“Darn!” I exclaimed; “I forgot to buy rhubarb.” My friend and I had planned to make rhubarb marmalade the next morning. “Never mind,” I said, “I think I know where we can find some.”
We pulled into the roadside stand at Cross Island Farms on Wellesley Island, and there in the cooler were some bags of freshly cut rhubarb. We bought them all.
Instead of just leaving my money as directed, I went to the door and disturbed the dog and Cross Island Farmer, Dani Baker. Dani was happy to see us and as it was a beautiful day, she suggested she would much rather take us on a tour of the farm, than continue her inside job-of-the-day.
Those who know Dani and her partner David Belding know that they are two of the region’s best known organic farmers. They also may be the most interesting. Dani came to the north country as a psychologist with the NY State Department of Corrections. Following retirement she realized her dream of owning and working the land. David grew up in northeast Ohio, near the birthplace of the Mother Earth News, and read it cover to cover from the first edition. David’s dream was always to own an organic farm. In high school he did research papers on methane generators and geodesic domes, among other interests. David also owns an industrial services business called CNC Services. Together Dani and David turned the 102 acre farmstead into productive land.
First Dani showed us the large map she created to design a real edible forest. She shared her art collection and showed us an incubator full of baby ducks. Then off we went on her electric cart that is powered by the wind and solar energy produced on the farm.
Young chicks have a place of honor in the house.
Artist, Viva Hoffmann was commissioned to paint this backdrop. Doing dishes on the farm is never a chore!
Dani’s tour included seeing her photographs and two small sculptures she made in college.
Dani took us on an hour long tour, which I thought would be a simple “over here is this, over there that.” Instead it turned out to be a lesson in agriculture, horticulture and life.
The edible forest at Cross Island Farms is designed according to the principles of permaculture, which is an elegant system of working with nature. Each plant, bush and tree is placed according to what it will contribute to its neighbours. Some plants fix nitrogen, some bring nutrients closer to the surface and some repel pests. The diversity of plants and the proper placement means that down the road, when the forest is mature, it will be strong, healthy and mostly labour-free.
Dani spent long hours in the winter months, working out the plan for the forest. She also made a trip to England to observe what a leading plant expert has done. The forest is mostly in the imagination right now. It is in its third growing season and the trees are small but proud, poking their heads out of the tall grass. We were amazed at the variety of herbs, flowers, bushes and trees. They all produce something edible, whether it is fruit, nuts or something to make tea. A beautiful stone path winds through the forest area. It is wide and flat enough for a wheelchair and there are small terraces where people could sit. When it is mature, it will be a beautiful place to host an event. We could easily imagine a bride coming down the path, her dress brushing the herbs at the edge. We could also imagine a concert, party or church service, as the area is discreetly wired for sound and lights.
Hundreds of Lupins form a line along the roadside of the forest.
The generous stone path has gentle curves.
One of the young trees, doing well in just the second growing season.
Rosa Rugosa produces large rosehips for jelly and tea.
A small pond has a beautiful green frog waiting for a lily pad.
Dani walks on her beautiful land.
We got off the electric cart to look at the cows, resting in the distance. David looks after the livestock and on Cross Island Farms this means moving the animals and chickens from pasture, to pasture so that they can graze and eat bugs. The “feeders” and “breeders” (Dani’s words) are kept separate and the animals are very carefully bred. Those who order their certified organic grass fed beef know the farm uses "No Grain, Ever" and no hormones or antibiotics. The supply is limited so smart Islanders make their orders early. When we got back to the cart, some chickens were sitting in our seats, surrounded by a flock of noisy, assorted poultry. It was fun to watch them and also fun to imagine how good they will taste.
The Large Black pigs were my favourites. Dani called them as we approached and they ignored her. She thumped on a pail, three sets of ears flew-up and they came charging down their large pen. "Our pigs get fresh air, exercise, and eat their vegetables, said Dani. When the pigs figured out that the pail didn’t mean a snack, they settled in to wallow in their pig-made mud hole, making what we thought must be contented grunts.
A Large Black, contentedly coated in mud.
Eggs collected from the Ameracauna chickens
Inside the hoop house.
We ended the tour in the hoop house, designed by David. In the spring, when there still may be snow on the ground, greens can be planted, to extend the harvest season. Dani showed us some plants that were growing outside the hoop house and the same kind growing inside. She said she had already been harvesting in the hoop house and the farm stand reflects this.
Cross Island Farms also offers the opportunity to be an intern on the farm. Check out their website if you want to trade your time and labor for a hands-on learning experience. There are camp sites available for primitive camping. From these you look-out over the pastures and a beaver pond. For $25 a night you can have your own piece of paradise. “How lucky are we?”
Also, the Farm is open for business daily and offers tours (like ours) to the public by appointment. A great opportunity to show city folk the real world.
I said to my friend. “If I had not forgotten to find rhubarb, we would never have had one of the most delightful afternoons ever.” And she agreed.
By Susan W. Smith & Jessy Kahn