Though the fields at Sleepy G Farm in Pass Lake, about 45 minutes east of Thunder Bay, will remain frozen until May, there is plenty of work for Brendan Grant and Marcelle Paulin to do in the meantime. For these farmers — the first and only to run a certified-organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative in the northwest — there is no such thing as a day off.
The two met in 1999 at a Phish concert in Minneapolis. They were both attending Lakehead University, and while neither had a farming background — Paulin studied social work and Grant geography — they became interested in agriculture after taking food-related jobs post-graduation.
Grant started a market garden on rented land in Nolalu one summer, and then in 2005 the property in Pass Lake became available. “I was on the farm for nearly a year before Marcelle joined me,” Grant says, adding that the pair didn’t sell any produce for the first couple of years because they were starting from scratch. “By 2008 we began going to the farmer’s market, and in 2010 we launched the CSA.” (That was also the year they got married — on the farm, naturally.)
Since then, Grant and Paulin have rehabilitated the land to make it viable for vegetable crops. They also installed new fencing, repaired buildings, and built two greenhouses: one is wood-heated and used to propagate seedlings, the other unheated and used to protect heat-loving crops from cool nights during the growing season.
Their work has paid off: for the past eight years, Grant and Paulin have run a successful 13-week food-share program that boasts 150 memberships and a waiting list nearly as long. They also sell produce at the Thunder Bay Country Market, online at Superior Seasons Food Market, and at local independent grocers such as Maltese Grocery and George’s Market.
Grant says he loves the CSA model because it’s a way to reclaim the tradition of growing local and eating local. “You’re feeding your community,” he adds.
Much of the food in the Thunder Bay region either comes from the western provinces, from the U.S., or from the Ontario Food Terminal, 1,400 km away in Toronto. Now locals can buy produce from Sleepy G, named for the massive “Sleeping Giant” rock formation off the coast of Lake Superior. Every week from July to October, members receive vegetables harvested in their prime — often the same day.
Sleepy G was certified organic in 2016, making it the only such farm in the region. It’s part of a larger food network that includes 28 dairy farms, 10 beef farms, and eight vegetable farms. Of those eight, only four produce on more than one acre. “The rest of the food production comes from hobbyists or very small-scale part-timers,” Grant says.
Their decision to get certified was partly business driven, but it also stemmed from their longstanding adherence to organic-farming principles. “It isn’t just about not using synthetic inputs or chemicals,” Paulin explains. “We were always pretty compliant with organic standards; there were just a few things like storage we had to pull together in order to become certified.”
“The founding principle of the organic movement was land stewardship and ecological sustainability,” Grant adds. “It’s about taking care of the soil, taking care of the land, and leaving the land in better shape than when you found it — and in that way, making it sustainable.”
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Farmers everywhere face challenges such as pests and unpredictable weather, but farming in this region is particularly demanding because of the short season.
“Our season is very productive, but it’s very fast and frantic,” Grant says. “We’re looking at making the same amount of revenue as farms in southern Ontario with the same range of crops, but we’re doing it up here in a shorter window. We go from late winter to full on summer in a flash. Other locales have that spring which slowly brings them into the next season. We don’t really have spring; it’s about a five day transition.”
Grant and Paulin aim to reduce their farm’s dependence on fossil fuels by relying on draft animal power where possible, while the livestock provide crop fertilizer. (Sleepy G is also home to a small beef herd and 100 laying hens.) “I always say we’re vegetable farmers in the summer and poop farmers in the winter,” Grant says.
What keeps the couple motivated through the long winter and busy growing season is the conviction that they’re part of something that reaches beyond the borders of Sleepy G. They see small operations like theirs as part of the next agricultural revolution — something they hope to inspire others to join, whether through farm tours for CSA members, by connecting with other local growers, or by sharing their knowledge with the people they hire to work with them each season.
“Ultimately we’d like to be training the next generation of farming,” Paulin says. “It’s nice to pass on the information — to share what we’ve learned.”
Rebekah Skochinski is a freelance writer and a contributing editor with The Walleye magazine in Thunder Bay.
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