Our practices are guided by two approaches:
Rudolf Steiner laid out the principles of biodynamic agriculture in a series of lectures in 1924 – a time when chemical fertilizers were receiving rapid uptake by farmers. He instead espoused an agricultural approach with no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, wherein all the fertility needed by a farm would be produced on the farm. Other aspects of biodynamic agriculture include:
- treating animals, crops, and soils as a single, interrelated ecological system
- an emphasis on local systems of production and distribution
- the use of traditional and locally-adapted breeds and varieties
- the influence of planetary bodies on the growth of plants
- the preparation of plant-based field sprays and compost enhancers
- crop rotation and biodiversity reserves
- individual design of the land by the farmer
- supporting and enhancing the forces of nature that lead to healthy crops
Biodynamic farming ideas about the farm’s relationship to its community led to the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) concept, which is now practiced widely by farms in many parts of the world.
Permaculture is a set of ethics and principles inspired by how natural ecosystems function, and applied to the things that humans do: grow food, build shelter, provide energy, interact with each other, and much more. It provides a conceptual toolbox that aims to help people better understand natural processes and how humans can consciously design home ecosystems that work with rather than against the broader natural forces at play. At the heart of the permaculture process is a holistic design that finds synergies between different elements and integrates them into a well functioning whole, providing greater value for humans and the planet for less energy expended. One aspect of permaculture is the concept of Appropriate Technology – technology that is small-scale, decentralized, labour-intensive, energy efficient, environmentally sound, locally controlled, and people centred.
These two approaches then inform how we produce our food:
When we put lots of hard work into growing a crop, we feel justified in trying to protect it from wildlife who might see it as a tasty snack (although we don’t mind sharing a bit). However, when we venture into the less cultivated areas of our farm and region to harvest, we’re drawing from the food supply our wild neighbours depend upon. But nature is abundant, and there’s enough for everybody if approached with respect. That’s why all of our harvesters are professionally trained to harvest wild foods in ways that respect the needs of the plant and the animals who eats it.
Maple syrup production begins with collecting the sap using food-grade plastic tubing. We chose tubing over buckets because (besides being a lot less work!) tubing allows for smaller taps, causing less injury to the maple tree; you don’t need to cut roads through the sugar bush so a tractor can collect the sap from buckets; the forest soil is not compacted by a tractor; and you don’t need to burn tractor diesel. Once the tubing is installed, it remains in place for at least 10 years, often more like 15 or 20, before it is replaced.
Most tubing systems employ the use of high vacuum pumps to increase sap yield. This appears to have no ill effects on the trees, but they are very loud. We’d rather be able to hear the spring birdsong, so our compromise position is to use a couple of small, quiet diaphragm pumps, in conjunction with special 3/16 tubing that creates natural vacuum when going downhill, to bring a moderate amount of vacuum to our lines.
After our first season, where we burned 54 face cords of wood to produce 1700 litres of syrup, we realized we needed to do something to cut down on our wood consumption. So we invested in a reverse osmosis unit, which is basically just a really fine filter. Using a bit of electricity to run a pump, it saves tons of wood by filtering out 3/4 of the water before we even begin boiling. It raises the Brix (percent sugar) of the sap from around 2 to 3 when it comes out of the tree, to around 8 to 10. Boiling then raises the Brix to 67.
To evaporate the water from the sap and turn it into delicious syrup, we chose a wood burning evaporator rather than an oil one. We burn wood from a local arborist that would otherwise have ended up in the dump.
Finally, we pack the hot syrup into glass bottles. Whenever possible, we prefer glass over plastic or other materials; it has low embodied energy, is easily recyclable, and poses no danger of leaching harmful substances into our food. The finished syrup also looks beautiful in glass!
There’s a simple rule in animal husbandry: the happier the animal, the healthier and tastier its meat, milk, or eggs will be. Animal welfare is important to us, not just because it meets these goals, but also because we believe in the intrinsic value of the animals in our care enjoying their lives. The ways in which our practices with our 100 brown hybrid laying hens live up to these principles include:
- The hen’s winter housing leaves them ample space to move, scratch in loose bedding, receive sunlight through large windows, roost, and lay their eggs in nest boxes.
- During summer time the hens have free access to large areas of pasture, and are constantly rotated to fresh ground, ensuring they have lots of live foods to eat and that the land is not overloaded with manure. This “pastured” approach is far better than “free range”, which can mean as little as a static run that quickly gets denuded of all vegetation and overwhelmed with manure.
- We ensure good protection of our chickens from predators with movable electronet fencing.
We feed the hens only certified organic feed (and they serve themselves of grass, bugs, worms, seeds and whatever else they find on pasture).
We keep our hens for one year, then sell them in the spring for $5 each and get 100 new ones. They will still lay well during their second year, then decline after that. If you’re interested in buying some, please contact us.
Shiitakes have been cultivated on logs for centuries in Japan. In the northeast of North America, the best species to grow them on are white and red oaks, and sugar maple, however other species such as beech, ironwood, and birch can produce good results.
A key principle in permaculture is the integration, rather than segregation, of different elements in a system. Our shiitake and maple syrup operations are a good example of this synergy: maple bushes benefit from thinning – the remaining trees are healthier and give sweeter sap – and the by-products of this thinning can be used to grow mushrooms.
The trees we use for mushrooms are only 4-6″ in diameter; since we have to regularly lift them in and out of tanks of water, we don’t want to break our backs. We get on average about seven 3′ logs (or “bolts”) from each tree. Each bolt produces about 1 pound of shiitakes a year for about four years. So each tree will produce about 28 pounds of mushrooms, before being turned over to the secondary decomposers and rotting back into the forest floor, feeding the next generation of forest trees.
We buy certified organic sawdust spawn from Field and Forest (we like their name!) in Wisconsin. We drill about 50 holes in each bolt with a high speed angle grinder (fitted with a special bit from Japan), and insert the spawn into each hole with a special tool. Then we cap each hole with hot beeswax from a local beekeeper to keep the spawn from drying out. Working as a crew of four, we can inoculate about 100 bolts a day.
Other ways we try to live up to our principles include:
This is a big reason why we are farming in the first place. We believe that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the planet, and that regenerative agriculture has the potential to be one of its main solutions – all while increasing soil fertility. “Carbon farming” refers to practices that sequester carbon long-term into soil and plants – practices such as agroforestry, intensive rotational grazing, and no-till farming. Instead of agriculture contributing over 30% of humanity’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, carbon farming has the proven potential to suck 100% of our annual emissions out of the atmosphere – where they are destabilizing the climate – and into plants and soil – where they build life. To read more about it, check out the Rodale Institute’s recent paper, Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming.
Our farm produces some carbon emissions, but also sequesters a lot of carbon. In an effort to try to quantify that, we turned to the Farm Carbon Calculator, an extensive online carbon calculator. Largely thanks to the 100 acres of woods we maintain on our farm, we were pleased to see that for every ton of carbon we emit, we sequester about 8.5 tons.
But we don’t want to simply rest on the laurels of our well endowed forests – we plan to continue striving to sequester even more carbon through increasing the organic matter in our cultivated soils, planting more food producing trees and shrubs, and lowering our emissions.
One choice we have already made to keep our emissions low is to have our “farm truck” – the vehicle we bring our products to market in – be a Toyota Echo with a trailer, instead of a more gas-guzzling pick-up truck.
Perhaps someday we will have third-party verification of our net carbon balance, and be able to sell our products with a “cool food” label, ensuring our customers that our production practices are helping to cool the planet.
You can see our full Farm Carbon Calculator report here.