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FEATURE

Dispatches from the Farm

Antony John

Dispatches from the Farm | Antony John

Photos courtesy Antony John

 

ANTONY JOHN, along with his wife, Tina, are the farmers behind Soiled Reputation, a certified organic farm located in Sebringville, Ontario, that supplies gourmet greens and heirloom vegetables to restaurants, markets, and homes in Southwestern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area. Today 40 acres of their 80-acre farm is certified organic. You may remember Antony from his hit Food Network Canada show, The Manic Organic. The show aired in over 50 countries around the world, including the Discovery Home Channel in the U.S. You can read more about Antony and his farm at soiledreputation.com.

Were catching up with organic farmer Antony John and his wife, Tina, learning what September looked like at Soiled Reputation in Sebringville, ON. For a real boots-on-the-ground perspective and explanation of how tasty and nutrient-dense veggies are grown and harvested, read on.

October 2, 2017

Frost has finally visited our farm and wrapped its icy fingers around our plants. This is not an entirely bad scenario, though. While tender crops like haricot verts and winter squash were killed off, and somewhat resilient crops like hot chilies (ironically, they can take cold better than sweet peppers) suffered some damage, this is just what we’ve been waiting for, for our root crops and brassicas (kales, cabbages, Brussels sprouts). The frost triggers a biochemical change in the physiology of these plants, and they start converting starches into sugars to ward off freezing. About 90% of our carrots, and most of our root crops, are still outside growing, so this frost is a welcome event in the development of great-tasting crops that we’ll hold safe in storage from now until next April. We will predicate our harvest strategy in order of frost tolerance, as we pack tons of our crops from the fields into the root cellar, barn, and cold storage.

Frost triggers a biochemical change in the physiology of these plants, and they start converting starches into sugars to ward off freezing.

First to come off this week will be the winter squash. I leave them attached to the plants as long as possible to maximize sugar content, and then, after a frost has killed the vines, cut the fruit off the plants and leave them on the black plastic for a few days until the stem ends dry over, since this is the point of entry for bacterial rot to set in once they’re in storage. Some varieties will even sweeten up in storage, converting starches into sugars, just like potatoes. Not all squash varieties have the same storage capabilities, and I sell them off in ascending order of shelf life. In general, larger varieties last longer, so I typically sell these last. Buttercup and kabocha types benefit from a couple of months of storage before eating, while acorn, delicata, and dumpling squash can be eaten right away. We’re trying a new (old) variety this year, called North Georgia candy roaster. The fruit looks like a pink torpedo, and they’re big. My money’s on them as a sweet, long-term storage type, perhaps rivalling our sweetest heirloom squash (actually a pumpkin), marina di Chioggia. There seems to be an inverse relationship between the appearance of a squash and its flavour. Both of these will never win a beauty contest but are incredibly tasty. Next year I’m going to grow a lot of the candy roaster for another culinary application I discovered this summer. When picked young, at about the size of a large cucumber, the candy roaster’s skin is tender and completely edible, and seeds have not yet formed. At this stage, it’s a super delicious substitute for green papaya, and even has similar colouring. Tina and I enjoyed more than a few Asian salads with the somewhat oily/buttery green ribbons we peeled off the fruits.

It’s been a few weeks since we’ve heard the calls of robins and killdeers on our farm, but the skies are ringing once again. The birds that raised three sets of young on our farm left three or four weeks ago for points south, so these birds are newcomers. The entire population of these migrants makes a giant phase shift in position south at this time of year, and the birds that are flying about now have come from as far north as the Hudson’s Bay lowlands. Our farm is merely a fuelling stop for them, however, and after putting away more calories, they’ll depart for milder temperatures ahead of the next cold front. On Friday, as a cold front passed through our farm, it pushed along some thermals, creating a few local thunderstorms. I was out in the fields when one of the thermals exploded into thunder, and immediately, 40 to 50 turkey vultures dropped out of the thermal and headed for cover. They had been using the warm column of air to soar south until the storm broke, and it was quite a spectacle to see lightning and flocks of vultures streaming to earth as fast as they could.

September 25, 2017

Last Saturday an important chapter in Canada’s fine dining history came to an end, as Rundles closed its doors for the last time. Almost since its inception, Neil Baxter has been at its helm, and Tina and I have had the honour of providing his restaurant with vegetables since we first started over 25 years ago.

I first met Jim Morris, the erstwhile owner, as a labourer for the landscaper who designed the magnificent gardens at Rundles. It was in this capacity that I came to know Neil, who would come out for a coffee from time to time to see what we were doing. This grew into a gardening contract at Neil’s house, and our friendship grew. Around this time, Tina and I were trying to think of ways to stay on our newly bought farm until my painting career took off (oh, the hubris!). I told Neil I wanted to grow some salad greens in the summer, and asked him if he’d critique samples until I got a mixture he liked. Neil agreed, and I went off to tell Tina that we had a client for our salad mix. If only it was that easy.

