Friday, November 9, 2012

Appreciating Animals

This first appeared in The Chautauqua.

Appreciating Animals

“Animal appreciate, machines depreciate”
I may have quoted this here before but it is my favorite saying from Joel Salatin (farmer author and educator around grass-fed, integrated farm livestock systems).

As I look around our farm, I keep trying to find ways to work with our animals to reduce the work done by machine and to integrate the animals more fully into the farm operations. It means watching them and seeing how their normal behaviours and diet can be used to do work – work that I don't like doing myself. It may mean that I seem lazy but I don't find myself sitting around and lounging much so am not going to worry about that accusation.

Our latest example of this is the home we've given our three little pigs. Our two girls will become our mamas and our little boy, breakfast :) But for now – they are our garden clean-up crew and rototillers. As the garden was pulled in over the fall, we expanded their area and have watched them explore the plants left standing and dig for who-knows-what in the soil. They are breaking up and working in the organic matter we left in the garden all summer and are growing into happy, healthy pigs while doing so.

Their home is a house of bales, insulated panels and a rebar hoop house (that once held our tomatoes). As the story goes – building out of one material made the three little pigs' houses vulnerable so we figure the cooperation between these materials and structures will work better. They seem to like it – as the first snows are falling, they have been reluctant to come out of their straw bed for breakfast.

There is work involved in the animals but working with them makes for a more enjoyable day than working around them does. Stacking functions like this means that we just might find some more time to curl up with a book inside instead of managing two sets of chores: the pigs are doing one set for us. Plus, when they are done their job – instead of being parked in the 'old tractor graveyard' that every farm seems to have: they go into our freezer and onto our plate. They appreciate in value as time passes and we appreciate them.

On the Tip of the Tongue

This was first published in The Chautauqua.

On The Tip of the Tongue

Most of what I have written about have been our adventures on the farm and growing food. However the bigger adventures often happen in the kitchen and on the table.

Health and sustainability are important values for me and that related to what I eat and how I eat it so that has meant eating more organ meats and 'odd bits' from the animals we raise and butcher. When we had our beef done I bravely brought home the tongue and other parts that are often left behind. I figured I would get to cooking them on days when I had time to prep – emotionally and mentally as well as the right ingredients.

I've tried cow's tongue before. On our honeymoon in Costa Rica we found a little restaurant with home-style cooking that we visited a couple times. When I saw cow's tongue on their menu, I thought of the one sitting in my freezer and knew I had to order it. When it came to the table, I was delivered a great smelling plate with a few slices of meat covered in a tomato, pepper and onion sauce – they did not just lay out the tongue on a bed of lettuce. Only if you looked close enough could you get a sense, from the texture of the skin, of where the meat came from. I ate it and enjoyed it and thought it didn't look too complicated to prepare.

But I still hadn't cooked our own tongue up until this week. It's sat in the freezer while I waited for the right time. Finally, I just decided to do it. I thawed it, boiled it with herbs and spices, and sliced it up like a roast – served with horseradish. Indeed, roast beef is probably what you can pass it off for to the squeamish or uncertain. We both had to pause a few times and found not looking at it made it easier. It made an enjoyable meal as we laughed at our own reactions and how it wasn't taste or texture but purely mental notes that made us hesitate. Now that I've done it once, it's not likely to take much to get me to cook the next one. It's certainly easier for me to handle than liver! Who knows – when I am fighting the winter blues, maybe cooking up some cow's tongue will be all I need to do to connect back to the warmth and sun of Costa Rica. Maybe.


Directions: Wash tongue whole but don't worry about peeling or removing outer skin; place in pot and cover with water; add bay leaf, peppercorns, celery, onions, garlic and salt; bring to boil and then simmer for 3-4 hours. Remove tongue from water and peel off the outer skin; slice like roast beef as thin or think as you wish. Serve with horseradish or other sauces alongside vegetables.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Time to start... planting spring greens!?!

This article was first published in the Chautauqua

This week the autumn winds have been blowing in the season change, and blowing the leaves all over our deck and garden beds. In the midst of bringing in kilos of tomatoes and digging our root crops, I am sweeping off leaves and cleaning up my raised beds near the house. After pulling out the remaining plants, I am refreshing their soil with worm castings and compost. Then I am adding one more thing: seeds!

