Newsletter #2010-1… April and May 2010

 

Now it’s late April.  The wind turns like the second hand on a clock marking the days.  When it hits twelve o’clock, look out.

I type this as yet another blast rages out of the north.  The old timers say that while Alberta was always unpredictable, it has of late become something unknown.  North winds seem almost to prevail anymore, and they are becoming truly frightening.  Another symptom of a climate in unrest, I suppose.  It is the same in Manitoba, suddenly, I am told by a friend there.  And apparently this is to be expected anymore.  I may be off, but it seems we get this hammering pretty much bi-weekly now.  

Nonetheless, we’re ahead of the game so far this year.  The warmest winter yet on Alberta – and global – record is mostly over, and we’re right on schedule and beyond with our seedlings and our bedmaking out in the big garden plots.  The Clydesdales have turned a soil that seems in significantly better tilth than last year, in a condition I wasn’t expecting for a couple seasons yet.  And the beds in the yard around the house are almost all filled with greens and cabbage and kale and scallions.

Most of our yaks are gone now, sold to help save a pasture that was looking sorely worse for the wear following last year’s dry.  We lost three dogs to the road this past year and our water buffalo team – Brock and King – are also gone, victims we guess of their own metabolisms.  Seems a water buffalo that is in very good condition, as ours were, can actually become toxic to itself if it then goes into hyper metabolism of fat, as ours must have done during this last arctic December that collided hard on the heels of a Oklahoman November that saw garter snakes still active into the third week.  We brought them through three winters in good health.  Then, out of the blue, they dropped.  As our neighbor said, “Where there’s livestock, there’s deadstock.” 

We’ll miss the yaks.  We still think they are the ideal bovine meat and fibre animal for Alberta.  Not for Big Ag, but for Alberta, an animal that fits the conditions and makes sense.  If we’d have had the space, I am convinced this is an animal that you could turn out and ignore for ten years and come back and see them thriving and multiplied.  A mini-bison without the inherent danger and expense of bison.  But we simply don’t have enough space here in a dry year, and certainly can’t afford more in a speculator’s market.  So they had to go.  Sustainability is, after-all, non-negotiable, something we mostly don’t understand in our culture.  Contrary to popular belief, it is not dictated by our convenience, but rather by what the land and the creatures are telling us.  Getting the equation wrong is not an option the sane would ponder.

The pigs – Petunia and Doncaster – fared well over the winter, are fat as… are fat, and now engaged in turning the kitchen garden – a space too small for a team to work.  Once they feel they are done there, they will be employed preparing other smaller plots.  They do a good job, and delight us all at the same time with the strangeness that is a pig. 

…….

 

Okay, so now it’s early June.  Just like that!  The year is now shaping up more like two years ago – somewhat behind after-all, due to plenty of cold and wet spells.  But the fields are well-planted, and with the moisture we’ve had, heat should bring them on well.  Last night we sat out watching the muskrat couple (Brent and Jocelyn we found out their names are) swimming in the pond and it was cool out, but today it is pretty hot.  Good veggie weather at last!  We’re just about to transplant the started squash in the kitchen garden prepared this year, as mentioned already, by the swine couple.

Vincent and Lyra, our two French wwoofers who were here for some time (Lyra since December) built a gypsy caravan in our barn, from ground-up.  Then they bought a horse and learned to drive her, and now they’re off on tour across Alberta.  http://cart-home.blogspot.com/   How good is that!   We had lots of fun having them here.  Lyra especially has a grasp of the English language that was well appreciated here, for instance, a cougar we learned in proper English is actually a “gouage” and a hammer, she taught us in context, is correctly termed a “moof.”  “Pass me the moof!”  We are glad she has corrected us.  Yet Vincent blames us that she has made no improvement in her foreign language skills since being with us, but hey, we hear people speaking regular English every day, and it’s gotten pretty dull and consider her very much an improvement.  We wish them the best and hope the drivers are kind and share the road with this more sensible form of transport.  I’m sure the Gulf of Mexico is on their side.

Ever wondered why frying bacon smells so good?  I always thought it was in our prep of the stuff, but lo and behold when we’re spending quality sty-time, nose-to-nose with the hogs, Petunia and Doncaster, I’ll be a durned possum if they don’t have the aura about them of a Canadian morning fry-up!  I thought perhaps this was imagination, but no, our new wwoofers from Ontario, Jen and J.L., smell it too.  The hogs smell like bacon. I wonder what they think we smell like?  Apparently not truffles.

We expect to start deliveries in late June or early July.  We’d like to be earlier, but not enough produce will be ready til then for a “proper” delivery.  That’s the way she goes up here on the high northern plains.  We’re just happy for those who think local produce is important enough in any clime to support us!

Thank-you all…

Andrea and Jon

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Newsletter #11 – September 2009

Hello All!

So the season is over, just like that.  First things put first, we will apologize for the hoped-for sixteen weeks being twelve not insofar as this was under our control and we failed, but rather for being so optimistic at the beginning that we could get sixteen weeks out of the season.  It would have been far more realistic, we now realize, under the circumstances of method, geography, climate etc. to have simply offered, “The season will be what the season will be.  It may be sixteen weeks, it may be twelve, it may be six, it may be none.  We will grow what we can grow.  We will do our best.”  Which would be the truth, and not only that, the essence really of CSA.  And life, if you think about it.   

It’s what we’ll say next year.

