If you have ever dreamed of packing in city life and moving to the country then this book is for you. Canadian author, Brent Preston turned fantasy into reality in this account of starting an organic vegetable farm and ten years of trial and error and back breaking labor before finally achieving a profitable outcome.
The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution by Brent Preston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A must read manual for city dwellers and lovers of the organic food movement about a family who chose to leave the rat race and follow their dream of running a profitable organic vegetable farm. Dust off those fantaseeds and learn the gritty reality of where your food comes from.
Although he might have started out with a simple plan in mind, by the end of the ten years he had mechanized his operations, hired agricultural co-op students for summer labor, perfected a delivery service and marketing campaign, and ended up specializing in just three crops, one of which was lettuce. One of the things he did initially was to participate in the local farmer’s market every Saturday morning, but after a few years of this he packed it in. If you think about it, never a weekend off for you or your kids, up at 4 am to load up the truck and then later in the day unloading the unsold produce. Plus, while he said while he enjoyed the social aspect with the regular customers and the other vendors, there just wasn’t enough profit in it to continue. Better to cater to the fancy restaurants who would pay premium for anything fresh and organic.
There is no doubt we are what we eat and organic food is in – food in it’s natural state. Ask a person who has been lucky enough to live to be over ninety and chances are they grew up on a farm. So farmers markets are booming because organic food is so popular, but are the farmers doing well? I grew up on a farm, 100 acres, so I know how hard it is to make a living on one and how much work is involved. We had a dairy farm with Holsteins when I was a child and my dad had a small herd, three milking machines and a cream contract. He got up at 4:30 am every day to milk the cows, then he would come in, shave and have breakfast (bacon and eggs and perked coffee), as we were getting up for school, by 7:30 he would have left for his other job, home at 4:30, early supper, then milk the cows again, and he would be in bed by ten or falling asleep while reading the paper. On the weekends there were all the other chores to do. Even back then you couldn’t quite make a living on a farm without a second job, and with a growing family, he finally switched to beef cattle instead and cash cropped corn, soybeans and wheat, and while that was a lot of work too, we were finally able to take a family vacation without being tied to the milking schedule. Now farming is big business, a thousand acres or bust. There was an article in the local paper recently about the International Plowing Match which listed a combine as worth $500,000, and a tractor with GPS the same. My dad’s first tractor in 1948 cost $1000 and had a side seat upon which we kids would ride – heaven forbid, no one would let kids do that now. My elderly grandfather who died in 1951, was against the new-fangled modern machinery, as they had to sell his beloved Clydesdale horses in order to buy it. The last tractor my dad bought came equipped with air conditioning and a few years after he died, they had CD players, now they are steering themselves. While farming may be mostly mechanized now, organic vegetable farming is still labor intensive, especially during the harvest. It’s not a job many people want to do, and often the farmers must hire seasonal workers from Mexico or Jamaica to help out.
September is the best time of year to visit a farmer’s market as it is bursting with the last of the summer produce and the early fall harvest. While the peaches and berries may be almost done, the plums, pears, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, new potatoes and onions are coming in.
Our local market is open Wednesdays in the summer and Saturdays year round. Even in the winter, the inside of the old building is full of root vegetables and cheese and butcher shops, but in the nice weather the outside stalls see the most action. They really need more space, but it’s been in the same place for eighty plus years and you don’t mess with tradition. Located in an older residential part of town, there is one small parking lot and you have to drive round and round waiting for someone else to leave. With about 50 spaces for 200 people it’s kind of like musical chairs for grownups. Luckily, no one lingers long. While you can get a pour over coffee with freshly roasted beans, there is no cafe to sit in or cooked food available. We don’t see a lot of homeless people here but one day a woman with her cart piled high with all her worldly possessions asked me for some money, and with my hands full I shook my head no, but then after putting my produce in the car, I went to find her, and gave her ten dollars, which I suspected might go to drugs but who knows? A friend of mine keeps Tim Horton’s coffee shop gift cards to hand out for this reason, but there is something so very sad about begging in front of a place with so much plenty.
Even in the winter I will visit about once a month, because there is still cheese, and apples and oranges to buy, but I’ve often wondered why they open at 6 am. All the vendors are yawning by noon, or closing up early as they have been up since four loading their trucks. Wouldn’t 8-2 be more civilized hours? If they are supplying restaurants do they need to buy that early? If I don’t get there by 11:30 (or I’m still playing musical chairs), I may miss my favorite cheese stall or they might be out of Gouda.
The cheese wars can be fierce. There are two cheese vendors, right across from each other, and the Battle of The Gouda got so bad last year, they both decided not to post their prices. They will glare across the aisle if they think you have abandoned camp, but if they have run out, what is the alternative? My grandmother was Dutch, so I grew up on Gouda, the mild form, not the spicy seeded variety she bought from The European Shop.
The market cheese is better than at the grocery store and they will give you a sample if you are undecided. Even if you know you will like it, a sample will often tied you over if you got up early and missed breakfast. Buying cheese at the market is also much cheaper than in the grocery store so I usually stock up on aged cheddar as well as the Gouda. The one cheese vendor has recently retired and been bought out by the egg lady beside them, who I don’t think has gotten the hang of the weigh scale yet as she is very generous with her pounds, or kgs. I don’t buy eggs from her though as I can’t stomach those brown eggs with the bright yellow yolks. It reminds me of the eggs growing up on the farm, but I know free range chickens are all the rage and I am sure they are full of omega-3’s.
I like to look at the flowers, the glads are out now, but I seldom buy as I have lots of flowers at home.
I have my own semi-successful potager, so I don’t feel the need to buy tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce, but one whiff of the dill brings back memories of my mother canning dill pickles. You can get a free bunch of dill with every large purchase.
The early apples are starting to come in, which will soon mean spies and pies. I can smell the cinnamon now.
My favorite time of year is when the summer fruits are available, the strawberries and peaches. You can get a bushel of overripe fruit for ten dollars and make a whole batch of jam for what you might pay for two jars. There is a jam vendor also, for when you run out, who also sells homemade fruit pies. So definitely there is a cost savings, and the food is so much fresher and better tasting, not to mention not loaded with tons of preservatives and artificial ingredients.
Not everything is better at the market though. Sadly, it is home to the world’s worst bakery which sells the most tasteless bread ever baked, not to mention tarts with uncooked dough and a scant quarter inch of fruit filling. The next time I walk pass, the owner asks if I want something so I venture a tactful complaint – I figure if no one tells him he can’t fix it. He tells me he hired a new baker so I bought butter tarts this time. Same thing. I gave up. There must be an art to making play-doh like that? Butter tarts are a national institution in Canada but I have a fine recipe inherited from my mother. We have much better bakeries in town but I suppose once a vendor has tenure in the building, it’s for life, and so many people don’t know what good pastry tastes like. But the bread – there’s simply no excuse. Bread is the staff of life, but so is good nutritious food. If you ate today, thank a farmer!
PS. Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving today!