James Geneau

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The Tinkering Farmer And A Lesson Learned

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By James Geneau

A Red Angus Calf at Acer Farm just East of Ottawa..

My grandfather was a visionary business man who made crazy purchases and deals which turned out to be great investments years later.  He was also an avid “tinkerer” and I remember hanging out with him as a child in his workshop as he made tools, odd contraptions, and other devices.  As an example, in his later years he was no longer capable of swinging an axe to chop firewood.  His house was in a rural area and wood was used to heat his home.  He could have hired someone, but they weren’t always reliable and he liked being outdoors.  He could have purchased his wood pre-cut and delivered but when you owned as much prime forest land covering a big chunk of central New Brunswick as he did, it was like asking an oil tycoon from Alberta  to only fill up his car with Saudi crude.  Instead, he built himself a wood splitter.  A simple gas-powered device where he would place a log onto a metal guide way and a piston would push it into an axe blade, the same one he had used for years by hand.  A similar device could have sold for over $2,000.  His device cost him $50.00, some scrap steel from recycled equipment, and a few days of labour, which he loved.

You are probably wondering when I will land this “story airplane” and get to my food related point.  Well, the fact is that my grandfather was a visionary “tinkerer” who found ways to be innovative, efficient, and adaptive to the times.  Last week, I had the opportunity to meet some great people right here in rural Ontario doing the exact same thing, but as farmers.

It all started with a trip out to Eastern Ontario to visit some farms in and around Ottawa.  I had not been to a farm in years and certainly not ones of this size.  With sensible shoes, my iPhone, and a desire to learn, I headed out with a group of fellow foodies to visit the source of much of the food found in Ottawa’s Byward Market.  The first stop was a Cranberry Bog called Upper Canada Cranberries.  Here, we were given a tour of the farm, the bogs, and the processing facility where they made cranberry juice, and learned about how they were farmed.  Next, a trip to Clarmell Farm where we met with some lovely goats and enjoyed a feast of 100% local fresh foods catered by The Branch Restaurant.  Finally, a trip to Kiwan Farm and a tour of their greenhouses full of eggplants, tomatoes, herbs, and zucchinis.

The next day, bright an early, we headed out on another trip.  This time we visited Rochon Garden Farm east of the city where greenhouse after greenhouse was filled with blueberries, strawberries, and other great in season goodness destined for the many farmers’ markets in and around Ottawa.  Next, a trip to Acer Farms to learn about Angus beef and a wet but informative visit to Proulx Berry Farm where we enjoyed some fresh corn.  At the end of the second day, I was full of great fresh food but I was also filled with great pride.  A pride in the ingenuity of the farmer to adapt and find innovation using the simplest of solutions, much like my now deceased grandfather.

A Three Day Old Goat at Clarmell Farm. Urban Goats, living inside Ottawa's City Limits..

You see, everywhere we went, innovation was on display.  Much is said about the farmer and the struggles they have to balance the books and survive but little is noted of their ability to perform and adapt to a changing world with limited resources.  Of the farms we visited, all of the owners were "tinkerers" and innovators.  Visionaries, if you will, on a smaller scale.

At Upper Canada Cranberries, Lyle Slater was a man who clearly loved to tinker.  His irrigation system, his methods for flooding the bogs, and the equipment he developed for harvesting were not readily available back in 1996 when he obtained 100 acres to grow cranberries.  What prompted him to start a Cranberry farm?  He got the idea after reading an article on them in a waiting room.  At the time, or even today, one could not pick up “Cranberries for Dummies” and get a step-by-step guide to growing, harvesting, and packaging.  Everything had to be done using basic sense and limited resources.  On our tour, he showed us the bogs, the techniques for flooding, and the unusual equipment he had built himself for extracting the berries and prepping them for juicing.  John Deere does not make a Cranberry harvester so you need to be a John Deere, or at least act like one of their engineers.