That's right – as the leaves fall down, telling tales of cold temperatures and winter, I am remembering the joy of the first spring greens. Two years ago, while thinking about how things work 'in nature' when humans aren't around to pick, preserve and replant seeds, we decided to try planting some lettuce in the fall to see what might happen in the spring. We planted several varieties in a couple locations, and then waited and watched.

What we found was the head lettuces came up along side the first shoots of grass and grew well in the cooler spring temperatures. It seemed that the leaf lettuces didn't do as well and we didn't really get a jump start by planting them this way. Last fall we let the head lettuces go to seed and didn't disturb the soil around them. This spring, we once again had early head lettuce.

This year we've added two raised beds just off our deck – the perfect place for greens, making them easy to harvest as needed. Therefore this fall I am moving my 'perennial patch' of lettuce. In the next few weeks I will be planting our head lettuce varieties alongside some spinach, arugula and a few other greens. I will stagger the planting over the weeks to help increase their success. If we get some moisture in early fall before the ground freezes, some seed may germinate and begin to grow destroying their chance of making it through the winter. Staggering the seeding means increasing the possibility that some seeds will remain dormant and sleep through the winter until spring brings the right conditions.

Growing them closer to the house, in a raised bed means that their soil will likely warm up sooner thus giving them the right growing conditions, earlier.

I enjoy fall – the fresh air and the beautiful colours, wild berries that get better after the first frost. I will even give winter some compliments when the world is clean and white and is giving us a break from being out labouring in the sun. However spring is still a favourite. Spring when she is bursting into bright greens and first flowers (I am a May baby, after all). So these seeds also hold some promise for me. When the winter is feeling too long and I am missing my fresh salads, I can look out over my coffee cup at the raised beds and take comfort in the early greens waiting alongside me.

Seedy September

This article was first published in the Chautauqua.

Since I have been out of school for many years and I have no children, Septembers of recent years have slipped by as a month of transition from summer into fall, but not one too remarkable. With September 2012 now upon us and this being my first full year back on a farm – I am learning a new appreciation for September.

This September feels like a month of harvesting the abundance of our hard work over the last months. By the time you read this, our pasture-raised chicken will be in our freezers (or someone else's), our new laying hens will be giving us a steady supply of eggs (I hope), and we'll be finishing up our beef and geese for butchering in October.

Then there is the garden to bring in. We've been enjoying fresh produce since early June and have already put up bagfuls of our snap beans and peas, but now its squash, corn, root crops, and the rest. Plus, this year I am carrying an extra basket with me as I go out to bring in our food. It is for seeds.

I've played with saving my own seeds at different points but this year I have been making a conscious effort to leave behind some produce or to let plants flower and go to seed so that I can have as much of my own seed for next year. It has been quite freeing to be able to say, “leave the rest of the beans for seed.” Considering I am having dreams about what to do with all my patty pan squash, letting go of the need to pick and preserve more beans was a relief.

Saving our own seed is a pragmatic action. I am out there already, I might as well gather a second 'harvest' from the plants that I put in during the spring and save us money in the spring time. As well, it can impact the quality of our garden next year. Research is showing that every year you grow a plant in your own garden – it uses information from that year in forming next years seeds, adapting to your specific growing conditions. Our garlic supplier encourages us to buy more the first year and to grow our own seed – they have learned that it takes 5-7 years for garlic to adapt to a specific ecosystem.

Saving seed is not something new but - in today's context – it may be revolutionary. For most of our human history, decisions as to what is eaten and how it was produced were made by the community and people in that immediate ecosystem. In the last century or so – we've very quickly changed that and handed over control and decision-making to the few and the powerful. As more companies patent seeds and call them their own, the common gardener will become a common criminal when they save seed and use it for their own purpose. Even if I am never arrested for saving and using my own seed – my seed saving is about freedom: the freedom to grow and eat and provide for my family and the freedom of nature's knowledge. The idea that anyone can 'own' that which has evolved and developed within ecosystems – alongside generations of human beings – seems ludicrous to me.