We had a great season here, and hope you had a great season, too.  We were extremely gratified with the qualities of our membership – there sure are some fine folks in this province if you dig.  We’re not entirely sure at this stage if, as a tiny demographic, we’re the future, or relics like what’s dug up elsewhere in this province, but we do know one thing – our little group of CSA folks this season is right about how we want our food produced.

Our wwoofers were a tremendous bunch as well, this year, and brought many great qualities, vital help, and not a little knowledge.  We could not have provided what we did without them.

Manu our right-hand-man has gone back to France to deal with some beaurocrats, so who knows when he’ll be back, but he does intend to come back.  Before he left, he gave us some interesting outside-party insights into human living arrangements in the civilized world.

Gesticulating at the tap shortly before his departure for instance, he informed that “Der Fuehrer is in da water!”  This was news to us, as we thought the guy died in a bunker decades ago.  (But that’s the value of international travel – you learn things people don’t know at home.) Also, apparently, he is “in da freet…  da freet!”  Only now we’re not sure if he’s in the freet and the water at the same time(?)  We regret not having thought to ask this important question.  Maybe there are intervals during which he’s in the water that it’s safe to eat the freet, and vice-versa(?)

Apparently, to make matters even worse, also in the toothpaste.

Then, pointing one night at an appliance, he wanted to know if we were interested in knowing “how the microwave was invited.”  Wiser now to the possibility of too much alarming knowledge, we declined, as in this case at any rate we already knew the answer.  The microwave was not invited, it came with the house.  We wouldn’t invite it, either.  But who knows how long it’s been here?  We haven’t the heart to tell it to leave.

We hope you were happy with the deliveries.  We are quite satisfied with the way the season turned out, given how it started as well as the other variables.  We would have like to have had more root crops for you, especially potatoes – we certainly planted enough this year, but as with other things, only about half “worked.”  Maybe next year will be a great potato year.  Think of the chard, the chard!  Will you ever look at it the same?

This Saturday the 10th October we are hoping some of you can make it out, noonish or a little before.  If not, just about any other time, any other week or month.  End of season needn’t mean end of contact for the winter, if you’d like it not to.

We will be providing draft-horse familiarity, training and driving lessons more or less on demand, as mentioned already.  Also, we are eager to teach just about anything else you may feel you’d like to learn from this environment, not just to diversify small farm income, but because we believe in the way we do things and would like interested others to learn some of these things, too.  Rural skills.  Would you like to learn about working horses, or just have some lessons about “getting easy” around them?  Would you like to know you can kill and prepare your own meat if necessary?  We have surplus roosters here who have had a good life.  Tan a hide?  Know animals tracks?  These things we can teach.  If you have any other ideas, run them by us.

We are also debating being the focus of a local food co-op, and a bulk-food outlet for things that can’t be had in bulk in Canada.  Let us know if you be interested in buying local and hard to get items from us, and if the interest is there, we will delve further into it.  Also, we will be butchering some yaks.  If interested in the meat (lots will likely be in sausage form), let us know.  They were raised here on nothing but prairie grass, good hay, and the odd treat of grain, treated well with the run of a pretty nice space.  The meat of yaks is high in nutrients and low in fat, and we have found it very fresh tasting.  We may mix the sausages with some heritage breed pork, also raised right on a small farm.   There may be mutton and chicken meat available, too.  Let us know what you think!

Our gratitude to you is enormous.  We are depressed we will not get to see regularly now, depressed more than relieved about a break in the work.  Looking forward to next year… 

Many, many thanks to all of you!    Hope to see you next year – or sooner.

-Thompson Small Farm

If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labour of their hands
and don’t waste time inventing
labour-saving machines.
Since they dearly love their homes,

Newsletter #10 – August 2009

Hello All!

We went off a mile or two up the road (pic above, taken by French wwoofer Nellie) to mow verges this month as you may recall the saga going, out of the bailiwick of Mighty Joe Young, our SuperSize Meself neighbor who dwells in his fabulous new faux mountain-range. With the help of others, including wwoofer Sebastian from New Brunswick, Manu the Frenchman who’s lodged somewhere in our basement, as well as members Eric, Candice and Libbe with his daughter Sointu, we got a sizable stack of loose, dry hay into the Quonset barn.  Maybe half what we’ll need for the winter and still plenty of time for more.  Thanks everyone!

By the way, Mighty Joe’s men actually finally did bale up the now months old grass they cut adjacent out place.  Much of it remained in the thatch of new growth now grasping it, and Manu and I will rake some of this stuff now to spread into the fields to add natural tilth.  It can’t be much as feed at this point, but perhaps he’s only trying to make sure the food quality of what his cows get doesn’t eclipse that of the rest of his industrial crop.

We cut some second growth verge hay too, later in the month, and have yet to rake this – it isn’t quite dry.  In the interim, Eric and Candice alerted us that Raven had shown up with a tremendous gash low on her right rump, it was enormous, at least as wide as Lyle Lovett’s mouth – easily fifteen centimeters – and deep into the flesh.  Emma sported a nasty open puncture, too, right about at the same height on own rear quarter.  A perusal of the paddock area revealed some big nails at matching level where a fence had been recently compromised.  I flattened the nails, gave the girls tetanus shots, a series of penicillin injections, and along with regular rinsing with iodine I figured “that’s that.”  Despite the apparent nastiness of the wounds, they didn’t seem to much bother the horses.  They could still work, and I am told the working actually helps such things drain corruption. 

A few days later Raven appeared with a very nasty scratch below the first wound, on her undersurface.  Okay, I thought, she may have kicked at a gad-fly with a sharp hoof.  I checked the reciprocating foot, and sure enough, there was a sharp tang on the thing that I took off with the nippers.  “That’s that!”  I thought.  We continued working the girls.

