Thiessen Farms

Keep updated on all that is happening around Thiessen Farms!


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It was almost on a whim that we began selling our fruit at farmers’ markets 25 years ago.

A small ad in a farm newsletter called for growers willing to sell their produce at a market to be held at Nathan Phillips Square in front of City Hall in downtown Toronto. We decided to try it.

We knew nothing about farmers’ markets – all our fruit was sold wholesale. On that first day, for our first market, the first things we loaded into the truck – the important supplies we were sure to need – were folding lawn chairs & magazines to read. Our set up was an old, wooden peach packing table with a patio umbrella stuck in it for shelter from sun or rain. We guessed at how much fruit we might sell & what size containers to sell it in.

But at the end of that first day our van was empty & our pockets were full. It was a lot of fun & we were hooked!

Fast forward 25 years … We now sell almost all of our fruit & vegetables at farmers’ markets. Our set has grown to 30 feet of tables protected with a large canopy.

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Thanks to careful records & many years of experience, we have a pretty good idea of how much fruit & vegetables to bring for any given market day. We are confident in our product, and in our abilities to sell it. But the goal remains the same – to come home with an empty van & full pockets (it doesn’t always happen). And market is still a lot of fun!

Throughout these years we have been vendors at 9 different markets. We attended our original market at Nathan Phillips Square for 18 years, others for more than 20, and some for only a year or two. Our heyday was the year we did 6 different markets each week.

These last few years we have settled into selling at 3 weekly farmers’ markets – East York & North York (both in Toronto), and downtown Georgetown. These markets together with the CSA form the base of our marketing plan. From May until late October, Amy & Ron are away at market 3 days each week & on the farm the other 3. Lorie stays on the farm all week looking after the CSA & keeping things running smoothly, with the help of some great employees. It’s a rigorous schedule but one that has become routine, and it has worked for us …

… until now. It’s time for a change!

This season we will not be attending the East York Farmers’ Market.

It’s been a difficult decision to come to, and one that we’ve discussed & struggled with over the winter.

The reason for dropping a market is simple – we don’t think there will be enough fruit. This winter was harsh & indications are for a reduced crop. While we won’t know for sure what the crop size will be until blossom time, we have to make preparations in advance. We recall the season of 2012 when most of the blossoms were frozen during an early spring bloom & we struggled to have sufficient fruit to bring to all our markets. It was tiring & ended up making little sense financially. We choose not to repeat this.

Plus, our CSA numbers have increased again this season and we need to have ample fruit for our members. A goal we have been working toward, is to grow our CSA large enough that we can drop one of our Toronto markets. We have been hesitant to do this when the crops are plentiful. This season the decision has almost been made for us.

The reason for dropping East York rather than another market is also simple – it will cause the least disruption to our picking/marketing schedule. As a bonus, it is also the worst of our markets to get to, or rather, to get home from. We find ourselves almost giddy with the prospect of avoiding the Tuesday afternoon drive on the Gardiner Expressway & QEW during rush-hour, especially with the added impact of continuing construction & the Pan Am Games this season. Neither will we miss the 3:30 AM alarm each Tuesday morning.

What we will miss are our friends – both fellow vendors & customers – and after 15 years at East York there are many!

One of the biggest pleasures of  selling at a farmers’ market is getting to know the people who eat our fruit & vegetables … the guy who can hardly wait for the white flesh peaches, the couple needing Damsons for their favourite plum torte recipe, and Lynne who lives for our green zebra tomatoes. We know who always squeezes the peaches, who will try to pick through the heirloom tomatoes looking for all the purple calabash, and who will dare to buy that hefty blue hubbard squash that others only gaze at in awe. Our friends wonder how the crops are coming in, ask if we’ve had enough rain, and worry about the hailstorm they heard about. They tell us how much sweeter the peaches are getting each week, and share a recipe they tried using our eggplant. We’re happy when Peter photographs our tables, satisfied when the discerning chef chooses our fruit for the party he’s catering, and proud that our vegetables will be on morning television with Mairlyn …

We’re going to miss you East York!

