Hitting the Reset Button at Sorauren Farmers Market

John Richmond

Chair

Our Story 

13 years ago, at a time when the local, organic food and urban agriculture movement was experiencing a re-birth thanks to  - among other things - great shows on the cooking channel, celebrity chefs like our own Jamie Kennedy here in Ontario (who sometimes joins us at the market and who was the keynote speaker at our founding meeting) and Jamie Oliver in the UK, a growing awareness of the importance of eating well and the impact of industrial ag on our environment; a group of us the neighbourhood (Graeme Hussey, Ayal Diner, Melissa Benner and myself) came together with the idea of starting a local food cooperative grocery store where we would be able to shop for our favourite local meats, veggies, fruits, dairy and other items as well as a selection of other healthy foods, soaps, treats and the usual things we bought at local stores before Uber Eats, Amazon and on-line shopping so radically changed how we live, work and shop.

Our idea (and dream), the “West End Food Co-op” came - and went.  Specifically, it closed its doors last year although the organization that predated WEFC - the Sorauren Farmers Market - remains in place at Sorauren Park every Monday afternoon from 3-7. 

When we began researching how to start a business - a “social enterprise” - a cooperative business owned by the workers, customers and farmers - we quickly realized that starting such an innovative business would be both time consuming and tricky.  But in the days before “local food” was as ubiquitous as it is now (even No Frills sells at least some local foods and features Ontario farmers in its marketing) the response from people in Parkdale, Roncesvalles, and High Park was amazing. We quickly had more volunteers and offers of help than we knew what to do with.

Starting a Market 

I remember well the day Melissa Benner, the daughter of a farmer and someone who worked on the family farm herself, suggested we start a Farmers Market before a grocery store.  What a great idea! With a lot of elbow grease and a little of our own money we were off to the races and soon joined by other folks we knew in the local food movement.  

In the beginning the market was small and volunteer run - and a lot of fun.  My partner Paula Larrondo and I raised both our girls Michaela and Maya at the market - helping out every Monday after work/school.  Other volunteers did the same and some farmers brought their babies and little ones to market and we helped out with the childcare. It was a dream come true and aside from being a great place to buy local, healthy food directly from the folks who grow it - folks like Daniel from Cutting Veg, Tony from Wheel Barrow Farms, John and Irina from Bees Universe, Henry and Sarah from Field Sparrow Farms and John and Inge from Clover Roads Farms all of whom are still with us - it was a great place to experience community. 

Saying Goodbye 

The market has been a success but unfortunately the co-op was not.  West End Food Co-op is not the only Co-op to close or be sold off in the last few year - Eat Local Sudbury has gone and the Ontario Natural Food Co-op was sold to wholesale supplier from BC, Horizon Natural Foods, a for-profit company that was itself a co-op at one time. 

Whatever problems food co-ops might be having these days in Canada, Farmers Markets are a growing and expanding - if small - part of the food sector.  A real success story. 

Our market became independent once again last year when the Co-op closed.  But that’s not as easy as it sounds. Those of us running the market - myself as a volunteer, other volunteers you probably know well if you are a regular shopper like Eric, James and Randy, some of the vendors/farmers and Helen Acarman our Market Coordinator - started almost from scratch in terms of learning how to run a registered (that was an adventure in-and-of-itself) non-profit organization.  And it’s still a learning curve for us six months after receiving our “articles of incorporation” from the Province of Ontario.

  “Recipe” for A Successful Market

If you’re like my Dad, a hard working business guy who still remembers food rationing during and after World War II, then you might be one of those many folks who feel the food system in Canada is pretty good.  

Our farms and stores in Canada provide us with a wide selection of product at relatively affordable prices in comparison to many other places in the world.  Food prices in Canada are among the lowest in the world relative to income (that is if you are not living in the far north).

And while the market has been home to many of us who have concerns about the agro-industrial food system - both farmers and customers - it has also been home to folks who are just looking for some nice cider, a meal after work with the kids in the park or place to have some delicious Tibetan momos and hang out with friends.  I like to think our market is many things to many people - an inclusive and welcoming space that helps many people meet their needs - including some people who experience food insecurity and know that volunteering will help them access healthy local food at a lower price or even for free.    

Starting Again

Going forward we have a lot of exciting ideas I hope you will want to be part of.

We want to start a bokashi composting pilot project, grow a few veggies in the park, hold a founding meeting where customers, volunteers, staff and vendors can see how the market is set up and comment on our bylaws, policies and budget and we hope to follow the lead of our friends and supporters at Friends of Sorauren Park and start of youth version of the market so we can let young people gain some hands-on experience in learning how to run a business.  

