Archive for the ‘Farming’ Category

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?

Farming meets social media: How one local farmer crowdfunded her first season

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Rebecca Bloomfield of Almonte turned to crowdfunding to get her vegetable farm, Bloomfield Farm, up and running.
Photo: Craig Cardiff, courtesy of Bloomfield Field


Starting a farm not only takes work, it takes money. Exactly how much money depends on how big the farm will be, and what and how much food it will produce, among other considerations. When you factor in the cost of land, irrigation, tools, infrastructure such as barns and hoophouses, as well as any help you hire, you’re looking at a major financial commitment.

Even a small vegetable farm can cost $30,000 or more to start from scratch, says Almonte farmer Rebecca Bloomfield, who launched Bloomfield Farm, a quarter-acre organic vegetable farm, this spring. While she didn’t have to worry about buying land or a hoophouse (she was offered both by a local couple who grow their own food and believe in local, sustainable farming), she still needed money for tools, plants, seeds, and the promotional costs of selling her produce at the Almonte Farmers Market.

Trouble is, bank loan and government grant programs are usually more receptive to bigger farms. “I couldn’t find financial help for a small-scale farm like mine,” explains Bloomfield, a U.S. native who moved to Ontario a year ago. “Besides, many grant programs have long timelines for approval. I wanted to start in March and build on my experiences managing an organic farm training program and teaching farming to middle school students.”

Crowdfunding with Indiegogo

That’s when she turned to crowdfunding, an Internet-based strategy for raising small amounts of money from many people. Although she didn’t consider herself an expert in social media, Bloomfield recognized its power and felt she could harness it to her strong network of friends and family with connections to farming. “I thought if I could create a really interesting campaign, there was a good chance it would grow exponentially.”

To achieve her goal of $25,000, Bloomfield put together a five-minute video called “How to Start a Farm in 5 Minutes” and launched it on Indiegogo, a top crowdfunding platform. She kept her campaign interactive with thank-you notes to her supporters, regular updates on Facebook and her website, and offers of secret gifts for different funding levels.

The campaign took off, gaining enough traction to be featured in USA Today and the Ottawa Citizen, and bringing Bloomfield nearly $14,000. While the total fell short of her goal, it was more than enough to pay for a deer fence, as well as various tools, seeds and the services of an apprentice.

Would she do it again? Yes, but not for a while and only for a special project. “I want to create a viable, self-sustaining farm first. I might consider crowdfunding later, for a project like building an educational space to teach about food and farming.” In the shorter term, her plans to make the farm financially viable include starting a small CSA.

Crowdfunding tips for new farmers

For Bloomfield, crowdfunding was a positive experience she’d recommend to other farmers.  Here are her tips for running an effective campaign.

  1. Do plenty of research. What do your really want from your farm? From your crowdfunding campaign?
  2. Develop a good business plan. Hammer out all the details: What will you grow? Where will you sell it? What’s your income likely to be, factoring in things like crop losses, hiring help, and paying yourself a salary? Make sure whatever you’re embarking on is something you can live with over the long term.

The knowledge and commitment you’ll gain from research and planning will come across to people and make your campaign more meaningful.

  1. Create an engaging, personal campaign.  To attract people who aren’t connected to farming, develop something they can relate to and feel excited about. Bloomfield says her video worked because it gave people a stronger sense of the project and the person behind it than text and photos would have done. Many of her donors had no connection to farming but responded to her passion for the farm. “They supported it because they could see it was important to me,” she notes. “They felt confident their money would be put to good use.”

Do you think crowdfunding is a good way for small-scale farmers to self-finance? What other options should be available?

CSA Ferme Lève-tôt: Showing that small family farms can succeed

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Ferme Léve-tôt’s Richard Williams transplanting seedlings in the greenhouse. Photo: Brian Kinzie

Charlotte Scott and Richard Williams are part of a new crop of young, idealistic family farmers dedicated to high-quality food, eco-friendly cultivation, and doing the right thing for their customers and community. “We want to do our best and show that small-scale, sustainable family farming is a viable business,” says Charlotte.

The couple own and operate Ferme Lève-tôt, a certified-organic CSA farm in Low, Québec, where they grow 150 vegetable varieties for their CSA members, as well as for farmers markets (Ottawa Farmers Market Byron Park in Westboro and the Wakefield Market) and eateries such as 42 Crichton Fine Foods, Union 613, Stone Soup Foodworks and others.

Here are highlights from my interview with Charlotte.

