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.
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.
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.
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?