In 2004, Brent Preston and his wife, Gillian Flies, abandoned city life to grow organic vegetables near Creemore, Ontario. His new book, The New Farm: Our ten years on the front lines of the good food revolution, documents the highs, lows and humour of their early days as farmers.
This summer, Mr. Preston will be keeping a bi-weekly diary here, full of photos and stories about farm life. Make sure to check in often.
Meet los muchachos
Plenty of business owners like to utter platitudes about their workers. "Our employees are our most important resource," they'll say, or something to that effect. But on a human-powered farm like ours, our reliance on our workers is far more than cliché. When just about everything is done by hand, the skill and reliability of our employees is not just the most important thing, it's pretty much the only thing that matters.
Like just about every other fruit or vegetable farm in Canada, we rely on temporary workers from abroad. Ours come from Mexico. They're part of the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program that brought in more than 34,000 farm labourers last year. Without them, large parts of the Canadian agricultural system would cease to function.
There is much to be proud of in the way the Canadian system works. Our employees get the same health coverage as you or me while they're here, plus supplemental insurance and coverage for workplace accidents. We pay for half of their flights and all of their housing. They can even collect employment insurance for paternity leave and a Canadian pension if they work here long enough.
But there is also a lot to be ashamed of. Enforcement of the rules is spotty across the country. The house our workers live in is inspected by a public-health nurse every year, but other provinces do nothing to enforce housing standards. Worker complaints about living and working conditions are often ignored. Worst of all, it's far too easy for employers to send workers home when they demand that their rights be respected.
It's easy to speak in generalities when talking about foreign agricultural workers in Canada. The thousands of men and women who travel here to grow our food are a nameless, faceless and often voiceless group. But Gillian and I spend 12 to 14 hours a day working alongside our employees and our workplace is also our home. We are intimately bound to these men, who return year after year. Luis, Chuen and Juan Carlos, three brothers, have been with us for six seasons. Armando and Javier for three. Victor Hugo and Valentin started with us this year. They refer to themselves collectively as los muchachos – "the boys" or "the guys."
These guys are all tireless workers, conscientious employees and generous, warm-hearted human beings.
They all have families back home that they care about deeply and miss desperately while they're here. But they are willing to sacrifice, to be away from their loved ones for half the year in order to support their parents, provide for their spouses and give their children greater opportunity. They tell us that we pay them 10 times what they would make for similar work in Mexico.
It is difficult for me to express the admiration and gratitude I feel toward los muchachos. We would not be able to farm without them. But more important, they make our farm a joyous place, full of music, laughter and generosity of spirit.
Every year, we have to advertise our farm-worker positions before we can hire our crew from Mexico. Proving that no Canadians want these jobs is one of the rules of the seasonal-workers program. For the past five years, that's been easy; almost nobody applied.
But last winter, that changed. We received applications from two Canadians who really wanted to work here, both of them young and idealistic, with past farm experience. Sara and Andrew arrived in the spring and were quickly welcomed into our Mexican crew (they both speak Spanish). They still can't quite match the speed and skill of the rest of the team, but they've learned a lot from the guys. Having a multinational team has made the work environment even more fun, professional and respectful than it was before.
Last week, Sara was assigned a new task that she spent all day trying to master. When I asked her how she was doing, she paused. "I'm trying to figure out how to do this with Mexican efficiency," she told me. Wow, I thought; Mexican efficiency. What a great way to sum up the way our crew works. And a great way to upend a lot of stereotypes.
Yesterday, I killed 63 chickens
The chickens were killed so I could feed my family, but the scene of the kill line is something I think about every time we roast chicken
To be honest, I didn't actually kill them myself, but I caused them to be killed, which is pretty much the same thing. When you live on a farm and raise animals for meat, you're forced to confront the brutal reality of killing animals in a very direct way.
If you buy meat in a supermarket or fast-food restaurant, you can easily avoid the ethical and environmental questions that being a carnivore should raise, but you are no less responsible for the death of the animals you eat than I am. So, I'm going to walk you through exactly what I did yesterday.
