Tuesday, August 30, 2011

NiAGara: Farm Heroes and Agvocates — Nico Verhoef and Marty Verhey of Perfect Patch Organic Growers

Marty Verhey (left) and Nico Verhoef stand among the troughs of strawberries
growing at a Vineland farm. 

For most people, strawberry season 2011 seems but a distant memory.

For Nico Verhoef and Marty Verhey, it's just getting started. The two young farming entrepreneurs' first crop of berries more synonymous with summer than September are nearly ready to be harvested.

But the duo will be reaping more than their first fruit crop. They'll be gaining some insight into a unique way to grow the heart-shaped fruit.

Verhoef and Verhey have been growing their first patch of  4,000 strawberry plants in raised troughs that stand about chest high — a method not entirely uncommon in Holland, where their idea to grow berries this way is rooted, but virtually unheard of here.

"With this system, we're hoping to get the best strawberry possible — to use Niagara's strengths, which is the climate, to make the best strawberry," Verhoef said.

Think fruit boasting the beauty of a California berry but with all the flavour and buttery texture that is a Niagara strawberry.

"If you can get an Ontario berry to market that looks like that but tastes better, it'll sell itself," Verhoef said.

Much like the idea of growing the berries in troughs did last year when Verhoef and Verhey, then business administration students at Brock University, used the innovation as the basis for an award-winning business plan.

At the behest of a professor, the two budding berry moguls entered their concept in the Nicol Entrepreneurial Award competition. Not only did they nab accolades at Brock, their concept was chosen as the winning one at the national level.

Growing berries in troughs boasts lower labour costs because the ripe berries hang over the edges of the narrow containers, making them easier and faster to pick than those in patches that require rifling through to find the fruit, Verhoef explained.

Berries growing in the troughs being tested by Nico Verhoef and Marty Verhey.

Because the troughs stand high off the ground, there's also less risk for disease damage and hungry insects making a meal of a grower's work. That makes these berries candidates for the organic title, something Verhoef and Verhey are hopeful to achieve, challenging as it may be with this finicky fruit.

"We hear strawberries are pretty much the most difficult crop to grow organically. They're susceptible to disease and they don't compete well with weeds," Verhoef explained. "Even though we have a system that's good for it, if we get a pest and we can't control it organically, we don't want it to wipe out an entire two-acre crop.

"The whole fact is, no one's done this before ... . Everything's unknown. Everything's been a test."

Still, their idea was further validated with a $10,000 Nitsolopoulos Entrepreneurship Award, intended to be seed money for businesses started by Brock students.

That gave Verhoef, who operates his own landscaping company in St. Catharines, and Verhey, who runs a tree nursery in Paris and works in his family's business in Ancaster, the validation that they may be on to something.

"That made us think twice about it," Verhoef said. "It's not like when we wrote our business plan, we wanted to be strawberry farmers. Others were seeing the promise so we thought we should give it a shot."

Marty Verhey (left) and Nico Verhoef check on their first
strawberry crop. 

But the cherry on top may just have been when Niagara's biggest berry farmers — and among the largest in the province — saw the promise in the duo's strawberry cultivation innovation.

Dan Tigchelaar and his brother Jeff, who have mastered the art of growing berries using plastic mulch to extend the growing season, have provided room for the idea to grow on their Vineland farm. They're also mentoring the 23-year-old farming proteges, who don't come from farm families, yet whose fruit will be found in berry quarts with the Tigchelaars' crop that are coming soon to a supermarket near you.

"It's so great to draw from that knowledge base. We're business students, so we definitely don't know how to grow strawberries the way they do," Verhoef said.

As the two have watched a school assignment-turned-introduction to farming come to fruition over the last few weeks, they're catching on.

And they're enjoying it.

"It's super exciting," Verhoef said about the progress of their first crop. "It's rewarding growing something."

NiAGara: Farm Heroes and Agvocates profiles local farmers and local food advocates. Do you have a farm hero or agvocate that people should know about? Let us know by emailing eatingniagara@gmail.com.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

It's a grape time of year

A Garden of Eating - Niagara grape harvest.

I love grapes.

Love to eat them.

