I grew up in a farm town. There weren’t more than two thousand people in town, and the surrounding landscape was made of crop fields and dairy farms. Cows are a normal part of the backdrop to me, as are tractors and long open expanses separated by thin tree lines and drainage systems. Almost everyone has a truck, an all-terrain-vehicle, and a hunting camp. Growing food is important here, but in a disconnected way.
In the city, most of us are not attached to our food sources. We don’t see the fields, the people working in them. We didn’t see the drought in the city that farmers did this past summer of 2016. Most of us had no idea how close we were to losing a lot of food.
My father (represented in this writing as a beautiful bulb of his own garlic) has been growing his own food for as long as I can remember. His garden isn’t very large, but it’s a sizeable portion of his property, maybe a quarter’s worth. Another portion is taken up by a little bit of lawn sprinkled with Currant and Raspberry bushes, a Grape vine, a couple of Cherry trees (which seem to always be dying of one fungus or another), and finally a Bee hive. Nearer to his house, he has a small garden with a bird feeder beside it, and along its edge are three apple trees (also almost as difficult to keep alive as the Cherry trees). This garden grows Rhubarb and Asparagus, and sometimes Dill sprouts up.
His list of crop are expansive, and they feed him and his wife through the winter. He shares his food as well, though with great care: some of these things are very precious, such as the grape jelly and the briefly appearing Asparagus. His crops include: Onion, Garlic (for which he is known for), Potatoes, Squash, Green Beans, Lettuce, Asparagus, Raspberries, Peas, Tomatoes, Strawberries, Grapes, Currants, Cherries (if they survive), Apples (If they yield), Gooseberries, Rhubarb, various flowers to entice the bees, and a Hive. His hive has died a couple of times over the years, but this past year he was fortunate for a swarm to come in.
The challenges he faces as an independent grower are a small representation of what goes on in the area around him. He tries to avoid common pesticides, as he cares about his food enough to not want to eat chemicals. Often, he and his wife fight with pests by hand, such as by crushing potato bugs between their fingers for hours on end, and weeding at every spare moment. However, when things get especially difficult and the options are either the use of sprays or no crop, he sprays. He’s particular about what he uses in these instances, and tries to use it as sparingly as possible.
This past summer was a hard one with the drought. Every day they watered, going across the road to the local creek for its water as their own well was on the verge of drying up. And even so, after watering, you could hardly tell they had done so: The sun was so hot, it evaporated in no time. It was a constant battle, and some of the crop indicated it, such as the squash turning out a little dryer than normal.
My father, Andy, used to be a mechanic. Years before he worked on the civilian side of the Canadian forces, he went around to the farms in the area fixing up their various machines. Sometimes I tagged along and played in the barns and with the calves. In culinary school now, as I handle veal, I remember those calves being eye level with myself. I remember the smell of the dairy farms, specifically the tank room that smelled of sour milk and bleach, with just a hint of metal and manure behind it all. It’s one of my favourite smells (Don’t judge!). In going around to these farmers, he caught a glimpse of the life of sustainable and self-sufficient living. It is an integral part of him to be self-reliant and to have control over as much of his life as possible, and food is a very important aspect of this. He loved the idea of hunting and/or raising your own meat, growing your own produce, canning your own preserves to get through winter, and keeping the family healthy as such. Once upon a time, he had a chicken coop on his property (and years later, my brother would do the same on one of his properties, alongside his sugar shack).
“Organic producers agree not to use GMOs; synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fungicides; irradiation; chemical fertilizers; sewage sludge or antibiotics.”
– Organic FAQ/Statistics, n.d.
