Author Archives: Erin M

About Erin M

Erin grew up on a fruit and vegetable farm just north of Peterborough, Ontario. Along with her Dad and brother they grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for farmers markets, grocery stores and their on farm market.

Frost Watch (Or Why Fruit Farmers Are Sleepy)

Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 by Erin M

Farmers in general are already getting to be a little tired this time year. There is more sunshine, more daylights hours….so that means that every waking hour is spent doing…something. Whether it’s planting, preparing fields or doing one of a million other jobs that need to be done….farmers are in a word…busy. Spring means that we’re out in the fields for longer…and while the hours of sunshine may make the days feel longer – they often actually feel shorter, because there is so much to pack into each and every day on the farm to make it count. On a fruit and vegetable farm like ours…we have tons of things to plant, grow and produce so that the fruits and vegetables we grow do so… before we’re knee deep in white stuff all over again.

Farming brings with it a lot of risks…but for farms like ours where we have fruits and vegetables…it is the risk of frost is what holds us hostage for most of the spring.

Fluctuating temperatures bring with them warm days where plants start growing and thriving, but quite often are accompanied by at least a few cooler nights, where the risk of frost presents the scary reality of damage or death of our beloved plants we pride ourselves on nurturing, protecting and caring for. Strawberries are the biggest risk on our farm…they’re low to the ground, tender and extremely susceptible to frost damage….they’re the ones that keep us up at night…literally.

We spend our springs carefully watching the weather for possible risks of frost…always watching the temperatures to see what Mother Nature has in store for us. If the temperature drops below 5 degrees Celsius we are at a greater risk for frost. If it drops below 3, you’re really getting us nervous. We also watch the dewpoint (the temperature at which dew forms on plants), because the lower the dewpoint…the faster the temperature will drop and the faster frost can form on the plants – damage and injury can sometimes happen before we can even see it, which is why we have to be vigilant. We’re also carefully watching the air temperature outside..but also the temperatures that are on the ground. The temperature in the air can be safe…but down on the ground can be absolutely frigid for our poor young, tender plants and the blossoms they’re producing.

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Strawberry blossoms from May 2015

We don’t want clear nights…nights where we have cloud cover we get a better nights sleep because the clouds are acting like a blanket of insulation to protect our sweet plants. When it’s a clear night, the risk of frost rises drastically. If there is a slight breeze…there is a lower risk of inversion (cold air swooping in below the warm air to settle on the plants) so there less likelihood that frost will settle. If there are strong winds and the temperature have dropped low – it can also be damaging because the cold wind becomes frigid for the plants….it can even be more risky when this happens because instead of just a risk of frost…we can see the risk of freezing happening
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If we do get cold nights, clear nights and/or still nights…and strawberries are no longer covered by straw and especially when they have some bloom on them….we don’t get much sleep. We watch the weather constantly. Checking the cloud cover. Checking the breeze. Hoping the dew point doesn’t drop too much. We can be up every hour or less on “Frost Watch”. Out in the fields checking on our plants, the ground temperatures and the conditions around the farm from the ground to the sky…watching and waiting…hoping for the best and planning to do whatever we can if the worst happens.

As dew points and temperatures drop, checks become more frequent and then a call is made. Frost is happening, or imminent. We must do whatever we can to protect the plants and the blossoms…to save the plants and their crops from the cold weather; to protect whatever we can, in whatever ways we can.

With that decision made, we throw on another sweater, button up a jacket and head outside in the dark cold night, flashlights in hand. Pumps are started, and water starts whirling. We irrigate all night if we have to…hours on end…until the temperature starts to rise. When the warmth of the water hits the plants, it warms them up just enough that they can’t freeze or be damaged from the frost…but we have to continue to irrigate until it warms up enough that the water hitting the plants won’t cause more damage…so we sit and wait…hoping that we made the call soon enough. Hoping that we didn’t make it too soon. Hoping that the blossoms on the strawberry plants will survive. Checking to make sure frost isn’t settling and rechecking temperatures as the moon moves overhead.

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Established strawberry plants we’re working hard to keep safe!

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Strawberry plant, planted May 2015 that is young, not established and also at risk of damage or death with frost or freeze.

This week is looking a little scary for frost warnings in our neck of the woods. We will be out checking most nights this week because conditions are setting themselves to look favourable for frost….and we have to do whatever we can to protect our crops, our livelihood, and those delicious strawberries that everyone loves so much.

So if you see a fruit and vegetable farmer looking a little tired this week…if they’re looking a little dazed and confused or like they haven’t slept in days…it’s probably because haven’t actually slept much lately. Because not only have they been working long days – but there have been a lot of long nights too. Fruit farmers this time of year could use another cup of coffee…or two. And a nap….or three. Good thing we love what we do though…because there are fields to tend to and crops to plant and there will soon be crops to harvest…nap time has to wait…there’ll be time for a good nights sleep when things are moving a slower pace, there isn`t as much work to be done and the strawberry plants are tucked into bed under a blanket of straw and a layer of fresh snow, safe and sound from the elements and out of harms way once again.

