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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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Pumpkin Soup with Shiitake Mushrooms

Last night, I attended a talk on “super foods”, given by holistic nutritionist, Kathy Shackleton.  Two of the foods mentioned – that are super local, too – are pumpkins and shiitake mushrooms.  I decided to try out a new soup recipe for lunch today, which featured both of these.

Before I get to the recipe, a few nutritional tips about shiitakes, from the website “Super Foods for Super Health”

  • Shiitakes are legendary for their immune system modulating benefits
  • Their medicinal qualities are attributed in part to interferons present in the mushroom that provide a strong antiviral effect, inhibiting pathogens like parasites, viruses, bacteria and even cancerous growth
  • Natural immune boosting effects as an antiviral also regulate blood pressure and lower cholesterol
  • They contain a good supply of long chain sugars, called polysaccharides, that provide a long burning fuel source that protects the nerves and lubricates the body
  • Polysaccharides also stimulate immune response and enhance host defenses which inhibit tumor cells

Add to this list their fabulous meaty, woodsy flavour and it’s a win-win recipe!

Bon Appetit!

Pumpkin Soup with Shiitake Mushrooms.

1 small pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cut into cubes
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
2 small sweet potatoes or yams, peeled and cubed
1/4 cup cashews (sub almonds, pecans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds)  ** I used ground pecans
1/2 tsp. cumin, salt
1/4 tsp. nutmeg, pepper
5 cup vegetable broth
1/2 tbsp. coconut oil

1 lb shiitake mushrooms
3 tbsp. pumpkin seeds
1 tbsp. Italian parsley, choppedDSCN9611
1 tbsp. organic butter
1/2 tsp.s salt

In a large pot, heat the coconut oil on medium heat; add the onions and cook, stirring consistently, for 15 minutes or until onions are fragrant and transparent and the caramelization has begun to occur. Add the pumpkin, yams, cashews, cumin, nutmeg, salt and pepper; cook for 7 minutes, stirring consistently. Add the stock and bring to a boil, then simmer for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a dry saute pan on medium high heat, toast the pumpkin seeds; shake the pan throughout to ensure the seeds do not burn; remove from heat and cool. In the same pan, melt the butter and cook the shiitake mushrooms for 7 minutes; sprinkle with parsley, remove from heat and set aside.

Once the pumpkin and yams are tender, remove from heat and with a hand blender buzz until smooth. To serve, garnish with pumpkin seeds and shiitake mushrooms.

 

 

More Recipes!

I realized that some of the mushroom recipes I give out at the Elora Farmers’ Market weren’t up on our blog.  Here are a few you might not have seen yet!

Breaded Mushroomsbrown

2 eggs, beaten

2 tbsp. water

1 c. seasoned breadcrumbs

1 c. flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Oil for deep frying

 

I like to use whole mushroom caps (either oyster or shiitake), but cut larger ones into bite-sized pieces.  Beat eggs with water lightly in a small bowl.  In separate bowl, stir together breadcrumbs, flour and seasonings.

Dip mushrooms into egg and water mixture, coating well, then into breadcrumb mix.

Heat oil in deep skillet, add mushrooms, a few at a time.  Turn over when first side is brown, 2-3 minutes, continue frying until other side is browned.  Remove to plate lined with paper towels to absorb excess oil.

Serve while warm and watch them disappear!

 

Ralph’s Favourite Rice

2 c. uncooked rice

4 c. water or broth

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 – 3/4 lb. mushrooms (any varieties)

1/2 small onion, diced

2 tbsp. oil for frying

 

Cook rice with water or broth, following package directions.  Meanwhile, saute onion and shiitake mushrooms (if using), until onions are translucent.  Add oyster mushrooms and cook a few minutes longer.  Stir into cooked rice and enjoy!

 

Bow Tie Pasta with Creamy Mushroom Sauce

1 lb. uncooked bow tie pasta

1 tbsp. butter

3/4 lb. mushrooms, sliced

1 clove garlic,minced

1/3 c. chopped shallots

1/2 c. chopped onion

1/4 tsp. black pepper

1/4 c. dry white wine

2/3 c. heavy cream

1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese

2 tbsp. chopped parsley

Minced parsley for garnish

 

Cook pasta and drain.  Saute mushrooms in butter with onion, shallots and garlic on med/high heat.  Cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add wine, cook 2 mins., or until liquid evaporates.  Remove from heat.  Add cooked pasta, cream, cheese, 2 tbsp parsley, tossing gently to coat.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Garnish with parsley, if desired.  Serve immediately.  Serves 8.

(P.S.  For a VERY quick creamy pasta dish, use one of my 200 gm. tubs of mushroom dip from the market.  Stir into cooked pasta, add any steamed or stir-fried veggies and enjoy!)

 

 

 

 

 

So Much To Be Thankful For

This weekend, we Canadians are celebrating Thanksgiving.  I have so very much to be thankful for and try hard to always be grateful and aware of all the blessings in our lives.  And because this is my farm blog, I will focus on the wonderful things that have happened on our farm this year.

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Julie Daniluk at the March against Monsanto rally in Toronto on Oct.12, 2013

First of all, our family owns our own farm.  We are allowed to choose which crops we grow, which seeds we use, where and how we will sell the produce we grow.  Yes, we are pro non-GMO and that journey has put me into contact with so many wonderful people who feel the same we do about seed sovereignty, sustainable farming and our health.  There are many hard workers on the front lines (Jeffrey Smith, Rachel Parent, Julie Daniluk, etc.) who work diligently to bring awareness to these topics for us.  I am so thankful to them for their dedication to an area of farming that is a real hot point right now.

