| May 26, 2005


Feature article, May 26, 2005

Feature article May 26, 2005

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Desert Lake Gardens goes to town

by Jeff Green

In a time when the news only goes from bad to worse for the family farm, a small market garden that has been built up over the past 14 years just keeps expanding.

Desert Lake Gardens, which has been operating out of Pat and Rick Dawsons family homestead at the junction of the Bedford and Desert Lake Road, will be moving the warehousing part of its business to a former Karate Studio in the heart of Sydenham.

The business grew out of a commitment to organic gardening. Soon after beginning to sell their own garden and powerless greenhouse-grown produce, the idea of augmenting their produce with that of other organic growers took hold, and Desert Lake Gardens began delivering a wide range of organic produce year round, mainly through weekly deliveries to customers in the Kingston area.

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When the Internet took hold, ordering became web based. Now only about 10 to 15 of our 200 or so customers order over the phone; the rest use our website, said Pat Dawson.

A few years ago, the product line expanded to include organic juices and other products from the Ontario Organic Food Co-Op, and then the idea of putting the raw materials for meals together in packages was developed. This led to Desert Lake Gardens setting up a kitchen to prepare organic, pre-cooked frozen soups and meals for customers.

Eventually, trying to run a wholesale business out of a rural location with a steep, curved driveway, while maintaining seven greenhouses, open air gardens and a kitchen became rather complicated.

So when the idea of moving much of the business end of Desert Lake Gardens to Sydenham came up, the Dawsons made the move and took out a lease on the building at the foot of Mill Street that has been a Karate studio and an antique shop in the past.

With the move, there came an opportunity to further expand the business, so not only will the building be the staging ground for all the organic produce, meat and other goods that Desert Lake delivers to customers each week, it will also house the kitchens for prepared foods. As well, a retail outlet will be established for all the products, and a restaurant, the Mill Street Caf is being built.

While construction takes place in part of the building, Pat Dawson has a computer set up in her makeshift office; the cold room is full of produce, and various boxes of juice, canned goods, and bread from Little Stream Bakery in Glen Tay are strewn about. From Tuesdays to Thursdays, orders are being put together at the site. One of Pat and Ricks daughters and a family friend work away putting orders together.

For the rest of the week contractors are hard at work painting the walls, upgrading the electrical system, and putting in a kitchen and dining room.

To get this new venture moving weve been lucky that some of our customers have agreed to invest $1,000 each, which they will get back in food from the restaurant over the next year or so. That to me is a great testament to what weve developed over the years, and it will give them something too, I think. Theyll always feel they were part of building this place.

A liquor license has been applied for, which would make the Mill Street Cafthe only licensed establishment in the rejuvenated Village of Sydenham other than the Legion.

We plan to serve hearty lunches and keep things casual during the week, and then prepare some fancier meals during the weekends, says Pat Dawson about the restaurant plans.

Meanwhile, back at Desert Lake Gardens the growing season is well underway. Pat and Ricks son works with Rick and a friend preparing the outdoor gardens for seeding, harvesting greens, and transplanting heat- loving tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings to larger soil packs for summer growing in the sweltering greenhouses.

A little further away the spring shitake mushroom harvest has already taken place. Rick Dawson, who finally quit working out as a biologist in Kingston about four years ago, is keen on the Shitake mushrooms because they are well suited to the growing conditions on the Dawsons hilly acreage, and there are plenty of small gnarled oak logs available to host the shitake spores. He looks into the trees at the leaf-covered ground.

Theres plenty of nutrient available in leaf mould, he says, which could make excellent compost, but I dont know how to collect it in an efficient way.

Thats a project for another day. For now, Pat and Rick Dawson seem to have their hands full enough.

The Desert Lake Gardens store and the Mill Street Cafwill be opening for business sometime later this summer. For information about Desert Lake Gardens, go to dlgardens.com

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