I appreciate those who dedicate themselves to providing us with seed – they are part of having a food secure and stable system. However I am looking forward to making this September a harvest of double-abundance: of the fruit and vegetables produced as well as the seeds for next year.

Purslane and New Perspectives

This article was first published in The Chautauqua

Last week (written in August) we ventured into the local farmers market for the first time. I wasn't sure if we had anything of interest to sell and I didn't want to bring in anything that others had, I wanted to compliment the items I've seen at the market.

We (our farm help, Mark and I) cut heads of romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuces, a variety of herbs, and bagged up purple beans. I also picked and bagged purslane, as well as printed out an information sheet on its use as food. I knew this would be a conversation starter, although I doubted anyone would buy.

If 'purslane' doesn't ring a bell – you may know it as portulaca. Yes, that 'weed' that your parents made you spend hours removing from the garden, being careful to not leave behind a root or leaf as it (supposedly) can reproduce from those. That's what we brought into the market and laid out among our other items for sale.

It definitely invited conversation and a lot of reactions. A lot of people said they would be going home to try some from their own garden, although I wonder if the thought made it home with them and if the purslane ever made its way to their table.

I am not sure if it is something I would plant and consciously cultivate however given the fact that our garden has an already established stand of it, I am happy to find out about its nutritional qualities. According to Edible Garden Weeds of Canada: “purslane is richer in iron than any other leafy vegetable, except parsley. It also said to be rich in vitamins A, C, B and omega 3s.

I have also read that it is grown as a companion plant in many countries – providing ground cover, holding in moisture and using its deep roots to bring nutrients to the surface through harder soil.

It is often how we look at things – if we see them as a problem or opportunity. Looking at purslane as a food source and a support for other plants in the garden means that I see the patches of it in our garden very differently.

It's likely no one will ever buy the purslane we bring to market but it gives us a way to start conversations with others and to make our booth memorable. I doubt people remember our farm name, but I wouldn't be surprised if we are referred to as “those people trying to get us to eat weeds.” There are worse ways one could be referred to.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Harvesting Abundance

My article in the August 3rd Chautauqua

Harvesting Abundance

The last week or so has come with a bit of anxiety around our garden because I haven't started to harvest much from our garden – my greens and herb are doing great but am still weeding and watching and waiting.

I go to the farmers markets and see others with heads of cauliflower, fresh peas, perfect sized beets and I have to ask them: when did you plant? Did you use transplants or seed? Any row covers or irrigation? I am comparing their system to mine to find out why I am 'behind.'

We did plant later than most people this year and when the weeks were very dry in May, we resisted watering because we didn't want the garden dependent on the water. After getting our straw mulch down, we did give the plants a couple good soaks, along with applying compost and compost tea.

The last weeks the rains and the heat have come and overall the garden has been coming along well. So well, I was contemplating taking some baskets of lettuce and herbs into the market as I have more than we can eat. Then came the hail which shredded my lettuce and dropped my confidence around the garden. I took a walk through our rows and saw the damage and anxiety returned. However I had my baskets with me and decided to harvest what I could as I walked along. Thirty minutes later I walked into the house with a basket full of basil for pesto; a basket with 5-6 other herbs which I will dry for use in cooking or tea; strawberries and raspberries; lettuce and chard; onions and radishes; a couple types of peppers, the first head of broccoli and some fresh new potatoes.

As I looked over this, I felt pretty good. It made me reflect on life in general. When I am busy with tasks and getting things done, it feels like the days slip past and unless I pause and reflect all that has happened: the tasks accomplished, lessons learned, laughs laughed, I miss the abundance that is around me.

So this week, I am sending a wish out to all:
May you enjoy the weeks ahead as we step into the highs of harvest and let each basket of food and jar of preserves remind you of the unseen blessings that surround you each day.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What System Do You Want to Eat From?

My latest article in The Chautauqua, sharing thoughts from my trip to Sweden and relating them to home.

