Yearly Archives: 2010

  • Striving for food security

    My hands were red from the nippy November air Saturday as I hauled three-quarters of a bushel of Kieffer pears home and called it a season for the Garden of Eating — Niagara.

    The trees, whose limbs slouched with the weight of ripe fruit only a few weeks ago, were much perkier now that most of the pears had been shed and were turning into compost on the ground beneath them.

    The latest haul will go to the Agricultural Society of Upper Canada for an educational and fundraising campaign. But as I took stock of the season that was, I came to the conclusion this weekend that there is more than enough to go around.

    It was a point hit home even further by a story I read in the Toronto Star before heading out on my last pear pick about a soldier from Sudbury who lost three limbs in Afghanistan. While he and his family struggled with the snail’s pace of support coming from Veteran’s Affairs, his community had rallied around him. People donated money, supplies and time to build the family an accessible house on five acres so the soldier would never have to worry about providing his wife and two daughters with shelter.

    That there is more than enough to go around is also affirmed for me every time there is a food drive in my community. When the annual call comes, St. Cathariners can fill a city bus with food. Just mere mention of bare shelves at the local food bank mobilizes the masses to open their pantries and share what they have. It’s just too bad that the reminders are needed — that the situation needs to be dire before those of us with enough pull together to help those without.

    Dave Kranenburg, executive director of Meal
    Exchange.

    Fortunately, there is someone who wants to get beyond the food drives. Dave Kranenburg wants to see the end of those dicey moments for the 2.7 million Canadians who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. As executive director of the non-profit Meal Exchange, Kranenburg is striving for food security — access to nutritious food — one university student at a time.

    The Meal Exchange is a national student-founded and driven charity that taps into the energy and knowledge of youth to solve the hunger problem. Organizing food drives is a part of it — Trick or Eat is a big one come Halloween — but working with other agencies to help create a sustainable food supply for all is the ultimate goal of the decade-old organization.

    “There are food security issues in every community,” Kranenburg said. “The tip of the iceberg is food bank usage. Food banks exist in every community in some form or another…. For most, their last resort is a food bank. They’ll do a lot before going to a food bank.”

    Take the mother who will miss a meal to feed her child instead or the person who skips out on groceries to make their rent.

    Kranenburg, who was recruited to the Meal Exchange as a first year student at the University of Guelph, during the organization’s infancy and helped take it national, said food drives and fundraising are a good introduction for students to the issue of food security.

    Meal Exchange provides leadership opportunities to help a chapter — there are 30 at universities nationwide — identify needs in a community and develop projects that have a lasting impact on food security. Some recent successes include the partnering of the Ryerson University chapter with Evergreen Brickworks on a soup kitchen. The University of Ottawa chapter is also partnering with a local community garden to build a greenhouse that will provide a place to seed plants in winter.

    “Once youth are knowledgeable about an issue and feeling confident in their community, they’re thinking ‘How can we as youth get involved in our community.’ It’s about capacity building,” Kranenburg said.

    Locally, Meal Exchange is getting support from Chateau des Charmes. The Niagara-on-the-Lake winery is donating a portion of sales from its new Generation Seven vintages to support the cause.

    But that’s about all that’s happening here in Niagara, much as Kranenburg would like to see more, given the presence of a college and university here.

    So what’s needed to start a Meal Exchange chapter?

    There needs to be a willingness to run programs to raise food and money. A commitment to education, talking to peers about food security and running one or two large event to promote the issue is also required. Leadership development is also on the bill for any candidates willing to take up the cause. The Meal Exchange holds a retreat each August to help. Kranenburg and crew, based in Toronto, also provide all the support a chapter needs to succeed.

    “We’re trying to find those people that want to do more than a food drive,” Kranenburg said. “But it’s not just about executing a program. It’s about mentoring youth and developing that leadership. It’s about investing in their development.

    “The reality is, youth make ideas work.”