When we began the market 11 years ago we had a large number of volunteers from the neighbourhood.  Somehow we drifted away from that model but we need to return to our roots. We need more volunteers from the neighbourhood and return to being a truly neighbourhood farmers market.  If you live in the neighbourhoods surrounding the market please consider dropping by and saying “hi” - we’d love to have you and whatever time you can spare to help us make Sorauren Farmers Market an even bigger success.  

Have a great summer and please come by the market info table and say “hi”.

Cheers!

John 

BABALINK FARM - What does a farmer do when it is too wet to plant?

I forage on my farm. Native, edible spring flowers that I am picking right now include violets ranging in colour from purple to white. The leaves are also edible - I especially like the tiny new leaves, some of which have not quite unfurled. Violet harvest lasts a few weeks in part because there are a few native varieties that bloom at slightly different times.

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The edible, native, Eastern Redbud Cercis canadensis flowers are ready to harvest for a short time. On my farm they are opening as I write this. Trees in the city may already be done. Eastern redbud is in the Fabaceae (legume) family. Which is why the flowers taste a little like fresh green peas.


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Fortunately we have wild greens on the farm. Stinging nettles come up early. I am picking (with gloves) the tops right now.  My new favourite way to eat them is with pasta, sauteed onion, green garlic, sorrel butter, Parmesan - a touch of cream and always a bit of hot pepper. Chili flakes or Cayenne - whatever you choose, stinging nettles and a touch of hot pepper are a great match!

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Find Pat Kozowyk of BabaLink Farm to the west of the square starting this week at Sorauren. Watch this space for a violet jelly recipe and Pat’s market table for her jewelled jars very soon! Scroll down to see a post all about her farm from our Farm Visits 2018.

Heartwood Farm and Cidery

Brent Klassen and Val Steinmann

Brent Klassen and Val Steinmann

Photos by Puck Graafland
Text by Eric Lee

Our last visit on the July 8, 2018 tour was to Heartwood Farm and Cidery, northeast of Guelph near the intersection of highways 124 and 125 in the part of Erin called Ospringe. The entrance way is beside what appeared to be heavy woods and stops at a group of buildings some distance from the main road where we were greeted by co-proprietor Val Steinmann.

Heartwood is a complex place and there is much more to it than I expected, knowing, from the Market, only its cider. One of the most interesting and exciting things about the visit was listening to Val describe its growth over time and interconnectedness of the different parts of the farm. Val describing how things fit together.

 

While of a similar bent to Pat Kozowyk of Baba Link with respect to permaculture, Val is a bit more inclined in conversation to name branches of the movement and refer to particular theorists and their works. This helped me to add some conceptual pegs to my thinking and provided starting points for further study. Among the pegs is the idea of the Forest Garden, in which edible perennials are grown at several levels, from root, to ground, to shrub to tree in a single area of land. To a naive eye such as mine the area can look wild, not cultivated, but Val pointed out the several crops that are growing not only at the same time but in the same space. It requires adjustment to what one expects a farm or garden to look like. 

Many of the concepts and practices that are part of what is now called permaculture date far back in human history. Some of them resonated for me with what I understand Indigenous people in Canada are talking about in their relationship to "the land" and I want to study that further.

While not certified organic at this point Heartwood may consider it in future, especially for the orchard and cidery.

Val describes permaculture principles practiced at Heartwood

Val describes permaculture principles practiced at Heartwood

The story of Heartwood is in many ways the story of its people. Before acquiring the land Val and Brent lived in Toronto with their three young children. Val was a community organizer, Brent in management. Like others who have had city careers they remarked, in their own ways, on how in farming one must do a few things really well but be "good enough" at many others: Brent seems to miss the specialization sometimes but Val embraces its relative absence.

When Val and Brent began living on the farm fourteen years ago, their first product was maple syrup from sugar bush that covers part of the land. The farm is 42 acres and includes several distinct areas that I'll describe in order from the distance from the welcome centre where we began our tour. After the sugar bush came cattle on pasture that had been converted from grain crops - more about the conversion below. For a time some interns raised vegetables and sold them via a CSA, but they moved on and that land has been converted to orchard. The farm now also supports goats, pigs, chickens, and bees and uses horses for pulling.  The chickens run quite free and Val notes that while the varied diet they provide makes them healthier it also leaves them vulnerable to predators such as coyotes, against which the herding/guard dogs are not 100% effective.  The animals remain Val's main focus, along with rebuilding the soil, while co-owner Brent Klassen concentrates on the orchard and cidery.

