| May 29, 2008

Feature Article - May 29, 2008

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Feature Article - May 29, 2008 Local business “Desert Lake Gardens” wins provincial awardBy Julie Druker

Pat and Rick Dawson in a small hoop house with spring seedlings

Premier McGuinty’s Agri-Food Innovation Excellence Awards were established “to recognize innovators who contribute to the success of Ontario’s agri-food sector.” This sector is “the second largest goods manufacturing industry in the province (second only to the auto industry) and contributes $30 billion to the economy every year.”

Area winners gathered in Belleville recently to receive recognition and their $5000 award. Rick and Pat Dawson of “Desert Lake Gardens” near Sydenham were one of five businesses in southeastern Ontario who won. They were awarded for their “innovative vertically integrated operation” where they grow, market, and deliver via website, van and retail shop a large variety of high quality organic foods grown by themselves and other local organic growers. They also provide their customers with other healthy products which they source out but do not produce themselves.

While they’re very appreciative of the award, it’s spring time at Desert Lake Gardens, with not much extra time available to bask in the glory of the honour. Recently, Pat took a break from the office to show me around and explain the bottom-line thinking of the business. “We’re trying to help people become more aware of what they eat and where it comes from.”

A hammer clangs behind us as Rick assembles the frame of a large hoop green house. It will be covered in plastic to protect the plants from deer and soil splash, the latter of which causes most plant diseases. Inside a small hoop house, hundreds of seedlings are sprouting; large home-made wooden flats of peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, spring turnip, basil, kale, lettuce, green onions all together look like a living quilt of spring green.

Pat shows me the shitake mushroom plot where smaller oak trees have been felled, cut and inoculated with the fungus called shitake spawn. It’s very labour intensive work. “We’ve been growing the mushrooms for 10 years. They are a unique cash crop and we know how to do it well.” She’s hoping to have an abundant supply this year, enough to take to market in Kingston.

We move on to the rows of young lettuce, mustard and arugula in an adjacent field. Pat reveals them where they grow under a protective white shroud. “They’ll be ready to cut this week”. An eight foot wild stock fence surrounds the field to keep the deer out. Pat pulls up a spring turnip with a golf ball-sized white head. “These may go on the website this week.” She takes a bite and adds, “We’ll wait one more week.” She yanks out another and passes it to me.

“We have 300 active customers and fill 100 orders per week.” And still the business continues to branch out. “We’re working on home meal replacements where customers can either order a full recipe kit to prepare a specific meal at home themselves or buy it already fully prepared.” The kits and meals change regularly. “This week is a veggie tajine and we usually have one or two prepared soups available.”

When I finally depart Rick has been joined by Bradley, one of their helpers, and both continue hammering away at the hoops. Pat heads back inside to continue on with her office work.

Preparing dinner that night I cut the greens off my little spring turnip and add them to my pot of beans. I bite into that little white orb and…mmmmmm! I’ve never tasted such a delicious little thing. Raw but tender and so flavorful. I never a big fan of the mashed turnips of Christmas time…this is an entirely different thing: so tender and sweet and turnipy. It truly made my taste buds sing. Visit www.dlgardens.com for more info and to order your own spring turnips and other products.

Congratulations Rick and Pat on a business very well grown.

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