“Everything starts at the soil,” Nathan, head farmer and co-owner of Winterhill Farm and Garden, says to me while we walk through the vegetable field towards where chickens live. If you haven’t thought about it yet, you should. Soil unlike dirt, is a living organism; they are a major reservoir of Earth.
Like all living things, we have a purpose to sustain, and soil sustains life – all life, not just us, but the billions of micro-organisms like bacteria and fungi that live in the soil. So, when the soil is alive and well, it gives back in the way of minerals and nutrients, which the plants absorb. And guess what? We, living creatures absorb when we consume them. Sometimes we even get a little help from animals like cattle who can digest grass and breakdown its nutrients in a form that can be absorbable by us. Isn’t it amazing, how soil can cause a chain effect that keeps entire populations alive?!
That is only if we don’t disrupt it.
Too bad, we have. If the soil in conventional farming is so degraded that the soil is dead, then what are we eating? If the cattle in feed lots are eating grain, how can we get the nutrients we need from them if they are not grazing the land as they were meant to? It’s almost like we are eating impostors instead of the real thing.
Except from farms like Winterhill Farm and Garden, who grow food and raise animals how nature intended. Follow me as I go to this 100-acre farm in Guelph-Eramosa and learn about the regenerative farming practices being implemented to honour the soil and everything that grows on its pastures.
Winterhill Farm and Garden is a regenerative 100-acre farm in Guelph-Eramosa, Ontario. Jill and Nathan Smith and their small but dedicated team grow organic vegetables using regenerative growing methods, including integrating livestock such as chickens and cattle. Their farm has been in the family for three generations, but Nathan is bringing a fresh and new perspective to the farm.
I was very happy when Jill reached out to me to see if I would be interested in visiting their farm and seeing their regenerative farm operation. The organic movement has long taken off, so much so that you see it everywhere, specially in supermarkets; mainly as a marketing tactic to get consumers to spend more. The regenerative movement however is new (well it’s been around for a long time) but only recently has it started to make waves again.
A Regenerative Way of Farming
Farming in a regenerative way is not easy because of its minimal intervention, which can cause problems when there are issues like pests or invasive weeds, and unpredictable things like the climate. It leaves farmers to more susceptibility from the environment which is not the best thing when you are trying to run a profitable business. Regenerative farming also takes a long time to establish as essentially you need to make the soil self-sufficient. This means you need to nourish and feed the soil. This can be done through a variety of practices like crop rotation, cover crops, no tilling, organic manure/compost, and animal integration. This process doesn’t happen overnight, specially in soils that have been depleted due to conventional farming practices.
One of the biggest challenges for farmers comes down to tillage. Tilling the soil destroys it, but tilling has been used since the industrial revolution as an ‘effective’ way to prep the soil for the next planting. It’s hard not to till and many farmers trying to move towards a regenerative form of farming are practicing low till methods as a way transition. So, when Jill explained that Winterhill Farm and Garden practiced a regenerative approach and only tilled the top two inches of the soil, I was intrigued to see it for myself.
Nathan and Jill aim to farm as naturally as possible using organic compost, manure, and rotating crops as well as avoid using any pesticides and herbicides to ensure a healthy soil. They are new farmers, having started only three years ago, but they had home garden for about ten years, raised chickens for seven and started raising cattle four years ago. They weren’t completely inexperienced, but they have quickly learned both the challenges and rewards that come with having a farm operation.
Farmer Nathan & Jill
Nathan grew up around farming with his family having a farm. His mother also had her own garden, where Nathan had the opportunity to experiment with his own small plot. However, it was when he started reading that it really clicked. Learning about organic and regenerative farming practices changed his perspective. When the pandemic hit and Nathan found himself without a job, he couldn’t think of a better reason to start a farm. “It was the best way I could think of to support our own community during that time,” said Nathan.
For many, the pandemic accelerated the growth of many businesses, and Winterhill Farm and Garden was no exception. Nathan went from a full-time bookkeeping job to spending his days outside tending to the land. During the height of the pandemic, they had a about 90 CSA members, this number is significantly high specially for a new farm starting out. Nathan said they got ahead of themselves a little bit, excited by the demand and the prospect of growing different variety of crops.
This year, they cut down on CSAs down to 75, which is still a high number. Nathan said he also has seen a drop in demand, a trend that has been seen across the board this year in the post-pandemic era. Next year they plan to scale down and focus on building a better infrastructure and processes. They’ve learned on what crops work well on their land and they plan to keep those and experiment with okra, collards, and scotch bonnet peppers in hopes to expand their current customer base in future years.
Out of the 106 acres, 60-70 acres is forest, 32 acres are farmed on with 1 acre dedicated to vegetables plus they rent 30 acres for cattle grazing. By planning ahead and rotating their crops, they can grow 3-4 crops in one season. They are really maximizing their space now, having grown their operations so quickly during the pandemic. Right now, they’ve converted part of their home to a ‘seedling house’ to prep some seedlings in the Spring to get ready for the coming season. Nathan’s vision is to build or convert one of the current cold frames into a space for a nursery.
