This (Local Organic) Spud’s for You!

It’s that time of the year again…potato harvest!

Windy Field Farms


DSCN9563(This is a blog I wrote for Stacey Fokas’ Freshalicious website)

Potatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables in our culture.  We boil them, bake them, mash them, hash them, stuff them, fry them and steam them.  Although they have been an agricultural staple since the 1800′s in North America, they have been grown in Peru and Bolivia since 8000 to 5000 BC.

Fast forward to present day, and think about how many varieties of potatoes you see in your local grocery store.  The common ones seem to be Yukon Gold, Russets,  Chieftain Red, and Netta Gems.  According to the SpudSmart website, “Statistics Canada’s production estimates for 2013 peg the total planted potato acreage in Canada at 361,600 acres.” And although there are close to 5000 potato varieties in the world (3000 of which are grown in the Andes alone!), here in North America, we grow 60…

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A Festival of Dangerous Ideas – Toronto

Ralph and I attended an amazing event yesterday, which explored our relationship with our food system, including topics such as “Seed is Sacred”, “Soil as an Intelligence”, and “Beyond Pesticides”.  (For a full list of the participants, click here.)  The culmination of the evening was a keynote address by Dr. Vandana Shiva, a world-renowed author, scientist, and seed freedom activist.  At the end of the evening, we both felt humbled to be in the presence of such committed food warriors.  We became inspired to do even more ourselves, to ensure that we continue respecting all life, and to return to the soil, our Mother Earth, more than we take from it.  (Nov.24:  There is a link to a YouTube video of Dr.Shiva’s presentation at the bottom of this post.)


The information that we heard is too much for one post, so today I will try to encapsulate Vandana Shiva’s address first.  In keeping with the theme of the festival, Dr. Shiva shared with us some “dangerous ideas” , that is, ideas that have the potential to make change.

1.  We are at war with the Earth

Current conventional farming practices, especially biotech farming with genetically modified seeds and heavy use of pesticides, are treating insects and plants as “the enemy”.  Weeds and insects are not enemies, they are part of a rich biodiversity.  Some of the most dangerous chemicals used in farming were developed and used in warfare (DDT, Agent Orange).  Biodiversity is not encouraged.  These practices must end, we must stop being at war with the ecosystems.

2.  Life is a web of life

A dangerous thought, indeed, that there is an interconnectedness with all things.  One cannot do a harmful act without repercussions.

3.  Earth is a living Earth

The farming “industry” today believes that earth is dead matter to be exploited.  Fracking for small amounts of natural gas, squeezing oil from the tar sands, poisoning the soil and extracting as much as possible from it are all assaults on the earth.  James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis” explains this further.

4.  All life is sacred

“All species of plants and seeds are sacred and are not Monsanto’s inventions”.  Vandana is continuously fighting for seed freedom through her organization, Navdanya.

5. Let us respect all life

By respecting ALL life, all plants, all seeds, all bacteria, all people, we acknowledge that there are no such things as “lesser” creatures.  This kind of “dangerous” thinking would help eliminate racism, sexism, would acknowledge that all indigenous people are as “equal” and respected as those who come later.

6.  The law of returns is sustainable and just

By obeying the laws of biodiversity, by giving more, we will get more food, more returns.  GDP’s and GNP’s were created to take out wealth.  We are only considered to be “productive”, if we are physically producing more than we take out, thereby encouraging a system of greedy extraction, without replenishing.  These are not healthy systems, and are certainly not sustainable.

7.  We need independent science

When there is almost no publicly funded science, or science research being conducted without funding from corporations who are looking for results favourable to their causes, we cannot call it sound science.  Current science is completely ignoring the complexities of biodiversity, through a process Dr. Shiva calls “in-sensification”.  This is not science.


Ralph saves seed from his own beautiful open-pollinated corn each year.

8.  Seed freedom must exist

To put a patent on seed, is to put a patent on life.  When generations of farmers have been told that their practice of saving seeds is no longer allowed, and that they must purchase patented seeds, our seed freedom is being challenged (and violated). Bt cotton’s introduction to India, especially in the Punjab area, has taken its toll on the farm families, with hundreds of thousands of farmer suicides.  The farmers have only GM cotton seeds available to them, which much be purchased every year at an incredibly high price.  Previously, they had saved seeds, but are no longer able to continue this practice.

Seed libraries in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Los Angeles have been challenged and told that they are not allowed to store and exchange seeds.  This is a real threat, and as someone who saves vegetable seeds every year, I will not take this threat lightly.  One of my new initiatives will be to start a seed library in our own community library, with guidance from the Toronto Seed Library.

9. Corporations are NOT persons

The biotech seed companies are fighting seed saving programs with the argument that these programs are causing suffering to these corporations.  They cannot claim individual suffering because a multinational corporation is NOT a person!

10.  The ability to influence decisions is NOT free speech

By forcing farmers and nations to accept the technology of the biotech companies, they are removing any democratic right of these farmers to choose how and what they want to farm.  This is a particularly dangerous idea, as more and more people realize how much corrupt lobbying and boardroom negotiations are bullying and shaping the current agricultural landscape.  Freedom of speech is being denied.

