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Thoughts on sustainable food production...it might be a sh***y subject!

Hello and happy last day of August to you all.  I've been pretty silent for the past few months, social media posts have pretty much ground to a full halt (i've been feeling a pretty strong desire to disconnect entirely with the online world these days...I think we're all grappling with big questions...but there's real people out there too - people I care about!).  So I thought that a mellow almost-autumn day after our oats have been safely harvested would be a good opportunity to spend some time reflecting on farming and the production side of things, before our milling endeavors pick up the pace later in the fall. 

If you're a just-the-facts kind of person, skip down below the photos.  There are some nuts-and-bolts information about the upcoming grain CSA and fall orders below.  The next few paragraphs are just my mental-meanderings.

I recently mentioned to someone that farming is a bit of a hobby, and I got a shocked look in reply.  Aren't you a farmer???  But it's true.  Milling is what occupies 90% of my time and energy throughout the year.. we run the mill 5 days a week, 52 weeks of the year, keeping oats on store shelves across Manitoba.  The farming side of things is pretty much contained in a few weeks of tractor-time in the spring and fall.  But it's a wonderfully intense hobby that has been occupying a lot of my mind space lately, as we try to test and refine a cropping system that could be sustainable into the future.  This is no small feat.  When we decided to move to the Interlake and dip our toes into food production almost 14 years ago, I thought it was all pretty simple.  You either chose to farm with chemicals, which didn't seem like an option, or you chose to be organic.  Without chemical herbicides or fertilizers, the yields under organic production are lower, but the prices are higher, so it kind of balances out.  But that's only a very teeny tiny snapshot.  The difficult reality is that many organic farmers are finding gaps in the nutrient balance on their farms.  Either unmanageable weed pressure reducing yields to almost nothing, or declining fertility and disappearing phosphorus (to say nothing of the pricing, which is sometimes no higher than conventional, if you can find a buyer at all!).  I have been watching some of the most thoughtful and intelligent farmers and good friends leave the organic system as they find the requirements impossible while meeting the needs of their land and their own needs to support their families.  The largest organic farm in Manitoba switched to conventional production last year, and long term field trials at the UofM research station are showing an impossible barrier of phosphorus deficiency at around the decade mark of organic production unless animal inputs (manure) are introduced into the system.  Things seem particularly bleak for organic farming at the moment.

Although our farm don't raise animals, our fields and crop production rely extensively on animal manure from neighbouring horse and cow ranches to give our fields the nutritional inputs that they need, but looking into the future, we don't know if that will be a sustainable option for us.  So we have been looking into other ways of ensuring that we are building good soil, and the options are sparse. 

Our most significant challenge this year has been intense weed pressure - we harvested about 60,000lbs of oats, but over 20,000lbs of weeds alongside it!  That's a lot of energy being drained from our soil to produce a crop that is unusable for people (by the way - if you or anyone you know would have use for a few thousand pounds of weed seeds - mostly lambsquarter - just get in touch and let me know!  They're fairly high in protein (about 12%) and could make a great feed supplement for chickens, pigs, cows, etc.). 

As disappointing as this was, it's a manageable problem.  We spread a particularly difficult batch of manure on our fields last fall, and the dry spring gave the weeds a head start over our oats.  But things grew!  Weeds were towering over my head, and although the oats were shorter, they were still thriving. 
Questions still remain though:  will we have a manure source into the future?  Maybe not.  So when our 11 year old son showed an interest in buying a small flock of sheep this spring, we gave him full rein.  He now has a little herd of 15 Icelandic sheep grazing one of our fields, putting their poo exactly where it needs to be, on our soil, instead of in a barn or outside enclosure where it would later be piled up and then spread by trucks, which is what non-pasture-based livestock farming looks like.  This very small experiment with pasture/crop integration has felt really wonderful, but daunting.  We would probably need a hundred sheep or more to provide the nutrients that our fields would need to grow the oats for your porridge pots!  Does that mean that my future looks like being a grain miller, an organic farmer as a hobby, AND a sheep rancher just for fun?  With a family to take care of on the side?  And to top it off, i'm not particularly fond of eating meat!  I would like to think that we can supply a significant portion, maybe even all, of our food needs through plants, but it looks more and more conclusively that even our field cropping systems demand greater and greater animal integrations in order to maintain healthy soils.

