Into the New Year

We’re into the start of February and though this isn’t the time of year for exciting farm news, this is still an exciting season. Winter is great because it contains so much planning for the growing season ahead – all the ideas that sprung from workshops, courses and gatherings with other farmers, not to mention the previous season’s experiences, are now being shaped to fit our small farm system. We are in the midst of finding apprentices for the season ahead, ordering seed, planning new farm development projects and doing some research into new purchases. We continue to feast on stored food from last year: canned tomato sauce, frozen broccoli and kale and lots of root vegetables. We are still enjoying the apples from Nicole and Denis’s orchard and all the frozen lobster from last year’s lobster CSF. We killed off our old laying hens a few weeks ago when the weather turned mild, and have already shared a big chicken pot pie with friends. We had a big pile of snow fall in December and we skied our hearts out; then it pretty well all melted away in early Jan. so we got a few farm jobs done: the chicken killing, hoof trimming as hooves were too hard to cut in the cold weather and oil changes in truck and tractors. Now we’re getting a bit more snow and enjoying the trails again.

I’ve started teaching one of my two econutrition courses (evenings) and am planning towards my organic gardening course. We are also collecting names for this season’s CSA and are pleased to have a large number of last year’s members returning for this year: our highest level yet at 80%! We raised the price slightly to keep within a fair value and have heard no complaints – though one long time member said it was about time we’d done it! Will and I are planning an escape weekend to NS in Feb. to visit friends and will also try and visit Greenwood, the Canadian Forces base I grew up on many years ago. I know the housing block we lived in is gone (my sister checked it out years ago) but I’m still keen to try and see if I can recognize anything. I’ll definitely look for the Saddle Club as well as the schools I attended and there may be one friend from way back to track down. There’s a fair bit of planning involved in getting away for a weekend but the biggest hurdle – finding a farm sitter – has been passed and we should be fine to solve the other details.

Back in December I went on a road trip with a bunch of other farmers to the New England Fruit and Vegetable Conference in Manchester, New Hampshire. The three days of intensive workshops on organic and non-organic fruit and veg production were highly useful and quite inspiring, too. I am finally going to try and grow sweet potatoes (after resisting all this time!) and am even going to have a go at ginger. Some recommended varieties made my seed order list and some farming methods (adding nutrients mid-season, also resisted by me for years!) will be incorporated into the mix. We also had a small gathering of farmers in Dieppe in January, a very informal session geared to sharing information and looking at other ways we can work together. I think it was very useful and we’ll hopefully do it again. The small informal sessions with farmers of similar growing methods and scale can give a much higher return on investment than the big conferences. One of the things that came out of it is that Coin Bio/Organic Corner is bringing another farmer into our small co-op: a new farmer from Grande Digue who is concentrating on growing organic greens.

One of the most interesting revelations that came out of the New England conference was seeing how many chemicals are actually used in conventional farming. I studied conventional agriculture but it was pretty much all livestock (no horticulture) and I have never worked on anything but organic veggie farms. It is quite shocking the sum total of chemicals used on even the vegetables that are easy to grow organically (like tomatoes). There was one workshop on cucurbits where they outlined a spray program for pumpkins that contained 10 separate sprays of about 5 different compounds – and that’s just pumpkins! Then for big pests like the spotted wing drosophila – a fly that lays eggs in soft fruit like raspberries – the sprays were endless. The other disturbing factor was the often repeated message to farmers to make sure you are spraying the right thing on the right plant: it seems that often the farmers don’t properly identify the pest or disease before starting to spray and then end up having to spray again with the proper compound. Another disturbing problem is the surfactant that farmers mix in with the chemical sprays: some of them hold the chemical onto the surface of the plant and others cause it to be absorbed into the plant’s system so the whole plant becomes poisonous. Imagine if they use the wrong one with a chemical not meant to poison the whole plant and then this toxic harvest is eaten by people. It’s like I knew there were issues around chemical residues in conventionally grown food but now I’m beginning to see why! The system is too dangerous and human error is too pervasive.

An article came out recently about pesticide residues being found in organic foods. The article’s title was alarmist and made to sound as if the organic label is not accurate and people are being cheated when they pay more for organics. Unfortunately this is often how the media (though meant to be unbiased) attacks issues. The meat of the article, however, did actually support organics because there was more detail on the level of contamination (much lower than conventional) and how often it was discovered (less than 50% of produce sampled). Only the most naive person would expect produce grown organically to somehow not be contaminated by the many pollutants that exist in our world. Scientists are now detecting glyphosate in rain water. Glyphosate is the main ingredient in Round Up, a popular herbicide that is being used in huge quantities now that Round Up resistant GMO crops are being grown in larger numbers in North America. In such a dirty world how can anything be uncontaminated? This does underline the need of organic farmers (and others) to help educate the public on the need to grow food using sustainable methods. Organic is so much more than just reducing toxic residues in food as it also encompasses soil building and encouraging diversity to increase our ability to continue to feed ourselves in the long term.

As I wax poetic (!) on these organic issues, Will is enjoying Michael Phillips’ book “The Holistic Orchard” as well as connecting with the Permaculture Orchard, a commercial orchard in Quebec built in a multi-story permaculture model. I’m glad Will is feeling like an orchardist because I don’t think I have the same deep rooted feelings for fruit trees as I do for tomatoes and goats (though I do love the fruit!). Will works best in “tree time” while I work in “vegetable time” and I can see our roles and personal focuses moving in these different directions. It also fits well with the bees whose home is in the orchard (and who seem to be doing really well this winter). We are still dreaming of extending our orchard into our neighbour’s yard though she hasn’t been talking much lately about selling. It will remain a dream for a while longer!

Speaking of dreams, we are looking at creating a solar photovoltaic system on the farm again. We considered it two years ago and discarded it as being too expensive. Well, prices are dropping and the cost of do-it-yourself is starting to creep into the realm of our budget. We would create a net-metering system where we remain on grid and pay the net difference between the power we produce and what we use. Will wants to do a few more things on the farm to reduce our overall power use before deciding on the size of system so we’ll do our research and these projects this year and look at installation next year. We may also be able to install a system with some of the solar panels this year and then add to it in the future, though we need more information on this. The other important detail is that we can use the energy production against both our electrical meters. We only had a 100A system when we moved here and installed another system with meter to supply the cooler in the steel building in 2011. If we could only work off one meter, the investment in solar would take much too long to pay off. Fortunately NB Power makes an exception for farmers in this situation and we fit the bill.

Time to wrap this up and bottle my apple wine. I got 23 litres of apple juice (Cortland, Mac and Lobo mix) to make into apple wine and at last sampling it was quite nice, though very dry. We’ll see how it ages in bottles. This is another thing that makes winter so nice: opportunities to play with fermentation!

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