What to call an egg: a visit with the Howick Community Farmers

First published in The Chronicle (Spring 2016)

What do you want to know about the eggs you buy? This is no idle question. I set out to interview some of the people behind the Howick Community Farmers (HCF or Hoffnung) eggs; but they interviewed me, too.

HCF is a three-year-old partnership of farmers in an old-order Mennonite community near Wingham, created to share infrastructure (such as an egg grading station) and sell the combined output from their farms. Besides eggs, HCF sells certified organic flour from their new mill, certified organic maple syrup, pastured beef, ketchup, and more. Since their church community made the collective decision not to use any genetically modified inputs on their farms, the starting point for their egg branding is a clear non-GMO message. Beyond that, however, the labelling gets tricky. Each farm — there are roughly 15 delivering eggs to the grading station each Tuesday — is different. Most of them have flocks of up to 100 laying hens, the maximum allowable number without buying quota. Two farms were grandfathered when quota rules took effect, so are allowed 500 hens. Together, they sell over 15,000 eggs per week. On the day I visited, they were about to print new labels for their pastured organic eggs, while keeping the original label for the conventional eggs. They wanted to hear my perspective on wording, as a city-based consumer.

Organically fed. Elias Brubacher grows organic chicken feed, which most of the other egg producers buy from him. They also buy certified organic mineral supplements, even though the eggs are not certified organic.

Pastured. The hens are on pasture in warm months, with access to pasture in winter. Access does not mean the hens want to go outside – chickens will brave the cold, but they don’t like to walk in snow. At Adam Brubacher’s farm, the hens range freely around the property (he says foxes got quite a few this year), while Elias’s flock of 500 birds is enclosed in the barn beside other livestock when I arrive. Some hens surge outside when Elias opens the doors, but most are content to hang out at the feeders inside the airy barn. Patches of snow keep any from venturing far beyond the doorway.

 

Small flocks. If you do not think of 500 as a small flock, consider that industrial egg producers jam tens of thousands of hens into windowless barns. Last month, Elias’s hens did start pecking each other. (Henpecking can occur even in backyard flocks, but is exacerbated in enclosed space.) He and some helpers clamped little pieces of plastic in front of each hen’s eyes, eliminating aggressive behaviour by preventing them from seeing directly ahead. It feels surreal to walk among the hundreds of active, curious birds … all seemingly decked out in bright red and yellow sunglasses.

 

Harvested forage in winter. After detailed discussion, I am certain that most consumers do not know its significance or meaning (preserved greens, for high nutrient quality in eggs). Adam notes that the amount of harvested forage they get varies across farms, which concerns him even though it is not a focus of consumers.

Quality and integrity are paramount. For example, Adam tells me that one of the farms does not offer enough pasture to sell its eggs under the new pastured organic label. It’s a good-sized barnyard, but he feels there is not enough grass for the size of the flock. Adam has also run experiments to improve yolk quality, which is how they determined that sunlight in winter is a key factor.

As we talk, it becomes clear that Adam is a driving force behind HCF. He is not just working to build the customer base for their farm products, he is working to persuade all the other farmers in his community of the benefits – and the viability – of farming organically. Understanding what their customers value is not just a marketing exercise, it’s part of the mission.

 

by Amy Stein

Sourdough banana muffins

Last fall, I attended one of Burns Wattie’s sourdough workshops at Karma, a terrific introduction to this ancient practice. Sadly, I waited too long to start baking and lost the starter (sorry, Burns!), but happily, someone on the Chronicle Committee shared her starter with me so I could try again (thanks, Morgan!).

I’ll be honest, it’s been a bumpy path. Apparently I’m not very good at following instructions – I haven’t managed to produce wonderful loaves of bread consistently, and the timing of the different steps keeps tripping me up. But the more I read about the human microbiome, fermented foods, and concerns with modern wheat flour, the more determined I am to master this skill.

If you have sourdough starter, you know you have to feed it regularly to keep it alive, tripling the volume each time. That means using it up by baking regularly or discarding quantities of starter. Fortunately, I found this muffin recipe online at Cultures for Health; it uses a cup of starter at a time and I find it much simpler and faster than making bread. Even better, my patient family members, who loyally eat the bread, love these muffins!

(This recipe is from www.culturesforhealth.com, except for my asterisked comment.)

1 cup sourdough starter

1 cup flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup mashed bananas*

1 egg

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. cinnamon

*I liberally substitute ingredients in everything I cook… feel free to use a cup of yogurt, sour cream, or sour milk (or fresh milk with a splash of apple cider vinegar) if you don’t have bananas. You can also add up to a cup of berries, rhubarb, diced apple or pear, or practically any fruits, seeds, or nuts – be creative!

