Fifteen years ago, Brent Preston and his wife gave up their downtown Toronto lifestyle for a new beginning with their two young children.
“We just one day decided we wanted to get out of the city. We wanted to do something concrete about climate change, something that was going to enhance our environment, provide really healthy nutrient-dense food to people. We felt like we needed to do something hands-on,” said Preston.
They purchased 100 acres of farmland near the village of Creemore in the south Georgian Bay area, and created The New Farm, a small, family run, independent organic farm that grows vegetables.
They only grow on about 20 acres, and those vegetables are sold to restaurants all over southern Ontario, as well as to some specialty retailers.
“We have about 40 restaurants that are really regular customers, but we have over 100 who will buy our food in any given season. We’re working with a really large number of chefs and we also sell to four or five specialty retail stores as well,” said Preston.
“The chefs that we work with are people who really believe in knowing where their ingredients come from and getting the freshest, highest quality ingredients. We get to work with some incredible chefs at some of the top restaurants in Toronto.”
Preston was the keynote speaker at Powassan’s fourth annual “Local Food Fest.”
His message was that small-scale farming for the local market using environmentally sustainable methods is real.
“It is not a niche. It is not a fad. It is something that has the power to really transform the agricultural system. It has the power to address some of the really big problems that we face as a society, as a species,” said Preston.
“Climate change, environmental degradation, human health, all the problems we see with chronic diseases, cancer, obesity, all of these big problems that we’re facing can all be addressed through farming in a different way.”
He says farming has made his family feel like they are part of something much bigger than just their little farm.
“There is this whole army of innovative farmers all over the world who are actively, consciously, doing things to try to make this planet more liveable. It feels great to be a part of that.”
His advice to anyone starting their farming journey, or looking to make a change, is to stick to their values.
“We thought when we started, our values of environmentalism and building community and all these things we felt passionately about, would inhibit our ability to make money. Really, the financial sustainability and the profitability of our farm has grown directly out of sticking to those values because people are willing to pay more for food, pay a fair price when they think it is supporting the values that they share. And it is doing something bigger than just feeding people.”
Preston has had great success as a market gardener and author, but also gives back to the food bank, to low-income families and to community gardens.
Also invited to speak at the “Local Food Fest” was Pamela Hamel, of Thornloe Cheese north of Temiskaming Shores..
The business which has been around for more than 70 years continues to evolve, just as it has over the past couple of years with local farmers.
It has turned an Ontario standard for grass feeding and farm practice into a national standard.
In 2018 its grass-fed butter took Grand Champion Award at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.
“The milk comes primarily from Temiskaming farms, but also some from Verner and the Powassan area. Milk is shipped to the creamery where we separate the cream out, and then we tote the cream to Alliston in southern Ontario where most butter in Ontario is made,” explained Hamel.
“In the last five years, we’ve seen such an explosion in the locavore concept, meaning people looking for more local food. But also, in the last couple of years, people are looking for farming practices that are humane. Natural pasturing is a big part of people’s interests and knowing where their food comes from. So, it is not only where the food comes from, but also the animal welfare that is involved whether it be any kind of protein product in the country.”
When Thornloe got on board to bring the first Canadian grass-fed project to market, it looked at the project as being nutritionally better than other conventional cheeses.
“We know that cows graze naturally and when their diets are changed, they produce a much richer more nutrient dense milk themselves. So, we started in that aspect of promoting the product with a lot of nutritional qualities, different. But then soon realized that people were really interested, and they wanted to support the fact that it was grass grazing, that these cows spend their days outside when weather permits, and sleep under the moon. That really, really resonates with people,” said Hamel.
“So, I think down the road and into the future, we started the project in 2016-2017 with only five farms, and now we’re up to 14. So, we hope there will be continued growth in that area, and perhaps down the road, all our products, or most of our products will be made with grass-fed milk source.”
The Local Food Fest included other speakers, local vendors along with demonstrations and a dinner feast.
“We had a whole lot of people with a great interest in gardening, market gardening, backyard chickens, raising bunnies, cast iron cooking, bees, attracting pollinators. It is all this big circle that all kind of meshes together. If you want to have a good garden, you want to have bees to pollinate, so how do you get bees? So, it is very interesting,” said event coordinator Kathie Hogan.
Powassan is an agricultural community which has experienced a shift in farming over the years.
“When I moved here from Ottawa it was dairy farms, big dairy farms that had been in the family for generations. There’s two dairy farms left, and now the interest is market gardens, and still other selected farmers,” said Hogan.
“And there’s two processing plants now in Powassan. Can you imagine in a town of 3,000 people to have two processing plants? In the olden days, you would have had to drive to Sprucedale. So, the farmers are very excited and changing their growing patterns and their purchasing patterns.”
Hogan says whether someone grows in pots or have a little flower bed that gets transferred into vegetable gardens or have an actual vegetable garden, the message is simple “let’s grow.”
“There is nothing to stop you from growing. You have a balcony, you live in town, there’s nothing to stop you. There’s always opportunities to garden.”