Top Ten Reasons It’s Great To Be A Farmer

Posted on Tuesday, April 7, 2015 by Erin M

Being a farmer is a lot of work, it’s long days and physically and emotionally demanding and extremely unpredictable…but if you ask me…it’s also one of the greatest jobs you could ever be lucky enough to have. Here are my top ten reasons I love being a farmer!

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10) There are never two days that look even remotely the same.

There’s always a new challenge, a new adventure and something else to do. While certain elements of your day may be the same or similar from day to day, you’ve gotta make things be as efficient as possible which means juggling a bunch of things, multitasking and making things work…because when it’s busy on the farm you’ve got at least two days worth of work to fit into far less than that and there’s WAY more to do than just make hay while the sun shines. You’re always moving and doing something else, or at the very least – thinking about what you’ve gotta do next – and you’re always ready for something else to come along and interrupt your day and change everything up, and because of this you get really good at being ready to adapt to something new suddenly being a big part of your day and are always looking forward to the challenges, changes and rewards each new day brings.
9) Fresh air and sunshine are a regular part of your job.

There is nothing like walking outside and feeling the crisp morning air as you begin your day with the sun. When you’re a farmer you get to spend a big chunk of your life outdoors, and are rarely confined to a desk or an office for long periods of time. Your desk is the seat of a tractor, setting a farmers’ market display or out in a field where your crops are. Even if you should find yourself at a desk there are is always SOMETHING you can convince yourself you should check on – a field, a crop, an animal or anything else…because farmers just aren’t made for sitting behind desks…and we like it that way. Plus, the views from our desks aren’t too shabby, even when we have to do pesky things like pay the bills.

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My brother Ben takes a walk through a strawberry field checking on plant health.

 

8) You’re in good company.

Working as a farmer means your colleagues are often times family, and they’re the best people you can surround yourself with because they just get it. They usually have similar views, morals and objectives so you’re working towards the same goals and dreams. They’ve known you a long time which means they know when you need a break, when they can push you harder and they’re right there invested with their whole hearts and souls just as much as you, which means that there is a level of trust that is hard to reach with just about anyone else. They love you, and they love seeing you thrive so you work well together to make your combined dreams a reality (Even when they’re driving you insane. Because let’s be honest….they ARE still family.)

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My Dad, myself and my brother at a farmers market!

7) You’re your own weather man.

You always know when it’s sunny outside. Or when it’s raining. Or about to the rain. Or when you really NEED rain. Or when you wish it would just stop raining. Your livelihood depends entirely on your crops, and your crops depend so much on the weather that it becomes second nature to watch updates online, radar maps and the sky and put it all together to make your own weather report. My Dad has this art down to a science that he can say “it’s going to rain in 15 minutes, hard, for about half an hour” and 14 minutes later as I’m scrambling to get things ready for rain…I feel a drop and know exactly what we’re in for so that I can juggle my day and move things around while we adjust to the kink in the day the weather has thrown us.

6) You’re never bored.

The words “I’m bored” on a farm don’t exist – and if they are ever uttered – there are lists and lists and lists of things that can ALWAYS be done (my summer staff will vouch for that I’m sure…) There is always something that needs to be done, something new you’re thinking of putting into action or something just in awe of. Whether it’s a crop’s resilience, a bug’s determination, or an evening sunset – there is always something to be seeing, doing, improving or changing on a farm. And in those few rare moments where you’re not doing anything? You’re probably so glad to have a minute of down time without anything pressing to do that you soak it up and would never admit out loud of any semblance of being bored.

5) You’ve got “mad skillz”.

Being a farmer means you’ve gotta wear a lot of hats and do a lot of jobs. You have to be able to be able to grow and take care of your crops, whatever they may be. You’ve got to be able to sell those crops, being the face of your business. You need to be able to do the accounting and the bookwork, to pay the bills, do any advertising, deliver product, talk to the public, pick up supplies, fix a tractor, build something you need, answer the hard questions, and make it all of that and so much more work while still maintaining your sanity. If you had to list skills or abilities on a resume, you’d probably need at least a second page because you’ve got to be able to make everything and anything work the best you possibly can.

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My brother (Ben) putting straw down on strawberries and getting them ready for another winter!

 

4) You get really good at juggling.

At anyone one time you probably have at least 17 balls in the air at once and you do your best to not let (m)any of them hit the ground. Not only are you good at doing a lot of different jobs that may come up at any time, but you’re also great at juggling being able to do a lot of different things at once. Sure, juggling a lot at once is hard…but we learn, grow and do our best as we always try to do the best possible job we can, with everything that we do and when something crazy pops up that would usually stress someone out, we’re fairly use to being able to take it in stride, make sense of it and make a plan to fix it.
3) You get to live where the green grass grows. Living in the country means your driveway is it’s own long dirt road, you have too much land to ever think about raking the leaves and your neighbours are few and far between – but they’re the ones you can count on in a snow storm, when someone gets sick or you just need a helping hand. Farm life offers it’s own unique kind of peace and quiet, where hearing a car pass or another voice is rare, especially compared to the songs you’re sung by birds as you have dinner outside. You get to see the stars and the moon whenever you head outdoors at night and your backdrop is trees and fence lines, not sky scrappers or office buildings. Plus your commute to work is short, you know just about every nook, cranny, rock, branch and stream there is around and you always have a great place outdoors to go for a stroll after dinner.