And lastly, my favourite dangerous idea was

11.  We must celebrate our lives and freedoms

We need to wake up, to acknowledge our current freedoms, appreciate what we have.  Vandana suggested that on Earth Day, instead of just turning off the lights for an hour, we do even more.  Plant some seeds, share them with your friends, and continue this celebration for weeks, for months.  We need to focus on the positive, on the power we have to create and support a rich, biodiverse Earth that can, in turn, support us.  We need to do this with joy.

These have been but brief encapsulations of Dr. Shiva’s presentation. Click here for a YouTube video of it (part 2 here), courtesy of the organizers of the event.

Please look through the links I have provided and learn more about the topics that speak to you.


Vandana Shiva, Nathan Carey, Rachel Parent

Nathan Carey, a farmer who spoke after Dr. Shiva, suggested that we all  “enact our values”, which for most are peace and happiness.  Money and power are merely tools (for some) to achieve that peace and happiness.  “We need to be humans in an inter-relationship with the Earth”.   My approach to living, to farming, and recently my Reiki path have made me mindful of my relationship with our beautiful Earth, but Nathan has encouraged all of us to find a “fit” for our particular gifts, that we can “flex the muscles” that carry us forward into a life of “interbeing”, as he puts it.  It is not enough to be inspired and sit in quiet contemplation of all these ideas.  The time has come to take action, to become an activist.   I’m going to start with a seed library for our community.  What will you do?

In my next post, I will share insights from the festival’s other speakers.  I hope I’ve giving you some food for thought and welcome your comments and questions.

Is Preserving Food a Lost Art?

I am so grateful that we are able to have large gardens on our property, filled with organic produce.  The reality of it is, now that I do not attend a farmers’ market anymore, what I grow is too much for us to eat fresh out of the garden.  So I preserve!

31171dbb9f1a66e95bfc85c79a0eed1ePreserving, canning, and otherwise storing food for the winter months was practised by most North American families up until a short time ago.  I grew up in a family of six with huge gardens, and spent many hours by my mother’s side, helping her make pickles, stirring the jam on the stove, freezing vegetables, and shredding cabbage for sauerkraut.  At the time, I resented being forced to do this.  I would much rather be playing outside, or reading, but now, I am indebted to my mother for teaching me all these valuable lessons.

So why aren’t households preserving food as much (if at all) any more?  Statistically, family demographics have certainly changed a lot, from forty years ago.  Many women are now working full time, and children (aka mothers’ little helpers) have more commitments to extracurricular activities.  As well, food (and in some cases, “food-like” products) is much easier to access, from the grocery stores.  Fruits and vegetables are available year round, imported from other countries when our own are out of season.  Who needs to preserve food, when you can buy it “fresh” at the store?  I’ve blogged about this topic already, but I will just repeat that our family eats in season, sourcing locally grown food (if not our own) and chooses organic, when possible.  The most economical way is to preserve our own.

My last blog was about a highly successful apple foraging adventure, which yielded me delicious apple sauce and apple cider.  A bit of work, but in an afternoon, I made enough apple sauce for our family to last the winter months.

Putting food “down” or preserving does take a bit of work, I won’t deny it.  But not as much as you may think.  Yesterday at the Elora Farmers’ Market,  I bought 3 bunches of beautiful kale, at a mere $2.50 a bunch.  Kale is an awesome nutritional superfood, and I use it quite often, both raw in salads, and cooked in stir fries, quinoa patties and in soups.  Here is what I did with it, as suggested by my friend, Joanna from Arthur Greenhouses.

It takes 15 minutes, tops, and you can enjoy locally grown, organic kale all winter long, instead of buying the produce shipped thousands of miles from California!


Ready to get roasted...

Ready to get roasted…

Another quick preserving tip is for all the beautiful tomatoes available now.  This year, unfortunately, many growers have experienced tomato blight, and have had significant crop losses, but you can still purchase delicious Roma paste tomatoes at many grocery stores, and certainly at your local farmer’s market.  Making delicious sauce is as simple as slicing up the tomatoes and roasting them along with some onion, garlic and olive oil, then pureeing them, skins and all (that’s the real time saver), and either freezing, or preserving in jars, via a hot water bath.  A link to last year’s blog can be found here.  Why buy tomato paste that comes in BPA lined cans, made of sub-grade tomatoes in many cases, when you can make your own delicious sauce and paste, so very easily?


My goal with this post is to inspire you to take advantage of the local bounty that is available at this time of year.  I guarantee that the time and effort it takes will be worth it, and you will wonder why you waited so long to put away some of your own food, like your grandmother probably did.  Just start with one or two things, and enjoy!  Good luck and I’d love to hear your stories.  Until next time, happy preserving!



A is for Apple….and Applesauce!