    For more information, email Kranenburg at dave@mealexchange.com or call 416-657-4489.

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  • Peach Tree
  • A whiter shade of borscht

    They aren’t exactly the life of the vegetable party.

    But beets and cabbage are solid members of my favourite food group. They’re hearty, packed full of goodness and never short on flavour even if they get a bad rap from some or conjure up bad childhood memories from around the dinner table.

    Still, in my world, beets and cabbage have been known to work some serious magic, especially in borscht. If ever there were soul mates, these veggies are it.

    Problem is, much as I love brightly coloured borscht, unless I’m dressed entirely in magenta when I eat it, my clothing bears telltale signs I’ve been dining on the soup that put the Ukraine on the culinary map. I wind up a candidate for a laundry detergent commercial.

    But I’ve found a solution to satisfying my craving for this substantial soup while staying stain free.

    It came to me yesterday as I rummaged through my veggie drawer and found several white beets from my visit to Linda’s last week: white borscht.

    I ate it for lunch today and my clothes got through the experience unscathed — a victory for my husband who does the laundry and for my tastebuds, which got to savour one of my favourite soups.

    If someone has already come up with this idea, my apologies for giving myself a pat on the back for this concoction that’s a klutz’s dream. Here’s my take on it and the only thing better than eating it is roasting the beets first. They fill the kitchen with a beautiful smoky, earthy sweet scent that smells like warm sugar. If only the proverbial ‘they’ could bottle that soul soothing aroma…

    White Borscht

    Ingredients:

    1 lb white beets
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 onion, diced
    A good hunk of butter (about 2 tbsp)
    1 carrot, peeled and diced
    2 yellow tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
    6 cups vegetable stock
    2 tablespoons white vinegar or lemon juice
    1 tablespoon sugar
    1 tablespoon dillseed
    one-quarter of a medium head of green cabbage
    Fresh dill (optional)
    Sour cream (optional)

    Instructions
    Coat beets in olive oil and roast in the oven at 400°F for about 45 minutes or until skins loosen and beets are tender. Let cool, then remove skins and dice beets.

    Melt butter over low heat and add diced onion and carrots, cooking until onions are translucent and carrots start to soften. Add beets and tomatoes, cooking for another five minutes.

    Add stock, vinegar, sugar and dill seed. Bring to a boil and reduce heat, simmering for about 15 minutes, until carrots are nearing tender.

    Add the cabbage and simmer another 10 minutes. Serve garnished with fresh dill and a dollop of sour cream.

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  • Peach Tree
  • NiAGara: Farm Heroes and Agvocates — Creek Shore Farms

    Amanda and Ryan Thiessen in the midst of a corn riot with their
    Newfoundland sheep at their Vineland farm.[/caption]Corn riot. 
    The mere words can conjure up images of civil unrest in some far-flung nation facing a shortage of the staple after a horrible growing season.

    Or, for those fearing ethanol’s efforts to dethrone oil as the fuel of the future, it might be what comes to mind when the decision to feed people or our cars becomes more pressing.

    But for Ryan and Amanda Thiessen, corn riots are what they do for kicks.

    To incite one, all that’s needed is a bowl of corn and a visit with their sheep where a flock made up of the likes of Bess and Ted and their companions will climb over each other, leap through the air and hip check their mates to get at the grainy goods.

    A year after the newbie farmers added the first members of their flock of Newfoundland sheep to their Creek Shore Farms, the stunt still hasn’t grown old.

    In fact, there isn’t really anything the novelty has worn off of yet at their rented Vineland farm or Jordan vegetable patch, which they’ve been working for less than a year.

    “It’s nice when you get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to work for myself,'” Amanda, 25, said. 

    Ryan and Amanda Thiessen of Creek Shore Farms.

    It’s a feeling foreign to many but it’s even more unusual considering the job that Ryan and Amanda, wake up to do each day isn’t one they had much exposure to before this growing season.

