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Nurturing nature leads to a nourished community

Conservation Farming leads to long-term sustainability

Where does most of our food come from? A lot of times it comes from far away to get here, and yet we grow some of the best food in the world right here in Perth County, like our garlic is the best in the world.

Did you know there is a farm right in Stratford behind Dufferin Arena? I’ve played hockey there so many times and never noticed. Recently, I followed the wooded path that leads to the agricultural park in the back and met with Lucas Tingle at Stratford’s Urban Farm, where everyone working there is a volunteer.

“They’re here to learn about regenerative agriculture and feed some folks,” Tingle said.

They’re always looking for volunteers to share the message, but they’ve got a pretty big team now on just two acres. What they do that is special is they farm the top soil to create the right nutrient density for sustainable farming - it’s really cool.

Tingle calls it ‘conservation farming’. He’s a conservationist at heart, and tells me that about 98 per cent of the acreage of Perth County is farmland and that it’s extremely valuable. So, how we manage it really matters.

He also tells me that soil conservation is the bedrock of sustainable farming. He focuses on bio-tillage as a way to till the soil without having to use machines.

“We plant plants that do the tilling for us so that the soil can regenerate naturally,” he said. He uses oats, tillage radish, and Austrian winter peas as ‘cover crops’ to improve soil health by pulling all the nutrients from the deep root structure in the soil up into the leafy matter at the surface. Then his team puts a tarp over the land so there is no sunlight.

The plants decompose and become ‘green manure’. All their nitrogen, calcium and carbon go back into the topsoil, making the ground extra rich. No herbicides or pesticides are needed for this sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

I feel that this type of farming is much better for our environment, and I would much rather eat food grown from this kind of farm that works with natural processes to grow local, sustainable food in a way that regenerates our land.

The other thing that he does that is really cool is called ‘over-wintering’. How can we get local green healthy food earlier in the season? Tingle started growing kale, spinach, carrots, radishes, snap peas and lettuce last October so they’re ready by April! He lets them grow all winter under the snow, and then when spring comes they get a thrust of growth and grow up quick and fast. And then we get food a lot quicker, too.

On my visit to this urban Stratford farm, I helped plant green onions by setting little cubes of soil with shoots of green onion in them, digging holes in a straight line and then packing them in to grow. I felt really good about it because I’m planting food for people in Stratford to eat. It was really fun and I’m excited to go to the Sunday Slow Food Market in Market Square to buy some green onions. Maybe they will be the ones I planted.

The most important lesson I learned from Lucas Tingle is that keeping farms in local people’s hands and keeping it as farmland is really important.

“We have some of the finest topsoil in the world and yet there’s people hungry in our community of 30,000,” he said. “We need more sustainable ways of farming and better options for farmers to maintain their soil health, keeping an eye on the quality of what we’re growing and not just the quantity.”

We can see that a lot of farmland does not actually grow food. We’re growing soybeans, hay and feed for animals. Tingle tells me that "if the average 500-acre cash-crop farm took 10 acres to grow produce, nobody would be hungry. Farming is very hard, but there are systemic problems that need to be addressed by the next generation for more sustainable environmental practices and more localized food systems."

We have wonderful farmers and beautiful vegetables grown right here in Stratford for far less than at supermarkets. I believe that my generation needs to be aware of this and we need to ‘be the change’. By nurturing nature, we can nourish our community.

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