We were all set to finish cutting a stretch of grass we’d started a few days later and in comes Raven, limping this time, a very nasty puncture on her left ham this time, blood trickling down.  (At this point I was thinking if she were a steer meant for the deep-freeze, you could simply leave her at pasture and she’d complete her own butchering just in time for fall.)  There would be no working her with this new wound. We searched the whole property this time, and came up with one significant change in the place that might pose a hazard that would result in such carnage.  Our yak bull, Sam, had a newly sharpened horn tip.  We watched him closely, and sure enough, he was clearly focusing some bullish grudge on the horses.  It made sense that Raven was receiving the wounds with this prognosis – she’s herd boss.  We roped Sam and trussed him up and sawed the tips off his horns, a procedure that didn’t seem to ire him much.  Seems he reserves that for the equine contingent.  The horses are now separated from the yaks, and we are going to keep Sam separate until he goes elsewhere or is retired (as a nice bed-cover, perhaps.)   His breeding duties are pretty much finished here, and it’s no secret that bulls continue to change temperament as they mature.  Many farms rarely keep bulls beyond three years for this reason.

Hope you’re enjoying the chard and the turnips.  I am trying to dry the chard into little flakes so I can have it for breakfast, too.  We still have plenty of it in the field, and should still have lots of carrots and potatoes coming.  Right now the broccoli is looking better and better – we just hope there’s enough.  Ditto tomatoes and peppers, some varieties of which are also coming along, although others have produced utterly nothing for the space and considerable supplementary passive heat and rainwater they take. We realize there have been a lot of greens this year, but that’s the year here.  Drought in spring lasts all season even when the rains come back.  We lost a lot of produce of the sort that takes most of the season to mature, but in so doing, gained a lot of knowledge towards hopefully not loosing it under such conditions in future years.  Thanks for receiving us and our offerings so well.  It has been a great year for us thanks in a big way to our members and your continuing generosity.  We here at the farm feel we are working towards something good together with you.  Please refer to the blog for more turnip and chard ideas just now posted by Andrea!  Go to our (Spartan) website at www.thompsonsmallfarm.ca and there’s a link to the blog there.

Oh, and if you ever feel tired of greens, perhaps keep in mind that our mesclun mix that we bring you because it works so well here, for instance, contains five times more calcium, four times more iron, twelve times more vitamin A and six times more vitamin C than a salad of head lettuce from the grocery store!  This according to USDA.

If you had any green worms in your produce lately, I hope you enjoyed the colour but avoided the taste.  Cabbage butterfly worms.  They are the bane of the farmer of any cabbage family produce.  Our place has lately been a significant magnet for these pests, one of the few we have problems with.  However, not to fret – Manu and I have been spraying all the cabbages and cousins (including especially broccoli and cauliflower) with a kitchen-made pesticide consisting of fresh crushed garlic juice and hot pepper in water (as well as the sprinkling of a little dry food-grade diatomaceous earth on the plants), and since then I can honestly say that although the butterflies still abound, the worms are nowhere to be seen.  This is dramatic.  They have had plenty of time since first appearance to really trash the brassica crop.

The worms are not nearly as annoying, however, as the county and their latest scheme.  Our road is again swarming with vehicles and choked in their dust, only this time it is not just the industrial producers of things you can get away with eating for awhile and their machines.  The county of Kneehill, a massive piece of earth, has decided to bring piped-in water to each and every household in this notably sparsely settled district.  The cost?  Like most developments these days, they can readily give you the numbers, but the real cost will remain elusive and cumulative – one more stupid niggling bite out of something precious we can’t retrofit.  So, whether we like it or not (and neither myself nor any of my neighbors like it), we will get piped-in water that we will of course pay for in tax hikes.  And if we actually want it hooked up, we will pay for it again – $6,000 additional dollars.  The water is to come from a river – the Red Deer – that now averages 80% below historic flows.  At a time when many, including my nice and very reasonable young neighbor and their young family in their modest new house a few miles up the road are out of work with no great prospects looming.  In a once insufferably smug province that overnight has posted a near $7 billion deficit.  My Reeve, when I called her and pointed all this out, basically told me, “The province gave us the money so we better spend it.  Plus if we don’t follow through the contractors will sue us.”  I can only hope our motivations become more relevant and thoroughly examined in the future.  I expect the days when the excesses of our culture can act to absorb such fantastic stupidity are now numbered.  Soon, like our ancestors, we may all actually once again be required to pay the real price for our mistakes.  And so finally be required to grow back up, as a culture.  If I could spray the county seat and make it go away like those green worms, I would.  With something from Monsanto. 

Manu has been here for a few months now.  We get along very well, on the whole, except for when we don’t.  We disagree often on approaches to things, and sulk quite a lot in one another’s presence as a result, a sullen and unimpressive pair of brutes at times if ever there was one, but his ideas are usually almost as good as mine.  Actually, they’re often better, usually because they’re about twice as time-consuming.  Which is a common dilemma here – do you have time to do a given job really well, or just enough time to get it done however you can?  I tend to view the time as limited, Manu as generous.  Our relationship can best be summed up by the following story from the other week.  Involving a badger.  Or not.

I love badgers, even if they turn our pastures into moonscapes with their craters – I feel it a privilege to be sharing space with these charismatic prairie wolverines.  Manu and I were coming back from checking hay, when up and over an earth berm along the road (county water line work!) one goes. 

