Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Plot

The course has since ended, and we are now into our practicum.  We are test farmers on a local farming project where aspiring farmers can, for a reasonable fee, use a piece of land for a season and see what comes of it.  It is a community where informal mentorship is said to be abundant, which is gold to us right now.

After one of the coldest early springs on record, we drove out on a Sunday afternoon to have a look at our plot of land (most of our endeavours in farming have thus far been bookended with a good long drive).  We would be test farmers alongside a handful of others, on a small space of land surrounded by the housing developments of Brampton - the suburb of Toronto where even townhouses are seen as oppressively tiny.

The soil in this region is good thick clay, and this patch is protected from being bought up and paved.  It has a slope in the middle that then dips downward to a stretch of long, lush fields with greenhouses at intervals that are already teeming with vegetables before the last frost.  The test farmer plots are on the other side of the slope, abutting the road.  They were still wet and would not be ready until they could be plowed - at least a week yet.  There were a few plastic containers leftover from the previous year - failed tomato plants that had been planted with the pots intact. 

An Indian man, one of two other farmers that had made it out for an informal meet-and-greet, said the pots were from one of the farmers who had quit early on in the previous season.  Most of the test farmers wouldn't make it through the summer because of busy schedules and setbacks like deer visits and long hot stretches of summer that dried out the soil and made for a lackluster harvest.  The other farmer who turned up was also from India, Both he and the first guy lived within a minute's walk from the farm.  He was full of excitement for the start of the season, said he would be getting up early every morning working a couple of hours before going to work.  The first guy, who worked a good hour's drive away from his home and neighbouring farm plot, said his wife and children would be helping with his 2,000 square feet.  he already had garlic coming up, which he'd planted the previous fall and he was clearing brittle okra plants while we spoke.  He wanted to have more land, to do more farming, but it was only his second year, and with this farm, you graduated to higher acreage over time. 

Some people were up to 5 acres, which was enough land to be a real farmer, not just one who fits it in before work in the morning and on weekends.  But 1,000 squre feet was what we had for this our first growing season and the test was to see if we finished the season with something to show for it, or at least a desire to continue the following spring. 

Just being on the land for the first time, even though it wasn't yet workable, was a pleasant reprieve from the endless, overwhelming car-and-retailscape.  This little farm's existence was a matter of effort - at keeping the apetite of suburban sprawl at bay, at instilling the will in people weary of the extreme industrialization of food to cultivate their own even when it means a steep and seemingly treacherous learning curve, which includes the ever-looming possibility that even having done everything meticulously, the crops might find a way to fail completely.

Before we left, having established rapport with our neighbours, we wandered around the area, met a couple of more seasoned farmers who were getting started on their early seeds.  A woman sat on the stoop of a tool shed, filling cells with seed and soil.  She said she was planting okra. That word again. "What's that?"  I asked.  She explained that it was a mucousy vegetable used in gumbo.  She and her husband had a couple of acres and had been working at it for a few years.  They made a living, or a partial living at it.  I could see him fiddling with the rows of a patch he was preparing.  I didn't know what he was doing but he seemed sure of himself.  Would I remember the feeling of being a novice when I was as good as them?  Would I see it through to where I was the kind of farmer from whom others sought advice and asked "what's that?"  We drove back home, the full 40 minutes in Toronto's usual aggressive traffic.  We had our work cut out for us.  But it was nice to realize that we hadn't dropped out of the scheme just yet - here we were getting ready to do some actual farming. 

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