Life and thoughts from a small-scale organic farm . . . and its farmers

This is a blog that explores ideas around the growing of food and community at Glen Valley Organic Farm.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Season of Saving Begins

Jeremy and Rob cleaning onions, September 2009 (photo courtesy of Brian Harris).

The daylight hours are shortening and there is a distinct sense of autumn approaching. Leaves are justing beginning to change colours on the trees and we're shifting gears into harvesting a new set of crops.

In many ways, this is a season of saving and I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Last week an exhibit opened at the Museum of Vancouver, featuring photography of BC Community Farms and Urban Agriculture by Brian Harris. The exhibit reminded me of the role of saving in farm life.

Throughout the exhibit there are quotes about food and agriculture. One of the quotes is by me, taken from a larger statement: "Knowledge about agriculture is no different than the knowledge contained in a seed. Both must be grown out each season, tested against the soil and weather. They must be passed from the minds and hands of one generation to the next. Those who assume mentorship roles understand that what they have amassed is useless unless passed along to others who will continue their work."

The quote in the exhibit is in shortened form:
“Knowledge about agriculture is like the knowledge contained in a seed. Both must be grown out each season then passed from the minds and hands of one generation to the next.”
The quote comes from real-life observations. My parents were the first generation in their families who chose not to farm. They did, nonetheless, keep a large garden in our backyard while I grew up and some of the gardening rubbed off on me. But it strikes me that so much knowledge about growing food can be lost in only one generation.

In a similar vein, there are varieties of beans, poppies and various other veggies that we lost when my grandmother stopped gardening in her 80s. Many of these varieties likely came with her family from the Carpathian Valley region of what is now Ukraine. The seeds formed the basis for the meals enjoyed at many family gatherings. In losing these seeds, we risk losing something greater in knowing our history.

The truth is, however, I didn't write the above-mentioned quote in an essay or speech. Rather, Brian asked me for a quote on the theme of mentorship while he was designing the exhibit. I actually received his request while on a winter vacation, enjoying the farmer's markets of Hawaii.

Now the quote has me thinking that an essay on mentorship and the transfer of knowledge in agriculture is due. I started writing some rough notes yesterday. Daily work on the farm is serving as an inspiration for the piece, particularly as we begin to do a lot of saving.

This past week we brought up the first storage onions and shallots for drying. Once the tops of the onions start to die in the field we pull them out and bring them into a dry space to prepare them for winter.

A few of the onions brought up from the field yesterday and laid out in the coldframe this morning.

The onions get laid out in our coldframes, where they will dry for a few weeks. Once the tops and roots are dried completely, the bulb is sealed and can be cleaned. The tops and roots are cut off and the outer layer of skin is removed, leaving a beautiful, clean onion or shallot. The bulbs are bagged and put away in a storage room where we control the humidity and temperature through the winter until everything is sold.

Meanwhile, the end of summer also marks the point when seeds must be harvested for next year's crops. While we purchase most of our seeds for growing, there are a few crops from which we have been trying to save seed.

A handful of golden beet seed, harvested this fall.

Last fall I saved a few bags of the best beets we had and stored them until this spring. Early in the spring I planted out the beets. Now, many months later, we're harvesting the seed. The beets, in particular, are a crop I think we should be able to save and adapt a variety to excel in our growing conditions here in the Lower Mainland.

Another seed we saved this year is from our crop of fava beans. Beans are an easy crop to save seed from and favas, given their size and early maturity, are particularly nice seeds to grow.

Thousands of fava beans dry in a bin after shucking.

Finally, saving is a huge theme in our kitchens as we preserve food through canning, drying and freezing. We spend long hours doing this work in the fall, and we always appreciate our work throughout the winter and spring as we enjoy the memories of summer on our taste buds.

Saving, whether it be seeds, food, knowledge or even money is something we don't do much of these days. We trust that answers to our questions are only a google away. Seeds are purchased from catalogs and gardening stores. Food is always available, at least for those who can afford it. National statistics tell us that most people have far more debt than savings to their names.

Despite this, I am encouraged by the numbers of people learning to grow and preserve food. There are many people getting into small-scale farming and exploring how to get involved in the agricultural sector. If this continues, we just might be able to do a bit more saving, before too much more is lost from our hands and memories.

Thousands of shallots drying before being cleaned and stored for the winter.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Going to market

Going to market is almost always a highlight of the week for us. It's an opportunity to get off the farm, meet our customers and to do a little bit of shopping for the week ahead. There is something exciting about the energy and pace of the market which comes as a great contrast to the long days of often-solitary work on the farm throughout the week. I've heard some people even describe the market environment as addictive.

This year, Jeremy, Rob and I have shared the responsibilities of the Lonsdale Quay, White Rock and New Westminster markets, each taking a turn at one of the markets every three weeks. Our apprentices Adam and Cat have shared working at the Langley Market.

