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A feast of local food in Stratford
Susan Sampson, May 8th, 2009


SUSAN SAMPSON/TORONTO STAR
At his organic farm in Sebringville, called Soiled Reputation, organic farmer Antony John gets a fond nip from his donkey Jesus (that’s pronounced Hayzus) -- his "portable lawn mower." John is the Food Network’s Manic Organic.
We head out to sample Ontario's harvest of delights every Wednesday in August

A charming town and country experience awaits visitors to Perth County.

Here, all roads lead to Stratford. Yes, the town is famous for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada.

But once you've have had your fill of drama, you'll discover Stratford is a good food town, too. There are quaint shops, from candy-makers to a tea-tasting bar, and restaurants serious about local food. This is also the home of the Stratford Chefs School, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

In this manicured town filled with flowers, no visit is complete without an impromptu picnic. Take your edible treasures to the banks of the willow-lined Avon River. Watch the swans and listen to the duck calls before heading out to the vibrant green countryside.

Farmer a PR agent for veggies

SEBRINGVILLE, Ont.-It isn't easy being green. Antony John just makes it look that wayeasy.

"Life is about the tipping point between order and chaos," says the 49-year-old organic farmer. "We try to teach people that the farm is an ecosystem."

In Sebringville, the one-stoplight "hamlet with heart," you'll find the is home of to one of the largest diverse organic farms in Canada. John calls it Soiled Reputation. He and his staff of 20 grow 50 types of organic heirloom vegetables and greens. They are sold to restaurants, stores and drive-in customers.

As we head for the fields, John hoists a birdwatching scope on a tripod over his shoulder. He stops to pluck and taste fava beans. He praises the ladybugs that control the aphid population and squashes potato beetle larvae. He nibbles on "good weeds" such as purslane and lamb's quarters. He zooms in on horned larks, red-winged blackbirds and sandpipers, and introduces his "portable lawn mower," a donkey braying with excitement at the sight of him.

In the back field, John has planted 15,000 leeks. "These are my pride and joy," he says, appropriately for a native Welshman. In Canada since 1970, John has a degree in wildlife biology but opted to live on the land after falling in love with a local dairy farmer's daughter.

You may recognize John as the Food Network's Manic Organic, but he appears more laid-back than manic. Don't be fooled. He is constantly walking the fields of his 80-acre "farm and sanctuary." He even knows which sandpiper had four babies. Today, he helped pick 40 pounds each of fava beans and patty pan squashes, did his deliveries, wrote a couple of letters and took steps toward reviving the painting career he had put on hold. And it's only two in the afternoon.

John also promotes the local terroir and the public image of vegetables. "Vegetables seem to be the poor relatives on the dinner plate at restaurants," he complains.

He has a keen sense of history. An 1844 ha'penny, a 6,000-year-old arrowhead and even the tibia of a woolly mammoth have been discovered in the area. He found an 1847 photograph of the original settler on his land. Every window has a kid sticking out of it - the man had 15 children. The land, John says, has sustained a lot of people and animals.

"This is my universe," he says.
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