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.

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