Here's a rundown of a market day along with my editorial comment. I took some photos from the last couple of markets I worked -- Lonsdale Quay and White Rock.

For the weekend markets, the day starts early with loading the truck -- at 5 or 6 a.m. When everything is loaded in the height of the season the market truck should look something like this:

While driving to the market we sometimes get a great view of the sunrise coming up over the mountains and valley.

And once we arrive at the market, it's time to transform an empty square, parking lot or park into a carnival-esque market scene. The White Rock market is held in a square between two condo towers. On this particular week someone threw old food from their window at market vendors during set-up. Maybe the set-up time is too early for some people on the weekend. We were lucky no one got hurt, though, given that the package fell about 15 stories.

At our Lonsdale Quay market on Saturday mornings we have the ever-able Storm who helps us. He's been part of the market scene for longer than we have and knows how to navigate piles of produce boxes and set up a market stand with his eyes closed.

Once everything is set up we occasionally get an opportunity to admire the presentation before starting to sell. If we finish setting up too early before the start of market, our customers begin to get a bit anxious for having to wait.

A major part of market set-up is presentation. Making the food look beautiful in large piles and orderly rows goes a long way to helping sell everything.

We try to be strict about only selling after the advertised opening time. At Lonsdale Quay there is no strict start time, although the market is advertised as starting at 10 a.m. Until two years ago, we started selling as soon as we were st up. But our customers started arriving earlier and earlier.

One week I pulled the truck in to begin setting up at 7:30 a.m. and there were two customers waiting who proceeded to take boxes off the truck and began rummaging through for produce. We were sold out before the market opened, much to the dismay of customers who arrived on time. That's bad market management.

The next week I arrived with a rope and a handful of coffee cards. I tied off the stand and told customers we would no longer sell before the advertised start time. I handed out coffee cards so people could get a complimentary coffee on the corner and wait. People complained fiercely, other vendors continued to sell early and the market society didn't care.

We still sell out and customers appreciate knowing when the market actually starts in order to plan their days. We've maintained strict start times since. Remember, the early bird only gets the worm. Everyone else gets some organic produce with their worm.

Every so often before the market starts a market manager comes by to talk to us. On this particular week in White Rock, Market Manager Helen came by to tell us that we should have a tent over our stall. I had forgotten the tent that morning. The health department gets upset when we don't have a tent because they're afraid birds will poop on our produce and cause mass pathogenic outbreaks. It's amazing what they can dream up in their offices.

It was a great day for working without a tent (no rain). Jeremy forgot the cash float the following week. In the past I've forgotten the tent, the scale and the float (not all on the same week). Any one of those instances could lead to a terrible day. But we managed to recover each time thanks to the generosity and ingenuity of other vendors and market volunteers.

Then we can finally get to work selling food. The weather has a major impact on how busy it will be (I understand that people don't eat on rainy days). Lonsdale Quay is the one exception to this rule. The north shore is always wetter than anywhere else in the Lower Mainland and its residents know that they have to brave the rain or spend much of their lives indoors.

If all goes according to plans, our stall is more-or-less empty within a few hours. By the way, we don't sell off produce at the end of the day for lower prices. We take it home and eat it.

When people try to get food for less than the marked price we respond in one of two ways. On a good day we simply explain that we won't undermine the price other customers have paid and that the posted price reflects the value of the food based on what it costs us to bring it to market. On a bad day we ask people to buzz off.

Our philosophy for farmers markets is to sell out rather than throw out. We could take a lot of produce to keep the stall fully stocked until the end of the day (and probably achieve some additional sales), but much more food would be wasted. Rather, we order up or down on a weekly basis depending on previous weeks' sales and the weather forecast.

Supermarkets have fully-stocked produce sections and it means that a high percentage of their produce gets thrown out. In fact, most supermarkets don't make money on produce. The real profit is made from packaged food that can sit on shelves for months and doesn't have to be thrown out. They sell produce cheap as a loss leader to get people into the store.

And before returning home to unload the market truck we stop off at the local Co-Op gas station to fill up for the next market trip. It's a good reminder that despite our attempts to sell local, we're still dependent on oil for the moment. There's still work to do.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Great book on human-scale farming

We are excited about the release of a new book about small-scale, local farming. Up We Grow! is written by Vancouver author Deborah Hodge for children ages 4-7. The book features photography by Brian Harris, showing small farms and farmers from around British Columbia.

The book is excellent for its portrayal of the human side of food production. Too often discussions of local food focuses on pictures of food. Up We Grow! shows the people who grow food in our communities. This is a feature of Brian Harris' photography; he captures the community and cultural elements of farming. Deborah's text engages children with questions about how they celebrate the seasons and inquiries about their favorite foods.

