Strolling through ‘Organic Ann’s’ vegetable garden is like stepping into a gigantic salad of greens. The aroma of lettuce, radishes and onions permeates the air. Filtered sunlight dances through the field of over-sized spinach, baby bok choy, and other jewel-like emerald vegetables.
Gardeners from novice to pro, and a loyal following of discriminating buyers seek out Ann’s knowledge and her produce. The attraction is obvious. She has the giggle of a young girl, the wisdom of a master gardener, and is passionate about growing vegetables – organically.
Ann Slater was raised on a farm in southern Ontario by parents who instilled a sense of environmentalism.
“I took over the family garden when I was only 15, and even then my produce was organic, just not certified. I don’t know how to grow with chemicals – I never learned. My dad stopped using pesticides on the farm in the mid 1970’s. When I realized there was a demand for great-tasting fresh vegetables, I set up a card table on a main street in town, and sold whatever I had grown that week.”
As a young girl in the early 90’s, Ann’s aspiration to farm was not met with enthusiasm. Public perception of the average farmer at that time just didn’t include an energetic, forward-thinking young female.
“My biggest challenge wasn’t being the ‘rebel organic market gardener’; it was gaining acceptance as a female in farming,” she says. “People would tell me, ‘You can’t be a farmer. You have to marry a farmer.’”
Thankfully, Ann did not heed those warnings, as she is now a highly skilled organic farmer who finds bliss in growing healthy, great tasting vegetables.
“I work from sunrise to sunset – 12 to 15 hours a day during the growing season. It’s hard work, but I love it! People often assume that you will yield less by growing organic, but in my experience, conventional vegetable farmers do not get near the production I get. At peak time, my field is covered with so much green, it’s difficult to even walk through the garden. I harvest two or three plantings a year and grow 30 types of vegetables. It’s pretty intensive farming. As soon as one crop is off, I immediately plant another.
“I have no shortage of fertilizer,” she smiles, “That comes from the manure producers – my 10 sheep. There are a number of ways gardeners can work in harmony with nature, like working white clover back into the soil as an effective green manure. There are also many ways to attract beneficial insects – you can let a cilantro crop go to seed to attract lady bugs, lacewing butterflies and paradise wasps. To combat the bad insects, I cover the plants with floating row covers. These are thin, polyester cloths that you anchor down on the edges. Rain and sunlight can penetrate, but beetles and such are kept out.
Ann lives in the loft of the family’s original homestead, a century home built by her great-great-grandparents. She shares the house with younger brother Stew.
Stew took over the family organic dairy operation a number of years ago and is one of Ann’s great supporters. “She is knowledgeable and well-connected in the organic industry. The fact that she produces something that our family can use on a daily basis is really helpful.”
During their teen years, Stew and Ann belonged to 4-H Clubs. This Canada-wide organization offers young people hands-on programs to learn about their environment, in accordance with their motto Learn to do by doing. “I went to 4-H from age 12 to 18 and always had a project on the go,” says Ann. “We had our own goats, chickens, and pigs to look after. It was a great way to learn about animals and nature, and to gain leadership skills.”
Ann’s ability to lead is evident in her previous terms as president of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. But her motivation to farm organically comes from listening to an inner voice and following her passion.
“I have an image in my head that I saw when I was a little girl. It was of a clear-cut area in Malawi, Africa. Even though I was only a child, I knew that what I was looking at wasn’t right.
“To me, it’s wrong to put deadly things into the earth. As individual people, we can only look after one small space. But if we all take care of that one small space, we will make a difference on the planet.”
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