My wife, Gillian, and I woke well before dawn and went out to the chicken coop. We raised a mix of chickens this year, some older varieties that are excellent free-rangers and some White Rocks, the standard supermarket birds, which are more like animate meatballs. All our birds had access to pasture, lots of room to run around and ate a diet of organic grains and garden scraps.
They were 12 weeks old when they died. Supermarket chickens are usually killed at six weeks.
The birds were easy to catch as they fumbled about in the darkness. We stuffed them into chicken crates, which are shallow plastic boxes that prevent the chickens from climbing on top of each other during transport. We loaded the crates onto our trailer as the sun started to break the horizon.
I drove an hour west to a small, family-run processing plant in Bruce County. The plant we use is clean, modern and efficient, but it's still an awful place. The kill line is right in the loading dock. There were birds being killed five feet away from me as I unloaded my crates.
The woman running the place asked how I wanted my chickens cut up, then asked me to wait while they unloaded my birds so I could take my empty crates with me.
Two workers grabbed my birds, one at a time, and hooked their feet into clips moving slowly along a rail at about head height. They squawked and flapped and then hung upside down, apparently resigned to their fate. The birds moved behind a small screen where their heads passed over an electrified plate that delivered enough voltage to knock them out. Next, another worker slit their throats.
I watched as the birds I had taken care of all summer hung there, bleeding onto the floor. The line passed deeper into the plant, where I could see my birds being flung into a cauldron of scalding water and then dumped into a machine that removed all their feathers. They were then put back on the conveyor and sent off to be eviscerated, butchered and sealed in plastic bags. That part I couldn't see.
I stood there for about 10 minutes, ankle deep in a slurry of blood and feathers, while all 63 of our chickens were stunned, had their throats slit and bled to death before me. I felt revulsion and sadness and a deep, unsettling guilt.
We don't sell our chickens; the 63 I killed yesterday are for family consumption and will last us about two years. Every time we roast a chicken for dinner, the kids get really excited. Me, I think back to that killing floor and wonder if it's worth it.
An early fall on the farm brings a sense of urgency
August is supposed to be the height of summer, but I can see my breath in the morning and we're running out of time to make money before winter
I think being Canadian requires a certain level of delusion about the weather – if we admitted to ourselves how bad our climate really is, we would all move elsewhere. This is doubly true for Canadian farmers. Trying to grow food in a place where nothing grows for at least half the year can seem more than a little quixotic.
I was reminded of this fact when I stepped outside yesterday morning and saw my breath. The temperature has dipped below 10 degrees Celsius every night for the past week. We start work on the farm every day at 7 a.m.; back in June, the sun had been up for more than two hours at that time. Today, it was just breaking the horizon.
August is supposed to be the height of summer, I said to myself, with typical Canadian self-deception. But the fact is, fall is on its way.
Working on a farm makes you acutely aware of the variability of the weather and the relentless march of the seasons. This summer, as I've mentioned in past entries, has been exceedingly wet in Southern Ontario. We had four inches of rain over four days at the start of the month, and it has rained every day for the past week. It has also been unusually cold.
This has made figuring out the right time to plant our crops, and predicting when they will be ready for market, even more difficult than it usually is. Take salad greens, as one example. They are only at the right size for harvesting for about a week before they get too big, so we need a pretty complicated planting schedule to ensure a consistent supply.
When we plant them in April, they take up to six weeks to mature. The same greens planted in June should be ready in three weeks. In late August, the cold weather and shorter days once again increase the time our greens take to grow.
But this summer has been so cold and wet that the seasonal rhythm has been completely thrown off. I feel like I'm rolling the dice every time I go out to plant.
"All this rain must be good for your lettuce!" people keep saying to me. No, it's not. The only thing growing well this summer is the mould.
Our cucumbers and squash have been attacked by powdery mildew, and our tomatoes are being decimated by late blight, which in the past showed up in October but now seems to come earlier each year. On calm days, I sometimes catch a whiff of damp rot as I walk through the garden.