What we especially like about this book is that it features our farm. The text is based on visits the author did over a one-year period, documenting the activities of the farm. The farm in the book is a composite of many farms, using Brian's spectacular photography.

The book is available at bookstores around British Columbia and beyond. Kidbooks in Vancouver is hosting a book launch on Thursday, 26 August from 7-9 p.m. Check out their amazing window display here.

We have copies of the book for sale at our farmers market stands at Lonsdale Quay (Saturdays 10-3), White Rock (Sundays 9-1), Langley (Wednesdays 3-7) and New Westminster (Thursdays 3-7).

Our Harvest Boxes This Week

I haven't been posting the contents of our Harvest Boxes to the blog thus far. Today, however, I'm noting the contents, just because we're at the height of the season and the boxes look incredible.

1 bunch Rainbow Chard
1 bunch Dandelion
1 Romaine Lettuce
1 bunch Dill
1 lb Green Beans
1 bunch Beets
2 Mini-Cabbages
3 lbs Carrots
1 Long English Cucumber
2 Slicer Cucumbers
2 Garlic Bulbs
1.1 lbs Leeks
2 Sweet Onions (one red, one white)
2 Beefsteak Tomatoes
1 bunch Green Onions

We went heavy on the allium family this week; it's the last week for garlic, the leeks and sweet onions are beautiful and a planting of green onions matured this week. This is foreshadowing for the incredible crop of storage onions and shallots we are just beginning to cure for storage. The tomatoes are at their peak and we only wish we could grow more! Cucumbers, beans, carrots and beets remain in abundance.

I'll take a moment to note that since our farm is in the Lower Mainland our boxes are heavy on veggies and lower on fruit. We don't have the consistently high temperatures and cold winters necessary for the popular soft fruit crops that grow in the interior. This is part of understanding the bio-region in which we live and knowing what we can grow in this environment. Field crops (root crops, leafy greens, beans and berries) do well here, tree fruit not so much (although I'm looking forward to some amazing apples from the orchard of heirloom trees in the month ahead).

Our CSA has 33 members this year. We're trying to figure out how to increase the spots available for next year, including working with different social service agencies to get boxes to individuals who otherwise have difficulty accessing fresh produce. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mid-August farm round-up

Mid-August means the harvest is picking up and the days are still long and hot. Our sunflowers are in full bloom and the bees are busy, as you can see above.

We planted three beds of sunflowers on the edges of our fields this year. They attract beneficial insects and are an incredible sight.

Jeremy has hung garlic to cure in various locations around the farm. One of my favorite views of the farm is from the dairy barn where one batch of garlic is curing. You can see the red roof and vines of a farm residence in front of the pastures and fields below.

I was happy to spy some of the pumpkins and squash sizing up and even ripening in the fields. Squash are one of my favorite crops, both for their taste and aesthetic in the fall.

A Red Kuri squash is looking pretty nice amidst the vines.

Part of a bed of cilantro has gone to seed, right next to our pickling cucumbers. I was harvesting cucumbers today and heard a hum the entire time -- thousands of bumble bees, honey bees, wasps and various insects all pollinating the flowers. It's absolutely amazing to overhear flower sex!

The Crone's Cottage in our meadow is another good place for curing garlic. You can see that the cottage has quite a lean. It might not be around in its current state for much longer.

For the meantime it makes a great place to cure garlic and butcher goats (to come later in the fall).

That's my photo documentation for the day.

First canning of the season

Last night we did our first canning for the season (apart from some earlier jams). I picked up a case of peaches from The Fruit Guy at the White Rock Farmers Market yesterday (his booth was right next too ours). The peaches had to be used the day of the sale, so we got the canning equipment out and fired up (i.e. turned on) the stove.

We have a large assortment of jars, many of which are from my own grandparents. The jars above came from my Ukrainian-roots grandmother in Saskatchewan, so they've seen everything from dill pickles and sauerkraut to borscht, apples and root beer over the decades.

You'll notice the glass lids, which use a rubber ring for sealing. these haven't been manufactured since the 1950s. Jar companies say these aren't safe for canning because they don't have a moron-proof "snap" lid to indicate that they're sealed (and since you don't have to buy new lids every year to support their companies, they must be unsafe). Instead, you actually have to remove the zinc lids to check if the lid is sealed. And the lids seal so tight that you need a knife or screwdriver to open them up. It's obvious whether or not they're sealed.

We noted that yesterday had to have been the hottest day of the year thus far -- it seems like we only do canning on the hottest days. But no wonder; that's when the produce ripens!

Now we're gearing up for more fruit canning, tomato sauces, salsas and lots of apple sauce. If we're adventuresome enough, we might even try salmon this year. It means many long, hot nights in the kitchen and many great meals through the winter.

