Ugly Food

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I’d like you to take a moment and picture a carrot. But not just a carrot – the carrot, the one that is the gleaming pinnacle of carrotness, a carrot that all other carrots jealously whisper behind its back about. Do you imagine its crispness, the glowing orange sheen, lush greens, ruler-straight posture and long isosceles taper that would make Euclid weep for joy?

It’d be a rare person who imagines a white or purple carrot, one with appendages or a twist, a frumpy stub of a thing that has spindly lone roots that draw your eye like miscoloured hairs on a wart, etched with trails and ducts from burrowing insects. It sounds gross, and is probably an immediate reject on sight alone. But how would it taste?

I’m currently dealing with the fallout from soil that doesn’t dry, and a fair share of insect damage (which I’m in part to blame for cheaping out on row cover). This leads to root rot, splitting, discolouration and holes in leaves, roots or stems. I do what I can to remove the damage, a sort of triage at harvest. But I’m left with the challenge of convincing people that not only is the food still tasty and healthy even if it has imperfections, but they should give me money for it just the same. This is hard, and I don’t have a good way of doing it[1] other than to offer some food for thought.

In farming, no matter what practices you use, ugly food is common. There’s a strangely specific vision of what an edible vegetable should be, and strict regulations that police what’s pretty enough to be sold. Guided by a warped perception of food in part thanks to a regimen of artificial selection, strict regulation, advertising, and the comforting fear of the unfamiliar leads us to some pretty wasteful behaviour. Depending on which report you read, in Canada anywhere between one-third to a half of all food gets tossed. And this isn’t the stuff that you forget about at the back of the fridge for four months, or that cucumber that was buried under everything for so long that it’s now a grey goo. We’re talking perfectly edible and delicious food being thrown out, and that’s insane.

The causes are nebulous. It could be links to affluence, abundance at a ridiculously cheap price,[2] enormous serving sizes, the misguided fear of best-before labels. But the fact is that from producer to retailer to consumer, there’s incredible waste across the board based on appearances alone. For some farmers, sometimes entire field blocks are left unharvested because it’s not up-to-grade (called a “walk-by”), and further culling based on appearances happens at packing facilities and retailers. Even food that makes it through the gauntlet can become a walk-by for the consumer, more often than not ending up in a locked dumpster (and is sometimes doused in bleach, to dissuade dumpster divers).

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has some real gems in their inspection manuals. Cucumbers “must be practically or fairly straight”, where “the height of the inner arc of curvature does not exceed the diameter of the cucumber, when measured from a flat surface.” Carrots are docked points for being “ridged, grooved, or lumpy … so as to materially affect appearance”, and any forking can’t be longer than 1 inch. I really encourage you to check it out here: CFIA Inspection Manuals

Any foodie will press the claim that it’s the flavour that counts, but flavour is an all-senses experience. Taste is affected by visual appeal,[3] just the same as smell, texture, and even emotional state. Anyone remember purple ketchup?

Visual bias goes deeper. Pretty food is pop culture nowadays. We share pictures of pretty meals, watch documentaries and TV shows featuring celebrity chefs and haute cuisine. Food stylists paint and glue food to the point of inedibility just to try and sell you things that will never look as nice. Culture plays a huge role in what we see as palatable – how about being served some pineapple, peppers, and marinated crickets on a shish kebob[4]? Panfried mealworms with garlic and chilis, anyone? Social pressures when inviting over dinner guests compel us to serve huge good-looking meals, lest we be demoted on the grand social hierarchy due to our strangely shaped and holey spinach served in meager portions. You could even blame the handy scapegoat of evolution – when humans foraged for food, visual differences might have signaled a health hazard. Though far-fetched, maybe we’ve inherited a hard-wired aversion to different-looking foods.

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There are definitely efforts being made to reduce food waste in a time of high prices and global food shortages. Loblaws has recently started a campaign as part of their No Name brand called “Naturally Imperfect”, selling aesthetically sub-par apples and potatoes at a discount. In France, new laws ban food waste at supermarkets – safely edible food must be donated to charity, and if not, to farmers for animal feed or compost. Many producers with the money and facilities send things off to processors to make value added products. Pock-marked potatoes? Peel and cube those suckers! Weird looking carrots? Baby food! The European Union has recently relaxed regulations on banana and cucumber curvature to reduce waste, among other regulations concerning wonky veggies. Supermarkets are starting to sell ugly veggies and food near its best-before date at heavy discounts. But it all comes down to the people who are able to choose what food they want to eat and serve – from restaurateurs to the average person going to the market.

So what to do about it? I think the emerging interest in where our food comes from and how it’s made should help a bit. If people know how their food is grown, what challenges are faced in the field, and are conscientious of waste, they might be more willing to buy things that they might not consider traditionally pretty. If they make a personal connection with their food producers, they might not be so quick to scoff at what’s on offer. Jeeze, pick any angle you need – for your health, for the environment, to acknowledge the sanctity of food in a world rife with social inequality, or just to try new things.