I was fortunate enough to be on the road a lot in June - for work and for personal reasons.   One of the events I was fortunate to join was the Tallberg Forum in Sweden.   This forum started 30 years ago when a Swedish gentleman invited close peers together to explore the question "How on Earth can we all live together?"   Since they didn't find the answer that first year, they kept meeting.   It is now a forum of around 300 people, exploring new understandings coming from science, society, politics - looking at the big challenges of our time and seeking ideas that are holistic and continue to move us to living better on this Earth, together.  

This year's theme was technology and I was happy to see one morning group dedicated to Food.   After hearing thoughts from financiers, bureaucrats and even a farmer (imagine, listening to a farmer's thoughts!) I was getting a bit antsy.   There was a lot of talk about use of technology to make food production more efficient, productive, sustainable but it felt like we weren't really dealing with the big questions underlying the use of technology and our food system.  

The last speaker addressed this unease.   She spoke about the big choices in front of us and told the crowd that we need to be thinking about WHAT food system we want to be eating from and not just if it can feed us.   She pointed out that we are increasingly handing over the power to make decisions about what we eat and how it is produced to a small, select group that are usually physically very distant from our immediate reality.   This is a completely different food system than that which sustained us through the majority of human history.   While there is a question of how we can feed our entire population, we can not forget that we also must ask (and answer) WHAT we want to be eating and from what system.

Coming back to Canada, I heard about the recent video "Tough to Swallow" released by the AUPE that 'showcases' the food system that feeds seniors in long term care facilities in Alberta.   This video focusses specifically on the change in menu at 78 hospitals and nursing homes EACH with fewer than 125 beds -   in this video Stettler was one of the facilities visited.   The idea of a regular menu that rotates for 21 days and repeats isn't a bad idea itself.   However it goes back to the question of what system delivers that menu.   Centralizing purchasing, preparation and packaging the food was supposed to save money while still delivering 'good food.'   Health professionals in the video are speaking out because they believe the food is poor in quality: both palatability and also nutritional value.   And as for the saving money, that is also coming under question.   I am not going to tell you all the details of the video, you can watch it yourself at - what I want to do is have you pause and think about what food you want to be eating and how you would expect that food to be produced, processed and delivered to you.   And then to look around you and see if that food is what is there in our hospitals, care facilities, & schools.  

I am fortunate enough to have not spent anytime in hospitals nor have family in long term care, nor do I have children.   I do have friends who take food to their parents in long terms care because the food served is not supporting their well-being and know that locally their are mothers who are fighting school policies to change the kind of hot meals served to their children and so believe this video holds valid complaints because I have heard them first hand.  

It may be easy to dismiss these residents' complaints - if they have dementia and can't remember what they ate, why does it matter?   For me it does.     Life turns on a dime and it could easily be me or another loved one that is being served from a system that only sees value in food when it brings down budget expenses or makes the middle man a buck.    As well, I do believe that a society's values are measured by how it treats its most vulnerable and so I am picking up the phone to call Alberta Health Services Patient Services (1-855-550-2555) and to my MLA to voice my concerns and tell the government that I think this is an important issue.   I know this is a small step to take, but as a politician once told me: leaders need followers and if we expect change, we need to ask for it and give our leaders some thing to stand on and speak to.   If you care about the food system and what we are feeding our seniors, children, ourselves and don't want to see this issue buried among other youtube videos of cute kittens and bad singers, I hope you take the time to call as well.  

If anyone is interested in exploring how we can do more, together, in our community with regards to issues like this, I am always happy to connect.  You can reach me at or 4037472217.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

It's a Mess!

My thoughts on our garden set up, first published in The Chautauqua:

Our garden is a mess. From the distance of our kitchen window, it looks fairly normal. Long, brown rows where seedlings are starting to poke through, separated by yellow straw mulch that is holding in the moisture and keeping the weeds down.

Get closer though and you'll see last year's corn stalks and other dried plants still layered on the ground. 'Weeds' are poking up through the straw mulch and whole patches of lamb's quarters are being allowed to grow. Instead of tilling under the whole garden and then planting, we used a rake to move aside our mulch and only tilled exactly where we planned to plant. We did this in order to preserve the moisture in the soil that can be lost by tossing up the soil and letting the wind have access to it. We also are choosing to let the microorganisms in the soil live. The work of Dr. Elaine Ingham and others like her have revealed the complex web of life that live in our soil and that participate in order to have healthy soil and healthy plants. Most of these organisms live in the top inches of soil and tilling disrupts and kills them thus setting back the long term health of the soil. Our garden isn't at the point, yet, where we can eliminate tilling completely but we feel better knowing that we've left the majority of the soil intact and are letting the soil feed itself rather than applying external fertilizers.

