Each year, I try to plan some kind of habitat enhancement project for the farm. The past 4 or so years it has mainly been tree planting around the field borders of the farm. This will be an ongoing project to replace trees that don't make it and maintain them as they increase in size...but the benefits of this type of improvement will be HUGE! Besides a wildlife refuge, tree windbreaks help to prevent soil erosion (soil particles being blown away by wind) and they will create a nicer microclimate around the farm. It can be extremely windy around here and I find it unpleasant to work outdoors on those days. The strong winds are also very hard on young transplants and seedlings in the spring.
This year I have a different kind of project: I've been building birdhouses for tree swallows and bluebirds. 45 in total. A few years ago we hosted a Swallow Workshop at the farm with Nature Canada and our local National Farmer's Union. At this workshop, we had participants put together swallow houses as an activity. Some went home with particpants who owned rural properties, but there were about 10 left over that we put up in one of our pastures. The first year they went up they were inhabited by tree swallows, bluebirds and wrens. I was really happy with the success!
Grassland birds have been declining in Ontario from a variety of stressors including habitat loss and pesticide use. Species like bluebirds, tree swallows, barn swallows, meadowlarks, bobolinks, and several others are considered Species at Risk in Ontario and Canada. I remember when I was a kid, there were barn swallows everywhere in the country and I actually found them annoying when they'd swoop at my head. I was so shocked when I went to university and learned that barn swallows were listed as a species at risk. They seemed like such a common bird! At that time they were listed under the lowest risk category of Special Concern, but they have declined further in the last ten years and are now listed as Threatened (Ontario). There have been years when there are no barn swallows in the barn, so I'm always excited when they do stick around and I'm perfectly happy to have them swoop around me now.
Habitat loss has been one of the driving forces behind the decline of these birds. Native prairies and grasslands were some of the first areas to be converted to agriculture when European settlers arrived since they did not require very much clearing. Fortunately, these birds were able to adapt to nesting in pastures and hayfields, and barn swallows adapted well to the newly erected bank barns. But, over time, agriculture began to change. One of our neighbours used to transport cattle and pigs for other farmers in our area. A few years ago, he transported a couple of cows for us to the butcher. While we were on the way, he pointed out all the farms where he used to pick up animals and told us stories about all of the people who used to raise a couple of pigs and cows on their homestead. As these farms switched gears to focus on cash cropping, the animals disappeared and with them the pastures, hayfields and old barns that provided habitat for these grassland birds. This loss was further exacerbated by modern agriculture's heavy reliance on chemicals to kill weeds and pests; chemicals that also kill the insects that these birds eat. These once common birds have not been able to adapt to these new changes in agriculture.
The good news is that many farmers are starting to use more ecological practices and I see habitat projects being implemented on many farms in our area. There has been some government recognition of the role that farms play in supporting the environment (not enough in my opinion, but that's a whole other discussion) and there is some funding available for farms to create and maintain habitat on their farms.
On this farm, we have implemented a few strategies to protect grassland birds. We are working on rotationally grazing our cattle to make our pastures as bird-friendly as possible. I say 'working on' because it typically falls of the rails in August when I get overwhlemed with harvesting vegetables....one of these years we'll be able to stay on top if it all season! Rotational grazing is good for birds because it limits the time animals spend in one spot. This prevents trampling of nests on the ground and keeps grasses long and lush. We had one of our small pastures planted into tallgrass prairie a few years ago. It still has a ways to go, but someday it will be an awesome bird habitat and will provide us with a grazing area when the other pastures go dormant in the heat of summer. Justin's dad had the conservation authority do a 5 acre tree planting on the farm 20 years ago and 2 years ago we had them plant tree and shrub windbreaks around all of the fields. We've had one of our pastures planted into native prairie and have implemented rotational grazing with our cattle (which limits trampling of nests and keeps the grass tall and lush). I have a small area in our vegetable garden with some native plants and a rain garden. One of my goals for the future is to incorporate more pollinator strips with native plants through the gardens. Each of these things adds biodiversity to the farm, creating more opportunities for birds to reproduce and thrive.