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Amy & John (Lorie’s father) all set up & ready for customers.

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Happy Easter!

Easter is one of my favourite holidays!

Who wouldn’t love a holiday that includes chocolate animals, coloured eggs, & paska (Easter bread)?

Even better is the celebration of Resurrection & new life.

This is also evident on the farm. After a long, cold winter new life is appearing – slowly, maybe too slowly it seems, but nature cannot be rushed. Perhaps we appreciate it more, having to wait & to search for these first signs of resurrection.

Along the railway tracks the pussy willow catkins are putting on their soft, furry show.

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The mint has started to pop up in the hoophouse.

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The weeds are there too. Oliver, hungry for something fresh – as we all are – enjoys snacking on the these first, succulent shoots.

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Outside in a few sheltered spots, grasses are gradually greening up.

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And in the gardens, rhubarb has finally appeared …

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… along with tulips & daffodils.

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Our curly willow by the pond has taken on a greenish tinge. It’s always the first tree to come alive.

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But in the orchard the buds have not yet moved – no signs of life yet. We’re waiting (im)patiently & expectantly, as we we’re anxious to see how the fruit buds survived the winter.

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It is pruning season and the brush is flying – in the orchards …

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… and in the raspberry patch.

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The little greenhouse is like a tropical paradise – green, warm, steamy, and smelling like summer. The vegetable seedlings are mostly thriving & growing well. Next week we move over to the big hoophouse and begin transplanting – thousands of tomato plants, broccoli, eggplant, peppers …

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Frisco, our own resident Easter bunny! Frisco is dreaming of summer & looking forward to his favourite snack – apricot leaves from the tree that shades his cage.

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Happy Easter!


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Springing to life!

Now that the snow is disappearing, Meesha & I have resumed our morning walks around the farm.

This makes us both happy … but especially Meesha!

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We are not the only ones out walking.

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Canada geese have also left tracks on the laneway.

Most of the snow has melted.

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Along the north side of the railway tracks, there is still a crust of the white stuff, especially where snowmobiles roared through the farm all winter.

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There’s only a small rim of ice left around the edges of the pond.

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It appears the rabbits were hungry this winter. My rows of ornamental crabapples behind the barn have been well chewed. I’m hoping the fruit trees in the orchard don’t look like this!

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In the greenhouse we continue to plant seeds. Along with more & more tomatoes, peppers (both sweet & hot), eggplant, onions & herbs are flats of shallots, broccoli, artichokes, celeriac … Space is tight in the germination area, and the trays are stacked up until the seeds sprout.

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The sunny days provide good growing conditions. The nights however are still quite cold & in our somewhat primitive conditions, the seedlings require a little extra pampering.

They are growing under row cover, under plastic, in a greenhouse – 3 layers of protection. The last bit of insurance is a space heater which kicks on during the night. Not perfect conditions nor elegant, but the results are sturdy little plants that will produce delicious vegetables this summer!

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Oliver is a little put out that his sleeping spot has been taken over by the plants. He has been relegated to a spot underneath.

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When that gets too warm, he moves into the cooler shop to another favourite napping spot.

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Still winter!

I miss my farm!

I haven’t seen it for at least a month now.

No, I’m not away, but I guess you could say that the farm is. It’s hidden away under a thick blanket of snow. There’s too much snow to walk around the farm, so I have to be content to see the orchards from the barnyard.

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I’ve plowed a path through the snow to the chicken coop & the compost pile – so I can still do the chores. That’s about as far as I go.

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But yesterday Meesha & I managed to trudge into the pear orchard just behind the barn, before we got tired and turned back.

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Along with the snow has come the cold.

 

When the temperature gets down to -20C, we know to expect some damage to the fruit buds. At -25C we get concerned about the trees themselves. This past month we had at least 4 nights of extreme cold, as low as -23.5C on our farm. The official bud counts for our area show survival rates of 40-50% for peaches & a little less for plums. We’re quite pleased with those figures – we had been expecting more damage. Of course the winter is not over yet …  We will not know for sure until May when the blossoms open. But we remain optimistic for a crop! In theory, if even 10% of the buds are alive, we could potentially harvest a full crop – providing they were spaced evenly throughout the tree. Likely the fruit buds that are alive will be on the highest branches of the tree.