This is also why we are a bit more relaxed when it comes to weeding. We are removing the plants that are coming up close to our seedlings so that there is not competition for our vegetables, but in the areas where we haven't planted, we are not planning to actively till or kill the 'weeds.' Recent research is showing that it is at the root tip of plants where a great deal of nutrient transfer and soil transformation takes place. Our teachers have impressed up on us that it is better to have roots in the soil, no matter whose roots they are. Thus our weed control will come in later, not allowing plants to go to seed and spread, but in the mean time we are not breaking our backs over hoes. We are letting our geese help out: they do enjoy the fresh sprouts of dandelions and grasses.

Because we didn't clean out our garden last fall, it also means we are finding some treasures as we let things grow. We have head lettuce that self-seeded and is weeks ahead of the lettuce I planted this spring. We've found garlic and onions sprouting – we expect that our fall help missed them or the stalks were broken and the bulbs left in the ground. I haven't had to put any new dill or cilantro in this year as I have nice patches coming up on their own.

Gardening this way is a big shift for me – I keep wondering what the neighbours must think when they drive by. But by the time I make it to the far end of my garden – having picked a few 'weeds' along with some herbs and leaves for supper and watched our geese travel between rows, snacking, I have a smile on my face and peace in my heart.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Queen of our Coop

My latest entry in the Chautauqua

A few weeks ago I shared my concern over the ladies that our rooster was hanging out with. The crowd he tends to run with during the day aren't the hens we wanted his attention focused on. I wondered if I should get involved and pen them up together or if I should just trust that what I might not be seeing was still taking place. Yesterday I got my answer.

All winter long we'd been watching one of our hens bolt from the coop under crates, pallets and anywhere else we couldn't reach her. She's a regal-looking gal with black lacy feathers, sharp orange eyes, and an intelligence to match her fast feet. We named her Queen Victoria. She's the main reason we decided to get a rooster and when a neighbour offered us her spare, we offered him a home. So when they seemed to always be on opposite ends of the yard – I began to get worried. However my anxiety (and purchase of an incubator!) all seems pointless now.

Yesterday Queen Victoria showed up in the yard with 7 peeping chicks behind her. She's settled them into the coop and is the exemplary mother we hoped she would be.

We've recently christened our farm operations as “Earth Works Farm.” It's a reminder to us that the earth works: ecosystems and organisms know how to grow, produce and renew – without us trying to control or manipulate them. We participate in those systems but also try to stay out of the way, to trust and to learn from nature.

Queen Victoria has been one of our teachers in this realm and I am proud to say I am one of her students. She definitely is the queen of our coop and my hope now is that she will be as long-reigning as her namesake.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Honey - I have worms...

My latest Chautauqua article:

My husband has worms. It's gotten so bad that family members are bringing over food scraps because our table can't feed them all. It's hard to figure out exactly how many there are but we estimate around 11 kilograms of them.

Oh wait – not THOSE worms. I am talking about red wigglers, the kind of earthworm that is excellent at taking your table scraps and animal droppings and turning them into beautiful compost to use as a fertilizer in your garden and on your land.

A year ago he purchased a yogurt container of worms and by wintertime we had three mineral tubs full and needed to find them a warm place to reside. Red wigglers are not hardy over our Canadian winter as they stay shallow in the earth and a small amount will not produce enough heat to keep warm over winter. So into our basement they came and soon we had a pyramid of about 13 mineral tubs stacked up.

Many people have composts in their backyards so why use worms? For us it comes down to the fact that worms breakdown material faster without needing to get your compost up to a high heat. Regular compost can be incredibly fast too – but take a lot more attention. So far we've learned that keeping worms are pretty simple: feed them anything organic although keep the amount of citrus to a low part of that ratio and forget about laminated or glossy paper; keep them moist but not too wet and don't pee on them (urine has been found to speed up composting and add value to the end product however it's not a favorite of the worms). Your nose is the best gaugue of how things are doing: the main smell around the bins is one of potting soil. If it starts to smell a bit 'off' then you have overfed them. The size of your worm operation is dependent on how much you feed them and how much space you give them – many people in urban cities find worm composting the easiest as they can keep them inside without a smell and they break down waste faster, taking up less space.

