Feeling blue

Today is a low day for me. Probably not a good time to write a blog post, but if this blog is to be authentic, the lows have to be written about too. And hopefully the writing process will be cathartic.

Why is it a low day? Essentially, I’m exhausted. This season has been even harder work than usual, and in extreme heat, which I’ve never been good at tolerating. For every hour that I stay out of the most severe middle of the day hot sun, the list of field work that needs to be done just piles up and seems like an unachievable mountain peak. And then I stand at the farmers’ market once a week with whatever vegetables I’m able to bring, and have to explain how our prices for bok choy aren’t as low as Chinatown’s, because we grow all the vegetables organically, with almost no machine power, and just the manual labour of two people. Two people who once all the numbers are in, are probably paid less than $2/hour for their work.

I live below the poverty line, work long daylight hours outside in a hot field, spend evening hours on the computer recording data and performing customer service tasks, and then sell the vegetables produced at a cost that’s essentially subsidized by my savings from 10+ years working in the financial industry. And I’m told on many fronts that my vegetables are too expensive, as the person walks away to buy a $4 iced latte from a coffee shop down the street. I have no issue with the iced latte being $4, but I don’t appreciate that in people’s minds a bag of ultra fresh bok choy, harvested from the field the day before, is not worth that much.

Some days I really really hate the fact that we North Americans expect food to be cheap. We absolutely do not want to understand that the global food system runs on unjust labour practices and environmental degradation. We have access to and excesses of whatever kinds of food we can dream of in North America because we exploit the labour of people in developing countries with much lower wage costs and unfair labour laws, and environmental laws that don’t match our own (not much better) regulations. The labour exploitation happens in Canada too, with agricultural migrant worker programs that are often severely abused. And yet, without those migrant worker programs, there wouldn’t be enough willing labour in Canada to do the work to grow the food. So…we don’t want to do the hard work of producing the food, and we don’t want to pay a fair price for the food that others work hard to produce.

Of course, this problem isn’t exclusive to farming…it exists in many areas. But I’m in farming, so that’s the field that I know best right now, and I’m choosing to do the hard manual labour, and I’m trying my best to charge a reasonable price for the vegetables that are produced. The majority of my clients understand this and appreciate all the work that goes into growing vegetables for them, but there’s still a small percentage that complains that they’re not getting enough vegetables for their money. Normally, I take these complaints in stride and try to explain why my vegetable prices can’t be compared with the grocery store, hoping that one more person is educated about the unjustness of food prices, but in this gruelling season, I just end up crying. Not a helpful reaction 🙁

Yesterday at market, while I was away for a couple hours helping a friend move, Jeremy ended up in a half hour conversation with a Mandarin-speaking woman who complained about our vegetable prices being too high. Jeremy managed, even through the language barrier, to explain that we don’t farm the same way as the farms that export cheap vegetables and what that means. By the end of the conversation, this woman wasn’t talking about prices anymore but said she was interested in visiting the farm. I don’t know if she’ll make it out here for that visit, but she’s certainly welcome if she does!

It’s especially great to me to hear that Jeremy was able to wax eloquent on this subject, because over the past couple seasons, we’ve had many an argument over vegetable prices, because it’s just so ingrained in both of us that vegetables should be cheap. But then we look at the overall farm budget and the labour hours we put in and the little bit of net cash that remains at the end of the season, and we have to admit that we just can’t sell the vegetables for any cheaper. The response of our farmers’ market neighbour (refers to himself as a truck farmer as he buys Ontario grown produce from the Food Terminal and resells it at the market) is that we just have to get more mechanized (i.e. tractor), specialize more (i.e. monocropping) and buy crop insurance. Exactly the route I’m trying to avoid. Another response is that we need to get more volunteer labour. Volunteer labour = unpaid labour. Great, what a fair solution to our problems ;P

Outside the ‘solvable’ labour shortage problem, there are environmental issues. This year, that means drought and extreme pest pressure. I pray for rain every moment of every day…it’s a constant litany at the back of my head. And I’m feeling cursed by flea beetles, grasshoppers, earwigs and cucumber beetles. A couple weeks ago, I opened the row cover on the napa cabbage bed to weed it and see how it was doing. It looked like some heads would be ready for harvest soon, so I left the row cover off for harvest in the next few days thinking that the flea beetle population was pretty low at the time. Well, it seems that the flea beetle population cycled up to extremely high within that time and while I was able to harvest 40+ mostly undamaged napa heads, the same won’t be said for all the rest (300+) as flea beetles have moved in. And there’s no way to get them out to put the row cover back on. And the cucumber beetle…Jeremy and I waged war diligently against them for weeks, spending at least an hour first thing each morning crushing them on each plant (15 x 125′ long beds of cucumbers, zucchinis, squashes & pumpkin), but then we had to get into the routine of vegetable harvest and delivery and just couldn’t spend that time any more. So cucumber beetle is just everywhere and the plants are all struggling to survive both the bug damage and drought. We have had to resort to laying irrigation lines for them (something I’ve never had to do for squashes before) in hopes that they can then survive the cucumber beetle.

Irrigation itself is not as simple as I would have liked. The amount of water pressure that gets to the field allows for 20 lines to be on, which is about 10 beds of vegetables at a time. The lines are left on for 8 hours, from 4 pm to 12 am. Either Jeremy or I have to stay up to go turn off the water at midnight as we haven’t had a chance to get a water timer yet (everywhere around here is essentially a 1 hour round trip and the last place I went was out of stock). Then we wait a day and irrigate the next round of beds. I wait a day to give my well a chance to recharge from all the water coming out of it. That’s perhaps unnecessary, but I have no idea how much water is in my well and am quite afraid of running it dry. And we’ve run out of lines for all the beds because in previous years I haven’t needed to lay drip line for everything. So it’s past time to order more irrigation equipment, a cost which wasn’t originally budgeted for this year.

These days, along with prayers for rain, I’m also asking for a very cold and snowy winter so that pests can be killed off and the water table can be recharged ;P We’re only 1/4 of the way through our delivery weeks and I’m already looking forward to winter 🙁

I certainly didn’t get into organic farming looking for an easy ride. Or to turn into a pessimist or whiner (as much as it may seem that way from this post!). So hopefully this will act as a steam release valve and I can move on and just keep plugging away at the work without feeling so sensitive to the slightest criticisms. I need to remind myself of all the positive comments and support we get from clients. It always kills me that a single criticism seems to wipe out the many more positive comments. Clearly, I need to grow a thicker skin.

This is the story of my journey into sustainable agriculture. From the streets of downtown Toronto, to the farm land of southern Ontario, I hope to discover the techniques and practices that work for me in both mind and heart.

1 thought on “Feeling blue”

  1. With this oppressing heat and drought, I can certainly understand why you are feeling down. My in-laws are blue watching the crops wilt in the field. "Is it going to rain" is the major topic of morning conversation every day. Your point about folks not wanting to pay higher prices for organic food is something that they experience as well. They have organic beef and are often asked why their grass fed organic beef is more expensive than grocery store (feed lot) beef. Like you, they have a niche base of customers who understand and buy their products.

    So, you aren't alone. 🙂

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