Organic Love Leaving a big city in your prime dating years, peace-ing out on a career, family and friends to live alone on a farm would seem a terrible way to find love. But, love is funny that way. When you’re in the right place, it finds you.

by Brenda Hsueh

I was no spring chicken at 33 when I went to Everdale, an organic teaching farm, as a long-term volunteer in 2008, wanting to learn about organic farming. There I proved I was not just up to the task physically, but loved it. In late fall, I went shopping for farms. By Christmas, my offer on a piece of land had been accepted and I was moved in by March of 2009. In spring, ground was broken on my first vegetable field, and Black Sheep Farm was born.

The first year out here, I learned that my road was actually a busy one,  good for a roadside stand. Unlike my condo in the city, ‘town’ is an hour’s round trip away. Since then, I’ve learned to wire in a new pressure for my well switch in -20C, and then to run a heat lamp out to the pump house to defrost the now frozen pressure tank.

And, there’ve been other, harder lessons. In 2012 a drought killed all my winter squash and zucchini, about 20% of my vegetable field. I learned first hand that soils depleted of organic matter don’t retain water.

farm baby

This year, 2017, is my ninth growing season at Black Sheep Farm, and my most challenging. Why? My daughter Emma was born on May 5. I’m a new mom, with all that implies, lack of sleep, torturous breast feeding in the beginning, and the isolation of spending most of the day home with an infant.  It also meant I needed help to run the farm, so I hired a full-time employee , Michelle, and we’ve been managing a vegetable garden in the wettest and coolest year since I moved out here.

 

We were lucky, with a healthy pregnancy, birthing and baby, all despite the odds, though I’d like to credit my strong farming body with the results.”

In my pre-farming life, I  worked an office job in the financial sector in downtown Toronto, living in a condo, trying out new restaurants, and generally living the city life. But I cared deeply about the environment, social justice, and food, so when the 2007 financial crisis hit, it was a wakeup call for me to find meaning in what I do.

I learned that our global food system is broken, exploiting people’s labour and health and destroying the environment with pesticides. I wanted to be part of a better way.

That’s now what I do, I farm using agroecological principles that improve soil life, producing food in a manner that improves the environment, maximizing diversity and resilience. My goal isn’t to grow the biggest vegetables or the most pounds per acre, but to produce food at a rate that the land can support, and that can support me financially. The farm produces vegetables for its CSA (community supported agriculture) members, as well as meat and fibre from a growing flock of sheep.

Leaving Home to Find It

I was single all my years in Toronto, and was still single when I moved to the farm. I certainly didn’t expect to find anyone out here in the middle of nowhere, with a population density a fraction of Toronto’s, and mostly over 50 years old. However, I became good friends with the family next door, and started dating the oldest son in 2012. We’ve been together ever since.

All those years of wondering why I couldn’t meet anyone compatible in Toronto, it turns out I was just in the wrong place. I needed to be where I was meant to be, doing what I loved, so love could find me.

Having my daughter wasn’t a given either.

Being a first-time mom at 42 meant a ‘geriatric’ pregnancy, with all the fearsome statistics and added testing and protocols to do with my ‘advanced maternal age’. We were lucky, with a healthy pregnancy, birthing and baby, all despite the odds, though I’d like to credit my strong farming body with the results.

I’m definitely healthier and stronger now in my 40’s than when working office jobs in my 20’s. I look forward to sharing this active farm lifestyle with my daughter as she grows.

calm in the chaos

sheep lamb farmer hay organic love

Brenda Hseuh, Black Sheep Farm

At this point, it’s almost halfway through the 2017 farming season, and despite its challenges, I’m quite calm. Maybe having a new person to take care of contributes to that. After all, when Mother Nature throws another torrential rainfall at you, flooding your field yet again, now you have a child to cuddle while waiting out the storm. Next year will have its own share of farming and family challenges, and the next year, and the next.

As I strive to build a resilient farm environment, I become more resilient myself, able to problem solve and work with the circumstances I’ve been given. At the end of the day, I produce something very concrete, food, a necessity for all human life, and I do so in a way I can be proud of and believe in.

It used to be that everyone was a farmer, and now it seems no one is. I hope that changes as more people choose to join me in such an honourable endeavour.

 

Brenda Hsueh is an organic vegetable farmer, mother, and owner of Black Sheep Farm in Grey County, south western Ontario. She lives on 40 acres with her partner, her baby and the occasional black sheep.

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THE ONE THING YOU MIGHT BE MISSING AT YOUR FARMERS MARKET

Women may be our best hope for the future of healthy, sustainable, local food.

