When I first pull into Grape Lakes Farm & Vineyard I’m greeted by Dewy, a smiling dog who takes her role as the perfect hostess seriously. Without a single bark or jump, she lets you know you’re welcome at the organic farm in Kingsville, Ontario, Canada. No wonder Dewy seems so at peace here; baskets of fresh, hand-picked fruits and vegetables accompany jars of homemade jams, sauces and other goodies in the storefront. The amount of love and passion that goes into this place and its surrounding environment is so clear, it’s almost magical.
Grown With Love
Sondra Giles and her husband Scott have owned Grape Lakes since 2014 and certainly have their hearts in the right places. The farm’s focus is on nutrition and Sondra calls the food grown here “imperfectly perfect”. While some of the tomatoes may be scarred or oddly-shaped, what matters is that when you cut into them they’re juicy and ruby red. Their produce isn’t as big or beautiful-looking as what you’ll find at most stores, but it will be delicious and downright good for you. It’s not just about organics; Sondra also feels strongly about buying local and seasonal foods. “It’s a movement and it’s about time!” she says proudly.
In The Fields
After recently leaving a job in the solar power industry, this is Sondra’s first year working full-time on the farm. This season, she put 6,000 asparagus plants in the ground by hand. It sounds daunting, but was certainly well worth the effort; as we walked the fields together she snapped a few from the ground, and it was hands-down the best asparagus I’ve ever eaten. It was sweet and not at all bitter; the kind I could eat raw all day, which is not something I would typically do with this vegetable.
Beyond the asparagus, row upon row of more organic produce grows including red and green cabbage, broccoli, celery, zucchini, lettuce, leeks and so much more. The smell of the garlic actually makes your mouth water, and the strawberries are small but bursting with flavor. I ate one modest-looking berry right off the bush and knew that it probably had more taste and nutrition than an entire pint found at the supermarket.
Dedication To Organics
A firm believer that mineral depletion contributes to the current health crisis, over the past four and a half years Sondra has put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into helping these fields make the transition to organic; her dedication to cleaning the soil and growing real, great-tasting food has taken on a life of its own. She’s constantly experimenting with different produce, each year choosing a new heritage seed to grow on her farm. This year, she planted a variety of heirloom peppers and herbs.
“Anywhere I’ve ever lived I’ve had a garden,” she tells me. “I’d pat myself on the back for that, but I would grow tomatoes not knowing they were GMO and had half the nutrition as a heritage tomato. There’s gardening, and then there’s gardening for nutrients.”
The farm’s medium of choice is good old-fashioned dirt, and all of the seeds planted are non-GMO. She starts her seeds on heat mats in the basement, eventually moving them to her modest but beautiful greenhouse.
“You’ve heard of a ‘man cave’?” she asks. “Well, this is the ‘she shed!’”
Lay Of The Land
The farm uses a drip tape system for watering, which is ecological in the way that it is slow-release. Sondra also helps her organic produce build strength by never over-watering.
“When you first plant a garden, don’t water too much,” she says. “Give it a good soaking, but then let the roots go hunting for nutrients and water so they can establish a strong system.”
She relies on crop rotation and companion planting to help the produce thrive year after year.
Of course, controlling pests isn’t always easy in organic farming. Grape Lakes uses a number of earth-friendly sprays that contain living organisms to get rid of unwanted bugs. Still, Sondra believes the real answers lie within the soil. When she noticed a large number of aphids on her Brussel sprouts, a fellow farmer helped her discover she had an abundance of nitrogen in the soil, which made sense since that’s where she often spread chicken manure. Once the soil was corrected with the help of organic mushroom compost, the aphids began disappearing.
Beyond The Garden
Great produce deserves great protein, and so Grape Lakes Farms has teamed up with a partner who offers the first sustainable source of rainbow trout raised in the open waters off of Manitoulin Island. The water there is cold and incredibly clean; about a hundred fish or so are raised in a pen in the middle of the lake. Within hours of being caught, they’re cleaned and flash frozen. After the farm visit I cooked the trout for dinner, and as Sondra promised, I could literally taste the lake on the trout. It wasn’t at all fishy, and the word ‘delicious’ just doesn’t do it justice.
Sondra makes sure nothing on the farm goes to waste. Because no pesticides are used, fresh strawberries go bad quickly. She turns them and other berries into jams before they spoil. She makes sun-dried tomatoes using garden tomatoes, oregano, garlic, and basil. Sondra’s also created her own Garlic Scape Pesto, which after tasting, I can confirm is highly-addictive.
Anything offered for sale at Grape Lakes is either grown on site, locally-sourced, or completely sustainable. Another interesting find is the QUE all-natural charcoal for grilling. Sondra cares so much about food and where it comes from, but she’s also passionate about how it’s cooked. Made from leftover coconut shells, the charcoal uses no wood, chemicals or preservatives. It’s apparently a dream to cook on, lighting quickly and giving off an even, high heat for hours.
Organic farming is a continuous learning process, whether it be about soil amendment, pest control, or growing non-GMO seeds. Sondra says there’s unfortunately not a lot of mentoring in her line of work; she hopes that changes one day so there’s somewhere for organic farmers to ask questions.
“Thank God for YouTube,” she says, “But wouldn’t it be nice to actually talk to somebody?”
The farm is constantly evolving; this year, it’s going off the grid and will be completely solar-powered. Sondra is also launching a new initiative called “El Fresco Dinner Parties” during which groups of up to 20 people or so will be able to come and walk the fields, learning about where and how their dinner is being grown before sampling it under the stars. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?
New initiatives and introducing new heritage seeds to the field means the work is endless, but you can tell Sondra wouldn’t have it any other way. She lives and breathes this farm; organics are in her blood.
It’s not the desire to be rich that drives Grape Lakes Farm & Vineyard; it’s the passion to introduce people to delicious, nutritional foods that are both seasonal and locally-grown. Sondra urges all of us to make informed choices when buying the food we put into our bodies.
“I always tell people to get to know their farmers,” she says. “Not just personally; get to know their dirt.”
Sounds like pretty good advice to me.