Chesterville farm returns to its natural roots

No pesticides or chemicals – Pulling weeds by hand at Gar-Eden Farms. (Supplied photos)
Gar-Eden Farms owners Amanda and Tom Schoch

NORTH DUNDAS – Education, advocacy while growing food on their farm for themselves and others has become the passion of Tom and Amanda Schoch, with their two young children. So in owning and operating their own farm – Gar-Eden Farms – the family is fully focussed on sharing their passion with the community.

They began selling produce locally from their 21-acre farm in 2020. On top of expanding the farm’s production, the family is also focusing more on education and advocacy.

“The timing was a happy accident,” said Tom Schoch. “Mandy and I have always talked about doing something for our kids that would allow access to the same things I had growing up.”

That access means living on a farm and seeing how food is grown, processed and cooked, from farm to farm table.

“I think it is really unusual now for most kids these days, and that was the motivating factor. Give our kids that farm lifestyle,” he said.

Schoch grew up on his father’s farm just south of Gar-Eden Farm. He returned to agriculture after a career in media, first radio, then print at the Winchester Press. When that paper folded in January 2020, things lined up for Schoch and his family to move into agriculture full-time.

“Seeing the crazy trajectory of agriculture and farming in general, and even just in this area, I don’t agree with a lot of the ways farming is done today,” Schoch said, explaining that he wants to do things differently. “We want to do something that is proactive and provide food for our neighbours, the community at-large, and ourselves.”

Enter Gar-Eden Farms, a farm with ideals set in permaculture, designed to be bio-diverse, sustainable, and integrated with the landscape around. Permaculture is more of a holistic approach to agriculture.

“It does exist in some small instances in North and South Dundas, but we need more people to do it,” he said.

Schoch compared the current condition of agriculture to children’s story books.

“You have the nice little red barn, with the goat, the cows, the pigs, the chickens, the ducks and everything,” he said. “There is the happy family and they grow corn for market and make jam. It’s a myth.”

Schoch explained that the 100 acre farm is too small in modern agriculture. Many farms feature thousands of acres, cash crops, or large dairy herds.

“What we’re trying to recreate is that myth of the small farm, because we think that is the right way to farm.”

Diversification is part of that, he said, explaining that no one single crop makes up a large part of smaller farms.

“If anything happened, you have no problem making up for a loss,” Schoch said adding that in their case they are maximizing every acre.

“There are a lot of different things you can do on a smaller property that aren’t huge in cost,” Schoch said.

Cost is a big factor. Large scale farming has large scale costs for equipment, maintenance, and land acquisition.

“For us, we’re doing something that is the reverse, it’s simpler to do and it is more cost-effective,” he explained.

The Schochs have roto-tillers and hand tools, not tractors. Instead of expensive pesticides and infrastructure, they are weeding by hand and using many tricks and techniques that are rooted in farming practices from decades ago.

Gar-Eden is not an organic farm. There are no certifications. Instead, Schoch calls the farm a natural farm. No pesticides or herbicides, just hard work.

“We are using what we’re given.”

One of those tricks that can be done in a small-scale operation like theirs, which would be impossible in a 3,000 acre operation is using black plastic tarps to kill weeds. Using heat and blocking the sun, there are few weeds left when the tarp is removed, and hand tools can take care of the rest. No pesticides needed.

“These are all things you can do on a smaller operation,” Schoch said. “Why can’t we take these lessons from the past, things that we’ve learned over centuries, and combine them with modern techniques on a smaller scale to be able to feed people real,  wholesome vegetables and food.”

He said it is not a crazy dream, but for most people it is out of reach. And that is where the education part of the farm comes in.

Schoch said that the farm is a return to his own roots.

“Growing up, we weren’t rich. We moved here from Switzerland. I received an education that I didn’t know I had had. We had to grow our own food.”

Schoch’s upbringing showed him how connected a small farming community can be, sharing and trading to help each other out.

“I feel like that is lost in a way.”

Another concern of Schoch’s is food insecurity, and how reliant people are on supply chains. That is another place where he thinks education at the farm matters.

“Right now there is no importance placed on feeding ourselves as a nation. Growing your own food really is not that complicated. You put a seed in dirt, and give it water. Care for it. Ta-da. You have food.”

Schoch challenges the notion that kids and families are not interested in gardening.

“Have you ever heard of a game called Minecraft? It’s digital gardening. The amount of tools out there for kids to learn about gardening, they are technology based. We are not doing a good enough job teaching our kids about how to get into gardening and farming. There are a lot of ways you can do that.”

Last summer, the farm welcomed family visits – with appropriate distancing protocols in place – to learn what happens at a small farm, what it all looked like.

“We really are the first generation where many grew up without contact with a family farm,” Schoch said. “When kids come here, they take to the animals and what goes on. The parents are engaged, in part from seeing their kids engaged. It’s a bit of an awakening.”

The plan is to expand visiting a farm into learning how to garden, to encourage more people to get into having gardens.

“It is about picking up the knowledge from other people,” Schoch said. “I love it when someone says they have a black thumb because I will prove it to them that they don’t. If you have a black thumb, it is because you are impatient.”

He said that even if the farming life is not for them, it is important that people know where their food comes from and how it is grown.

And there will be a lot of growing in 2021. Schoch detailed that there is a very large garden planned for this year.

“Any vegetable you can think of we are probably going to grow this year including different varieties of tomatoes, lettuce, and all the good seasonal vegetables you can expect.”

Produce will be available individually, and also in a “garden box” format. Each week, customers who order a box will get a variety of produce, between eight and 12 items. This includes lettuce, root vegetables and whatever is in season that week.

The aim is for about 25 garden boxes a week, but they have ambitious plans to scale up that operation in future years.

“We want to have 200 families per week, That is the ultimate goal in the future. “

Other products offered include farm-fresh eggs, which come from free-range chickens on the farm. The family will also offer beef and pork freezer orders this year, but in sustainable quantities.

“We don’t ever want to be an operation where you have more than a handful of animals,” Schoch said. “We’re never going to have 100 pigs or a pig barn or a large chicken barn.”

An accessible and vibrant farming community, whether buying produce from Gar-Eden, or learning how to grow it yourself, is one of Schoch’s many goals with this venture.

“Farming is not inaccessible. It is not for the rich. It doesn’t have to be big. People have this skewed vision of what farming is.”

He explains that he believes there is room for the little guy in agriculture.

“Like people have a family doctor, why not have a family farmer,” Schoch asked. “A farmer who you know by name, who you can go see him or her, to get your beef or your milk products, or have a series of family farmers.”

Gar-Eden Farms is open by appointment only in the winter. Orders for seeds for the spring gardening season are available online at https://www.garedenfarms.com/.

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