“Farmers feed cities.”
I’ve always heard/read this phrase as part of articles and ads seeking support of the farming community, and I’ve always felt a need to get closer to truly understanding what this means. When it comes to the farming world, it’s safe to say that most of Canadian society can be broken up into 3 different categories – Those that devoutly support farmers while preaching about saving the world through ‘back to the Earth’ type of campaigns; those that tend to lump all farming activities into the world of large-scale industrial organizations and fanatically fight against ‘The Man’; and the rest simply just don’t care at all…. farmers don’t really exist to much of modern society, except for in the background somewhere.
As part of my current journey through this stage of life, and my quest to enhance what knowledge I already have as well as adding valuable new knowledge, I quit a great job, and embarked on Phase 1 of my mission, as my wife and I took off to Portugal to learn more about the gastronomy and culture of this vastly underrated country (as I will be focusing my culinary adventures and testing more on Portguese food. Once we got back, it was time to take off on Phase 2 – spending 4 months living on a farm and learning all that goes into producing the products that I cook with every day. As a chef, I personally feel that it’s incredibly important to have a deep understanding of what real food is, where food really comes from, and all that goes into the production. Over the past couple years, I’ve been lucky enough to develop a relationship (first, as a customer) with Pat & Amy Kitchen from Sideroad Natural Farm, who were willing to take me on and teach me everything there is about what they do.
When the opportunity with Sideroad came up to apprentice on their farm, it was a very difficult decision to make, but it was really hard to pass up. If I’m going to learn about real food production, this was the perfect place to do it. As the name implies, Sideroad is a natural farm, meaning they grow everything using natural means. It’s old school farming. It’s how food production was meant to be. Pat & Amy’s farming style falls in line with my own personal philosophy of food, and so the match couldn’t be more suited.
What is natural? Is that organic? Yes and no. It IS organic, but in fact, natural farms are even more clean than just certified organic. “Organic” is a label, that in Canada has some grey areas that allow some producers to occasionally mislead us consumers into thinking the product is healthier than it really is. I won’t get into the science or politics of it all right now…. that will be for another article.
Farming is hard a&$ work.
Let’s just get that out of the way right from the start. I’m definitely no stranger to hard work, as much of my working career has been grinding it out for countless hours, but this is a different type of grind. The obvious aspect is that it’s extremely physically demanding. Lifting heavy loads, carrying heavy loads, taming heavy machinery, trying not to get trampled by giant animals…. you have to be in half decent shape to farm. From knowing other people who farm, I already knew there’s a difference between being strong, and being farmer strong. Now I really understand it better! Try to not get bullied by a 500b pig and you’ll understand too. I was ready for all this though. I mean, I’m not in the best shape I’ve ever been in… I’m a little older than I used to be, and suffer from old sports injuries, but physical work is fine for me. Out of all this heavy lifting, what ended up doing me in the first week on the job was….. planting. Yup. I developed a gardening injury. Onions…. those evil onions got me! Natural farming means doing pretty much everything manually. Planting means spending hours and hours outside in fields, in a crouched position transplanting seedlings into the ground…. to add to this, we’re currently planting into clay soil, which when dry, is like digging your hands into a pile of jagged rocks. This was a ‘fun’ time. So, looking like the typical city boy that I am, on my second day there, from planting onions into the ground, I injured my back and was half out of commission for the rest of the week. From that day on, it was hard to even just put on socks, let alone do any strenuous work. Granted, I did make it through the week and did all my work, but it was so much more difficult considering I couldn’t even bend to put on my socks without a stabbing pain shooting through my lower back.
Anyhow, the back is getting better now and I’m able to do more as I was before… could this be getting farmer strong? I doubt it… yet.
From being on the farm for 2 weeks now, I see farm life as a microcosm of life as a whole. Being big city folk, we often miss (or ignore) the fine details of life, and living the farm life has opened my eyes to these more simple life details. Life basics, as I like to think of them. The stuff that most of us, in the hustle and bustle of our modern western lives skip completely over until we have a mid-life crises, or suffer from a great tragedy that ‘wakes us up’ out of our slumber… out of our mechanical movements through the mundane daily tasks. I think if anyone wants to learn important life lessons without having to spend 30 years at a job they despise, or without coming to a sudden realization after a great tragedy or loss… go spend time living and working on a farm. You’ll start to learn super fast.
Life on a farm is ‘real’ life
At least, life on a natural farm, that is. Your working hours are primarily determined by the rising and setting of the sun. Everything has to be fed every day. Sunshine and water are essential. Without these two things, life simply can’t exist. There is no such thing as “I don’t feel like it” at this job. Things just have to be done, and it’s as simple as that. If you make a mistake, or just ‘don’t feel like it’, it’s very likely something will die. Sounds extreme right? Yes, but it’s the truth. Don’t give your plants water…. they die. Don’t give your animals food and water…. they die. Don’t eat…. you die. This is what I mean by farming being a microcosm of life as a whole. Although it’s a complex working system on the farm, things are overall, pretty simple. Don’t do your work, things die. That’s life. There’s no such thing as “someone else will do it”, or “it’s not my job”… If a task has to be done, it has to be done. That’s a philosophy I’ve always adhered to working in kitchens, and the people I’ve gotten along with best, and worked with the best have held this standard as well. You can be damn well sure that I will be upholding this philosophy in my own restaurant as well. Yes, we’re all human, and we make mistakes and we get tired, but in the end, if a job has to be done, do it. In a restaurant, (knock on wood) no person will die if a task isn’t done, but food quality will certainly die, and the restaurant as a business can die.