So why do we want so many? For one – we have a large garden that we plan to expand and our soil is quite sandy. We plan to use the worm castings (the compost end-product also known as 'worm poo') to build our soil. Secondly – hubby is taking a course this May on the soil food web so we can experiment with using worm castings and compost tea (made from the castings) as natural amendments to our pasture.

This time of year the gardening stores are busy selling fertilizers and soil amendments – ours are coming out of our basement and onto the garden. The cost: our table waste, some cow manure and a bit of my husband's time. Although I am not sure if I should even consider his time. Before we married he warned me that he's still a 12 year-old boy at heart and I am sure digging in the dirt and playing with worms keeps that part of him happy.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Spring Fever - My latest Chautauqua article

Below is my latest article in the local paper, The Chautauqua

Today's the first day of spring and there is definitely a touch of the fever around here.

As we move back into farming - we are trying to learn the skills related to each enterprise that would allow us to be able to be self-sustaining, if we need to be. This means learning how to start seeds and how to save them so that we are not dependent on other growers. It doesn't mean that we won't buy seeds or plants from others, but at least we know how to do these things if we want or need to. This is a principle we are also applying to our animal enterprises.

Last year we had very little involvement in the hatching of our ducklings. We had two females and when we were offered a drake - we added him to the clutch. A few weeks later the two girls were gone. As we had recently witnessed one of them learning to fly, we thought they must have taken a trip. After they had been gone for over a month - we began to think that we would not see them again. However a few weeks later they returned with 9 ducklings and took up home in our coop. Natural birthing indeed!

Of those nine - 5 were male, so late October saw us learning to butcher and we've enjoyed a dinner of roast duck a few times this winter. The 4 females joined Naomi and Wynonna (our two original ducks, mother and daughter) in the coop all winter.

This past weekend we brought home a new drake. He's come from a home that included lots of males competing for female attention so we figure that the 6:1 female to male ratio is in his favour and we're hoping nature will work in our favour again.

A few weeks ago we also introduced a rooster into our henhouse, hoping to get some fertile eggs to incubate in the upcoming weeks. We are not counting on our whole flock to come from eggs we are incubating ourselves. This year is about learning and experimenting with the new-to-us incubator we just bought.

What all this means is that I now feel a bit like a madam running a brothel. Two of our windows look directly across the yard to the coop so I can watch the goings ons during the day. I find myself observing the actions of our ducks and, as it seems they are getting along well, trying to rig up nest boxes that our ducks will like as it is still too cold for them to be taking off into the woods to nest.

I am also wondering what to do about the fact that our rooster is hanging out with the 'wrong' chickens: we would prefer he mated with our 4 heritage hens and not our Isa Browns. I am pondering locking him and his four girlfriends in a separate pen to ensure he pays proper attention to them but I don't know what may be going on inside the coop and perhaps this is unnecessary.

I know I shouldn't count my chickens before they hatch but I feel like I should do what I can to ensure the eggs are fertilised. So in the spirit of the spring equinox, this weekend I may just crank up the stereo, put on Louis Prima's “Just a Gigolo” and get to work on those nesting boxes.

