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culture

Making Soup for a Cause, Part Two

Opponents of the mega-quarry in Melancthon Township bring their cause to Toronto, via broth and ladles.

This is the second in a series of profiles of the farmers involved with Soupstock, a soup-focused food festival that will take place at Woodbine Park on October 21. The event is intended to raise awareness of (and money for) the fight against a proposed mega-quarry in Melancthon, a township located in northern Dufferin County. Locals fear the quarry will destroy farmland and interrupt the area’s water supply.

Brent and Gillian Preston
Farming experience: Have lived on their current farm for nine years, and have produced commercially for the past six.
Crops: Salad greens, arugula, beets, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes.

Just because their land is not among the properties being eyed by Highland Companies for the mega-quarry doesn’t mean that Brent and Gillian Preston aren’t concerned about the project’s possible effects on their farm in the southwestern corner of Simcoe County. Located less than 10 kilometres north of the proposed site, the Prestons are unsure about possible long-term effects on their groundwater. The impact could be negligible, or it could be ruinous for business.

The Prestons run The New Farm, which specializes in producing organic salad mixes and specialty vegetables. They sell primarily to customers who recognize the value of high-quality food, such as restaurants run by the likes of Jamie Kennedy, Mark McEwan, and the Oliver-Bonacini empire. The farm also provides produce for The Stop Community Food Centre’s food-security programs, like Grow for The Stop, which aligns with the Prestons’ philosophy of cultivating a sustainable local food system. As their website states, “we believe that for our business to be successful, we must produce premium-quality food in a way that enhances the quality of our soil, air and water, sustains our local economy and community, nourishes and satisfies our customers, and supports our family.”

Rather than use chemical fertilizers, the Prestons grow “turnover crops,” which grow rapidly, produce nitrogen, and shade the soil from weeds. When these plants die at the end of the season, they form mulch that enriches the soil over the winter. Plants used for this purpose include field peas, sorghum grass, and sunflowers. Building up the soil takes time: the Prestons spent their first three years preparing their property before they produced their first commercial crop.

Getting the soil ready was part of the learning curve they faced when establishing The New Farm. And they had to figure out many other things, too. Brent grew up in suburban Toronto, while Gillian was raised on a sheep farm in Vermont.

Financing is among the biggest challenges they feel newer farmers like themselves face. So far, things have worked out for them. The farm was profitable within three years and now fully supports their family.

Between April and August, they plant four beds of greens each week. Each one is turned over up to four times during the season. Over the winter, the Prestons grow several crops in a greenhouse where the only supplemental heat comes from a small wood stove. Besides crops, the Prestons also raise some poultry (they donate some of the eggs to local food banks) and pigs for their own consumption.

The mega-quarry issue affects Brent in several ways. He’s not only a farmer, he’s also a Clearview Township councillor, and a Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority board member. “When you’re talking about destroying thousands of acres of the best farmland in Ontario, that just flies in the face of everything we’re trying to accomplish,” he says. “Our bigger concern is the loss of farmland and the impact it’s going to have on the availability of fresh water all over Southern Ontario, rather than the impacts it will have on our business in particular.”

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