I am grateful for the life I enjoy as a farmer.  Funny enough, my mother wanted me to become a dentist, then later had hopes of me marrying a doctor or lawyer (as many of my friends at U of T were studying in those fields).  Now, here I am, a full-fledged farmer.  As wonderful and glamorous as a doctor or lawyer’s lifestyle may be,  I will take my gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, my mealtimes with family, my working with Nature, and my delicious home grown food any day.  (It would be nice to get some holiday time, though!)

Farming brings a whole new meaning to “thinking outside of the box”.  We need to be resourceful, to come up with solutions flowermushroomwhen everything else has failed, and need to maintain a positive attitude and sense of humour on the occasions there are failures.  This past summer, we were struggling with our mushroom production.  Ralph had to rule out one variable after another, until he determined where the problem was.  Week after week, it seemed it was solved, and then growing problems again.  Arghhhh…. Thankfully, we now know that our straw was getting contaminated and have taken precautions to prevent that from happening.   We are now picking 100 – 150 pounds of beautiful mushrooms a day again…yay!

There are always factors that are beyond our control on the farm.  The big one is the weather.  In the spring, we had some torrential downpours that required some fields to be re-worked and replanted.  All growing season long, it seemed that Mother Nature had a hard time remembering which season she was in, as the temperatures went from the high 30’s to cool wet weather and back up again.  A series of early light frosts in the first week of September had us crossing our fingers for the crops to not get hit too hard, until they had finished maturing.  Somehow, we were graced with some incredible Indian summer temperatures and the corn and soybeans matured in time.  Getting the combine repaired to get at the beans is another story….Again, we are thankful for the break we got, especially in light of the disastrous freak snowfall in Dakota, which claimed the lives of over 75,000 head of cattle last week.

Then there is my beautiful little farmers’ market in Elora.  Even with all the work in the gardens, growing and picking produce to bring every Saturday, and the many hours I spent in the kitchen this summer, I am SO grateful to have this opportunity every week.  I am truly humbled by my loyal customers who come back week after week to support me and our little farm.  They love having someone to answer their questions about farming, and I love having the opportunity to share our stories and concerns with them (and occasionally get on my soap box!)  The open dialogue benefits both parties.  I have always felt that open communication MUST exist to continue learning.  If one side or the other only sees their own side and refuses to listen to other options, what’s the point?1395874_610881455630590_935907348_n

Facebook and this blog have also allowed me to develop an incredible network of “penpals” all over the world.  I have friends from coast to coast in Canada, farmers and non-farmers alike, and online friends from the U.S., India, New Zealand, Germany, and Thailand.  Wendy and Eric Brown have reminded me of the wonders of foraging through our online friendship, while recent friendships with fellow mushroom enthusiasts have allowed us to share growing and marketing tips.  It’s so nice to give back (with information), as I remember our own “growing pains” starting out, so many years ago.  I met many like-minded people on sites about GMO education, and even protested GM alfalfa with some of them this spring.  Even though I take a lot of ribbing about the time I spend on Facebook, I value the contacts I have made.  Thank you to each and every one of you who has read my blogs, and even more thanks to those who have commented on them.

So much to be thankful for.

Tomorrow, I’m going to be thankful for the wonderful meal we will be sharing with our families at the farm…and the pecan pumpkin pies I just took out of the oven (made with pumpkins, maple syrup and honey from the market, no less!)  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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This (Local Organic) Spud’s for You!

 

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 – 80 varieties.

As with all plants, different varieties have different attributes:  some potatoes are better suited to baking, some will store better over the winter, some are more resistant to blight and other diseases.  Which brings me to my next point….

Commercial growers plant large acreages, and are dedicated to growing only potatoes.  The fields are often planted with potatoes one year, and then with a cover crop, such as rye, the next. Crop rotation can be very useful in reducing the risk of fungus diseases and blight, and only a one year break without potatoes isn’t enough time for pathogens in the soil to disperse.

When seed potatoes are planted in the ground, they have been coated with combinations of fungicide and insecticide.  As they grow through the various stages, more insecticides and pesticides may need to be applied.  The more intense the farming, the more disease and insect pressure there will be, and the more spraying. This past summer, we observed the various spray applications that were done on a local potato field nearby.  It’s no wonder that many commercial growers will not eat the very potatoes they are growing (read more here).   Some farms in the United States will use 20 applications of chemicals.

There are many tips for growing potatoes organically, to eliminate the need for these chemicals.   It can be done. The larger the fields and growing operations, however, the harder it becomes.

We’ve always grown our own potatoes.  We plant them after the last frost, and need to keep them “hilled up” as the potatoes start to develop underground.  Our local garden beetlecentre offered at least 8 different varieties this spring.  Combined with the seed potatoes we saved from last year’s crop, we had about six or seven different kinds in the garden this year.

The most time consuming part (aside from digging them up in the early fall) is to keep vigilant for Colorado potato beetles.  These prolific insects usually appear early summer, as the plants are ready to start flowering.  Rather than using a fungicide dust, we prefer to pick them off by hand, keeping on the lookout for the eggs they lay on the leaves’ undersides, and the larvae, too,  not just the adults.

When it comes time to dig up the potatoes, we look forward to seeing what we will be harvesting.  Because they grow underground, there is no real way to know what kind of yields we will be getting.  And because we grow many different varieties, it’s fun to see what colour the next potato plant in the garden will be!

 

I encourage everyone to grow a few plants in their gardens next year.   In the meanwhile, the best place to source the tastiest, healthiest potatoes is at your local farmers’ market, or small farm stand.  Take the opportunity to find out what the growing practices were, ie. whether they used fungicides or sprayed their crops for insects.  You may find unusual varieties there, too. Local and organic is always the best way to go!