Goodness, it’s been a LONG time since my last post!  I really should just assemble a month’s worth of my Windy Field Farms Facebook page posts and publish them here, once in a while, when I’m too busy (or tired) to write a full blog.  I’ve had lots to write about, but didn’t seem to actually get around to doing so.   Anyhow, here we are!

While out on an evening bike ride last week, I saw how many apples were on the trees in fence rows and in roadside trees.  Some of these trees were just loaded!  Judging by how many were laying on the ground and starting to get eaten by insects and rodents, I realized that no one was going to be picking them….so I did.  I grabbed 3 or 4 sturdy cardboard boxes from home, and went out to see what I could find.  Within an hour, and within a 3 minute drive of our farm, I picked seventy pounds of apples.  Yes, that’s right, 70!  And what made me especially grateful was that although the first two trees I picked had many small and tart apples, the last one was a Cortland – or an heritage variety very similar to it.  cortland

As I started to wash and chop these apples at home, I became aware of the second amazing thing.  There were very few apples that had insect damage (beyond a slight foray down the stem, into the seed cavity).  The fruit was beautifully unspoiled.  Again, these are “wild” trees that are not sprayed nor pruned regularly, and yet they produced such a bounty.

After washing, the smaller, tart apples were processed in my juicer and will be turned into some hard cider for the winter.   We made hard apple cider two years ago, quite successfully, so we’re looking forward to enjoying it again.

Because the Corlands were so beautiful and a good size, I decided to make apple sauce out of them.  For those of you who have never made your own apple sauce……what are you waiting for?  It is SO simple, once you make your own, you will never buy apple sauce at aDSCN0740 store again!  I was curious about what can show up in store-bought sauce, so I did a bit of research.  Surprise, surprise….more than just apples.  The sauce I make has apples, a bit of organic lemon juice, organic cane sugar and organic cinnamon.  Some brand name varieties include the ubiquitous “natural flavours”, high fructose corn syrup,  which can double the number of calories (and you can bet that’s GMO corn syrup), artificial colours and artificial flavours.  Yuck!

The first step to making your own delicious apple sauce, is to wash all the fruit.  Discard any wormy or bruised apples.

Next, chop the fruit into quarters, and remove the stem and seeds with a parng knife.  Do not peel the apples.  Leaving the skin on gives a nice rosy colour to the sauce.  Also, you don’t have to get every last seed, as these will be removed in a later step.DSCN0749

Put the chopped apples into a large pot, making sure to leave some room for bubbling and stirring.  Add a little bit of water to the pot.  This will help prevent the apples from sticking to the bottom or burning before they start to cook and get mushy.  I also add a splash of lemon juice at this point.  Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly (especially in the beginning, as you don’t want them to burn).  As the apples cook down, they will be easier to stir and less likely to burn.  Depending on how many apples you are cooking, the time will vary.  You want the apples softened up, so that you can mash them easily with a fork.

Once cooked, remove from heat and process through a food mill.  These are available at most hardware stores, especially at this time of the year.  I’ve had mine for over twenty five years, and it’s a wonderful “gadget” to have.  You basically put the softened apples in the mill, crank the handle (reversing occasionally, to clear the skins out) and the pureed apples go through the sieve, while the seeds and skin remain on top.  Easy peasy.  This is always a great job to have your “little helpers” do.   If young children are helping, however, please make sure that the apples have cooled down completely, so that there is no risk of them getting burned from any mishaps.

Next, add sweetener, if you choose.  You can use sugar, maple syrup, honey (but that does change the flavour a bit), or stevia, to name a few options.  I like to give a generous shake of cinnamon, and you can also add nutmeg.

If you are freezing the apple sauce, you can do so at this point.  It will keep indefinitely in the freezer, if you put it in freezer grade containers.  If you are putting it in jars, bring it to a boil, ladle into hot, sterilized jars, and process them in a hot water bath for about 20 – 25 minutes.   Prepared this way, jars will remain fresh for 2 – 3 years, in your pantry (not that it ever lasts that long at our house!

See, I told you it was simple!  Farmers’ markets and pick your own orchards have delicious, local apples for sale, if you can’t forage any of your own.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many organic apple growers, but some smaller farmers are very careful to use minimum pesticides.  Talk to your growers, and get the information you want.  Happy saucing!









Growing a Vegetable Garden 201

Well, the Mushroom Chapter is now closed, our beautiful vacation to Vancouver Island, BC has come and gone, and the fields and gardens are finally planted.  I decided it was high time to write another blog entry, and to let you know what we’ve been up to this past month.  (For those of you who haven’t heard, we are no longer growing mushrooms.  The barns that were home to oyster and shiitake mushrooms for almost 12 years are now being renovated for our new venture, Willow Tree Storage.  We hope to have a Grand Opening some time next month.)

This spring certainly offered challenges, weather-wise.  It arrived late, and it seemed to take forever to warm up and dry out.  Once it did, we didn’t have rain for at least a three-week stretch.  This meant that some of Ralph’s corn seeds had to wait for much-needed water so that they could germinate and start growing.  Also, because of the deep snow cover we had in the winter, my greenhouse got flooded with the spring melt, and I had to wait a bit longer than normal for things to start drying up inside.  Having said all that, though, we’ve made the best of it, and things seem to be moving along quite nicely – especially with the gentle rain we had this evening.

