Michaela Cruz, Growing Green: Starting one’s own organic farm

Community News & Features Jul 27, 2018 at 5:39 pm
Michaela Cruz in the field harvesting white stem bok choy                         (4 Photos provided)

Michaela Cruz in the field harvesting white stem bok choy
(4 Photos provided)

By Irish Mae Silvestre
The Philippine Reporter

On a sun-soaked Saturday morning, Evergreen Brickworks is abuzz with activity. From vendors plying stacks of pies to the crowds navigating stands heaving with fresh produce, it’s a testament to Toronto’s love affair with farmers’ markets.

And amidst the vast space with its maze of vendors is Healing Hands Farm, an organic farm that specializes in Asian greens.

“Our whole plan for what we grow is based on sinigang,” said co-owner Michaela Cruz. “We have this theme that pretty much everything we grow can go into a sinigang.”

They grow two kinds of bok choy, zuma, red and green okra, three kinds of tomatoes, garlic and onions. “We’re also growing yardlong beans and sitaw,” she added.

From left: Garlic scapes; zucchinis (the left is grocery-bought zucchini; the one on the right is from Healing Hands Farm); canendulas; kale.  (Photos: Irish Mae Sivestre)

From left: Garlic scapes; zucchinis (the left is grocery-bought zucchini; the one on the right is from Healing Hands Farm); canendulas; kale.
(Photos: Irish Mae Silvestre)

Founded in September 2017 by Cruz, 24, and her partner Dan Fuller, 34, Healing Hands is a one-acre farm in Guelph, Ontario that’s been years in the making. Cruz, who moved from the Philippines to Ontario with her family in 2003, grew up in Guelph where she was surrounded by agriculture. At the University of Guelph, she studied plant science where she took courses such as organic agriculture and botany.

Aside from her environment, the influence was also in her genes. “My mom’s family in the Philippines was pretty agricultural,” she said. “They had a family farm and they grew rice and had a lot of chickens so I had this influence from my mom and family that I wasn’t super aware of.”

“My dad lived in Katipunan in Loyola Heights but they’re also from Bataan and his mother is from Bacolod. My mom’s from Cavite and San Antonio, Nueva Ecija.”

Healing Hands’ stall at Evergreen Brickworks          (Photo: Irish Mae Sivestre)

Healing Hands’ stall at Evergreen Brickworks (Photo: Irish Mae Silvestre)

Cruz recalled that, upon moving to Toronto after graduating, she was determined to work in the restaurant industry. So determined, in fact, that she was ready to start from the bottom of the food chain. “I went to Lamesa [restaurant] and I said, ‘I want to wash your dishes.’ And the chef there was like, ‘Oh, you want to wash dishes? Okay…’”

After a few years at Lamesa, she moved on to LASA by Lamesa where she worked on the production side “making sauces and rolling a lot of spring rolls.”

But after a few years, Cruz realized that the restaurant industry wasn’t quite her calling. “The work isn’t for me,” she admitted. “It was too stressful.”

Despite living in the city, she still managed to pursue her passion for plants. She ran urban botanical workshops where she took people on walks around the city, while pointing out plants growing on the side of the road or in gardens that were edible, culturally relevant or had medicinal properties. She also co-managed a school yard community farm on Bathurst and Lawrence Avenue. “It was about growing food for the community, teaching kids about growing food, ecological studies in the urban environment and talking about plants,” she said.

Dan Fuller at the Healing Hands Farm stand at Evergreen Brickworks Farmers Market

Dan Fuller at the Healing Hands Farm stand at Evergreen Brickworks Farmers Market

When a friend announced that she and her husband were buying several acres of property in Guelph, Cruz proposed renting about an acre of land from them so she could finally start the farm she had always dreamed of.

She suggested the idea to Fuller, whom she had met when they worked at the same bicycle courier company. Along with Cruz’s farming know-how and Fuller’s background in carpentry, they finally broke ground last year.

“Owning a business can be pretty challenging,” said Cruz. “Financially but also in the beginning it’s hard to manage your time and energy because you have to do all these things. Especially, with farming there are so many factors to think about and it can be really, really overwhelming.” In addition to timing when to plant vegetables, she added that they had to create an irrigation system, manage their rent, ensure that nothing gets eaten by pests, while keeping an eye on quality control. On the admin side, Cruz said that she had to figure out the marketing aspect of their business, while learning what draws people to their stand and getting the word out through social media. “People are genuinely excited about their food, which is really encouraging,” she said. “[They ask us], ‘What is this? What can I make with it?’ Generally, it’s been a pretty good response.”

Healing Hands Farm's first Okra harvest of the season

Healing Hands Farm’s first Okra harvest of the season

Cruz and Fuller now live on the farm full-time and adhere to an organic farming system. “We don’t use chemicals, pesticides or chemical fertilizers,” she explained. “We do a lot of crop rotation so we don’t plant the same family [of plants] in the same bed right after the other; we try to diversify what we’re growing. It helps in the marketing sense but also in the ecological farming sense.”

One project that Cruz is excited about is the kangkong (water spinach) that they’re currently growing. “I always thought you had to have a swamp to grow it,” she said, laughing. “You have to water it a lot. It’s a semi-aquatic plant so you can grow it in non-aquatic areas.”

In addition to the farmers’ market, they make their own soap and sprays. They’ve also started a vegetable subscription service that allows customers to pick up an array of produce from their market location. To ensure that locally grown produce is accessible to everyone, shares are priced on a sliding scale between $15 to $25. “You get more value because you get more than what you would get if you went to a market every week,” she said.

Life on the farm is certainly a world away from her life in the city. “I’m definitely a lot happier,” Cruz admitted. “My life now is slower but more rewarding. Not everyone can eat at the restaurant where you work but, with growing vegetables, it’s more accessible to different kinds of people.”

For more information, visit www.healinghandsfarm.com and www.instagram.com/healinghandsfarm

————————-

Recently harvested garlic

Recently harvested garlic

Michaela’s BBQ Bok Choy Recipe

1. Cut bok choy in half

2. Oil bok choy

3. Grill bok choy until tender and slightly charred

4. Toss bok choy in a sauce made with sautéed garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce

Serve with salad:

- local tomatoes

- local cilantro

- local garlic

- local green onion

- dress with spicy vinegar (we always have spicy garlic vinegar in our pantry!)