To the roots

Originally from Ontario, the lead singer of The Idlers has put his roots down to prepare for a new organic farm-share next year.

Elling Lien met up with Mark Wilson  to chat about his love of food and music, and what in the world possessed him to come to Newfoundland  to farm.

What’s your farming background?

I grew up on a farm in Ontario, which was pretty much organic but it was in the time before organics were really being certified, and before it became more mainstream. It was  a family farm, and we moved out there when I was four. My parents were city kids who grew up in Cambridge and said to themselves “I want to have a farm.” So they wanted farm living.

We had a market garden out there for a few years and then we had sheep for a long time. My parents were teachers so farming was part-time, but we had about 100 sheep, 45 acres, lots of hay. I was driving the tractor at 9, raking the hay and driving the bailer, and my dad would stack everything and put it in the barn after. It was fun times. [laugh]

What made you want to do it for a living?

I think I realized that I want to make a difference in how people view their food, and how people get their food. Definitely this past winter I realized that I was a farmer.

What happened?

I was here trying to decide what I was going to do, and I wasn’t altogether happy about working for someone else on a farm, not having the ability to choose how things were done and what to focus on. I worked with Mike and Melba Rabinowitz [The Organic Farm in Portugal Cove] and that was great, a great learning experience. But there’s something about making your own decisions that is important… Experimenting with different things. For me to really understand what I’m doing and how I can do it better. 

Where does that desire come from in you?

It comes from growing up on a farm and seeing and spending time watching water move around. That kind of thing. In the Spring, realizing that its all connected.

I love working with people and the stewardship aspect of farming is something I don’t want to forget.  Taking care of the land. Trying to take care of it and trying to make sure it’s always getting better.

Maybe some Native Studies courses that I took threw me in that direction too – more into the stewardship aspect of it.

I think that’s one of my big attractions to organics.

What about the Native Studies interested you?

One of the courses was an introduction into indigenous environmental knowledge – like traditional ecological knowledge, and that was really interesting – a lot of it explained how if you’re an environmental person representing government, or a company, this is how to go into a reserve or a native community and communicate and not come off as this white asshole.

So there was a bit of that and a bit of trying to add relevance to traditional knowledge in a scientific-based referencing system. Like you can reference all these studies that have been done, but how do you reference community knowledge. Stories from people who have lived there for thousands of years. How do you incorporate that into scientific research?

Are there studies that refer to traditional knowledge like that?

Yeah, yeah. Especially caribou. Up north there are a lot of caribou – and the scientists have been told how this works, and these are the cycles. They’ve watched those cycles over hundreds of years. That, I thought, was really cool.

How does that apply to being an organic farmer?

I think it means being able to step back from science-based agriculture and being able to listen to what the old guys say about it. Getting into the folklore of farming. Maybe biodynamics fit into that to some degree.

Biodynamics is the oldest non-chemical agricultural movement. It’s planting and harvesting that incorporates a spiritual aspect too.
Astrology-based plantings are one aspect of it. Rudolph Steiner is the grandfather of the movement, the father even. All his weird crystal and cow horn preparations. Do you know him?


Oh it’s crazy.

All I’ve heard about biodynamics is that it’s pretty wonky.

Oh it’s wonky. Its totally wonky. They have something going on though I think. Their compost preparations are really interesting: You bury a cow horn in compost and, depending on the season, you bury it either in the field or in the compost. In the summer you fill it with crushed quartz crystals, and you have it turned downwards, so basically the energy is going into the cow horn from the sky above. And then in the winter you bury it so you get the energy from the earth – upside down.

And you believe that?

I don’t know if I believe it or not. I know people reading this are going to think “Who’s this fucking weirdo?” [laugh]

I don’t know if I necessarily believe it, and I haven’t tried it yet. I did try planting with lunar cycles this year. A lot of people do that.

I’m not sure if I necessarily believe it but it’s all worth a shot.

Especially in Newfoundland.

Yeah. You may as well take a shot at it because it’s fucking hard to grow anything! [laugh] You need a lot of luck.

So what’s the arrangement now?

The arrangement now is we’re working together. I’m working with Christa Williams down in Bay Bulls. She was certified last year. This year we’ve got  a lot of fields in transition for next year. There are three acres in the bog and six and a half all together.

A bog? How do you grow in a bog?