The cold mornings give us a sense of urgency; they remind us that the end of the season is approaching, and that we must harvest and sell as much as we possibly can, despite the weather. We only have so much time to make money before winter sets in.
Four weeks ago, we were in the middle of the hottest part of the summer. Eight weeks from now, the farm will be shut down. Then I'll listen to people in the community express shock at the terrible weather. "Snow in October! Can you believe it?" they'll ask in disbelief. We've been farming for 10 years, and we've had snow on the ground at some point in October every single year.
We're all delusional.
The big difference between organic and non-organic farms is cover crops
Conventional farmers and organic farmers have different philosophical approaches when it comes to dealing with the soil
People ask me all kinds of questions about agriculture, but the most common is this: What's the difference between organic and non-organic? It's a very broad question – the two agricultural systems are fundamentally different – but I think the best way to distill the differences into one, digestible example is to talk about the practice of cover cropping.
Cover crops are simply crops that are grown not to harvest, but to feed the soil. Earlier this week, we planted about 40 per cent of the land we farm in a cover crop. When we first started farming we tended to plant our cover crop in monocultures, big stands of a single variety such as buckwheat or rye. As we learned more about the practice, we started devising "cocktail crops" of many different varieties. This week we planted a mixture of crimson clover, oats, climbing forage peas, sunflowers, tillage radish and flax.
Each component provides something different for our soil. Some are legumes that fix atmospheric nitrogen with the help of symbiotic bacteria that live on the roots (peas and clover). Some put out big leaves that shade out weeds (sunflowers). Some create huge taproots that burrow deep into the subsoil and bring nutrients up to the surface (tillage radish). All create organic matter that feeds soil life and helps retain moisture. I heard about a new cover crop called phacelia at a conference I was at last winter, so I threw some of that in, too (I don't honestly know what it does).
All of the components of our cover crop will die in the fall – none of them can survive a frost. They'll form a thick mat of vegetation, protecting our soil from erosion over the winter and storing essential nutrients in their decaying tissues. In the spring we'll turn all that residue into the soil, which will feed the copious life that exists there – everything from single-cell bacteria to fungi to earthworms, nematodes and beetles. And that web of life will in turn feed the vegetables we grow.
It's a long, slow process, but it leads to the core difference between organic and conventional agriculture: It's all about the soil. Conventional growers see the soil primarily as a growing medium, something to hold the roots in place while nutrients are added in the form of synthetic fertilizers. Organic farmers focus on feeding soil life and building soil structure, unlocking natural soil nutrients and making them available to their crops. The best way to do this is through cover cropping.
I like to point out that industrial, chemical-based agriculture is a very new phenomenon. We find all sorts of artifacts in our soil – horseshoes, bits of harness – that remind us that less than a century ago, all agriculture was organic, everyone farmed with horses, and all farmers grew cover crops. Last week I was driving past the local agriculture depot, where they sell genetically modified seed, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. A big sign out front said: "Ask Us About Cover Crop Seed!" Conventional farmers are starting to recognize the benefits of organic practices that they once scoffed at. It gives me hope that the era of industrial agriculture might soon come to an end.
The chef who came to farm
Chef and co-owner of Richmond Station Carl Heinrich dropped everything and moved his family for the summer to work on the farm
Most of what we grow on our farm is sold to restaurants. The chefs we supply demand the freshest, most beautiful, most delicious vegetables we can grow, and meeting their quality requirements can be a challenge.
But we also get to work with some of the most talented, creative and committed cooks in the country. Our chefs recognize that the best food starts with the best ingredients, and they go out of their way to support local farmers who are committed to quality and sustainability.
Over the years, our chefs have evolved from customers to friends to fellow warriors in the fight for a more sustainable and equitable food system. We have developed many great relationships with chefs and restaurateurs, but none are closer than our partnership with the folks at Richmond Station restaurant in downtown Toronto.
