What is Sustainability?
Sustainability is always on our minds here on the farm, it influences everything we do and informs all our decisions. But what does it really mean? It basically means to be able to keep doing what you’re doing, to “sustain” it, and for that you need balance. For balance you always need to be reevaluating, checking in, questioning and looking at the results of your actions. It is no question that the way the majority of people live in industrialized countries is not sustainable, we are taking too much from nature, we are not in balance. In living in an industrialized country like Canada, it is almost impossible to not be part of that “taking too much” culture, and any small ways of trying to be more sustainable can seem futile and discouraging in the face of all that’s going wrong. I want to encourage you to realize that the only thing that is truly futile is not trying at all - any little thing we do has an impact, however small, because our individual actions make up the actions of the world. So please realize that your actions matter, and you should feel good about whatever you are able to do in your particular life and set of circumstances.
When I try to figure out what is sustainable for farming I picture a future without industrialization. In this future I would not have access to any products made by industry. What could I do with what I already have? I can make hay from the fields of grass, this can be used for mulching around vegetables instead of plastic. There’s lots of weeds that I can make a compost tea with for fertilizer. I have some vegetable plants flowering, I can leave them to produce seeds which I can then save and use to grow next year's crop. I can do more care for the plants by hand, not depending on diesel to run a tractor. I can use old logs and leaves from the woods to make a hugelkultur bed. I can do pest control by hand instead of depending on pesticides, and I can leave natural habitats close to the veggie garden to encourage predatory insects and animals to feed on those pests. You see the point, what can we do with what we already have?
This is the point of sustainability to me, to always be looking at how we can use things that are produced by or available in nature to be able to “sustain” the way we farm and this includes sustaining nature so it can continue to provide those things (and also simply because it has a right to exist as much as we do). There’s a Mi’kmaq word that I learned recently - Netukulimk, which sums it up really well: “it is about achieving community nutrition and economic well-being without jeopardizing our environment. Mi’Kmaq resource management unites people with the plants, animals and the environment as a whole”. Though we are nowhere near as sustainable as the original people of Mi’kma’ki or Nova Scotia, we do try to take into account how any and all of our actions will impact the environment around us and how it will impact future generations who may live on this land, and we are always trying to do better within our personal set of circumstances.
This is definitely a hugely complex issue, and while we do all of these things on our farm, we also do things that are not sustainable in this future without industrialization. We use a tractor which uses diesel, we deliver our veggies with a car which uses gas, we communicate to potential customers using cell phones and computers which use rare earth minerals that must be mined, we use greenhouse plastic, plastic pots and trays which are made from gas and oil, and we use potting mix which is made from peat moss. All of these things are unsustainable in the long run - there is a finite amount of oil, peat moss, and rare earth minerals in the world. The sad truth is that it is next to impossible to be 100% sustainable as a farmer today and still make enough money to keep going. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to be sustainable? Not at all! Like I said above, every little action towards sustainability is worthwhile, the only thing that is futile is not trying.
Most farmland in North America is farmed very unsustainably - huge monocultures, dangerous pesticides, chemical fertlizers, heavy machinery, undocumented farm workers paid below minimum wage, overworked soil with little organic matter and microbial life, …the list goes on. There are a small amount of farmers who are trying to farm sustainably, usually on a smaller scale and there is more interest in these farms by the year as people look for ways to support a sustainable future. Ecologically-minded farms take different approaches with sustainability, because it is true that there is no one clear answer that is the best approach, each approach comes with potential drawbacks and issues. Covering the soil with plastic cuts down on weeding and protects the soil from drying out which kills microbial life, however plastic itself is not a sustainable resource, it excludes certain insects and wildlife from the area and it can break down into the soil in the form of microplastics. Using organic pesticides such as in organic farming is better and less harmful than synthetic pesticides but can still harm certain beneficial insects such as honeybees, native bees and predatory beetles. Growing veggies indoors uses less space and can use less pesticides but is way more dependent on industrial products such as grow lights, hydroponic systems, electricity for heat, chemical fertilizers etc and these things take a lot of energy to produce. These are just a couple examples I can think of right now, but the point I want to make is that there are many different ways farms are trying to be sustainable and we should encourage the march towards sustainability in any way farmers are attempting it, because we are all in this together.
