Great ideas are borne around food.
Here’s one: after spending time foraging, eating, and sipping the odd brew with Joel Gray of Sumac + Salt, he had an idea to take us on a tour of some of his favourite producers in the area to see where he sources his ingredients for the epic meals he and his partner Hannah create.
We dubbed it a Grey County Farm Tour and he got work creating a list of small-scale farms for us to visit, producers he uses regularly for ingredients, but people he’s also forged a relationship with. His network of like-minded peeps who grow delicious, organic food has become an important part of his role as a chef in this area. “Farmers who you can connect with and have a relationship with is so important,” he says. So we picked a date, got a schedule together and headed out for day visiting the acreages of Grey and meeting people like Dayna and Gabe, Amy and Pat, Andrew and Cassondra, Mitch and Sam, and Sophie and Alex.
What sets these producers apart is that they’re all doing things a little differently than the rest of the industry. That comes through in their business model, often selling directly to consumer, and to their dedication to sustainable practices; it also comes through in the way they communicate, often realizing the potential of social media to make friends and new customers. That’s not to say you won’t find these producers at the classic farmers’ markets – each has their market of choice where you’ll find them each week. But it’s more about building a community, and this Farm Tour is a glimpse into that network of producers with trusted foodie Joel Gray as our guide.
Come along with us as we spend a day across Grey County sticking our hands in the soil and eating tasty things we’ve never heard of.
Our first stop is Donald’s Honey, a small, family-run apiary and market garden just outside Owen Sound. It’s run by Dayna and Gabriel Donald, and Dayna meets us with a beaming smile and an eagerness to show us around their 2 acre farm. Their passion for living a sustainable lifestyle is put into practice every step of the way including an off grid home that sits on the property. Dayna and Gabriel met in 2013 when Gabriel was managing 50 hives as a commercial beekeeper and together they grew Donald’s Honey into what it is today.
It is here that I try Asian Pears for the first time, as well as Haskap Berries, and I learn a whole lot about honey. For example, did you know that the colour of honey changes with the season? And you can taste the changes too?
Joel and Dayna first connected at the Thornbury market “I bought pollen and some pretty hot chilis” Joel says. “And their honey is incredible.” What he loves about Dayna and Gabriel’s is the diversity they embrace. “I found that [they] do things that are a little bit different and that’s very special.”
“It’s a full circle,” Dayna says. “Everything we grow is either beneficial or medicinal to us or the bees. Our most important word is ‘diversity’; the word ‘mono’ is just scary. That’s not how nature works.”
Their relationship is really cool. Joel will ask Dayna what she has that’s good and then he’ll work his menu around it. “Our menu never stays the same,” he says. “I’m always working with different people and different ingredients.”
Joel isn’t the only one that raves about their products. Amy and Pat Kitchen of Sideroad Farm are also fans, and that’s where head to next. “We know Dayna and Gabe care deeply about their gardens, bees, the Earth and their community and the love that goes into their production shows in the quality of their products” says Amy.
Sideroad Farm in Walter’s Fall was established in 2013 by Amy and Pat Kitchen whose farm produces Certified Organic vegetables, cut flowers and pasture-raised chickens and eggs. They met Joel back when he was working at the Bruce Wine Bar since the BWB is one of their local purchasers along with Casero, Mudtown Station and now Sumac + Salt.
“They’re ridiculously focussed on quality,” says Joel. “When you buy produce from here as opposed to a grocery store, the product is going to last you longer and it’s gonna maintain more freshness, quality and flavour.”
For the Kitchens, it all comes down to the soil. It’s clear to see how passionate they both are about their methods and bringing quality products to their customers. “We have a system where we can flip back and forth, and then a year building the soil and then go back,” says Amy. They work hard to keep their farm sustainable, and to please the many the customers who visit their Sideroad Farm Store on a regular basis. And business has been good.
“We’ve been trying to not expand, but to be smaller because it’s been an overwhelming amount of growth in the past couple years,” says Amy. Things exploded during Covid when more people started coming to them to buy food directly. “We jumped into the online grocery thing pretty quickly…and we’ve been pretty busy the last few years.”