These guys really walk the walk – nearly everything they serve is sourced direct from small-scale, local producers. They butcher whole animals in-house and make their own charcuterie, and they contribute their time and talent to many good food initiatives. So when chef and co-owner Carl Heinrich asked if he could come and work on our farm for the summer, the answer was a very enthusiastic yes.
Carl felt that gaining firsthand knowledge of how to grow food would make him a better chef. He also wanted to supply his restaurant with specialty items that we don't grow, things like pea tendrils, heirloom dry beans and pattypan squash. So this past spring, Carl, his wife Julia, and their very young son moved out of Toronto and rented a house in the nearby village of Creemore.
We set aside a section of the garden and consulted with him on what varieties he might try, and we gave him lessons on how to work the hand tools we use for planting, weeding and harvesting. Carl brought the same obsessive attention to detail to his farming that he exhibits in his cooking. He scribbled copious notes in a little notebook he carried around in his back pocket.
This week, Carl had some staff come up from Richmond Station to help him with his first harvest. It wasn't a lot – some bok choy, zucchini flowers and rainbow chard – but it was all beautifully fresh and delicious. I could see the pride on his face, the special pride that comes from producing high-quality food through many hours of hard physical labour.
Chefs play an incredibly important role in our food system. Their celebrity and influence gives them a platform to drive positive change. By seeking out and supporting sustainable farmers, they encourage their customers and followers to do the same.
Chefs have the power to make the good food movement into a full-blown revolution. When a chef of Carl Heinrich's stature decides to take a sabbatical from his busy restaurant to learn the humble art of growing food, it elevates the farmer's craft; it tells the world that what we do on the farm is important.
In addition to all these high-minded ideas about changing the food system, there's a more immediate benefit to having a chef around the farm: the food.
At quitting time last Friday, Carl got a fire going in our outdoor oven and cooked up pizzas for the whole crew. There's nothing like sitting in the sun, covered in dirt, enjoying a hot pizza and a cold beer after a 70-hour work week. Change tastes good.
Is organic food elitist?
The food from this farm is rare and valuable, but it should be for everyone
I love this time of year. After the stress and uncertainty of a cold and miserable spring, the farm is finally starting to fire on all cylinders. We've been harvesting for a couple of weeks now and as the June sun warms up our fertile soil, the garden is suddenly a riot of growth. For the past few days, we've been cutting hundreds of pounds of baby greens – arugula, lettuce, kale and the most perfect, dark green, succulent spinach you've ever seen. It's all beautiful and delicious, and our chef clients are clamouring to get it into their restaurants.
Like any good businessperson, I want to charge as much as I can for what I'm selling, especially since what I'm selling is both rare and valuable. You can't find the kind of organic greens we produce on our farm just anywhere. But one of the most common criticisms of organic food is that it's too expensive – that it's elitist and unaffordable.
I think this argument is bogus. Canadians spend less of their income on food than anyone else on the planet and a big portion of their food budget goes to things such as brewed coffee and soft drinks that they could easily do without. And why should I charge less for my products than the market will bear? Everyone on our farm works very hard and we deserve to be rewarded for our skill and effort.
While the vast majority of Canadians could afford to switch to organic, there are many who are too mired in poverty to eat well. When Gillian and I started farming more than 10 years ago, we quickly realized there was a disconnect between our need to make money and our desire to make our food more accessible. So we decided to throw a party.
We asked one of our chef clients to help us cook a big meal, we hired a band to play in the barn and we sold some tickets. We raised a few thousand dollars, all of which went to purchase local, organic food from our farm and others like it for a progressive outfit in Toronto called the Stop Community Food Centre. The idea was to support sustainable farmers and to get really good food into low-income neighbourhoods.
Over the years, our little fundraiser grew. We started inviting more chefs to cook and the bands we booked got bigger and better known. We had Stars, Sam Roberts and Sloan: Two years ago, the Tragically Hip showed up. We brought on sponsors and the amount of money we raised also grew.
