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.
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.
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.
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.