“Looks!” I said, pointing and speaking my best version of Manu’s English dialect for ease of communication, “Dat, deres – Bastard!  Wonderfuls and very famous!  A badger.” 

“What?” he said.

“Didn’t you see you blindness?” I pointed, “Dat bastard wents over the ham just now, the dirt-ham – a badger!”

“Yes, dat – I see dat, yes,” he said indignantly.  “I sees dat animals on the ham.  I sees a cat.”

“It was grey, a badger!”  I corrected.

“What is wrong, you looks,” he went on gesturing up the road, “Orange cat – jus dat!”

Which pretty much sums things up between us.  I see the grey badger, he sees the orange cat.  The future lies in us all working together anyway.

Jus dat.

Thank-you again for your support!

–          Andrea and Jon and Manu.

 

 

“He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living from hand to mouth.”

 – Goethe

 

“All I can say is we are mistaken to gouge

 such a deep rift in history that the things old men and old women know have become so useless as to be not worth passing on to grandchildren.”

– Charles Frazier, “Thirteen Moons”

Newsletter #9 – July 2009

05/08/2009 9:24:33 AM
manu in garden.docx

~ Thompson Small Farm ~

Newsletter #9 – July 2009

 

Hello All!

 

I (Jon) think we had a baby yak born this month.  Andrea would know.  But I can’t remember.  Not whether it was born or not, but whether or not it was this month.  If so, this was then the month of our open-house!  Thanks to all who attended, we had a lovely time having you here, and we will do it again before the end of the season.  We all watched the baby yak (Morgan) being born.  We’ll send some pictures along with additional ones from the farm.  This is the first calf born to Brie, her mother.  It has her curly hair, and she is a good, calm mom.  It plays a lot with Wild Bill and Francois, the other calves.

 

This month, as you know, our delivery truck broke down.  This raised a lot of conflicting emotions, as the vehicles here always do.  (We are of the belief that if we as a society going down a tube into a pit of unsustainability, we are doing it in our cars. And they are most certainly driving us, not vice-versa.)  So many ironies, here.  First, there is the fact that alternative farmers cannot farm close to the centres they serve because cannot afford one that close.  Then, there is the fact that when you farm, you have to have a vehicle – the days when there was a town on the railway lines every nine miles so you could get there sustainably by horse and wagon are long over.  And then, you need a BIG vehicle, because you will be hauling heavy stuff.  Our farm truck is a diesel Ford, 1994 (again, doing this, you don’t buy a new $50 k rig), with a massive 7.3 litre engine – a vehicle that can go a million miles – with repairs of course.  A trailer full of heavy horses alone demands this.  So the cart is now pulling the horse – a once efficient system turned on its head.  Well, at least the thing is good on fuel, on the highway anyway, but this is a relative statement.  Fact is, using the term “efficiency” in reference to any motor vehicle – be it our truck, or a Smart Car or Prius – will always be more than less oxymoronic by definition, unless perhaps it is in speaking of the freight train.

 

The repair bill for our truck could be in the neighborhood of $4,000.00, which sounds like a lot (it is), but is pretty standard maintenance on such a conveyance.  (I could buy a very good team of horses for the cost of this one repair, by the way, that would serve me for 20 years.)  This bill will need to be paid for out of a business venture, which, this year, will gross less than $20,000. When you look at these sorts of numbers, you can understand the conundrum we are in not just here on our little patch, but as a society.  We must find sustainable systems.  By definition, this is not optional.  This means, usually, de-industrialization.  But to attempt to be de-industrial when surrounded by an overwhelmingly industrial world (and the word overwhelming is nowhere more apt), not only makes one intensely vulnerable, it may well prove impossible.  Once you drive a motor vehicle, that single act alone invests you heavily in the industrial economy.  And the industrial economy, it seems, demands an industrial wage.

 

So once again, we are trying to imagine a way to cut the motor vehicles completely out of the farm system.  We are not yet sure this can be done at this point.  We are open to your suggestions. What we are contemplating, however, is making more of our errand trips to the local towns with the horses and wagon.  This will not alter an extremely precarious small farm economy as long as we are doing distant deliveries, but it will help bring back to our towns an imagery that we believe needs to be back in peoples’ faces.  We will be stuck in a purgatory of mere gestures towards sustainability until we hit some critical mass.  One of more trains, more horses, more CSA and other alternative farms, far less personal motor vehicle use.  Each of us must contemplate if we can be leader here.  And try not to do it quietly!

 

Otherwise, it has mostly been a very good month here.  The gardens are really coming along, although the variety is not what we had envisioned for this year.  Lost to vagaries of Alberta climate this year are: corn, beans, cucumbers, radishes (so far), red-fife wheat, about half the potatoes, broccoli, brussel sprouts and cabbage we planted (other half doing okay), etc.   Doing well are the oriental and other greens, turnips, kohlrabi… that sort of fundamental marginal-climate stuff.  Reminds me of my great-grandparents, who homesteaded outside Lethbridge beginning around 1905.  Lost all their cattle, frozen solid, in 1906-’07 in the big historic blow that killed the last of the cattle barons.  But they had a garden.  All that grew that year was turnips.  But at least they had turnips.  That’s not to say that there aren’t those managing to grow a much broader range of produce in Alberta, today.  But look under the skin and you will find some way in which they are forcing the natural conditions to a degree that cannot be considered in keeping with sustainable goals.  Usually, they are pouring the water on every day in volumes that pool on the ground, or they keep heated greenhouses.   Neither of these practices are good for us, in the long run.  The way to do it right in our minds in this place is to use the rain and runoff water, get it to the fields economically and sparingly, (hope that the Great Mystery will help you with this!) mulch like crazy to hold it in, and be philosophical about just what it is you’ll be eating if you’re an Albertan. This is something we need to incorporate in our psyches as growers as much as anyone else.  

