BEYOND THE GARDEN GATE: Winter at Tamarack Farms
author: Denny Manchee / photography: Meg Botha
Even the Dorset-Rideau-cross sheep need a hit of grain when it's 30 below and howling. Houston, the Great Pyrenees guard, agrees.
THEY WORK LIKE DOGS. They have dogs (three) and 130 sheep and eight New Hampshire hens and a growing market garden and five grown children.
Meet the indefatigable Nancy and Richard, who retired from corporate life a few years ago and then hurled themselves into a new adventure of relentless work and sustainable farming.
Why? Because the land seemed to ask for it, although that wasn’t clear at the beginning. “It started as a passive investment,” says Nancy. There was no grand vision when they bought the 100-hectare property in Northumberland in 2012, since they were still living in Vancouver, where they’d spent the previous two decades. “But once we decided we were going to live here, we wanted it to be a working farm,” says Richard, who has family roots in the area. “The property had been fallow for the better
part of 60 years. There had been attempts to establish a gravel pit but the permits were a problem so the land just sat and grew weeds.”
“Hardscrabble, no curb appeal!” adds Nancy, laughing.
The first project, even before building a house, was a dry stack stone bridge over one of the creeks. “It’ll still be there in a thousand years, and it seemed more appropriate to drive over the creek than through it,” says Richard, who camped in a trailer on the property while the house was being built.
The speed of their scale-up speaks to their unstoppable energy and brilliant project management. In the first year and a half, they cleared 100 acres for hay and sheep pasture, tapped 150 maple trees, put in two ponds with the help of Ducks Unlimited, planted 20,000 trees with Trees Ontario, created a market garden, raised two pole barns, fenced and then welcomed sheep onto the land. Sure, they hired people to help, but they also bent their backs to the infinite tasks that confronted them.
“You don’t get to this stage in life without working hard,” says Nancy who, like Richard, is in her late 50s. “We’ve built houses. We’re workers, although sometimes I get a little tired. I said to Richard the other day that we have to figure out how we can actually have a day where we’re not working 14 hours but we’re still at the farm.”
Challenges? There’ve been a few. Last winter, the ground froze before they had a chance to get the water lines in for the sheep. They were “hand-bombing” water twice a day, hauling five-gallon buckets from the back room of the house down to the heated water tank.
The learning is constant – lots of old-school research and reading – and they’ve had great help from their neighbours. They ask lots of questions, use common sense and avail themselves of all the expertise they can rustle up.
“It’s a luxury at our age to be doing something completely new,” says Nancy, who rolls with the punches, even the bloody drama of lambing. “I never wanted to be a veterinary gynecologist. Ever!” she says. “But when it comes to it, you actually do that stuff because you don’t want the sheep to be uncomfortable, right?”
For the most part, Nancy focuses on growing, making and selling things – during tomato season she was delivering to the city three days a week – while Richard, who has a design sensibility, handles infrastructure. He put in a sawmill when they were constructing the house and, yes, he’s learned how to use it, and still has all his digits intact. “This place is for the soul,” he says. “It’s about using the materials and opportunities we have here to rehabilitate the land. We don’t own it, we are stewards.”
What do their kids think? “They’ve really embraced it and they want to come here and bring their friends,” says Richard. Though these five young adults are scattered across the country they will all be at the farm for Christmas. The fare will include local food, some of it carrying the family brand, “Tamarack Farms: Remarkable Food, Sustainable Farming”. One could add, brought to you by remarkable people.