Oh that’s another different part of what we’re doing. They grow sod in the bog there. 50 acres of sod. The bog is crazy, but you can grow a lot of lettuce, turnips…

It must be pretty sloppy work.

It’s a drained bog, and there are ditches on each side, so its drier, but you can feel it when you walk on it. You sink a little bit, and your feet get wet. But the good thing about it is there are no rocks.

People put peat on their land to improve their soil…

Yep. But it doesn’t necessarily help in this case, because the PH is really low in peat moss. It’s really low, so you have to buffer it with lime to get it up to par, up to something you can grow in.

It’s like a sponge so you’re losing nutrients out the bottom if you get a lot of rain. It’s leeching out all the time. With the bog it’s just going to flow out, so it requires constant attention. The constant gardener.

How did you learn so much about the technical side of this?

A lot of it’s self-directed. I did stream research and plant research and bit of animal stuff at Trent University. And the stream stuff set me up nicely for understanding soils and hydrology, and getting to know how things are here. I also took a course to be an organic farm inspector.

And you are one. You’re a regional inspector right?

I’m one of them. I haven’t done any inspections yet. I’m still in my mentoring stage with Neil Tilley. And he’s inspecting for OCPP … most of the organic farms in the area are certified through them.

What are you going to do with the food you grow next year?

I’m going to do a CSA, a Community Supported Agriculture. They’ve been going on here, but it’s been called the Veggie Co-op here, or the Farm Share. It’s a wide, sweeping movement to do a CSA. It directly connects the consumer to the farm; it connects those people to that land. So they have a say in what happens, and they take ownership in that land, and it becomes something they’re proud of.

It’s also a way for the farmer to work smarter and not harder. You can lose maybe 30% if it goes to a grocery store, which is useless, because farmers don’t make enough money to compensate for that 30%. People can support farmers directly through CSAs, especially small farmers.

And all the people doing organics here are all small.

So I want to do a 30-share CSA. I’d like to do home delivery too, if I can. I don’t know if it’s going to be directly to the home or a centralized drop-off. I’d love to do something with bike delivery. I’m going to look into bio-diesel… Maybe get a bio-diesel van running, if possible. That would make me feel better about doing all of that stuff.
Let’s switch gears a bit here. You play music. You’re in The Idlers. What does music have to do with farming?

Ahh, [laughing, joking] it’s the rhythm! It’s the rhythm. It’s the groove. It’s the body rhythm. It’s all about motion really. It’s the big wheel turnin’! [laugh]

No, for me, I’ve got to play music. I love it. It’s a lot of fun. The connection with food is getting the word out. Finding ways to fit it in. To fit the perspectives I have on farming – on the land and that kind of thing — into the music a little bit. It’s what I write about. It’s what I try to do.

Really! So you write music about farming?

Oh yeah. In the broad sense. Yeah. A lot of the lyrics I write have something to do with food or plants.

One Future is one song we have:

Morning mist like tidal bliss / rises up to boil up / rise up what’s underneath / drinking coffee warm your paws / fire made from logs / thinking axels dreaming cogs … oh I’ve got to record this today, so I’d better remember it … something-something howling dogs.

Anyway, it’s a song about how there’s a mixture between happiness and sadness and how it grows up from the ground.

…middle day / farmers wrestling with their hay / sun is present, always bright / shadows lurking dead of night / mist is rolling over hills / creeping over window sills / tension eases clutches loose / sadness makes this ravens roost.

Evening light retreats the night / ember sky will lose the fight / moon it rises into sight / smells of food and smoke from pipe / sadness grows and spirals round / growing goodness from the ground. / Food is shared and people full / music, mist, its beautiful.

Why reggae?

That’s a good question. Reggae is a good music for this kind of thing.

Jim Fidler from Pressure Drop said in an interview once that reggae is great because people can dance to it a thousand times and will never listen to the words, and it doesn’t matter. But then sometimes, or eventually, they listen to them. The lyrics might grab them and become another important element for them.

You can’t talk about plants in a rock song as much, you know? (laughing)

It’d be pretty quirky.

Yep, I’d have to switch to Weird Al style.

Eat it!

I think they work together well though, food and music. At our last show at Roxxy’s I said “Lets hear it for potatoes!”

Really? What was the reaction?

Everyone was like, “Yeaah!!” People really love potatoes, and it’s fun to bring it to their attention like that. To subtly get my love of food out there like that.


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