En route to the farm, as I drive along the sun-speckled tree-lined road dense with late summer foliage, passing the calligraphed street signs, I feel as if I am going through a portal to another world. I had never been to this part of the island. It’s like a hidden jewel.
Stephen Homer, owner of La Ferme du Zephyr, agrees. “Most people don’t know about it, except for the bicyclists.” Amazing what is just under our noses. The road leads behind the Morgan Arboretum, which makes sense, really, since the land Stephen is farming is rented from the Morgan family. It is his fifth plot of land to farm, and according to him, his last. He has found a good fit here.
Stephen’s first farm was near Chambly on land owned by his aunt. At the time, he was a professional photographer, but after twenty years was becoming jaded with the industry. Since growing up next to a dairy farm, working the land had been a childhood dream. He talked to some restaurants and found they would be very interested in getting local baby vegetables, things like arugula, which, at the time, was quite exotic. Thus began his business. Soon, not only the restaurants were asking for his produce, but the customers as well. That was back in 1996. Now he has dropped the restaurants and concentrated on selling only to private customers – through CSA baskets.
When I first arrived at the farm, I was greeted by Jane “the herb lady”. Jane had started at Zephyr as a customer, became a volunteer, then in her semi-retirement asked to take
responsibility for the herb portion of the farm. Through Stephen’s guidance and her nurturing care, the herb garden has flourished. She handed me a leaf of sorrel to taste; deliciously citrusy and tangy. Next to that sat bunches of basil and chocolate mint. The heady aromas continued to scent our discussion as Stephen and I sat nearby to talk and he, to eat a well-earned lunch. Stephen likes herbs and vegetables that are lesser known, a way to get customers to open their horizons and taste buds. Later, on my walk through the herb garden, I spotted French thyme, lavender, rosemary, chives, lemongrass, and several others I didn’t recognize.
Carol (also known as the “flower lady” for her magnificent flower garden that sits adjacent to the herbs) heads up a project that offers original organically grown seedlings (ever heard of a Poona Kheera cucumber?), a vast array of herbs and several varieties of heirloom tomatoes, all for planting in your own garden. Each Spring, gardeners can purchase the seedlings on-line through the Co-op Maison Verte website, choosing from just under 100 varieties.
The surprises don’t end there. This year, Zephyr has given over an acre of land to Howard Reitman, Director and Mentor of Santropol Roulant’s peri-urban Farm Project. The vegetables from the farm (in conjunction with their two urban farm sites) are used in their three community outreach programs: Meals on Wheels, Fresh Baskets, and Neighborhood Markets. The organization also brings busloads of school children out to visit the farms and learn where their food comes from.[i] The students tour the Santropol Roulant’s field, the Zephyr farm, as well as the farm over at McGill College, just over the rise.
It’s enough to make your head spin. It’s strange: there is a peaceful quality to the farm, and yet you feel there is life here, movement, a low hum. The sound of bees and crickets; of tractors in the distance. The breeze through the trees. There are no cars, nor traffic, no radios blaring, or loud voices. Perhaps it’s just the organic sounds of nature that create that sense of peaceful activity. A welcoming change from the frenzied energy of urban life.
La Zephyr is an organic farm (as are the majority in the CSA movement), and I guess you could say that Stephen grows his farm organically as well. Volunteers come and go, certain interests, like the herb garden, take root and sprout, and even partnerships develop. Another change for the farm this year is Alex. He also began as a volunteer, and was so taken with the farm that he’s become the “front man”. The way he describes it, “Stephen is the cook, and I’m the waiter.” You will find him at market locations (NDG and Pointe-Claire) on the appointed days. He is also responsible for the farm’s Facebook page. Stephen is teaching him about farming and Alex is helping with the social media and marketing.
While I was visiting the Zephyr’s Pointe-Claire drop off point, Yasmeen, a customer from
Beaconsfield, was purchasing vegetables with her Fidelity Card, an option for La Ferme du Zephyr members who don’t like the constraints of a weekly basket. She often travels in the summer, so the Fidelity Card was a perfect solution. That is why she switched to Zephyr.
Other customers were adding to their weekly baskets, and a few others were just passers-by discovering the market for the first time. One of the benefits of the Pointe-Claire location is the foot traffic, bringing in potential customers every week.
Are you ready to try a CSA-basket? If you’re still undecided, here are some points to think about:
- The basket price varies, usually 20$-30$/week (paid in advance of the season). You can start with a small one, or bi-weekly, and benefit from a portion of your vegetables being organic and fresh. Then supplement at your regular grocery.
- Eating in season and from your local farmer means you get vegetables when they’re ripe and at their height of taste and nutritious value. As soon as fruits and vegetables are harvested, they start decreasing their vitamin and mineral content. And flavor as well.
- Eating a varied diet ensures that you get enough of all the necessary vitamins and minerals. When we stick to the same foods every day, we may be missing out on some of the necessary nutrients. By subscribing to a CSA basket, it nudges us into the direction of variety, by trying out the vegetables the farm has to offer. And most farms offer an exchange basket, so you can switch out one or two items that are really not to your taste.
- Becoming a member of a farm gives you a chance to be part of a community and to
experience the farm first hand. Most farms accept volunteers or interns, helping with harvests and planting. An excellent way for an apartment dweller to exercise his/her green thumb! At Zephyr, one volunteer gives 85 hours of her time to the farm (about 4 hours a week during the growing season), in exchange for a weekly basket.
To find a CSA basket locality near you, go to Équiterre’s website. Their interactive map allows you to choose a farm by drop-off point, and other criteria such as “fruits, vegetables, or meat” (the page is in French only). The 2012 season is half over, but some farms have market stands where you can buy as you go, or a Fidelity Card, where you pay in advance, then receive a discount on the produce until the end of the season.
Most farms end their season around October, but some offer winter baskets of root vegetables and certain greenhouse varieties. Zephyr has no winter basket, but is keeping their market stands open until before Christmas, supplying them with their greenhouse-grown fare.
Coop La Maison Verte, 5785 Sherbrooke ouest, Montreal (see map)
• Thursdays: 3 – 7 pm.
Coop des Bons Voisins, 247a Lakeshore Road, Pointe Claire (see map)
(in front of the post office)
• Tuesdays from 3 – 7 pm.