2) You’re always learning something new.

With new technologies, new methods, experience and trial and error…you’re always changing and growing. As farmers we’re always going to conferences, workshops and meetings trying to better ourselves, our farms and our industries so that we can provide the highest quality of food on to peoples plates. We thrive on learning something new, finding a way to do something better. Whether it’s improving the way we grow something, harvest something or making sure that our land and our crops are in the best possible condition – we’re always going out of our way to read, learn, grow and change so that we can be the best we possibly can.

1) You get to put great food on people’s plates.

When it all boils down to it..that’s what we as farmers are doing every day, and the biggest reason why we love what we do. Whether you sell directly off your farm to the local communities, you sell to grocery stores, or you sell what you’ve farmed half way across the world…being a farmer means that you get to go to bed each night knowing that you have contributed to something that people need on a most basic level. We love being outside, we love who we work with, we love what we do….but we are so happy to be able to farm our farms each day, doing what we love, helping to feed the world. Nothing is quite as gratifying after a full days hard work knowing that you were a part of putting healthy, nutritious, delicious food on another family’s table.

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Our local community held a dinner cooked by local chefs who all used only local ingredients from various farms in the area. Getting to sit with and share a meal with friends, family and the other farmers of all of the things we’d collectively produced to make this delicious meal? Pretty awesome!

 

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So there you have it – The ten best reasons to be a farmer!

Any other reasons you absolutely LOVE being a farmer or think it would be awesome to be one?! Leave a comment and share them with us 🙂

Toffee on Snow

Posted on Tuesday, March 24, 2015 by Erin M

Toffee on snow is by far one of the most popular things you can do with maple syrup, especially at maple syrup festivals that’re in full swing right now. It’s sticky, chewy, rolls right up into a lollipop in front of you and is full of that oh so delicious maple flavour.

Whenever we have visitors at our farm for our annual Maplefest, they’re often amazed at all of the great things we can do with maple syrup. Between soft maple sugar, hard maple candies, candy floss from stirred maple sugar and all of the other goodies we can make – maple syrup is truly a versatile and fun food that is great for adding some science to in the kitchen!

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Different maple candies that we’ve made at our maple candy demo area, and two more pots of maple syrup boiling down to make more candies and treats!

Though it may seem tricky – making your own toffee on snow is actually a pretty simple process that you can do at home fairly easily!

How to make homemade toffee on snow

What you’ll need:

  • Pure Maple Syrup
  • Popsicle sticks (or something that you can use to “roll up” and use as a lollipop stick for your maple treat!)
  • A Candy Thermometer (easily found at hardware stores, kitchen stores or kitchen sections of department stores – retails around $5)
  • A small or medium sized pot
  • A ladle
  • Some sort of vegetable oil/butter/margarine/etc.
  • Snow or ice
  • A willing taste tester!

What to do:

  • Step One: Put the desired amount of syrup into the pot on the burner with a thermometer in it.DSC_0995
  • Step Two: Turn the stove on with the pot of syrup on it! . Should be about medium/medium high heat. You don’t want to burn it, but it needs to be at a rolling boil.
  • Step Three: Do not stir! This is the really serious part. Our automatic reaction when something starts boiling a lot is to start stirring so that something boils over but this is a big no no when it comes to candy making…if you stir it sugar crystals start to form and if sugar crystals start to form, they’ll keep forming and you’ll end up with a big pile of gritty sugar stuck to the bottom of your pot. So I’m serious here: Do. Not. Stir. If it’s starting to boil and/or foam up a lot and you want to stir it –  add some of your oil product. A small dab of oil/butter/margarine (think: pea sized or smaller) will bring the foam back down and “defoam” the sugar so it won’t boil over. Add more if it foams up a lot again, but a small amount should keep it under control. You can also just take off the heat if it’s foaming up too quickly and you feel panicked. After you add a littler defoamer just put it back on the heat and turn it down a little if needed.
  • Step Four: Keep an eye on it! It will take the syrup a while to get up to temperature, but the hotter it gets, the more water that has evaporated from the syrup and the faster the temperature will rise. For toffee on snow you need to reach 255°F/125°C. If you don’t boil it enough, your syrup will be runny and not stick to your popsicle sticks. If this happens, put it back on the burner quickly and make sure it gets up to 255°F. (You can always take a ladle full and test it out – if it starts to roll, it’s ready. If it’s still really gooey and goopy – it’s not hot enough!) If it’s boiled too high, it will get sugary and start to try and turn to candy – you want to catch it as close to the correct temperature as possible for making toffee on snow.
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Syrup boiling down even further to be turned into toffee on snow!

 

  • Step Five: Take it off the heat, and move directly to your snow/ice, where you’ll pour the hot liquid syrup onto the snow with your ladle. Pour it in lines, so that you can place your popsicle stick horizontally to the line of syrup you’ve poured and roll it up. As you place your popsicle stick into the syrup, it will have cooled enough so start to grip to your stick and you can roll up all of the candy into a perfectly sweet maple toffee on snow treat! If it seems a little gooey still once you’ve rolled it, let it cool in the snow for a few seconds and let it harden.
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Hot syrup been poured into the snow to be rolled up onto sticks and enjoyed!

