A field of dreams – and tractors, plows, farm talk and food

Skies over the plowing-match site

A sunbeam shines down through the fluffy clouds on the ever-growing tent city at the site of the Hastings County Plowing Match and Farm Show at Cornervue Farms on Queensborough Road.

Remember how a few months ago I told you that the agricultural event of the year was coming to Queensborough? And explained that the agricultural event in question was the Hastings County Plowing Match and Farm Show? Well, guess what, people? The Plowing Match is upon us! And here in Queensborough and environs, we are braced for a huge influx of people and lots of excitement. Why, it’s almost certainly the biggest thing to hit our corner of the world since the Rock Acres Peace Festival way back in 1971!

Hastings County Plowing Match 2016

More than 20,000 people – 20,000! – are expected for the Plowing Match, which takes place this coming Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 24 and 25, at the McKinnon family’s Cornervue Farms, 2431 Queensborough Rd., just west of Queensborough proper. (And just northeast of Hazzards Corners, which in turn is due north of Madoc. Consider yourself oriented.)

I’m pretty sure I speak for everyone in Queensborough when I say we’ve been watching with great interest over the past few days as tents and signs started going up, tractors and other farm machinery arrived at the site, and the first of what will doubtless be many portapotties was installed:

Plowing-match site 2

The first of the tents (and the first of the portapotties) set up toward the western edge of the large plowing-match site on Queensborough Road late last week. (Photo courtesy of Marykay York-Pronk)

Plowing-match poster from 1966The Hastings County Plowing Match in its current incarnation has been going on since 1989 – although similar events were held well before that, as you can tell from the photo at right, a picture of a picture that appeared in a Plowing Match special edition published by the folks behind one of our local weekly papers, the Central Hastings/Trent Hills News. It shows the event’s publicity chairman, Jim Haggerty, with a poster advertising a plowing match in central Hastings County back in 1966.

Hastings County

As you can see, there’s a lot more of Hastings County north of Highway 7 – the yellow line running east-west through Marmora and Madoc – than there is south of it. Not too much of that land is good for farming, however – with some happy exceptions.

While I tend to think of 1989 as yesterday, it was in fact a while back – 27 years, to be exact. And in all that time, people, the Plowing Match has never until now been held North of 7! (That’s Highway 7, for those uninitiated with the phrase, which I explain in detail here.) This might seem odd, given that there’s a lot more square miles of Hastings County north of 7 than there are south of it. But Highway 7 is the east-west dividing line between fertile farmland and rolling hills and fields (to the south) and the thin and rocky soil atop the Canadian Shield (to the north). North of 7 country is where pioneers’ dreams were dashed, when they tried and utterly failed to establish farms on soil that just wasn’t good enough. The whole story of the Old Hastings Road a bit north of Queensborough is about that.

However – and this is very important: that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas of good soil, and very successful farms, north of 7. The McKinnon operation just west of Queensborough is one excellent example. Angus McKinnon – my contemporary and former schoolmate at Madoc Township Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary School, back in the years when I was growing up in Queensborough – now operates the farm with his father, Don, a very active nonagenarian. As Angus said in an interview published in that Plowing Match publication I referred to earlier, Don “has been here all his life, and his father and his father.” The McKinnon family settled the farm back in the 19th century, and has operated it successfully in all the generations since.

We’re all so happy for the McKinnons’ operation to be in the agricultural spotlight in this way. And so excited about the week ahead!

So what goes on at a plowing match, anyway? Well, let’s have a gander at the schedule:

Plowing Match schedule

So there’s plowing, of course: competitions in many different classes in which, to quote the event’s website, participants “are judged or scored in five different areas, including the opening split, the crown and the finish. And covering any green matter is mandatory in all classes, whether it is plowing in grain stubble or sod.” (I confess I really do not know what any of this means, but I hope that after watching some live plowing this week I will.) The classes include tractors, horses, antique tractors, walking plows, young people, and Queen of the Furrow (more on that shortly) – as well as one for local politicians, and even one for the media. (Do reporters and heavy farm equipment mix? I guess we’ll find out!) And all of that’s a big deal.

Vintage tractor at the Plowing Match

A great old Allis-Chalmers, one of the many antique tractors that will be on display at the show.