There are some signs of spring on the farm though …

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The first of the seeds – tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, onions & herbs – have been sown, and the tomatoes are up.

They look so green & bright & fresh, and smell so good.

It’s still winter … but spring is coming!

 

 


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CSA 2015

We are ready!

The seeds have arrived, the greenhouse is being cleaned, the flats are stacked up & waiting …

In a few weeks the first seeds will hit the soil – onions, tomatoes, eggplant & peppers.

The emails to last year’s CSA members have been sent out and the responses are coming back. Former shareholders are returning and new people are signing up too.

We started our CSA back in 2010 with 24 members – mostly friends, who were quick to offer their support of our new venture. Six of those original 24 were still with us last summer, and already several have indicated they will be returning for our 6th season. Many others have been a part of our CSA for 2, 3 or 4 years, and every season new people join. We have been growing the CSA slowly but surely – last year we were up to 125 shares – to make sure we could grow the needed amount of vegetables along with our established fruit orchards.

CSA is a lot of work – and a lot of fun for us.

In 2014 we grew more than 30 different vegetables & fruit and sometimes multiple varieties of each. It takes a lot of planning & preparation to not only grow & harvest all this, but to make sure there is adequate amounts available each week for our members. We also strive to have at least 1 new vegetable or fruit to offer each week. Last season we mostly succeeded and often had 2 or more new things in the box.

The fun part of CSA is meeting so many great people & chatting each week at pick-up. It’s especially fun to see the excitement & energy of the kids as they pile out of the vehicles & run to see the rabbit & chickens. (ALERT – we’re hoping for some new kittens this summer!!) Receiving immediate feedback  – usually positive, but not always – on the produce in the baskets each week is not only gratifying, but helps us to know what our shareholders want & expect in their produce. Hopefully we become better farmers as a result!

So what are we planning for this season?

Along with the common, the usual and the old favourites we are trying some new things too. The artichokes & fava beans that we experimented with last year were successful, so we’ll be expanding our plantings and hope to offer them in the baskets this year. The new varieties of lettuce got rave reviews, so we’ve stocked up on that seed. Along with the snow peas in spring, we’ll be growing regular shell peas too. Cauliflower is something we have never grown – mostly because I’ve never liked eating it. But it’s on the list for this season, along with sprouting broccoli (smaller stems of broccoli that should extend the broccoli season). Missing from the baskets last season were kohlrabi (lost in the weeds), fennel bulbs (I totally messed up on them) and edamame ( hungry rabbits). These will all be attempted again – hopefully with better success!  And perhaps there will be a few surprises!

Here is a reminder of what’s in our CSA boxes …

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As I am proofreading this blog, I see how often I used the words “hope” or “hopefully” (most of them I deleted). In the winter, farming is all about hope. Nothing is certain about the upcoming season but we are full of hope – hope for favourable weather & good growing conditions, abundant crops, lots of CSA members, health & strength …

We’re relaxed & rested, optimistic & excited for another season. It may be cold & snowy now, but the warmth of spring is coming soon.

See you then!

 

 

 

 


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Making tracks

In the mornings when Meesha & I go for our walk around the farm, we see a lot of animal tracks in the snow – mostly rabbit and mice. Sometimes there are the paw prints of other dogs & cats, and occasionally deer tracks.

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The majority of these tracks are at the edge of our farm along the railway. That’s where the animals live. That’s where they feel safe, among all the underbrush & scrub growth. That’s also where they can find something to eat.

Meesha does not pay much attention to the animal tracks. She will sometimes follow them awhile – until they disappear into the brush or she loses interest.

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If there are signs of activity, something more exciting, she noses around & checks it out carefully.

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But mostly she just enjoys the snow – she is half Husky after all!