There is so much to say about this subject and sometimes it’s hard to pin point exactly what people need to know… if anyone reading this has any questions or thoughts please don’t hesitate to ask us, maybe you will spark another blog post! The more we all talk about the problems we face the more solutions can be found. I wanted to write this not because I think I have all the answers but because I want to get people questioning, thinking and talking about it. Thank you for reading.
*Oh, I forgot the most important thing that I wanted to say, I wanted to give you a future to picture that is sustainable. Take all the people that feel stuck in poverty, on unemployment, working minimum wage jobs that they hate, or really anyone at all who’s interested and get them working on farms. This might sound like a strange suggestion in today's world but it is only very recently in humanity’s history that most of the population doesn’t live and work on farms. Today farmers make up 2% of Canada’s population. If you look back through the ancestry of your family line you will likely see “occupation: farmer” many, many times. More people doing the physical work of growing food equals less energy usage and puts less pressure on our environment. Farming gets people out in the sun doing physical work that really matters, this is good for their mental, emotional and physical states. When you grow something you can literally see the fruits of your labour, it is there on the tree in front of you. There’s no living in abstraction, everything is what it is. I truly believe that so many of the problems of society would be solved if more people were farming. So why don’t they? They need to make enough to survive. With the increased interest in local foods in recent years there are more and more people getting into farming and starting small scale farms, we need to sustain this and keep it going. There are lots of people who would love to work on farms or have their own if they could make a decent living, how can we make this happen? I’ll leave you with that question, and also this thought- if a global event happens and we are not able to grow and ship food with gas and oil, we will be completely dependent on local farms for food and the people that know how to farm sustainably.
What are sunchokes?
They are a potato-like tuber from a type of sunflower. They can be used much like you would use a potato, boiled, roasted or fried. Their flavour is sweet, mild and nutty - comparable to hazelnuts or sunflower seeds. Unlike potatoes, they should be kept in the fridge, but then they stay good for eating for a very long time, even over a year! Sunchokes are a food that is indigenous to North America and were cultivated and spread across the continent by many First Nations.
Why eat sunchokes?
Beyond having a great flavour, they are also very nutritious! They are high in potassium, iron, fiber, niacin, thiamine, phosphorus and copper. Many people find them to be a healthier alternative to potatoes because they contain inulin and therefore do not spike the blood sugar like potatoes, many diabetics can eat them with no issues.
If you’re trying sunchokes for the first time it is recommended to start with just a small amount as they can cause digestive upset in some people, but with a longer cooking time or by adding ginger you can often counteract this effect.
Why grow sunchokes?
They are possibly the easiest vegetable to grow! Simply bury a tuber in soil in the spring and by the fall you could be harvesting 1 lb per plant, or even more. Sunchokes are a perennial plant, so they will grow back year after year, producing pounds of food a year, they will grow back from even the tiniest tuber left behind.
They are a very sustainable food crop for the future. Some of their amazing qualities: they do not require much fertilizer at all, they do not have any pests that we’ve seen, they do not need to be planted every year, they produce well without any water beyond what they get from the rain, they produce substantial yields even in drought years, they can be harvested in the fall, or left in the ground over the winter and dug up in the spring, and they flower later in the fall than most plants - allowing bees one extra boost of nectar and pollen before their winter sleep.
One our farm, we started with 10 lbs of tubers in 2016 and now have hundreds of pounds of sunchokes per year. We haven’t brought in any other tubers since the original 10 lbs. This is a food crop that multiplies itself very easily! In a world where food security is ever more unstable, having a nice sunchoke patch is a great way to ensure there will always be food nearby.
The type we grow is known as “Passamaquoddy Potatoes” and was developed on Grand Manan Island by the First Nations there. They have magenta skin with bright white flesh and the best flavour of sunchokes that we’ve tried. When digging sunchokes, this bright colour helps you see them amongst the soil - another big plus of this variety.
