Pulling up the driveway into Chick-A-Biddy Acres, I almost want to break into a rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”, for Sherry Patterson has created something that seems almost too good to be true. I am tagging along (“embedded” in journalism-lingo) with some of the kitchen and catering staff from the Gladstone Hotel as they join Patterson and her three employees for a day of weeding and a tour of the 75 acre community supported agriculture (CSA) farm.
From the second we arrive, I am enchanted, opening the car door to find half a dozen of Patterson’s colourful laying hens rushing toward me with curiosity. We’re not here to play with chickens, however, and Patterson quickly directs us to a nearby field where we’re put to work weeding rows of peas.
The Gladstone buys 4 CSA shares from Chick-A-Biddy Acres, and Chef Marc Breton and his staff prepare a feast each Wednesday throughout the summer with the produce from the weekly delivery. CSAs work on the theory of “shared bounty, shared risk” so a good year for the farmer means a good haul for the customer, while a poor harvest reaps less goodies at the weekly customer pick-up, but assures the farmer a living wage and the ability to continue to run their business without having to resort to selling out to big agriculture, or worse, selling the farm completely.
In Patterson’s case it also allows her to grow her produce organically and sustainably; although not yet certified organic (the process can take a few years), the farm uses no herbicides or pesticides, with everything done by hand except a pass of the fields each spring with a tractor to break up the winter-hardened ground. Which is why everyone is so very happy to see the Gladstone crew – ten extra pairs of hand (mine included) are a big help in clearing the rows of peas from the dandelions, lambs quarters and thistle that is trying to take up residence.
This is the third year that the Gladstone has produced the Harvest Wednesday series, with this year running the longest yet, from July 9th to October 22nd. The first Wednesday of each month offers a seasonal tasting event for $15 that includes the hi-lights of the season, while for the remaining weeks, Breton and his staff will be offering up a 3-course prix fixe dinner for an astoundingly low $35. The final Wednesday, October 22nd, will be a family-style Harvest Table dinner for $48.
In addition to the produce from Chick-A-Biddy Acres, the Harvest Wednesday menus also include delights from local producers such as Monforte Dairy, Matchbox Gardens, Fun Guy Farms, Chocosol, Forbes Wild Foods, Niagara Specialty Foods, Field Sparrow Farms, Dingo Farms and more. Ontario wineries and breweries such as Henry of Pelham, Mill Street Brewery, Black Oak Brewery, Rosehall Run Winery, Norman Hardie Winery and Steelback Brewery are also involved, and attendees can expect to find all of these and more showing up as part of the weekly offerings.
Once we finish weeding the peas, we head back to Patterson’s barn where some of the Gladstone staff have set up an amazing lunch spread. Some of the free-run chickens are delighted that the loft has been opened up and wander around in the hay as we sit down to a lunch partially comprised of the first items harvested from the fields. Maybe it’s the hard work and sunshine, but truly this is one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, so honest and genuine in its simplicity. Patterson’s dog sits by my side, and outside a rooster crows.
Later we tour the farm and explore the rest of the fields of produce, the poly tunnel where seedlings are started and the barn where a sheepdog is learning to be a sheep. A litter of black and brown piglets that will grow up to be ham sleep in a pile while their Mama keeps a watchful eye on the city slickers uttering phrases like “cute” and “adorable”. The former vegetarian in me still balks slightly at the idea that these animals are being raised for food, but I am comforted by the thought that Patterson’s flocks and herd want for nothing. This is how we all imagine a farm to be. It is how a farm, in fact, should be – the animals are clean and fit, with plenty of space to wander around. The laying hens have free run of the place and are like a posse of feathered clowns, running to and fro from one spot to another, causing raucous laughter and provoking my ongoing joke of how I plan to kidnap the lot of them and set them up in my apartment.
A few days later, thinking back to the great afternoon spent at Chick-A-Biddy, I find myself getting angry at the fact that farms like Patterson’s have become so rare. Part of the mandate that the Gladstone is trying to promote with the Harvest Wednesdays series is to encourage people to know where their food comes from. Having met Patterson, and walked the fields of her farm, I am reassured that she is a steward of the land, and that the food Breton and his staff offer up at the weekly Wednesday dinners is not just healthy and nutritious for the people who eat it, but is part of a bigger cycle of honouring and respecting the earth.
This was part of the overall philosophy behind the Harvest Wednesdays event when hotel owner Christina Zeidler started it three years ago, and is an ongoing mandate for the Gladstone. “We want ‘harvest every day’, as much as possible”, says Breton, as he explains plans to expand the use of local, seasonal food into the rest of the hotel menu throughout the year. Breton is also adamant that the Harvest Wednesday events feature down-to-earth dishes that make the most of the ingredients he has to work with, and Gladstone staff have made a point of ensuring the dinners and tastings are all accessibly priced.
My visit to Chick-A-Biddy Acres is now a delightful memory that will stay with me for years to come; it took me at least three days to stop referring to everything about it as “awesome!” But anytime I feel like recalling the great experience I had that day, I can just head to the Gladstone on a Wednesday for a true taste of the farm, and the experience of seasonal, local organic Ontario cuisine.
Harvest Wednesdays run from July 9th to October 22nd. Monthly tastings are $15, and the prix fixe three-course dinners are $35. For more information, check out the Harvest Wednesdays website.