Try to come up with and share creative ways to put ugly food to good use, even if you aren’t ready to serve it as-is. Grab that carrot that looks like Mickey Rooney and make a soup. Take that arugula that looks like it was hit with buckshot and make some pesto. Find radishes that look like a screaming Pacman? Try pickling them. Look beyond aesthetics – you might just find that truly caring for your food is the spice you need to achieve full flavour.

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1) Save for forcing people to eat it regardless, which probably isn’t a business-savvy decision. BACK TO POST
2) “Buy 2, get 1 free!” or the tricky but now common fine print, “Get 4 for $1 each, less than 4, $2.00 each” BACK TO POST
3) There’s a classic experiment that asked people to describe the bouquet and flavour of red and white wines. After sampling a white wine, they were served the same wine, but with a sneakily added red dye. Testers used the descriptors that they used for the red wine to describe the faux-red’s flavours and scents – which is enough evidence for me to reaffirm my suspicion that somaliers and connoisseurs are just making it all up. BACK TO POST
4) Shish ke-bug? BACK TO POST
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Why I’m Here

It’s strange to think about the nebulous course of events that bring you to now. Through a powerful combination of action, reflection, privilege, generosity, and sheer dumb luck, we can bumble our way into a host of different experiences that culminate, hopefully, into something worthwhile. You can look back and pick through different experiences to try and stitch together a cohesive narrative, but really the only consistent aspect of an interesting life is change.[1] All in all, it’s a rare sight to find someone who has been driven with a singular focus since childhood and has achieved their undiluted goals. If you’ve found such a person, they might be dangerous and you should probably be afraid of them – they’ll either stop at nothing to get what they want, or they’ve mastered some sort of witchcraft.[2] I am not one of those people. In broad strokes, here’s how I managed to end up producing food for you this season.

Since this isn’t really an autobiography, I’ll skip my childhood and teen years other than to say I’m pretty sure I’ve always liked being outside. The only exposure to farming I had was through vignettes of my dad’s life growing up on the Bossy family farm – the endless fun of throwing tobacco worms at his sisters, interspersed with suckering tobacco and long and painful harvests. It sounded like hard work, and the takeaway lesson was that money was to be had elsewhere.

Imagine having this guy thrown at you.

I originally went to university to learn about computer science. Computers and programming are still things I really like, and I grew up hacking through DOS to get to adventure games, so if university was the thing to do, computers were the thing to learn about. As a whole, my first year didn’t go so well – I found too many other things to do than sit at a computer. After a year’s hiatus, I returned to a different university for a different program. This time I learned. I was in Global Studies, and took as much philosophy and astronomy as I could. I learned of wars and refugees, politics, poverty, privilege, macroeconomics, and generally how terrible most things are. I wanted to know three things: How can I help? What does it mean to be a person? And really, when it comes down to it, what’s the point of it all? The most valuable thing I learned in university was how to think, and I’d say that’s a pretty good start, even if it was a bit late in life to be taught that.

Fueled by high-minded values and whirling from ego death, I did what seemed reasonable – I kept working at my summer job as a landscaper.[3] It was hard work, but I was driven just to be outside and to shape nature in such a way that people would passingly think, “Oh that’s nice.” After a while I started feeling a bit lost. So many hostas, so much sod, the vast patios, forests of mulch, cuts and prunes to keep it all tidy and symmetrical, the intricate watering systems to keep it all green, so many resources and time and energy. The fashion of landscaping came to look wasteful, artificial, alienating. My mind drifted to things like edible landscaping and farming. I didn’t know too much about edibles at the time – I had done random experiments growing vegetables in a tiny garden in my backyard, yielding such wonders as carrots shaped like Coke cans and lettuce that doubled as earwig hotels. I knew much less about running any sort of serious business. But I did know that I wanted to do good by nature, I wanted to be outside and filthy, and I wanted what I did to be useful. More and more, organic farming seemed like the way to go.

I interned at Reroot Organic farm in Harriston for six months in 2014, anreroot_tractord I’m still spinning from how quickly it went by. There’s so much knowledge you need in order to be successful in farming – you have to be a horticulturist, meteorologist, veterinarian, mechanic, marketer, sales and customer service representative, accountant, inventor, and strategic planner, often in a single day. It was completely overwhelming. It was hard work and long hours based almost entirely on faith in the future, and I loved it. I helped maintain an ecosystem. I helped feed over 100 families. I felt like I was helping bring people together through something we all share. Farmers with ideals can grow communities, their food nourishes.

Looking to stay on the farming scene, with a distant vision of cobbling together some land down the line, I went searching for a job. I got a tip about an animal caretaker job at Steckle Heritage Farm in Kitchener, applied, and landed an interview. Not only was I almost immediately offered the job, I was graciously granted use of about 1/3rd of an acre, on-site, for free. Insert jaw-drop here. Obviously, I was floored. Opportunities like that very rarely get thrown so vigorously at me like that, so of course I accepted it.