 

We continue to be blessed by a great crew of helpers.  Amongst them, a young Israeli woman who taught us much about native edibles, as well as young French woman who was not impressed when the mice took over her car.  I loaned her a live-trap.  The mice went in and died, lying there spread out on their bellies as though they expired while launching off little diving boards.  “Don’t feed these mice to any of the animals,” the woman told me.  “They got into my medication.  I think that’s why they died.” 

 

Some people advise you should avoid doctors at all costs.

 

We began cutting some hay from the road verges this month, as it looks far better than much of the field hay this year.  Normally, only a few of us small fry do this, as the big boys mostly have hayland on a scale larger than most eastern farms.  But lo-and-behold, this year most of the good verge-hay around our place got cut just before we were able to claim it.  Our new neighbor – (Mighty Joe Young we’ll call him) – whose self-built mountain range masquerading as a house now dominates our eastern horizon so he can overlook his newly purchased 20 square milesclaimed the grass.  He made a few bales of it, and is now letting 90% of it sit and spoil.  I gave him a call.  The wife, who is friendly enough, asked me what they should do with it.  Use it, I more or less told her.  “I’ll need to tell my husband,” she answered, “We know nothing!”  Another irony of our times, I thought.  The largest new farmers – some of who promise to be the largest farmers yet, in a world already dominated by giants – have utterly no idea how to farm – even less than the drive-and-spray sons and daughters who’ve inherited most of the land out here. (Hell, even less than us – HA! )  Well, of course they don’t – you don’t buy 20 square miles with farm money.  Anyway, if they don’t rake that hay soon, we will.  There’s no way we will let it rot when we could use it so badly.  Or to do so on principle.  The question remains why someone who lays claim to such an instant empire needs to cut verge hay.    But here is something again that is ominous for us on our little patch.  This man intends to purchase every farm he can.  Word on the street is that 20 square miles is not nearly enough for him.  If he gets a hold of the adjoining land we are renting, and he intends to, the odds of him honoring old agreements are nearly nil.  “Might as well sell it to me now,” he apparently told the owner.  “I’ll get it anyway.”  We would loose most of our grazing land if she craters, and men like this are emphatically not about sharing.  Theirs is the Walmart approach to survival – life is a competition, not a collaboration, best won by owning everything. We tell ourselves there is lots of verge-hay, but now Mighty Joe wants that, too.  So here’s another hurdle.  What effect will such newbie empire builders have on sustainability efforts?  Now that the global economy is collapsing, their advisors are all telling them, “Buy farms!”  And they are.  Oh well, cross that bridge we tell ourselves. 

 

Our old #9 MacCormack-Deering haymower, circa 1948 and rebuilt last year with help from, among others, CSA member Mat Schaeffer, is doing a skookum job when hitched to the girls, Raven and Gwyneth, or alternatively, Raven and Emma.  This model was the pinnacle of horse-powered technology, an elegant machine that was the last of its line before being replaced by unsophisticated tractor implements that substituted brute force for excellence of design.  Up and down the road we go, laying down the green grass, the “high-gear” scissor-action blade whirring gently, the gearing positioned mostly behind the axle (unlike other models) so that in tandem with my bodyweight in the seat, much weight is counterbalanced off the neck of the horse.  The horse machine spreads the grass thinner over a larger swath than the tractor machines, and it dries in one hot day because of this, ready to rake.  The verge hay cures a nice bluish colour – blue hay. Two calories back for every one expended, we’re told, in contrast to one back for at least ten expended when a tractor is your power source.  (Who said the latter was efficient?!)  We’ve got a nice pile of loose hay started, and we’re hoping to claim more.  Last winter our herd lived on it, and came through well.  Ted Andrew of Dunphy sold me 12’ wide dump rake that we hitch behind the cart.  Sebastian the wwoofer from New Brunswick who falls asleep so suddenly in the truck that he drops anything he may be holding (don’t ask him to drive!), rides on the cart beside me and gives a mighty heave of his strong arms when the rake fills as the horses continue plunging forward, dumping windrow after windrow for later forking.  The Clydesdale horse has a longer, more fluid stride than any of the other heavy breeds, and the resulting smart clip can get things done in short order.  We are honored to be working in partnership with them. 

 

And we’re reveling in the comraderie that working on a human scale with others brings to life.  Many hands not only make light work, they bring on a whole new dimension of meaning. Community is life. 

 

Thank-you again for your support!

 

          Andrea and Jon and our many wonderful helpers.

Newsletter #8 – July 2009

Newsletter #8 – June 2009

 

Hello all!

 

Apparently this June broke records in Alberta for frosts.  We had more killing frosts this June in southern Alberta than before in recorded history.  This according to my farming associate, if you can believe him, who many claim you can’t, but in this case we do.  At any rate, we’ve lately felt this venture to be an act of desperation more often than not.  We’ve really turned ourselves inside-out trying to get things to grow at a rate faster than Alberta cares to grow them herself, and at the end of the month all we can report after going to extreme lengths involving a lot of extra infrastructure, water, soil-stirring and relentless labor from many hands is that things are progressing.  And that we are not yet sure when deliveries will start, which seems absolutely ridiculous – it is nearly July after-all.  We can honestly say we are doing all we can.  We expect a bounty, if a rather late one.  This said, we are doing better than some producers I have heard of just today, who are going to plow everything back under in a week if things don’t improve.