I thought I would write a sequel to the very well-received blog I wrote last year, Gardening 101. As I’ve been working in the garden and greenhouse, I find myself wondering about how those of you who are relatively new to gardening have been faring.  I also wanted to share with you a few observations and tips of my own that may help you, whether you’re a novice or not.


Redroot pigweed, my arch enemy in the gardens!


Over twenty years ago, I heard a saying that has stuck with me ever since:  “The best method for weed control is the Santa Claus method.  Hoe! Hoe! Hoe!” All kidding aside, it’s true.  My favourite hoe is a scuffle hoe, also called a stirrup hoe.  You can learn more about it here.  The best time to hoe, in my experience, is when the weeds are small.  I mean, REALLY small!  Trust me, it’s much easier to slice through the root of a tiny 1/2 inch tall weed than to try to chop through a 1/2 inch root!  Also, I find that hoeing early in the morning on a day when it is going to get hot is best.  It’s cool while you’re working, so you’ll do a good job, but as it gets hot later in the day, the weeds’ roots will dry and the weeds will shrivel, so there’s no need to remove them from the garden.  I just leave them in between the rows.

Of course, all the bigger weeds can be pulled by hand.  Make sure you get all the root, if possible, since some weeds, like redroot pigweed will send out multiple new shoots if they are just cut off at soil level.  Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way!

Another good way to help keep down weeds is by using mulch.  I used chopped straw, and because it helps hold moisture in the soil, the weeds are easier to pull out.  As well, many weed seeds will not germinate, or will not make it through the straw.

For more tips on weed control, here’s a great article from Johnny’s Seeds in the U.S.



This has been a relatively dry spring (once the snow melt dried, anyhow), and we find that there is usually more insect pressure during droughty conditions, than in wet conditions.  It pays more than ever to be vigilant, and to keep an eye on plants that may be more succeptible to insect damage.  Some of the early vegetables, including radishes, kale, cabbages and bok choy, are veritable insect magnets.  The trick is to get them planted early, so they can get established and a good size before insects appear, or to cover them with row covers.  The covers allow rain and light to come through, but prevents insects from chomping on your precious veggies, and from laying eggs on the leaves, for future generations of chompers.  The other thing is that it is important to walk you garden and inspect your plants as often as possible, preferably every day.  Unfortunately, some insects, such as flea beetles, can really make a mess of your vegetables in a few short days.

The worst offender is the cucumber beetle.  A few years ago, I had neglected to check on my cucumber plants for several days.  In the meanwhile, the cucumber beetles had moved in, and the damage they did to the leaves and flowers of the plants more or less wiped out a big part of my crop.  Yesterday, I checked my pumpkin patch (same family as cucumbers), and sure enough, found at least a dozen of the litte critters.  Since relocation is not an option, I squished all the bugs I could find.  I did some research, and learned that a deep straw mulch may deter the bugs from travelling from plant to plant.  Worth a try, so they all got mulched.  This morning, I scouted the patch again.  I learned that although the single beetles are difficult to catch, if I placed one hand under the leaf they were on, a quick clap of my hands usually got them.  Also, bugs that are occupied with “doing the dirty deed” are a lot easier to get!  One more option I am going to try this week, is a spray recommended by a neighbour.  The “recipe” is 2 tablespoons artificial vanilla flavouring (apparently, only the artificial one works!) mixed in one quart (or litre) of water.  Spray so that the whole plant is drenched.  From what I’ve read, it’s the smell that tricks the beetles from recognizing the plants.   I will certainly let you know how this works.


General Tips

The spinach was seeded this spring.  The tomato plants and dill are "volunteers"

The spinach was seeded this spring. The tomato plants and dill are “volunteers”

Try successive planting.  Simply put, this means planting your garden, and then as some crops are harvested, to reseed that area right away.  The spot that had early radishes in it can later be home to beets and carrots, which are harvested later.  Also, you don’t have to plant all your bush beans at once.  By staggering the planting by a week or two, you will also spread out your harvest time.

Lettuce is traditionally a cool season crop, with early spring and early fall being the usual times to seed.  There are, however, many varieties that can take the heat of summer, and mature in 25 – 30 days from seeding time.  I love a mixture called Bon Vivant, which I buy from William Dam Seeds.

And don’t worry if your garden isn’t “picture perfect”.  Many of us don’t have the time, or help, to keep on top of all the chores in the garden.  Do your best.  Sometimes, “mistakes” or procrastinating can lead to good things.  I often don’t have time to pull old plants out of the garden or greenhouse in the fall.  This year, I have another beautiful harvest of “volunteer” lettuce plants, since the mature lettuce plants from last year went to seed, and got a head start.  I also have some great tomato plants coming along, and dill and cilantro sprinkled throughout the greenhouse 😀

Thanks for visiting!  I look forward to your comments and questions.  Happy Gardening!


