Archive for November, 2013

Homestead Organics: Helping fill the gap in local food processing

Saturday, November 30th, 2013

The team from Homestead Organics, a certified organic grain processor about 50 km from Ottawa. Owner Tom Manley is in the back row, fifth from the right.

Eastern Ontario boasts a growing number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farmers markets, local food artisans, and chefs who support sustainable local food. But there’s a gap where small- and mid-scale processors are concerned. Without nearby companies to grind grains, preserve fresh produce, and slaughter animals from area farms, scaling up the local food system will be a challenge.

Homestead Organics is one company helping to fill the gap. Located about 50 km from Ottawa in Berwick, Ontario, it’s a certified organic grain processor and feed mill with a longstanding commitment to organic food and farming.

The company started out in 1988 as a small store on the family farm. Today, Homestead Organics is a $7 million dollar a year business that handles 7,000 tonnes of grain annually. It’s also a Certified B Corporation, meaning that it has met certain standards for social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.

Aerial view of Homestead Organics, Berwick, Ontario

Food processor and one-stop farm shop

Billing itself as a one-stop shop for organic farmers, Homestead Organics:

  • processes organic corn, barley, oats, soybeans, buckwheat, wheat and peas.  Grains go into livestock feed; whole grains and soybeans are destined for food manufacturers.  (Customers for the company’s soybeans include tofu makers such as Gatineau’s Soyarie and soy beverage producer So Nice.)
  • mills its own brand of organic livestock feeds for sale directly to customers or through a dealer network across Ontario, Québec, Atlantic Canada and upstate New York
  • markets individual organic grains
  • provides agricultural services and organic products such as: grain handling;  fertilizers and soil amendments; pest control; organic groceries; garden seeds and supplies,  and; professional support in livestock nutrition and farming science and technology.

Q&A with owner Tom Manley

I spoke with Homestead Organics owner Tom Manley about ways to ramp up local food processing, and invest at the grassroots level using Slow Money principles.

Q. What do you think it will take to beef up local food infrastructure?  Changes in government policy? Partnering among sustainable food businesses? More funding for small processors?

A. These are possible solutions. Above all, it requires able and willing entrepreneurs with sufficient imagination, drive, skill, and resources to get started. Various government programs are great assets: Growing Forward 2, the Local Food Act, the Local Food Fund, Foodland Ontario, and so on.

I’d also suggest a change in grassroots investment practices. Many people have investments and retirement savings, but these usually involve commercial channels in Bay Street and Wall Street.  We don’t invest in our own food chain in our own communities. People need to vote not only with their food dollar, but with their investment dollar to create the food system they want.

Q.  So you’re talking about Slow Money.

Yes. It’s a big topic, but basically Slow Money focuses on reconnecting people and their communities and using food as a pathway to fix the economy.  Slow Money aims to move the economy away from extraction and consumption towards principles of preservation and restoration. This approach fits with the fact that we’re a “triple bottom line” business that’s committed to social and environmental benefit as well as profit.

Q.  Homestead Organics is also one of about 850 Certified B Corporations in the world.  How does this status help the business?

We already knew we were a benefit corporation in principle and in practice, without being certified. But going this route allowed us to be listed on the Social Venture Exchange in Toronto, a platform that connects social businesses and accredited investors. Also, because certification is a rigorous process verified by a third party, it demonstrates to investors, customers and community that a company is doing what it says and contributing to the social and environmental good.

What do you think of Slow Money as a way to reconnect people and community?

Wrapping up 2013: Holiday farmers markets, Locavore Artisan Food Fair, forest farm workshops and more

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013


Koko Chocolates will be one of the vendors at the 2013 Locavore Artisan Food Fair on December 7.

As Ottawa’s local food economy puts down deeper roots, we’re seeing more locavore events year-round and not just in the growing season. The next month is packed with holiday farmers markets, the Locavore Artisan Food Fair (LAFF) is back, and the Greystone Locavore In-Season Fêtes  returns with the second of its seasonal dinners. Also on the calendar are conferences, workshops and webinars on topics ranging from market gardening to reforming the food system.