 

We have had a great month for Wwoofers – “willing workers on organic farms.”  This is a room and board and experience for farm labor program.  Without this program, we’d be dead in the water.  We’ve had some outstanding people here this spring.  Rob, for instance, was a young man from Korea with a Philippine girlfriend.  He was hard to get out of the field, putting in much longer days than expected.  “There are a lot of beautiful women in the Philippines,” he said one day over a broccoli bed.  “My girlfriend isn’t one of them,” he noted, adding, “I never think of her.”  It shortly emerged that he had fallen in love with the young German woman with whom he was traveling, who had already left for home.  “I think I love her,” he told me, “which is strange, as I’ve always found white women highly arrogant.”  “Are you going to Germany then?” I asked.  He pondered this briefly.  “No,” he said. 

 

Now we have as farm-mates Boris and Manu, followed by Valantin and Berengere.  They are all from the Leone region.  It’s a full and lively house.  “Where is the cheese?” they proclaim indignantly.  “We are French!”  They can eat all the cheese they want – it is difficult to get them stop working.  Of the flat of started broccoli, Boris asks – “Where should I plant these bastard?”

                                                                                                 

We have had another young yak born, this one to Rachel – her second.  He is a boy.  Boris and Manu, whom we call “Francois” and “Francois”, have christened the new baby “Francois.”  Rachel is doing well, and young Francois hangs around with Wild Bill, who is living up to his name by repeatedly trying to mount the poor thing.  “Wild Bill has a problem,” Manu said.  “He is trying to marry Francois.”  Rachel doesn’t seem to care.  She is a good yak, mind-you, well put together in classic yak fashion if a bit of a runt.  She trusts us enough to be near her babies right after birth.  That is really something with a yak.  

 

The animals otherwise are all doing well, with horses and buffalo really looking shiny and fit after a month on pasture.   Sarah lay down one day next to a board-fence and couldn’t get up again as it was in the way of her feet, so Andrea dismantled the fence, let her up, thwarted a stampede by the rest of the animals for the new opening, then re-built the fence. The yaks are looking dreadful as they do in June with their winter coats hanging in wooly threadbare garlands about them.  The tyranny of the gardens in a year like this one has kept us from collecting as much fibre as we’d like to, although Andrea had found a little time to round up the herd and add some to the sack.  We expect Juniper and Brie to give birth soon, by their looks and behavior.

 

Wild critters on the farm these days include myriad ground-squirrels, nests of both Eastern and Western kingbirds, a clutch of Pintail ducklings on the new pond, a deer-mouse that dug out one-by-one most of the newly planted squash seeds from the “three sisters” garden, badgers after the “gophers” and a chicken-stealing coyote I think we have managed to scare off for the time being.  He doesn’t give them back.

 

We are thinking of having a farm open-house on the weekend of the 11th.  A pot-luck, perhaps, combined with a work-bee, which will inevitably involve (among other things), weeding and watering. We’d really like everyone to see what’s going on here first-hand!  More on this to follow before the date.  Drop us a line in the meantime if you think you might like to come.

 

Thank you again, for your support and your patience!

 

–          Andrea and Jon

 

 

“There are no national, state or county problems and no national, state, or county solutions…

the large scale solution to the large scale problem which is so dear to

governments, universities and corporations, serves mostly to distract people from the small, private problems, that they may in fact have the power to solve.”   

 

 – Wendell Berry

Newsletter #7 – June 2009

Newletter #7

18/06/2009 5:11:12 PM

Hello all! 

 

 First off, please allow us to apologize for how long it’s taken to get the first newsletter together – we have a new system being implemented that we are hoping will make us more cold, heat and drought resistant.  It has been very labor-intensive getting things set-up, and not much time for being on computer!

 

The year of course is late, by perhaps three weeks or so.  We are anticipating starting deliveries in July, and fulfilling the full 16 weeks by extending things into the fall.  Our new system of extensive covered-beds, to be augmented by more hoop-houses, should allow for production later than would normally be possible in this climate. We have started plenty of produce in the field at this stage, including beets, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, salad greens, onions, corn, potatoes, peas and cauliflower.  Pretty soon here the heat loving stuff started indoors will be going out – beans, squash, melons, tomatoes, etc.

 

The big challenge right now is water – there has been no significant rainfall yet this spring at the farm.  Thankfully we had plenty of snowmelt, and lots of water in the ground so far.  The animals have just gone out on grass, but the grazing is patchy – good grass is limited to those areas where snow drifted and melted, and on the native grass uplands the land is cracked open and the grass is scorched and crunchy.  We will likely be bringing in more hay, something we have never had to do before winter in previous years.  Things may turn around, however. We have seen many springs start very dry here on the plains with rains coming in June nonetheless.  In the meantime, we have purchased a gas-powered pump to augment our hand-pumps, and it is seeing daily duty getting water to the new transplants.  We are not of course “hydrocarbon-free” on the farm as some have dubbed us in good faith – no one is in our culture.  We are working towards sustainable alternatives with animal and human power wherever possible, however.  We have no tractor, choosing the horse instead.  We think ultimately the Amish may have the best attitude towards technology – accept that which enhances daily life short of running the risk of building dependency and/or causing fundamentally damaging cultural change.  We can do this on our little place.  Off-farm, however, we have less leeway than they do!  