If you’re interested in growing sunchokes, the best time to plant them is during the spring. Just dig a hole 6 inches to a foot deep in a sunny location, throw in the tuber and cover it! They prefer sandy soil, but honestly they will probably grow anywhere you plant them. By late May or June you will have the green growing tips poking up through the soil and they will continue growing through the summer to reach heights of 6’, 8’ or even taller! Then by the end of September you will see them growing yellow flowers at the tops of their stalks that resemble small sunflowers. As said before these are much loved by bees for their winter food stores. Once there’s a frost and the plant starts to die, then the tubers will not get any bigger and you can start harvesting them. You can pull up the stalk and there will be many tubers growing from the roots which can then be pulled off. You should also bring a shovel because the roots can grow a few feet before producing a tuber, so just dig around in the immediate vicinity of the plant and you’ll likely find some more. Many people wait until the spring to harvest sunchokes as they tend to get sweeter over the long winter dormancy, it’s up to you! Any tubers left in the soil will sprout again in the spring and start another generation of plants. And honestly even if you think you’ve harvested all the tubers there will probably always be some that you miss that will grow, sunchokes are masters of survival!
If you want to try sunchokes for eating or for growing you can order them:
Our farm as well as Moon Tide Farm (who we got our first 10 lbs from) both have the Passamaquoddy variety available on there.
Happy eating and growing!
Why Care About Spray-Free Vegetables? How do they Benefit You?
Spray-free vegetables are important because they are in their natural state with nothing added. When you buy spray-free broccoli, you are just getting broccoli. This is how people have eaten for most of our history, until pesticide use became widespread only in the 1950s. Pesticides are poisons that can affect far more than just the pest they are intended to, and even though they are legal does not make them safe. They are affecting our bee populations, micro-organisms in the soil, life in waterways, and are harmful to the health of humans too, including causing cancer. When you purchase and eat spray-free veggies you are benefiting your own health and the health of the environment. You are also supporting small-scale farmers who are taking care of their land and keeping it fertile for future generations to feed themselves with. It is in everyone’s interest to keep the environment healthy since it is what we all have in common. Buying from a local spray-free producer also has other pluses: the food is fresher, more nutritious, lasts longer and tastes better! Every dollar you spend on spray-free vegetables lets farmers continue to produce them; you are casting a vote for the world you want!
About Our Farm: Our farm is small and enable us to take the risks necessary to operate a spray-free farm. We have few employees that depend on us so we are able to adapt to crop losses as needed. Our insurance lies within the diversity of our farm crops making us stronger against weather’s adverse and unpredictable conditions . Our farm allows nature to dictate production, as it should be. As a species we like to take “control” by overtaking natural systems as though they are irrelevant but they aren’t - nature knows balance best!
About Our Health: The natural world is mirroring what is happening within our bodies, what is done to it is done to us. The poison we give is also the poison we take. We are allowed to carry on this way because over the counter drugs makes it very easy for us to abuse our bodies and remedy the discomfort but not the sickness. This sickness is allowed to fester relatively unnoticed . As long as we view ourselves (humans) as something separate from the natural world we will never be able to access a holistic and healing life force. So much faith is put into the “regulatory systems” to protect us (from harmful chemicals) but these systems are for big business, not for you and me. Misplaced faith is a dangerous game. Choosing local is the safest bet by far!
I like to think of CSA's like different types of music. Not all music is for everyone. We all search out the music that resonates with us and CSA's are very much like this each having it's own vibe!
So what is a CSA and what's our CSA vibe?
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, this is where a community member commits to a set number of weeks where they will be supplied with a weekly share of produce from a farm. Our farm offers a 5 week spring share (4-6 items) at $20/week for the whole month of June & a 20 week main season share (6-10 items) at $30/week from July to November. Shares contain in season produce such as veggies, herbs and fruit to make up the weekly value you've paid for in advance. This arrangement ensures the freshest food for members and financial stability for the farmer and a brighter future for all!
Our vibe is rooted around care, communication & creativity! Every member uses each of these offerings a little differently. Our highly artistic members often want all the colorful and weird veggies they can get their hands on and depend own their own creativity to make the most of their shares which is so beautiful. Other members have cautious curiosity and need more communication around how to use their share because they want to honor the food and not waste it - these customers have really made our CSA what it is today. Then we have the tender hearted members that need to know their food is grown with care and will jump through hoops to get just that! Through this blend we end up with the most amazing members and without even knowing it they cultivate space for each other. We can communicate more deeply with those who need it because the creative bunch forge forward in their own way and we can give more care because the tender hearted are always filling our hearts. So that's the vibe or as close as I can get to it!