“He wants it washed.”

“Tell him to wash it himself!” was Tina’s response at the time. 

Three or four (at least) incarnations of our salad mix came into his kitchen and got sent out again with comments to improve colour, texture, and flavour. I was beginning to think we’d never be good enough for this chef, but it made me want to try harder and come back again.

Today, we are washing over 400 lbs of salad greens a week, and constantly adjusting the mixes and offerings to keep up with the varied cuisine styles of the restaurants we supply and hope to supply, and Neil’s steadfast adherence to the highest of standards has become ingrained in our farm as well.

“What can I do to get my product into a restaurant like this?” I told him: “Learn how to cook with what you grow. Take a cooking class.”

Over twenty years ago, I began taking cooking classes at Rundles under Neil’s tutelage. I wanted to try to better understand what to do with our vegetables once we’d grown them, and the classes were offered at a time of the year when I wasn’t swamped with fieldwork. In those early years, I couldn’t afford the classes, and Neil allowed me to attend for free. There was no free ride once in the classes, though, and Neil conducted the classroom as though we were all vying for a spot in his kitchen brigade. The amount of information and cooking skills learned from Neil’s guidance far and away exceeded what could ever be gleaned from simply reading a recipe, and I use my 22 recipe books from each year of classes more than any other cookbook I own.

Taking Neil’s cooking classes was the best marketing move I’ve ever done, and I am forever grateful to him for allowing me to learn when I couldn’t afford to pay my way, and for teaching me about the standards required to produce memorable meals. More than that, Neil taught me a language that I could speak with other chefs. He helped me cross the gap from the field to the kitchen so I could better understand what it was chefs were looking for. Some years later, I was having yet another incredible meal at Jamie Kennedy’s Kitchen, being rendered immobile by the grace and generosity of Tobey Nemeth, when an aspiring beef farmer came up to me and asked, “What can I do to get my product into a restaurant like this?” I told him: “Learn how to cook with what you grow. Take a cooking class.”

I have had the pleasure of meeting many sous chefs at Rundles who were in charge of placing the orders to us over the years, and continue a friendship with many of them after they moved on, some to open their own places. But no one has impressed me more than Neil’s most recent team of Randi Rudner and Mike Booth. Stalwart, dependable, sensitive, and diplomatic don’t even come close to describing the qualities they brought to the kitchen every single day, and that includes Neil’s cooking classes as well. I was lucky enough to see these two grow into instructors in their own right at the Stratford Chef’s School, and at Neil’s classes. In the latter case, I know how seriously Neil takes these classes, and for him to place instructing duties onto the shoulders of these two is a measure of trust and respect that I hadn’t seen before they graced his kitchen. Randi and Mike were able to take Neil’s vision and goals, and realize them with fewer and fewer resources each year. Their dedication to Neil’s standards is something that will not come again for a very long time.

It has never been easy supplying Rundles, but I wouldn’t want it to be. Being the best comes about as a result of hard work and never being satisfied with “good enough, and many people know of the epic arguments Neil and I have had over the years, when he told me what I had wasn’t good enough. I’ve actually seen chefs in his kitchen look for something, anything, to do to avoid watching the prize fight that was about to take place whenever I came charging through the doors with my ego bruised, and have them equally uncomfortable when we made up like high-school sweethearts (the last time was last Friday).

Neil, Randi, Mike, and Rundles, I loved working for you, and I miss you already.

September 18, 2017

I can’t remember a time when our offering list was as extensive as it is this week. Due to cooler days through the summer, our early-season crops such as fava beans have persisted, although this will be the last week for them. Now that we’re back into a warm spell, our late-season crops are finally starting to ripen. Romanesco cauliflower and cauliflower are showing up on our market tables, as well as our carrots. Early reviews are coming in on the carrots, and I’m happy to say they’re very sweet. This is no accident, and it’s a great example of how we manage our crops for flavour, as opposed to yield. There are basically four main factors determining the quality of vegetables: seed, soil, location, and farmer. Most carrot varieties grown by large-scale farms, like in the Holland Marsh, will select seed varieties that are quick growing, uniform, and most importantly, the tops are strong enough to be pulled out of the ground by machine without snapping. Sweet carrots are brittle. Therefore, the varieties selected by the big guys tend to be woody and not very sweet. In addition to the coloured varieties we grow, I also select the sweetest orange carrot varieties available. I had our carrot digger modified to gently scoop under the carrots and lift them up instead of pulling them out, so snapping isn’t an issue. If you were to look in the seed catalogues from companies that supply the larger growers, sweetness isn’t even mentioned in the list of traits for individual varieties used for machine harvesting.

Soil also has a role to play in flavour, and the same principles of terroir that apply to grapes and wine are equally applicable to vegetables.