You and Richard lived in Montréal for 10 years and have backgrounds in media and culture. What sparked your desire to become farmers?

Richard wasn’t satisfied with his career at an independent record company and decided to apprentice with Tourne-Sol Co-operative Farm near Montréal.  After two hours, he knew this was what he wanted to do with his life. Farming connects with his love of nature while the planning that’s required to farm successfully taps into his analytical, engineering mind. I’d been involved in community gardens and community radio in Montréal and had become aware of the food system’s social and political issues.

Starting a farm can be a struggle financially. How did Ferme Lève-tôt manage?

For our first two seasons, we rented land at the Plate-forme agricole de l’Ange-Gardien, an incubator farm run by the Centre de recherche et de développement technologique agricole de l’Outaouais (CREDETAO) and the Municipality of l’Ange-Gardien. The incubation was essential to our success and made it possible for us to buy our own land and launch an independent business.

Why did you choose the CSA model?

All of our farm education has taken place on CSA farms. It’s a very efficient way of getting food to people. For example, because CSA members pay for their vegetable share at the beginning of the season, we know exactly how much to grow. And having a CSA allows us to connect directly with our members and educate them about food and farming.

Charlotte and Richard’s son, Emmett, in the greenhouse next to chard, arugula and onion seedlings. Photo: Ferme Lève-tôt

What’s your long-term vision?

There are many things we want to do, from increasing our local presence to building the viability of the farm as a business. Our big dream is to farm with horses – not only for basic cultivation but eventually for mowing and other farming tasks in summer and for logging in winter.

Why horses?

Farming with animals is a more holistic way of doing things because you don’t have to bring in external nutrients to fertilize the soil. Instead you recycle them within the farm. Working with horses also requires you to use all your faculties and to be a better human being. There’s been a renaissance of interest in horse farming among small farmers — publications such as Small Farmer’s Journal feature the practice and there are workshops on farming with draft horses. Last month, I attended one of these workshops at Orchard Hill Farm near London, Ontario.

What do you see as the challenges and rewards of small farming?

You need lots of physical and emotional endurance.  It’s not a life for everyone, but the rewards are great. There’s a profound sense of accomplishment and you’re always learning new things. There’s also a meditative quality to the work and a feeling of independence that comes from making all your food from scratch and maintaining your own life.

Do you think that policy changes are needed to promote a healthier, more sustainable food system?

We’d like to see more businesses offering incentives for people to eat better. For example, one of our members receives a break from her employer on the cost of CSA sign-up because the company sees organic food as a way to improve health. At a government level, major policies are still focused on export rather than on growing food for local consumption and that needs to change.

Find out more about Ferme Lève-tôt on their website or Facebook page, or sign up for one of 20 new CSA spots they’ve added this year.


Have you joined a CSA this year? What prompted you to sign up?

How to choose a CSA

Saturday, January 26th, 2013


If you want to join a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, farm this year, now is the time find out what’s available in the Ottawa region. Some CSAs have begun accepting applications for the 2013 season ( is already sold out), so don’t leave it until March or April to purchase your share.

As a CSA member, you pay a flat rate for a share of what the farm produces that year. In return, you receive a weekly basket of the farm’s freshest seasonal produce.  CSAs are becoming more popular across North America. With food safety a hot-button issue these days (think the XL Foods recalls in 2012 or the 2008 listeria scare), consumers want more information about where their food comes from and how it’s produced. Belonging to a CSA offers the kind of transparency people are looking for, as well as a chance to support family farming and the local economy.

To choose the CSA that’s the right fit, you’ll need to do a bit of homework.

Consult the Buy Local Guide

Find out what CSAs serve the Ottawa region by consulting Just Food’s Buy Local Guide. In most cases, there’s a link to the farm’s website so you can click through for more information. Call the CSAs you’re interested in, and consider arranging an in-person visit as well as speaking to current members.

