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.