But there’s also the farm-show part, which at least as big a deal. As the publicity materials say: “300 exhibitors of agricultural technology and services, woodlot info and demos, crafts, family program, antiques, Queen of the Furrow and entertainment.” Not bad! (Okay, what’s Queen of the Furrow? Not a beauty contest, organizers stress. It’s a competition to be named a young ambassador for Hastings County agriculture – and yes, you do have to demonstrate plowing skills, as well as public-speaking skills and whatnot. I do find it a bit retro that the title is “queen” of the furrow. Surely young men could be agriculture ambassadors too?)

The number of tents and displays set up – I got an advance look when I was out at the site this morning – is astounding. It seems like anything you could ever want to look at in the way of farm equipment will be there, all shiny and new for you to admire.There was a steady stream of big trucks like this bringing in equipment this morning:

Incoming equipment

I leafed through the ads in that Plowing Match publication to get a sense of other equipment and services that would be on display, and here’s just some of what I found: milking systems for tie stall, parlour and robotics (Greek to me, but dairy farmers will understand); generators; custom manure spreading; chainsaws; fuels; seeds; farm insurance; trailers; wood stoves; bush hogs; roofing; farm sheds; feed suppliers – and on and on and on.

But if farm equipment and services aren’t your thing, there’s always the Family Tent, with a variety of speakers and events. Its schedule was just published today on the farm show’s Facebook page, and here it is:

Family Tent Schedule

Freddy Vette, a hugely popular musician and DJ on good old CJBQ radio out of Belleville, should be a big draw. Fashion shows featuring ordinary humans from the local area as models are always fun. The Hidden Goldmine Bakery in Madoc is insanely great (as I’ve written before), and it will be interesting to hear from its proprietors, Cheryl and Brad Freeman. And I am delighted that Queensborough’s own Elaine Kapusta has been invited to speak about “Historic Queensboro” (love the vintage spelling)!

Queensborough stuff for sale

Queensborough caps, mugs and cutting boards will be for sale at the Queensborough Community Centre tent.

Hey, speaking of Elaine and “Historic Queensboro” – the organization that Elaine will be representing, and that Raymond and I are also volunteers with, will have a tent at the farm show. Please stop by the Queensborough Community Centre tent to say hello, learn more about Queensborough, and maybe buy one of our nifty items for sale: Queensborough walking/driving-tour booklets, and caps, mugs and locally made cutting boards all featuring the Queensborough logo. What a great memento of the farm show – and in buying them you’ll be contributing to the work that the QCC does in promoting our little hamlet, preserving its heritage, and providing community programs and events.

Three United Churches banner

The main focus for Raymond and me at the Plowing Match will be helping out at the food tent that volunteers from three local United churches – ours (St. Andrew’s in Queensborough), Bethesda in White Lake and St. John’s in Tweed – will be operating. About 25 of us were out at the Plowing Match site this morning getting things set up. I have a few photos of this very pleasant few hours:

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As is always the case, many hands made light work, and there was a lot of laughter along the way. We’re going to be working awfully hard on Wednesday and Thursday to feed those long lineups of hungry farm-show visitors, but we know the experience will also be a whole of fun.

So listen: your mission for this week is to come visit the Plowing Match! Enjoy the plowing, the equipment displays, the special events, and the food. (Ours will be the tent at the northwest corner of the site – and did I mention there’ll be homemade pie?) Enjoy the company of lots of good farm folk and their urban neighbours out for a day in the country. And most of all, enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the McKinnon Farm and Queensborough – which is, as we say around here, a little bit of heaven north of 7.

A brief glimpse of a sign from times past

Pigden Motor Sales sign at Bush Furniture

What a thrill it was to see the old Pigden Motor Sales sign revealed once again, thanks to renovations of the exterior of the Bush Furniture store in Madoc!

I shouldn’t wait too much longer to file a report on something interesting and cool that happened in the nearby village of Madoc (which is “town” for us Queensborough people, at least on the days when Tweed doesn’t fit that bill) not very long ago. File this one under “fun blasts from Madoc’s commercial past.”