The lettuce in this photo is from last summer’s plants, gone to seed!


A few more pictures:

My first year for sweet potatoes.  They are in tubs, in the greenhouse.  Lots of heat that way!

My first year for sweet potatoes. They are in tubs, in the greenhouse. Lots of heat that way!

First blossoms on the Kibitz Ukrainian paste tomatoes

First blossoms on the Kibitz Ukrainian paste tomatoes

We ALWAYS grow our own potatoes.  This year, we are growing them in straw beds.

We ALWAYS grow our own potatoes. This year, we are growing them in straw beds.

Farewell, Mushrooms!

Sorry about the spoiler in the title, everyone…

Some of you may have heard the news already on our Facebook page.  After growing mushrooms for eleven years, Ralph and I have decided to phase out that part of our farm operation.  Yes, completely.  Yes, we’re going to miss the delicious mushrooms – although there are some available at a local market through another grower friend of ours.  No, we’re not going to change our mind (yes, I heard that one a few times!)flowermushroom

Anyone who has heard me talk about the mushroom operation, or who has followed this blog for the last 4 or 5 years knows that growing mushrooms is a 7 days-a-week commitment, much like having livestock.  Mushrooms (especially blue oysters) need to be picked on a daily basis.  New bags need to be innoculated weekly, and those that have finished their cycle need to be removed and composted.  There were deliveries to our wholesaler and to our local restaurants.  One of my favourite things to do – aside from eating them – was to attend weekly farmers’ markets.  I was at the Inglewood Farmers’ Market for 5 years, and the Elora Farmers’ Market for 3 years.  I loved being able to provide wholesome, locally grown, delicious mushrooms to my customers and to be able to engage in meaningful conversations about farming.  The friendships I made will remain with me long after the mushrooms are gone.

So why are we not growing mushrooms any more?  Simply put, Ralph and I were ready for a change and realized that we would like to do something that will allow us some time away from the farm occasionally.   As well, a competitive market and occasional blips in production gave us reasons to explore other possibilities. When our farm phased out the egg-grading station and laying hen operation close to 15 years ago, it was a huge decision and a big change for all of us.  And here we are again, ready for another change.

People have asked us, “So what are you going to do now?”  Well, for starters, we are going to continue growing exclusively non-GMO crops on our land.  Ralph has had much success with his heritage oats and is still developing his unique lines of open-pollinated corn.  We are getting more and more orders for our chicken feed for laying hens, and are working on a feed ration for meat birds, as well.  Although I am not going to be selling produce at the market anymore, I still have plans for a large garden and a greenhouse full of tomatoes, peppers and lettuces!  A roadside veggie stand is probably in the works….

And the big news is that we are going to be using the two barns in which we grew mushrooms for our new venture.  We are converting the space into indoor storage units, for everything from seasonal furniture, winter tires, vehicles, etc.  Our daughter, Natalie, has been helping to get everything ready, and she will be managing the enterprise once it is up and running, some time next month.  Stay tuned for details and the new website for Willow Tree Storage.

In the meanwhile, please keep visiting our blog.  I will continue to write about our adventures on the farm, and will try to offer insight into the many issues that affect agriculture today.  Thank you all for your support with our mushroom growing operation all these years.  It’s been a pleasure and a fabulous learning experience.  We’re looking forward to our next adventures!

With much gratitude,

Julie and Ralph





Why Aren’t We Cooking Anymore?

(Warning:  I’ve pulled out my soapbox!)

Most of my readers know that I attend the Elora Farmers’ Market as a vendor every Saturday. This past weekend, I prepared a sample of Sweet Potato Hummus, so that people could take the recipe I provided, buy some locally grown sweet potatoes from the market, and make some at home.  Although there were a few people who said they were eager to try making it at home, many more were interested in buying it from me.  “Are you going to be making this to sell?”, they would ask.  “Why?” I replied.  “It’s SO easy to make, and only takes 10 minutes, at most, once the potatoes have been steamed.  Wouldn’t you rather make it yourself?”  Even with organic ingredients, the cost was relatively inexpensive, compared to store-bought

While I certainly “get” the convenience factor, these customers were willing to wait until NEXT week for me to make some and bring it to market, instead of just buying the sweet potatoes at the market and making it later at home.  And that got me thinking…..Why aren’t people cooking anymore?

I truly believe that most people have become disconnected from their food.  That is, they are not being part of the process of converting whole foods into something they will eat (and fruit doesn’t count!) I’m talking about buying simple ingredients, preparing them by whatever method, and basically cooking from scratch.  You know, the way our grandparents did.

As I was mulling this all over, a customer mentioned that a local delicatessen and butcher shop does brisk business weekly, selling very basic fare, such as macaroni and cheese, as well as other typical deli items.  Specialty dishes and exotic cuisine that may require unusual ingredients certainly have their appeal, but mac and cheese takeout?  Really?  Granted, a deli’s takeout is more likely to be made using wholesome ingredients, compared to that made with a brand of no name.  In his latest book, “Cooked“, author and food advocate Michael Pollan writes that “industrial cooking has taken a substantial toll on our health and wellbeing.”  He goes on to state that “the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.”