  1. Holiday Farmers Markets

Metcalfe Farmers Market 

When:                 Saturday, Dec 14, 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Where:                 Greely Legion, 2081 Mitch Owens Drive

More info:


Carp Farmers Market 

When:                  Friday, Dec 6, 3 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Saturday, Dec 7, 8 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Where:                 Carp Fair Grounds, Carp

More info:


Cumberland Farmers’ Market 

When:                  Saturday, December 7, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Where:                1115 Dunning St, Cumberland

More info:


North Gower Farmers’ Market 

When:                 Saturday, Dec 7, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Where:                North Gower RA Centre

More info:


Ottawa Farmers’ Market

When:                  Saturday, Dec 14 & Sunday, Dec 15, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Saturday, Dec 21& Sunday, Dec 22, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Where:                 Ernst & Young Centre, 4899 Uplands Drive

More info:


  1. Locavore celebrations 

Locavore Artisan Food Fair (LAFF)

LAFF brings together 20 of Ottawa’s most creative food artisans to showcase their wares in time for the holidays. Participants include: Auntie Loo’s Treats, Barking Barista, Carolina’s Box of Goodness, CHEFX, Hummingbird Chocolate, The Flatbread Pizza CompanyKimicha, Michael’s Dolce, Milkhouse Farm & Dairy, Pascale’s Ice Cream, Seed to Sausage, Stone Soup Foodworks, The Unrefined Olive, and more.

When:                  Saturday, Dec 7, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Where:                 Memorial Hall, 39 Dufferin Road, New Edinburgh

More info:


Greystone Locavore In-Season Fêtes

Sample fresh food from local producers, inventively prepared by Chef Darryl MacDougall of the Greystone Grill. The Locavore Fêtes take place four times a year to showcase the products of local farmers and food gardeners from within 100 miles. They’re also linked to a roster of sustainable food initiatives, such as a SPIN Farm, being planned by the Torbolton Institute in collaboration with Just Food Ottawa. The Torbolton Institute is an innovations hub whose goals include making Ottawa locally food secure by 2020. 

When:                  Wednesday, Nov 27, 6 p.m.

Where:                Greystone Grill, 179 Constance Bay Road, Woodlawn

Cost:                     $35 per person; free for children under 5

Reserve:              Call the Greystone Grill at 613-832-0009

  1. Conferences

National Farmers Union 44th Convention

The National Farmers Union (NFU) is made up of Canadian farm families who share common goals. Its is to work to achieve agricultural policies that promote dignity and income security for farm families while protecting the land for future generations. The theme of this year’s convention is “Growing Resistance” and will focus on the issues underlying food seeds, including the symbolic and real economic value of seeds, their role in food sovereignty and the debate over their ownership (farmers or corporations?).

When:                  Wednesday – Saturday, Nov 27-30

Where:                Travelodge Ottawa , 1376 Carling Ave

Cost:                      $15-$175

Register: or

More info: 


  1. Workshops and webinars

Torbolton Forest Farm Workshop

The Torbolton Forest Farm Project aims to create a food-producing, urban forest farm CSA in rural Ottawa, with a first planting date within three years.  Lead by the Friends of Torbolton Institute and their partners, the farm project will produce nuts, fruits and berries, vegetables, and aquaponically*-raised fish for farm gate sales as well as delivery to local consumers and farmers markets; gleaned surpluses will be donated.

This workshop will define the project and estimate start-up costs and is open to all who are interested.

*Aquaponics refers to the production of fish and plants together in a closed, mutually beneficial system.

When:                  Saturday, Nov 30, 1:30 – 3 p.m.

Where:                 3924 Woodkilton Road, Ottawa

Register:               project-registration-6927234545

Fermentation Workshop, presented by Radical Homestead and Transition Ottawa

Radical Homestead will demonstrate how to make some delicious beverages and dishes such as sauerkraut, sourdough bread, kombucha, and kefir sour cream using the healthy, age-old technique of fermentation.  Group size is limited to five to guarantee personal attention. Each participant will leave with a jar of sauerkraut, a kombucha mother, sourdough starter, kefir grains, and recipes.

When:                  December 8, 2 – 5 PM

Where:                At private home near St. Laurent mall. (Address will be                                   provided at registration.)