 

We have a new pond dug, so now we have two.  The runoff here was tremendous this year – a river!  It partially destroyed the spillway on the new pond, but a “lip” remained and held back an appreciable amount of water, and there are springs in the bottom.  Ducks and geese are fond of it already, and muskrats have taken up residence.  We have stocked it with local lake chub, blunt-nosed minnow, white sucker and brook stickleback for mosquito control, and broadcast cattail seeds in the hopes of establishing this very useful plant – a veritable grocery store in and of itself and a purifier of water.  The spillway will be repaired this summer, ready for next year.  Our existing pond is well patronized by a number of duck species, swallows, eastern and western kingbirds, muskrats, tiger salamanders, chorus and wood frogs, and many other species.  Where there is water, there is life!

 

The horses are well, and Gwyn and Emma (Clydesdales) hitched three-abreast with Raven (Clydesdale/Percheron) did a lot of work on plow, disc harrow and spring-tooth harrow this spring, muscling up noticeably!  Sarah (Emma’s filly) watched from the sidelines – she will be ready for some work next season at three.

 

We have had one new yak born so far this year, a bull-calf.  He is now being bottle-fed, as his mother, Lillith, died due to complications despite treatments – something rare for yaks, which are usually fool-proof calvers.  We think she may have had genetic issues – last year she miscarried.  We will miss her.  At any rate, her calf – “Wild Bill” – is doing very well, a cute little devil full of life, and we may make him into a steer and use him for packing and winter work. 

 

We are looking forward to a good season, and hope to get you all involved here to the degree of your interest.  We see this enterprise as a community venture, and hope to find more ways to celebrate this fact this season.  We are open to suggestions and ideas, and look forward to meeting you all.   

 

 

Thank you!

 

–          Andrea and Jon

 

 

“The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living

on a small piece of land…”   

 

 – Abraham Lincoln

Newsletter #6 – September 2008

Newletter #6

18/06/2009 5:09:48 PM

~ Thompson Small Farm ~ 

Newsletter #6 – September 2008

 

Hello all! 

 

We simply can’t believe how quickly the summer has gone.  Thank-you everyone so much again for your support.  We very much enjoyed being involved with you in this venture, and getting to know a little so many wonderful folks.  The summer was a great learning experience for us, not just in terms of CSA farming but in terms of giving us real perspective on how the CSA model fits, or might fit, into our culture and into Calgary specifically.

 

Here’s a summary of our thoughts based on the CSA experience in retrospect, a sort of “year end report” and then some.

 

Our Goal – Did We Achieve It?

 

Our primary goal this summer was to provide our members with a market share of fresh produce grown locally in a manner representing an alternative to industrial agriculture.  We had no illusions of sustaining ourselves solely on the proceeds, but we did hope to gain insight into whether this would be feasible in the future.

 

Certainly, we provided fresh produce to our customers, grown in a fashion that even the vast majority of organic farms don’t attempt[1], and that is largely without industrial machinery as a power source.  We believe we came up short, largely due to conditions this summer, in providing members with the volumes they’d have been getting from the market for the same money.  Does that mean our produce was therefore over-priced? 

 

The Real Value of Food

 

In the CSA model, the customer of course shares risk with the farmer.  One of the things this means is that in a year like this one, it is not really pertinent to say one was overcharged.  If you get less food in a given year, it simply means the price of local food from your supplier was higher that year.  You got less for more.  This may seem like a handy excuse for the farmer, but many times we reflected that we would rather, in a “bad” growing year, have brought what we did manage to a farmer’s market and simply get recompense for what we brought.  Fair market value for what we provided and no more.

 

Or is it?

 

CSA Farming and Calgary

 

We believe in the CSA model and believe it offers value for money for Calgarians, and is important culturally.  The value in our minds lies goes beyond the alternative produce provided.  We believe that CSA’s serving Calgary – especially ones using alternative power sources to hydrocarbons and electricity – would still be of great value to that community in keeping alive and running – not to mention relearning – the models we will need in the future when the realization is forced upon us by dwindling resources that we don’t really have the luxury of unsustainable living for more than the few generations it takes us to exhaust our natural endowments – this luxury is an illusion, or perhaps better a de-lusion.  Recognition of this need is why we would be CSA members were we not CSA farmers. 

 

  

Farming Must Sustain the Farmer As Well to be Truly “Sustainable”

 

For sustainable farming to work then it must also sustain the farm, it must pay the family unit to be there full-time, farming, no outside job. This may seem intuitive, and certainly was how things more often worked before consumerism, fueled by industrial money, kicked into high gear following WWII.  In fact, farming more often than not does not sustain the farm family today.  The fact that farming no longer sustains farmers (and fewer all the time, even, of the new breed of “agribusiness” industrialists) is a global crisis.  Ideally, deeded landowners immediately surrounding a city are the ones to be running CSA’s.  The problem is that these areas are viewed as future housing developments or acreage potential for industrial elites, not as land that could potentially sustain us, and it’s way too expensive for farmers to make “a go of it”. Nowhere is this more true right now than around Calgary.  This is why our little place was located a full hour from town[2].  “Nevermind, the interest is not there amongst these landowners anyway”, you could argue, but even if it was, it is doubtful they could support a place of such land-values running a sustainable, biodynamic CSA.  We certainly couldn’t, and believe me we’d have loved to have been close enough to have delivered to drop-off points under Clydesdale-power!

 

What Should be the Real Cost of Locally Grown Food in Calgary?

