Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Friday, August 13, 2010

Getting my hands dirty at Soiled Reputation!

As I've spent most of the last year getting to know the people who make the Stratford local food scene so vibrant and interesting, I've noticed a pattern. Several of the folks I've met here who've chosen to 'live the life of food' saw their culinary passion ignited by the same summer job: working in the fields at Soiled Reputation farm. 

This trend made me curious to see exactly what it might be about working for Antony John (aka "The Manic Organic") and his wife Tina Vandenheuvel that inspires some people to devote their lives to the ways of the knife-and-fork.

At the Toronto food blogger barn lunch at Soiled Reputation, in which I was privileged to take part back in early June, I made a suggestion to our hosts Antony and Tina: I would come and work in their fields for a day and blog all about it! They were keen on the idea, but Antony recommended I wait until the growing season was in full-swing to make the most of the experience.

This week, figuring that the growing season was just about hitting its late summer sweet spot, I followed-up on that suggestion. I made a deal with Antony and Tina: I would put in a morning's work for them, and they could pay me in vegetables!
My first work partner was Antony himself. As we walked across his twenty acres of plantings to find the rows of shallots, he shared with me his philosophy, "I take a winemaker's approach to food." That is, rather than defining success strictly by the number of pounds of food his farm can produce, he defines success according to the quality of the food he produces. The gorgeous shallots we picked (photo above) were symbolic of Antony's commitment to quality: I have never seen shallots grown from seed like they grow them at Soiled Reputation (I'm used to seeing them grown from sets, like multiplier onions). Yes, each seed only yields one shallot - but what a shallot!!
I could (and someday might!) dedicate multiple blog posts just to reporting on Antony, who is certainly one of Stratford's most colourful culinary characters (he's pictured above with the first potatoes of the year!). Besides his unparalleled expertise as a cultivator of superior organic produce, I could report on his love for painting, and the impressive art portfolio he's created. I could report on his musical interests, having heard him sing both in his own barn at the aforementioned blogger lunch, and at the Slow Food Sunday market a couple of weeks back. I could report on his tenacious entrepreneurship, which has seen him become a top vegetable supplier for all of the finest restaurants in Stratford, as well as many in Toronto.  

But that day, I was most interested in finding out what it was like to work for Antony. Farmer John expressed an approach to farm labour that valued human capital over tractors and combines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, "We're investing in people, not iron." He mentioned the multiple advantages associated with such an investment: people-power is not driven by fossil fuels, and the labour force turns around and puts the money they earn back into the local economy. In addition, the human work force is "infinitely adjustable", in that it is relatively easy to add or take away one or two people from the staff in response to workload. 

I was starting to get an idea of why people like to work here: the boss actually gives a damn about them and their community, and values his staff as the backbone of his whole operation.
My next work partner was Derek (he's on the right in the above photo), who took me out to pick some leeks. Derek is an interesting dude: he used to be house manager at the Stratford Festival, but this year he decided to trade his desk in for a wheelbarrow. As we picked and trimmed-up beautiful leeks both big and small, Derek informed me that Rake and Tillage - the band that's playing at the Slow Food Pork Party at Punkeydoodles this Sunday (August 15) - is in fact him  (guitar/vocals) and Antony (vocals)! I'm happy for Derek, as he clearly relishes getting back to the land ...and has a lot of fun doing it!

Cory (pictured above on the left) took me out next to pick some eggplant. I helped him spot some of the more well-hidden purple orbs as he told me about what it's been like working on the farm for the past four years. He showed me the thriving peppers growing next to the eggplants, and lamented last year's failed crop, "What's always amazed me is how much work goes into everything - when a crop fails it hurts!" I was amazed at how everything we were picking had a specific destination. Cory could actually tell me which eggplants were going to Bijou restaurant, which ones were going to go up for sale at the Gentle Rain, and which ones were destined for Rundles. Talk about picked-to-order!
Soiled Reputation is probably best known for the amazing mixed greens they supply year-round to stores, restaurants and those who subscribe to their weekly delivery service (who Antony refers to as his "Homies"). My last stint was with the group of girls who meticulously snip every single leaf of the greens mix on a daily basis (pictured above). As I crouched and snipped some delicate baby arugula (my back is aching a little as I write this) I learned from one diligent worker named Lindsay about how she was putting herself through homeopathy school on weekends by working for Antony and Tina. As we worked and chatted, over my shoulder I heard intense gossiping among the all-girl crew about the previous night's premier of the reality show Bachelor Pad. Clearly, one of the perks of being on the greens brigade is membership in a strong circle of female friends... who can talk about whatever they want all day!
At 11am sharp every morning all of the farmhands lay down their hoes, scissors or wheelbarrows and head over to the farmhouse for a delicious coffee break ritual, presided over by Tina. That day, she had baked an incredible peach and plum Kuchen (kind of like an open-faced pie) for everyone to enjoy along with their coffees. Keeping in mind that Tina recently won the title of Best Pie at the McCully's Hill Farm In Your Face Pie Festival, you can understand why the workers at Soiled Reputation all eagerly look forward to 11am! 

I definitely discovered what it is about working at Soiled Reputation that inspires people to devote their lives to food. As I sat alongside all of these hard workers while they enjoyed their coffee break, I felt their close camaraderie and sense of community.  Tina and Antony are caring bosses who instill their joy and passion for farming in the people who work for them. But most of all, everyone seems to have a lot of fun working at Soiled Reputation. I know I did!

On that note, I'll leave you with a video creation  from the Soiled Reputation website featuring Rake and Tillage themselves as they pull out the heavy artillery in their battle against weeds:

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