If you want to build your own swallow nest boxes, I used a pattern provided by Nature Canada on their website: https://naturecanada.ca/animals/tree-swallow-housing/
I found this pattern really easy to cut out and assemble, but make sure you read all of the instructions before building! You may need to adjust your measurements depending on the type of wood you get. I also made the tops 9 x 9" to provide a bit more protection from rain over the ventilation slots. This site also gives you instructions on spacing and height.
I'm very excited to see who uses these boxes in the coming years!
I really like using our online sales platform and I encourage our customers to try it out! This system allows us to keep good track of inventory, know when customers are coming or when they would like their order deliverd, and allows us to easily communicate what's available each week. It also allows our Farmer's Market customers to get fresh produce outside of market seasons.
We have several 'Order Products Online' buttons throughout this website. The button redirects you to our Local Line store where you can place an order.
Or, this is the web address to get there- https://www.localline.ca/sycamore-farm
If you've never placed an order with us before, you can get started by registering as a customer. By registering you will also be added to our weekly email list. I send out a weekly email with a list of what is available that week along with updates from the farm (except during January and February where we usually take a break).
Once you've registered you can select items to add to your cart. The website will only show what is in stock. Once an item has sold out, it will not show up on the website until it is restocked. If you are looking for a certain product and don't see it, feel free to message us to ask about it. Sometimes we are able to harvest more than we were expecting at the start of the week. I always underestimate the inventory when I update the store to make sure we aren't short on anything.
After choosing your items for the week, you can check out. There you will have the option for pickup or delivery and there will be a drop down menu with the available date options.
The next step is to select your payment option. We accept cash, cheque, etransfer or you can pay online with Square.
In the final step you can add in any special instructions. We ask that if you are choosing to pickup that you give us an approximate time when you will be arriving.
If you select Square as your payment option, you will have a couple of extra steps. Go up to the top left where you logged in and hover over the box that says 'Hello, xxxx'. A drop down menu will appear. From the list, select 'Order History.' This will take you to a page with a list of your previous orders. The most recent order will be at the top of the list. Open it up and you will see a green 'Pay Now' button. This will take you to a page where you can enter your card information. This site does not record any credit card information, so you will have to re-enter it every time you place an order. The next few photos will illustrate some of these steps:
You can always email us with questions! If there are ever problems with the site, Local Line provides excellent support and can resolve problems quickly.
I'm also happy to take orders via email or phone if that is your preference.
I’ve started this blog to share more about the story of Sycamore Farm, our core values, and some of the projects happening around the farm. I hope to help readers understand more about the type of farming we do and to share helpful information with those getting started. For my first post, I’m going to introduce myself by describing how I got here.
I grew up in Petrolia, Ontario, a rural town with a population of around 4000 (circa 1990s). We lived in a new development and though there was very little nature around us, I was fascinated by the natural environment from an early age. My parents both have an appreciation for nature, each in their own way- my dad is a hiker and my mom is a gardener- and I think that had a big influence on me. I played a lot in my mom's flower garden when I was little and as I got older, she gave me a section of my own that I turned into a native prairie garden. I have many memories of driving out to local garden centers as a child- it's still one of my favourite things to do on a day off!
As I went through high school, I felt very uncertain about which career path to take. It's hard to know what you want to do when you're 18 and haven't spent much time outside of your small town! I knew I cared about the environment and that I wanted to work outdoors- so I decided to go to the University of Guelph to study Environmental Sciences.
I went into this program with hopes of someday managing a natural area or working somewhere in natural resources. In my second year, I had a prof that did research in agroforestry. Agroforestry is the practice of integrating trees into farming systems. Dr. Gordon's research plots at the University had rows of trees every hundred feet or so and cash crops were planted annually in between them. The trees had an economic value (e.g. timber, biofuel, nut trees) and they provided some microclimate benefits to the cash crop. The course he taught was one of our core environmental courses, but he used his research as illustrations for the concepts we were learning. I started to think about the potential agriculture had to make positive environmental change.
