By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
People are thrilled to get on a farm to see and learn how food is grown, says Katrina McQuail of Meeting Place Organic Farm near Lucknow.
McQuail was instrumental in organizing a Farm Crawl on July 10 via Eat Local Huron, a not-for-profit online farmers’ market dedicated to bringing locally sourced food to the doorsteps of Huron County residents. The Farm Crawl was a chance for people to see where the food and products they are buying are made.
This Farm Crawl took place in northern Huron County with more farm crawls planned in different parts of the county throughout the summer.
Meeting Place Organic Farm
Meeting Place was one of the stops and if you arrived on time, you got to hop on a hay wagon pulled by horses and driven by Tony McQuail (Katrina’s dad) who explained the ecological methods practised on the mixed farm. “We are trying to imitate what the bison do,” said McQuail of the pastures, grazed in rotations by about 40 head of mixed beef cattle. “We like to see the grass trampled because for soil microbes to have a good life, they need soil cooled under the mulch.”
The farm is managed with regenerative principles and a focus on biodiversity. As such, hay fields are cut later to ensure bobolinks have a chance to raise their young as part of the Delay the Hay campaign. Late hay can be tough and nutrient-poor for cattle so the McQuails graze the hayfields in April and early May and let it grow after that, so the new growth will be nutrient-dense at harvest.
Wagon riders viewed the pastured poultry, which are moved every day on grass. The ephemeral ponds, due to their seasonal nature, are not home to fish. This makes them ideal nurseries for amphibians. McQuail also pointed out the innovative water pump system he imported from New Zealand to pump water from a low-lying pond to a reservoir high on the property. This water then serves as drinking water for animals and irrigation water for crops, gardens and an orchard.
After the tour, visitors enjoyed watching a young foal nurse from its mother, piglets scampering around a cow, ducklings in a barrel and Fran McQuail’s perennial garden near the house.
Katrina McQuail, who now runs the farm, was thrilled with the turnout and says as planning proceeds for future farm crawls, emphasis will be placed on providing safe activities for families.
Did you know that eating seven strawberries provides as much vitamin C as one orange? Which is why strawberry farmer Emily Morrison encourages every child on the farm crawl to eat at least seven strawberries out of the field.
“We had a big rush at 12:30 and we taught them all about strawberries,” said Emily, walking first to a three-acre field that has been newly planted with strawberry plants. Each field had irrigation lines running under each row of plants because “water is what makes a berry grow big and heat is what makes them turn red.”
Morrison was full of fun facts, teaching that:
• Strawberry plants last for four years
• The first berry is called a King berry and is the largest
• Each plant produces about seven berries with the latest ones being the smallest
• Strawberries are the fruit with seeds on the outside, not the inside
• Strawberries need ¼ inch of rain every week to thrive
Work in the newly planted field involves walking it weekly and popping off all the flowers. The goal is for the plants to grow roots and get stronger, rather than produce fruit the first year.
In the other fields, five different varieties of strawberries are grown to provide early, mid-and late-season berries. Due to June’s frost, the mid-season berries were affected with much of the fruit deformed. That cold snap also pushed back the late season berries. It’s this late season variety called Malwina that is her favourite because of its smooth, mellow taste. It turns dark purple when it is ripe.
Next on the strawberry farming agenda is mulching the fields with straw. The clean straw serves as a weed suppressant, cooling agent and keeps the berries clean. “It also provides a nice picking experience which we want for our customers,” says Morrison. It will compost and add humus into the soil as well.
Firmly Rooted Farm
As the day ran late, I missed the crowds at Firmly Rooted who were keen to see what was growing in the five, large greenhouses at this organic vegetable farm near Belgrave.
The owners, Tamara McMullen and Brian Wiley, have realized their vision to create a small-scale farm business that provides food four seasons of the year using 3.5 acres of a seven-acre farm. They use the rest of the land to provide habitat to pollinators and other beneficial insects and animals, as part of their focus on biodiversity and sustainability.
Tamara gave a tour of the farm including the gorgeous Salanova beds filled with green and purple salad greens. New seedlings and new beds are started weekly so they can provide greens to restaurants, stores and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) clients until Christmas. Then they take a break and start all over in March.
Firmly Rooted is a colourful, thriving place that employs seven workers beside themselves. One greenhouse is filled with sky high tomatoes, another with cucumbers growing up trellises. Tamara will pick 100 cucumbers a day out of the greenhouse until the cukes, which are particularly susceptible to disease, succumb. Then new ones are started and the process continues. The outside gardens are filled with rows of lettuce, carrots, zucchini, asparagus and other vegetables.
They have around 150 CSA clients in the spring, 200 in the summer and 250 in the fall. While Tamara doesn’t offer tours (there just isn’t time) customers are welcome to explore the gardens while picking up their vegetable boxes.
A walk to the back of the farm shows a constructed wetland being built with an additional area to process waste water from the greenhouse. Beside the pond is a man-made hibernaculum, which is made of large rocks above and underground to provide hibernation space for snakes. Tamara said visitors were fascinated by the hibernaculum as is she, as she believes in providing habitat for creatures. As such, they continually add hedgerows containing native shrubs such as chokeberry or trees like hazelnuts to provide shelter and food for wildlife and insects.
With three acres of gardens, five huge greenhouses and two little ones to manage, Tamara and Brian are busy but happy farming the way they believe in. They make use of small-farm technologies such as a salad harvester that is run by a drill, a five-row seeder for the outdoor gardens and a vacuum seeder for planting trays. “Just because we are small does not mean we cannot benefit from technology,” says Tamara.
The final stop on the tour was Coastal Coffee, a coffee roastery situated in an old church on Kintail Line near Goderich. Owners Ben and Bri Gingerich have developed relationships with growers in countries like Colombia and Guatemala to import fresh beans to roast here in Ontario. They also have large gardens, chickens and bunnies to make sipping coffee at the church a visual experience while simultaneously growing food for their family. ◊