Instructions

At least 12 hours before you wish to bake them, combine sourdough starter and flour. It will make a very thick dough, so do not be alarmed. Cover and place in a warm spot to culture for 12 – 24 hours.

After 12 – 24 hours, preheat oven to 375°F. Combine sugar, banana, and egg in a small bowl. In another small bowl, combine salt, baking soda, baking powder, and cinnamon.

Sprinkle the dry ingredients over the cultured dough. Gradually add the liquid ingredients, stirring just to combine.Spoon batter into muffin tin, filling 3/4 full. Bake at 375°F for 18 – 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

by Amy Stein

First published in the The Chronicle (Summer 2016 )

Pfenning’s and the business of organic growing

Farming is a strange business these days. Steeped in tradition and rooted in love of the land, vegetable growing now involves layers of regulations, packaging and brand development, processing infrastructure, logistics, accounting, and supply chain relationships.

We consumers demand vegetables year-round, while southern Ontario fields yield fresh produce for about half that time. And we want clean, crisp, unblemished product, necessitating a mix of washing, packaging, refrigeration, efficient transport, and much product discarded. Hours spent by farmers on the business of selling product is time away from growing and harvesting it.

For over 50 small ecological farmers, one solution is to sell their vegetables to Pfenning’s Organic Farms. Pfenning’s has emerged as a major packer and distributor of organic produce in southwestern Ontario, as well as growing carrots, corn, and peas on 700 acres in New Hamburg, west of Kitchener.

I spoke to Jenn Pfenning, whose parents-in-law, Wilhelm and Barnhild, founded the business. She told me that they immigrated to Canada in 1981, after the fields that Wilhelm’s family had farmed for generations in Germany were expropriated for a new highway overpass. Slowly they formed sales relationships with Ontario’s pioneering health food stores of the time, including Karma.

In the 1990s, their sons Wolfgang and Ekk (Jenn’s husband) took over the farm but shifted from direct sales to a distributor. That distributor did not have a strong connection to the local farm community, so Ontario growers were forced to compete with low-cost California imports even in peak season. Meanwhile, retailers were calling Pfenning’s for local vegetables that distributors didn’t offer.

In 2004, Pfenning’s returned to direct sales, offering their own produce and a little imported product to fill the gaps. The business evolved as other farmers started offering their product at wholesale to sell. Pfenning’s has the infrastructure to store, wash, and pack produce, and sell it under their brand—all operations that require scale.

Pfenning’s does not require contracts or acreage commitments, nor do they set yield expectations for their growing partners. Pfenning’s asks only that their partners record time and materials inputs for fair pricing. They also sell other farmers’ brands, such as HOPE Eco-Farm, so those farmers can minimize their own accounting and logistics work.

Jenn explained that Pfenning’s has a range of import relationships with small family farms and like-minded distributors in California, Florida, and Georgia, but maintains an absolute dedication to local first. The provenance of their vegetables fluctuates, but the bulk are Ontario-grown and over half are from their own fields.

Each summer Pfenning’s hires 25 men from Jamaica (20 per cent of their peak season workforce), under Canada’s seasonal agricultural worker program. Jenn advocates for human rights and better treatment of migrant workers as an integral part of sustainable agriculture.

I visited the centre of operations at Pfenning’s, a huge old barn converted into an industrial-looking packing facility, with warm spacious timber-framed offices taking up much of the second floor. A river of beets and rainbow carrots covered the two conveyor belts that morning as three-person teams sorted and packed them into bags. Bins of brightly coloured vegetables were moved by forklift. Upstairs, there was a quiet buzz from people on phones and computers. Two dogs greeted office visitors. Barnhild, now in her 80s, occupied a recliner near Ekk’s standing desk.

In winter, 40 or so people are employed in the office and warehouse, on packing lines, and driving trucks. Wolfgang and his wife, Regina, live in the house next to the barn, while Ekk and Jenn live across the road. Some of their young adult children work with them. Ekk is the logistics mastermind; he manages import licences and trucking contracts, and arranges deliveries to approximately 100 retailers. It’s a long way from the family’s fields outside of the medieval-era German village where Wilhelm started farming—and not just in a geographical sense.

Amy Stein is writing a series of articles about Karma’s farm-based suppliers.

Read more articles from the spring 2017 issue of Karma’s printed newsletter, The Chronicle.