100-mile: Take the locavore challenge

Alex Mackay-Smith zips up the hill on his yellow tractor, turns it sharply and parks with as much flourish as is possible on a piece of farm equipment. The front scoop is brimming with greens topped by little yellow flowers. The leaves look familiar, but I can’t place them in this context.

“It’s mizuna,” says Mackay-Smith with a grin. “Loved by chefs and restaurants, but this crop has bolted. So now it’s fancy chicken feed.”

Earlier that morning, Mackay-Smith, who once worked in film in Toronto, was on the phone with Ottawa chefs, taking orders for his fresh spring produce and offering suggestions for how some of the choice organic ingredients could be used.

Welcome to the face of a fresh approach to producing food that’s taking root all around Ottawa.

Mackay-Smith and his wife, Juniper Turgeon, are like about a dozen other young Ottawa-area farm families who, without farm backgrounds, are trying to go back to the land in way that’s good for them, good for the land and good for local plates.

At 36 and 35, and in their seventh year of operating Juniper Farm near Wakefield, Mackay-Smith and Turgeon are leading the way, with five acres (up from one when they started), five moveable greenhouses, 65 varieties of vegetables and innovative programs such as farm internships, work “weed” shares and, new this season, a locavore challenge.

What’s their locavore challenge?

Since they started, they have offered CSA (community supported agriculture) shares, in which consumers pay a share of the farm’s operating budget in exchange for weekly boxes of produce. The “locavore challenge” takes this idea a few steps further by providing one-and-a-half of the regular vegetable share, with the idea that consumers will freeze or preserve some of the bounty for winter. In addition, people who sign up for the locavore challenge get six chickens from the farm, a turkey, pork, eggs, berries and range of other local foods including Le Coprin mushrooms, honey, maple syrup and sunflower oil from near Montreal.

“It’s the way we eat,” says Turgeon, who has their three-month-old son strapped to her chest. “We want to make it easier for city people to close the loop on eating local and organic.”

How much more does this cost?

A regular 17-week summer veggie share costs $575. A share in the locavore challenge costs $2,000 for 20 weeks.

Are they having trouble getting people to sign on?

“It went like that,” says Turgeon, with a snap of her fingers. They offered just 11 locavore-challenge shares this first season and they were snapped up immediately, with 10 other homes already on a waiting list for next year.

Is there any way I can still get some of these Juniper Farm products?

They’re offering 150 regular summer veggie shares this year, up from 25 when they started, and say they say they can still take about 10 more Ottawa-area members. “We want to ramp up our Ottawa connections,” says Turgeon. “Folks in Wakefield and Chelsea already know us.” The Ottawa weekly drop-off spot is at Whalesbone Sustainable Oyster & Fish Supply on Kent Street on Tuesdays between 3 and 6 p.m.

Juniper Farm sells at the Old Chelsea Market Saturdays between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. It’s just a 15-minute drive from central Ottawa.

New this year, they have a farm gate shop at their farm, which is just north of Wakefield and about a 40-minute drive from Ottawa. Fresh produce is available there, as well as eggs, organic local popping corn, sunflower oil and their farm-made sauerkraut. Look for the hot pink roof on the little kiosk; it’s open Mondays through Saturdays from noon to 7 p.m.

You can also get on the waiting list for the locavore challenge for next year (contact the farm at 819-459-1630 or fermejuniper@yahoo.ca or see juniperfarm.ca).

You said sauerkraut? Why sauerkraut?

“Sauerkraut is one of the only things we process,” says Turgeon. “But it’s just salt, cabbage and herbs. It doesn’t even require a heat source. Because it’s naturally fermented, we just find it’s so healthy.”

While lots of foodies have been seeking sauerkraut since author Michael Pollan recommended everyone add some fermented foods to their diet, Mackay-Smith says it also makes economic sense for them as farmers.

“Cabbages take a long time to grow, you can’t sell them for much money and you waste a lot because so many crack. We can use the cracked cabbages to make sauerkraut, though.”

What does their sauerkraut taste like?

I tried a jar of Juniper Farm’s coriander sauerkraut and it’s fantastic. It tastes clean and refreshing.

Is there anywhere I can buy the sauerkraut that’s closer than their farm?

It retails for $10 to $12 a jar at the Old Chelsea Farmers market, Pipolinka in Wakefield, Les Fougères in Old Chelsea and at the Red Apron on Gladstone Avenue in Ottawa.