The gent arrives
Our gals seem to be welcoming him

The first family photo

Monday, April 2, 2012

Building Bridges for Islands: GFSA Blog

I wrote up a reflection for Growing Food Security in Alberta on the recent Joel Salatin presentation's that we attended in Lacombe and Coronation and it was just posted on their blog:
“We’re building bridges for islands in the prairie.”
That was the feeling in the room in Coronation as people began to arrive to hear Joel Salatin, of Polyface farms (, speak.
For farmers who are looking to raise livestock and produce food in ways that are rooted in ecological principles, Joel is somewhat of a role model. His books like “The Sheer Ecstasy of being a Lunatic Farmer”, “Salad Bar Beef”, and “You Can Farm” have provided inspiration, motivation and laughter. His story about his farm is a positive one as he shows the growth in healthy soil that has occurred under the stewardship of his father, himself and his children. Plus the farm is supporting three generations of the family (generation number four growing up there too) and 20 individuals. This is not the common story on farms in the USA and Canada.
For my husband and I, the chance to see Joel without having to travel very far was an excellent opportunity to also have our parents and siblings get further insight into our line of thinking. We attended both the Lacombe evening presentation with all of our parents in tow. Then the next day we drove out to Coronation with his mother and sister. Events like these are not 100% about the individual giving the presentation: they are about the conversations you have with people at the event and with your partner when you get home.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Canadian Conversation

My article in The Chautauqua from the 16 March - 

I'm writing this looking out over the freshly white fields, as more snow falls, happy that I don't have to drive anywhere today and even happier to see some moisture hitting the ground.

It wasn't until I lived in Singapore – 1 degree north of the equator – that I realized how much we Canadians talk about the weather. When you live somewhere that has very little fluctuation in temperature, there suddenly seems to be very little to talk about in the elevator. Now I am not only living in Canada, where the weather provides an easy conversation to 'break-the-ice' but I am back on the farm. That means the weather is a factor in almost every decision you make: what work you do today depends on today's weather, tomorrow's forecast and the almanac's prediction for the year ahead.

After Christmas we took our honeymoon in Nicaragua and visited a few farms there. They were talking about the fact that there dry season was (at that time) about a month and a half late. They were pleased because in the same way we stockpile feed (for us and the animals) over the winter, they stockpile to get through the dry season. It made us start to think about the year ahead of us, back home. So there we were – overlooking Lake Nicaragua, eating our breakfast of rice and beans – checking weather back home, reviewing the moisture falls from the very dry fall and winter (so far) and thinking about what we need to do this spring. Despite the rainfalls we received in 2010 and 2011, the dry fall and little snow this winter had us thinking about moisture.

Last summer we covered the garden in mulch: a variety of cardboards, black plastic, wood chips and straw mean that there is not a bare patch of ground, so any moisture that was there before the dry winds came was protected and the spring melt should be held in. (Thank goodness for this snow – there might actually BE a spring melt). We are trying to grow our garden with minimal tilling and we are still figuring out ways to work through the mulch we've already laid – but if that work upfront means less watering and less weeding later on, I am up for it.

We also have the materials for a water catchment system off the quonset. That was one of last year's projects that didn't seem to make the priority list. It's on the priority list for this year, though. If the rains come and we don't need to water the garden, I am sure the ducks and geese will appreciate the bigger pond to swim in.

While the weather is something we can feel at the mercy of in Canada (no ones figured out how to control it yet, although I am sure Monsanto is trying...) the changing seasons and the variation is a constant reminder of the ecosystems that we are a small part in and connects us to the natural cycles that abound. Plus it gives you an easy topic to use to fill in the time while you wait for your coffee.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Seeds of Choice

My second article for The Chautauqua, 2 March 2012:

Seeds of Choice

When I was little – I would look forward to the SEARS Wish Book arriving in the house. I would read every page, then go back and make a long list of every item that I would be happy to see under the Christmas tree. Then do another read through, paring that list down but still leaving plenty of choice for Santa to surprise me from. It was part of the aniticipation of Christmas – something I enjoyed as much as the day itself. Now – it's seed catalogues. I've replaced the Christmas season with spring and instead of a single book to leaf through, I know have multiple catalogues and websites to peruse. This past December, I started to get anxious and even resorted to making my first lists from the 2011 catalogues as many companies had yet to release their 2012 editions.

This past weekend one of my friends asked me about where I buy my seeds and why. I don't have a list of hard and fast rules but my philosophy can probably be summed up as getting seeds from as close to home as possible, from a source that I can locate (if I wanted to). Following these guidelines I find that I am getting seed from that is fresh, that is appropriate for our growing conditions, and that includes varieties beyond the usual, commercial breeds.
I haven't gone to purchasing 100% organic seed because there still seems to be a limited amount of choice within certified seed from the prairies however I do aim to purchase from smaller seed producers and savers, and most of them state up front that they don't use chemicals, invite you to visit and be the inspector and actually tell you their lcoation so you could.