Northstar fridge red

The retro-style red fridge that I will buy from Bush Furniture one of these days. (Photo from Elmira Stove Works)

Here’s the story: There is an excellent local furniture and appliance store called Bush Furniture, with outlets in both Madoc and Tweed. At the Tweed store I found the refrigerator of my dreams, the retro-style red one that I will have someday, and you can read about that here; meanwhile, Raymond and I have purchased both a more mundane white fridge and a much-needed chest freezer from Bush’s in Madoc, and in both cases we have been thoroughly pleased with the quality of the merchandise, the friendly service, and the efficient delivery of the product. For all those of you in central Hastings County thinking of buying furniture and appliances from the big-box stores in some regional city: I heartily suggest you think again, and go local with the Bush folks. You won’t regret it.)

But anyway. Both Bush Furniture outlets have undergone renovations recently, and the work on the exterior of the Madoc store uncovered a real treasure – if only briefly.

You see, Bush’s in Madoc is located in the building that once housed Pigden Motors, a Dodge/Chrysler dealership back when I was kid growing up here in the Manse in Queensborough. Its location on Russell Street (or is that Russel Street?) was the car-dealership strip in those days; Derry’s Garage, Madoc’s Pontiac-Buick-Chev-GMC dealer, was right across the street. I’m sure there are many stories of the two businesses’ friendly rivalry.

(Meanwhile, I expect there was also a Ford dealership in town back then. Was it Armstrong’s Garage on St. Lawrence Street East? Or Brett’s Garage on Durham Street South? I am hoping a reader can enlighten me. And also, I should send out a shoutout to Madoc’s current car dealership, the bustling operation that is Doug Hunter Ford, carrying on the tradition out there on car-dealership row on Russell Street just south of Highway 7.)

Oh – have I digressed again? Oops. Well, this blog is nothing if not full of digressions.

What I want to say is that the renovations to the exterior of Bush Furniture – still a work in progress as of this date, I believe, which is why I’m not including an “after” photo – briefly revealed the old sign for Pigden Motor Sales. My eyes practically popped out of my head when I saw it, and of course I had to bring my car to a screeching stop and get some photos.

For one thing, I am a sucker for all old painted commercial signs. They are so beautiful, especially when faded and reminding us of businesses that once were so proud to proclaim their existence. But mainly, I was delighted to see that visual reminder of a prosperous and well-respected Madoc business from back in the days when all of us were so much younger.

The painted Pigden Motor Sales signs is covered up again now, and the front of Bush Furniture looks very nice as the renovations continue. But I’m glad to know that the old sign is still under there. And even gladder that I got a chance, even if a very brief one, to see it once again, and to share it with all of you.

A picture that tells our story

Farmstead, central Hastings County

The huge rocks pulled long ago to make a farm field out of virgin forest; the half-ruined split-rail fence; the old farmhouse in the distance; the blue sky over all. To me this photo says so much about the industrious past and the quieter but beautiful present of the place where I live.

Not long ago I did a post with the headline “The poetry of decay,” featuring photos of an old shed not far from Queensborough that is slowly, and rather beautifully (in a melancholy sort of way), crumbling. (That post is here, if you’re interested in reading it.) Tonight’s post feels like a bit of a followup to that one. And perhaps to several other instalments of Meanwhile, at the Manse, particularly those having to do with The Country North of Belleville, also widely known as “north of 7.”

Now, truth be told this photo was taken south of 7 (that would be Highway 7; click here for an explanation of the terminology), but only barely. I came across this abandoned house and its surrounding farm – the land still being farmed, as far as I can tell, but with not much happening on it on a very early spring day – one recent Saturday morning when I was poking around the back roads north of Tweed. It struck me as a visual summing-up of so much about our neck of the woods, which is central and central-north Hastings County.

There is, first, the abandoned – but, I should note, certainly not crumbling – farmhouse, a reminder of the early settlers who claimed this land, cleared it, and planted crops on it in the hope and expectation of making a go of it in this country. This is probably not the first house built on the farm, but rather a later and fancier (when compared to what might well have been little more than a shed) iteration, put up when the family felt that they truly were settled and were making out all right. I like its typical-of-the-area red colour (Hematite red? Hematite is a common mineral in Hastings County, and dust from operations to mine it was commonly used as pigment, as you can read in the comments on this post), and its semi-rusted roof that I’d be willing to bet still keeps most of the rain out. And it looks so solitary and striking out there in the middle of the surrounding yellow-brown field. What stories could that house tell?