 

What then would a biodynamic CSA, horse or ox powered and with a mix of animals and crops, on the outskirts of Calgary need to charge to sustain itself?  Members would likely need to paythousands of dollars for their seasonal membership, in order to support the farm that feeds them.  This sounds outrageous, but it would actually then represent the true, unadulterated fair market-value of local food in Calgary.  But is this so outrageous taken in objective context?  Many Calgarians have few qualms, for instance, about paying a half million dollars and even far, far more than this for that other basic requirement – shelter.  Food, of course, should not and cannot cost that much.  But neither then should any basic need perhaps, and if we are willing to afford so much for one, perhaps we should be paying a commensurate amount for the other.  Perhaps the price of a CSA membership should be on a scale with the cost of living in general in the location in which it is based. We doubt that anyone in Calgary would be willing to pay so much for their food, today.  

 

So here we may gain some insight into how unrealistic our food (and housing) prices are now, how unrealistic our current living model is for the future of human beings, and why farms have mostly all failed or are failing.  It is also why running a CSA serving Calgary devoid of the large-scale industrial inputs and cheap (exploited) farm labor – the very things CSA customers are trying to avoid supporting – will, until things change entirely, be on a significant level an act of self-sacrifice for the farmer.

 

An Unfortunate Situation

 

This situation is unfortunate – there is nothing Alberta needs more than alternative models.  At the time we were doing our CSA this summer, there was one other such initiative in the entire province that we knew of.  

 
If unsustainable living is a delusion, so then, really, is the city of Calgary
[3], and others like it or that aspire to being like it.  And of course, the influence of Calgary is not limited to the city “limits”.  The same issues we became so clearly aware of this summer are now rearing their heads throughout the entire landbase of Canada where conditions are best for farming – and well beyond.  “Calgary” now includes to a significant degree almost all of southern B.C., and increasingly Saskatchewan.  We have a very serious crisis here (or more aptly a symptom of an even larger one) that few seem to acknowledge as such.  As a result of this situation, and for as long as we can continue to string this current goal of bigger-is-better and more-is-more out, one of the tasks of sustainable farming will be to learn how to grow food on the marginal areas that farmers (as opposed to industrial agri-producers) can actually afford to purchase, live on, and farm. 

 

Epilogue

 

Our twenty acres is an oasis of native grass, bottom swale and the virgin garden plots where we grew your food in a vast landscape of inert planting medium that was once rich prairie soil.  Right now it is harvest time for the agri-industrialists.  Living right next to our normally very quiet road, this is an awful time of the year for us.  Battalions of combines whine all day and well into the night as we try to sleep.  Convoys of eighteen-wheelers pass our place at intervals of about every half-hour, sometimes until almost midnight.  Everything is dust – our house, our pasture, our animals, our sky even.  The atmosphere looks as though we are experiencing a south-eastern level of humidity, but it is not moisture, it is dust, as far as the eye can see, and that’s a long, long way out here.  Dust kicked up day and night by this army of machines waging war on the land, huge piglets on the petroleum sow roaring “let’s see how much diesel we can burn this year!!!”

 

There is nothing about this situation that resembles “farming” as we understand it.  This is because it is not.  It is agribusiness.  Whenever the agribusiness has business in our neighborhood, quality of life plummets.  The onslaught is relentless while it lasts, the pace frantic, panicked even, the environment dangerous.  I daren’t let the dogs out, and I worry our horses will get the heaves from breathing so much of the pulverized earth into their lungs.  I occasionally prevail upon the owner of this particular empire – “Would you please water the road down?”…  “Would you mind not running your convoys for all of our long weekend?”…  “Would you please not spread your strychnine along my fenceline where my animals are liable to get at it and die a hideous death”… “Tell your men to slow down before I hurt them!” …  After speaking to me briefly in the tone of a used car salesman trying to give me the business, this ‘farmer’, one of the largest operators in an area of large operators, always has the same answer – “We’ll see what we can do, Jon.”  And we see that what he can do never amounts to much, although his drivers have become more respectful, insofar as respect can have anything to do with the operation of eighteen-wheeler convoys on a quiet rural road.  What he has proven he can do repeatedly, if not intentionally, is step all over our toes in a fashion I would never dream of doing to him nor anyone else.  But this is the problem not just with today’s agribusiness, it is the problem inherent in being “BIG”.  Show me a “big man”, show me a big concern, show me a big business, show me a big city and I will show you people and environments being disrespected.  It cannot be helped.  It’s the law of critical mass beyond which everything goes downhill.

 

For all of this frenzy, I have heard that Mr. Big’s concern is not doing well these days.  The cows that stand around in their own ordure for weeks on end as they’re “finished” for slaughter are not paying the bills.  This was inevitable, of course.  Unsustainable is unsustainable, and as scores of American business concerns are finding out, being BIG – nay – being GI-BLOODY-GANTIC doesn’t change this natural law.  I wish my neighbors well, of course, and sincerely hope their operation goes straight down the toilet.  Good riddance, as this would be best for all humanity.  When all the massive agribusiness concerns of the world finally hit the wall of their own disgusting reality, perhaps then, and perhaps only then, we can move on to a better way.

 

Thanks again everyone, we very much appreciated your support and are buoyed by knowing there are concerned, kindred people out here with us in these interesting times.

 

“Farmers Jon and Andrea”


[1] …although we believe biodynamic methods should  required for organic certification, they are not.  It is one of the problems we have with the label “organic”.

[2] And the fact that we were an hour from town is one reason our particular CSA is not ultimately sustainable.

[3] Not to pick on Calgary, which in all fairness is actually considered exceptionally lucky these days by other jealous municipalities – it is simply an example of our urban model doing a superb job of working as it was intended to do under today’s model.