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On very cold mornings there might be no new tracks. It would appear that the animals prefer to stay huddled in their warmer homes rather than venture out into the frigid air.

We are much the same way!

The past few weeks we have hunkered down in the warmth of the house and the workshop. There is always office work to do. Another activity is reviewing the past season. We examine each crop in detail – the growing, harvesting, packing, marketing, profitability etc … Which were successes & which ones failed? Then we move to planning for the upcoming growing season – which crops will we grow again & how much of each. We have to figure out where they will all be planted & how the vegetables will fit in with each other & with the fruit orchards. What new crops will we attempt? Seeds have to be chosen & ordered – a task I enjoy but one that is time-consuming & even dangerous. Sitting in the relaxed comfort of a warm home it’s easy to forget the realities of the past summer, and make reckless & optimistic decisions on all that can & should be grown this year. And already the boxes of seeds are arriving – each holding the promise of great things! In the shop there are repairs & maintenance to be done on equipment – not my favourite job, but one that needs to be done nonetheless.

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On warmer days, when the sun is shining, I make tracks to the orchard to prune trees. The fresh air feels so good after being inside.

The farm is beautiful in the snow!

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… And then there is Oliver!

The only tracks he makes are from the barn – where his food dish is located – to the shop, where he sleeps the day away.

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Neatness counts … for what?

I like to be neat.

At least I want to be neat.

But one look in my workshop, or office or even my truck would indicate otherwise.

I’m actually messy – with occasional bursts of neatness.

This is also true out on the farm. While the basic form of a fruit orchard is neat & orderly – rows of trees evenly spaced in a grid pattern – things can get messy from there pretty quick! A few too many weeds, grass a little high, a broken branch here, a tree missing there … and the neatness is gone.

However, in spring all eyes are on the blossoms, so it’s hardly noticed.

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Sometimes the weeds are beautiful too!

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The ripening fruit grabs our attention in the summer.

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And in fall, the coloured leaves make everything look great.

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But at this time of year, with no blossoms, or fruit, or even leaves to distract the eye, things are looking a tad messy out in the orchards.

Actually they are messy by design (mostly)!

The weeds in the tree row for example.

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A few extra herbicide applications in the late summer & fall would have easily eliminated them, leaving the soil weed-free and very neat & clean-looking. But leaving the ground without any covering could mean damage to the tree roots if the winter is very cold. I compare it to us going to bed without blankets on a cold night. Better to have some lingering weeds to help protect the soil & the tree roots. The weeds also collect & hold the fallen leaves which add more protection. Besides, do we really want to use extra herbicide?

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Perhaps I could have mowed the grass once more this fall. Short, evenly cut grass looks so much neater. But again, we wanted to catch the leaves and keep them from blowing away. As the leaves break down they add organic matter to the orchard floor and improve the soil.

In fact we add a lot of extra leaves each fall. A friend of ours in the lawn care business brings us all the leaves he collects. Throughout the summer we get all his grass clippings too. Then we buy many loads of manure.

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These are all spread throughout the fruit orchards & on the land where we grew vegetables. Our soil fertility is improved by adding all this organic matter. Better soil in turn feeds the trees & vegetables making tastier & healthier crops. Good soil is also able to hold moisture better – especially important during a dry summer. Because our orchards are in permanent sod & not cultivated, all this stuff is spread on the surface & looks messy until it decomposes and disappears into the ground.

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On the open ground, we lightly work it in which speeds up the process.

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We use a lot of mulch on our farm – for many of these same reasons. Mulch – either straw or hay depending on availability – prevents weeds from growing thus reducing or eliminating our use of herbicides. Mulch keeps the moisture in the soil longer, an important consideration since we cannot irrigate our crops.

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As the mulch breaks down it becomes part of the soil. Of course mulch is not neat – neither when we spread it nor as it decomposes and gets thinner & some weeds begin to sprout …

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With the advent of winter there will be time to clean my workshop, my office & even my truck, and they will look neat & tidy – for a while.

But the orchards go into winter looking messy, and that’s okay with me.

Neatness counts … for what?

 

 

 

 

 

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