As I go through the rhythm of daily chores on our certified organic farm, I am increasingly struck by the cyclicity of life. I have now crossed the threshold of 30 years of farming, and the pace of days blending into one another seems to be quickening. Did 2013 really pass by that quickly? Have we been running Soiled Reputation for 20 years already? My 20-year journal confirms everything. It also reveals some fascinating connections and patterns that have emerged out of such a lengthy association with an agricultural ecosystem. Our farm is actually a food web, with connections stretching as far as Brazil, and I believe it offers insights to be gleaned, in relation to the food we grow, the food we buy, and the impact those decisions have on biodiversity.
In mid-February, Tina and I board a plane for Belize. For the past two years, we have formed a very real food web connection, with a very special place in Belize, called Belcampo Lodge. Twelve thousand acres in area, this luxury lodge is launching an ambitious and extensive agricultural enterprise, based on the principles of organic growing and Slow Food. Last year, I was hired to help with their organic vegetable garden, which will supply the lodge’s restaurant with fresh produce, meals for the staff, and produce for the Punta Gorda market.
Tina and I are also at Belcampo to help publicize the incredible birdwatching opportunities, there and in Belize at large. Guests have the rare privilege of birding with Dr. Lee Jones, the author of Birds of Belize, along with the lodge’s own guides, in a variety of locations and habitats, including Mayan ruins, rare pine savannah, mangroves, and the property of Belcampo itself. Indeed, the vegetable gardens and organic citrus groves are among the most productive habitat in which to see birds, as they forage among the plants. As a testament to the incredible biodiversity of Belcampo, and its sustainable growing practices, we have seen over 250 species of birds in just two weeks!
The lodge at Belcampo acts as a most eloquent manifestation of the real food web connection to our farm in Southwest Ontario. A large part of Neotropical bird life is made up of migratory species such as warblers, flycatchers, tanagers, orioles, and thrushes. We recognize them as spring migrants. Some species, like the Baltimore oriole, return to the silver maples of our farm to nest each May. I record the first arrival date of each species of bird year after year in my journal, and an amazing calendar of species-related arrival dates has emerged after 20 years.
Other birds, such as the diminutive Magnolia warbler, pass through Southwestern Ontario on their way to the Boreal Forest to nest. I’ve seen both of these species at Belcampo, feeding amongst the Madre de Cacao trees that shade (and feed) the coffee, cacao, and vanilla vines, or foraging among the wax bean plants in the garden for whiteflies. These may well be the same individuals that we’ll find on our farm three months later.
The fact that these birds complete a journey from the Neotropics to our farm, and points far beyond, (our Barn Swallows winter in Brazil), is made all the more remarkable by the fact that they do it twice a year, and without ever having been shown the route (make a sharp left at Albuquerque!). All along the way, they may stop at organic farms and woodlots to refuel for the next leg of their journey. The biodiversity of our farm and others like it forms part of an important migration corridor for these birds, and for migratory insects such as monarch butterflies. Our farm is linked to all other organic farms and wild areas along the eastern flyway, to shade-grown organic plantations in Belize, Costa Rica, Brazil, and other countries, by the migratory birds that traverse the continents.
We are part of a much broader food web that is increasingly put under pressure from irresponsible growing practices, environmentally harmful pesticides such as neonicotinoids, and short-sighted land-use practices such as monocropping. The sooner we realize how complex a food system must be in order to support life, the better off most of our planet will be.
Antony John is an organic farmer, painter and avid birdwatcher. He lives near Stratford. This is the first of a series of reflections on the food we grow and buy.