Lara Bender (blog/Twitter) is the creator of Agritourism Ottawa, a blog that profiles wineries, orchards, gardens, farm tours, and other agricultural destinations within an hour’s drive of Ottawa. When she’s not hanging out on farms and driving Ottawa’s rural back roads, she’s a product marketing writer in the high-tech industry.
While visiting Ottawa’s many agritourism destinations over the last year, I’ve often thought that it would be great if someone organized bus tours to some of these farms. After all, not everyone has a car to drive to Ottawa’s rural outskirts, nor is everyone comfortable with putting together their own itinerary. So I was really happy to see that a local university student, Jasen Brousseau, has recently created Locavore Tours, a tour company that brings visitors to local and organic farms in Ottawa.
I always like to help promote local agritourism businesses, so when Jasen asked if I could help him get the word out for his next tour, I enthusiastically agreed. (Disclosure: I am not compensated for this or any other promotion that I do through my Agritourism Ottawa website or my Local Tourism Ottawa articles.)
The tour was planned for Saturday, Aug. 13, at Alpenblick Farm in Ashton. About 20 people signed up, including a reporter from the Ottawa Citizen who plans to do a Travel section profile on the tour.
Everyone met in the Eagleson Park and Ride in Kanata, where Robert Oechsli (the farmer at Alpenblick) picked us up in a yellow school bus (conveniently, he is also a licensed bus driver and owns the bus!) Then it was a 20 minute drive to Ashton, where the farm is just off Highway 7.
On arrival, Jasen jumped out of the bus and opened the gate. Once inside, we entered into the type of farm that is rarely seen these days: an off-the-grid, small-scale, mixed farm that lets the animals roam free in as natural a state as possible. From the 1827 log home, to the dairy goats with bells, this tour would provide a glimpse of how farming was done before the age of factory farms and mass production.
We began the tour in front of the log home that Robert shares with his wife Petra Stevenson. While seated in lawn chairs in a semi-circle, we listened as Robert shared his views on the modern food system. He explained his philosophy for how he grows and raises food, and described some of the government restrictions that make it difficult to sell the local products that customers want to buy (e.g. eggs, milk). He encouraged us to carefully read labels in the grocery store, and to watch out for things like “chocolate dairy beverage”, which is packaged to look like chocolate milk, but does not actually contain real milk.
Next up was the farm tour. Our first stop was a visit with the very friendly goats, which were happily relaxing under a big tree. A few of the goats got up to investigate the new people, approaching us for petting and to sniff and nibble at our clothes. The goats were a big hit with the crowd, and everyone took lots of pictures.
We then moved on to the organic garden. Robert says the garden provides enough produce to feed a family of five through the winter (with food preservation such as canning, of course). The vegetables are grown completely naturally, with no pesticides. Robert uses the garden to educate the many visitors to the farm, including school groups, children who attend summer camp on the farm, and international volunteers who help on the farm through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).
Our next stop was the cow barn, where Robert milks his Simmental cows by hand. None of the cows were on hand – they’d wandered off to a back field, accompanied by the pot-bellied pig. Robert explained the milking process, which provides 15-17 L of milk per cow each day (about half the amount of a conventional dairy farm). Although government regulations prevent Robert from selling his milk directly to customers, he does lease “cow shares”. As part-owners of a cow, consumers can come to the farm and collect “their” milk – a practice that is currently considered legal, but is still being battled out in the courts (click here for more details on the raw milk issue in Ontario).
By this point we were all getting hungry for lunch! So we made our way over to where Jasen had organized an outdoor lunch at picnic tables under tents. We were treated to organic hamburgers (from the farm) cooked over a wood fire. We also got to sample Robert’s homemade Swiss cheese, made from milk produced on the farm. The vegetarians in the group made sandwiches out of cheese and an assortment of vegetables. After lunch, we were able to walk around the grounds on our own, or hang out at the picnic tables and listen to Robert’s entertaining stories of coming to Canada and living on the farm.
Our final stop on the tour was outside the cold storage room where Robert and his wife Petra sell their farm products. Jasen went down to get a pail of fresh cow milk, followed by a pail of fresh goat milk. We tasted samples of both types of milk, and most people were surprised that the goat milk had only a very mild goat flavour. Robert says that this is partly because the goats are not kept in a barn, so they are not breathing in methane which impacts the taste of the milk.
While sampling the milk, we were joined by a miniature horse who wandered through the group, much like a large dog. It’s not too often that you have the opportunity to drink fresh, raw milk while petting the back of a little horse!
When were finished our milk samples, we had the opportunity to go into the store and buy meat from the farm. The animals are butchered at Rideau Meats in Smiths Falls; Robert them in on a Tuesday night, and they are processed first thing in the morning to avoid cross-contamination with non-organic meat.
The store also sells Robert’s homemade Swiss cheese. Robert has created his own cheese press, which can be seen in the store. The final product looks similar to Havarti, with many small holes rather than the large holes commonly seen with Swiss cheese.
After making our purchases, it was time to get back on the bus with Robert and Jasen. While driving out, Robert pointed to a goat with two lambs. The goat had lost her kid that winter, and the lambs had lost their mother. So Robert put the lambs with the goat, and she has raised them as her own. Now the lambs think they are goats – they play like goats and make sounds like goats. “Because they were raised on goat’s milk, they will also taste delicious,” said Robert. “But we don’t tell them that.”
By 2:30 pm, we were back at the Eagleson Park and Ride, with lots of time still available to enjoy the rest of the day. Everyone had a great time visiting the farm and learning about organic and sustainable farming. Aside from the educational component, it was also fun just to interact with the very tame farm animals, and spend a day outside in the country with a great group of people.
Thanks, Lara! Want to check out your own Locavore Tour? See the details below!
Locavore Tours Details
Next tour: Saturday, September 17, 2011 at Alpenblick Farm
Cost: $20 each, including lunch and transportation (that is crazy cheap!)
Contact: Jasen Brousseau at 613-324-5864 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Alpenblick Farm Details
Location: 8138 Golf Club Way, Ashton, ON
Contact: Robert Oechsli and Petra Stevenson, 613-253-2640 or email@example.com
Where to buy: At the farm gate or at one of the farmers markets that Robert and Petra sell at. Click here for details.
How to visit: Sign up for a tour with Locavore Tours, or contact Alpenblick for farm gate hours. Robert also allows people to camp in tents on his property if they want to spend a weekend at a farm. (The property has outhouses and a clean water source.) Children can also sign up for the Youth Food and Farm Apprenticeship Camp organized by Canadian Organic Growers. Click here for details.