Small family farms were once the norm across this country, but are increasingly being replaced by large-scale industrial farms. Yet there are families like the Blacks of Markdale, Ont., Mike and Patty and their four boys John, James, Chris and David, who continue to keep the family farm alive. They continue to be an important source of nourishment in their communities, providing food for hundreds of local families. Photo by Michael Swan

Resilient community farms provide ‘living’ nourishment

  • May 21, 2021

Winter is not just weather and neither is spring. Our long, grey season of COVID discontent and loneliness is not quite over, but outside our windows and outside our cities spring is relentless.

“We just need hope so much,” said Elizabeth Stocking as she walked past puddles and fields to introduce a journalist to the livestock on her Willo’Wind Farm near Uxbridge, northeast of Toronto.

The horses — Maggie, Millie and Monty — and Lilly the dairy cow are eyeing the fresh, vibrantly green grass on the other side of the fence. But it’s too early in the season to let them out there. Soon the ground will be solid enough, the grass long enough.

Stocking is deeply grateful for her front row seat at the miracle of spring in farm country. She begins her days with an old English prayer by Thomas Blake:

Every morning, lean thine arms awhile
Upon the windowsill of Heaven
And gaze upon thy Lord.
Then, with vision in thy heart,
Turn strong to meet thy day.

“Everyone needs to find that vision,” Stocking said. “We’re blessed here that every window here we look out of is actually a windowsill of Heaven.”

But it’s not a blessing Stocking hoards on her 50 acres. Her land feeds 200 families through a community supported agriculture (CSA) system and many more through sales at three different farmers’ markets. The apiary (beehives) on her land is tended by another farm family and that honey feeds even more families.

Small family farms that grow a variety of crops and keep a few animals are disappearing under pressure from large-scale, industrial farming and an integrated food system that spans the globe, said Grange Farms founder Rory O’Neill. After three separate pilgrimages along the Camino de Santiago sparked growing appreciation of the contributions of Benedictine monasticism, O’Neill and his family turned to farming and began gathering a network of other small farmers committed to sustainable, ethical farming.

“People are so busy now, they don’t realize the knife-edge we’re on,” said O’Neill. “If we don’t recover these things (farming traditions) we’re going to lose them. If we don’t figure out a way to grow food properly, in a more stewardship-centred way with the land, then we’re really going to put ourselves in a precarious position environmentally.”

Until 10 years ago, O’Neill and his family lived in the decidedly urban neighbourhood around Roncesvalles Avenue just west of downtown Toronto. He understands that most Canadians — 81.5 per cent of us live in urban areas — don’t think they have a say in the food system. Life is hard and expensive enough without driving out to farmers markets to pay double for eggs and milk and vegetables.

But COVID should teach us that a big, complicated, global food system hides risks and costs that can’t be avoided forever, he said.

“If we think resilience is important, then we need to have shorter supply lines, more resilient supply lines, rather than just depending on cheap petrochemicals to haul our stuff around the world, thinking nothing is ever going to happen to disrupt any of this,” warned O’Neill.

But it isn’t just the economic fragility of the system that worries him. O’Neill sees a food system that is an ongoing ecological disaster dependent on a global, consumerist culture alienated from the food that should sustain life.

“The threat of boiling everything down to just a consumer-production matrix is a big threat to our culture and our humanity,” he said. “If everything is reduced to a consumer and a dollar figure, that’s a huge threat… It’s almost too late in the game. The farmers that are left now are fully integrated into the massive system.”

For Mike and Patty Black farming and faith run together. They understand the romance of fresh green fields in spring, the smell of dirt and a connection to the land. But they also understand the commitment they have made.

“There’s romance. But I was more realistic coming from my childhood of 16-hour days (on the farm),” Mike Black said.

The Blacks operate Black Market Produce and they supply lamb and pork for the Grange Farms network of direct, farm-to-consumer sales. Mike still works as a carpenter and construction contractor. The farm chugs along with help from their sons John, James, Chris and David.

“I know a lot of people who move up from the city. They want to be connected (to the land),” said Mike. “But they soon learn that there’s a real, physical — there is a commitment. There’s a commitment that not everybody is aware of.”

If it’s hard, it’s also rewarding, said Patty.

“There’s a satisfaction that comes amidst all the work,” she said. “When  you put everybody’s plate on the table and everything has come — the entire meal has come from the sweat of our brow, as much as I complain in the heat of July, there still is a satisfaction.”

Stocking believes everyone who eats should feel a part of that satisfaction.

“Get out of Metro and find a market and buy local,” is her advice to urbanites. “Because when you pick up that produce, you feel it in your hands, it’s living and it’s breathing.”

Living through COVID has sharpened the constant question of farm life for Stocking.

“What nourishes you?” she asks. “It’s a challenge because it’s not just about the food we eat. It’s the people we eat with and sitting down at a table. COVID has been hard for us as farmers. It’s been brutally hard for us as a big family, because this is what we do. We gather and eat. That’s the question, isn’t it? What nourishes you? It has to be living food.”

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