  • Step Six: Enjoy enjoy enjoy! Make toffee on snow for a crew, or for a few of you..but know that it only stays liquid to turn into toffee form for a few short minutes (5-10 minutes max) before it starts to cool down and harden in the pot – you’ve gotta work fast and pour it out for everyone before the syrup starts to try and set! Then you just need to soak your pot in some warm water to help loosen any stuck on syrup and dream of the next time you get to make toffee on snow!
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Put your popsicle stick in one end and start rolling it up!

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Keep rolling it up until it’s all on your stick, pop in your mouth and enjoy!!

Easy peasy! If you have any questions, let me know – otherwise…enjoy this easy, fun, delicious, oh-so-Canadian treat!!

Five Fabulous Maplicious Facts

Posted on Tuesday, March 17, 2015 by Erin M

Spring in Ontario means a few things: Snow is beginning to melt while the mud appears, farm animals are prancing around enjoying warmer temperatures and all across the north eastern parts of North America…maple syrup producers are out in full force tapping trees, collecting sap and boiling it down to make it into the sweet delicacy that is fresh maple syrup!

On our farm we mix the goodness technology affords us with the knowledge from our past and this is definitely present in our sugarbush. On our farm we’re a little more old fashioned than some when it comes to making maple syrup. Our sugarbush has no pipeline, it is entirely buckets (around 1000 this year!). We collect everything by hand and bring it back to our evaporator – which is wood burning and sits down just outside of our sugarbush. This is the way we’ve always made maple syrup, and it works for us, so it’s the way that we continue to make it, enjoying the sweet smell of spring each year as the sap boils down into a golden liquid nectar.

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Our Sugarbush & Sugarshack in Buckhorn, Ontario.

 

 

Making maple syrup is actually a pretty fascinating and complex process…here are five of my favourite things you (probably) didn’t know about maple syrup!

5) There are different grades of maple syrup…most commonly light, medium and amber. Light has the most delicate maple flavour, is very light brown. Medium is a little stronger in maple flavour, and is slightly darker. Amber has the strongest maple flavour and is the darkest, with a deep brown colour. All grades actually all have the same sugar content and sweetness, it’s just the actual MAPLE flavour that changes. Here’s the kicker though: Maple syrup producers don’t get the choose what grade of syrup they get to make! Whatever the trees give them, is what they get! In the beginning of the season the sugar content of the sap is higher, so we don’t have to boil it as long and we make light maple syrup. As we continue throughthe season, the sugar content in the sap drops and we have to boil it longer to reach the same sugar content of syrup, which makes a different grade of syrup. All are equally delicious and great for eating, baking and enjoying in any way you can, though if you’re baking or cooking, I’d recommend using Amber syrup as the maple flavour comes through the best with it. Like a lot of things, that grades are actually on a spectrum, and not cut and dry…so you can have a very light light, a light that’s almost medium, or an medium that’s almost amber, an amber that’s lighter or an amber that’s very dark – it all just depends on the sap you started out with.

4) You can make a TON of things from pure maple syrup without adding anything to it! You can make hard candy, soft sugar, stirred sugar, toffee on snow, maple butter and so much more from maple syrup! You don’t have to add any fancy ingredients and all you need is a pot, a spoon, a candy thermometre, a willing taste tester and some pure maple syrup! By adding heat, removing more of the water from the syrup and adding movement and friction, we can create a TON of awesome maple products without using anything else! (Science is AWESOME!)

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By heating syrup and then cooling quickly on snow we can make soft gooey lollipops called toffee on snow!

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We made stirred sugar (similar to the consistency and look of a brown sugar..but MAPLE!) and then made maple candy floss…YUM!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3) Tapping a tree and taking sap from it doesn’t hurt it! Like all things in farming, maple syrup producers take great care in making sure that their sugar bushes are healthy and well looked after. No matter what method they’re using…whether they have pipelines or buckets, a wood evaporator or an electric one, whether they choose to use reverse osmosis to remove some of the water before boiling or not – they take great care to ensure their sugar bush health. This means that each year special consideration is taken when tapping the tree to tap in a new location that hasn’t been tapped before, so that the tree can continue to heal any taps from previous years. Taps are put in a tree based on it’s size, to make sure that we’re not taking away too many of the nutrients that it needs in order to survive, and we take the taps out after each syrup season is over so that the tree can easily heal the hole where the spile once was. It’s actually a lot like donating blood – we don’t take away enough of the sap to hurt the tree, but can take a little bit and do something good with it! Like on every aspect of the farm, best management practices are used so that we can continue to farm and produce syrup for years to come!

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Buckets hanging on different sides of the tree and at different heights means that we are rotating tap locations to ensure our sugarbush health.

