Fermenting fomenter

A bonus for me as an intern last year was a copy of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz and over the summer it was my little bible for fermenting just about anything I could get my hands on. Katz delves into the historic significance of fermentation, something that is practised by most cultures around the globe, as well as briefly examining the science of live cultures. He also looks at the health benefits of live cultured foods and why ferments have gone out of fashion as our food system increasingly relies on mass production and standardization.

All the fermented foods we find commonly are listed, with recipes for sauerkraut, sourdough, beer and wine featured, but there’s also a host of lesser known cultures such as amazaké (sweet Japanese rice drink), injera (spongy Ethiopian flat bread) and kombucha (sweetened tea fermented with a SCOBY – symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast) covered as well. A basic list of resources is included for obtaining cultures that won’t just happen to be hanging around like the koji mould, Aspergillus oryzae, needed to make miso. Experimentation is strongly encouraged and fermenting can be a pretty exciting process; flavours develop over time, you can taste as you go and if you’re like me and don’t really follow recipes that strictly, every jar tastes different.

Over the course of the season I mostly used lacto-fermentation, one of the simplest fermentation methods (vegetables + brine + time) that can be ready in less than two weeks, for a few batches of kimchi and innumerable jars of mixed vegetables. Just before I left Quebec we put a batch of elderberry wine on using elderberries found on an urban forage – thanks to the Gatineau council for planting elderberry in public spaces we were able to harvest just enough for the recipe – but there are many recipes I plan to try in the future.

I found fermenting to be an easy process with tasty results and I’d encourage anyone whose ever thought about it to give it a try; it can be as simple as filling a jar and letting nature go!

Tractor licence

Tractors have long been a mainstay piece of equipment for farms regardless of acreage or farm type and at Chelsea Gardens we were lucky enough to have access to a small 27 horsepower Kubota. It can be somewhat daunting to step into a tractor for the first time – like learning how to drive again only with dials and levers all over the place and a host of crazy symbols meant to help you understand their purpose; besides the hare and tortoise on the hand throttle it seemed more like hieroglyphics. After a few hours mowing and getting to understand the function and usage of various levers and buttons it felt pretty comfortable and running the tractor can be a nice break from hand weeding although the noise and diesel fumes mean it’s not an enjoyable all day task.
Equipped with a front loader, PTO (power take-off) and three-point hitch the tractor was as versatile as the number of implements available; our arsenal included:

  • Discer : A row of steel discs that roll across the soil surface to break up clumps of earth before planting or break up remaining plant matter in beds that were finished production for the year.
  • Hay wagon: Long flat bed trailer mainly used to move hay and compost around site.
  • Roto-tiller: Mechanically digs and turns over the soil; used in bed preparation before planting.
  • Seeder: Used to distribute cover crop seed.
  • Mower: Used to mow paths, field borders, cover crops and vegetable beds that were finished production for the year.
  •  The Poutine* Machine: Our trusty potato planter, hiller and digger.

While tractors definitely help reduce the work load they must be used wisely; every time they are driven through the fields they compact soil and using the roto-tiller damages soil structure; additionally they rely on polluting fossil fuels to run so minimal usage is best.

Not all tractor’s are made equal so while we were fortunate that the little orange tractor was suitable for most of the work we asked of it, the appearance of an Allis-Chalmers cultivating tractor later in they year was a welcome addition. Cultivating tractors are designed for small scale vegetable production; they are lighter than most other tractors reducing soil impaction and don’t have a lot of power as the main job they do is weeding between vegetable rows and beds. Throughout North America there are many examples of these types of tractors being converted to run on electricity, from tractor mounted solar panels instead of diesel, and that is a project on the cards for the coming year.

* For Aussie readers out there poutine is a Quebec creation comprised of hot chips smothered in gravy and cheese curds. Cheese curds being fresh cheese chunks that have separated from the whey but haven’t been pressed into block cheese; they are mild with a springy texture and the best ones squeak. For a true poutine they must be fresh which means produced, packaged and utilised that day without having been refrigerated.

Farm City

Making better use of urban spaces has been an inspiration for me since I first visited Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane in 2004. There are many community gardens around the world that either allocate members their own plot to work or simply have a one size fits all model where everyone contributes and works a common area. In urban environments of the western world, it’s much rarer to find an individual who has taken the step from gardening, growing vegetables and maybe raising chickens, to farming, where more livestock are involved and butchering them for human consumption is definitely on the agenda. Significant barriers to people include time (livestock need regular and consistent care), resources (animals also need food), and access to land, since it’s not always easy to find a bare block that can be used with the blessing of the land owner.