This year's event happened on June 17 and involved chefs from 15 incredible restaurants cooking on the front lawn. Almost 1,000 guests ate and mingled and enjoyed the late afternoon sun. At dusk, Joel Plaskett and the Emergency took the stage and almost rocked the barn down. There's nothing like good food and good music to unlock goodwill and generosity. We raised more than $110,000 in one night.
As I wandered through the crowds that Saturday, I couldn't help wondering how it had all come to be: How did so many chefs and foodies and musicians end up all together on our farm? The answer, of course, is that food brings us together, and that making good food available to those who can't afford it is an easy cause to get behind. What organic farmers and chefs and musicians have in common is that they all produce something rare and valuable, something worth paying for and worth sharing.
The first harvest
The winter was long and lean and the spring cold and wet, but finally our first greens are ready - six months after we last got paid
This past winter was long and lean, as it always is on our farm. My wife, Gillian, and I spent our days catching up on bookkeeping, ordering seeds, and taking some time off, while our fields were covered in snow. As the weather began to warm, we started to get excited about the upcoming season. We planted salad greens as soon as the snow melted in early April, and our anticipation grew with our seedlings.
This spring has been colder and wetter than any we have experienced in our years on the farm, but this week, finally, our first greens are ready. We sent out word to our clients a few days ago, and today we harvested. And not a moment too soon – it's been almost six months to the day since the last time we got paid.
We gave up trying to grow vegetables in the winter a long time ago. Our farm is on top of the Niagara Escarpment, in one of the coldest, windiest spots in Southern Ontario. Our greenhouses get so buried in snow that we often can't even get into them, let alone grow anything in there. So we have to grow all our food, and make all our money, in only half the year.
Luckily, most of our food gets sold to restaurants, and most of our chef clients are committed to seasonal eating.
Farming was traditionally a seasonal business in Canada, but the big corporations that now dominate our food system have worked hard to convince consumers that they should be able to eat whatever produce they want at any time of the year.
Veggies are grown in massive, climate-controlled greenhouses in the middle of winter, and all manner of fresh fruits are flown from the far corners of the globe. If local asparagus is only available for a few weeks in the spring, why not bring it in from Argentina the rest of the time?
The answer, for our chefs at least, is flavour. Eating Argentinian asparagus in February is a sad, limp, insipid experience. The chefs who buy from us want local and seasonal produce because it tastes best. They are also fiercely loyal to their local suppliers, looking on their farmers as partners, friends, and fellow artisans. Most of our restaurant clients don't have leafy greens on their winter menu: Instead they use locally grown storage vegetables like cabbage, Brussels sprouts and beets. But even the most committed chefs get tired of cooking out of the root cellar after a while. By this time of year, they're just as excited as we are to see the first salad greens.
Now that the first harvest is behind us, the madness truly begins. Tomorrow there will be a second harvest, followed by a third the next day, and so on, five or six harvest days a week until the snow flies in October. We'll cut and wash and ship off thousands of pounds of beautiful, fresh, delicious vegetables to dozens of talented and appreciative chefs. We'll work 12 hours a day, six days a week, racing against the looming winter, to sell as much as we can, so we can refill our family coffers. It's fun and exhausting and immensely satisfying work. And the vegetables taste especially sweet since I know that in a few months, they'll be gone.
You've probably never heard of a Jang, or a push seeder – and neither have the vast majority of conventional farmers
Last Monday morning was a little like Christmas on the farm. Last Monday, our new Jang got delivered.
What's a Jang, you may be wondering? Ask any small-scale organic farmer that question and she'll probably get a wistful look in her eye, as if remembering a passionate love affair from long ago. A Jang is the most elegant of machines, a precision-crafted tool that is both high-tech and radically retro, built from cutting-edge materials but powered entirely by human muscle. It's the kind of implement that organic farmers can talk about for hours on end when they get together – the equivalent of the latest iPhone for small-farm geeks. A Jang, you see, is a push seeder.
