Last week, I went on a farm tour in beautiful Niagara-On-The-Lake, (about one and a half hours outside the city) hosted by Farmers Feed Cities and attended by a slew of food bloggers. Farmers Feed Cities started out as a campaign to help farms seek crop insurance from the government.

After success with that cause, the slogan stuck and became an organization dedicated to helping Ontarians (especially those in cities) develop a better understanding of the value of our Ontario farmers and their important crops. Among other outreach projects, they work with local school classrooms throughout the school year, and bring city-slicker kids out to farms for a valuable hands-on learning experience they will never forget. In this case Farmers Feed Cities helped connect my camera lens to grape vine, and my mouth to fresh Ontario peaches. Yum!

As someone who, for better or worse, grew up downtown, you live on the opposite side of the crop. You buy it and you eat it, and until you stretch your reach and do a little bit of investigating, that’s about as far as your relationship with food production goes. I guess I’ve always been curious. At one time I took off to an organic farm in the Caribbean through a program called WWOOF, and briefly became something I’d always made fun of: a dirty freaking hippy. I took part in every possible stage of food production, from starting seeds in a greenhouse, watering and weeding crops, selling (and eating) A grade produce at farmers markets, making jam & juice out of B grades, feeding C grades to pigs, and making compost with the scraps. As a city girl, I’m grateful to have had this eye opening experience and I never looked at food the same way again. I “became one with the Earth”, something I can’t even really explain in words, something that makes you feel tiny and humbled to be able to stick your hands in the dirt. A far away land from the concrete jungles of Toronto and for the most part, heaven.

It’s great that something like Farmers Feed Cities is helping urban kids have a chance at this kind of experience, and I was lucky to get a chance again as well. We started our tour at Quiet Acres Farm, visiting their roadside market, touring the peach processing plant, and tasting summer crops like peaches, plums and cherries fresh from the tree. The processing plant felt like a car wash for fruit, only this time fuzz & imperfections were among the issues at hand. Quiet Acres is a family owned and operated farm, passionate about only selling what they grow. They also contribute to the 80% of Canada’s peach crop that comes from Niagara region. At the end of peach-mania, we also happily took a little jaunt over to their garlic barn, a kinda spooky place where crops of garlic get dried before they’re ready to sell. If I was a black cat or Sarah Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus, I’d wanna chill there at the end of a long day.

Next we headed to Southbrook Vineyards, one of Canada’s top wine makers, with a gold LEED rating. Its facilities boast an impressive wine shop, workshop area and upscale oasis of a bistro by Treadwell Cuisine, where you can dine next to a view of the expansive rows of wine grape vines. If you’re ever going to invite me to a party, I’d like it to be here please. Southbrook is Canada’s first certified organic and biodynamic winery, which I learned means they farm in alignment with the cycles of the moon. I’ve heard through the grape vine (haha) that this can be the best and most natural way to farm, and can give you the best quality crops.

Bill Redelmeier is Southbrook’s current owner and his family has been farming the land since the 1940’s, with previous owners farming on the land since the 1800s, and it’s a destination I would be excited to visit again during a daytrip to the Niagara region. Bill even appeared on Dragon’s Den with Southbrook product Bioflavia, a new supplement powder & baking ingredient full of antioxidants, made with the skins of grapes that typically go unused in the wine-making process. So, did he get the deal? Yes, Bill tells me at the lunch table. He survived the fiery wrath of financial party-pooper Kevin O’Leary AND struck gold. Major score. We ate pizza and salad croutons with Bioflavia mixed into the flour, giving them a rich purple colour, and aside from a slight “whole grain” difference, without much change in taste from regular crust.

After an incredible farm-fresh lunch by Chef Stephen Treadwell of Treadwell Cuisine on the patio, and some wine lessons from Bill, we headed to the other end of the compound for a Canning & Preserving Lesson from chef, foodie, author and farm advocate Lynn Ogryzlo. The fun just doesn’t stop in wine country! Lynn showed us how to preserve cherries, peaches and her original preserved garlic, or “Italian Coughdrops,” as she calls it. After a taste of it all, I’m now totally inspired by the idea of savoury preserves. Since taking my samples home, I can report the garlic does amazing things to soup, salad dressings, pastas and more. Lynn is passionate about not just food, but writing and creating recipes as well, focusing mainly on utilizing the best of what Ontario produce has to offer in her cookbook Niagara Cooks, from Farm to Table. Lynn challenges all of us to support the incredibly hard working Ontario farming industry by spending at least $10 a week on Ontario produce. Late frost like we had this year, extreme heat and rain or shine can make all the difference in the world, and this crazy spring and summer weather has dealt a tough blow.

Just beyond our backyard, there are fields of the stuff being grown that you buy at the supermarket, and I really appreciated this opportunity to get to know these places a little bit more. When I’m not roaming the streets downtown or exploring tropical farm getaways, it’s nice to know there’s a middle ground I can head to so close to home, and revisit once again where our food comes from and, of course, take home juicy roadside souvenirs.

You can follow Farms Feed Cities on Twitter for future updates on all this tastiness! 

~ Becca Lemire

Photos by Becca Lemire (Click to Enlarge)