So here I am. I have a plot of land that will act as a perfect learning experience as a microcosm of farming, and enough money saved to even consider trying. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m purposely laying foundations for a future, and I’m sure that it’s a change in my life narrative that I’ll happily look back on.


1) Which is likely why we as a culture thought it important to find and give awards to people with the world’s longest fingernails. BACK TO POST
2) Or they lack the imagination to discover better alternatives, which is a common problem that cripples our economic thinking, political system, and methods of conflict resolution. Interestingly, it’s also the main reason hot dogs and McDonald’s still exist. BACK TO POST
3) There aren’t nearly enough jobs out there that have high-minded values and ego death as prerequisites. BACK TO POST

The Tour

Bunch onions, looking happy

A successful start to farming doesn’t come on a whim – I wasn’t hit with a bolt from the blue, bestowing me with golden knowledge and a basket of seeds and rainbows to toss into the air while skipping through fertile soil, like an overzealous flower girl at the world’s dirtiest wedding. Though I sometimes wish I was. Instead, I spent a ton of time holed up over the winter poring over data sheets, wiring up spreadsheets, doing math, and spending money on farm-related things. This in the midst of a general sense of dread, wondering if all of the time and energy would amount to anything. So far, it seems to be working out, but if nothing else I’ll be able to whip up a mean spreadsheet on demand (Fully Sortable! Colour-Coded! Nearly Automatic! Infused With Dread!™).

Beyond figuring out where to get seeds, what varieties I’d like, and how many I needed[1], I needed a place to start seeds for transplanting. Lacking the space and resources needed for a heated greenhouse, I opted to build a shifty grow room in my grungy basement. Please don’t tell my landlord – it’s supposed to be a surprise.

It consists entirely of this: some 2x4s, some pallets that I found by the road which I cut up and reassembled into shelving, a bunch of T5 fluorescent light fixtures that I cannibalized from a failed indoor farming operation[2], and emergency blankets, all held together by rope, duct tape, some screws and a prayer. It actually works really, really well.So green!

It cozily accommodates 24 seedling flats, with room on top of the light fixtures to provide bottom heat to seeds that like warmth to germinate. When it’s watering time, I bring each tray to a laundry sink in another room that I’ve hooked a sprayer up to. It’s a bit time intensive and messy, but it’s great for my purposes. I’m starting about half of my plants here. As you can imagine, I fear my next electricity bill.

I have 2 bales of a special organic soil mix, a stack of flats, and some popsicle sticks for planting, which I’ve been doing at a small workstation I have immediately next to my washing machine. I think it’s supposed to be a table for folding clothes, but it’s probably too dirty from planting to do anything but plant at it now. As an upshot, it’s nice to have dedicated work areas separate from home life.

The veggies will eventually make their way out to a third of an acre of land out at Steckle Homestead. Here’s a picture I took of my plot when the snow thawed: 

Really though, it’s probably the sandiest soil I’ve encountered. Soil in the surrounding area seems to range from marshland to sand, but I would guess that the nearly 200 years of farming on the land has taken a toll. I’ve also heard rumours that it’s a crowded home for the dreaded twitch grass, and plenty of lamb’s quarters. I can’t wait to do battle with them. Here’s my actual plot:

I plan to refurbish the land as best I can on a tight budget. This will include pushing an agenda of reduced tillage, basic weed-and-drop and in-field food processing practices to keep biomatter in the field, brewing up compost tea as a fertilizer, introducing a cover cropping regime, and tending to a mountain of manure that the farm animals have graciously and voluminously volunteered in hopes of composting it before season’s end. With a bit of time and dedication, I feel like I’ll be able to do this land some good, which is important to me not only ethically, but also for keeping my end of the deal in a mutually beneficial partnership with the land. The classic farming adage “You reap what you sow” is a very simple but practical guide for keeping me motivated.[3]

This is the land that I’ve been trusted with. You better believe I’m going to do my best to treat it well.


1. This is way harder than it sounds. I actually had to shovel through a foot of snow around my field until I found what I thought to be soil in order to get its dimensions. This, plus info on plant and row spacing, bed creation, aisle planning, weeding considerations, succession planting, seeding rates, and projected sales, really makes the question “How many seeds?” seem like an understatement. It amounted to “A lot of seeds.” BACK TO POST

2. Kijiji is really a magical place, where hopes and dreams are born and die. All for a fraction of the price of having hopes and dreams birthed and killed in big box stores. BACK TO POST

3. Other, less helpful farm-themed adages such as “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”, “Hold your horses”, and the colourful “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” also peck at my mind. But I gather that it’s generally best to make hay while the sun shines. BACK TO POST