New style farming in Kawartha Lakes
Small, sustainable and social
Small local farms are bringing a fresh approach that complements traditional ways of raising crops and livestock, thanks to savvy use of social media and building direct relationships with their customers. Add an emphasis on the environment, and local producers such as Bobcaygeon’s Three Forks Farm, the Mariposa Woolen Mill and the Kinmount area’s Brandeston Farm are helping change the way agriculture looks in Kawartha Lakes.
Jarod and Elecia Chinnick, owners of Three Forks Farm in Bobcaygeon, have thought a lot about the farming practices they use. It’s right there in their mission statement: “Raise wholesome, nutrient-dense food using farming practices that respect the natural tendencies of our animals and the sustainability of our farmland.”
Three Forks sells “pasture-grazed and naturally raised artisanal chicken, pork and turkey,” according to its website. Customers can buy monthly boxes with several varieties and quantities of meat available.
“We used to, in our early days, think of ourselves as sustainable farmers,” says Jarod, “the presumption being that you farm and manage land and shouldn’t make it any worse.” But they realized their philosophy on farming had changed.
“It became clear that we need to be doing more than just being neutral, but actually having positive effects on the land. We can rebuild the nutrients and the carbon,” he says, both of which are needed for healthy growing.
Known as regenerative farming, this newer philosophy is becoming popular in smaller-scale farms throughout North America and parts of Europe. While it has no fixed set of practices, the goals typically include improving water cycles and enhancing topsoil regeneration.
At Three Forks, for instance, the Chinnicks use smaller pastures and move their animals frequently to control the grass. “They clip it down really low, deposit lots of manure, then they move onto the next pasture and come back a couple of months later, improving the ecology of the soil. This actually improves the land instead of just maintaining it,” Jarod says.
The diverse diet produces healthier livestock which become healthier food. “They have more good omega fatty acids… We always think of it as ‘you are what you eat,’” Elecia explains, noting that consumers should watch for “greenwashing” by large companies. “They’re really good at putting pictures of pastures and things on the labels, but it’s not necessarily true.”
She describes regenerative farming as a “slow game” for farmers. “There are no hard and fast rules on how to set this up. It’s about responding to the environment you’re working within. It’s about taking your time and fine-tuning things as you go.”
Over at Brandeston Farm in the Kinmount area, owner John Stinson says he’s already noted the negative impact of climate change on things like growing seasons. He says he hopes governments and people in general will “start taking this seriously.”
His farm sells an assortment of fresh vegetables and herbs using the Community Supported Agriculture method. Customers pay a set amount for a given size and receive a weekly box of organic produce from June to October.
Brandeston’s crop plan for the 2021 season includes things like beets, carrots, beans, basil, peppers, kale, Brussels sprouts and many more vegetables, along with other microgreens and sprouts.
It can be hard to find truly environmentally friendly, ethical products in the food industry’s supply chain, Stinson says. When he first purchased compost for the farm, he ordered a dump truck’s worth. “And as I started shovelling through it, I realized there’s all sorts of trash in here, and it’s in every shovelful.”
Perplexed, Stinson called the company to complain. “I was told I should’ve ordered premium compost if I didn’t want garbage in it.”
He has also tried to make sure Brandeston Farm’s own supply chain does as little environmental harm as possible. Packaging ranging from microgreen containers to salad bowls to bags of salad mixes is made from sustainable materials.
Social media influence
Another one of the things that unites many successful new-style local farms is their extensive use of social media both to build a clientele and to forge relationships with their potential customers. Elicia runs an Instagram page for Three Forks that has just shy of 600 followers.
“I’m not by nature a salesy person, so that’s probably why it feels so intimate. I really want to help educate people on what we’re doing here on the farm.” By using social media for more than a sales pitch, she can give followers a glimpse of reality. “There’s a lot of romantic ideas about farming, but I want to show the ups and downs.”
Ellen Edney, owner of Mariposa Woolen Mill, had a similar intention for the Mill’s Instagram page. “I want people to show behind the scenes, what goes right and wrong — the real-life things. Not everything is kind of perfect or works out all the time, but showing it builds trust on a human level,” says Edney.
While the Mariposa farm got its start as the original location for Mariposa Dairy, the livestock portion of the farm now consists of six flocks of sheep and one herd of Angora goats, all endangered heritage breeds.
Authenticity also matters. Elecia Chinnick says she was inspired by what happened in 2017, when a variety of so-called local vendors at the Peterborough Farmers’ Market were found to be telling customers their products were homegrown, when in reality they were just reselling products they had purchased wholesale.
“Peterborough was in really hot water with some farmers not being honest about what they’re producing — it created a level of mistrust between farmers and customers. So the social media was about creating that opportunity for consumers to see what we’re doing, and create a sense of honesty.”
Brandeston Farm’s Stinson recognizes that social media’s information-gathering capabilities can help build connections to niche markets. “Some people really appreciate a direct relationship with where their food is coming from. They’re really curious,” says Stinson. Social media allows him to offer what his customers want with more precision.
There are both benefits and pitfalls when bringing businesses online, says Edney, where “you have just two seconds to grab someone’s attention.” The internet is “a big vast abyss, unlike at a farmers’ market where we might be the only ones selling some certain product.”
That said, it’s also true that online there are also “are always people looking for specifically what we offer.” The Mill has a page on Etsy, the popular website where artisans from all over the world offer unique products.
Edney has picked up on another trend by creating the Kawartha Box, a monthly collection of seasonal items from various local businesses. It allows customers to try local products they otherwise may not have heard about — “basically a Kawartha sampler box.”
The box was a response to the unique opportunities of online shopping and the disruption COVID had on normal business, but also a chance to try something different. “People get stuck in their routines, only go to shop at ‘x’ businesses and don’t venture beyond that. But with the box you’re testing other businesses’ products.” By showcasing many different items, a box sparks interest in a wide range of small local producers.
She also has an in-person store on the farm that features wool and woolen products milled from their flock and processed right on the farm. They also carry goat and sheep cheeses.
Combined with Three Forks’ meat boxes and online website and Brandeston’s community supported agriculture, there are many retail innovations created by local farms.
While a mix of approaches to agriculture is essential to growing enough food for people in Kawartha Lakes and beyond, these farms often choose to operate on a more modest scale so they can address social and environmental concerns close to the farmers’ hearts. Besides his focus on climate change, one of the key reasons Brandeston’s Stinson, a former software engineer who moved here from downtown Toronto, became interested in farming was global food insecurity.
The lack of enough nutritious food is obviously a problem worldwide, he says, “but it’s also here,” even if many of us can’t see its presence in our communities. “We don’t have many people dying from caloric deficiency, but if someone’s low on income here and they have to decide between going to the grocery store or making a rent payment, they’re going to pick shelter,” he says.
To that end, Brandeston Farm donated more than 1,800 kilograms (4,000 pounds) of produce to local food banks via Kawartha Lakes Food Source over the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
Farmers like Stinson, Edney and the Chinnicks are part of a new wave of agricultural entrepreneurs. By farming on a smaller scale and harnessing technology and direct sales, they’re creating new market niches that add to what larger operations offer while bringing innovation and choice to local consumers.