As I continued through school, I took the 'Aggie' electives whenever I could; courses like Soil and Water Conservation, Integrated Pest Management, Agro-ecology and others. There were some concepts I learned in these courses that I never fully understood at the time(as I didn't have the agriculture background or context in which to place them), but they were fascinating enough that they stuck in my brain and often resurface when I'm making management decisions for Sycamore Farm. Throughout this time I thought a lot about Lambton County. The primary land use is agriculture and the natural cover is around 9%, well below the recommended 30% for healthy waterways. Lambton County is also home to many rare species and habitats in dire need of protection. I began to wonder how some of the concepts I was learning about ecological farming could be applied at home to solve some of these problems.
I never thought I would end up in Lambton County, but I started to feel a pull to come back. The realization really hit me one day driving to Guelph from a visit home: I was looking out the window at the trilliums in the woodlands along the 402 (there are some really spectacular patches in the section from Reeces corners to Watford) and I felt this strong conviction that I should come back to Lambton County to try to protect these types of habitat. I've seen trilliums hundreds of times, but this moment really stands out in my mind. I wasn't sure where this would lead, but I started looking for opportunities closer to home.
The following spring, I started volunteering with Lambton Wildlife, a local nature group. There I met my husband, Justin. We had an amazing amount of things in common and really connected over our mutual love of plants. He had a little vegetable plot at his dad's farm that I started to help with. We had lots of crop failures, but a few bumper crops that inspired us to keep going. A friend recommended Jean-Martin Fortier's The Market Gardener to us, a book that outlines a very successful 1.5 acre vegetable farm. We were intrigued by the possibility of this, but felt like we had a lot to learn before we could depend on it for our income.
We continued growing vegetables part time and selling at a roadside stand and a farmer's market. Through this we learned how to grow a few crops really well and started building up a customer base. I was starting to feel confident that this could be a profitable business.
In 2019, I was expecting our son. That fall Australia was facing terrible forest fires and there was a lot of talk about the effects of climate change. We started to really reflect on what we were doing with our lives and what kind of legacy we wanted for our son. We strongly felt that ecological farming (for us that is grazing our highland cows and small-scale vegetable growing) was the best thing we could do for the environment.
I have found that growing vegetables has been a really practical and meaningful way to put my education to use and to make a tangible difference for the environment.
These are some of the ways we feel we are making a positive impact:
1. Providing a local food source. We market our produce within a 25 minute drive of the farm, meaning our food does not travel far to get to your plate! This greatly reducing the carbon footprint of your food.
2. Soil building. We do a lot of soil building practices that store carbon in the soil. An example would be planting a 'cover crop' through the winter. We plant rye in the fall that will provide protection for the soil through the winter and the biomass of this plant (i.e.carbon) is incorporated back into the soil in the spring.
3. Habitat Creation. We are able to implement projects that create wildlife habitat like tree planting on the field borders and perennial plantings within the garden system.
4. Rotational grazing. Grasslands are powerhouses for storing carbon. The deep perennial roots of grasses store carbon far down the soil profile. Pastures also provide habitat for a number of species at risk birds in our area. Our newer pasture, a retired cash crop field with very poor drainage, has an abundance of tree swallows, bluebirds and various grassland sparrows that I haven't taken the time to ID.
5. Chemical free. We do not use any chemcial herbicides or pesticides to grow our crops. This creates an insect-friendly environment and eliminates the risk of contaminating natural areas with chemicals.
And more! In the future, I plan on going into more detail about the environmental work we are doing on the farm.
So, in 2020, I started full time working on the farm, often with our son, Silvan, strapped to my back! This coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the surge in demand for local products. We did an expansion to our growing are in 2021, adding a CSA and a second market. I'm very excited for what 2022 holds and I hope to keep this blog updated as we continue to grow!