 

2) Sap flows UP. It goes against basically everything we’re taught about gravity in public school but it’s true! During the summer, the trees leaves use photosynthesis to turn sunlight into food and energy. It starts collecting these and storing them in it’s roots, where they are stored all winter long. In the spring, the stored nutrients begin to thaw, and the tree beings to come out of its dormancy and absorb water and take the nutrients it has up to the different branches and parts of the tree. When we have a warm spring day, the sap begins to make it’s way up the tree. (The ideal temperature for sap to flow is about -6C at night and +6C during the day.) As the temperature drops, the sap retreats. It is during this process of the sap going up and down the trunk of the tree all spring (attempting to get sap to the different parts of the tree so that it can take nutrients to different branches and start the process of making buds and leaves) that we can collect a small amount of sap from the maple tree. Once the sap has made it’s way all the way up and buds start to come out, you can’t collect sap anymore because the sap will be bitter.

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On warm sunny days, the sap (which is almost entirely water) drips from the spile in the tree.

1) Sap is almost ENTIRELY water when it comes from the maple tree. It’s usually about 97-99% water, with only around 1-3% sugar content. That’s why it’s clear and looks and tastes a lot like water…and that means we have to boil it A LOT to evaporate the water and concentrate the sugar. You need approximately 40 litres of sap to make only 1 litre of syrup!

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Sap bucket partially filled with what looks like water, but is actually sap that will be boiled down into maple syrup!

Snow Is A Good Thing

Posted on Tuesday, December 3, 2013 by Erin M

As Canadians, we are good at many things – but one of the things we’re best at is talking about the weather. Especially our dislike of the weather. It always seems to be able to be too hot, too cold, too wet, too something. This is always extremely evident once we start getting snow and it’s been on the ground for a while. It’s wet, it’s cold and if you’re not tobogganing, skiing or snowshoeing – most tend to find it more bothersome than exciting.

Unless of course, you’re a farmer.

If you’re a farmer like us? We love snow. Love love love it. 

For one? Snow has great insulating properties. It covers up perennial plants like strawberries and keeps them from being damaged by the cold weather, or short term changes we see between the warmth and the cold. It allows them to have a better winter, stay healthier and produce a better crop the following season. Every year we put strawberries “to bed” by covering them up with a layer of straw to help them survive the harsh Canadian winters filled with cold and wind. The plants are much healthier when this layer of straw is covered with healthy layer of snow. (And it’s the straw that helps collect the snow to keep on top of the plants!)  Years where there is little or no snow cover often means that the plants and the fruit will struggle to produce the next spring and summer because they exerted so much energy trying to survive the winter and build themselves back up into healthy plants once spring arrives. If there is not enough straw or snow cover, the crowns of the plants can be damaged both temporarily or permanently.  

 

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Spreading straw, trying to get it done before there’s too much snow cover!

 

Snow is also great for farmers because it adds moisture to the soil. As farmers, we rely a lot on mother nature to give us enough water in the soil to grow our crops. If there has been a lot of snow over the winter, then when that snow melts, the excess water will drain into the fields and add moisture to the ground. Starting off a season with a healthy amount of water in the soil means that plants and trees are better able to grow the next summer. For us on our farm, it also usually amounts to being able to harvest a better maple syrup crop, because the trees have more water that they are able to turn into sap.

And one of the biggest reasons we love snow though?  It gives us a little time to slow down, catch up on work, catch up with family, and possibly even get in a small vacation or two.

 

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                                                                         Vacations various family members have been able to take over the years in our off season!               

 

…When we’re lucky!   

Summer Family

Posted on Tuesday, June 25, 2013 by Erin M

Every spring, our summer family begins to arrive. It’s slow at first…a couple of guys now more like old friends. They arrive and there are welcomes, a mix of chatting through broken Spanish and English, grocery shopping…trips to the bank and most importantly – the purchase of long distance phone cards to call home. 
 
We get down to work quickly as there is lots to do. Sometimes we work side by side cleaning up after a busy spring, sometimes they’re out in the fields doing weeding, picking rocks or moving irrigation and sometimes we’re sitting on the back of a bumpy tractor planting acre after acre of strawberries. 
 
 
As the season moves on, another couple of guys join us in the daily tasks of farm life and then after that, usually a couple of more. 
 
By the time the middle of June arrives…our entire summer family is here catching up with each other as they speak in rapid Spanish, filling the farm with infectious laughter and song. 
 
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I’ve been asked a few times why we hire migrant workers – and my answer is fairly simple: 
 
We need reliable staff who show up every day and we need staff who will work when we ask them to and provide the quality and quantity we expect to be picked. Contrary to why a lot of people believe farms hire migrant workers – it’s not cheaper or easier….it’s actually is a lot more expensive and a lot more work for us to hire them than it would be to hire local staff. First – we’re required (as we are required to pay all of our staff) to pay them minimum wage. Some of our guys who have been returning year after year have earned increased wages like all of our staff does when they return year after year. Then – we have to pay for housing, a portion of their utilities, and a portion of their airfare to and from Mexico. We also spend countless hours taking them shopping for anything they need – from groceries to new clothes to take home for their kids…which is a tremendous amount of work, time and effort. But in the end…for us..it’s worth it. 
 
We hired local pickers for years…years and years and years – in fact – we still do to supplement our ‘summer family’ with them …but we could never find enough people who wanted to do the work. Or people who would stick it out the entire season. Or people who would show up when it was over 30 degrees, or raining, or whatever the day may bring. Regardless of the circumstance – we still needed to be able to harvest the crops we were planting…and before we started hiring migrant workers, we were never able to do this. Entire fields would go to waste because we simply couldn’t get them picked. 
 
