimes management just turns a blind eye or fails to take adequate time or effort to monitor what farmers bring. Sometimes re-sellers sneak in the back door, selling incognito through farmers or while representing produce as home-grown alongside harvests from their own farm.

By and large, farmers are honest and upfront, as indeed they should be. The few bad apples should be weeded out through strong rules and clear signage rigorously enforced. The buying public deserves nothing less than total transparency, especially at farmers markets, where the stakes for health are so high. We all have a right to know where our food comes from, and whether it is certified organic, grown using chemicals, or containing genetically modified ingredients. After all, these venues offer our best chance to feed body and soul with locally-sourced healthy food direct from a family farm in a convivial setting. Talking of which... in our neck of the woods, Codrington Farmers Market, now entering its fourth year, has become a popular destination for a local food and artisan craft experience on Sundays. 

And now, the vibrant village of Warkworth has its very own afore-mentioned Market at the Mews on Friday afternoons. These two markets fully embrace local growers and food artisans with - hopefully - no re-sellers to be seen or negotiated. They reflect how every farmers market community - city or country - should be. Let's celebrate them. As an organic farmer, I certainly do!

Thursday, April 12, 2018


Arugula seedlings

After a long, hard winter, a long, slow spring is upon us, like a big, dark cloud. It too will pass. Patience is required, in spades (especially with an impending icestorm in the forecast).

Rolling Hills Organics is a very small farm but we are in good heart, relishing the opportunity to sink seeds in soil once more and witness the re-birth of the land after its annual slumber.

Our greenhouses are not heated in the winter nor air-conditioned in the summer beyond Nature's absorbed sunshine and winds.

Our soils have been cover-cropped, green-manured, or mulched, and will be primed ready to go once they have dried out and warmed up.

Our seeds are sourced from small-scale suppliers and not mass-planted by machine but individually by hand.

Our fields are not covered by sheets of black plastic nor fed by a mechanized irrigation system. Weeds will plague the early plantings and we will water and weed manually.

All crops have been certified organic for 18 years now, and remain so.  They are grown in our mineral-rich glacial till soil (that has never been exposed to chemicals), picked, washed and bagged fresh for each and every market.

First harvest starts shortly with spring salads and mixes like arugula, baby kale, baby spinach, spicy greens, mild mesclun, baby lettuce mix.

We look forward to seeing you at market very soon!

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.