Story by Brianna Bell
Photography by Daniel Bell
Drive an hour north of Toronto and you might find yourself at one of the most counter-cultural operations just outside of the city.
Shaws Creek CSA, an earth friendly community supported agriculture farm is in picturesque Caledon, Ontario. The farm functions on the land owned by Whole Village, an ecologically-friendly community that operates on the framework of sustainability and living in harmony with others. Whole Village contains 200-acres of rolling hills, lush trees, and arable soil. Shaws Creek is run by four members of the Whole Village community and 1 intern.
As a journalist I enjoy reporting on communities and businesses like Shaws Creek. It’s a joy meeting people living unique and alternative lifestyles, and I tend to focus on stories that bring communities together. The day of my interview at Shaws Creek was a muggy and hot Saturday in June. I pulled into a large parking lot next to a massive housing structure. There were kids’ toys, small gardens, and people walking around. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, and I was intrigued.
I was greeted by Jon Gagnon, one of the newest additions to Shaws Creek CSA, and a long-time member of Whole Village. While walking to the land Jon was working on, I learned about the concept of Whole Village, and Shaws Creek Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Jon explained that Shaws Creek is a stand-alone organic farm co-op on the property of Whole Village. It is currently in its second year running, with just over an acre in vegetable production this year.
The founding pillars and philosophy of Shaws Creek is what sets it apart. There are four worker-owners that are co-owners of the farm co-op. All four of the farmers have equal shares in the business, and all four must agree with all decisions being made. There is no hierarchy or boss within the worker co-op business model. The result is a unique form of harmony and respect that comes from such a cooperative practice, one unlike any traditional or even modern business I have seen.
As a farm co-op, Shaws Creek has unique beliefs surrounding food, the production of food, and the value that we place on it. One of the founding principles of the co-op is that real food should be accessible to all. Shaws Creek, through their CSA, offers a farm share to community members who want to invest in the work that they are doing as local food farmers. Farm shares are becoming increasingly more popular as more people see the value of organic and local produce. In a farm share, a small farm and a local community member create an agreement whereby a share of their crop is sold in exchange for a portion of a weekly, or bi-weekly box of fresh and seasonal produce. The community becomes involved in sustainable local agriculture, and a significant union is made between community, farmer, and food.
Shaws Creek offers farm shares to their community, but they take things a step further by seeking ways to provide whole vegetables to everyone in the community, not just those who can afford their prices.
This is one of the main points that sets Shaws Creek apart. Rather than producing organic food that is out of reach financially, to most of the population, they are creating good and valuable food at little or no cost to those in need.
When we had finally arrived on the plot of land that Jon was farming, I felt like I really had a sense for what Shaws Creek was doing. For a few minutes I sat under a shady tree and observed Jon, Josh and Ted, three of the four worker-owners tending to the field. Being a suburban woman with little experience gardening, much less farming, I had no idea what was happening as I watched. I timidly approached the men as they were working, feeling awkward and out of place in a completely foreign environment.
After asking a few questions, I learned that Jon and Josh were laying down a black biodegradable plastic mulch to suppress weeds. The dark plastic also works to heat up the soil, which is helpful for heat-loving plants like Eggplant, which is exactly what they were planting. A few rows down, Ted was planting peppers, quietly working in the hot afternoon heat.
The sun beating down was almost impossible to bear.
I now understood why Jon had a sweater around his shoulders, something I thought strange when I first saw him. The farmers had a delicate balance on hot days between covering their skin to protect against the sun, and wanting to wear little to keep cooler.
For a few moments I became lost in my thoughts, and I took some time to take in the breathtaking scenery of rural Caledon. Green hills, a bright blue sky with picture perfect clouds, and farm land stretched as far as the eye could see. Behind me was a small pond with a dock, where the farmers took a dip in the afternoons to cool off. In the summer Jon lives in a converted school bus a short walk away, and the other worker-owners live in apartments in an old farm house on the property.