We couldn’t get things harvested, keep things picked clean and the harvest suffered, the crops suffered, our customers suffered and we as farmers suffered. 
 
We hired four guys from Mexico originally, and have now expanded now to twelve great guys. Guys with wives, kids and lots of family back home. We have guys with toddlers, twins, teenagers, grandkids and everything in between. Guys who when they’re back in Mexico work on farms, as taxi drivers and even one as a DJ.  Guys who want to come to Canada to work temporarily, because they want to provide a better life for their families in whatever way they can. Guys who jump in to help whenever it is needed and are ready and willing to work with whatever has to be done. 
 
When we first had four guys it meant that we were able to start producing more and harvesting more of what we had produced. It meant we were able to hire more people to sell the things that we had grown, and expand our business – eventually buying a second farm and hiring even more guys who live on that farm for the summer. Since we started using the migrant workers program we’ve been able to create a vast amount of new jobs in the community that would have never been available if it weren’t for them. We’ve been able to expand from one full time employee (who as a business owner was rarely, if ever, actually paid) to four full time year round employees. We have also been able to expand from 3-4 seasonal employees, to almost 25 seasonal employees, not including migrant workers – which is an enormous increase. 
 
Our guys are one of the major backbones of the business. They are vital to our operations successes – we quite literally could not exist without them. From planting, to crop maintenance, to keeping the farm and fields in good working condition to harvesting and beyond – they do an immense amount of hard work. We have good friends, brothers and even a father and son who spend their summers side by side working with us – and we know how important they are and try to make sure they know how important they are whenever we can. Whether it’s taking them out for a nice Mexican meal they’ve been craving once we make it through our busiest season, grabbing some Chinese takeout after an unusually long and/or hot day so that no one has to cook, taking them to the lake to go swimming, having BBQ’s or Mexican feasts on the farm, having them at weddings, or just an evening soccer game in the backyard…going to Canada’s Wonderland or simply bringing them an ice cream, ice cold bottle of water or can of their drink of choice “coca” (coke!) to the field on a hot day – we want to make sure they know how big of a part of the business they are, and how much we value them. 
 
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Yes – they work long, hard days for us to put fresh local produce on your table. Yes, they may not be Canadian…. but to us…they’re “the guys” – and they’re our summer family. They’re salt of the earth people who we look forward to welcoming to work on the farm each summer. They’re the kind of people who smile encouragingly as you stumble over your Spanish and grab a heavy box to help you carry it, who laugh and joke and tell you about their “bambinos” and ‘bambinas’  as they show you a better way to harvest a certain crop. They are incredibly grateful for the job and we’re incredibly grateful for them, their work ethic and their determination to do the best job possible in everything that they do. 
 
No – It’s not the easiest job, but they work hard and come back year after year…happy to be working along side us helping to make our farm the best it can be… always welcomed with open arms to be part of our “summer family”.

Berry Beginnings

Posted on Wednesday, May 22, 2013 by Erin M

How to plant strawberries (No words! Just video! And an awesome song! Okay fine. A few words..but hardly any!) :

How to plant strawberries – the detailed version (No cool music…BUT…with cool words and stuff!) : 

Step One: Figure out your field plans and make sure your soil is healthy. These are done depending on what was planted where in previous years, in addition to soil samples/soil health, crop rotations and various other factors. We typically leave four years in between planting strawberries in the same fields because that’s what our crop rotation and arable land allows..but five years would be even better. We only keep the plants in the ground three years – one of which there is no production of fruit. Field plans should be done YEARS in advance of the planting year to ensure that the soil is healthy, rich and the plants will have the best chance at thriving. Different crops leech or add different nutrients from the soil so it’s important to keep track of what is planted both before and after strawberries to keep the soil healthiest and plan accordingly so that your soil has what it needs to grow what you’re planting in it. 

Step Two: Order your plantsDuring the winter we’ll order thousands of strawberry plants from a couple of different strawberry propagators (people who start plants from runners or cuttings)  in Canada. What we order will depend on how many fields we need to plant, what varieties we’re looking to grow and which berries are best suited for our soil, weather conditions, as well as other factors. 

Step Three: Get the fields ready. This is done as soon as the fields begin to dry up enough for the tractors to move around on them easily, and the guys are able to work up the fields and make sure that the soil is broken down and loose so it can be easily planted. We go over it at least a few different times…making sure that it’s worked up and ready to be planted with young new plants.

Step Four: Pick rocks. Rocks are going to be a huge pain if you try to plant with them in there – we pick rocks at least a few times before we start planting as well as after we plant!

Step Five: Monitor the weather. We can’t plant when it’s still really cold out because the small plants can be damaged easily in cold weather…but you don’t want to wait too long either. You ideally want to plant when the weather gets warm, on days that aren’t too warm so that the plants roots aren’t exposed to the sun too long as well as when there is a minimal risk of frost and cold temperatures at night.

