This summer I was invited to participate in a #foodblogtour in Chatham-Kent, Ontario. For those who follow my writer’s Facebook page, you may have seen a few pictures from the day. We started at the Retro Suites Hotel, got lunch and a history of the area at the Crazy 8 Barn, had Chris Knight‘s organic farming practices explained, as well met some of his Angus beef cows, heard even more about the merits of organic farming and crop rotation from dairy farmer Rudy Zubler, toured Highgate Tender Meats with Mark Clark and learned about the necessity for local abattoirs, plus were spoiled with a meal from Chef Chad Stewart made from Chris’s beef and other local, organic fare. The day ended where it began, with a tour of the Retro Suites Hotel in downtown Chatham, before I headed home under an August blood moon with my mind swirling with thoughts of all I had learned that day.
What did I learn though? Plenty, of which I’m not sure I can do the day justice.
The purpose behind the day was to showcase Chatham-Kent, but more importantly to highlight the growing farm-to-table movement in Ontario. CK Table is the group behind the local initiative to reignite a relationship between farmers and consumers. There is a growing disconnect between the food we eat and the knowledge of where it comes from. Food doesn’t just come from the grocery store packaged in cardboard boxes and shiny cling wrap. Real food is grown in soil, raised by farmers and far better for us than the processed stuff many families subsist on nowadays.
The problem is, how many urban people nowadays know actual farmers? When families rush from school to work to extracurricular activities at an ever-growing pace, where is the time to make a proper meal, let alone take the time to buy food from a direct source? With the ease to buy milk, eggs, vegetables and meat at the grocery store, a trip to the farm seems arcane. Rising obesity rates across North America suggest that perhaps it is worth the time to reconnect with the people who feed not only themselves, but the rest of us in the cities.
The farmers I met in Chatham-Kent are going one step further. Not only are they raising animals and growing crops, but they are making the effort to produce them in an organic and ethical way. And the crazy thing is, is that the way they are going about it not only improves the taste, but makes it better for the environment.
Chris Knight has approximately 130 certified organic Black Angus cattle, which he raises on 50 acres outside of Chatham. The cows are born on the farm, allowed to graze the pesticide-free and herbicide-free fields daily, and fed hay grown on the farm in the winter. Cattle are moved twice a day from field to field on a 45-day rotation, so that fields are allowed to replenish themselves. In this way, the grasses are never eaten to the ground, thereby allowing the carbon in the bottom third of the plant to stay in the plant and return to the soil. It seems simple, but is a lesson in biology and environmental conservancy at its best.
Down the road, Rudy Zubler owns a dairy farm where he grows organic crops. His crops are on a eight-year rotation, with alfalfa being the star player. Not only does he avoid problems of pests by getting away from the general practice in the area of growing a GMO monoculture—corn, soybeans, wheat—but the alfalfa is a nitrogen super-power plant which helps to improve the other crops he grows in future years. I understood enough of the science behind it to make me wonder why more farmers don’t return to this style of farming. Of course the makers of pesticides and genetically modified seeds have a lot of money behind them and pour it into research claiming their superiority, so organic seems a harder field to plow. Not so, but habits can be hard to break for farmers who think they are practicing the best techniques, even when their organic counterparts are getting higher and healthier yields. More importantly though, taste is where the difference lies.
The folks at CK Table didn’t want to just tell us about the theory behind organic farming. They know that the proof is in the pudding, or brisket in this case. After visiting Highgate Tender Meats, where we learned about the ethical manner in which this scarce local abattoir processes livestock and the importance it has for farmers who rely on their services, we were treated to a taste of it back at Chris’ farm. He opened his doors to us and Chef Chad Stewart, with the help of two students in the Artisanal Culinary Program at Fanshawe College, who took centre stage to showcase the difference that organic food makes. We were served dish after dish made from locally sourced ingredients, each one more delicious than the last. From free-range eggs atop of Chris’ heirloom tomatoes for a fried green tomato salad, to ricotta gnocchi made from locally milled, organic grains with foraged milk cap mushrooms, to a cleansing melon gazpacho, and finally to the star of the meal, a 12-hour smoked brisket served on Yukon gold mashed potatoes from Eco-Logic farms. I barely saved room for the decadent local berry crumble, with wonder berries from farmer Paul Spence’s farm, who incidentally had taken the time to ferry us all over the countryside all day with running commentary about organic farming practises.
You would think that would be enough for the day, but there was one more treat in store. After pushing away from the table and thanking all those involved, Paul drove us back to the Retro Suites Hotel. Before heading home, we got a tour of the building originally built in the 1800s. The quirky hotel has been a hardware store, Baptist church and now houses a lovingly restored hotel with a flair for the unique. From retro milk and popcorn vending machines in the lobby, to original circus prints and movie posters from decades gone by, every inch of the hotel holds a gem of intrigue. Each of the 33 rooms are custom designed in a different genre, from Nantucket to Cowboy, and Easy Rider to King William, each more intricate than the last. Luxurious beds greet guests, but the visual displays are enough to keep one’s eyes awake as you take in all that is on display. I would happily have wandered the halls oohing and ahing over the miscellaneous bric a brac that filled the Retro Suites floors, but for an early morning meeting back in London the next day. I thanked Jamie for the tour of the hotel and begrudgingly stepped into my vehicle to head home.
Home to some of the finest and largest producers of many forms of agriculture in Canada, and in some cases the world, Chatham-Kent is still a relatively anonymous market. Area farmers are the number one producers of tomatoes, carrots, seed corn, cucumbers, and pumpkins in Canada. You won’t find more quail or green pea producers in Ontario, and sugar beets, brussel sprouts and field peppers all rank as number two in production from Canadian and Ontario markets. Yet Chatham-Kent doesn’t even host a farmers market to sell its wares locally. How do we promote this amazing bounty that is right on my doorstep, when local residents seem to be unaware of their good fortune? For Paul Spence, Chris Knight and the rest of the people who tirelessly promote CK Table, it is through events like the one I was privileged to attend. It certainly makes me value the hard-working farmers who toil in their fields so that I may eat locally grown food. And also makes my trip to the farmers market in London, On that much more appreciated.
If you would like to visit or sample locally grown food, why not take the opportunity to talk to your local farmer and see what they have on offer. Chris encourages farm visits and sells his certified organic beef via his website. Personally, I think my kids are about ready to get a closer look at a working farm to better appreciate where their food comes from. Who’s with me?