Tonight, I discovered I also love to harvest them.

A group of us urban fruit foragers converged on a Niagara Falls home with one very prolific vine, and snipped and nibbled our way through the easiest Garden of Eating harvest to date. And our first grape harvest, to boot.

No climbing towering and wobbly ladders. No bending into knee-cracking contortions. No stretching our arms farther than we thought possible to reach that one elusive piece of fruit.

Just snip, snip, snip, feet planted firmly on the ground, hands mostly at eye level. It was all so ergonomically correct.

The fruit was beautiful and the help was great company. Thank you @gretz1963 for joining us. I love meeting tweeps in real life.

This is a harvest that never would have happened if I didn't create a Facebook page for The Garden of Eating.(This is where I beg you to "like" us). I wasn't convinced it would do much good, but within hours of turning to Mark Zuckerberg for help spreading the word about The Garden of Eating this week, a homeowner, Jeanette, posted that she was happy to share her bounty.

And in the end, we harvested more than 100 pounds of fruit. About 80 pounds of that is destined for Project Share, the food bank in Niagara Falls.

A mother-daughter team joining the effort got a haul of at least 40 pounds that they're delivering to Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold.
All in all, it was a grape — I mean, great — night.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hired hooves

No kidding, David Johnson has some real workhorses employed at his winery.

A whole flock of hired hands — er, hooves, to be exact.

The winemaker and proprietor at Featherstone Estate Winery has about 40 sheep working for him this summer, the fourth summer he has brought in four-legged labour to chew through a big job on Johnson's to-do list.

The sheep eat all the basal leaves off the grapevines in this vineyard on the crest of the Niagara Escarpment in Vineland.

I know much has been written about the Featherstone sheep over the years and other wineries have followed (wool) suit by employing their own flocks, but I couldn't resist the chance to get up close to these roaming ruminants when I found out Featherstone was offering "Meet the Sheep" tours. I'd never come toe to cloven hoof in my days as an ag reporter; this story going to our intrepid wine industry reporter, Monique, instead. And, I'll admit, I was jealous, though a bit squeamish when vegetarian me found out the fate of these fellas when their job was done.

"The lambs go to market, which does not mean they go shopping," Johnson told our group of wine lovers and sheep curious on Sunday.

Still, I was grateful for the introduction to these lovely lambs — and explanation — which is as follows in case you haven't herd. Ahem, heard.

Removing the low-hanging leaves on grapevines where the fruit hangs is critical. It allows "sunstrike on the grapes," boosting the berries' flavour, reducing humidity and in the process, eliminating the risk of crop-wrecking mildew.

"They graze as high as they can reach and strip everything off," Johnson said.

But to hire the usual farm labourers to do this backbreaking work was costing Johnson $400 an acre and there are 23 acres at Featherstone to cover.

He also had the option of using machines for the job, but with that comes the risk of compacting the soil. That keeps the roots of the vines from spreading, which ultimately affects the flavour of the fruit, Johnson explained.

Mechanization also isn't in keeping the winery's ecologically mindful philosophy. Featherstone doesn't use insecticides and you also won't hear a single bird banger — they make gunshot-like noises to keep birds at bay — during a visit. Instead, they use a Harris's hawk named Amadeus. The diminutive bird does a good job of scaring off grape-grabbing birds on his own, protecting the seven varieties grown at Featherstone.

Johnson got the idea to use Southdown lambs for leaf trimming while spending time in New Zealand in 2007.

"New Zealand is really on the cutting edge for the winemaking process," he explained. "They really live and die on the quality of their export wine so they do some very cool stuff."

They also have lots of sheep — about 15 for each of the 4 million Kiwis — so free four-legged labour is plentiful.

The lambs, which Featherstone gets from a sheep farmer in nearby St. Ann's, are born in March, putting them at about 22 inches high when they arrive in the vineyard in early July. That's roughly schnoz level with those grape-covering leaves that need to be removed.

Johnson started four years ago with five lambs in five rows of Riesling (the Featherstone edition of this wine is aptly named Black Sheep and it's beautiful, loaded with green apple notes, light and crisp). It took them all summer to munch their way through the work.

