Over the past few years the more that I’ve learned about food, the more important I believe it is for all of us to know and appreciate where our food comes from.
Which meant when I had the opportunity to join Farm & Food Care Ontario for a tour of two Southern Ontario farms I quickly jumped at the chance! It isn’t that often that you get to tour a working farm with a bunch of fellow food lovers, and have the opportunity to ask questions of the farmers themselves.
Farm & Food Care Ontario is a whole-sector coalition made up of representatives from all farming types and associated businesses, and positions itself as the helpful expert on Ontario agriculture. The common goal is to build public trust in food and farming in Ontario and across Canada.
Our tour started out on a rainy Friday morning in late October from the Toronto harbour front. A group of fellow bloggers and writers were joining Farm & Food Care Ontario representatives Kelly and Jennifer, and Ontario dairy farmer, Amy Matheson, to tour cucumber producers Beverly Greenhouses and dairy farm Summitholm Holsteins.
While we drove to our first stop an hour west of the city, we had the opportunity to hear from Amy Matheson and her experiences working as a dairy farming family. Amy was fresh, informative and frank about her life on the farm. She is a passionate advocate for farmers and the quality standards they adhere to.
Amy was raised on a dairy farm in Perth County, and attended Western University with had no intention of returning to rural and farm life. Although life had another plan, and Amy now lives in Oxford County with her husband and children working her husband’s forth generation dairy farm.
It was an inspiring start to the day to hear from a female farmer who is working to close the knowledge gap between the farm and the dinner plate… Or in Amy’s case between the farm and the glass.
The biggest take away from our discussions was correcting the misconceptions around dairy and the hot topic of organic farming.
A few quick Canadian facts:
- Canada’s farms are family farms. The average in Canada is approximately 75 cows, and the majority of farms have fewer than 70 cows.
- Canadian milk is produced according to standards that are among the highest in the world for safety and quality.
- All milk produced on Canadian farms is tested for antibiotic residues at its arrival at the processing plant. Any milk that tests positive for antibiotic residues is discarded, not sold to the public.
And that leads to the big one…
All milk in Canada is hormone and antibiotic free. That is Federally regulated.
What does that mean? Well most importantly to your household that means if you are spending the extra money to buy organic milk you must ask yourself why? People have different reasons for purchasing organic. That is okay. If you answer is safety and for hormone, antibiotic free dairy, and you are Canadian, please start saving yourself money. Please just don’t take my word for it, educate yourself by visiting Dairy Farmers of Canada website they have a wealth of information and resources.
As our eye opening discussion with Amy drew to a close, we arrived at Beverly Greenhouses in Dundas, Ontario. With over 20 acres of greenhouses onsite, it is one of Ontario’s largest cucumber growers. Third generation farmers, and brothers, Dale and Jan VanderHouts’ are unique for a couple of reasons. First walking through their facility we learned that they strive to control all levels of the supply chain, from growing to packing. Ever wonder why cucumbers are plastic wrapped? The plastic seals in the freshness and prevents the cucumber from dehydrating. In plastic a cucumber will stay fresh for about 2 weeks from being picked, with out the plastic the cucumber would stay fresh for only a few days.
Second for their heat production. Heating our homes in the dead of Winter is a challenge, can you imagine keeping greenhouses warm? The VanderHouts’ operation has several giant boilers that run on repurposed wood chips made from waste wood from construction and demolition sites. The boilers heat water, which produces heat that is piped into the greenhouses. Exhaust from the gas boilers is blown into the greenhouse. Doing so increases carbon dioxide levels, which helps the plants to grow.
Lastly they are taking unique approaches to fight pests, which allows them to use as little chemicals as possible. To fight the bad pests they introduce beneficial insects to protect their crop. Jan, who was leading our tour, pointed out little sticky cards that hang from individual plants. Workers carefully count the number of insects stuck to each card weekly to monitor the pests in the greenhouses and make adjustments accordingly.
After the tour we were treated to a delicious lunch catered by Picone Fine Food and boy did they think we worked up an appetite! The lovely packed lunch consisted of a salad of local lentils, squash, kale, pears and almonds, a roasted turkey sandwich and local fruit crumble.
Thankfully we were able to walk off lunch at our next stop visiting dairy farm Summitholm Holsteins.
The farm was founded by Joe Loewith, and currently operated by sons Carl and Dave. The Loewith family came to Canada as refugees from Czechoslovakia during World War II and began the family farm with 15 cows. Today Summitholm Holsteins is home to more 800 cows, with an average lifespan that is twice as long as the industry average.
Fun fact I wasn’t the only one wearing a Fitbit that day, each of the cows are fitted with a pedometer to track their activity!
If you have not had the opportunity to see cows milked before it is an interesting process, this was my first time. I have to admit I felt slightly uneasy about the process of watching the cows being herded into the gated milking area and attached to the milking machines. However, as it was explained to us the process of milking, the signs of a calm animal and how the animals are cared for, I felt more comfortable and not concerned for the welfare of the animals at all.
Clearly this was not a stressed animal!
I participated on the farm tour to further educate myself about farming practices and principals. There were moments that made me slightly uncomfortable, which forced me think about my own personal beliefs and values, and why I was reacting to a certain situation. This was a good thing, pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone is how you learn about yourself and others.
Overall it was an extremely positive educational experience, and I would encourage all of you to take an opportunity to tour a local farm and speak with the farmers who produce the food on our dinner tables.