The Food Web

Written by Antony John


Coming back from our stay in Belize, March on our farm hit us like the transition from the carpet to the moving sidewalk at the airport. During the two weeks we had been away, daylight levels reached a critical 10-hour mark, and the greenhouses responded to that solar switch being suddenly turned on. The salad greens that we had struggled to find since January were, over the space of a weekend in March, suddenly in abundance.

As the days get longer, the diligent weeding and spacing that our crew of pickers has been doing all winter have paid off in the greenhouse salad beds. By the end of the first week of March, we can hardly keep up with production. Which is a good thing because the next phase of our Food Web is about to begin, and will require greenhouse space.

The first warm rains from the south in March usually bring the first wave of migrating birds. Overnight, flocks of blackbirds, killdeer, and song sparrows join the recently arrived horned larks, and busily take up territory. As day dawns our farm, which has been so quiet since December, is filled with raucous squawks of wet blackbirds and excited trills of song sparrows. It is a call to action for me, signaling the weaving of another strand in Soiled Reputation’s food web — our vegetables. Some of the crops we grow require such a long growing season that it borders on the impossible in our temperate (or this year, sub-arctic) climate. Celeriac, leeks, and shallots (grown from seed for a single, huge bulb!) all require a long germination period, then a growing season of over three months to mature. Others, such as parsley and sorrel, are welcome early spring crops that can take a frost. Starting them early allows us to alleviate the seeding and transplanting bottleneck of mid-May.

Spring moves through its gears like a formula one car in southwestern Ontario. It’s not unusual for me to start seeding transplants in March. By the time the last seeding of cabbages is done, at the end of May, spring is almost over. We have dug down and re-seeded all the beds in four greenhouses, to keep pace with salad plants that think they’re in their second year, so it’s time to set seed (not good for production!), and we’ve seeded untold varieties of dozens of vegetables (32 tomato varieties alone!) that require planting out as the climate allows. By June our greenhouses are bursting at the seams, and we’re frantically transplanting out into beautiful warm Perth clay-loam soil.

Our trees are in full bloom, and over 40 bird species have taken up nesting. Another 40-plus have visited briefly during migration to destinations farther north in the boreal forest and the tundra. Dawn song is a life-affirming symphony of biodiversity, and I try to celebrate and emulate that complex, stable, healthy balance by managing the farm as an ecosystem, not just from the surface of the soil, where I sow my seeds, but from a thousand feet up where the air currents carry Sandhill Cranes over us, to four feet deep in the soil, where worms, microbes, and fungi help keep plants supplied with organic nutrients. This is our food web in spring.

Antony John is an organic farmer, painter and avid birdwatcher. He lives near Stratford. This is the second of a series of reflections on the food we grow and buy.

About the author

Antony John

Antony John is an organic farmer, painter and avid birdwatcher. He lives near Stratford.