"And they did a great job," Johnson said.

So much so that he invited about 35 of their friends to return the next year to do the entire vineyard.

The end, sadly, is nigh for this year's flock. Their work at Featherstone is done for another year, a fact that made my bottom lip stick out and wish 40 sheep could fit into my tiny Toyota. Their fate is to wind up on a menu at local restaurants but only on one condition, Johnson noted.

"If the restaurant doesn't buy our wine, they don't get a lamb."

The Black Sheep Riesling also goes great with lentils.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dispatches from the south: A pleasant surprise Chez Nous

In the last few years, there have been many roadside stands springing up, rising in popularity along with the local food movement.

But when you stop to inquire about the source of their produce, it's often the case that the food that fills the stand has been brought in from wholesalers and not gown on site. I wondered if this was the case with a farm stand I'd passed while travelling through the village of Stevensville. I finally pulled off the road and into their driveway to check out what was on offer at Chez Nous Farms. It proved to be a welcome surprise.

The sign beckoning visitors to Chez Nous Farms.

Chez Nous Farms is a tidy, two-acre certified organic farm tucked behind the row of houses strung along Stevensville Road, on the south side of the village. Driving by, the only evidence of the farm that can be seen from the road is their large sign, listing produce and a small year-round farm stand.

I was lucky enough to meet owners Rick and Shirley Ladouceur the day that I stopped. Rick took the time to walk me through their fields and chicken coop. He spoke passionately about the organic growing methods they use and continue to refine. He spoke about the organically raised and butchered chickens they would soon have available. And he talked about what it has been like for them to start an organic farm on land compacted over the years in its previous role as a horse farm.

The Chez Nous gardens had mown white clover mulch, keeping down weeds between rows. The plants and produce look very healthy and the chickens are well-tended to.

It's been a difficult season for most farmers in Niagara this year with the wet spring and dry summer, but Rick and Shirley seem to have a good handle on things. I was surprised to learn that they had only been farming for two years. Rick gave up a career as a millwright, though Shirley still works as a child and youth worker with the French public school board.

I left with my purchase of kale and some cute peewee eggs from their new laying hens. I know I'll be back, especially this winter when they have fresh greens from their greenhouse for sale.

Check out the Chez Nous blog to learn more about Rick and Shirley and their farm. And to visit the stand, stop in at 2192 Stevensville Rd., Stevensville.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Brewing Niagara's best -- It's elementary for Ian Watson

Ian Watson, Niagara's Best brewmaster. 

It is a hellishly hot summer's day.

The kind that brings about a storm of messages from public health departments to steer clear of the heat and seek refuge in the air-conditioned indoors.

Ian Watson has heeded part of that advice. He's inside, tucked away on a busy Niagara Falls artery in a restaurant brewery that looks like a cross between a science lab and a messy garage. Hunched over a steel cauldron that, like a wizard working his magic, he's working to a boil, Watson stirs a giant paddle around in his brewing concoction. All the while, he's getting little reprieve from the heat, as steam starts to spill out of the kettle.

It sounds like fodder for a weather joke starring the devil himself, but really, this is heaven for a guy who started making beer in his basement in the 80s.

Watson is the brewmaster responsible for refilling the kegs of Niagara's Best Beer at The Syndicate Restaurant and Brewery and supplying Taps on Queen in Niagara Falls with the antidote to a Canadian's thirst on a hot day.

"I like brewing the most," the soft-spoken Watson said about his work. "Some of the jobs are more tedious; making sure each batch is the same as the previous one, that everything is going well and there's no infection."

On this day, Watson is showing his mastery of multi-tasking as he brews his 76th batch of Niagara's Best flagship Blonde, whipping up about 3,600 litres of the ale for brewski aficionados. He works at a good clip, moving between kegs in need of filling, a refrigeration room — and reprieve from the stifling heat — where his hops are stored and a steaming kettle in need of the occasional stir and temperature check. All the while, his brow barely glistens in the unforgiving heat.

"The smell of the malt after it's crushed and going into the mash tun, the wheat smells....," Watson waxed on about the joys of a job he has held since 2005. "When you put the hops in, which add the flavour -- each hop has its own character. There are probably 60 or 70 different kinds."