I am more interested in getting seeds for vegetables that are heirloom or heritage breeds. These are not the vegetables you are likely to see on the grocery store shelves because those breeds have been selected for lasting in transport and on shelves but may have lost other characteristics that make them hardier in our climate or have taste/colour attributes that I want to try. My family will tell you that I am a sucker for vegetables that have colours that we aren't used to: not all carrots are orange and there can be great joy in cutting into a beet that has a golden interior hidden by the common red.
The July 2011 National Geographic covered the looming crisis in our food supply and how there is a need to be preserving the diversity of species available to us to grow for food in order to meet challenges posed by increased populations, changes in growing conditions, and new diseases. They included a fantastic diagram that showed the change in availability of varities from 1903 to today. For example: in 1903 there were 408 types of tomatoes available via commercial seed houses and by 1983 there were only 79. So buying seed and growing vegetables that are different and unique is not only about having more fun in the kitchen, but is my small way of contributing to keeping our seed bank a bit richer.

My belief that diversity makes us more resilient is another reason why I prefer to support a few smaller enterpreneurs and seed savers rather than single, larger companies: the more people involved in growing and providing seed, the less dependent we are on a single source and a few key species in our seed bank. Supporting local people also means more money circulating and staying in our local, rural communities. As well, I find they are able to answer my questions about specific breeds in much greater detail and if I have any problems, are more willing to help me out.

I thought my seed shopping was done for this year, other than what I plan on picking up at Red Deer's Seedy Sunday (March 25, Kerry Wood Nature Centre) but now I am wondering if I ordered those purple carrots or not? So I am signing off to go look at my lists and orders and see if I can squeeze one more row of carrots in to the garden plan.

Writing again

I've recently started to write for a local newspaper: The Chautauqua, a local paper that covers the communities around our part of Alberta.  It's mine own little column so I get to write from my own thoughts, experiences and adventures...  the focus on local food: growing, eating and points in between.  Below is the first article I submitted, as a way of introducing myself as I am quite new to the area:

Adventures in Local Fo-o-od

I grew up on a farm north of Coronation, but as the youngest of 8 children – I got away with doing the least amount of farm work as possible and as soon as I could, I set out to explore other pastures. After 10 years of working abroad, living the typical urban life – I was greeted with scepticism and surprise when I told family and friends that I planned to move back to rural Alberta.

The 'plan' is working out better than I could have imagined: in October 2011 I married Vance Barritt and we are now residing on his mom's farm, east of Alix. We are the proud owners of a small herd of cows, a clutch of laying hens, and a brace of ducks; with broiler chickens, a milk cow, and perhaps some geese to join them in the spring. Pigs and goats seem to crop up in conversation but... I will leave those conversations for now - they just might be content for an interesting column in the future.

I am not a gourmet chef nor am I a master gardener. However I love food – my husband says that when I say 'food' – I add an extra 'o' to draw it out for emphasis. F-o-o-o-d. I enjoy watching my garden flourish, preparing nourishing food for family and friends, and (with my husband) am an aspiring food producer – wanting to share our livestock with our family, friends and wider community. I also enjoy writing when I get to reflect, tell stories and share what I have learned – so I am putting those two (foood and writing) together for this column. So in the months ahead I will share stories and insights from my own experience of growing, harvesting, and enjoying the abundance of great food that we can (and do!) produce here in Alberta.

I look forward to getting to know more of you in the community, as I am a relative newcomer around here and I appreciate you giving me this space to share. Feel free to send in comments and thoughts, feedback is always welcome.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Equity vs. Equality; differences & discoveries

Some of you might know that I have been working on a project with Growing Food Security in Alberta - exploring what it would mean to have a sustainable, equitable, local, regenerative system for food.  This first phase has been about doing a lot of action-inquiry based research: talking to people around all parts of the food system and understanding their thoughts, experiences and ideas.

I recently wrote this blog post for the GFSA blog - reflecting on what we have learned about the E - equity:

Equity vs. Equality; differences & discoveries – SELRS Update