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.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Watermelons and the Price of Local Food

My two farm hands pose with their melon harvest . . . their new favorite crop.

Melon season arrived on the farm today and melons make me think of money. Prices, more specifically. And I've been thinking about prices and money a lot this week, after a CBC radio host commented on the cost of local, organic food . . . but more on that in a moment. I'm also thinking about watermelons.

The truth is, the melons surprised me. I've been ignoring the melon patch. Nothing else is planted around it, so it's been easy to walk by and not look too closely.

Today, however, we ran out of fruit in the house. And both children were screaming. And Paige (now 8 months pregnant) needed some quiet. It was time for a walk. A trip yielding fruit would be even better.

We ended up in the melon patch. Watermelons were the only conceivable fruit I could think of that might be ready on the farm (apart from apples, of course). In the back of my mind I recalled Jeremy commenting on the fact that melons might be ready for the market this weekend. I didn't think much of it at the time; last year we had melons in mid-August. Beginning of October melons? They couldn't be any good.

Watermelons are a difficult crop, but well worth the effort when they grow well. They need heat, lots of water, weeding and more heat. We started growing melons two years ago as an experiment. When we sent a bunch to market for the first time we had to figure out a price -- we had no precedent.

Once our costs were considered, we figured that we would have to charge the same price we have for our squash -- $1.25/lb. This came as quite a shock to customers who normally pay $0.29/lb for conventional melons in the stores through the summer. After various comments about the price that first week, we discussed whether we needed to lower the price.

So, consider this: each melon requires about 190 liters of irrigation water. It makes sense when you think of the primary ingredient of a watermelon: water. In fact, a number of customers noted that our price seemed rather high when most of the fruit is water (of course, they still line up to pay $3.00/lb for tomatoes that are 94% water and $2.50/bunch for spinach that is 92% water).

Nonetheless, a large portion of the population doesn't blink an eye at paying $2.00 for half a liter of bottled water -- that's four times what they pay for a liter of gasoline for their car. So what value do you place on 190 liters of water, especially when fortified with fiber and a great range of nutrients?

Then I heard about watermelons in Japan. It turns out they are a delicacy. Many people in Japan have never tasted watermelons. They regularly sell for $200. Moreover, the first Hokkaido watermelons of the season are auctioned at an astounding price ($6,000 two years ago). Unbelievable? Read about it at

All things considered, we figured that $1.25/lb was a heck of a deal for melons. In fact, Lulu Lemon should be designing yoga bags with melon carriers, not water bottle carriers -- think of the Vancouver fashion statement that would make. The next Saturday morning I explained this to our customers waiting in line at the market. We sold out of melons in an hour.