Compare CSA features

Take note of:

  • pick-up/delivery arrangements. CSAs are usually located outside the city, but most will have drop-off spots in town, and a small number do home delivery.  Others ask members to collect their baskets from the farm gate.
  • types of products. Vegetable CSAs dominate, but some supply additional products — preserves, flowers, honey, eggs, pastured meat and poultry — that can be added to the weekly basket or purchased at the farm. Several CSAs provide meat and poultry only, such as Grazing Days (beef), Natural Lamb (lamb, turkey, chicken) and Upper Canada Heritage Meat (pork).
  • season length. The typical season runs 16 to 18 weeks, from June to October. However, several farms extend the season by growing in greenhouses or hoop houses; others offer one or more winter storage baskets (e.g., Ferme Lève-tôt, Rainbow Heritage Garden) stocked with root vegetables and greens.  Bryson Farms, a large non-standard CSA, grows and delivers food year-round.
  • price. Traditional CSAs charge a flat rate per share for the season that varies according to share size (different shares are available based on household size), product types and season length.  Non-standard CSAs charge per weekly box rather than per seasonal share.
  • member involvement. If being part of a community is important to you, look for a CSA that organizes educational workshops, volunteer workdays or seasonal potlucks.

Match CSA features with household needs

The CSA that suits a single person living in downtown Ottawa may not be the best fit for a 4-person household in the suburbs, so set clear priorities (flexible share sizes? home delivery? winter baskets?) and pick your CSA accordingly.  And don’t choose based on price alone: consider the total value the farm offers, including additional products and services and on-farm activities.

Make the most of the experience

To get the most from CSA membership, remember that it’s a very different experience from grocery shopping in a big-box outlet.  For example, as a CSA member, you:

  • share the benefits and risks of CSA farming. The goal of CSAs is to bring farmers and eaters into mutually supportive relationships in which they share the benefits and risks of growing food.  In other words, with good weather and good harvests, weekly baskets are plentiful; when poor weather or pests reduce crop yields, weekly baskets will be smaller and less varied.
  • become a seasonal eater. CSAs don’t offer the same foods year-round as supermarkets do. Instead, they bring you the best of the season. This may include items you’re not familiar with, so be willing to experiment. And while many CSAs provide members with recipes with each week’s basket, it makes sense to think ahead: learn what’s in season when, and make sure you have a supply of recipes on hand.

Are you a CSA member? How did you choose your CSA?

Related posts: 5 easy steps to seasonal eating, Join a CSA farm in 2013

Aubin Farm on their non-standard CSA, no-waste policy and the future of family farms

Friday, January 11th, 2013


Photo: Aubin Farm

Like many family farmers in the Ottawa region,   Tim Aubin and his wife Roshan are hard- working, innovative DIYers.  And like most local food advocates, they’re committed to producing food in ways that minimize waste, protect soil and water, and reconnect people with good-tasting, healthy food.

A certified organic operation, Aubin Farm grows vegetables and raises grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as chickens, turkeys and ducks on 160 acres near Spencerville, south of Ottawa. Besides selling at the farm gate and local farmers’ markets, the Aubins offer a non-standard CSA program which provides 30 to 35 members in Ottawa and across the region with regular home delivery of fresh produce. In 2013, the Aubins hope to expand the program to about 60 members.

Tim Aubin talked to Earthward about his and Roshan’s farm practices and their concerns about the future of family farming.

How did you and Roshan start farming?

I was born in England and farmed in Australia, western Canada and Africa before settling here in 1997 with Roshan, a former teacher and a native of Tanzania. Having seen big commercial farms up close, we knew we wanted to farm organically. We started out growing flowers, but kept an organic vegetable garden for ourselves, partly because we’d had one in Africa, but also because we hated the taste of supermarket produce. When we took our surplus garden vegetables to market with the flowers, we watched demand for them take off. This turned us toward full-time food production, although we still grow roses, mostly as a hobby.

How does Aubin Farm’s box delivery program work?

Beginning in early May, program members receive a weekly box with 10 to 12 items of the farm’s best seasonal produce, much of it heirloom varieties.  Because we use naturally heated greenhouses to extend the season, we can deliver well into the fall. For example, in 2012, we delivered the last boxes in early November, and in 2013, we plan to continue into December. Customers can add other farm products to their boxes, such as eggs, chicken or Roshan’s preserves. There’s more information about the program on our website and, starting this year, we’ll provide updates on our Facebook page.

 Are you a standard CSA?

Unlike traditional CSAs, we don’t ask for payment at the beginning of the season.  Instead, we charge a flat rate of $40 per box delivered. This offers flexibility for subscribers who go on holiday and evens out our cash flow.

Tell me about Aubin Farm’s no-waste policy and why it’s important to you.

It’s strenuous to produce whatever you produce so why throw it away? In fact, not wasting what you grow can be as important to revenues as growing more.

Everything we produce is sold or made into something else or we use it ourselves.  For example, Roshan makes her specialty chutneys, pickles and cooked-to-order Indian cuisine with unsold farm food. If we have surpluses, we provide them to The Branch Restaurant and Texas Grill or donate them to local fundraisers such as MarketPlates.