I like the old barns and sheds that you can see at the left of the photo, holding up very well despite obviously being well over a century old. You can’t see them in the photo, but there were pieces of farm equipment stored in the outbuilldings on the day I passed by. Another clue that this farm is still a farm, even if the house is no longer lived in.

I think most of all I love the half-wrecked split-rail fence and the large boulders at the front of the property and in the foreground of the photo. They are silent testament to the hard, hard work that the first settlers had to put in as they cleared the land and made fields out of forest. Big stones like that would have been pulled from the fields and moved to the edge to make fences; you can still see such old stone fences all over central Hastings, a country where there is no shortage of rocks and stones. As any farmer north of 7 will tell you, the task of clearing those rocks and stones is an unending one; each spring a new crop comes up from the Canadian Shield that lies so close to the surface here.

I do not for a second consider myself a good photographer, but I do like this photo. To me it is kind of an iconic image of what central Hastings County has been – and is. There is beauty in the ruins and in the silence and the emptiness and the landscape. Is it desolate? No – because there is life all around. To both sides of this old house and farm, and across the road from it, are newer houses, and people who still live and work here and call it home. But I like the thought that in the midst of 21st-century life is this beautiful reminder of what was. I think its continued existence helps us, whether we realize it or not, to better understand the place we live in, and the people who were here before us, trying so very hard to make it a good place to live. In which, by the way, they succeeded.

The sign we have been waiting for. 

Internet hope

When you’re Raymond and me, people, this is the sign you want to see.

It appeared recently on Queensborough Road (which you can see in the background of my photo) just a little north of Highway 7. Its message: that a newly erected communications tower – that would be the one on which I was pinning my hopes for decent internet at a reasonable price; I wrote about it here when word of the tower’s coming first landed – is operational. Which means that, in theory at least, the people of Queensborough, many of whom have been struggling with poor internet and/or exorbitant prices for it, will be able to enjoy the luxury of a service that city folk take for granted.

Without sticker shock!

Longtime readers will be well aware of our internet woes here at the Manse:

How we had to rely in the early days on our phones and a very dodgy Rogers signal. (Which, I should note, has since improved a fair bit.)

How we investigated the possibility of satellite-delivered internet, though worried about snow and rain disrupting our signal; and in the end decided no way when the internet guy told us the only way we could get a decent signal was if we put the satellite dish atop a pole we’d have to erect in concrete at our property’s edge.

How we were thrilled when the folks at Telus informed us that they could supply us with internet, and promptly shipped us a wireless modem that, wonder of wonders, did supply the internet. (Except when it didn’t.)

How we were less thrilled when we learned that our regular monthly bill for this pay-per-usage service would be about $100. And we weren’t even using it heavily!

How were really unthrilled when we got a bill for almost $412. What the !&%$!? (It turned out it was because Raymond had tuned in to a CBC Radio online channel featuring opera. Naïfs that we were, we had no clue that logging in to a music-streaming service like hundreds of millions of people do every day would send our bill through the stratosphere.)

How that wasn’t the last such monster bill.

And how we continue to be frustrated and annoyed that we can’t take advantage of great inventions like Netflix, because watching a movie or TV show via internet would send our bill completely through the roof once again.

But all of that expense and frustration may finally be at an end!

Some people in Queensborough have already had the new service installed, and, though it’s very early days, seem to be quite satisfied. Others have set up appointments for the internet guys to come around, and are anxiously waiting for that to happen.

Among the households in that situation is us, here at the Manse. We’re hoping to get a package that should give us all the high-speed internet we could reasonably use – Netflix included! – for $70 a month. I have to tell you that after many, many months of frustration at signals that cut out, constant worry that we’re using too much data just by watching something like a YouTube video, and more than a few bills in the $200 to $300 range, we are very, very excited.

Will it work? Can this actually happen? We’ll find out Thursday. Which cannot come too soon.

Food news you need: where to get great local sausages

Seed to Sausage on Street View

Thanks to Google Street View, we can all see what sausage-making operation extraordinaire Seed to Sausage of Sharbot Lake looks like. Sadly, the retail end of things isn’t open in the winter. But fear not: I have found a place to buy their products – possibly the best sausages ever!