Step Six: PLANT PLANT PLANT! We use a planter to help speed up the planting process because we’re planting thousands and thousands of plants each spring. To use our planter effectively we need seven people working in constant harmony. One to drive the tractor making straight rows, four to sit on the back of the planter placing plants into the feeders as they go ground and are placed into the ground and covered up by dirt and two to follow the planter – one for each row that is being planted to ensure that the plants are properly covered with soil and that no plants were missed or fell out.  For us, this process takes days, up to a week to get all of the plants we want to grow into the ground. On a good day where nothing breaks down, is damaged or we don’t run into other typical planting problems we can plant up to 35 000 plants in a (very long!) day of planting. On average though, we usually plant around 20 000-25 000 plants in a day.

Step Seven: Give ’em a drink! As the plants are fed into the ground they’re given a brief watering from the planter because they’ve been without water for so long, but after we’re done planting for the day we still have to set up irrigation pipes in order to give them a good long drink that they haven’t had in a while so that they can soak their roots into the soil and perk up their leaves to a nice healthy green!

…And that’s how it’s done.

Well. The strawberry *planting* anyway.

Those are just the steps to get them into the ground safe and sound. We’ve still got more than another year of work ahead of us before these plants can and will produce any fruit.

Yep. You read that right. More than twelve whole months and LOTS of more hard work before the first sweet and juicy berries are ready…but that’s another story for another time!

Farming Futures

Posted on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 by Erin M

In my previous life, before farming full time, I took a year off of school and every day life to dive into the lifestyles of rich and famous. Okay – so not EXACTLY – but I was the nanny for an affluent Swiss family. There I met a lovely girl who lit up a room when she walked inside and everyone clamoured to be around her. Rebecca smiled the biggest smile, laughed until the wee hours of the morning while dissecting life and was the life of the party with her adorable Australian accent.

 

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Myself & Rebecca – Zurich, Switzerland – Spring 2009

She moved home to Australia and I back to Canada but thanks to the powers of social media and long distance phone cards, we’ve stayed in touch. We sent messages, texts and phone calls when the time differences would allow as we went through various stages of our lives. Friends getting married, travel, boys and the like. I’ll never forget the phone call where she told me that she was pregnant and moving onto a dairy farm though – shocked doesn’t even begin to cover it. She may have grown up on a large beef farm but I knew her as a city girl who loved the latest fashion and going out on the town and being surrounded by people. I’d never really thought about her becoming a farmer…but there she was, eventually marrying her dairy farmer love and a couple of years later welcoming a baby boy to join their first born baby girl.

Our conversations became fewer and further between. She’s raising two young toddlers while working, being a wife and helping out on their dairy farm. I’m helping to run our farm, stores and grow and sell fruits and vegetables – so managing our busy schedules – let alone the time differences becomes rather difficult. Despite the different worlds that we live in – it’s almost laughable how similar our lives have once again become.

I missed a call from her the other morning and I wish more than ever that I’d been able to get it and chat because she later posted an article on facebook and my heart sunk. Their beautiful dairy farm is caught in a crossfire and no one knows what the future holds. Australia’s dairy industry lies in a delicate balance…in large part because people aren’t connected to the farm, their food or making connections between the price they pay for the food they buy and the survival of the farms around them. Due to milk prices of imported milk and large chains selling milk for drastically low prices, it is now costing them huge amount of money to operate, produce and sell milk from their cows instead of being able to make any money farming – let alone pay their bills. 

Like most farmers around the world….I don’t think Rebecca and Jason farm for the money. If they were in it for the money – they’d be doing something else. They do it because they love it. They do it because it’s a part of their soul that makes them happy. They do it because they love being able to put healthy food on someones table, in someones glass. 

Though this story seems a world away, and Canada is lucky to have measures in place to protect our dairy farmers from being taken advantage of or having to sell their product for less than they can produce it for thanks to regulations, quota and the like – it’s still a terrifyingly real prospect for many farmers in all different farming sectors throughout both Canada and the world. With the more and more imports appearing on grocery store shelves we see many cheaper imports from countries around the world where cost of production is much lower than we’re able to do it here. Farmers are being forced to try and compete with these prices – while constantly facing quickly rising production costs ourselves. I will sometimes hear grumbles around farmers markets that someone could get something cheaper on sale at a grocery store or that farmers are making lots of money, and I shake my head because I know the likelihood that the quality they’ll be getting from their local farm is far superior to that of something imported from half a world away. I also have to shake my head because I have an idea of how much work, time and money it took for each and every farmer to get their product from their farm to your table and why they have to charge the prices they charge. 

Farmers don’t charge prices to get rich. They charge the prices they charge to pay their mortgage. To pay for their harvesting and producing costs. Their electricity bills. Their seed bills. Their grocery bills. For their kids to go to the dentist, take piano lessons, or for new soccer cleats. They don’t want an extravagant life filled with the biggest and the best things – they want to be able to have the things they need, and if they’re lucky and work hard – maybe a few well deserved and well earned treats. They’re not trying to charge outrageous prices, nor do they want your grocery bills to be unaffordable – they’re just trying to make an honest to goodness living doing something they love while putting the best possible product on your table.

That’s why farmers farm, and that’s why it’s so important to understand the value behind our food and why we’ve got to pay the prices we pay. In order for the farming industry to survive and better yet thrive – we have to make sure farmers can pay their bills. In order for farmers to pay their bills – we have to pay fair prices for the food they grow and produce – there’s just no other way about it.

