There’s a 3/4 acre farm in rural Ontario just outside of Caledonia, where magic is happening.
Hanna Jacobs is proof that a person’s dream can become reality with the right amount of effort and nurturing.
Hanna has run an organic produce farm on her own land over the last fifteen years. From its humble beginning on the rooftop of a Queen West Toronto apartment, Matchbox Garden & Seed Co. has become an integral part of the local community, serving Hamilton and many parts of the GTA with fresh, truly organic produce and seeds.
Thanks to the web, the business has also broadened nationwide. Hanna sells organic seeds; everything from beans to cabbage to eggplant to tomatoes, as well as various herb and flower seeds.
Not unlike the seeds that are sustainably grown by Matchbox, the business has flourished while still retaining the wholesome, responsible outlook about the environment and the earth in general.
We wanted to know more about her story, and get her opinion about how we as consumers can make better choices about how we purchase our food, and ultimately feed our families.
I had done a ton of traveling in my early twenties, primarily Europe and North America. I didn’t do a lot of city traveling, it was mostly rural. While doing that, I saw a lot of destruction. And it was super depressing. Clear cut, cash crop, and stuff that may not necessarily look like destruction, but if you know what you’re looking at, then you realize how bad it really is. At the time I was working in the food industry, so I already had a connection to food. Seeing the impact that we have on the whole was emotionally devasting for me.
Through travel, I visited a number of different alternative communities, organic farms etc. I started working at an organic restaurant in Oregon. That was the first time I actually got to go out and spend some real time on a farm. As soon as I stepped onto that farm, I had a complete epiphone. I thought: this is where I am supposed to be.
I didn’t actually get to doing anything about it until years later. These things take time. At first, I knew I wanted to get into food. Loving food, loving feeding people, loving nurturing—that part of life. It probably wasn’t until I was about 8 years into cooking that I really decided the restaurant world is not conducive to my personality. I still wanted to be growing food. I’d seen operations in the U.S, and how they were doing things sustainably. Living out west in the States, I realized how many light years they were ahead of [Canada] in terms of sustainable farming. When I moved back to Toronto, I realized that people just couldn’t get a hold of sustainable produce. This was back in 2001. It was super hard.
Then I got pregnant. And your life is one way before you have kids, and then everything gets flipped on its head, and you hopefully have more epiphanies about life and the world, and that was definitely the case for me. So I was like: Okay, I have a child, and I don’t want to go back into restauranting. This farming idea that hit me like a Mack truck is still percolating. Now I’m going to do it. So having a kid made me reevaluate things and go for it.
We did the backyard in Toronto and that was a good way to get my feet wet. I did that for two years. Then I really ratcheted things up, and got involved in an incubator program out in Brampton. I jumped from 1000 square feet to three acres. And it was fucking crazy. (laughs) But it was a really good learning experience.
It’s defunct now, unfortunately but it was a not-for-profit organization that had teamed up with the Toronto Conservation Authority. They had a 60 acre farm. The idea was that there would be a central hub on the farm, with a farm manager and with more professional tools like tractors and tillers, and a walk-in fridge—all the more expensive infrastructure pieces. All of it would be for communal use. The incubator program was for new farmers and farmers who were new to Canada. It was basically set up for those that qualified to allow people the ability to explore becoming a farmer, for real.
You had a three-year time limit on the farm. They helped you keep costs down, gave you some mentorship, and then with any luck you’d be successful enough to bounce off of the farm and find land somewhere else, whether that was another rental situation, or you were lucky enough to be able to purchase property.
No, it was for new farmers to be able to develop farm models that were successful for them. When we think about agriculture; we as a general public have been duped into the idea that there’s either the picturesque storybook farm, or there’s the “Big Ag” (Big Agriculture). But there’s so many other methods of farming in between all of that.
Because of the folks that were running the not-for-profit, the focus was really on small to mid-scale farms. If you want to be a Big Ag farmer, you’re going to University of Guelph. It’s a whole different world. I know just about as much about Big Ag farming as they do about small scale organic farming. I can’t even tell you the variety of chemicals, synthetic stuff that they put on their fields… they are really two very different approaches to producing food.
Also, because TRCA is a conservation authority, the program was all about farming sustainably in order to maintain biodiversity on our land, increase soil health—all about long-term sustainability.
It was a long and winding road. We were in the incubator program for three years, and cultivated up to an acre each year. Then we were approached by the Toronto Conservation Authority to take over the 10 acre farm at Kortright Centre. So we did that, and it had a lot of potential, but there were too many infrastructure issues with TRCA—it’s like any large bureaucracy. There’s loads of red tape, you’re talking with a million different people and so things can take a really long time to get done. So it was better for us to go out on our own.
If people want to make healthier choices around that, there are two main options. You can stop going to the supermarket for produce, and go to a local farmer’s market. Farmer’s markets are everywhere now. You can hit the farmer’s market, or you can sign up for a community supported agriculture program. (CSA) In terms of dollars, a CSA is going to be more economical 9 times out of 10 against going to a farmer’s market, or buying certified organic from the grocery store. Also with a CSA you’re direct to the farm, so every dollar that you’re putting out is going straight to the farmer instead of going to the distributor and the grocery store.