“It sells very well,” says Jennifer Heagle, co-owner of the Red Apron. “We like it because it is naturally fermented, made using their own organic cabbage, and the ingredients’ list is pure. I recently read a book (The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz) about wild or natural fermentation and it was a real eye opener. The benefits of eating naturally fermented foods are significant.

“These jars of sauerkraut will continue to ferment because it is ‘alive’. If you leave it on the counter, don’t be surprised if it has bubbled over. This is a good thing, but if you want to contain the fermentation, then you MUST keep it in the fridge.”

How should I use this sauerkraut?

“We always eat it with meats to make the meal more digestible and delicious of course,” says Turgeon. “We eat sauerkraut in salads and soups too. In fact we pretty much add it to everything.”

Heagle says she’d suggest serving it slightly warmed or at room temperature, piled high on some grilled sausages (such as organic, pasture-raised, nitrate-free Les Viandes Rheintal Sausages, available at the Red Apron) that have first been put in buns and slathered with Mrs. McGarrigle’s Oktoberfest Mustard (also available at the Red Apron).

What’s a work “weed” share?

It’s a plan in which consumers can get their veggie share for half price if they work on the farm for four hours a week for 17 weeks. Among the participants is an Ottawa chef who spends one morning a week weeding before returning to Ottawa with his basket of fresh produce.

Juniper Farm also has a “Share the Food” program in which customers donate cash or part of their share so poor families can afford the produce. “We’ve been surprised and delighted by how generous people have been,” says Turgeon. “We’ve been able to offer free shares to two single moms.”

What restaurants or food stores use Juniper Farm produce?

Pipolinka in Wakefield, Les Fougères in Old Chelsea, and, in Ottawa, 18, Murray Street, Taylor’s Genuine, Domus, Whalesbone, Herb & Spice on Bank Street and the Red Apron.

“For the last three or four years they have devoted some of their crop to us and we are pleased to give Juniper Farm credit on our menu,” says Jennifer Warren-Part of Les Fougères. “Whatever he brings us, we use because it’s just all so nice. It has really prompted us to honour what goes on the plate, and to store it carefully and treat it with respect.”

People seem to feel special about Juniper farm produce …

Not just the produce, even the farm itself.

“At first, people used to roar by in their cars,” says Mckay-Smith. “Now, more and more, we see people slowing down to take a look.”

They’ve even received emails from people who drive by.

“I marvel at the transformation I see as I drive by,” wrote one Wakefield-area resident. “I see the incredibly hard and disciplined work that you put into the place and the world you are creating there.”

Turgeon says they are city kids who have learned to work hard and experience the joys of living closer to the land and family. Soon they will expand their farmhouse so they can share it not only with their two young sons, but with Mckay-Smith’s retired parents.

“I’m convinced that intergenerational living is the way of the future,” says Turgeon. “It’s like we’re going back in time to what a farm was 100 years ago.”

Maple-cured wild Arctic Char served on Napa radishes and spring onion A La Creme with dill and fresh horseradish

Les Fougères’ Maple-Cured Wild Arctic Char served on Juniper Farm’s Napa, Radishes and Spring Onion Salad

Makes: 6 servings

1 side wild Arctic char

½ cup (125 mL) coarse sea salt

4 tablespoons (60 mL) coarsely ground black pepper

½ cup (125 mL) maple sugar, grated*

Half a jar St. Ambroise grainy mustard (or any other Pommery mustard)*

1 cup (250 mL) chopped fresh dill, divided

1 cup (250 mL) sour cream

¼ cup (50 mL) 35-per-cent cream

¼ cup (50 mL) extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 cups (1.5 L) napa cabbage

1 cup (250 mL) thinly sliced Easter egg radishes

1 cup (250 mL) spring onions, sliced on the diagonal

½ cup (125 mL) grated fresh horseradish

* Available at Les Fougères’ food store.

1. Sprinkle coarse salt, pepper and grated maple sugar onto the flesh side of the char. Pat on the mustard and half a cup (125 mL) of the chopped dill. Place in a shallow dish or baking tray with sides at least one-half-inch high to catch juices that will weep out. Place a board and a weight over the char and leave for three days.

2. Whisk the sour cream, cream and olive oil together with the salt and pepper to taste.

3. Chop the napa crosswise into bite-size pieces. Slice the multi-colour radishes and spring onions thinly. Chop the fresh dill. Toss the napa, radishes, spring onion, remaining half cup dill and grated horseradish lightly together with the sour cream dressing.

4. Place a handful of the salad on each plate. Slice the gravlax (cured Arctic char) thinly and place three to four slices on top of each salad.

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