We compost vegetable remnants to fertilize the soil or feed them to our animals.  Every year, we take wool sheared from our mixed breed sheep to PEI for processing into yarn and blankets. After our sheep go to the butcher, their skins are processed for sale. Customers can order blankets and sheepskins by contacting Roshan or me.

What challenges do you see for small-scale, family farms these days?

One issue is the many rules and regulations to follow, a number of which favour the big players.  For example, a small chicken farmer in Ontario can’t have a flock larger than 300 birds. If you want more, you have to buy quota, which is 14,000 birds. There’s nothing in between. 

Another challenge is that there are fewer and fewer abattoirs left in Ontario. Mobile abattoirs have been under discussion for some time. They’d offer a sensible, fuel-efficient solution that would save farmers long trips to the nearest facility.

For all farmers there’s a legacy problem. Many of us are in our 50s and 60s: who’s going to replace us when they retire? Young people are interested in farming but money remains an real obstacle: the capital requirements are huge. We must all pay more attention to the future of our food system. As a society, we tend to look at health at the level of hospitals and drugs, but health really starts with food.

Photo: V.Ward


Join a CSA farm in 2013

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

If you want to eat tastier, fresher, more eco-friendly food in 2013, consider joining a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, farm. In the industrial food system, many layers separate eaters from farmers. These include processors, packers, shippers, wholesalers, retailers and others.  By contrast, CSAs bring eaters and farmers into direct relationships that help strengthen communities and local economies.

CSA members pay a flat rate at the start of the season for a share of what the farm harvests that year. This way, the farmer knows in advance how much to produce and can cover the costs of producing it. In return, members receive fresh, local food grown by people they know and trust.

CSAs begin signing up members in late winter and early spring, so this is a good time to learn about CSAs in the Ottawa region and find one that fits your needs.  

Where did CSAs get started and how many are there in North America?

The CSA model has its roots in community farm initiatives in Japan and Chile in the 1970s, and in the European biodynamic farming tradition. While there are few statistics on CSAs in Canada, the number of these farms appears to be growing. In the U.S., there are an estimated 6,000 to 6,500 CSAs.

How does CSA membership work?

You pay a set rate, in advance, for a weekly or bi-weekly basket/box of seasonal produce that you collect from the farm or from a drop-off spot. Some CSAs do home delivery. In addition to vegetables and herbs, baskets may also contain fruit, honey, meat, poultry and eggs, depending on the farm. You’ll enjoy bigger baskets when harvests are good and smaller ones when yields are less plentiful.

Will I get baskets year-round or only in summer?

Bryson Farms is one Ottawa area CSA that provides year-round service. However, most CSA seasons start in May or June and wind up sometime in the fall.

What can I expect to pay for CSA membership?

In the Ottawa area, typical rates range from $300 to $650 for the season. That said, you may pay more or less depending on factors such as the number of people in your household, the length of the CSA’s season and the products it offers. Some non-standard CSA farms charge per basket or box rather having than a flat seasonal rate.

Is CSA farming more environmentally sustainable?

Farming on a small scale for a local market is more environmentally sustainable. For example, in the industrial food system, fresh produce travels about 2,414 km (1,500 miles) before reaching the consumer. By contrast, food from a local CSA farm will have traveled less than 161 km (100 miles) and is likely to have been grown without fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides.

I’m concerned about the recent safety scares in the industrial food system. Is food from a CSA farm safer?

What’s clear is that belonging to a CSA farm offers more transparency than buying food from your neighbourhood big box store or fast-food franchise. As a CSA member, you know the farmer who grows the lettuce, raises the chicken and harvests the honey in your basket this week. And you can visit the farm, see how the food is grown, and provide feedback on your food. If a safety problem arises, it will be on a much smaller scale than the kind of thing we’ve seen with XL Foods in Canada or Chamberlain Farms in the U.S. With industrial food operations, safety issues can affect many thousands of products and pinpointing the source of the problem can take time.

You’ve mentioned fresher food, traceability, support for family farms and sustainability. Do CSAs provide other benefits?

The CSA model has always been about building community. Individual farms approach this differently. Most CSAs issue newsletters to update members about what’s happening on the farm. Some encourage members to participate in volunteer workdays; others hold harvest celebrations, workshops or other events. All offer the opportunity for people to reconnect with food and farming.

Do you belong to a CSA? What motivated you to join?