Colin Sober-Williams is gearing up for his fifth year of bringing Muskokans fresh, local food with the help of area farmers for Eat Local Muskoka.
“I started, eight years ago, thinking about farming as a career choice. I took the sustainable agriculture program at Fleming College and ended up working at the college for the following two years as a program technician,” said Sober-Williams. “Those three years were great in getting grounded in the local food scene and networking with other farmers in Kawartha Lakes. I worked on a number of farms during those three years.”
After that, Sober-Williams rented land in Muskoka to start growing his own food.
“I jumped in with both feet and hoped for the best,” he said. “The community support up here is incredible. I feel very lucky being able to grow the business to this point.”
Residents can sign up to receive boxes of fresh vegetables and fruit, depending on the time of year, through Eat Local Muskoka’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Initially, 35 members registered to participate in the program. Sober-Williams now has more than 100 members and works with some local restaurants. To keep up with demand, he has gone from a quarter-acre parcel of land to two acres.
“I’m still young and have lots to learn myself when it comes to growing 40 different varieties and the specific needs for each individual crop, as well as managing people and the business and working with other farmers. I’m trying to build a strong foundation that’s sustainable long term,” he said.
Sober-Williams said growing local food can help reduce global emissions and carbon footprints.
“This next year in particular we’re focusing a lot more on cover-cropping and sequestering carbon that way. It’s called green manure, so any field crop like oats, peas, winter wheat or rye, buckwheat—plenty to choose from—and planting any of those instead of harvesting them, it incorporates them back into the soil. As they break down, the organic matter will stay in the soil and the soil microbes will feed on that and create a much healthier soil ecosystem,” he explained. “That not only helps to build up the soil tilth and fertility but sequesters a lot of carbon.”
One of the biggest challenges Sober-Williams and other farmers face is the seasonality of the area.
“We do a pretty good job of pushing the season and each year we push it a little further,” he said. “This past year we were harvesting from the middle of May until the end of December. This year I’d like to start that a little earlier. Next week I’m going to go down to the farm and seed some spinach in the greenhouse. It’s amazing what one layer of plastic will do. No supplemental heat or fossil fuels going into it. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we can get an early harvest for the end of April. It’s not that you can’t grow in the winter year round, it’s just the capital costs to set up the infrastructure to do that is a big commitment.”
Other challenges local farmers face is the cost of food and competing with imported produce.
“People have expectations of what produce is worth and it’s hard to change those expectations,” he said. “A lot of the food we’re importing from California and Mexico is subsidized by governments and very low wages. To have to compete with that, it’s not impossible but it’s challenging. That being said, our food boxes are very competitive with grocery stores. We generally come in between conventionally priced produce and certified organic, so we’re right in the middle and fresher and tastier. We’re only able to do that because people are committed to supporting us for six to eight weeks at a time.”
The fresh CSA boxes from Eat Local Muskoka are broken down into seasonal commitments so residents can sign up when it works for them if they’re out of the region for long periods. There is the option to purchase for the full season and receive a discount. Members can also do bulk orders for preserving or can order farm fresh eggs.
Sober-Williams has also connected with an orchard in Niagara-on-the-Lake to bring fresh peaches, plums, and apricots to the area as well.
“The commitment from our members makes it accessible to purchase affordable produce for hard-working families in Muskoka,” he said. “I feel so lucky to do this in my hometown community. It’s a great spot for young entrepreneurs.”
To become a member and start receiving fresh food boxes when the season kicks off, visit eatlocalmuskoka.ca.
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