You’ve been to a WHAT?

The expressions on the Texan couple’s faces were absolutely priceless.

“A gahrlic festival, John T.” his wife stressed in her distinctive lilting drawl. “She said they’ve been to a festival for gahrlic. Maybe we should go too. It sounds like fun.”

Whether you pronounce it with a southern drawl or not, the second annual garlic festival held at SunRoot Farm on July 29th was a lot of fun. More than that, however, it allowed visitors to the farm a look at a successful Community Shared Agriculture project that not only feeds city dwellers longing for fresh produce, it also helps local, low-income families struggling to make ends meet.

SunRoot Farm is 140 acres of forested and cleared land just outside of Kennetcook in Nova Scotia’s Hants County, and is part of SunRoot Eco-Solidarity Association (Eco-Sol), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the local community through social justice, community development and environmental stewardship. (See sidebar) The five young men and women who operate the farm live and work on its sprawling grounds, although most of them also work off-farm as well as tending to the seasonal requirements of operating an organic herb and vegetable farm.

“We’re not at a point where we can make a living solely from the farm yet,” Jen Melanson says, “and we also like to work with other sorts of sustainable and community oriented development.”

“Last year we had a rainy day, and still had about 200 people come and visit us,” Jen Melanson says as she prepares freshly harvested stalks of hard necked garlic for use in a garlic braiding demonstration. “This year, with the fine weather, we’re seeing many more people.”

Visitors to the festival had a choice of activities to enjoy, including several seminars and tours of the farm, as well as the garlic-braiding demonstration. At one seminar, participants were learning how to grow great garlic; at another, a host of visitors listened enraptured as Agrapoint’s Av Singh talked about organic pest control. You could also take in a workshop on medicinal herbs, as herbal therapy is being lauded by more people as a gently effective alternative to traditional drug-focused treatment of ailments. Children were occupied with activities provided by festival volunteers, although the most popular salesman at the festival was a young lad helping to sell vegetables and garlic!

If you were hungry, there were all kinds of delicious and nutritious foods to purchase, most only costing a dollar for a very generous sample. Here you could try dim sum, a dumpling of meat and garlic; here, a shrimp couscous or miniature quiche with salad, washed down with homemade juice. One woman was selling excellent hummus and pesto in small containers to take home, and naturally I didn’t miss out on a chance to savour such great flavours.

My friend and I wandered the farm, admiring the gardens, which only take up a couple of acres in total. This has not been the best of growing years for many conventional farmers, caught up as they are in large-scale production and monocropping. At SunRoot, however, while “each season has its challenges”, as Jen matter-of-factly says, the wet summer weather hasn’t much affected produce yields or planting timetables. “We aren’t using any mechanized equipment such as a tractor to do our farming, so we didn’t have to worry too much about compacting the soil or creating big ruts.”

One particularly interesting idea is the greenhouse built onto the side of a large, still-solid barn. Inside the greenhouse the SunRoot farmers are growing a host of crops that need warmth to do well; peppers, eggplants, basil, and even grapes were basking in the heat of the summer day, while visitors to the greenhouse quickly retreated from that shimmering heat!

Whether John T. and Betty from Austin Texas made it to the garlic festival or not, this yearly event was definitely a good time for all who did visit SunRoot Farm. More importantly, it gave visitors a look at a productive and vital farm run by young people who still believe in the idea of the small farm being able to make a living, and in the notion of helping others help themselves.