By Frances MacKinnon

It’s a familiar  scene every Saturday morning in cities and towns. Streams of urbanites strolling parking lots and parks, stuffing eco-friendly bags with fresh organic produce from local farms.

There is a very good chance that that food was grown (and harvested and loaded into a truck) by a woman. They’ve been there all along, but, somehow we’ve overlooked this fact.

While the farming sector as a whole (and by extension, our domestic food system) is in a worrying state of decline, with no sign of interest from the next generation, the organic farming sector is growing like a weed, and, women are at the root of it.

Wendee Kubik, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario has been studying women farmers for more than 20 years.

“The number of family farms is decreasing, and, there is not a lot of people going into farming in general . But, of the people going into it, the largest area of growth is women in organic farming.”

Organic farming makes up less than 5% of overall agriculture in Canada, but, from 2013-2015 it saw a jump of $1 billion in sales, and, and it’s not slowing down. COTA (Canadian Organic Trade Association) reports that more than half of Canadians buy organic on a weekly basis, and 80% “have maintained or increased their organic purchases in the last year.”

Overall, women make up 27.5% of farmers in Canada, with British Columbia leading the way. It’s similar in the US and UK. ( Elsewhere it’s 60-80%.)

Kubik is  quick to point out that women have been farming – doing virtually the same work as men, in addition to innumerable support and family-raising roles – since forever. But, they were what she calls “invisible farmers”, unacknowledged because they were women, or, not identified because census data only allowed for one farmer per household.  In fact, Kubik argues, it is on the backs of such traditionally undervalued female farmers that we have enjoyed agricultural bounty and lower food prices for decades.

But, in this new era of farming, borne out of necessity and changing attitudes, more females are finding a fit on the farm.

WOMEN’S WORK

“I know more women than men organic farmers,” says Ann van Der Heyden who started Wooler Dale Farm with her late husband 35 years ago.

organic food vegetables wooler dale farm wychwood barns farmers market toronto

Nicole Prins (right) and her mother Ann Van DerHayden of Wooler Dale Farm

GETTING CLOSER TO YOUR FOOD

Urbanites, women and men, are indeed trading the city vibe for the rural route.  Couples, families and singles are seeking a healthier, more fulfilling, sometimes more affordable, lifestyle. “I know several that have left stressful jobs in Toronto and did a complete turnaround and started an organic farm.”

Today, Ann with her daughter and farming partner Nicole Prins are slinging eye-popping fresh vegetables and the occasional cooking tip as fast as they can to a steady line up of health conscious urban customers at Wychwood Barns Farmers Market in Toronto.

Their farm is a two-hour trek away from their city customers; their day begins at the crack of dawn, and ends late afternoon with a tear down of their stand, and another two-hour drive.. It’s an exhausting end to an exhausting week. “Market isn’t all just fun,” says Nicole. “You’re working so hard all week, and then on the last day of the week you make your income. It’s rewarding, but, it’s hard work.” Nicole  has a bachelors degree in chemistry and math could be a poster-child for eating organic.

farmers market, wooler dale farm

Wooler Dale Farm at Wychwood Barns Farmers Market Credit: Frances MacKinnon

She’s a rare second generation farmer planning to take over what her parents started. But, it comes with a cost. A year ago she had her first child, Ava. “There is no maternity leave when you’re running a business. When you’re pregnant, or post-pregnancy, there is no time off.” Which means Ava is part of the farm chores. “Sometimes I bring her with me and she sleeps while I grade peas.”

 

Single women shouldering the entire responsibility of running a farm is an even smaller percentage of the whole farming picture, but those numbers are creeping up, too.

farmer black sheep brenda hseuh

Brenda Hsueh, Black Sheep Farm Credit:Brenda Hsueh

In 2007, Brenda Hsueh was living the dream of most young career women. A Bay St. job, a downtown Toronto condo, city life, the whole nine.

But, the version of success which she’d worked her whole life towards left her longing for a deeper purpose and meaning in life. At 33, she left it all behind, and bought a farm in Grey County, Ontario. She’s found her home. “I’ll  be here until I die,” she promises.

“It was a moral decision. I look at the world and how we treat it and I’m horrified. I grew up a suburban kid who stayed inside all summer reading books and playing piano. But, I love the physical work of farming.”

Read more about Brenda’s story and finding the love of her life here.

A CHANGING FIELD

farm female farmer

Fertile Ground Farm Credit: Angie Koch

In case your perception of farming only includes the outdated image of a weathered, middle-age man driving a tractor and throwing bales of hay, you’d be wrong on a few levels.