The same degree of tinkering could be found over at Rochon Garden Farm.  In 1956, Berchmans and Colombe Rochon began to live their dream when they purchased 100 acres in Edwards, which is approximately 25km south-east of Ottawa.  In 1990 Bert and Colombe retired while their son Gerry and his wife Diane took over the farm and today, it is home to over 12 greenhouses, 70 acres of produce, and 45 acres of berry fields.  While Diane held the fort back in Ottawa at the stand in the Byward Market, Gerry took us on a tour and showed us how you plant millions of seeds “by hand”.  In the centre of one of the greenhouses, he placed a wooden box on a table and laid a small tray of earth-filled cups inside it.  He then produced a lid with a tin sheet filled with tiny man-made wholes, and a nozzle sticking out the side.  He proceeded to pour a jar of seeds onto the sheet and we all looked at each other with bewilderment.  Then, out came a decades old household vacuum he attached to the nozzle and with the flip of a switch, the seeds scurried into neat little piles in and around the holes on the sheet.  He flipped it onto the tray of soil pots and by clicking the off switch on the vacuum, the process was over.  Each cup had just the right number of seeds and ready for watering.  Gerry told us that he invented this device one afternoon with $20.00 of materials after seeing one in a catalogue for over $500.00.

A mass seed-planter with a little tin, some plywood, and innovation.

While innovation was a theme on the trip, so too was the need to adapt to the times and to understand your audience.  For over 100 years, several generations of Mussels had farmed on the Clarmell Farm with a focus on cattle.  Paul Mussel had been raising cows for years before his eldest son headed off to agricultural college and came back with an idea to switch to goats, for economic reasons.  The rationale was simple.  They cost less to raise than cows and goats would allow them to enter a growing niche market.  Their ability to adapt has proven to be a smart one and they now provide goat’s milk to the thriving artisan cheese market and the meat to butchers in and around Ottawa.  

Meanwhile, over at Acer Farm, another type of visionary thinking was on display.  As the only exclusive Ontario Red Angus beef producer and breeder east of Ottawa, Marcel Lalonde has a pretty niche market to serve.  However, it wasn’t always this way.  The 350-acre farm has established a solid reputation not just for their quality Red Angus beef, but also for their efforts to connect with the growing Slow Food movement in and around Ottawa.  Marcel, and his wife Sylvie, have put every effort into understanding the needs of a niche market of chefs, and consumers for quality products.  The marbling of the meat, the cuts required, and the needs of the chef are incorporated into how they raise their grass-fed cattle.  How do a husband and wife team get inside the head of a chef?  Well, you become one.  Sylvie Lalonde had recently graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and while we were there, she served us a delicious meal of slow-roasted beef, summer salads, and a berry panacotta.  Her studies have taught her what to look for as a chef, and in turn, understand the demands of the market they are serving.

It was at this point that I realized that adapting and innovating, not just “tinkering,” was the key to being a successful farmer.  Of course, it wasn’t the only thing needed.  Diversification was also important.  In 1920, Napoléon Proulx purchased and built the current day Proulx Berry Farm which he operated as a dairy farm in addition to producing strawberries, raspberries and maple syrup.  Thirty seven years later, Gérard & Pauline Proulx took over the dairy operation which included a sugar bush. With the help of their six children, they opened up a pancake house serving fresh food with their farm-produced maple syrup.  Today, the next generation of Proulx “farmer-preneurs” has taken their farm to a new level offering family-oriented tours, activities, u-picks, and other “side businesses” where they are not just farmers, but entertainers.  On our visit, we took a hay-ride through the fields to learn about their crops, visited their boutique where they sell maple syrup and other farm-grown produce, as well as enjoyed some corn in their event facility.  The Proulx farm wasn’t just a place where good food was grown, it had become a place where people could come and learn about farming, the importance of local food, and the fun one can have getting dirty.

At the beginning of my article I talked about “tinkering”, innovation, and looking to the future.  My grandfather was inspirational in teaching me these values which I hold dear to this day.  Story after story is shared about the plight of the farmer and the decreasing number of farms.  We also put great emphasis on mega-farms and evil corporations who are destroying the traditional “farm life” many urbanites have etched into their heads as the idyllic vision of a time long forgotten.  However, in two short days, I realized that what we tend to do is focus on the evils and not celebrate the innovation.  Each and every day, farmers are showing the world that you can adapt to the times without re-inventing the wheel or spending money on technology. 

The farmers I visited were not waiting for a change that will never happen to the modern agricultural system.  Instead, they are adapting.  They were “tinkering” in their garage to find cost effective ways to be more efficient.  They were doing grass-roots outreach to understand the markets they serve.  They were expanding their knowledge to better understand the needs of their consumer and changing their focus to tap new markets of future growth.  They were just like my grandfather, and I enjoyed “tinkering” away at my laptop to tell their stories.

As a side, I would like to thank the wonderful folks over at Savour Ottawa for coordinating this great tour of the farms.  Many of them are available for visit by all of you on your next visit to Ottawa.  Just call ahead to confirm, they may be “tinkering” on something.


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