A kettle full of Niagara's Best Blonde in the early stages of brewing.

Watson sticks to about 10 tried and true hops to make the best Niagara's Best he can. In addition to serving Blonde, the Logger lager, a pale ale, porter and other specialty brews at The Syndicate and Taps, Watson said business is picking up as orders for his days' work pour in from other restaurants that want to have local craft brew on their own beer lists.

He's been brewing for two weeks straight "just trying to get the fridge full."

Watson works tirelessly, continually honing a hobby he got into 23 years ago, after watching a homebrew how-to hosted by beer god Charlie Papazian, into a paying job.

He got on with Niagara's Best after curiosity spurred him to ask if they needed any help. That turned into a gig bottling while learning the "bells and whistles" of the brewing equipment. He eventually got to try his hand at making beer for the label, which he has been doing ever since.

It's not the same story at home anymore, though. These, Watson opts to garden in his spare time instead of making beer for fun. But that's not because homebrewing seems elementary now. Watson said he's still learning the tricks of his trade, trying new recipes and even taking up the challenge of brewing beers requested by the members of The Syndicate's Growler Club, just to see if he can do it.

Take the Big E Choke Slam with its 100 international bitterness units, a beer that has reached the "theoretical limit of bitterness." Any more than 100 IBU and our tastebuds can't tell the difference.

Named after Eric, a bouncer at Tapps, who, legend has it, managed to sling two kegs and put a rowdy in a choke hold all at once, the Big E Choke slam is "almost like someone someone grabbing you by the neck and giving you a choke slam," Watson described.

Ian Watson measures hops for a batch of Niagara's Best Blonde.

Watson smiles proudly as he recalls his handiwork. Still, there is no bigger critic of his work than Watson himself.

"I always get people to try it because I think something might be wrong with it. I worry," Watson admitted.

Fortunately, he hasn't had feedback that has been tough to swallow.

"Beer's subjective. The porter, some say it tastes like cocoa, others like coffee. One guy said it tastes like fruit cake, which I can see. I like asking people what they can taste," he said.

And taste is what sets apart Watson's work from the mass-market suds that are more about a lifestyle than a sipper to savour.

Fortunately for Watson and his fellow micro brewers, more and more people are ordering pints of flavourful craft beer over the fermented grain juice being offered up by the big boys.

"It could be part of the local movement and people wanting local beer that's not pasteurized and has no chemicals but just pure natural ingredients," Watson said. "More people are getting into craft beer because they're more concerned about taste.

"That's the thing about craft beer — it has flavour, not like the macro breweries," he added. "What I do get sick of is the ads for the mega breweries because they don't talk about taste. They don't sell anything with taste. It's an alcohol delivery system."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Slowly she goes

I can't help but smile at the picture above.

Beauty just has that effect on me. Those tomatoes came to the Garden of Eating — Niagara compliments of a senior in north St. Catharines who found herself flooded with fruit and visits from family at the same time, making it tough to preserve these puppies like she usually does.

The jewel-toned gems were delivered to the YWCA shelter, along with a few pounds of cucumbers. In all, it was a short load of 10 pounds of fresh food but it was appreciated hugely.

This season has been a slow one for the Garden of Eating. Mulberries, herbs and tomatoes only so far. Opportunities to pick out at the Vineland Research Station have eluded me so far because it's been a short crop year. A wet spring meant a rough go for bees trying to pollinate. So the peaches I had harvested at this time last year have been a no-show.

And I see all the pear trees I picked last year ripening, which means I will be busy soon but I'd love to be able to offer up some more diversity to local social organizations that otherwise deal in canned and frozen food.

Pears, as versatile as they are, are unfortunately not a fan favourite. I try to convert people every fall, though, and will continue on my pear crusade in a few weeks.

In the meantime, if you have a fruit tree ripe for the picking now, let me know. Will work for veggies, too.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

In defence of food journalism

Truth be told, I've been totally geeking out over the News of the World scandal.

The former full-time reporter in me is fascinated by this scandal of hacking into the phones of celebrities, murder and terrorist victims. It holds the same morbid curiosity as a car wreck at the side of the road, tempting rubberneckers.