This increase is a combination of people feeling more comfortable ordering online instead of going into a grocery store, and more people moving to the area. But a big factor is the care that these two and their staff (and kiddos) put into their farm. “We sleep really well at night both because we’re tired and that we do literally everything we can to provide a good product” says Pat. “We don’t cut corners”
And this is something Joel appreciates because it makes his meals taste that much better. “It’s easy to cook really good food when people are putting so much energy and effort into growing it” says Joel. “The food wouldn’t be what it is without Amy and Pat”
Our third visit on our tour is to visit Andrew and Cassondra at Harvest Moon, a small-scale farm nestled into Good Family Farms just outside of Meaford. It’s amazing to hear that they feed about 150 people a week given the modest size of their plot, but these two know how to make the most out of the land they have. “This is practical farming,” Cassondra says.
This is not Andrew’s first rodeo. He was farming on land at the Roost Winery prior to this, and before that Guelph and even Quebec. But he and Cassondra have found a home here at Good Family Farms, which all came about through the network that Joel has helped create. Having gone to high school with Cassondra, Joel invited her and Andrew to one of his dinners in Flesherton early on, and then Joel later connected Andrew to Mitch Good. Soon Harvest Moon had a new home and some new friends.
As we stroll the Harvest Moon acreage, we sample ground cherries and talk kale, swiss chard. I realize how much I’m learning about farming and the work and wisdom that goes into doing it successfully. It’s really cool to see source for many of the restaurants I eat at in this area. Harvest Moon provides produce to places like Justin’s Ovens, Hearts Tavern, Black Bellows, The Wild Stand, and Susan’s Deli.
If you want to buy their produce directly, you’ll find Andrew and Cassondra at the Collingwood Farmers’ Market every Saturday, and they admit they’d love to be doing more. But they have to be mindful of how they spend their time since they’re just an operation of two people plus one employee, Hannah, who we meet as well.
And if you want to know where they got their name from, ask them about the story. Sure, it’s inspired by Neil’s tune, but there’s much more to it.
This next stop doesn’t take much traveling at all since Harvest Moon is actually situated on the Good Family Farms acreage. The Goods have a working farm consisting of 400+ acres run by the Good Family and since they’re super busy on our tour day, Mitch and Sam take us on a tour another day. Many of you will be familiar with their Farm Store, but in the acres behind are where the heritage-breed pigs, cattle, and chicken are raised and Mitch believes in Regeneratively raised livestock, which makes their farm unique but is appreciated by their customers.
Their methods for raising livestock aren’t the only things that make this farm stand out. Mitch and family have really embraced the online world for communicating directly with their customer base. Many traditional farmers aren’t too savvy with social media, but during the last few years, it’s been an excellent move for them. They can promote the importance of their Certified Organic practices directly with the public and let them know their meat and eggs are sold directly off the farm in the farm store as well as online.
“Together, we are working towards improving the health and wellness of our community and supporting our environment to the best our ability,” say the Good’s which is exactly why they belong in Joel’s network. Not to mention the fact they provided a home to Sumac + Salt dinners for many years!
Our final stop on this tour is Secret Lands, a sheep dairy farm in Flesherton that produces over 35 varieties of cheese using modern technology with old-world European family traditions. Started in 2015 by Sophie and Alex Burov, they are a very unique operation that “produces in small batches, using our own sheep’s milk, our own fresh well water, and fresh air, giving us complete control of our superb quality taste and nutritional benefits,” as they so eloquently put it.
Joel buys his cheese from them because they’re unique in their practices – they’re not using commercial cultures, but instead use Kefir as a culture to make their products, and the result comes through in the taste.
“When you think about something like this in Flesherton, it’s mind-blowing” says Joel and he takes full advantage of having them in his own proverbial back yard.
We tour the facility, and then as a bonus Sophie takes us down to the pond that her property sits on and we chill out. And then as another bonus, she puts together a charcuterie board to sample full of some delicious cheddar, pecorino, feta and blue cheese, which acts as our dinner after a long day of walking and putting our hands in the soil.
But the thing about touring farms is that there’s always food around you and we’ve been sampling veggies and fruits since our first stop at Donald’s. It’s amazing to see where our food is coming from and the people who are putting all their time and effort into making it delicious and sustainable. If you don’t know the difference between produce grown by these local farmers and what you’re finding in most grocery stores, you don’t know what you’re missing. Go visit their stores, find them at the farmers’ markets or find them online and make an order.
You can also attend one of Joel and Hannah’s Down Home dinners in Markdale to see how all these local producers come together in one meal.
Written by Jesse Wilkinson
Photos by Jesse Wilkinson and Nelson Phillips