Soil also has a role to play in flavour, and the same principles of terroir that apply to grapes and wine are equally applicable to vegetables. The levels of calcium in soil can vary from region to region, and this has a huge impact on flavour. Calcium is a primary molecule involved in sugar formation in root vegetables, so it makes sense that the more calcium you have in your soil, the greater the potential for sweet vegetables. Water-based growing systems, either hydroponic or its trendy cousin, aquaponic, have much less calcium to offer, so the food grown in these systems, for lots of reasons, will never be as tasty as those grown in soil. Fortunately for us (and you), our soil is blessed with off-the-chart calcium levels (the result of it being the bottom of a marine sea at one point) and a deep bed of limestone (calcium carbonate) underneath our clay loam soil. We also add 20% calcium to our organic compost every year, to further boost levels in the soil. The fact that our soil is clay loam, with a very high organic matter content, provides a perfect mix of water retention and rapid drainage with buffering capacity and optimal air exchange spaces between soil particles for roots to grow as stress-free as possible.

In addition to the unique characteristics of each region’s soils, its geographic location has a part to play in flavour development. Our farm is situated at an optimum distance from Lake Huron, where the majority of our rain comes from. By the time the eastward-moving air masses have picked up moisture from the lake and passed over us, it has also cooled down enough to release the moisture as showers. A precipitation graph for our area for a 12-month period reveals an almost equal amount each month, whether it be rain or snow. Being in a northern climate has its advantages in sweetening root vegetables. When the first fall frosts settle in around September 20, they trigger a biochemical reaction in those root crops still in the ground. The plants sense the colder temperatures and start to make antifreeze in an effort to survive, so they can set seed the next year. This evolutionary strategy is one that we capitalize on to create flavour. The root crops such as carrots, beets, celeriac, parsnips, and Jerusalem artichokes, convert the starch in their roots to sugar in an attempt to ward off freezing. The more frosts they endure in the ground, the sweeter the root. This is a major reason why our carrots test out at around 13 brix—a scaled measure of sugar content (invented by 19th-century scientist Adolf Brix) and, by association, flavour—while California carrots (even organically grown), typically come in at around 1 to 2 brix.

From seed selection, planting dates, soil bed preparation, irrigation management, and decisions on harvest dates, each has a part to play in how sweet a root vegetable will be.

Finally, it is the farmer who decides whether to utilize these factors in growing his crops. From seed selection, planting dates, soil bed preparation, irrigation management, and decisions on harvest dates, each has a part to play in how sweet a root vegetable will be. It’s our goal to maximize sweetness and flavour, not to fill a skid with a ton of carrots before anyone else can so we can get a jump on the market.

Slow and steady wins the flavour race, and we try to use as many tricks of the trade to work with where we are to grow the carrots you find so sweet.

ON THE FARM

October, 2017

Arugula Incredible garlic
Asian graising Italian graising
Baby beets (red, candy cane, golden) Italian greens
Baby daikon radish Japanese white turnips/red turnips
Baby leeks/large leeks Kohlrabi
Baby purple top turnips/gold turnips Lemon balm
Basil, Thai and Holy Micro mix
Bistro greens Mizuna, tat soi
Bok choy Mustards
Borage flowers Napa cabbage
Bronze fennel Potatoes (Norland, Purple Viking, Linzers, fingerlings)
Carrots (coloured, orange) Radicchio
Cauliflower Radish sprouts
Chard Red wakefield
Chickweed Romaine/buttercrunch
Cilantro/cut leaf or frilly cilantro Romanesco cauliflower
Dandelion greens Sorrel
Dino kale Spinach
Dragon tongue (Romano-type) beans (fresh) Tomatillos (green, purple, yellow)
Edamame Torpedo onions
Eggplant/baby eggplant Viola/marigold/nasturtium/calendula flowers
Gourmet greens Wakefield cabbage (medium/large)
Green frisée Watermelon radish
Herb mix Wild arugula

Honey

Honeycomb

 

Rare Earth

Blue basil
Mexican mint marigold
Borage
Nasturtium leaves
Cardinal basil
Poblanos
Celtuce (Chinese lettuce)

Purple cayenne

Fennel flowers Shishito peppers
Green jalapeños Togarashi chilies/Korean chilies
Guy lon
Hirona kabu (long purple and white turnip)
Kapoor tulsi basil

 

Watch for more from Antony John, as he keeps us up-to-date on life on the farm. For information on where you can find his products, visit soiledreputation.com.

ANTONY JOHN, along with his wife, Tina, are the farmers behind Soiled Reputation, a certified organic farm located in Sebringville, Ontario, that supplies gourmet greens and heirloom vegetables to restaurants, markets, and homes in Southwestern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area. Today 40 acres of their 80-acre farm is certified organic. You may remember Antony from his hit Food Network Canada show, The Manic Organic. The show aired in over 50 countries around the world, including the Discovery Home Channel in the U.S. You can read more about Antony and his farm at soiledreputation.com.

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