On Sunday I decided, with my newfound leisure time, to attend a workshop sponsored by Farms At Work, a wonderful organization whose mission is to promote healthy farming in eastern Ontario, at Kingsholm Farms. There were 28 registrants, two representatives from Farms at Work, Kevin King the host farmer and owner of Kingsholm Farms and his farm manager, Will. At the end of the afternoon there was a cameo appearance from Kevin's wife, Margo, bearing homebaked cookies, coffee and hot chocolate.
The tone was set from the very beginning when we started a little late. Kevin needed to make an emergency delivery of fresh water to some of his cows in a far off pasture. As a group we sported an impressive array of warm clothing; everything from down coats, wool jackets and the latest from outdoors equipment stores to every possible kind of winter boot from Baffins to those green rubber boots from Canadian Tire, with and without the felt liners. But after standing awhile in the cold and wind, toques came out, feet started stamping and arms waving to and fro in an effort to generate a little heat. I think at this point Will took pity and offered to start the tour. Kevin would take over after the emergency drop was made.
Farms at Work had prepared some questions and topics they thought we might like addressed. But once Kevin arrived it quickly became clear that was not the kind of event this would be. Questions served, not so much to provide specific answers, as to guide Kevin's thoughts in a certain direction. This was obvious when he was asked about the ideal ratio of pigs per acre. His answer was he was not a numbers man. Instead, his knowledge comes from a lifetime of listening and observing life on the farm and that was how we too would learn. This approach to learning was very familiar to me - when I was a flute student I attended a number of master classes given by European flautists. Here too learning took place through a kind of osmosis by being in the presence of an accomplished professional. You watched and listened and hoped to absorb some of the master's knowledge and passion.
This was a workshop for people who are interested in raising livestock on pasture. But looking at Kevin, a beefy man with great smile lines and an open face, dressed in his Carhartts, jacket unzipped the whole time and no gloves, I had the distinct impression that the first question for each of us had nothing to do with livestock. Rather, could we survive standing in the cold for the whole afternoon? I, unlike most of the others, have no aspirations to raise livestock. I had heard that the farm was beautiful and was a fantastic example of sustainable agriculture and that was enough to draw me.
|Kevin preaching to the converted|
When asked about marketing and social media Kevin made it clear that this was Will's area of expertise, "Where there's a Will there's a way". But it was also clear that for Will, Kevin is King. The mutual affection and regard they have for each other was apparent over and over. The relationship seems to be the perfect complement of skills and personality types.
We started the tour by visiting the pigs. Kingsholm keeps two types, Large Black English and Tamworths.
The Large Black English is a heritage breed. It is aptly named as it is humungous. An illustration of the kind of approach used at Kingsholm Farms was illustrated by the story of one of the sows. She had gotten sick and they tried all kinds of solutions. Nothing had an effect that lasted more than a few days. So they finally decided to allow her to roam freely. Given the opportunity to forage at will she instinctively chose the foods she needed for a full recovery - problem solved. A sort of variation on "Physician, heal thyself".
|Large Black English sow|
The Tamworths have a beautiful red coat. They are the most direct descendants of native European stock which in turn descended from wild boars. The large male was in heat - who knew males were capable of this? - perhaps a case of too much information - but it did explain the pronounced and peculiar smell emanating from his direction.
|The male Tamworth expressing his sexual frustration|
|And the sows lining up for his attentions|
Next we strolled up the laneway to the pasture where the cows were grazing. The view was exquisitely beautiful - we were at the crest of a hill overlooking valleys edged with hedgerows, with a wetland at the bottom, the whole vista either sunlit or striped with the long shadows of a late afternoon fall sun. Kevin describes his cows as Shaver cows. Dr. Donald Shaver experimented in the 1960's with crossing different breeds of cows. He imported some Lincoln Reds from England and found that when they were included in the crossbreeding the results were consistently the best. The Lincoln Red can be traced back to Nordic invaders and is thought perhaps to have come originally from the Russian steppes. Because cattle breeders in East Anglia had been particularly dedicated to preserving the purity of the Lincoln Red lines it was possible to import cows with a sound genetic profile. Shaver cows always have Lincoln Reds as one of their key lines.
|Shaver cows foraging on the crest of the hill|
|Max, the bull, gets his back scratched - a place he can't reach himself|
As is so often the case, much of the most interesting nuggets came as a result of informal chatting as we walked along the lane. Kevin observed that when customers and chefs come to him they remain loyal customers. But when he has courted restaurants they quite often abandon the relationship after the initial courtship is over. I also found it interesting that one of his most faithful restaurants, at the Woodlawn Inn, takes no issue with frozen meat. Kevin said he once heard David Suzuki preface one of his talks by saying, "If you drove here tonight in an SUV you haven't thought two minutes about the environment." For Kevin the same response applies to frozen pasture finished meat. If an animal is finished in the pasture rather than the feedlot then there is a specific time it needs to be slaughtered. Hence meat needs to be frozen (or only available once or twice a year). Period.
The tour ended up at the new barn erected by a crew of Mennonites - and a crane operator!