We like to sweeten it with a spoonful of maple syrup or honey, and it also tastes great with cinnamon, nutmeg and anise sprinkled on top. It is also great with a hot chocolate mix, we call it "hot chagy". We are big fans of chaga and other herbal teas and drink them all the time!
All of the chaga sold through our farm is harvested sustainably in various locations around Nova Scotia (including the woods surrounding our farm). "Sustainably harvested" means that there is a good portion of the chaga mass left on the tree to let it regrow from, the tree is not cut into or damaged and many different locations are used for foraging. After being harvested the chaga is dried for a few days and then ground up with a hand grinder.
Foraging couple Aaron and Ari have a deep love and caring for nature and respect the entire process, they search out this wonderful piece of nature in the forests of Nova Scotia, dry it and then we grind it and package it for you! Stay tuned for the summer when they may or may not have more different wild foraged mushrooms available through our farm! ;)
You can purchase our chaga here through WFM2go which is an online ordering and delivery service offered through the Wolfville Farmers Market with pickup hubs in Halifax, Tantallon, Dartmouth, Bedford, Kentville, Berwick, & Windsor. Delivery days are Saturday & Wednesday!
I wanted to write something to reiterate our commitment to sustainable growing practices, so here is is:
Do you spray pesticides? On our farm we NEVER spray our veggies. This includes synthetic as well as organic-approved pesticides. The trouble with synthetic pesticides are well known, there are dangers of cancer and other health problems to consumers that eat veggies that have pesticides sprayed on them. There is danger to the insect population (including those that the sprays are not intended for), insects are a vital part of the ecosystem of the earth. There is danger to wildlife, waterways and soil biology. We also do not use organic-approved pesticides because even though they can be safer, there are still dangers to insects such as honeybees that the pesticides are not intended for, that is our decision for our farm and it’s what we feel comfortable doing within our little piece of nature. A lot of people are skeptical when a farm says they are no-spray but please take into account all the hard work, sweat, stress, planning, adapting, and tough times that go into running a farm, please believe the farmer! Also if you are still not convinced, you are cordially invited to come down to our farm and “catch us in the act” at any time… you will not find us spraying pesticides on our vegetables.
So how do you control pest insects then? A lot of people think that you cannot grow crops without using some sort of pesticide, in our experience this is not true… you just have to be a bit more creative, adaptable and observant! The first and foremost method we use is letting nature do it’s thing, our farm is surrounded by forest, a river, fields, a ravine, streams, and lots of wild areas where wildflowers grow. By leaving most of the land in its natural state, we are inviting the natural ecosystem into our veggie fields - this includes beneficial predatory insects, predatory animals and birds and even native fungi and bacterias. We also use natural products such as wood ash and diatomaceous earth to deter pests, as well as mulching with hay and straw that provides places for predatory insects to live right next to the crops. We use natural fertilizers like compost tea and alfalfa meal which help the plants grow fast and big, a healthy plant is less susceptible to pests. Something we are even trying this year is simply daily sweeping pest insects off the plants so they are slowed down and more susceptible to predators. We also just squish them as well! Sometimes we don’t even do anything because the pest chews on the plant for awhile but then ceases to be a problem, and if you are using pesticides as soon as you see a pest you might never realize this.
How do you control weeds? We NEVER use herbicides. Herbicides, like pesticides can be damaging to wildlife as well as people. All of the weeding on our farm is done by hand, either pulling them out by hand or using a hula hoe (the most useful hand tool we’ve found!). We mulch the soil with hay or straw or reused sheets of greenhouse plastic to keep weeds from growing in the first place. We also have a flame-weeder where you hold a flame right over the weeds after they emerge. We also sometimes just leave weeds if they are not competing with a crop for nutrients, because they have a place in the ecosystem too and are good for the soil. Dandelions and clover are excellent for soil health. Lambs-quarters are a favourite food of aphids, so if you leave some growing the aphids will choose them over your spinach! Edible weeds can also be a nutritious snack for a farmer working a long day in the fields. They can also be harvested and turned into compost tea which is very nutritious for crops. Hand-weeding is the most time consuming part of our farm but it allows us to stay in touch with the crop health, soil health and notice useful things that we may not otherwise see.