Let me guess, you don't know what a push seeder is either – that's okay, neither do the vast majority of conventional farmers. They probably assume that the use of hand tools in commercial agriculture died out a century ago. But some of us are bucking the "bigger is better" trend that has pushed farmers to adopt massive, wildly expensive, diesel-guzzling machinery. Some of us are going old school.
On our farm, we've always aimed to be human-powered. Relying on people power rather than machines helps reduce our impact on the environment, preserve our soil, provide more employment and produce higher-quality vegetables. It's also healthier for us – our bodies are a lot better off when we work with our hands in the fields, rather than riding a tractor all day.
What our preindustrial farming ancestors understood, and what some of us are rediscovering, is that well-designed hand tools can make human-powered agriculture exponentially more efficient, to the point where we can compete with our petro-powered neighbours. We weed with Swiss-made wheel hoes. We plant our seedlings in soil blocks made in a spring-loaded press imported from Holland. Most of our tools were originally introduced in the 1800s or even earlier, but they're now made with modern materials and incorporate innovative design tweaks.
The Mac Daddy of our hand tool arsenal is the push seeder. For years, we've used a one-row seeder that looks like a little bicycle with a handle – it picks up seeds from the on-board hopper, drops them down a chute into the soil and covers them up, all powered by a drive belt attached to the front wheel. It's a simple and elegant machine, but we now plant almost 15 kilometres of row every week, and pushing that little seeder back and forth all day can get tiresome.
So Gillian and I decided to upgrade to the Jang. It's made in Korea and works on the same principal as our one-row seeder, but it plants six rows at a time. It has interchangeable sprockets in the drive chain so we can fine-tune the seeding rate, and larger, detachable hoppers so we can carry more seed and change seed varieties quickly. That's why we got so excited when it arrived last Monday – we knew we were about to increase our planting efficiency by a factor of six.
My tractor-driving neighbours probably think I look ridiculous pushing this little yellow contraption around in my fields, but I don't care. I'm getting a good workout, I'm not breathing any diesel fumes and the Jang cost me a tiny fraction of what their tractors are worth. The chains and gears on the seeder make a pleasant whirring sound as I push it down the row. That's the sound of money.
On our farm, the Rites of Spring are totally stressful
This year, our usual stress has been compounded by the weather; we've had one of the wettest Aprils on record
Ah, spring! The season of possibility, when gentle rains bring forth new life and the bucolic countryside awakens in a burst of verdant green. What a joke.
Spring is the ugliest season. On our farm outside Creemore, Ont., spring is the season of stress. The seeds we planted more than two weeks ago have barely started to grow. It's been almost six months since we last got paid, but money is flying out of our bank account: a thousand bucks for a new sheet of plastic to replace the one that blew off our greenhouse in a winter storm, more than $10,000 for seeds. Our seasonal employees started working last week, so we're burning through almost $1,000 a day in payroll and we're still weeks away from our first harvest.
My wife, Gillian, and I abandoned downtown Toronto more than a decade ago to follow our dream of owning a small, diversified organic farm. That dream often turned into a nightmare in the early years, as we buckled under the pressure of trying to run a farm with no experience, no machinery and not much of a clue. Now, the emotional arc of each growing season seems to mirror the 10-year arc of our career as farmers.
Spring is the time for anxiety and self-doubt. Will our customers come back after the long winter? Will some unforeseen plague descend on our gardens? Will it ever warm up?
This year, our usual stress has been compounded by the weather; we've had one of the wettest Aprils on record. It has rained almost every day, and last week we had three consecutive days of torrential downpours. The barnyard is a sea of mud, which makes the farm look even worse than it usually does at this time of year. An early snowfall last November covered up all the junk that we had been too exhausted to put away at the end of the season, but it's all back in plain view now that the snow is gone.
The nice thing about having a decade of farming experience under our belts is that we know things will get better. The weather will improve. Our veggies will start to grow. The chefs and retailers who buy our produce will all get excited when we send them the first salad greens of the season. The puddles will dry, we'll tidy the place up, and the farm will once again be green and beautiful: bustling, profitable, and the setting for a happy and meaningful life for our family.
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