There is a scene in the T.V. show Portlandia where Peter and Nance — Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein — order chicken from a restaurant. They ask if it’s local, and not just local, but local local, and not just organic, but USDA organic, Oregon organic, or Portland organic. The server tells them it lived at a farm about thirty miles away, is all across the board organic, had been raised on a diet of sheep’s milk, hazelnuts (local, of course), and soy, and then presents them with a file detailing the life of Colin, the chicken they will be enjoying for dinner.
While this skit is a glorious exaggeration, more and more, people are paying attention to where their food comes from. As someone who eats meat, I wonder, did this pork chop come from a pig who had a chance to wander around and root in the soil, or did it spend its entire life in a tiny pen? Is the Sunday roast chicken an old laying hen who spent her whole life in a tiny battery cage, or did she get to go outside and eat bugs; did these animals have a chance to be animals?
So, when the opportunity to do a farm tour came up, I took it. On a recent sunny afternoon I found myself boarding the most rock star bus I had ever been on — it had wifi, but I take public transit regularly so I may have lowered expectations — with a dozen or so other people to head out of town to visit two farms as part of Food Matters Manitoba’s Food Reunion events.
Food Matters Manitoba is a multifaceted organization with a mission to engage Manitobans towards healthy, fair, sustainable food for all. Through their various programs and events, they bring food awareness and education to Manitobans.
Our first stop was Watersong Farms in Warren, just over a half an hour outside the city. Rudy and Leslie Reimer took over her family’s farm in 2003 — prior to that they were all working together — and have been raising and selling chickens from their farm gate since. They have a customer list that numbers in the thousands. These are all people who make the trip out to buy their product because it’s so good.
While that was impressive, it was not the main reason for our visit. The Reimers are farming rainbow trout in their landlocked patch of the prairies. They’ve turned a barn into a river, where hundreds of thousands fingerlings — baby trout — grow to be ten- to fifteen-pound fish.
Sitting in the viewing area above the tanks — this wasn’t a small mom and pop operation, it had the viewing area, and touch screens set up to show video clips — listening to Rudy talk about the trials and triumphs that come with being the first to do something, it was obvious that both he and Leslie were people who are not only passionate about what they do, but that they are smart business people, and are always looking for ways to innovate and grow.
Prairie aquaculture might seem like a totally alien thing — aquaculture is the same as agriculture, just swap water for soil — but Rudy was quick to point out the downsides of commercial fish farming. Fish farms inundate the local ecosystem with waste, which create dead zones on the ocean floor, and overwhelm water systems and farmed fish often escape and can introduce foreign disease to their wild counterpoints. The self-contained system the Reimers have created eliminates all that. Waste is filtered multiple times, and the resulting water — which is totally drinkable, it just tastes a little fishy, according to Rudy — empties out to a pond.
He talked about the future, and about aquaponics, which is a totally symbiotic way to raise food. The fish waste — which starts out as nitrite, which is bad, but is converted via bacteria to nitrate, which is good — is like gold to plants. So, it is entirely possible to use the fish to fertilize crops, but that’s years down the road for Leslie and Rudy.
Our next stop was the Smith Family Farm just down the road in Argyle, where we met Ian Smith. Where Watersong Farms had been modern and state of the art, the Smith farm was decidedly less so, with two main barns that were far from new, and the family house. We were greeted by a curious group of cows, a couple of dogs, and Ian, who was ready to show us around.
When we walked into the barn, the sights and smells were almost overwhelming. It was everything all at once: giant sows, pig smells, cute babies, squealing, more pig smells, more pig sounds. It was a lot to take in. Once we acclimated a bit, Ian mentioned some piglets had been born that morning. As we made our way to the back of the barn to see the sow and her new babies, we saw one sort of off to the side. A runt, we were told, who would probably not make it through the rest of the day. Many in the group lamented on how it was sad it would die, but Ian just brushed it off. This is what he does, and has been doing for over thirty years. There is no romanticized version of raising these animals. These are not pets, they don’t have names, they are food. That being said, it does not mean they deserve to be treated poorly. While Manitoba has, thankfully, avoided the vast fields of factory farmed cattle, our record for hogs is pretty pathetic. Vast barns house thousands of pigs kept in deplorable conditions. It is possible for a sow to never stand up and walk freely in her life, as she births litter after litter of pigs.
Ian has gone against that trend. His pigs live in spacious pens with straw, and are able to move about. They are hormone and antibiotic free. The barley they eat is grown around his property. His practices have earned him awards, including being recognized by the Winnipeg Humane Society as being a WHS Certified farm.
Once a week Ian loads up his truck with product and makes deliveries. As he answered questions to wrap up our visit, he said he’s delivered as far a Thunder Bay and Fisher Branch, and has delivered to the Lieutenant Governor and people on employment assistance, and was quick to add they both got the same product and level of service; just like he would like to receive.
Back on the bus there was hushed talk about the things we had seen and done that day. Most people were tired, myself included, but it was that good, satisfied tired, the kind of tired you get from being outside all day.
Food Matters will be arranging more Food Reunion events, so look out for them, and take the opportunity to connect with your food.