How do you fertilize? We NEVER use synthetic fertilizers. These are mined, then processed in large industrial plants and are bad for the environment both by the impact mining has on natural areas as well as all the energy used and pollution produced. When used on fields they can kill microorganisms and fungi that make the soil healthy, as well as run off into waterways and cause algae blooms and other problems. We opt to use all natural and organic fertilizers such as cow manure, compost tea, alfalfa meal and kelp meal. These are more gentle and natural to the soil and add to organic matter, which feeds micro-organisms and makes for healthier, more nutritious and tastier veggies! We also use cover crops such as clover, buckwheat, oats and rye which can be seeded and them chopped and tilled into the soil for fertilizer. You are effectively growing your own fertilizer! That’s how nature does - it with naturally occurring weeds and grass.
Why don’t your veggies look as good as the ones in the grocery store? Because our veggies aren’t grown in a strictly controlled environment like a heavily sprayed field or a hydroponic greenhouse. Most produce at our grocery stores are grown on large farms in other countries where workers are paid very low wages and the environmental impact is not considered important, then they are shipped here, and it may be weeks old by the time you purchase it - while they may superficially look better there is a lot of ugliness that goes into producing them. Our veggies on the other hand are grown within the natural ecosystem which means they come into contact with insects that are also looking to eat them for nutrition. This means that when the veggies get to you, the buyer, they may have some holes in them. This does not mean were don’t care about the quality of our produce, we care deeply about getting the best quality veggies to you, but we are looking at a deeper quality that does not just take into account the surface of the vegetable. We care about what you can’t see: the nutrition, the lack of harmful pesticides and the environmental impacts of growing it. Our veggies may have holes or scars but it’s because they have a story, they are a piece of nature that grew under the sun, in the soil, through wind and rain and have made their way to you to feed yourself and your family and keep your body healthy. When going through a farmers market and you see a vegetable that is “ugly”, please don’t assume it is not good to eat, the farmer brought it there because it is the fruits of their labour and we would not intentionally try to sell you something that is off or rotten, we are literally standing behind our produce! If it’s there on the table, it’s good to eat - and a farmer would know because we tend to eat the uglier produce ourselves and keep the best looking stuff for customers because we know it is always the scarred pepper or squash that will be left last in the basket.
Aren’t you being a little extreme? This is the choice of how we run our farm and everything we decide to do comes with a lot of forethought and deep considerations. We are looking to nature and the thousands of years of vegetable farming as our guide in what to do. Pesticides only became widely used in the 1950’s, before that every vegetable was spray-free. Yes, government scientists and policy makers say they are ok to use when following the label, but science and policy is not infallible and they get things wrong all the time. Look at DDT for example, it won’t surprise me when glyphosate is considered in the same vein in the future. With all that being said, we do the best we can do and that’s all we expect anyone to do, everything you need or want is not available at farmers markets so it is inevitable that we all will consume something containing pesticides at some point in our lives. This does not mean we shouldn’t strive for doing the best we can by ourselves and the natural world and do what we can, when we can! The world is not black and white, and just because you buy lettuce that was grown in California one day, does not mean that you can’t try to buy locally grown lettuce when you can.
Why aren’t you certified organic? We care deeply about the health of nature and the health of people, who are a part of nature even if we don’t consider ourselves to be. We have chosen at this time to not certify our fields as organic because there are problems with organic certification (along with all the good it does). It is a lot of extra work (paperwork) on top of all the work farmers already do, it restricts what you can use on your fields to just what is approved, and you often can not sell your produce for any more to make up for all the extra work. Also, organic standards differ greatly between countries, so an organic veggie from Canada or the US are not grown to the same standards. Also, with organic certifying bodies considering adding such unsustainable growing methods as hydroponic farming to Organic, their judgement is a little questionable. Also, you can lose your certification just by reporting some pesticide drifting in from a neighboring farm, so they are disincentivizing honesty in that way. Really, it is all set up backwards... farms who use pesticides should have to label every pesticide they spray on their veggies, not the ones who don't spray anything!
Why should we buy your produce? Simply because we are putting everything we’ve got into growing the best veggies for you in the best possible way, we put our heart, soul, mind and body into every crop we grow! Happy Eating!
So last spring we were asked by Tracy Horsman, the Project Coordinator, if we would like to participate in the “Community Roots” program where the Valley Community Learning Association, in association with NS Works and the NS Dept of Community Services would provide funding to employ fellow community members. This would require us to learn lots of new things that often seem scarier in our minds then they actually were. We write this blog post to share our experience in hopes to inspire other small farms that may be contemplating hiring employees through this program. Below are the steps we went through...
