So there we were, my husband and I, running down a country road in shorts and sandals chasing three black sheep. We were sweaty and frustrated, having just spent the last hour trying to convince those sheep to head back into the barn instead of out across the road. We were also scared – the sun was setting and there was a very real possibility that one of us would be hit by a passing car. Then the sheep took a sharp turn into our neighbour’s farm.
They ran down the lane at full speed, making a beeline for the flock across the street. My husband gave chase while I ran to the farmhouse. I banged on the door and yelled, “We need help! Our sheep got out!”
First there was only silence. Then I heard a woman’s voice from somewhere inside. “I’ll get my boots!” she hollered.
Here’s the thing: I had no idea who that woman was. I’d never laid eyes on her, never talked to her, and I didn’t know her name. But within seconds, Julie came out of the house and ran off to get temporary fence panels. Her husband Peter joined her and in less than 10 minutes, they had our three animals safely corralled. We did nothing except stand nearby feeling useless. I was glad it was dark so they couldn’t see my tears of relief.
Our neighbour’s kindness didn’t stop there. They offered soothing words (“it happens to all of us!”) and loaded our three sheep into their livestock trailer. When they drove them over to our barn and helped us usher them inside, we almost kissed them in gratitude. It was a humbling reminder that we had no idea what we were doing, and a beautiful lesson in what a difference good neighbours can make.
I grew up in the suburbs, raised my kids there, and worked as a pastor there, too. But then I took a new call to a retreat centre at an historic farm, and COVID hit, and everything changed. At 50 years old I found myself running after sheep, debating which kind of chicken feed to buy, and identifying capped brood in a beehive. Best of all, I discovered a whole new world of knowledge, wisdom and generosity among farmers.
Small farms in Canada are having a moment. Like craft breweries, they seem to be everywhere as people seek a back-to-the-land lifestyle, and consumers clamour for farm-to-table products and experiences. But if you didn’t grow up on a farm or study agriculture, where do you learn? I started at Everdale, a Community Teaching Farm in Hillsburg, Ont. They offer a yearly online Farm Planner course in partnership with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. In 2021, they gathered more than 75 new and aspiring farmers who wanted to learn about everything from marketing to risk management. I never missed a class and hung on every word.
More than just book learning, the course offered us connections to other farmers. Each week we logged on for lessons from successful farmers who shared their stories and experiences. They were generous in their advice and patient with our questions. I had no idea that farming was so challenging.
I was inspired by the Dahlia May Flower Farm in Trenton, Ont., where Melanie Harrington has a thriving business. Her social media feed is incredible (check out her Instagram page!), and it’s a delight just looking at the gorgeous photos of her flowers. She also brings beauty into the world through her community program that provides bouquets to residents at local long term care homes. She encouraged us to stay in touch and ask her questions even after the course was over.
Cheyenne Sundance joined us from Sundance Harvest and told the story of her urban farm in Toronto. The farm not only grows produce for local markets; they also provide resources, knowledge and guidance for youth who are marginalized, and run a free urban agriculture mentorship program called Growing in the Margins to nurture farm projects of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) youth. She was enthusiastic about farming and ridiculously encouraging for those of us who were just starting out.
A Helping Hand
In the non-virtual farm world I found generous people, too. As we built a chicken coop and made arrangements to receive our first 20 hens, we secured a chicken coach. Garret is a 17-year-old chicken-whisperer who has already raised more birds than he can count. It’s been over a year and he still answers our texts with questions like, “Does this egg look funny to you?” and “How many roosters do we need for this many hens?”
As we took on beekeeping, we found more than one willing bee coach. Rev. Ken MacQuarrie of MacQuarrie Family Bees in St. Catherines pointed us to YouTube where we could watch expert videos from the University of Guelph and told us about where to find a good bee jacket. Michael Barber of Tri-City Bees drove all the way out to do a hive inspection when it became clear to him that we were confused. We collected bee friends along the way, like Steve, who let us tag along for a summer swarm rescue and continually regales us with tales of his bee adventures.
As for the sheep, you already know the story of how we met Peter and Julie. They have a herd of 200 sheep and are busy with off-the-farm work, too. Yet they still found time to come over with their iPad sonograph to confirm that our ewe was indeed pregnant, and returned at birthing time to ensure that mother and baby were doing well.
Our little farm is now producing honey, eggs and even a little wool. Our vegetable gardens – somewhere I actually know what I’m doing – are thriving, too, but not without help of course. Five summer students spent their hours picking beans and harvesting tomatoes in the heat of summer. With them it was at last my turn to share, giving them tips and bits of trivia about heirloom varieties and pruning methods as we pulled weeds and planted seeds together.
Autumn has always held a whiff of melancholy for me, as flowers die back and leaves fall from the trees. This year, however, I have a sense of satisfaction and gratitude as well. We have raised chickens, quail and a lamb. We took our produce to two markets and have ample honey to harvest. My family and I still have tons to learn about farming but are no longer complete newbies. We have friends and coaches to help us now, too.
Most of all, though, in this harvest season I have a fresh appreciation for the farmers in my life and in the world. They are co-creators, partnering with God to bring new life into the world. They tend and keep creation, honouring our Creator with their hard work and sacrifice. And even though I really have no idea what I am doing, the farming community has offered me welcome, wisdom and care.
Those are all Divine gifts, and I am grateful for each and every one.