The cost of local, organic food: Here's the dirt

Having said all of this, it still doesn't answer the question of why local, organic food costs what it does . . . $1.25/lb or otherwise. So here is a summary of some of the factors:
  1. Wages: In BC, many farm workers are paid the agricultural minimum wage of $8/hour. Pretty lousy. At the same time, BC growers are competing against imports from places where people are paid between $4 and $8/day. Keep in mind that in the US, most farm workers are illegal migrants working under the table for far less than minimum wage. Even in BC, in 2008 a judge noted the exploitation in BC's fruit and vegetable industry. For any operation, labour is generally the greatest expense. Try competing against someone who doesn't pay their employees. Add to that, on our farm we reject the minimum wage. Our apprentices earn $10/hour plus accommodations and food; our long-time, permanent workers are paid $13/hour plus a profit-share bonus at the end of the season. Still not great, but this factors into the prices we set.
  2. Labour: In addition to the cost of wages, organic growing requires a significant amount of labour compared to conventional growing. All of our planting, weeding and harvesting is done by hand. Weeding alone is a full-time job for many of us throughout the summer. This is an even greater factor for our farm because we use very little plastic mulch for weed control.
  3. Land: Anyone trying to pay a mortgage in BC knows about the cost of land. Trying to earn a living from farming while paying a mortgage is borderline insane. This is one area where our farm has an advantage; the land is co-operatively owned and leased to us at affordable rates.
  4. Scale: Most of the farms you find at the farmers markets are there because it's one of the few places they can get the price they need to cover their costs. They are small-scale farms. Because of their small scale, they are able to employ more sustainable practices (e.g. hand weeding instead of disposable plastic mulch). By comparison, many large farms depend on volume to make money. If they sell at low prices to wholesalers, earning one or two dollars for each case, they'll make their money by selling a lot. Small producers can't do this, but they can compete on the basis of quality: many people will pay to have fresh and excellent-tasting produce.
  5. Industry pressure . . . or lack thereof: There is huge pressure on farms to sell to distributors for prices that are sometimes less than the cost of production. In the summer when Americans are on holidays and crops are plentiful, Californian farms dump product at low prices. Local farms are then forced to sell cheap or let the food rot. Keep in mind that supermarkets generally lose money on fresh produce -- it's a loss leader -- instead earning their profit from the less-healthy packaged food. The appearance of abundance in the produce aisle has many costs -- wasted food, labour exploitation and dangerous agricultural practices that feed a system with cheap food. One alternative is the farmers market, where a farm can set a price that reflects the cost of production and justify the price to the end consumer.
  6. Opportunity and Capacity: I would be naive to state that some farms don't take advantage of the ability to set their own prices at the farmers markets. I have been shocked to see the prices on some produce. In some instances there has been little challenge because there haven't been other farmers. Having said that, this season has been a good example of what farmers markets are cultivating: competition. There are few places where the primary producers line up, lay out their products and set their own prices, all in direct line of the end consumer's questions and queries. It's somewhat of an ideal form of capitalism. This year, there were many new farms at the markets. Some are existing farms who have figured out that the markets provide a better return on their products. Many, however, are new farmers -- the result of capacity building within the sector over the past few years to get more young farmers into the fields. The end result: Vancouver markets featured local, organic, non-greenhouse (i.e. tasty) tomatoes (normally a high-value crop) for well under $2/lb, and even lower when buying in bulk.
With all of this in mind, it is fair to note that there are many people who can't afford to buy fresh produce at all. There are more people who can't afford to buy organic produce. And there are many more people who choose not to buy organic produce as a personal choice. None of this makes anyone better than anyone else. Rather, it's a distraction from larger issues.

As a farmer, I want everyone to be able to access the food I grow. At the same time, I refuse to allow myself or my employees to live in poverty so that someone else can have cheap food. We live in a society with such abundance that there is little reason for people to go hungry. The inequality that results in hunger is a societal problem -- it's not the farmer's fault. Rather, it's all of our fault and all of our responsibility. There's more to say on this point, along with some stories of how this is being addressed . . . but it'll have to wait for a future post.

Anyway, we think a lot about the price of food on our farm and what makes for fair compensation to the people who grow the food, the cost of environmental stewardship and value for those purchasing the food. There aren't easy answers, but these are important discussions to have.

As for the watermelons, we had a great harvest this evening. The screaming stopped and my daughters feasted on a late-September treat after dinner. Actually, it was their dinner. Knowing what came next, the refused to eat anything else.

We'll have melons at our markets this week. They might cost a bit more and it might seem late in the season, but at a time when peaches are finished and cherries are but a distant memory these melons will blow you away.

Squash of the Week

OK, I missed a week, but no one seems to be interested in making their guesses publicly. Oh well, here's the next squash to guess.

This Week's Harvest Box Contents

The CSA Harvest Box contents are changing with the season. Here's what our subscribers will find in their boxes this week:
  • 1 Long English Cucumber
  • 2 lbs Cooking Onions
  • 1 lb Shallots
  • 5-7 lbs Red Kuri Squash
  • 1 massive Sweet Onion
  • 1 Sweet Red Pepper
  • 1 bunch Radishes
  • 3 lbs Apples
  • 1 bunch Collards
  • 1 bunch Kale
  • 1 head Lettuce
  • 1 bunch Beets
Here's some info that might help you navigate the box this week:

Apple varieties are Blenheim Orange and Belle de Boskoop. Both of these apples are primarily cooking apples, although we like them for fresh eating and cider as well. If you can hold on to them, both varieties will taste better in a week.

The Red Kuri Squash is a very dry-fleshed squash with a rich flavour. It is popular for soups, its seed cavity can be stuffed and it also fares well in baking (it makes great pies). Local restaurant Seasonal 56 posted a recipe for Red Kuri soup on their Facebook page.

The onions and shallots are together in the same bag this week (sorry for any confusion this caused people last week . . . hopefully everyone figured out the difference). We have also included a massive Bedfordshire Champion Sweet Onion this week. You can use this raw in sandwiches, burgers and salads.