    Neither come from farming families. Amanda studied history at university and toiled in greenhouses until she found what she wanted to do. Ryan worked summers at Whitty Farms, a St. Catharines agricultural cornerstone. Still, he can’t imagine doing anything other than embarking on a living off the land.

    “It’s been my passion since I could remember,” Ryan, 26, said.

    “He’s a farmer inside,” Amanda interjected.

    “I had other things I considered but I always came back to farming,” Ryan added. “It’s in me. If you think about it, you’re kind of dumb to be farming. It’s hard work and long hours but it’s just in me. Now I dragged her into it.”

    Amanda hasn’t minded. It’s a career to which she has taken a shining. On a recent Saturday morning, she could be found in the kitchen of their tiny rented farmhouse hacking away at gourds to get at the seeds she’s saving for a future a crop. It was a diversion from the dozens of pounds of carrots she had chopped earlier to freeze for their winter CSA.

    Outside, Ryan rode around on a red antique McCormack Farmall tractor that belonged to his grandfather. It’s a bucolic life that is their life.

    It hasn’t all come naturally, though. Amanda didn’t know why her heirloom tomato plants were being whittled away to a mere stick this summer until mentor and neighbour farmer Ron Thiessen told her about a pest with a voracious appetite. And so went her introduction to the unsightly tomato horn worm.

    Young veggie plants getting their start at Creek Shore Farms.


    Sheep sheering didn’t go smoothly on the first take, either. Fortunately, the Thiessens met a Brit visiting the area, who showed them the woolen ropes.

    The couple also tried growing some of their veggies with plastic mulch, like Ryan had seen them do with great success at Whitty’s. But, striving to do things organically, what the plastic did to heat up the soil in their one-acre vegetable patch, it did little for weed control.

    “I should never have gotten into raised beds,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “The plastic biodegrades but when you are trying to go organic and do things that are good for the environment, it doesn’t seem right to have black (plastic) mulch.”

    Chalk it up to lessons in Farming 101.

    “Everything was learning this year,”Ryan said. “It’s a lot of flying by the seat of our pants but that’s kind of the way it is, even if you know what you’re doing.”

    For fans of food production with a conscience, though, they’re doing everything right and with boundless passion. The couple want to take some of their cues from Joel Salatin, the farmer made famous in Michael Pollan’s foodie zeitgeist, The Ominivore’s Dilemma. 
    Their flocks of chicken will follow in the footsteps of their sheep flock, providing pest control and breaking the worming cycle in the pasture, Ryan explained. 
    “We’re trying to create diversity and go back to the old days,” he said. 

    Some of the Thiessens Newfoundland sheep, which are a heritage breed.

    That includes fostering trusting relationships with customers. 
    “We have no plans to get certified (organic),” Ryan said. “We would rather our customers get to know us than a third party.”
    The Thiessens have also learned a few lessons at the dinner table. Farming has changed the way they eat, they said. If something isn’t grown here, they tend not to buy it. Meals taste even better considering most of the ingredients come from their own farm. 
    “We had an amazing meal at Thanksgiving,” Ryan said. “Almost everything there was from our own farm and it was awesome. I think people have forgotten how to eat like that.”

    Ryan Thiessen holding a young red sex-link chicken, which
    will provide Creek Shore Farms with eggs. 

    Or how to pay to eat like that. Aside from meeting the tomato horn worm, the Thiessens have been introduced to prickly consumers whose mouths water more for cheap produce in the grocery store than fair-priced, sustainably grown food.
    Ryan admits it’s tough to compete with broccoli that sells for a dollar in the grocery store when he and Amanda charge three dollars. 
    “I can’t even pick it for a dollar,” he said. 
    “Some people tell you bluntly you’re too expensive,” Amanda added with a rueful smile.
    “Most people don’t even know what it costs to grow food, especially organically,” Ryan interjected. “People think food should be handed to them.”
    The criticisms, few as they’ve been, have caused moments of doubt.
    “But then you look at the books,” Ryan said. ‘It’s not like we’re inefficient. You should be able to make a living farming and not supplement it with off-farm income.”