Bring:                   4 jars or other containers

Cost:                      $50
More into:                                     workshop/


Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers – Two-part Webinar with Dan Brisebois

Discusses the fundamentals of profitable market gardening, including choosing and planting the right crops at the right time.

When:                Thursdays, Dec  5 & 12, 7:30 p.m.-9:00 p.m

Cost:                   $40+HST

More info:

Do you attend holiday farmers markets or food fairs? What do you enjoy about them most


Why does sustainable local food cost more than conventional?

Friday, November 15th, 2013

It costs more to produce food that’s tasty, healthy, safe, humanely raised, eco-friendly and that provides the farmer with a living wage.
Photo: Irene Knightley (via Flickr)

Why do we pay more* for food that’s grown sustainably – that is, closer to home, and produced using organic methods – than we do for conventional supermarket fare?

After all, some argue, if you buy an organically grown tomato or naturally raised chicken direct from a local producer, it hasn’t been shipped from hundreds of miles away. There’s no retailer in the middle to mark up the price. And the farmer you bought from didn’t have to buy expensive “inputs”, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for crops. So why aren’t these savings passed on to consumers?

Food pricing is complicated, but here’s the short answer. Sustainable food costs more because it takes more labour and care to produce food that:

  • is tasty, healthy and safe
  • safeguards the environment
  • raises animals humanely
  • protects the farmer’s  health and pays him or her a living wage.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Sustainable farming: lots of labour, management and time   

Instead of depending on chemicals and mechanized systems, sustainable farmers rely on their own labour and on their knowledge of the land and the surrounding ecosystem.

For example, to build healthy soil with plenty of nutrients, sustainable farming practices involve crop rotations, planting cover crops, and using compost and green fertilizers to discourage weeds and produce healthier plants. Crop rotations are essential to restore soil structure, but by periodically removing areas of land from cultivation, they reduce the farmer’s income.

Sustainable farmers control weeds by hand  and with mechanical tilling, and keep pests in check by encouraging a variety of soil organisms, beneficial insects and birds. When pest populations get out of hand, they set up traps and barriers, or use insect predators.

By the same token, sustainable animal production means less mechanization, and much more human care following higher animal welfare standards. In addition, sustainable livestock farmers often raise heritage breeds, which tend to be hardier, healthier and tastier than those favoured by conventional producers, but take longer to reach maturity. As a result, the farmer incurs higher costs for feed, labour and overhead and can’t raise as many animals as quickly.

Supply and demand

The supply of sustainable food is growing, but for a variety of reasons (including soaring farmland prices that make it difficult for new farmers to get started), capacity falls short of consumer demand. This is compounded by the lack of sufficient infrastructure for storing, processing, and distributing these foods. 

The hidden costs of conventional food

Maybe the whole price discussion needs to be approached from another angle.  Industrial farming has kept production costs low, but it has added a range of long-term environmental and health costs that don’t make it onto our grocery bills. Some of these include:

  • contaminated air, water and soil from heavy use of fossil fuels and chemicals, and from the volumes of animal waste that factory-style farms produce
  • record levels of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other illnesses linked to the North American diet of hyper-processed foods
  • rising levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria due in part to the routine use of antibiotics in industrial animal production
  • health risks to farmers from exposure to pesticides
  • a food system that makes it hard for small family farmers to earn a living from what they do.

Instead of asking why sustainable food is more expensive, maybe we should be asking why conventional food is artificially cheap.

*In this post, I’m just looking at the reasons behind the price difference, not at affordability. That said, sustainable food can’t be restricted to the well-to-do and we need strategies to make it accessible to everyone.

What’s most important to you in buying food: Price? Where it was grown or raised? Labels such as Certified Organic or Fair Trade?

Organic dairy: an alternative to industrial milk

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Cows on pasture at Ferme Gerstrasser, an organic dairy farm near Casselman

Canadian dairy farming trends in recent decades can be summed up this way: fewer farms, more cows per farm, and more milk per cow.  Here are some of the stats.