Part of the orchard area

Part of the orchard area

Walking from the hospitality/cidery building to the barn

Walking from the hospitality/cidery building to the barn

Chickens in the barn

Chickens in the barn

Potbellied piglets

Potbellied piglets

Tree crops are not limited to apples. They also grow cherries, plums, the cherry-plum cross "chum", and the (hopefully) blight-resistant heart nuts, chestnuts and hazelnuts. Some of these nuts are native to the area but may have been removed in clearing the land for traditional agriculture.  Restoring these trees is one part of another practice at Heartwood whose name was new to me: Regenerative Agriculture, although a little later research led me to understand that that is only a tip of it, that it includes many techniques for restoring biodiversity, building soil and retaining water, several of which are practiced at Heartwood, and, I now understand, at Baba Link.

Much of the juice for cider is purchased from other growers because it takes four years or more for trees to bear fruit and many of Heartwood's trees are not yet mature.  The juice is first fermented in 6,000 liter tanks and then transferred to smaller "tubs" where flavourings such as hops and pepper for Heartwood's distinctive brands are added. Bottling is done in the same room.  The operation is very tidy and I think the "good enough" must be restricted to areas outside the cidery.

Tubs where the hops, pepper and other flavours are added to the cider

Tubs where the hops, pepper and other flavours are added to the cider

The fruit and nut trees have been introduced little by little and near the relatively forested part of the land.  They aren't arranged in a grid but rather follow the contour of the land.  The area with fruit trees is also planted with berries, and with companions such as comfrey, and all with natural or cultivated ground cover rather than bare earth.  This pattern is similar to the practice at Baba Link Farm and can be called a Forest Garden.

After the sugar shack, hospitality room, cidery, barn and fruit plantings, there are large open areas now used for pasture.  Prior to Val and Brent's acquiring the land they were cultivated with the standard cycle of corn, soy and wheat. The land was not abused by the standards of that practice, but had become depleted.  Val is using a number of techniques to nurse it back to health, including rotating cycles of grazing cattle and planting rows of protecting trees between sections of pasture. In describing this work she cites some of the well-known permaculture theorists, in a somewhat wistful tone because she cannot be as ambitious as they sometimes are in, say, re-arranging the landscape with berms and swales, but is still realizing the objectives of regenerative agriculture. Val embraces the generalist approach that lets her orchestrate many elements of this diverse place.

Val and Brent are as active as time allows in the science of composting (there is apparently much more to it than the simple "compost happens" techniques I use in my garden) and they, like Pat Kozowyk at Baba Link, participate in studies sponsored by Ecological Farmers of Ontario.

Heartwood is very welcoming of guests and gives many organized tours, so if you want to visit get in touch to join or arrange something.

We felt welcome in the tasting room!

We felt welcome in the tasting room!

Healing Hands Farm

Photos by Puck Graafland
Text by Eric Lee

Our second stop on the July 8, 2018 tour was Healing Hands Farm, a little to the west of Guelph.

Farmers Dan Fuller and Michaela Cruz have only been farming since November, 2017 but the land, two acres of a larger property, had been a horse farm for thirty years and then was not farmed for ten years. Dan and Michaela have only a two year lease after which it is expected the entire property will be planted in nut trees. Thus, they have found the soil to be very rich, and thickly covered with weeds, but as short-term tenants they would not see much benefit of effort spent building soil;  nonetheless are adding compost. 

Dan and Michaaela in front of their “summer place”

Dan and Michaaela in front of their “summer place”

The land is basically open, with a gentle slope, without trees or other features. They have had to clear luxuriant weeds, including bindweed, (which they've done very effectively, without chemicals, by tilling twice and then covering the area with black plastic for a time to prevent regrowth - as at the left of the picture below). The planted areas are arranged in rows and rectangles, "traditional" to my uneducated mind, and very different from the other farms we saw that day that had crop trees when the current farmers took them over and have since developed incrementally over a number of years.

Part of the land, extends just to the cultivated area

Part of the land, extends just to the cultivated area

Sprouting shed, made with re-used, and a few new, materials

Sprouting shed, made with re-used, and a few new, materials

They follow organic practices and would like to certify (that process takes several years), and note that they put in the effort and dedication to organic at this point without the marketing benefits.

Before they became farmers Dan had construction and city jobs and Michaela was a plant science student at U. of Guelph and had worked with PACT Grow to Learn. Farming is a huge change in way of life for them but they seem to have the right temperaments for it. In their case, what is "right" has included arriving with an open mind, not too many expectations of how it ought to be, looking at all the many problems and things that need to be done as interesting challenges (that will sometimes be stalled in frustration), and accepting that some work will not have a professional finish.  Their previous work and study, while different, or at a different level in Michaela's case, have proved valuable.  After less than a year they are "over the hump" and can consider taking some off-farm work.  That is no small accomplishment. I agree with visitor Agata's remark: "I love how you can just set up and grow - not without its challenges - but look what you did!”

