Eat Local Muskoka is taking an old-school—and more sustainable—approach to keeping its produce cool this year.
The co-operative of small-scale organic farmers in Muskoka and Kawartha Lakes, which offers Muskoka residents fresh, nutrient-dense food grown as close to home as possible via seasonal local food boxes, is harvesting ice as an energy-conserving means of refrigeration.
People have been harvesting ice from lakes around Muskoka since at least 1884, packing it into ice houses and insulating it with sawdust to keep perishables cool through the warmest months.
While today’s ice boxes can come in all different shapes and sizes, Eat Local Muskoka is using the box of an old insulated transport trailer with extra hard styrofoam insulation. They inherited the trailer on the farm they are renting on the edge of an Amish community, some members of which help grow the produce, in Fenelon Falls.
“This is similar to what a lot of cottagers and locals would have done on the lakes in Muskoka, before [electrical] refrigeration became common in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some island cottages still have their ice boxes and equipment, although I haven’t found anyone that has used them recently!” said Sober-Williams.
On a recent ice-harvesting day, they used a giant circular saw to cut the ice into blocks, and a conveyor belt to pull them out of the water and onto a wooden sleigh.
“We have some incredible neighbours that help us with cutting, lifting, and hauling,” said Sober-Williams. “It’s a community effort, sharing the equipment and camaraderie needed to fill everyone’s ice houses. The key is having enough insulation and enough ice! The ice slowly melts through the summer as it cools our produce, and lasts well into November. We find this melting process actually stores produce better because of the high humidity.”
Draft horses bring the load up to the ice house.
“We find draft horses are more sustainable and better suited for the tasks on small farms. They have no troubles getting back to a pond in the forest, going through deep snow and tight spaces where a tractor might get stuck. The horses are also much more pleasant to work with!” said Sober-Williams.
The team has harvested 21 sleigh loads for the Eat Local Muskoka ice house this year—about 1,000 blocks of ice, each of which weigh about 50 pounds.
What can you expect from Eat Local Muskoka in 2021?
Eat Local Muskoka offers its members seasonal local produce boxes, plus additional farm products like raw honey, wood-fired bread, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, and bulk produce for preserves.
They use a CSA (community-supported agriculture) model. Members order and pay for their food boxes—essentially purchasing a share of the harvest—prior to the season. Four seasonal boxes are available—spring, summer, fall, and winter—with the entire program running from mid-May to early December. Members can order all four boxes at the start of the year at a discounted price.
“The idea of Eat Local came to me in 2015 as I started exploring a farming career, while supporting other local farms,” said Sober-Williams. “Renting land in Muskoka proved to be too challenging for me both financially and logistically with acidic soil and wildlife pressures, so moving my farm to Fenelon Falls has allowed us to grow sustainably, pay staff fair wages, and still be close to home. This will be our sixth year working cooperatively, and I’m really proud of the quality of produce we’re able to grow for our members, while costing less than what you’d pay for organic in the grocery store.”
Eat Local Muskoka now has a team of six full-time employees that manage both Colin’s Market Garden and the local food boxes. They are also working closely with seven other small-scale organic farms to provide variety and consistency.
They have invested in two, new high tunnels to expand their spring box capacity, which is their most popular season. They are also growing twice as many strawberries and tomatoes this year for the boxes and are investing in staff, sharing more responsibilities, and moving toward year-round, sustainable employment.
“Our first deliveries in 2020 were during April lockdown, so we were really motivated to provide some reassurance to members that our local food system is secure and functional,” said Sober-Williams. “The pandemic has really pushed us to grow faster than we were expecting, and so far we have been able to meet the challenge without raising prices.”
They have six pick-up points around Muskoka, including at the back of The Great Vine in Huntsville on Wednesdays. They also partner with restaurants including 3 Guys and a Stove, The Artisan House, Crossroads Rosseau, and Arowhon Pines.
“It’s our strong belief that working together, we can accomplish so much more than we can alone. Investing in grassroots initiatives like this actually helps us to keep our prices low, and quality high,” said Sober-Williams.
Learn more at eatlocalmuskoka.ca.
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