So I'm curious . . . do you can? And if so, what do you can? Share your comments below.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Magic Spaces on the Farm: The Herb Garden

The Herb Garden at Glen Valley Organic Farm

Often we think about magic as something unattainable. Yet there's magic in the world around us everyday. Indeed, our gardens contain some of the greatest magic of all, particularly when it comes to healing and maintaining health. A range of herbs and other plants contain various chemicals that can help us in many ways.

Last summer the farm welcomed Barb as our resident herbalist. Barb arrived from her previous farm, Twobie Creek, along with hundreds of her perennials and a small flock of ducks. Coming the Glen Valley Organic Farm allowed Barb to downsize to an appropriate amount of growing space without the overhead cost of a mortgage.

Now established as Glen Valley Herb and Apothecary, Barb began work on reclaiming a herb garden that had previously existed at the south end of the property, right along the entry to the forest -- high above the rest of the farm. The old herb garden had been more or less abandoned for three years prior to Barb's arrival.

After weeks of blackberry and weed removal, the former splendor of the herb garden began to reappear. Along with a newly constructed shed (and duck home), the herb garden is now in full bloom. Barb is doing regular harvests and drying the herbs to add to her apothecary, although the move between farms means many of her perennials are only getting established this season.

In addition to the herb garden itself, Barb has established her lavender bed in a previously-unused (and weedy) flowerbed at the farm's entrance. She also planted rosebushes (which she harvests flowers from to produce Rose Petal Moisturizer) around the yard in front of the Farm House. Barb also has a coldframe that she uses for starting transplants in the spring and overwintering fragile plants.

Barb in front of her apothecary cupboard

Barb's culinary and medicinal herbs, salves and moisturizers are available at some of our farmers market stands throughout the year.

As a herbalist, Barb knows the medicinal qualities of her herbs. But Barb is also a strong advocate for viewing our entire diet as part of our medicinal routine. Many of our regular culinary herbs also have medicinal properties -- as do many of our foods. Eating a diverse and varied diet and being conscious of potential impacts of certain foods is an important part of preventative medicine.

And that's the magic of our gardens. Much of what we need to stay healthy doesn't come from a bottle. Rather, when the garden is our medicine cabinet we can rest a bit more easily that the natural world around us is a therapeutic place.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Home Grown at the Museum of Vancouver

The Museum of Vancouver is hosting an exhibit entitled Home Grown: Local Sustainable Food, from August 26, 2010 through January2, 2011. It features the photography of Brain Harris, including images from our farm.

I'll be doing a tour of the exhibit on 2 September focusing on the topic of The Advantages of Knowing Your Farmer by Buying Locally.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Magic spaces on the farm: The Labyrinth

Jo Wilson in the farm Labyrinth

Glen Valley Organic Farm has many corners and pockets that are best summed up as "magical". I like to imagine that there could be magical beasts that frequent these spaces -- whether trolls, fairies or leprechauns. But mostly they're magical for reasons we can see as well. Some of these spaces are magical because of their natural beauty while others are magical because of what people have done to the spaces.

One of the magical spaces we walk by many times each day is the farm's labyrinth. A small section of land between the farmhouse and barns along Bradner Road, the labyrinth is a magnificent garden bursting with flowers and herbs throughout the summer months.

Started by Brenda Grealis, the Labyrinth has been a labor of love for a long-time member of the farm co-operative, Jo Wilson. Every weekend throughout the summer Jo makes her way to the farm from her home in Burnaby via public transit and her bicycle, arriving on Saturday and leaving early Monday or Tuesday morning.

Jo spends much of her weekends weeding, digging and pruning in the Labyrinth's flower beds as well as a few other flower beds around the main farmyard. This year is the first year that the entire Labyrinth is completed -- all of the beds are finished and maintained.

Walking through the Labyrinth is special in its own right, but Jo's presence makes the space magical. Having become a member of the farm co-operative in order to preserve the farmland and support farmers, Jo has supported Glen Valley Organic Farm since its early days. She regularly works at the farm's stall (as part of Langley Organic Growers) at the Main Street Market in Vancouver. She offers ideas and advice on problems we face at various points. And she helps with gardening at a time when we simply don't have time ourselves to keep the farmyard maintained beyond an occasional grass cutting.

Having a city supporter who takes her involvement with the farm to this level is a significant support to the farm. In particular, her weekend visits help to provide us perspective on the world during the busiest time of the farming year. And by maintaining beautiful gardens, we have both a refuge and an aesthetically appealing space right near our homes.

The Labyrinth has other magical properties. Last night Jo watched a baby hummingbird fly through the flox flowers. Each summer a small patch of blueberry bushes keeps farm residents and visitors well-fed. Small ornaments throughout the garden provide surprises to Labyrinth walkers.

It's a treat to have spaces on the farm that are magical. It's an added bonus that the magic is as much a result of farm personalities as the natural beauty. And maybe there's the odd leprechaun running through the garden too.