9a794ae9fc7345cf5729eac817a95bf6So what can we do to reverse this trend?  My good friend, Christopher Jess, who is a trained chef and is now teaching a culinary arts program at the local high school is certainly on the right track.  He is inspiring his students to appreciate all the sublime benefits of cooking from scratch, through the aptly named Food School program.  Last year, he helped launch the Farm School.  You can read more about them both here.  Today, Chris was at our market, demonstrating how to make delicious whole wheat crepes.  Hopefully, the recipe handouts we provided and the tasty crepes sampled will encourage some of our shoppers to prepare at home.  (Chris’ philosophy of eating, sitting and talking together over a shared meal serves him well in his role as the leader of the Slow Food Wellington County convivium)

It is only by returning to the kitchen that we will once again rediscover the joys of watching (and smelling) a pan full of onions carmelizing, or enjoy a simple marriage of olive oil and balsamic vinegar over a bowl full of fresh salad greens.  And as wonderful as that is, we are achieving something that is much more important, in my opinion.  We are taking back responsibility and ownership of our food.

For several decades, we have allowed M & M Meats, President’s Choice and other convenience food companies to decide what goes into the food we eat.  We have placed implicit trust in them, that they will be cooking with healthy ingredients, without any harmful additives, etc.  Unfortunately, many of these food processors will cut corners on ingredients to lower their costs (ie. using sub-grade produce)  Food preservatives may be added, salt and sugar are used excessively (compared to home cooking) and then there is the whole GMO issue.  Most processed foods  – unless certified organic, or verified by the Non-GMO Project – will contain GMO’s in one form or another.  Examples could be high-fructose corn syrup, soybean or corn oils, and sugar made from GM sugar beets, to name a few.

Am I saying we should stop buying prepared foods altogether?  No, certainly not.  I have two suggestions.  First of all, if you ARE going to buy prepared foods, please read the labels.  To quote Michael Pollan again, this time from his earlier book “In Defense of Food“,  one should “avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.  And if you are concerned about GMO’s, then look out for ingredients that may be derived from corn or soya, as they will more than likely be genetically modified.”

My second suggestion is that if you find yourself eating a lot of conveniently prepared foods, take time out for ONE meal a week, to cook it from scratch.  Weekends might work out well.  Please take the time to include your children.  I remember quite well that little helpers can make the job take a little longer to accomplish, but think about what you are teaching them.  What a better place to bond with your family than over food preparations, and then at the dinner table?  With the busy schedules many young families have today, with sports games, music practices, part-time jobs, and social obligations, unfortunately it is the time-honoured ritual of sharing a meal with our family that has gone by the wayside.  And that’s a real shame.

Here in Ontario, we are celebrating Family Day on February 17.  What better way could there be to celebrate “family” than by preparing food at home and enjoying it with the ones you love?  Bon Appetit!


* * *

Sweet Potato Hummus

3 cups peeled, diced, and steamed sweet potato (yams are fine, as are frozen sweet potatoes, thawed)
1/3 cup roasted tahini (smooth peanut butter will work in a pinch, if there is no nut allergy)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon salt

Blend the sweet potatoes while they are very hot. Add in the tahini and blend. Add in the olive oil and blend. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well. Refrigerate until cool.




Winter on the Farm

I still remember the day my mother asked Ralph what he did in the winter at the farm, since there “mustn’t be much work to do.”  Thirty years later, I still smile at the thought.

Farming is one of the few professions that truly is governed by the changing of the seasons.  Preparing the land and planting in the spring is followedgrass by tending to the crops in the summer, and harvesting them in the fall.  Winter may be a time of hibernation for the land, but there are still things that need looking after.  Our daughter has some horses that need care every day. Aside from the laying hens, which need to be fed and watered also, we don’t have any other livestock at the farm any more.  Other farmers with animals (beef, dairy, sheep, goats, alpacas, etc.) need to look them every day.  And with pastures covered in snow, animals need to be fed hay and/or grain rations every day.  It’s certainly much easier to turn them out to pasture to graze and fill the feed trough.

Everyone will agree that this past winter has seen abnormal amounts of snowfall and bitterly cold temperatures.  Most non-farmers have had to cope with high snow banks along their driveways, drifting snow and even some power outages.  Now imagine a large farm yard that needs to accommodate a tractor and wagon (used to take spent mushroom blocks to the compost pile), a large delivery truck, and occasionally, a tractor trailer that may be picking up grain from our silos.   Oh, and our vehicles, too…. After one really significant snowstorm, it took Ralph all morning with a very large tractor-mounted snow blower to clean up the yard.  Winds overnight often mean more clearing the next day, even if it didn’t snow.  Ralph even had to clear snow around the horse barn, so that the horses could make it out to their paddock without trudging through belly-high snow, and so that Natalie could get into the barn more easily to clean stalls.  All extra work that isn’t required in the summer…

Mushrooms still need to be picked every day, deliveries have to go out, and I have to prepare for and attend my weekly farmers’ market.