Novella Carpenter had gardening in mind when she rented an apartment in the heart of Oakland, a city with nearly 400,000 inhabitants, on the west coast of California. She transformed an overgrown city block into a food producing oasis and then wrote a personal account of her experience growing fruit and vegetables while raising bees, chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, rabbits and finally two pigs on an almost abandoned site adjacent to her apartment building. It makes for an absorbing and entertaining read as armed with a can do attitude, plenty of enthusiasm and a shoestring budget she learns how to keep poultry alive amidst dog attacks, get her rabbits to breed like rabbits and dumpster dive enough food for her ever growing pigs. Novella’s approach reminds me of my own where if it sounds like a good idea you should try it and you’ll figure out everything else you need to know as you go along. City raised bacon anyone?


Farm style espionage

An important aspect of the internship at Chelsea Gardens over the summer was spying on visiting other organic and biodynamic farms in the region. No matter what your domain, any opportunity to see how other people approach their work is a hugely important aspect of the learning experience, and organic farming is no different. The monthly farm tours gave us not only an opportunity to take a break, and socialise a little during the mandatory pot luck at the conclusion of each farm tour, but a chance to discuss major issues of the season (this year drought and insect populations) as well as more specific problems such as the incidence of cercospora leaf spot in chenopods (fungus on beets and chard). Farmers and interns alike were able to geek out about agriculture checking out  tractors and implements on site, looking at the irrigation system set up, visiting livestock, investigating the cold cellar, making notes on washing station organization, and pest management strategies. Conversations concerning markets, profitability in relation to overall farm finances and specific crops, the worth of value added products, the future of organic farming and progress of the season in general were common topics discussed at length around the dinner table.

Each and every farm is physically different with unique soil profiles, topography, water sources, vegetable and variety selection, livestock, equipment, acreage. As an intern I found it invaluable to physically experience this and learn about some of the problems faced by other farmers and the creative and practical ways they utilise the available resources to overcome them. A great example was at Rainbow Heritage Farm, which is off the grid, where keeping produce cool without draining the solar system batteries is achieved by making ice in the winter and letting it slowly melt over the summer in the cold storage cellar; a purpose built room that is half sunk into a hill so it has plenty of thermal mass.

I was lucky enough to participate in all the farm tours over the summer, meeting a diverse and interesting group of people along the way. Although each farmer’s background and years of experience as well as farm size, mechanization, livestock, fruit and vegetable varieties varied significantly from farm to farm everyone was bound by a willingness to share and support one another despite often being in competition for market share. The common belief, that growing organic food is an essential component of today’s society, that must continue as part of our responsibility to ourselves and the earth we live on, and a commitment to the hard work necessitated to achieve that goal serve to form a sense of camaraderie amongst the group. Despite each farm tackling issues such as pests and disease, crop rotation, soil health, staff management and marketing with their own approach there was a strong sense of mutual respect between farmers and it was a pleasure to feel like a part of the community, if only for one short season.

To go on a mini farm tour of your own, visit any of the farm web sites by clicking on the logos below.

What kind of hoe are you?

On a farm there are always weeds and with them comes the job of weeding. Manual weeding is labour intensive but for organic vegetable growers it’s still one of the most commonly used methods of keeping weeds down. This can mean hand weeding – that’s right, on your hands and knees, pulling up plants by hand. Perhaps even cursing the mulch that simultaneously reduces weed pressure and make it more difficult to pull the weeds out as the mulch has to be lifted out of the way first. It can also mean flame weeding – nothing like a tank of propane on your back and a burner in your hand while you apply heat to the surface of the planting beds to kill any newly germinated weeds. Otherwise there’s my favourite, hoeing, it may be old fashioned but it’s still effective and satisfying once complete.

There’s a lot of choice in the hoe department and in addition to the wheel hoe (which is exactly that – a wheel with a hoe) there were slim draw, diamond, collinear and stirrup hoes to choose from. Personally I favour the diamond hoe if an entire bed has to be done or the stirrup hoe for finer work around seedlings.

So, what kind of hoe are you?