Nathan and Jill have really tried to cultivate a way to give back to their community. They find that most of their customer base are health conscious, environmentally conscious home chefs. Jill sends recipes along with the CSAs to inspire new ways to cook their weekly vegetable share, creating a community aspect to their business instead of just an exchange. They also have a cute egg shack by the side of the road that’s open 24 hours! Its an honour system so you leave the amount money owed based on what you take.
During my visit, I got a peak at the last of the tomatoes for the season, although you wouldn’t be able to tell! The greenhouse was abundant in in ripe tomatoes from varieties like Early girl, Beefsteak, Heirloom varieties, and Indigo Rose. They also had just planted their Fall crops in the cold frame, which is a greenhouse that is not heated. They had beets, spinach, peppers, and carrots who seemed to be growing well under the protected environment.
Letting Mother Nature Guide
Nathan and Jill are trying to really let the land do its work, after all Mother Nature has been doing this for thousands of millennia. “The best we can do is observe, learn, and try to emulate what she teaches us,” says Nathan. For example, around the farm, Nathan has installed ‘Fly control’ posts which attract bird varieties like Tree Swallow and Blue birds, which naturally keep the fly population down. This means his cattle can graze the land happily without the worry of being overtaken by bugs.
To control the weeds, you will often see Nathan using his weed flame torch. Weed torches are efficient way to take out the weeds on surfaces fast – faster and less tedious than hand weeding! The thing about weeds is that they grow fast, and they can get ahead of you easily, specially in during peak season when there are other more pressing duties like harvesting. For a small farm operation, the weed flame comes in handy as it makes the tedious task of weeding…well, less tedious and time consuming. I should note that it does not harm the soil in any way as the ashes of the weed will decompose back into the soil.
Full Circle with Livestock Integration
Nathan raises three types of livestock animals on the farm, roaster chickens, laying hens and cattle. The cattle live off the land their entire lives. During my visit, I only got to see the laying hens and the cattle as the broiler chickens had been processed a few weeks ago. The hens live outside in their chicken mobile and have a green space allocated to them that is surrounded by an electric fence. The fence is there mainly to keep the predators out and the hens from escaping. The hens live on pasture for their whole life, eating a diet of worms, insects, and grass, supplemented by grain.
By living outside, the hens get their daily dose of Vitamin D, which combined with the vitamins and minerals they get from their diverse diet, make for healthier and more nutritious eggs! Not to mention that allowing them to live in their natural habitat means that whatever they consume is given back to the land. Yes, I am talking about their poop, or manure. Chicken manure has so many incredible benefits for the soil as it increases the moisture capacity of the dirt and adds beneficial and necessary microorganisms back to the land. The hens are rotated every week or so, and this ensures that different plots of land are grazed and pooped on, nourishing the soil, and promoting new grasses to grow.
After the chickens, we went to see the cattle, which were a few minutes down the road on the rented piece of land. Nathan took the 4-wheeler, and I rode in the back which was so fun! (So much cooler than walking or taking the car). The cattle were also fenced in so that they stay in their assigned plot of land for the day. When we got there, Nathan got down to move the fence so that they would move on to a new plot of fresh un-grazed grass. During our time there, I could only think one thing, how majestic they were! I had never seen cattle so close before and we got really close, it was beautiful and exhilarating. They were happy, you could see it in their eyes; they were also excited for new pasture to graze and munch on.
A Better Quality of Life
Nathan respects the natural way of life and tries to follow a natural cycle with his cattle as well, meaning the calves are born in May/June when the temperatures are warmer, and grasses are greener. The cattle live on pasture their entire lives and are rotated daily onto fresh new grass. Over the winter, they are taken to the forest where Nathan has arranged a sheltered area so they can live outside through the winter months and eat hay. “I feel obligated to give them a good life,” Nathan said to me.
I couldn’t agree more, the animals we raise for meat, ultimately give their lives for us so that we may eat. The best gift we can give them is a good life and be appreciative of their sacrifice for us. I respect farmers and ranchers who are growing food and raising animals in the most natural and humane of ways. The meat is not only superior in flavour but in nutrients than conventionally raised meat, but the animals are truly happy. If you think about it, it is the circle of life, as The Lion King taught us, and everything comes full circle. We may not be able to stop raising animals for meat, but we can choose to give them a better life and make their time of earth an honorable one.
“It all starts at the soil,” as Nathan said. The grass needs the grazing of animals to thrive, the animals need the grass to nourish themselves, they in turn give back to the soil with their manure which nourishes the soil. We humans are an intervention, yes, but we have two choices, we can either humanely raise animals or not. Which one would you feel better about?
Even though there are many challenges, Nathan and Jill love doing this for the satisfaction of producing things people love and appreciate. There’s also a sort of magic that is unleashed when we spend time with the earth, with our hands in the soil, and outside with Mother Nature. It’s hard to go back to a desk when you are exposed it— I would know having spent my summer at farm volunteering!
Nathan will continue to work on the farm this coming year, while going back to work part-time. Farming is hard and tough economic times make it even harder. It’s not easy to run a farm and a business, and we should be appreciative of those who take the path and try to grow the best food possible while finding ways to make ends meet. Next time you are at the farmers’ market, get to know your farmer and his/hers/their farming practices; only by being curious and asking questions can get become more informed and educated about our choices. We have the power to drive demand with every dollar we spend.
Where will YOU choose to spend it?