Ah, Friday night. Often it is a time for a musical interlude here at Meanwhile, at the Manse, as we try to have an entertaining and not-overly-demanding end to the work week. Tonight, however, instead of focusing on the pleasures of music, we’re going to focus on the pleasures of good eating. Good local eating, to be precise.

As far as I know I have no Teutonic or Eastern European blood whatsoever, but I do enjoy a meal that features good sausages. (The absolute best is an Alsatian-style Choucroute Garnie, sauerkraut topped with various kinds of sausages and other porky things, washed down with a nice Riesling, and ideally eaten in a place like the Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis in Paris. Oh, am I digressing?)

Seed to Sausage back label

Proof of how local the superb Seed to Sausage sausages are: the address of the operation, south of Sharbot Lake.

As I wrote here, I discovered possibly the best sausages I’ve ever eaten, made locally to boot, at a food event held in Tweed this past September. The company that makes these extraordinary sausages is called Seed to Sausage, and it is based in tiny Sharbot Lake, about an hour’s drive east of Queensborough along Highway 7 (and then south a bit on Highway 38).

Now, Seed to Sausage does have a retail outlet at the Sharbot Lake home base, but it’s closed in the wintertime. And it has an actual store in Ottawa, but Ottawa is far. And so I’d been hoping to find someplace closer that might have these delectable sausages – and now I have! And that’s what I am here to report this evening. Because I think everyone who appreciates a good sausage every now and then needs to know.

So here’s the skinny (possibly the wrong word to use when one is talking about sausages): you can buy the products of Seed to Sausage at a new food store – it opened this past December – in downtown Belleville (249 Front St. to be exact) that is called Gourmet Diem. The store’s web page seems to be still under construction and doesn’t provide any information, but you can read about Gourmet Diem here, in a nice little story done by one of my students in the Loyalist College journalism program.

Seed to Sausage sausages

The Garlic Red Wine sausages feature wine from Prince Edward County. Nice!

Raymond and I finally got a chance to try some Seed to Sausage products from Gourmet Diem just this past week, and I am very happy to report that both the Jalapeno Cheese Curd Smokies (made, as I reported in that earlier post, with cheese curds from Empire Cheese of Campbellford, possibly the best local cheddar-cheese-maker of all) and the Garlic Red Wine sausages (made with wine from the Casa-Dea Estates Winery of Prince Edward County) were superb.

So there you go, fellow sausage lovers. Try them now, and thank me later. These are sausages that sing!

A baby bittern: not something you see every day

Baby bittern on the road

What’s that long-necked creature crossing the road? Well, Raymond and I are pretty sure it was a baby bittern.

When travelling between our new(ish) home in Queensborough and our old home (now up for sale) in Montreal, Raymond and I, being sensible folk, like to avoid Highway 401 as much as possible. Clever Raymond has discovered a route that takes us along Highway 7 between Queensborough Road and Perth, Lanark/Leeds and Grenville County Road 1 between Perth and the village of Toledo (I love that name), and Leeds and Grenville Road 29 between Toledo and Brockville. Sadly, the rest of the trip is still the 401, but those smaller, scenic roads are lovely to drive on, especially at this time of year.

It was while we were on Leeds and Grenville Road 1 the other day, somewhere between Toledo and the almost-not-there hamlet of Mott’s Mills, that we had to brake hard for a creature trying to cross the road. No, this time (for a change) it wasn’t a turtle; it was a baby bird of some sort. We got a little closer and Raymond said, “I think it’s a baby bittern!” And I had to agree.

Now, Raymond and I consider ourselves quite expert at bitterns. (Don’t worry, I’m being facetious here). After all, not only have we spotted an adult one by the side of Queensborough Road (I wrote about that here), but throughout this past spring we listened to the deep gurgly-type song of one who inhabits a marshy area just down the road from the Manse.

Okay, so maybe that’s not quite enough knowledge to be sure that the baby we spotted out on that country road was a bittern. But it held its long neck and head high, just like an adult bittern does; really it was just like an adult bittern in miniature.

