Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Apple Festival--Sooke

Northern Spy apple photo by Red58bill

We made it out to the Sooke Apple Festival on the weekend. This is part of our current "get to know our new neighbourhood" programme. We've been here about three months and have had nothing but a great time; the farm and garden tour, the fall fair (where the significant other took a couple of blue ribbons in the knitting categories), and now Apple Festival.
We found the Sunriver Community Garden and Community Orchard with no real problems. They are tucked away on a couple of acres in a bit of a hollow surrounded by new housing. The housing seems a bit out of place: it looks like standard subdivision/bedroom community housing, when the rest of the town is mostly older vernacular architecture.
The community garden is only a couple of years old, but looks terrific. I talked to one fellow working on his greenhouse door. I mentioned that the 5 metre tall sunflower growing out through the roof was an interesting choice. His reply? It was a volunteer that he decided to let grow and cut a hole in the roof so it could keep going. Which seems typical of the attitudes around here.
The hundred or so plots are well-tended with a lot of work having gone into making the whole garden attractive. Beautiful paths, split-log bench, various decorations, all contribute to a feeling of joy. Which is one of the big differences I noticed between farming in Alberta and farming on Vancouver Island: On the Island, it is not enough to be growing stuff. The farm itself must be beautiful as well. People go out of their way to add beauty to their surroundings. Like the grape arbour we saw that could have been utilitarian and functional. Instead, it was built from four corner-posts with arches meeting in the centre. A stained-glass light in the centre was over a concrete pad studded with coloured glass and other inclusions. Walkways lead in from the four directions to meet under the coloured light. What was originally a structure on which to hang grape vines has become a place, an experience. 
The Apple Festival was held in an open area attached to the community garden, a pop-up venue with a dozen or more of those ubiquitous 3m X 3m pop-up canopies. With everything from pies to pies to pies (there were a lot of pies), there were several local food artisans in attendance. BBQ salmon burgers, these insanely wonderful amuse-bouche of crab-apple jelly and duck-liver pate on little rounds of crusty bread that almost made me cry. Sooke Harbour House had samples of a sorbet made from locally foraged berries and lemon verbena that lifted your taste-buds as it melted around your tongue. And the waffle-maker had a salsa that, when you first put it in your mouth was all about the little berries popping, then about the fruit/savoury combination before sliding away into spicy finish.
There were apples for sale (both cooking and eating apples), with opportunities to sample tastes of different varieties. I finally got to try a Northern Spy (a little tart, firm, moderate crunch), but there were a dozen or so varieties around. There were also a half-dozen or more varieties available as trees for sale. An unexpected plus was the availability of quince--I bought a couple of pounds, including, apparently, the one which had taken the blue ribbon at the fall fair. I'm looking forward to eating the jelly I'll make from them.
The logical comparison to make here is with the Saltspring Island apple festival. The Island festival has a couple of dozen orchards with over 200 varieties of apples. On the other hand, Sooke was more intimate, fun, and had live music from local musicians (including a Hang). And I could walk there. Great time!

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Emergent Agriculture--a review

There is not a lot that is new in Gary Kleppel's book The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability, and the Return of the Local Economy. A cogent, well-reasoned take-down of industrial ag--but then, there's a herd of those, ranging from succinct to verbose (for the record, Kleppel is more towards the succinct end of the spectrum). A call for a more appropriate agriculture? Read that. An overview of New Ag farms? Nice, but seen that. 
Where Kleppel's book shines is in the discussion of  the new/old structures of how food moves from producer to consumer. And it should; Kleppel is himself both an academic and a farmer.
Antonio Gramsci described a group of people who, though members of the working class or the bourgeoisie, are an organically developed "thinking class" that "articulate, through the language of culture, the feelings and experiences which the masses could not express for themselves." He called them "public intellectuals." There should be a name for those who, although they hold membership in the traditional academic intelligentsia, chose to immerse themselves in traditional forms of work. We need more of these two groups, and Gary Kleppel, professor of biology at SUNY Albany, is definitely in the latter group.
When trying to see the shape of a new way of living, a new societal paradigm, it helps to have the kind of training given to those who pursue an academic career. Such training helps one to see both the large view and the details. When your talking about agriculture, it really helps to have gotten your hands dirty.
When Kleppel talks about the new/old methods of marketing food, it helps that he's worked a farmer's market and participated in a CSA (community supported agriculture). When we grew food, it was quite clear that the place most farmers fell down was in the marketing of their products.
When farmers get $0.02 out of the sale price of a loaf of bread, the correct response is not to grow more wheat. The better response is to find ways to capture more of the profit from your production.
I kept saying that our customers didn't come for the vegetables as much as they came for the connection. They wanted the story. An example: We had a number of zucchini that were not straight, but curved around small scars in their skins. People hesitated to buy them until I pointed out that these scars came from our pesticide; chickens. The occasional peck at a bug would scar the zucchini skin, leaving it to heal slightly bent. The damage was quickly seen as a mark, not of failure, but of superiority. These were not perfect because of the type of farming we did.
These are the connections celebrated in Gary Kleppel's book; unmediated links between producer and consumer. But not every farmer is ready to be a farmer, an ecologist, and a marketer. This is an area that he misses--the role of the co-operative movement. Co-ops can fill the gap of missing abilities. Small cheesemakers. Farmer's supplying a group-owned store. While the future may play out the way The Emergent Agriculture suggest, it will also be more complex, more intricate, than it suggests. Good book, though.