For starters, on many farms, 75-80% of  volunteers and interns these days are women. Sometimes even more.  “And, they’re the hardest workers,” a (male) farmer recently piped up while I was chatting up his neighbour.

Add to that the fact that 90% of farming is large scale factory farms, and even if you shop at a grocer that sells ‘locally sourced’ products, you’re still likely buying from a mass producing farm. (*Ontario does not enforce regulations for products labeled organic. Several other provinces, do.)

“A picture of a farmer with an arm around a cow gives the sense of relationship with the animals. That’s the Ontario brand. It’s false.”  In other words you’re buying what the marketers are selling, and this makes Angie Koch crazy. “It’s insulting to my sense of integrity”

If there is a rockstar in the world of organic farming, it might be Angie Koch.

Angie is 42 and sole manager of Fertile Grounds Farm just outside Waterloo, Ontario. It’s a two-hour drive and a world away from the Toronto skyline.

 

Read more about Angie Koch, Boss Lady

Photo: Angie Koch Fertile Ground Farm

Angie is talking on the phone with me while eating her lunch, one ear on the walkie for any possible emergencies.

She’s already been in the field six hours. It’s full throttle harvest time and her 250 customers are expecting their boxes of produce to be ready for pick up.

“I’m a slave to the vegetables.”

The fact that she is going stronger than ever after 10 years of back breaking, isolating and near-burn out farming is to her, a miracle. “My body won’t do this forever. Thats the flip side of 42. I have chronic back problems, I have arthritis. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. Market gardening is extremely labour intensive work. ”

As far as being a female in the farming world, there are unique challenges.

“Women on the whole are not brought up to be mechanically minded. Most daughters are not taught how to fix a pipe when its broken, or change a tire. As far as we’ve come its still the case that women aren’t mechanically minded. A lot of things break on a farm.”

Fortunately, she is not alone.

“I have staff and interns and they’re mostly women from non-farming backgrounds. You go to craft field day at a farm and it’s 75% women interning.”

Exactly why women seem attracted to organic farming is up for debate.

“Is it community connections?,” she wonders out loud. “Small scale diversified farming is emebedded in relationships. Women are still more the ones who do the cooking and food tasks -is there more passion in what type of food we’re putting into our children’s bodies? All I can guess is there is a care-taking mindset to do things in a thoughtful, respectful way.”

In speaking with a handful of women farmers at the market, one leaves me with this thought:

“You’ll find most female farmers are feminists.”

Wendee Kubik says research has shown that stress on female farmers is great, and historically, there has been little support for their unique issues. “They do a lot of community work to keep community going.  Some women do farm work, child work, household work and a ‘real’ job off the farm.

Her advice, if you farm, call yourself a farmer. Push for policy changes that benefit women. Join associations. “If you’re invisible nothing is going to happen.”

“The numbers are very small right now, but this is the wave of the future.”

To find out more about organic farming in Canada click here.

 

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Heaven on a Cracker: How to up your appetizer game The humble cracker has come a long way since my first memories of scarfing down Premium Plus saltines slathered with peanut butter during after school  play dates with Barbie, my cousin, a brook and skippers, those leggy bugs that hop through the water.

I’ve grown up, and apparently, so has my taste in crackers.  But, there is something special about these bite-size delicacies that can turn my hanger into sweet serenity.  Throw in a glass of Rosé, and I’m totally, if temporarily, sated.

It’s a perfect and elegant pre-dinner nosh.

 

 

Here’s the thing about the cracker-app; it’s so easy to up your game, depending on your budget, time and guest list . Your basic cheese and cracker will do just fine, but if you want to go a step further, try a gourmet compote or savoury jelly, ask your butcher for some extra-thinly sliced prosciutto, and explore some cheeses. My favourite is Peau Rouge, a nutty-flavour, fine small batch cheese from Quebec, Canada.

 

The Ultimate Upgrade

A couple of years back, a friend went to Italy, and brought me back a gift I treasure – a bottle of artisinal balsamic vinegar from Modena, where ageing their balsamic is taken as seriously as their wine, and where brides will often be gifted a bottle of fine balsamic vinegar that was bottled by the family when they were born.It is exquisite. I dole this out carefully, but, a few drops of this sweet nectar on the top of a cracker piled with the perfect cheese, a melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto, and a swipe of compote will take this to the next level.

What are your favourite gourmet cheese and cracker combos?  Share below.

 

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