I'd always known I'd chosen a cutthroat, competitive industry in which to embark on a career path but this has really captivated me. How far some people will go for a story...

I couldn't help but furrow my brow Monday as I scrolled through my Twitter feed to find a blog post on the Ontario Farm Animal Council website comparing the tactics of News of the World reporters with New York Times food journalist, Mark Bittman.

In the post, the blog writer questions Bittman's ethics for traipsing all over livestock farms in middle America without the farmer's permission in search of further confirmation of the atrocities of factory farming. The writer even equates Bittman's trespassing with the disturbing antics of the News of the World folks. After all, phone hacking is illegal and so is trespassing.

But there's a big difference between what Bittman did and the oh-so-questionable tactics of News of the World.

Tapping into a phone message that a heartbroken Paul McCartney leaves for his temperamental spouse hardly has news value. That is, knowing what's going on in Sir Paul's life has little impact on, well, just about anybody else's existence. Ditto for listening in on a smitten but still married Prince Charles leaving messages for his then-mistress Camilla.

And what good became of tapping into a murdered 13-year-old's phone, listening to anguished messages from family, befuddling her relatives by deleting those recordings and filling them with the false sense of hope their girl was still alive because her voice mailbox never filled up, no matter how often they called it?

Ultimately, none of what the News of the World did was in the public interest. But Mark Bittman peeking into the nation's barns — invited or not — is. He's starting conversations, possibly uncovering bad practices on factory farms; practices that might leave consumers to consider other choices with their almighty dollars. Choices better for their bodies, the planet and their value system.

I can be an optimist, though. Maybe Bittman will find something really positive happening in the nation's monolith barns, even though we know he supports factory farming's antithesis — what the farm animal council writer calls "boutique farming." It's a term that's so quaint, it's condescending to those people producing food on a small scale.

Either way, we all eat and so we all have a right to know what's going into what's going into our bodies instead of just taking the word of special interest groups like the farm animal council. So be it if Bittman has to find that out by walking onto somebody's property without permission.

But Bittman needs to learn how to take no for an answer, the farm animal council writer asserts. Really? That's the opposite of what I learned in journalism school and what some of the finest reporters, the ones who inspire change and whose work inspires me, rarely do. It's not a journalist's job to take no for an answer. What kind of public watchdogs would they be? What would have happened if Woodward and Bernstein settled for 'Sorry boys, nothing to see here'?

If nothing is happening in these barns that would go against the most base grain of human values, what's the harm of Bittman being a bit of a voyeur? Let his hunches about large-scale livestock production be proven otherwise, if there's really nothing wrong — morally, environmentally, economically or health-wise.

With the farm animal council's message track and Bittman's "boutique farming" bent, a wide spectrum of the realities of farming lies between. It's important for all of us to make educated choices about the food we eat, to know what our dollars are supporting and to be OK with that, regardless of which side of the debate we choose to plunk ourselves.

But to do that, we need journalists who don't take no for an answer. We need journalists like Mark Bittman.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

El Gastronomo, gardens and giving

The El Gastronomo Vagabundo gourmet food truck will be parking at Tree and Twig Farm
on Aug. 16 offering good food for a good cause.

Any chance you'll happen to be in Wellandport on Aug. 16?

I'm hoping you may find it worth the drive! It isn't every day, you see, that genuine gourmet dining drives into town and parks in my driveway. In fact, since The Small Town Diner closed up shop a good five years ago, good luck finding a dining spot anywhere in town.

I'm so happy that Adam and Tam of the brilliant peapod cuisine and their new adventure El Gastronomo Vagabundo will be hitting my driveway on the 16th, 5-8 p.m.

Bring chairs, beverages if you'd like (this isn't Flat Rock!) and I can show off my pig Joey and other important Tree and Twig representatives. Gardens, too, if you wish.

Erin Wilson
We're also doing a little fundraising to try to help out my friend (and Eating Niagara contributor) Erin Wilson, who is off to Iraq to participate in the One Shot Project, which offers vocational training in photography and multimedia, while teaching peacemaking values to Iraqi adolescents. I'll raffle off some veggie baskets and tomatoes, and we'll see if we can buy a few more cameras for the trip to Iraq. Hope you can make it!