So these are my thoughts.  Farming is no easy task, even in the successful years that fill our grain bins to overflowing.  And we need more farmers grappling with what is possible, what is impossible, and where humans have a role to play in this whole ecological system.  And we need eaters coming alongside farmers to support their experiments, their dreams, and their wild-shot-in-the-darks.  Thanks for being those people for me!

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Comparing the two systems shown above and below for getting manure (the only organic source of phosphorus) onto our fields. One photo is clearly more desirable than the other.  But moving fences every day?  All-night lambing duty?  Processing wool?  Playing a role in non-plant-based food production???  This would be no small leap, and lots of questions remain!

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Anyways, moving on to slightly more functional information.  Our oats have been harvested (yay!) and i've been getting regular updates from some of the farmers growing organic grains for the upcoming grain CSA.  Things are looking good for some of our favourite crops (black lentils, pinto beans, field corn, red fife, buckwheat, flax, etc.) and there is also the possibility of a few new and very exciting crops (red lentils? black beans?!?  teff flour?!?!?!?), but harvest is still just getting started for most of these, and it will be another month or more until I know what will be available.  Keep checking back to our website and/or facebook page around late October, and i'll also send out a newsletter when we've got some details ironed out.

In the meantime, we have some of last year's grains and pulses available on our website if you need a top-up while you wait for the CSA in January 2024.  Ours oats are milled fresh every week, and we have been milling a batch of buckwheat flour every few months.  The rest of the grains and pulses (lentils/beans/flax) were cleaned last winter, and should be shelf-stable in their unmilled form for years to come.  While our grain CSA starts with a prescribed bundle, for orders placed throughout the rest of the year (February through to October) you can pick and choose which items you do and don't want, without needing to fill your pantry with a full grain bundle.

The incredible Refill Market (www.refillmarket.ca) on Notre Dame Ave has been generously making their space available as a pick-up depot throughout the year, so orders placed on our website can be picked up from the Refill Market at no additional cost.  And while you're there, make sure to say a huge thank you to the owner, Marisa, for sharing her space and her enthusiasm for local makers and growers, and check out her selection of plastic-free and refillable home cleaning and personal care products 😍 

In addition, i'm planning an in-person pick up day on Friday, September 22nd.  For orders placed online between now and September 20th, i'll load up my van and sit at Aubrey Park in Wolseley for the afternoon so you can come by and pick up your order directly.  I really enjoyed seeing so many of you last year, a sunny afternoon to chat with some wonderful folks, and watching bicycle baskets filled to overflowing as you brought your oats and extra home with you. 

Home delivery is also possible with an additional fee, but I tend to be a grumpy humanoid after a day of driving my giant van around the city, so this is my least favourite of the available options...

Check out what grains are available
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I've been spending a lot of time in my garden these days, and there is absolutely no better place to be!  My 5 year old picks all the green peppers as soon as they're big enough to spot, but loves letting the pole beans grow until they dangle a foot long, dragging on the ground.  And if gardening is salve for my soul, then what makes me giddy with glee is pairing fresh-from-my-backyard veggies with local grains and pulses!  So when I re-discovered moussaka a few weeks ago (made with black lentils simmered in tomatoes instead of the traditional ground beef layer), I followed it up again last week with a gigantic batch that lasted for 3 days - the stuff is practically flowing through our veins!  And with layers of zucchini and potatoes roasted in camelina oil, black lentils and tomato sauce, and a creamy bechamel sauce on top, this is a perfect recipe for everything that's in season and abundant in late summer, with a dose of grain CSA items tossed in! 

I followed this recipe (https://www.themediterraneandish.com/vegetarian-moussaka-recipe/) with just a few substitutions.  I'm rarely successful at growing eggplant, so I used zucchini instead (check - got zucchini!), and I sometimes top it with a simple cheese sauce instead of the bechamel....just because I forgot to look at the recipe, and it was tasty too :)

Just a reminder that the place to share your favourite recipes or to bounce food ideas around is on our "Winter Grain CSA" Facebook page!  I love seeing what's filling your dinner plates and porridge bowls and watching a community of dedicated eaters celebrate what's local and abundant!

Thanks for being my people, and for supporting so many farmers with your food choices!!!

With love,


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