2018 in Perspective

Well, well, the first and only blog post of 2018.. maybe one of my new years resolutions will be to communicate more on our blog!

To ceremoniously say good-bye to 2018, it’s helpful for us to look back on all the successes, learning opportunities, and relationships we experienced on the farm this past season. With so many factors out of our control in farming (and life!), I’m realizing that the diversity of our operation and the support systems (community, family, larger peasant-farmer movement) have been key in keeping this business going. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights that have shaped the 2018 season at Highland Gem Farm:

Mac received our first batch of Berkshire x Tamworth piglets from Maplelane Farm sometime March, cute as ever and healthy to boot! We’ve always received strong stock from this farm and have no problem training them to electric and pasturing systems. These are Mac’s favourite animals to raise as they’re hardy, resilient, quirky, and smart.  One day I’ll keep a couple gilts (unbred female pig) to breed on our own farm…

Dusty July evening chore time.

Dusty July evening chore time.

Baby meat chicks landed on the farm in April, a week before Mac went back to work full-time. Of course they came just as the temperatures dipped back below freezing temperatures and he had to add a couple more heat lamps and reflective technologies to keep those babies warm. They need temperatures to be about 30C for the couple weeks before they begin to grow in their true plumage. Thankfully, they all survived the cold start to life and continued to thrive this past spring… not too hot nor too rainy. Their gains were on point and the grass was well stocked this season (dream life!). However we hit a rough patch at the end of their time alive, the June/early July heat-wave arrived wherein we lost almost 20% during the daytime due to overheating, which was heart-breaking. This meat broiler breed of chicken are not chosen for their hardiness, rather their speed of weight gain. That means they’re very ‘delicate’ when it comes to environmental extremes. It’s a real art to provide these animals with everything they need: fresh food, water, protection/shelter, fresh air, space to express themselves, temperature regulation, and love. There is a true cost behind these pastured birds and this story is just one of the reasons why they are more expensive than the chicken in the grocery store; it’s costly for animals to have holistic lifestyles right until they arrive on your plate.

4 week old meat chickens out on a sunny day in their chicken ‘tractor’.

4 week old meat chickens out on a sunny day in their chicken ‘tractor’.

Weather was pretty ideal for the beginning of the season; lots of spring sunshine and bouts of drizzly rain (not the hammer-down thunderstorm kind). As always, I get really excited about getting some crops in the ground super early because I start them earlier in the greenhouse to anticipate ideal spring planting conditions. So when the transplants start to outgrow their pots and looked stressed, I get a little stressed myself, and sometimes rush planting in soil too wet. Those early crops of broccoli, kale, peas, fennel, kohlrabi certainly produced, but I wouldn’t say thrived. Had I waited another 1.5 weeks, as I did for the onions, the soil was perfect and fluffy for planting. Patience, just the hardest lesson to learn.

Squash babies popping up.

Squash babies popping up.

What changed happened this year in the garden… I work with minimal irrigation and mulch with older hay as much as possible. Water was a challenge as we had such a dry/hot July and August this summer, drought-like conditions which affected most people’s gardens, especially those without irrigation. Here in Elphin there are six separate garden fields which have very different drainage properties. I got lucky this season- my main summer crops were planted in the lowest of the fields, with lots of soil moisture held within and I just had stellar yields throughout the summer market season. I’m so grateful for this farm of five-generations of applied rotational mixed grazing, compost returning to the land, and organic field crops, the resulting soil is very resilient!

Glorious summer garden days.

Glorious summer garden days.

Rosso de Sicilliano tomatoes, blew me away the season.

Rosso de Sicilliano tomatoes, blew me away the season.

The flip side of drought conditions are beautiful Solanaceae crops: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants…all under our new Caterpillar Hoop house where we grew some interesting varieties this year which made it a joy to harvest regularly. Later, we hit a perfect window in late July to get our fall carrots and radishes in which provided us with bumper storage crops in the cellar to enjoy over the winter. We also had a great market season at the Perth Farmers Market, we have really made such wonderful connections and income there, thank you to everyone who shops there!

Fall market table.

Fall market table.