It’s elective. I actually have several other farmers asking me about this. I got EcoCert certification primarily because I have a number of wholesale accounts and I am selling seed online. I’ve got seed going next door, but I also have seed going to Northern Alberta. I don’t have a relationship with the end user for the better portion of my [seed] customers; I never meet them, and they don’t know who I am. For produce, all of my customers know me. If I was only doing face to face sales, I wouldn’t certify. For me, certification was never about changing my practices, they have always been in line if not above and beyond. Certification allows me to open the market up to, yes, make more money, but also expose more people to what we’re doing.
Honestly, it’s all over the place. From “I’ve never grown anything in my life.” to small farms and businesses looking for something that I happen to have. The business has been going since 2006, and there have been huge changes in people’s perception of the business, and people’s understanding of what is happening in the world. It’s been pretty incredible. I used to get people berating me because I was selling a head of lettuce for three dollars. They would say “I can go out and grow it myself for that price!” And I don’t get that anymore. That could be because I’ve been around for a while, but I think it has more to do with general consumer awareness.
Legally, in Ontario, a farm is not allowed to say it’s “organic” if it’s not. I know that’s the regulation for Ontario, and possibly across Canada. They are not able to use the word “organic” at all, unless they have the certification to back them up. Let’s say you’re at a farmer’s market. The simplest way to find out if something is truly organic, is to ask the farmer if they are certified. If they start giving you a whole spiel about why they don’t need certification, I would be hesitant about buying from that farmer. If they say they’re not certified, but they are open and transparent as to the reasons why, then that is different. It’s like anything else. An easy way to determine is just to ask if they are certified organic. It’s less confrontational than: “Oh, you’re organic. What certifications lobby are you with?”
It’s the same. We have federal standards, each certification body is obligated to follow the national standard. Anything that is labeled “certified organic” has to have gone through the process of getting certified. You might see the non-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) labels on everything and that’s great, so they’re not using GMOs, but that doesn’t mean that they’re certified organic.
We live in a capitalist society. These companies are going to do whatever they can to convince people that their product is the one to buy. They’re going to use words like “natural” and so on to convince you that their product is better for you. At the end of the day, if you see the certified organic Canada logo then that’s the real deal. I don’t think you’ll find anything in the grocery store that says organic on it if it doesn’t have certification. There was a time when you could, but they’ve clamped down on that.
Now, even though I’m saying all of this, would I buy certified organic from the United States? No. Their process has been so watered down by corporations that it doesn’t hold to the original standards. They have a lower set of standards than we do in Canada. As a Canadian certified organic farm, I automatically have the equivalent certification required for Europe. I can potentially use my current certification for product going to Europe, if I wish. I can also sell to the U.S. But if I had USDA Certification, I would have to jump through extra hoops to sell to Europe, to Canada, to Japan… I will buy an in-season conventional veg up here in Canada, before I’ll buy certified organic from the States.
But of course, this is what I do for a living, so I’m thinking about this stuff every time I walk into the grocery store. Every time I go to a famer’s market, I’m thinking about source, and transportation… that stuff just automatically comes into my brain. I’d say it’s not that common for the greater percentage of the population. It’s not easy for people to have all these considerations as they are going up and down the grocery aisle.
When I go into a grocery store in the winter, I still like to have tomatoes and cucumbers, and peppers. So what I look for (even though there’s lots of people that may think this is a bad idea) is greenhouse-grown crops. Ontario greenhouse crops. The reason that I do greenhouse is that I know the labour practices are more reliable up here. But I would not buy greenhouse vegetables from Florida or California. There’s questionable labour practices, they use pesticides, and then add transportation on top of that.
So yes, it was grown in a greenhouse, and there’s a high carbon footprint there. But there’s little to no transportation cost, they don’t use pesticides and insecticides in the greenhouses because they found that biological controls are more effective. Biological control being beneficial insects—predatory insects that keep pests in check in the greenhouse. That is the default mode for greenhouses in Ontario now. Yes it was grown in a greenhouse, and yes they put synthetic fertilizers in their soils and their hydroponics, but they’re not using all of the other chemicals to deal with pests and disease. You’ve got grown adults getting paid reasonable wages, and there’s very little transportation. For me, that checks eough boxes. So I tell everyone, if you’re craving a strawberry and you see the greenhouse Ontario strawberries in the winter, buy those. Plus, on top of all the things I just said, those Ontario strawberries taste like Ontario strawberries.
(laughs) At the end of the day. I hear this from people over and over again: cost and convenience. Cost, and convenience.
(laughs) I know, but that doesn’t work on people!
It was so great to have had a chance to catch up with Hanna. From our discussion, there arose several additional questions. We plan to cover follow up interviews discussing specific topics about sustainable agriculture, best practices for shopping conscientiously, and how to properly take care of your own home garden, in future articles.
If you have any questions of your own about organic farming for produce or seeds, please message us and we’ll be happy to help where we can.