It seemed like a simple and pleasant way of life. The work was hard and exhausting, but the worker-owners reaped the benefits of living off the land that they farmed, enjoying a close-knit community, and helping others gain access to healthy and whole vegetables. I was amazed by the amount of work it took to produce vegetables, some of the least expensive food on my grocery list.
“It’s a slow progress. It takes years,” said Jon, about creating an organic farm using ethical and sustainable practices.
How is it possible that I had been a consumer of food for nearly three decades, yet I knew very little about the production of food itself?
What kind of example was I setting for my two kids, if their own parent couldn’t distinguish growing leeks from chives?
After about an hour I went for my second interview with Jenn Evans, the only worker-owner that I had not met. We sat down in a quiet room and talked about the vision of Shaws Creek. Jenn explained that when it formed two years ago the farm was one of the only workers co-operative in Ontario, although some additional farmer co-ops have formed in the province since.
It is an entirely alternative way of approaching the business of food production, with a focus on the sharing economy.
“The economics of growing food are very challenging,” she said.
But there is another side to the story. For many, accessing the types of local and organic vegetables that Shaws Creek is farming is unthinkable. Not only is growing vegetables for profit hard, but paying for those vegetables can sometimes appear to be an option reserved for the privileged. Jenn and the rest of the owners at Shaws Creek believe that food should be accessible to everyone, and anyone who wants to be a part of their farm should have that option. Regardless of income, race, gender, ability, or age. The Shaws Creek community is inclusive, all are welcome to come as they are.
“Food is community,” added Jen, who said she believes there can be no real food without true community.
Shaws Creek recently launched a crowdfunding campaign, to give their CSA greater opportunities to make their produce accessible to all. The campaign, titled Farming for Food Justice, has raised nearly $4,000. The amount raised will cover eight shares, to be donated to the local food bank this year. In addition, three shares will be donated to Choices Youth Shelter. As well, seedlings will be donated to the Orangeville Food Banks Community Garden. There will also be a few subsidized shares available for families in need, who cannot pay the full price for a box.
It was hard not to get excited by the vision and mission of Shaws Creek, sitting with Jenn and hearing about her passion for good, home grown food. I felt personally excited by the idea that men, women and children who were in need of good food were being given exactly what they needed. As a child raised by a single mother in the 1990’s, I can only imagine how life-changing it would have been if a CSA program had existed for my mom twenty years ago. Even for myself, a young wife and mother, who was living in poverty only four years ago, I can’t imagine how different our fridge would have looked if more people had a similar mindset to Shaws Creek.
Spending a couple of hours on a small co-op farm in rural Caledon opened my eyes to the possibilities of local food production. When we eat local food, we become connected to our food source in a way that is impossible otherwise. As Jenn pointed out, “Eating local food connects you to the space you’re in.” Members of the CSA have the opportunity to learn about foods that are grown naturally and organically, and taste the difference. If a particular vegetable fails to thrive, chances are the farmer will share why, and a new connection is made to the life cycle of our food.
Eating locally also opens us up to the seasonality of food. It allows us to taste fresh produce that was harvested days or perhaps only weeks ago. It allows us to become connected to the soil, and have a deeper appreciation for the food we eat, and the process it takes to get to us.
Sitting in the sun, watching the slow and delicate process of farming, I realized how hard it is to make good food. I saw the real value in paying for local and organic produce, as I watched the sweat forming on the farmers who worked with determination and drive. My Saturday didn’t end up how I expected it. It wasn’t action packed. There wasn’t much to see yet, because it’s the start of the growing season. It’s a lot of hard and tedious work to get the land ready for food production, and I was able to experience and appreciate that at Shaws Creek.
Despite entering the process with little understanding, I left feeling empowered and excited about good and local food. I also felt hopeful that greater access would be made available for those who cannot always afford the price of organic whole foods. Now that I’m home in my comfortable and air-conditioned home, I can admit that I really appreciated the connection I made to Ontario soil. My desire to learn more about food production has increased, and I now appreciate the hard work it takes to get the food I purchase on my table.
Find out more about Farming for Food Justice here.
Like Shaws Creek CSA on Facebook here.
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