I hope you will be relieved to know that we shooed it off the road. Actually it shooed itself; as I gently approached to try to take its picture, it decided it would be much better off in the undergrowth. And of course it was, at least when it came to its safety. It was puzzling why the mother was nowhere to be seen, and I hope no harm had come to her.

Baby bittern off the road

The baby bittern gives me one last look before heading off into the bush.

Anyway, because our baby bittern didn’t really want to have its photo taken, it’s pretty far off in my pictures. But please take a look and tell me if you agree with our latest bird-identification effort.

Apparently even I could grow lavender. Or could I?

Doris's lavender

A gorgeous lavender bush in front of the home of our Belleville friend Doris. It got me wildly excited about the possibility of growing lavender at the Manse – excitement that I now strongly suspect was premature.

I haven’t written much about our garden lately, primarily because it is in a shameful state of weediness that I don’t like to think about (or broadcast, though here I am doing exactly that). I find it amusing, though not in a particularly good way, that I seemed to have more time to weed the garden in the two previous summers, when Raymond and I were only able to get to the Manse on the occasional weekend, than this summer when, theoretically at least, we are in full-time residence. The problem is this: we went and planned so much activity (including travel) for this summer that I can’t find any time to experience what I once called the zen of weeding. What I desperately need is one long, sunny, warm-but-not-too-hot-and-not-too-buggy day with nothing else to do, so I can spend it on hands and knees getting those same hands and knees gloriously dirty, pulling out the weeds that are trying to suck the life from our perennials.

But it hasn’t happened yet. Still, even though my garden is weedy, I can continue to dream garden dreams – can’t I?

My latest dream is about having lavender, although I am far from sure that this is a realistic dream.

I was inspired by a recent visit to our friend Doris, who lives in Belleville. Thinking I had discovered something exotic (for southeastern Ontario), I brought Doris a little bouquet of lavender that I discovered for sale at the farmers’ market in Stirling on the way (the long way) to Belleville from our home in Queensborough. I’ve always loved lavender, perhaps partially because of its deep association with beautiful Provence (where Raymond and I spent part of our honeymoon). I am so interested that it is now being successfully grown in some parts of Quebec (notably at the large Bleu Lavande operation in the Eastern Townships) and Ontario – including, obviously, somewhere close enough to Stirling for the product to be sold at the farmers’ market there. It seemed so pleasantly foreign, and so that’s why I picked some up as a little gift for Doris.

So what did Raymond and I see as we pulled into Doris’s driveway? A gloriously healthy lavender bush right there in her front garden!

Of course I felt dopey about bringing something as a gift that she already had in plenty, but I also used the occasion to try to learn something about growing lavender here in our part of the world. Doris told us that the lavender she has success with is the English kind, and she mentioned two varieties, Munstead and Hidcote. When I expressed surprise that they could be grown here, she said it was not a problem at all in Zone 5b. (Do you know about growing zones? Neither do I, particularly, but they are explained here.)

Spot for lavender

I love these big tall bushes of yellow flowers because they happen effortlessly (for me) – but since there is a bit of a surfeit of them, I think some could be removed to make this prominent corner of the Manse’s perennial garden just the spot for lavender. That is, if it’ll grow here.

Okay, so far so good. By the time Raymond and I got back to the Manse we had already decided where we wanted to plant our lavender. I was very excited!

However … it turns out (and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this) that Queensborough, in its north-of-Highway 7 location, is not in Zone 5b, as Belleville, on the shore of Lake Ontario, is. According to this map from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, it isn’t even in Zone 5a, the next-colder one that takes over a bit north of Belleville.

No, once one gets just a bit north of 7, one is in Zone 4b, where winters are colder still; and it looks rather doubtful that lavender would survive that.

Maybe it would, though; the entry on Munstead lavender on this gardening-company site says that it is their most hardy version, and while it lists its growing zones as 5a to 11, it also says that is is “cold-tolerant to Zone 4.” It doesn’t look like Hidcote lavender is a possibility; that one is listed as being in only in Zones 5a-5b for hardiness.

So this is the juncture where I would like to ask my Queensborough-area gardening friends (you know who you are): What are my chances of successfully growing lavender in the Manse’s garden?

Once I get the weeds out, that is.