Good Food Revelation
Fuelled by a mix of bravado and a mid-week itch to get out of the city I emailed Antony John in late August with a simple request: could he use an extra farmhand for a few hours? Yes, he replied and we fixed a date. I expressed my gratitude and eagerness to see how things were done in the field, to which he answered, "Good. Bring donkey-proof footwear." Everything seemed to be in order.
WORKING THE FIELDS WITH ANTONY JOHN
Antony John in a row of fennel at his Soiled Reputation farm near Stratford, Ontario. Photo: DC Fisher.
I first encountered John as "The Manic Organic" on the Food Network television show that featured him tramping around his farm west of Stratford and enthusing on local, seasonal and sustainably grown food. It was all ahead of its time, and when I met him in person at a "Slow Food Youth" symposium organised by Stratford high school teacher (and subsequent Food Network star) Paul Finkelstein in 2005 I knew him by the name of his farm: Soiled Reputation. I knew the name of the farm, because from Langdon Hall to the Jamie Kennedy restaurants, menu writers took extra care to note the provenance of their greens if John and his wife Tina Vanheuvel had grown them. With good reason. John began growing a myriad of different small salad greens in the 80s, inspired by Alice Waters, the so-called inventor of mesclun salad mix. John had moved back to Vanheuvel's family farmstead with an eye to being an artist. He figured if he grew vegetables, he'd have the winters off to paint. "I hadn't figured on greenhouses," he told me with a cheerful shrug. In fact, Soiled Reputation produces vegetables continually except for a short break through the coldest and darkest weeks of December, January and February.
While real journalists subsist on gruel whilst being shot at in Darfur, or spend hours locked up in windowless hotel conference rooms, being "on assignment" as a food writer is generally pretty cushy. There is a lot of lunch, and quite often a lot of wine with lunch. My last encounter with John was no different. He and Vanheuvel cooked for me and my photographer a multi-course meal featuring Soiled Reputation vegetables (there's lots more growing there than leaves), matched beautifully with Ontario wines. Once we had finished dessert, it was time to go and my knowledge of his actual farm was constricted to an albeit lovely view of the fields from the dining room window. This time, I was going to get my hands dirty.
I've played participatory journalism before, cooking things with Chef Donna Dooher, trimming vines and picking grapes at Norman Hardie's vineyard. And, as a university student, I planted trees in Northern Ontario and British Columbia, which is a rude sort of agricultural exercise. There was a bit of macho, Hemingwayesque bravado in my request to work John's fields. I expected a tough go at the sort of tough and monotonous labour most Canadians are happy to leave to seasonal guest workers from Latin America and the Caribbean. So I was struck by the decidedly middle class looking crew of farm workers, mostly young women, taking a pastry break (Vanheuvel had baked a peach crumble, which smelled delicious) on the lawn in front of the farmhouse when I arrived. In fact, they're local kids, home for their university or college summer break. "I can't pay them as much as they'd get in a factory," John concedes, "but I'd like to think it's a much nicer place to work and they get to work on their tans." And it is a nice place to work. Soiled Reputation's 80 acres is a patchwork of patterns bordered by stands of trees surrounding a farm house built in 1847. It's as lovely as the rich farmland of Southwestern Ontario can be.
Still, lovely fields wouldn't diminish the backbreaking, dreary, boring, repetitive farm work these poor kids have let themselves be subjected to, right? Wrong, or so I discovered. My first job was to help John pick fennel. To deliver first rate restaurant quality produce to the most demanding chefs in Ontario, John keeps a tight distribution system. Orders come in, based on a menu of what's ready to be picked he circulates weekly, and must be processed (picked and washed) and out the door ASAP. In this case the kitchens of Stratford, Niagara and Toronto were demanding 40 pounds of fennel, and we made our way to a row waving kelly-green fronds: John separated the bulbs from the tap root, while I trimmed off the stems, leaving them back on the soil. Not only was this kind of fun, we did in 10-15 minutes. That's the beauty of the way John farms. The diversity of produce (between 20 and 50 different things being grown at any given time) and small scale of production (beside the row of fennel, a row of onions, beside it, carrots, and so on) mean he and his workers rarely have to do one thing for very long. No wonder a summer a job at Soiled Reputation is sought after.
From the fennel row I moved to an arugula field, where I helped Vanheuvel cut leaves with scissors. This was an order specifically for pizza at Down The Street, the gastro-pub and actors hangout in Stratford. Again, it took us about ten minutes. From there I rejoined John and picked 80 pounds (two baskets) or so of three different kinds of eggplants. Next to the eggplants, their "deadly nightshade" cousins: tomatoes. Soiled Reputation has been hit by the blight plaguing Northeastern North America, but because John plants a number of different heirloom varieties, a few strains were blight resistant and ripening unimpeded on the vine. Next to the tomatoes, was a large field of alfalfa, grown in a "fallow" field for its nitrogen-fixing properties. Birds darted in an out of the field. Actually birds were flying all over the place and John, who is an avid birder, would identify each. Unfortunately farmhand-participatory-journalism precludes taking notes, so I can't report on what exactly we saw, but I do know that there was an impressive variety of species. John also explained to me the migratory patterns of each type of bird and underscored the importance of the mixed-farming field habitat Soiled Reputation provided. Industrial corn and soybean growing destroys this habitat, and John seems as concerned with keeping his farm as a preserve as he is about delivering the highest quality food to his human customers. He repeated the assertion that his farm was an ecology, and he seemed to know what was going on in every corner. Fitting, since he holds a degree in wildlife biology.
After two hours, it was time to hit the road and get back to the city. John and Vanheuvel would not let me leave (despite a feeble, sotto-voiced protestation involving journalistic ethics) without a massive bag of goodies: their signature torpedo red onions, sugar snap peas that were mange-tout (several we confiscated as a snack on the drive), arugula, peas, skinny French beans, and more. I hadn't really worked very hard (though I suspect they spared me some of the more back breaking, weeding sort of jobs - there is certainly hard work going on there), but I was completely satisfied and pleased. When in the fields, John would often refer to himself as a craftsman, and the way he farms lends itself to that moniker. He certainly seems to be ever-learning and honing his "craft". But I put it to him that he was also a "knowledge worker", constantly analysing his fields and implementing "best of Breed" practices. I had come to the farm expecting brute labour, but instead found a highly sophisticated set of endeavours, which required thought and foreknowledge. This must be the future.
Malcolm Jolley is the editor of Good Food Revelation