The collard greens are great chopped and sauteed with butter, seasoned with sesame seed oil and soya sauce or balsamic vinegar. You can also blanch them in boiling water and use them as wraps for your favorite sandwich fillings. Many people use them raw, too. Try grated carrots, beets, lettuce and sweet onion with rice or quinoa and cheese. also has some ideas for using collards.

Happy cooking and happy nourishing.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Summer's Last Sunset

Last night I was heading into Abbotsford and stopped at the top of the hill to catch summer's last sunset over Glen Valley. It was quite spectacular.

Heading away from the valley, I was reminded that the full moon this month falls on the Autumnal Equinox. Here's the almost-full moon of last night.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Autumn and the Foggy Valley Days

Tomorrow marks the Autumnal Equinox. At this time of year we often see the fog rolling into the valley, obscuring our views for part of the morning. As the days get shorter and cooler, the fog lasts longer and longer . . . until one day it doesn't lift at all.

The photo above is taken from above our farm, just a quick walk up the hill, out of the valley. As you can see, just the tree tops are visible in the valley below.

From this vantage point on a clear day one can see clear across the Lower Mainland and even see skyscrapers in cities closer to Vancouver. In addition, it's a fantastic view of the farms in Glen Valley and the Fraser River meandering through. Below is an image on a relatively clear day.

Autumn is one of my favorite times of year. We celebrated the Equinox on the weekend with a party for some friends and family. The weather didn't cooperate, so we moved everything into the barn and had a great time.

Equinox is a time of balance. The days and nights are of equal length and we transition from the long days of outdoor labour in the fields to more family time indoors and recovery from the season we've had. We, as farmers, move toward a time of leisure and learning. We are able to pick up books we've been meaning to read. We are able to take days off. But we do this amidst the outdoor tasks that need to be finished before winter arrives. Slaughter day approaches for the goats, we continue to get root crops into storage and finish preserving fruits and vegetables. In many ways, it truly is a time of balance.

Since starting farming, celebrating the change of seasons has gained more relevance for me. My body is exhausted and craving for sleep as well as the warm, savory meals of winter, comprised of root vegetables held in storage. I want to be able to spend more time with my children, going to the library and swimming with them and visiting friends. Marking the change of seasons is a way of celebrating what we have accomplished while reminding us of the need to change pace -- and understanding that changing pace is allowed.

I get a chuckle, however, when I hear people state that celebrating the Equinox and Solstice is flaky. In actual fact, it's marking a distinct change of seasons as the earth orbits around the sun. It's a change upon which all life on earth hinges. And it's much more concrete that any religion we're asked to believe in and celebrate (many religious holidays being, of course, appropriations and abstractions of old pagan rituals based on the change of seasons).

So take a moment to celebrate the arrival of autumn by taking stock of where you need better balance in your life. Take a walk and contemplate the changes taking place and compare what you are seeing to your memories of summer. And if you've been preserving food, take a picture of your canning cupboard or freezer -- for posterity's sake if nothing else. And while you're at it, make sure you've written down how much you actually preserved (for next year's planning).

We talk a lot about balance in our lives. I think it's fine to be out of balance from time to time. That's particularly true in farming when the summer is such a busy time. But it's important to re-balance and make sure we don't try to extend summer into the months when we need to rest.

Spring, after all, is only six months away.

Curried Couscous with Crispy Kale

From Moira, one of our Community Supported Agriculture subscribers . . .

Serves 6 to 8

This is an easy, versatile couscous dish that works well as a warm side dish or served cold in lettuce cups as a salad. The curry flavor is distinctive but not overwhelming; adjust the amount of curry powder to suit your taste. The tamari-crisped kale is very flavorful and adds interest and nutritional benefits to the dish.

To stretch this recipe into a meal, try adding shredded cooked chicken or pork, garbanzo beans, or diced shrimp.

2 large bunches dinosaur (Tuscan) kale, stemmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper (1/4-inch dice)
2 shallots, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 tablespoons good-quality curry powder
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup Organic Raisins
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup couscous
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts or pistachios

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the kale and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain and let cool.