    Creek Shore Farms’ Muscovy ducks.

    And so they will. The Thiessens plan to move their entire operation next season to the Jordan farm they are renting, using 10 acres to raise their growing menagerie of Muscovy ducks, red sex-link and white rock chickens, and sheep, along with more heirloom vegetables for their burgeoning CSA. 
    With the expansion in land comes more choice in the offerings to their customers. There will be free-range fowl and eggs included for CSA customers and more vegetables. They also plan to keep selling their produce at farmers markets in Niagara-on-the-Lake and St. Catharines. 
    Plans are for a rubust operation, not a big one, Ryan explained. 
    “If we make enough to sustain a small family, that’s as big as we’re going to get.”
    Click here to learn more about the Thiessens and their adventures in farming at their Creek Shore Farms blog.
    NiAGara: Farm Heroes and Agvocates is a series that profiles Niagara’s farmers and local food advocates. Do you have a farm hero or agvocate that people should know about? Let us know by emailing eatingniagara@gmail.com.


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    Peach Tree
  • Going back to the start

    My Inukshuk marks where I can plant in the spring.

    I pressed my heavy rubber-booted foot onto the top of my garden spade with a heavy heart today.

    I was uprooting the last of my plants from my summertime refuge; calling it quits on a garden that, for me, was a success.

    It was once home to an Amazonian eight-foot pink ruffled zapotec tomato plant, providing me with jewel-toned beauties for stuffing and, unfortunately, some meals for some burrowing bugs. I think they actually ate more tomatoes than I did, but who’s counting?

    My garden also had prolific pepper plants: dark purple Pinot Noir and incredibly sweet gypsies. My shepherd pepper grew tall and strong but only gave me three long, slender fruits, aborting many blooms in the process. My naga jalokias, deemed the world’s hottest peppers, never materialized, though they teased me with blossoms and bushy branches.

    Still, compared to last year’s dismal results of five tomatoes, total, from my six tomato plants and lots of Swiss chard (a star again this year, too), the 2010 edition of my garden was an overwhelming success thanks to that maiden of meteorology, Mother Nature, being a little less of a wet blanket.

    That’s why I wasn’t ready to let go, despite the thermometer telling me even last week that it was time — that if I didn’t act soon and remove that bountiful Pinot Noir pepper to take inside, every gardener’s worst enemy, Jack Frost, would have his way with it and he wouldn’t be kind.

    I had already pulled my tomato plant and emptied some of my containers, which produced mixed results. (My container kale was a disappointment). My garden removal has been a process done in stages so as not to be a total downer and shock to the system. With only a few stragglers left in my sandy soil, today was the last day before my patch of veggie and flower goodness returned to a barren swath ready to be blanketed with snow.

    But as I put my weight on the shovel, the spade slicing easily through the moist earth like a hot knife through butter, I realized that while it was the end for some plants that had called my garden home for the summer, it was actually the beginning for others.

    With a clean slate before me, I started envisioning what would go where next year. The corner closest to my patio was perfect for peppers. The spot directly in front of willow shrub that grew like a weed this year was perfect for tomatoes. My chard, well, that would line my stepping stones again next year.

    My garden, cleared and ready for spring. 


    I also broke out my garlic cloves and planted 12, double what I did last year. I moved my Inkushuk to the end of the rows so come spring, I would remember where I could start planting again without posing a safety risk to what is really my favourite crop. There is nothing I love more than fresh garlic. It’s pungent and oily and makes the most beautiful crunching noise when I lay a knife blade on top of a clove and smack it.

    As I dropped each aromatic seed clove into the ground, my sense of melancholy over clearing out what had been my version of heaven was replaced by the optimism of what next summer, a blank slate, and another season’s promise hold.

    Only 21 weeks until spring…

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