Here's the story behind Erin's trip:

I'm doing some volunteer work for The ONE-SHOT Project. ONE-SHOT
holds photography workshops for kids on the margins in northern Iraq.
The kids will learn not only photography skills, peacemaking skills,
basic art concepts, but they'll also learn techniques to process their
stories. Eventually, there will be a full-on photography school
developed so that kids on the margins with interest and talent in
photography will be able to pursue their dreams. For many of these
kids, The ONE-SHOT Project is truly their 'one shot' at having this

The very first workshop kicks off at the beginning of September with
15-20 Kurdish orphans. We're trying to get enough point & shoot
cameras (and SD cards) for the entire class. If you've upgraded your
gear and have a working point & shoot camera that you're not using,
please consider donating it. It will be put it to great use and get to
go on an adventure!

If you've got a camera to donate, or would like to know more, please get in touch! If you would pass this along to someone who might
be able to help, that would be wonderful! And if you'd like to visit
The ONE-SHOT Project website, please go here:
-- Linda Crago

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tree and Twig Heirloom Tomato Bash 2011 is coming

Photos from Tree and Twig Heirloom Tomato Bash 2010

The date is finally set!

When I initially set the date for my " Heirloom Tomato Bash" this year, I had chosen Aug. 21. If you have one of my calendars, you can now just go ahead and scratch that date. Put a big X right through it.

The season messed me up a little bit, the spring being wet and my clay being, well...clay. So the tomatoes went in a bit later.

And other commitments have come into play. I'm excited to be doing an event at The Good Earth on Aug. 28 and details about this major cool event will follow soon.

So the date is a little bit later than I originally planned.

I sure hope people can make it. My celebration of heirloom tomatoes, and all things heirloom, will be Sunday, Sept. 4 from 1-4 p.m.

By then I am hoping to have the garden weeded and know for sure there will be lots of great tomatoes to try. Lots.

We'll have a garden tour with the necessary sampling along the way, a tasting table set up so people can get a sense of some of the incredible heirloom tomatoes available (tip of the iceberg, my friends) and some fabulous tomato treats to sample. Last year we had "tomato shooters," created by the incomparable Chef Mark Picone, tomato ice cream, tomato cake, tomato muffins and salsa of course. And perfectly paired wine.

This year I am delighted that Mark will join us again and I have a few other special guests lined up as well as a few select vendors. My tomatoes and other produce will be available for purchase, as well as my remaining 2010 seed stock (cheap!), "No Guff Gardening" books and more. All will be announced soon.

Cost is a minimum $10 donation to help me cover my costs. This includes food, wine, fun, music and new tomato friends. Any money that is raised in excess will be donated to Seed Savers Exchange, as it was last year.

You will need to let me know if you plan on attending as I can only accommodate a smaller crowd.
Please phone 905-386-7388 or email treeandtwig@sympatico.ca to let me know you intentions.

I can't tell you how much I look forward to seeing people come out. As last year, we go rain or shine!

-- Linda Crago

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Getting to know grape growers: The Funk Family of St. Catharines

The following post was supplied by the Grape Growers of Ontario, which is doing a series of videos on the men and women growing the grapes that make Ontario's spectacular wines. To help share the stories, Eating Niagara is donating space on this website.

The Funk family, grape growers in St. Catharines.
By Grape Growers of Ontario

Great wine starts in the vineyard.

Doug Funk, his son Doug Jr., and his brother Randy tend the family vineyards in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Having grown up on a fruit farm, working in the vineyards with their grandfather and uncles, the Funk family knows that good wine starts with good quality grapes. The Grape Growers of Ontario invite you to meet our growers and watch the vineyards mature throughout the season. In our latest video, the Funks walk you through their Riesling vineyards when they are in mid bloom.

Each grape grower in Ontario has a rich story to tell. We want to share the stories with you about the farms, the families and the grapes.

Meet the growers and see the care that goes into growing the grapes that produce the Ontario wines you love Facebook.
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