Without the gardens and the fields to look after, however, there is a bit of “down” time.  February is traditionally called “Meeting Season”, as many farm organizations hold their district and annual meetings at a time of the year when farmers actually have time to attend….weather permitting!  I use this time of the year to prepare all the year-end books, as well.

A new venture for us at the farm this past year has been to make our own chicken feed for our laying birds.  Our girls are outside in the sunshine from early spring until late fall, hensscratching for insects, eating grass (and kitchen scraps!).  In the winter, however, we don’t have an outside area for them, and they are housed inside a barn, free to roam around their coop area, or to jump up onto the roosts we have for them.

In previous years, we have bought their feed, but with concerns for GMO’s (found in corn and soybeans in many layer rations), Ralph decided to make his own.  Our open pollinated corn is one of the main ingredients, along with our forage peas and barley.   Using peas means we can avoid using soybeans to provide the protein.  An organic supplement that includes herbs is added to the grain mix, along with oystershell and granite grit.  Chickens that lay eggs have very specific nutritional needs.  When those needs aren’t met, it can mean fewer eggs, weak shells, or smaller eggs.

IMG_20140213_105940Last summer, the chickens started on their new feed mix.  After a bit of “tweaking” here and there, getting the right coarseness for them (which is now achieved with a roller mill), the girls seem to be quite happy with their new blend.  Some of them are almost two years old, and although they have gotten a bit scruffier feather-wise, they are  still quite happily laying lots of eggs!

When we visited a local food event this summer, we met a couple that was promoting backyard chicken coops in urban settings.  They were very interested in getting some of our open pollinated corn.  One thing led to another, and they are now buying Ralph’s layer mix for not only their own chickens, but other backyard hen owners in the Guelph area.  Today, I got to help Ralph bag up the feed.

IMG_20140213_105125      IMG_20140213_103632


So there you go!  If you live in an area that allows you to keep backyard hens, I highly recommend it.  Not only are you provided with delicious eggs, you will receive hours of entertainment watching the chickens go about their daily routine….scratching about for food, chasing each other when one finds the “early” worm, and listening to their incredible “language”.  And if you need to buy some feed for you chickens….well, now you know where you can get it, too!

Another Look at GMO Labelling…

DSCN9617Today, a simple bag of Ukrainian poppy seed biscuits sparked a renewed interest in the GM labelling debate for me.  These cookies are imported from Kiev, Ukraine, and my father bought me two bags as a treat, because he knows I really like them.   As I was putting them away at home, I noticed on the very bottom of the back of the bag, two small words:   “без ГМО”.  Translated, “without GMO”.  Woo hoo!  Now I love them even more!

Once my excitement wore off, I had my epiphany….if a relatively small, financially and politically challenged country like Ukraine can “afford” to add extra labelling to identify non-GMO food, why is it such a big deal here in North America?  My husband, Ralph, pointed out that most of these cookies are probably exported to countries within Europe, where demand for GMO labelling has resulted in most countries providing this information.  (Click here for a map)

One of the arguments against labelling of GMO’s is that it will raise the price of food items.  An anti-labelling journalist wrote: “Labels won’t help consumers make better decisions, but they’ll increase the cost of food because the labels aren’t free. They represent a significant new regulation on farmers and food companies. The added expense of compliance will be passed along to consumers. We’ll all pay more for what they eat at grocery stores and restaurants.”

This is total you-know-what.  As we all know, the cost of adjusting labelling on food products is absorbed by manufacturers all the time…and let’s face it, it’s processed food that needs labelling the most.  Processed foods “hide” many GMO ingredients.  Examples are salad dresssings (GM oils), baked goods and breakfast cereals, snack foods, pop/soda, etc.  Anything sweetened more than likely has GM corn, by way of high fructose corn syrup or GM sugar beets.

Manufacturers change labels all the time, not only to “update” their look, but to capitalize on eating and purchasing trends.  An example is putting “cholesterol free” on apple sauce.  When you know that cholesterol is not found in fruits and vegetables, this statement is redundant.  And yet, the labelling may sway buyers if they think it’s better for them.  This type of extra labelling is done all the time by processors, to get more people to buy their products.

At a recent meeting, a university researcher told us that food marketers basically don’t really care if something is GMO or non-GMO.  Their concern is for their bottom dollar, ie. to provide what the customers want.  When Whole Foods announced that they would have GM labelling throughout all their stores by 2018, they made other retailers pay attention.  If Whole Foods starts to gain market share as a result of providing labelling, you can bet other stores will be following suit, and will be requiring their suppliers to provide GM labels.

Jeffrey Smith believes that there is a “tipping point“, at which time, if enough consumers demand non-GM food, the food industry will be forced to provide it.  As awareness of genetically modified food increases, and people are choosing non-GMO, we are getting closer and closer to that point.