We need to learn from stories around the world like my heartbroken friends in Australia who are on the verge of losing their farm because of drastically low milk prices that don’t even begin to cover production cost, let alone all of the other costs associated with farming to let them survive as farmers. We need to better understand our food prices and why they are what they are so that our agricultural industry can survive. So that we, our friends and family and all of the future generations that follow us all have access to healthy, local and nutritious food.. 

So the next time you’re at the super market, or a farmers market or you’re eating a meal – please try to take a moment to remember. Remember the costs of caring for an animal that gave you that creamy milk. The cost to put up and keep a barn in good working condition. The cost of staffed hired to have someone to milk the animal. The cost to feed the cow and pay for their bedding. Not only when they’re producing but the other months of the year as well. Remember that a strawberry farmer’s plants sit in the ground for over a year before they’re able to start covering the costs of planting those plants – which range from the seed/plant costs, planting costs, preparing the fields for planting (which can take years) and that’s before upkeep, harvesting, selling and packaging costs are ever taken into consideration. Then try to remember the families working so hard to put meals on your table and remember why it’s worth it to keep those farms alive and thriving through paying fair prices for the food we eat.

Because they’re worth it – trust me.

 

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Gretta (2.5years) helps her Dad, Jason, working in the fields on the “tak-tar” on their farm in South Australia.  

 

 

Winter Harvest

Posted on Tuesday, April 23, 2013 by Erin M

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If you’ve visited a grocery store lately, you’re probably well aware that there aren’t a lot of things for sale in the produce section that are ‘Product of Ontario’ this time of year. If you’re lucky you’ll find a few Ontario apples from last fall, though after last year’s spring frost that badly damaged a large percent of Ontario’s apple crop they’ve been harder to find this winter. Otherwise you might be able to scoop some of last year’s garlic harvest or some greenhouse tomatoes or cucumbers. On the whole this time of year though most of the produce that we as Canadians have access to during the winter months is from far and wide across the globe. 

Just because your local fruit and vegetable farmer isn’t necessarily milking cows, collecting eggs or feeding animals day and night doesn’t mean we get to slack off in the winter though – there’s still lots to do on the farm even when we’re not growing delicious fruits and vegetables!

Here are just few of the things we’ve gotten done in our “down time” this winter while we weren’t growing on our farm:

*Cleaning – Winter is a time when we’re able to give things a big thorough going over. From cleaning and organizing workshops, scrubbing ovens in the markets and washing walls and much more – we have time in our off season to be able to check all sorts of cleaning and organizing jobs off our to-do list. Making improvements around the farm to buildings, roads and cleaning up inside and outside all need to be done to keep the farm in tip top shape! 

*Fixing machinery – The guys took apart (and luckily put back together!) tractors and anything else that wasn’t running *just* right. They needed to repair, replace and make sure they’re running smoothly for when we need them the rest of the year.

*Accounting – Definitely not a favourite job on the farm..but to help us farm better we keep full records of what we grew and what we sold so we have a better idea of what we need to grow the next year – plus – we have to submit our taxes (we have to do those too!) sooner rather than later so we can get it out of the way and move on to what we’re really interested in – farming!

*Paperwork – Another low key task that takes up more time than you would believe. From updating staff manuals and training tools to creating new brochures, ensuring we’re up to date with necessary government postings and everything in between – we could probably fill up an entire winter just with catching up on paperwork!

*Planning ahead – We do lots of planning during the winter…from debriefing and talking about our festivals and events, talking about changes we want to make and new ideas we have for the farm – we’re always making lists and plans of things we want to do for the day, the week, the year and beyond.

*More planning – After looking at our records, our field rotations, and figuring out where we’re going to plant what next in future years (yep – we always have to be looking at LEAST a few years ahead!) we can finally order our seeds, containers and any other farming equipment or supplies we might need for the spring, summer and fall. 

*Building things – I’m finally getting new display cupboards in our farm market!!! After ten years of asking for this to be a winter project…I’m so excited that it finally made its way up the winter list and got accomplished! 

*Making syrup – We make lots of maple syrup every spring so this takes up a large portion of our time…from tapping the bush, to boiling the sap and bottling the syrup…and of course our MapleFest – there’s lots for everyone to do!

*Growing as farmers – Every year we attend various conferences throughout Ontario to talk and network with other farmers, learn from experts in the field and learn about everything from new technologies, nematodes or new ways to use marketing – all things we can learn to help make our farm the best it can be! We also attend lots of different meetings, AGM’s, community groups and workshops to learn how our farm can contribute back to the community, events and organizations around us.

Even though it may not seem like it…there’s lots to do on a fruit and vegetable farm when it’s too cold outside to actually grow anything. There is ALWAYS lots to do – and this is only a small portion of the things we’ve been able to get done this winter – our own version of a winter harvest! As always we’ve been super busy getting ready for another summer season…so busy in fact that I think I need a nap just thinking about it. Except that it’s spring – which means that the farm is ACTUALLY getting busy and there is even MORE work to do now!

Next up…planting, picking and preparing – oh my!