The realities of life really hit with the death of animals on the farm. When babies animals are born, occasionally one or more will not survive. Sometimes there is a perfect storm of factors that creates a situation where an adult animal will even die, and sometimes animals just reach the limit of their lifespan and die. This is the cycle of life. And this is life on a farm. You see these things up close and personal, and you can’t just run away and let someone else handle it, pretending that these aspects of life don’t exist. You can’t see death as the end of the world. You can’t spend weeks mourning or being greatly affected by the death of your pet. Yes….. death can be sad. It’s not a nice part of life, yet it’s an unavoidable part of life. At Sideroad, it’s a very rare occurrence that an animal dies…. aside from when they go off to the abattoir for slaughtering, and then later, for sale. Death is a natural part of the farm life… if you choose to raise animals, at some point, they will die…. either for selling the meat, or just because of natural circumstances that can’t be avoided. I’m not immune to the sad emotions of death, but I am aware that it is unavoidable, and the world cannot end because of this. You have to learn to be appreciative of the cycle of life. We give all our animals a good life. We treat them well, we love them, we make sure they live happy. If it comes time that an animal goes off to slaughter to be sold as meat, then we make sure that there is as little stress and pain as possible, and we appreciate what this animal is giving up, so that we can live.
So, let’s see, as for what I’ve learned so far from a farming perspective….
I’ve learned how to set up the all-important irrigation system in the fields, I’ve learned that certain plants must be started at different times of the year, and grow differently under the various soil and weather conditions. I’ve learned how to use a roto-tiller (one of my favourite tasks, I must admit), used to till up the dirt and make it more ‘plantable’, which must be done over all the fields before we can plant anything in it. I’ve learned the daily feeding, watering, and cleaning tasks for pigs, chickens, ducks, and geese. Of course, by saying “i’ve learned”, doesn’t in anyway mean that I’m now and expert in these things. I’ve learned just the basics and beginnings of these things, and am continuing to learn as we go along…. but it’s much more than I knew before!
I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far being up on the farm is one of the most important. I’ve never really been one to be completely unaware of what I have in life. I’ve always worked hard, I’ve always been very appreciative or the life I’ve had… a good family, a good education, various experiences and excitement, and most recently a loving and supportive wife to share this life with. However, being away from home for the past two weeks has taught me something new. In general I’m quite an introverted and independent person, and do enjoy my time alone…. I love traveling alone, I love going to the movies alone, etc….. but I don’t think I was quite prepared for the emotional instability of leaving my life behind. I’m pretty adaptable, and you can drop me into most situations or places, and I’ll find a way to make an adventure out of it, but now I have someone else that I share my life with, and although it’s not perfect, we’ve set up a nice little life for ourselves, and live in a nice neighbourhood that we really love.
While I’m learning new skills and getting new experiences living up north for 4 months, Susete (my wife) remains at our home in Toronto, going on with living the life we had setup for ourselves… except without me. I’m always the tough one. I’m the one who’s usually pretty good at staying positive and optimistic, and thinking “things will get worked out and everything is good” regardless of any obstacle that confronts us…. it’s tough… being apart. I can now admit that. Truthfully, I didn’t really expect this aspect of this adventure. I thought, “no problem…. 4 months is such a short time”. And since our working schedules have always been so opposite anyway, I figured it wouldn’t be that much different. It’s not being in a new situation that’s the hard part. I’m good at that. I love new. New is exciting. I love learning new skills and new experiences. However in my new role as a husband, I now have to worry about another person, and admittedly, there are times where I wonder if I’ve made the right decision in what I’m doing…. am I letting my wife down by being away? Am I being a bad husband by leaving her alone?
In the end, Susete’s incredibly supportive of what I’m doing, probably more supportive than most people would be in this situation would be, and I realize that I’m lucky to have someone like that. This is another life lesson that this experience has taught me. Love. When you’re sharing your life with someone, you make decisions together. You support each other in your goals and dreams. You don’t do anything to hurt one another, yet you also don’t want to hold each other back from achieving things. It’s learning that balancing act, learning how to walk that fine line.
Up on the farm, I’ve formed a funny little family with the people I’m working with… Pat & Amy, the farm owners, a young couple that definitely supports each other and works together very well; their new baby Wyatt, who will be the future of the farm and apparently loves my fancy cooking; Kayla, the other farm apprentice who is going through a journey of her own; the two farm dogs Layla & Yarrow, who are great companions along the way; and the pigs, ducks, geese, and chickens that we raise on the farm.
Yet, in the middle of this life that I’m building with my new farm family, I also am now fully aware that Susete is also now just as much employed at this new job as I am. She must share in this experience with me, as she’s forced to adjust to a new way of life for the next few months, as we must be apart for much of the time. It takes a special person to be willing to go through a major life change, and she’s doing a great job at it, which I appreciate every bit of, as it takes both of us to be good at this job to make it work. She realizes just as much as I do, all the advantages that this experience will bring in the long run. The rest of the summer will definitely have it’s challenges, but will also have many rewards, and looks to be very interesting and exciting.
In the microcosm of farm life, there will continue to be exciting new life experiences, there will also be deaths, unpleasant duties, hard work, and tough emotional times. In our every day city lives, we often get to skip much of these realities…. Getting food goes as far as going to a store and picking up what you need and taking it home. That’s it. It’s easy. There is so much more to it, and I’m currently learning that…. hopefully as I find to write about all these experiences along the way, you will also be awakened a little to what really goes into producing the food that fills our bellies. It’s not as simple as picking up a package off a shelf. There are real people with real lives and real experience behind it all, and I hope to do justice in bringing this to light. It will be an interesting ride.