  • In the late 1960s, there were 135,000 dairy farms in Canada. In 2013, there are 12,592.
  • Between 2001 and 2011, the number of cows per farm rose 32%.
  • Over the same decade, the size of the national herd shrank 10%.
  • Average milk production per cow climbed 16% between 2001-2011; average production per farm was up 56% over the same period.

The ability to produce more milk with fewer animals and farms is often seen as beneficial, the result of improved feeding and milking systems, disease control and genetics. But the high volumes of milk come at a price — to the animals, consumers and the environment.

For example, the animals tend to be treated as commodities, kept in small pens throughout their lives, without access to the outdoors. While free-range dairy cattle can live as long as 20 to 25 years, intensively farmed animals are culled after three or four years of intensive milk production.

In addition, dairy farms that focus on maximum production at the lowest cost may be more likely to use chemicals such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, to which the animals (and their milk) are then exposed. These chemicals also pollute the air, soil and water.

Organic dairy

In September, I toured two Ontario dairy farms that have chosen organics over the industrial model: Ferme Gerstgrasser, near Casselman, and NewCare EcoFarms outside Iroquois.  Both are members of Organic Meadow Inc., a farmer-owned organic dairy co-operative whose name-brand products are sold across Canada.

As certified organic operations, the farms must demonstrate that they follow practices such as:

  • providing the animals with outdoor access year-round, and to certified organic grazing land during the growing season (pasture must provide at least 30% of the animals’ dry food)
  • avoiding pesticides and synthetic fertilizers
  • feeding their animals 100% organic rations — no antibiotics, added hormones or other drugs, no genetically modified feed.

Ferme Gerstgrasser

Manfred and Inge Gerstgrasser’s 150-acre farm is home to 40 milking cows and about 80 replacement heifers. The animals are out on pasture when I arrive so we sit down to coffee and fresh-baked muffins in the Gerstgrasser’s immaculate kitchen. Having time to relax like this is one of the benefits of switching to organic farming, Manfred says. It also allows him and his wife to produce high-quality milk more sustainably.

The couple was already familiar with organics when they arrived in Canada from Austria in 1992, and they followed sustainable practices long before beginning the transition to organic that they completed in 2009. “Our methods were always low-input*,” Manfred says. “I’ve always hated GMOs because they pit farmer against farmer.”

Manfred takes me around the farm, starting with the spic-and-span milking parlour and storage facilities. Next we head to the paddocks where the cows spend much of their day. When they’re on the all-grass diet they’ve evolved to eat, cows avoid digestive and other ailments common among grain-fed cattle. “No grain, no pain,” Manfred says. He rotates the animals from paddock to paddock to renew the grass and improve the soil.

While he clearly enjoys what he does, he’d like to see changes in the food system. “We need more public education about food,” he says. “It’s a necessity but many people don’t know where it comes from.” He’d also thinks it’s time to relax the rules that make it difficult for new farmers and producers of organic, local and other alternative foods to make and market their products.

 *In farming, the term “inputs” refers to manufactured items such as commercial fertilizers, pesticides and fuels.

NewCare EcoFarms

Josh Biemond and his wife Ellen have been working their 350-acre farm since 2005, raising a small herd of dairy cows on about half of it and growing cash crops on the rest. Josh’s brother, Rudi, partners with them.

The farm was originally owned by Josh’s parents, Pieter and Maria, who turned to organics in the late 1980s after Pieter suffered health problems from using pesticides.

Josh Biemond of NewCare EcoFarms

Rather than raising single-breed cows, the Biemonds focus on cross-breeds with traits that support life on pasture, such as strong legs, extra body capacity for converting forage to milk, and hardy immune systems. The animals are milk-fed for their first six months before being switched to grass and hay, and they’re offered supplemental minerals on a free-choice basis, on the assumption that they will instinctively choose the ones they need.

“Farming organically is about sustainability and looking after the future,” says Josh, who’s father to four young children. “The price premiums for organic milk give us a better quality of life and new opportunities. Without the premiums, we couldn’t have partnered with my brother and taken over the farm so our parents could retire. We wouldn’t be farming today.”

Are you willing to pay more for food that’s been produced with attention to things like animal care and environmental impact? Why or why not?