Dan and Michaela have been able to start without much money and have improvised shelter (shed, and tent for summer), a produce cooler (trailer + air conditioner) and a seedling greenhouse with only $20 worth of new materials. Dan remarked at one point: “If you had all the money in the world it would just be boring. I think… you’d just make the easy choices”.

Salanova lettuce, with irrigation dripline

Salanova lettuce, with irrigation dripline

Asian greens growing under protective cover

Asian greens growing under protective cover

Healing Hands' contact with coyotes is that because a neighbour released pet rabbits into the wild there are now many of them and the green crops are just what they want; I hope some coyotes will soon see the opportunity here.

Baba Link Farm

Photos by Puck Graafland Text by Eric Lee

Our first stop on July 8, 2018 was Baba Link Farm in the southern part of Flamborough district of Hamilton, near Burlington. We were guided and spoke with Patricia Kozowyk who you will know from her presence at Sorauren Market.

The land has been in Pat’s family since 1953 and she and her partner bought ten acres of the original farm in 2002. They have been Centre for Systems Intergration (CSI) certified organic since 2008.

Baba Link now grows fruit, especially apples and pears, and berries, and vegetables including beans and squash (a complete list is on their website). They do not raise animals. They try to nourish and protect crops using only what they produce on the farm.

 
Beet sprout protected by farm-sourced mulch

Beet sprout protected by farm-sourced mulch

 
Pat Kozowyk

Pat Kozowyk

If you think of a commercial farm as featuring neat rows or rectangles of discrete plantings rising from bare soil you will be surprised, as I was, with how things are laid out at Baba Link. It has a history of orchard crops and berries, especially raspberries and currants. Those are there but they are interplanted with others so that there is rarely an expanse of any one plant.  The reason for this was soon forthcoming, but first let me back up a moment to introduce one of the themes of our visits: permaculture.

When we began organizing this tour I wanted to ask farmers about permaculture, which "Garden Jane" Hayes defines generally as "the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally (and otherwise) productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural systems." I expected (for whatever wrong reasons) awareness of it but not widespread adoption in commercial settings. What I found was that it is deeply entrenched and practiced in a wide variety of ways. Some farmers, such as Pat, are more inclined to "walk the walk" than "talk the talk", about which there are many variations and, yes, controversies, and in what I write I here I don't mean to attach her to specific terms unless she used them.

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How permaculture is realized at Baba Link includes:

  • You don't see very much open ground. Plants are generally mulched with farm-sourced cover. This helps hold moisture so regular irrigation is not needed and prevents unwanted plants ("weeds") from getting the light they need to sprout. You need an eye sharper than mine was at first to see how intensively the land is being used.

  • Pat does quite a bit of companion planting (plants other than the crop) to, for example, discourage some insects or provide more nitrogen to the soil. She has a sharp eye for unexpected successful companions and likewise avoids introducing a plant where there are known enemies to it. And so you rarely see an expanse of one kind of plant.

  • She takes advantage of what grows in the conditions that exist and doesn't expend great energy trying to force or control a situation. She finds a minimalist approach to intervention, which includes pruning and physical removal of some pests, is most rewarding.

Pat notes that farmers must pay attention to many changeable factors and that one cannot assume or even expect sameness from year to year even in an established orchard. One thing that can be counted on is that factors usually balance over time unless there is a disruption. She mentioned a reduction in a berry crop caused by heavy rain the previous fall leading to a spike in the squirrel population that in turn ate the berries. This would have been brought back to balance later in the year by an increase in coyotes had not new human residents in the area felt the need to hunt, possibly the coyotes. Unexpectedly, to me anyway, coyotes made an appearance at each farm on this trip, but not always in the same role. In the absence of  help from the coyotes she worked around the problem by timing harvests to just before the squirrels' usual feeding times.

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I asked Pat whether the approach of taking what comes is efficient enough for a commercial farm.  She replied that efficiency is a big question, but that much effort can be undone by forces beyond one's control and that she often benefits from the unexpected thriving of one plant in conditions that defeat another. The key is to have a complex and overall healthy environment.

One of the delights of the Baba Link market stall year over year is that you don't know exactly what will be available each week as the season progresses but what is there is always of the highest quality. Where else will you see a perfect zucchini with the flower intact?

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On the scientific front, the experiments with companion planting that are so evident on the farm have led to a research proposal published by the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario and available on the Baba Link website.