by Brenda Hsueh
I was no spring chicken at 33 when I went to Everdale, an organic teaching farm, as a long-term volunteer in 2008, wanting to learn about organic farming. There I proved I was not just up to the task physically, but loved it. In late fall, I went shopping for farms. By Christmas, my offer on a piece of land had been accepted and I was moved in by March of 2009. In spring, ground was broken on my first vegetable field, and Black Sheep Farm was born.
The first year out here, I learned that my road was actually a busy one, good for a roadside stand. Unlike my condo in the city, ‘town’ is an hour’s round trip away. Since then, I’ve learned to wire in a new pressure for my well switch in -20C, and then to run a heat lamp out to the pump house to defrost the now frozen pressure tank.
And, there’ve been other, harder lessons. In 2012 a drought killed all my winter squash and zucchini, about 20% of my vegetable field. I learned first hand that soils depleted of organic matter don’t retain water.
This year, 2017, is my ninth growing season at Black Sheep Farm, and my most challenging. Why? My daughter Emma was born on May 5. I’m a new mom, with all that implies, lack of sleep, torturous breast feeding in the beginning, and the isolation of spending most of the day home with an infant. It also meant I needed help to run the farm, so I hired a full-time employee , Michelle, and we’ve been managing a vegetable garden in the wettest and coolest year since I moved out here.
“We were lucky, with a healthy pregnancy, birthing and baby, all despite the odds, though I’d like to credit my strong farming body with the results.”
In my pre-farming life, I worked an office job in the financial sector in downtown Toronto, living in a condo, trying out new restaurants, and generally living the city life. But I cared deeply about the environment, social justice, and food, so when the 2007 financial crisis hit, it was a wakeup call for me to find meaning in what I do.
I learned that our global food system is broken, exploiting people’s labour and health and destroying the environment with pesticides. I wanted to be part of a better way.
That’s now what I do, I farm using agroecological principles that improve soil life, producing food in a manner that improves the environment, maximizing diversity and resilience. My goal isn’t to grow the biggest vegetables or the most pounds per acre, but to produce food at a rate that the land can support, and that can support me financially. The farm produces vegetables for its CSA (community supported agriculture) members, as well as meat and fibre from a growing flock of sheep.
Leaving Home to Find It
I was single all my years in Toronto, and was still single when I moved to the farm. I certainly didn’t expect to find anyone out here in the middle of nowhere, with a population density a fraction of Toronto’s, and mostly over 50 years old. However, I became good friends with the family next door, and started dating the oldest son in 2012. We’ve been together ever since.
All those years of wondering why I couldn’t meet anyone compatible in Toronto, it turns out I was just in the wrong place. I needed to be where I was meant to be, doing what I loved, so love could find me.
Having my daughter wasn’t a given either.
Being a first-time mom at 42 meant a ‘geriatric’ pregnancy, with all the fearsome statistics and added testing and protocols to do with my ‘advanced maternal age’. We were lucky, with a healthy pregnancy, birthing and baby, all despite the odds, though I’d like to credit my strong farming body with the results.
I’m definitely healthier and stronger now in my 40’s than when working office jobs in my 20’s. I look forward to sharing this active farm lifestyle with my daughter as she grows.
calm in the chaos
At this point, it’s almost halfway through the 2017 farming season, and despite its challenges, I’m quite calm. Maybe having a new person to take care of contributes to that. After all, when Mother Nature throws another torrential rainfall at you, flooding your field yet again, now you have a child to cuddle while waiting out the storm. Next year will have its own share of farming and family challenges, and the next year, and the next.
As I strive to build a resilient farm environment, I become more resilient myself, able to problem solve and work with the circumstances I’ve been given. At the end of the day, I produce something very concrete, food, a necessity for all human life, and I do so in a way I can be proud of and believe in.
It used to be that everyone was a farmer, and now it seems no one is. I hope that changes as more people choose to join me in such an honourable endeavour.
Brenda Hsueh is an organic vegetable farmer, mother, and owner of Black Sheep Farm in Grey County, south western Ontario. She lives on 40 acres with her partner, her baby and the occasional black sheep.