As we all know, there are many failures, or lessons on the farm each year. I’ll try to share some without too heavy-a-heart. I never grow nice leeks and storage beets and it drives me CRAZY. Next year I say, I will start them earlier… Our winter squash was a devastating loss as I planted them far from home, out of sight and mind, unfenced, and within two weeks of ripening, they were devoured by deer. We got a modest harvest for ourselves, but truly a sad experience, I felt so irresponsible. I immediately wanted to hunt and kill these animals to eat myself over the winter, but realized I needed to step back and take a big picture look at the farm as an ecosystem. As a wild forager myself, I am over-joyed to find mushrooms, leeks, roots, to bring home; yet my perspective of garden bounty is solely ownership-based approach. As if what I pour my time into is a merely a commodity rather than a gift. This is an evolving philosophy which is a challenge to negotiate when my goal is to make my income from the land; however I must acknowledge the unspoken support I receive from the land-owners who gift me land to market garden on, and as a bigger honour, the wild lands of Lanark County/Anishnabek People. Whoa, this means complex relationships, but it’s certainly shaping my farming methodologies and approach. In comes Agroecology.

Last winter I went to Cuba to study the methodology of Agroecology, a science/political movement/practice in which the study of ecological processes are applied to agricultural production systems. I’m interested in this approach to farming as it relies on traditional sustainable farming knowledge, seed keeping, and preserving the land for generations to come. Practiced world-wide, mostly by peasant/indigenous farmers, with roots as a named practice in Latin America, it’s the most sound movement to join to create a socially and ecologically just food system here in Canada. https://www.usc-canada.org/the-issues/agroecology for further reading. We had our first Agroecology Field School and Summit in August 2018 hosted by Lakehead University in Ottawa which was an opportunity for academics, non-for-profits, farmers, First Nations and citizens alike to share knowledge and experiences. I’ll be continuing this work locally through Highland Gem Farm, the National Farmers Union, and the Madawaska Land Trust.

Agroecology Summit in Ottawa August 2018. Photo by Kath Clark/USC Canada

Agroecology Summit in Ottawa August 2018. Photo by Kath Clark/USC Canada

I digress; it may obvious to most, but I come into farming from a very political lean. Health is a big part of my draw to the land as a city-raised gal, but truly I couldn’t separate my personal choices from the externalized impacts they were leaving on the earth once I learned about them… then down the rabbit hole I go. Naturally, I spend a lot of time in the public and internet social spheres, to communicate my methods and thoughts, participating in the work that reconnects when I have the energy. Thanks to everyone reading this for listening to me, I know I am still young and know very little about this world and how it works, but I truly appreciate your time, feedback, and support. If it wasn’t for you, I’d probably still be in University, feeling a bit numb about it all, under a pile of debt.  

Back to the farm, which I always refer to as a poultice (going back to field days with Hilary Moore), meaning that it draws out what needs healing, often dealing with inflammation or trauma to one’s soul. Pretty powerful stuff if that’s how you view your food and where it comes from. This season revealed that Mac and I weren’t the right farming match, so on not too sad of a note, Mac has decided to not farm next year, to explore a different side of himself. I wish him so much luck, gratitude for his teachings, and I know he will do great things with his skills and gentle heart.

Mechanical genius in his element.

Mechanical genius in his element.

I’m still here, crawling out of the wreckage of 2018 which ended with my sister in a near-death car accident and thus cancelling the Winter CSA. So I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Highland Gem Farm in 2019, but I am hopeful, full of support, and gratitude for what its become these past two years.

To close, thanks Gary Glover and Cindy McCall for lending us your land, knowledge, love, equipment, and freezers to produce beautiful meats. Thank you Pat Furlong and Laurie Brownlee for acting as my farm family and giving me space and support to express whatever it is I’m trying to do here, grow nourishing food and honour your beautiful farm legacy. Thanks to all my mentors who teach me how to work with what I’ve got, less about what others have got. Thanks to my family and the community who brought in the harvest when I couldn’t be here and for buying Highland Gem Farm’s food to keep the small farm, next generation of growers- well growin’. Seasons greeting and happy New Year! See you in 2019.

I fell in love with flowers this season.

I fell in love with flowers this season.

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Erin RichanComment