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. When the kale is cool enough to handle, squeeze the water from it. Place the kale in a small bowl and toss with the tamari sauce. Spread the kale pieces in a thin layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the kale is dry and slightly crispy, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool at room temperature.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat; when the oil is hot, add the bell pepper and shallots. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables start to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, curry powder, and brown sugar, and cook, stirring frequently, for another 3 minutes.

Add the broth, raisins, and salt, and bring the liquid to a boil. Stir in the couscous, cover the pan, and turn off the heat. Let the couscous sit for 15 minutes without removing the cover, and then fluff the grains with a fork. Stir in the reserved kale.

Transfer to a platter or shallow bowl and garnish with the toasted pine nuts.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fall Fair Time

I just returned from the Mount Lehman Fall Fair with my daughter Roxie. This evening is the entry period for the fall fair contests. I entered a variety of our fruit and vegetables that are currently in season.

The experience was a blast. I'm not sure how many people actually enter items at the fall fair, but the organizers were quite excited to see a lot of produce coming in. In fact, they had to add another table. All of a sudden, I was part of a bunch of conversations about what kind of soil is best for growing, where to buy seeds and when to plant.

People asked if I was a hobby gardener. I almost felt ashamed to say that I'm a farmer, as though they might think I have an unfair advantage. The advantage really comes from the fact that eight of us grew these items, but my name had to go on the entry forms.

My inspiration for entering the fall fair came from Amy Jo Ehman's book Prairie Feast: A Writer's Journey Home for Dinner. Written about a year of local eating in Saskatchewan, Amy Jo visited a number of community fairs and festivals, even entering her bread in a wheat festival and her friend's mustard in an Oktoberfest.

The reality of our situation hit me as I read. Since moving to the farm four years ago, we haven't had a whole lot of exposure to the local community. We're rather out-of-the-way at the end of the valley and our errands are scattered between Abbotsford, Fort Langley and Vancouver. And we haven't made a lot of effort to meet people in the area.

All of this is slowly changing. We've met many farming neighbours through the farmers markets and we're slowly finding out about community events. As our children grow, we'll undoubtedly find out about more community goings-on.

But the Fall Fair seemed like the best way to do something right now -- at a time when we otherwise say that the season is too busy for other things. When you grow vegetables for a living, can we really be too busy for the local Fall Fair?

Last summer I was the guest speaker at the Pender Island Fall Fair. It was a blast and, perhaps, the first time I had really paid attention to a fall fair. They had exhibits, a big meal, a parade and, of course, all sorts of competitions for produce, baking, preserves, flowers, eggs, animals and art. It was an amazing day.

These events are so much of what community life should be about. On a small scale like this, everyone knows who the organizers are and, ultimately, everyone needs to participate in order for it to work out. And too many rural fall fairs aren't getting the participation they deserve.

Maybe more fall fairs will pop up in the cities now, too. With urban gardeners increasing in numbers, they need a place to exhibit their achievements and have a chance at winning a blue ribbon.

I hope we do see more fall fairs in the city and rural areas alike. And through them we could see more community celebrations. Hopefully, in the future, the produce competitions will be the main event and no one will be embarrassed to admit whether they're a gardener or farmer. In the end, we're all in this together.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

All About Our Eggs

One of the questions we get every week at the markets concerns whether our eggs are from Free Range chickens. We actually spend more time talking about our eggs and hens than any other topic with customers. So, here's some info.

To be certified organic, eggs must come from free range hens. This means outdoor access, no cages. In our case, our small flock has access to half an acre of green space to roam, plus a spacious coop where they roost, feed and lay their eggs. They also have a covered space outdoors and a dust bath (which helps with controlling parasites).

Our hens get a diet of certified organic grains, plus access to oyster shell to help their shell strength. They also get a large dose of greens from our vegetable production, including beet tops and extra lettuce, chard and kale that comes back from market. They also eat greens growing in their chicken run (various grasses and weeds) plus a healthy dose of insects and worms that they scrounge from the earth.

It is the access to greens and bugs that give our hens' eggs a rich, dark yolk -- due to the
presence of organic pigments called cartenoids, found in the chloroplasts and chromoplasts of plants. But in case you're worried that the richer yolk is bad for you, here's some info from a 2007 study commissioned by Mother Earth News -- Truly free-range eggs had:
  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene
Now, although the colour of the yolk indicates healthier eggs, the shell colour is irrelevant. Shell colour is determined by the breed of hens (i.e. it is a genetic trait). For example, brown colouring comes from the pigment protoporphyrin. This comes from haemoglobin in the blood; the pigment is added to the egg during its formation. There are heritage varieties of hens that lay different coloured eggs (blue, green, etc) but these are generally not available commercially because the hens often have lower productivity than breeds used in commercial production today.