My father tries to grow all of his food organically, but sometimes when the alternative is to have no food at all, he will spray the crops. He cares about the soil he grows in, and knows what the buildup of chemicals can do to future crops. Organic farmers know this and choose to farm organically because of this primary interest. My father praises organic growing for this reason, and aspires to be as organic as possible. He uses soil samples to figure out what kind of fertilizer (compost or manure) to put into the ground, and to get an idea of what various chemical levels are like, as some crops will produce better or worse accordingly. He also recognizes the hurdles of growing organic (such as his ever dying Cherry Trees, always fighting off a fungus) along with the importance of growing organic for more than just the health of people. He has a bee hive along his garage, and over the years it has been empty several times. He knows, as many of us do now, that the population of honey bees are declining rapidly to dangerously low levels. His bees pollinate his garden and help his crops grow, so their diminishing population is of great concern to him.
It’s estimated that bees are accountable for 80% of all plant pollination (“What are pollinators and why do we need them?” n.d.), which speaks to their importance in agriculture. Without them, there is a huge shortfall of action needed to pollinate crops. Without pollination, plants cannot reproduce their own seeds and continue their lineage, thus dying out. A good article on the reasons behind the dropping population can be found here.
My father isn’t very political about his decision to grow his food. He doesn’t do it to make a stance or a point to others. He desires to be self-reliant, and finds a lot of value in that. He has always encouraged that in raising me, and I’ve always been grateful for it. As I’ve become an adult, those independent tendencies have been growing in myself, as I have taught myself to make my own cheese, yoghurt, tempeh, cider (and cider vinegar), preserves, and so on. Because of him, I think honey bees are beautiful creatures, and I love the sour taste of under-ripe gooseberries and currants. I’m slowly following in his footsteps, and dream of having a property where I can grow my own food as sufficiently as he has been. I’ve seen the struggles over the years. I’ve seen the squash ravaged by Vine Borers, and I’ve seen strawberries dry out in the heat. Some years for garlic haven’t been as plentiful as the rest, once leaving my father with hardly any to eat at all unless he didn’t plant for the following year. Some years are better than others, and this past summer was a significant challenge for many farmers in Ontario (As a note: There was a “low water advisory” in my home town for most of the summer, leading to water being brought in and made available to residents. That advisory wasn’t lifted until December). Every year it’s a different set of circumstances, a different game with mother nature that many of us would have a difficult time surviving, if we did at all. We owe our farmers a great deal.
There is an article by Peter Finch in the fall edition of Edible Toronto where he speaks about the drought of 2016. He describes his own farms struggle with dry wells and dissipating crops, and he also pleads for us all to stick with them! To continue supporting small farmers, to keep going to farmers markets, and to show them that their struggles are worthwhile and appreciated, and that the price of food reflects the effort and care they put into it. Many of those vendors travel an extensive distance to bring you their food, and it is often their livelihood on the table in front of you. Some of us in the city know this, and do attend the markets religiously. However, to those I walked by in the summer washing the sidewalk with their garden hose, I can only shake my head and hold back the grief. That water is so much more precious than to be wasted on a sidewalk.
For a list of Toronto Farmers Markets, check out the Toronto Farmers Market Network, and support our farmers! Without them, we would be helpless, and we should all be grateful for the struggles they face every day and the incredible job they do to feed cities.
References and Further Reading
Finch, P. (2016). The Driest Summer. Edible Toronto , (35), 21-23.
Hagopian, J. (2017, January 4). Death and Extinction of the Bees. (Global Research). Retrieved January 29, 2017 from http://www.globalresearch.ca/death-and-extinction-of-the-bees/5375684
Nestle, M. (2007). What to eat. New York: North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Organic FAQ/ Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2017, from http://www.organiccouncil.ca/organics/faq
R. (2016, December 24). What is Organic Farming and and Benefits of Organic Food. Retrieved January 29, 2017, from http://www.conserve-energy-future.com/organic-farming-benefits.php
The Honey Bee. (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2017, from http://www.ontariohoney.ca/educators/the-honey-bee
What are pollinators and why do we need them? (Center for Pollinator Research). (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2017, from http://ento.psu.edu/pollinators/resources-and-outreach/what-are-pollinators-and-why-do-we-need-them
All Photographs credited to Andy Engel from his personal collection.
Thank you, dad!