On Tuesday, October 4th, Growing Up Organic joined Longfields-Davidson Heights Grade 11 Culinary Arts class on their farm field trip to Rainbow Heritage Garden in Cobden. Upon arrival we were greeted by young farmer Zach Loeks who runs the farm with his wife and a team of interns. The tour started the second we stepped off the bus. We all took a minute to look around and absorb the colourful scenery and the smell of fresh clean autumn air. Zach’s first question to us was ‘what do we see’? The students answered with trees, meadows, hills, rocks, plants, and so on. What Zach was trying to get at was the idea of biodiversity; something that today’s many large industrial farms are highly lacking. Almost all industrial farms that are involved in the mass production of supermarket food are based on monoculture. Monoculture is the agricultural practice of producing one single crop over a large area with a main goal of quantity over quality.
Zach began by teaching us the importance of biodiversity. The diverse landscape on his farm allows for the accommodation of 150 varieties of fruit, vegetable, herb, and tree species. Biodiversity is the key to food security. Zach provided us with the example of sap producing trees. The main sap producing tree is the sugar maple because it yields the most sap. Large industrial sap farms will plant acres upon acres of only sugar maples so that they can produce as much sap as possible. But what happens when this farm gets hit with a strain of disease specific to the sugar maple? All the trees become infected and no syrup is produced. This is the problem with monoculture farms; they put all their eggs in one basket and if something goes wrong they have nothing to lean back on. This results in a huge loss of money but most importantly it results in the loss of food and food insecurity. This is why Zach plants a variety of sap producing trees along with a great variety of all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Notably, the trees that Zach plants today won’t be ready for any kind of sap or lumber production in his lifetime and therefore have no direct benefit to him. He plants the trees in hope that they will be of use to following generations and contribute to the sustainability of our future. The large trees that are currently on the farm are there because someone, a long time ago, planted them. Likewise, future farmers will surely be thankful for all the trees that Zach plants today.
The next thing Zach showed us was his well that extracts fresh clean water from hundreds of feet below the ground. By using this untouched groundwater for watering his crops he can be sure that they won’t be contaminated by chemicals that are often found in water sources that have been in human contact. Of course, he also uses this water for other purposes such as drinking and bathing. After the well, Zach went on to show us his solar panels which work to provide his entire farm with renewable energy. By extracting water from deep in the ground and gaining energy from the sun, Zach’s farm is completely sustainable on its own, meaning it doesn’t require any outside sources of energy. This saves Zach a lot of money in the long run and contributes to the sustainability of our future by saving the energy that would normally be used to transport electricity and water all the way out to the farm.
Continuing on the subject of biodiversity, Zach brought us into a barn that was filled to the brim with squash of all kinds of different shapes, sizes, and colours. He went on to explain how he could pick a squash with desirable characteristics and by planting seeds from this squash he can grow more squash with similar qualities. Each squash has the potential to grow hundreds of more squash with all the seeds that are found inside of it.
Alongside food security, another issue raised by Zach was that of food storage. Eating sustainably, especially in Canada, usually means eating seasonally. Naturally, most fruits and vegetables do not grow all year round. Supermarket food is imported from all over the world. In mid winter when it’s too cold to grow strawberries in Ontario, we can go to the store and buy strawberries imported from Chile. Relying on food that’s traveling thousands of miles by boat or plane also means relying on the fuel that’s being used to transport it. Fuel is a non renewable energy source and its availability is becoming increasingly limited. In order to created a sustainable food system we need to focus on ideas of food storage that will help us store those foods that aren’t available all year round. Zach invited us into his very own underground food storage cellar. The main structure was built but still had to be buried. The earth’s temperature a few metres below ground is always at a constant temperature of around 3◦C. In summer months it can keep food out of the heat and in winter it can store all the food that was grown in summer.
To finish off a great day on the farm we got the chance to get our hands in the dirt by helping Zach harvest his organic potatoes. During his demonstration of how to harvest them properly he ate some of the soil to show us that it was perfectly harmless due to the lack of chemicals and pesticides. Whatever minerals are in the dirt will end up in the potatoes anyway, so Zach joked around about getting his minerals straight from the soil! Finally, it was our turn to help out on the farm. We dug for potatoes the way Zach taught us, making sure we sifted every patch of dirt so that no potatoes got left behind! Although I found it quite enjoyable and somewhat therapeutic, some of the kids were fairly tired by the end of it and couldn’t believe that this is a job that Zach usually does on his own or with a few interns. With twenty of us it took about an hour of hard work.
When asked why he farms, Zach answered first with his love of eating good tasting food and having it readily available to him, but mostly he does it because he feels as though he is making a difference. Organic farming and sustainability awareness are his contributions to our current deteriorating food system. What’s also really important is that it makes him happy.