The very first thing we had to do was apply for Workers’ Compensation for the number of employees we planned to have. We simply filled out an online form that took all of 5 minutes and then received a letter by mail a couple weeks later with our rate and WCB number. The cost of the WCB was very affordable and paid in conjunction with your wage deductions you made every month.
Next thing was setting up payroll, something we have never done before. At first we thought we could do it all ourselves, like most things on the farm, but soon realized it was causing way more stress than we needed. We decided to call the bank and ask to be set up with payroll and they put us in contact with ADP. We spent about an hour on the phone with ADP setting up our payroll for our two employees. After that we just log on to our ADP account every two weeks and enter the hours worked by our employees. ADP not only paid our employees through direct deposit but also took care of all the CRA & WCB deductions that needed to be paid. We also have access to all the required documents needed for our employees and our accountant through ADP. The cost is around $45/month and you pay ONLY the months that you used it! ADP also offered additional help by phone for the first 30 days if needed but honestly the system was super intuitive so we just had that one call and were good to go.
Now we were all ready to get some employees! At first we wanted to start with just one full time person but Tracy convinced us to get a second employee which was a GREAT decision. Having two employees allowed us to match up strengths and weaknesses in each of our employees to ensure a better outcome for all involved. Something we had never considered before! We are now set on a 2 person minimum and would possibly go to 4 depending on how our farm grows.
The first week the employees came to the farm with a Job Coach (Zak), which was super helpful as we made this transition. Zak essentially gave us breathing room to keep running the farm while integrating/training new employees.. Not only was he a layer of support for us but also for the employees. Let’s be real, farming doesn’t come easy! We feel that Zak’s position was crucially important to helping all of us thrive and was a key piece to this program that allowed us to keep going.
It wasn’t all easy and we expected that, after all this was our first true go at hiring people to work on the farm. There were lots of lessons to learn. I often feel your first attempt at something is just to spot out all your weak points and then work from there. The first mistake we made was trying too hard to make everyone feel comfortable. While this is important, it shouldn’t come at an expense. We often want something to work out so badly that we will turn a blind eye to something small and that is the thing that will show up again but as a bigger problem. Address the small things right away! If correcting that small thing ends things then it just wasn’t meant to be, move on. Everything that is being said about having employees should certainly apply to life in general. If your choice is not to have employees because of those problems listed above, I can assure you those problems already exist in other aspects of your life and by having employees you can improve these skills and possibly improve your life. I know this is a big leap but I feel it is so important to point out.
With all of that said we look forward to employing more people this year. Having employees last season showed us how much better we could do! We increased production with the same amount of space despite the dry year we had. Our farm was more organized allowing for production to follow more easily. Project times were done 4X faster allowing us to complete more tasks in a day, which kept us on or ahead of schedule. We were able to harvest SO MUCH more crops in a day. I mean the list could go on. To put it simply this was the best we ever farmed.
Now for my number people out there wondering how much did this all end up costing us! It cost us $1049.31 for 483 hours of labor, meaning we paid $2.17/hour out of our own pocket, the rest was paid by funding. This was with hourly wages at $15 & $16. We would pay the 2 weeks worth of wages out of pocket, submit the pay stubs via email and be reimbursed the majority in 2-4 days directly into our bank account and the rest by cheque within the week. We were always fully reimbursed before the next pay period making the cash flow really easy to manage. Often with funding programs you are putting all your own money upfront and being reimbursed the following year which works if you have more cash flow to begin with but not so much if you don’t.
We have participated in a couple funding programs most of which left us running in the other direction and while this program isn’t perfect (is anything perfect it’s first go around?) we would love to continue with this program. We see so much potential in this program, not just for us but for the community too. This program is more layered and requires many levels of cooperation which doesn’t appeal to people on a governmental level but to be honest all our problems are intertwined and working in conjunction is the best way forward. We believe this is the program of the future and that is what we like about it!
There is one last thing I want to squeeze in here. Tracy you are amazing! You have so much heart for what you do. You want to be better and raise people up at the same time < this is a rare quality and we want to say we appreciate all that you have done and continue to do! :)
Olde Furrow Farmers!!