A bumpy ride to a sweet place

When one knows barely anything about farming, what would it take to become a small-scale farmer who grows organic crops, makes a living to support a family, seeks to benefit the community, and feels compelled to do something about climate change? 

In this memoir, Brent Preston answers that question. A decade ago, Brent and his wife Gillian, along with their two young children, left their hectic Toronto lifestyle and moved to a run-down farm outside of Creemore, Ontario. Years earlier, Brent and Gillian had worked overseas – Brent as a human rights investigator, journalist, and aid worker and Gillian as a member of the Peace Corps and an employee of the National Democratic Institute.

  The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution by Brent Preston (Random House Canada, 2017)

When they bought the farm – later, named the New Farm by one of their children – their goal “was never to buy a few chickens and plant a few seeds, then blog about it for a year or two before retreating to our lives in the city. Our goal, once we figured it out, was to create a real farm.”

That’s what Brent and Gillian have done. Though they made many mistakes and encountered many surprising situations – some of them laugh-out-loud funny – theirs is a farm that “is proof that small-scale, sustainable farming is a viable alternative.”

Though a decade later they’ve arrived at this sweet place, the ride was rough and bumpy. Brent minces no words – be aware that the book contains some crude language – when he relates how running a farm can bring farmers, their marriages and families, and their finances to a breaking point: “Gillian and I would fall into bed every night, exhausted, dispirited and aching all over. I would lie there, still vibrating from the walk-behind, and wake up with my hands locked in painful claws from gripping the handles of that wretched machine. I worked in the garden all night in my dreams, then woke up, stumbled out of bed, went straight out to the garden, and did it all over again. We had no time to see friends or go to the movies or do anything other than work. The farm became our whole world, and it wasn’t a very happy place.”

After eight seasons of farming, Brent had a conversation with one of his Mexican migrant employees. The man mentioned that Brent wasn’t happy like another farmer he knew. It was an epiphany for the stressed-out farmer. That day he reflected on all his accomplishments, but he felt “a profound sense of disappointment.” His soul-searching revealed a man who had accomplished so much, but had failed in the things that really matter. He writes, “I had focussed so narrowly on building the farm that I had neglected everything else in my life. I had drifted apart from my friends and family. I had completely abandoned my intellectual life. I was often impatient with my kids. . .  I had come to see Gillian, with whom I spent almost every waking hour, more as an antagonistic business partner than as my beautiful, caring wife.”

The following year, Brent and Gillian decided that they were no longer going to expand their farm, but maintain its present size and continue doing what they did well. It was a decision that changed their life.

In The New Farm, Brent gives readers a glimpse of the hard work farmers do in order to get their food to markets, grocery stores, and restaurants. He shares the ethical questions he struggled with when he realized that he needed more workers, couldn’t find any Canadians who were willing to become farmhands, and then decided to hire Mexican migrant workers. He expresses his vulnerability – tears and joy; failures and successes. He decries what he considers to be the “evils” of industrial agriculture and the rat race. He celebrates the good food movement and the ways in which small-scale farmers, chefs, and various agencies are working together to bring organic food to people who couldn’t otherwise afford to buy it.

Whatever your opinions on industrial farming, small-scale farming, climate change, the production of organic food and the practice of hiring migrant workers, this memoir will give you much to ponder.  


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