Our chickens play an important roll in our overall farm operation. The manure we get from the birds is composted and then used to nourish the soil for our fruit and vegetable crops.

Finally, there's the issue of price. Simply put, it costs more to purchase organic feed and to maintain the space required for free range hens. Our farmers market cost of $5.50/dozen doesn't actually leave us with a very large profit margin at the end of the day. But we think the price (lower than most store-bought organic eggs, higher than conventional battery cage eggs) is worth it.

Home Sweet Home

One of our Co-operative shareholders, Tricia Carpenter, started keeping bees on the farm this year. Although she didn't get the bees until late in the season, they seem to have taken to their new home. We won't get any honey from the hives this year, but the bees have been busy pollinating our crops.

Name That Squash

Can you name this squash? Leave your answer in the comments section below.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Breeding Time

Fall is approaching and that means figuring out certain logistics . . . like how we will get our goats bred. We don't have a buck on the farm, so that means we'll have to take our dairy goats out on the town (or to another farm that is) to be bred.

I'm trying to figure out how the online dating ad would look for this: "Single female goat seeking non-committal male goat for 20 minutes. Must be from good milking stock."

The photo, by the way, was taken by Brian Harris last September. It shows two of Alyson's goats during mating season. For farmers without televisions, this is an exciting time of year.

The Canning Continues

Our preserves pantry is filling up. We have tomato sauce, tomatoes, salsa, salmon, pears, peaches, plums, pickles and various jams ready for winter. Our freezer is also filling up with stocks for winter soups, salmon, corn and berries. The cheese fridge has four large rounds of Gouda aging.

Our apple orchard has a lot of October apples, so saucing is still coming up, along with making cider. We'll be happy when the preserving season is over. At the same time, since we started making cheese, canning fruit and veggies seems like a quick task!

A Peek Inside This Week's CSA Boxes

Here's what our Community Supported Agriculture subscribers are getting in their Harvest Boxes this week:

1 bunch Kale
1 head Red Oak Lettuce
1 bunch Golden Beets
3 lbs Carrots
1 Long English Cucumber
1 bunch Green Onions
3 lbs Cooking Onions
1 lb Shallots
1 medium Tomato
1 pint Blueberries

We were happy to be able to include cooking onions and shallots now that the sweet onions are finished. These onions are stronger than the sweet onions and can be stored in a cool, dark place (e.g. under the sink or in a pantry) if you're not going to be using them right away.

The shallots can also be stored. Shallots tend to be a bit milder than onions. They develop a very nice sweetness after a long, low-heat cooking and are can be used in savory tarts (particularly good with goat cheese). Check out these shallot recipes from
While you're at, and if you're feeling overloaded with beets and/or carrots, you might check out some new ways of preparing them: carrots, and beets. Or, type in your ingredient of choice and see the selection of recipes.

This will be the only week for blueberries and likely the last week for tomatoes. We're not sure if zucchini or beans will make a reappearance now that the weather is cooling down.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cycling the Coast: Farm Visitors

At the start of their journey: Our visitors as they head out for their next farm and cycling adventure.

This past week we had visitors on the farm. Ned and Charlotte are cycling the coast, starting in Vancouver and heading down through Washington, Oregon, California and into Mexico and beyond. They are trying to learn about farming, particularly focusing on the Community Shared Agriculture system, in the hopes of figuring out something to do in the realm of farming back in Britain when they return next year.

They arrived just at the right point in the season -- the diversion of guests was a welcome break from the tiring routine of the end of August and early September. They helped us get a thousand pounds (or so) of onions out of the fields and into curing. And they lent a hand at a couple of markets.

We were able to send them on their way with a few extra contacts for the journey south and hopefully a good impression of what can be done with a small-scale farm.

You can check out their project and perhaps answer some of the questions they post by reading their blog, Cropcycle. And if you know of some farms they should check out on their journey you can let them know via their blog as well.

Ned and Charlotte heading off to their next stop on the start of a great cycling adventure.