Which leads me to my happy conclusion… as much as labelling of GM foods will make it simpler to make food shopping decisions, we do not need labels to affect change.  All we have to do is vote with our pocket book.  If 10% of consumers start demanding GM free food, and only buying certified organic or Non GMO Project verified labels, you can bet your bottom dollar that farmers and food processors alike are going to pay attention, and will make the switch.  There’s a great recap of how to avoid GM foods at the store here.

By all means, let’s keep asking for GM labelling, but more importantly, let’s put our money where our mouth is!


GM Alfalfa…More than Just a Health Concern

Last week, Slow Food Wellington County hosted an information night in Elora, about GM alfalfa.  Two special guests were Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator with CBAN (Canadian Biotechnology Action Network) in Ottawa, and Dr. Rene Van Acker, from the University of Guelph.  Over the course of two hours or so, we learned that the release of GM alfalfa is looming around the corner (and at this point, appears imminent).  But before we get to that….alfalfa

Usually, when there is talk of any genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), the most heated arguments revolve around health issues, and protests against GMO’s have to do with concerns about whether they have been proven safe to eat.  Most will argue that there just have not been any long-term studies to show this.  Heated arguments go back and forth, with neither side gaining any ground, it seems.  (Our family has decided to err on the side of caution, and we only eat non-GMO in our home.)  However, in the case of GM alfalfas, there are additional, equally serious concerns.

Alfafa is a high-protein perennial forage plant, grown on 30% of Canada’s farmland and 22% of Ontario’s farmland…that’s one in every 4 or 5 acres of farmland here in Ontario.  It is usually grown in a grass mix and harvested as hay or haylage for dairy cows and other livestock.  Many organic farmers use it as a crop rotation, and to build up soil fertility.  As a plant, alfalfa is a nitrogen-fixer, so it is extremely valuable for keeping soils healthy and fertile.

Aside from being a perennial, what sets alfalfa apart from already established GMO crops is that it is insect pollinated.  Leefcutter bees, honeybees and other insects can travels miles on their pollination pathways, which makes contamination of non-GMO alfalfa crops a real threat.  Add to that the fact that the seeds are tiny and can be spread through human error very easily (ie. not cleaning out equipment or haulage vehicles, and spillage).

One of the most frustrating things about the introduction of GM alfalfa is that Ontario farmers do not need or want it!  In fact, most farmers have no idea as to why the seed companies are “pushing” RoundUp Ready alfalfa.  The GM trait being inserted is glyphosate tolerance, making it another “RoundUp Ready” crop.  This means that RoundUp can be applied to a field of alfalfa and everything except the RR alfalfa will die.  The thing is, weeds are not usually a problem in alfalfa, since it is cut and harvested two to four times a year.  Also, most hay crops are mixed, ie. alfalfa mixed with other grasses, which RoundUp would kill if applied, making this trait redundant for most mixed haylage growers.   Seed growers may benefit by being able to use glyphosate on their crops, but most seed grown (especially in Western Canada) is exported.  When GM alfalfa was first approved by Health Canada in 2005, it was to be released in Western Canada, but protests by farmers (who have lucrative export markets for alfalfa seed in Europe) defeated the company’s attempt to release it.  Europe does not want GM alfalfa seeds, there simply is no market for it.

Here in Eastern Canada, we learned at the meeting, most of the alfalfa grown is used either on the farm where it is grown, or very locally, with no European exports per se.  This means our bargaining clout with the Agriculture Minister is greatly reduced, since there is no net financial loss (through international trade).

What will happen if GM alfalfa is released in Ontario?  Contamination is inevitable, and with cross-pollination occurring between GM alfalfa and non-GM alfalfa, there can be no coexistence.  There is already alot of wild or “feral” alfalfa growing on roadsides and in ditches.  This would all be contaminated eventually.  And because dairy cows have alfalfa as a substantial component of their feed, a non-GMO alfalfa means the end of all organic dairy.  Also, it’s use as a fabulous nitrogen-fixer would be eliminated on all organic farms, including organic vegetable growers.

So what can we do to take action? CBAN has these suggestions:

Email your member of Parliament and the Minister of Agriculture, Gerry Ritz.  email:  GERRY.RITZ@PARL.GC.CA

Or phone tel: 613-995-7080, fax 613-996-8472.  Or by mail – no postage required – write to Hon. Gerry Ritz, House of Commons, Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6.  If you need a sample letter or to send a letter instantly through CBAN’s website, go here.

At the end of the meeting, to be quite honest, it seemed quite a bleak prospect for those of us wishing to keep GM alfalfa out of Ontario.  However, as a collective group, we renewed our enthusiasm and determination to keep protesting, to keep raising awareness, and to inform people about how the genetically modified seed industry is prepared to run roughshod over farmers who simply do not want this product.   We are just going to have to get more vocal, more visible and keep taking action.  Is this an “impossible” task?  I don’t believe so.  If this is something you feel strongly about, please take action…today.