One of the best parts of managing a market is getting to visit all the farms and see all the action right up close. This week, we visited High Mark Farm, where Carmen and Phil raise goats and sheep and some pigs, as well as a flock of the happiest chickens ever. They also happen to have raised 3 children of their own too. They bought their 100 acre farm when they were expecting their first child, and at one point they sold it and moved north of Barrie and bought two other farms and were managing them. Carmen said that she always missed this one, though, and you can certainly see why when you drive onto their property. Just north of the city on Hwy 400 before the Cookstown cut off, the gently rolling hills and tidy garden patches made me envy the goats that sport about on the front yard when the weather is nice enough. Phil said that it just felt right to come home to this farm when the new owners offered it back to them, and they happily came home.
Baby goats and lambs are one of the biggest bonuses of spring time on the farm. We watched a lamb spring effortlessly from one reclining sheep's back across the pen to another's, without seeming to make any impression on either animal. Three little white and one black lamb are in a side pen clamoring for bottled milk as we pass. Two are from a neighbours farm where the mama died, and two are from a sheep on this farm that had 4 lambs, too many for the mother to feed. The barn is so clean all we smell is hay, and the babies sucking on my daughters hands as we pass is irresistible. I find it hard to focus on asking questions about the farm's practices, though Phil is clearly very glad when I do because it means he gets to talk about his farm. I would have to say that when it comes to single minded devotion to a project, I've met my match here.
As much as both farmers obviously enjoy everything that they do, Carmen has special respect for chickens. "Chickens will always give you an egg a day. They are a marvellous animal" she says. When we step into the chicken coop, it's plain that these are truly happy chickens. There's a huge rack ranging across 1/3 of the large room for roosting at night, and old grape boxes adapted around the room for nesting privately, if a chicken should feel so inclined. I'm charmed with the tidy nest boxes held up by 2 x 4's where one can simply collect up the day's eggs. One of the chickens is 'broody' or as Phil puts it, 'hot', sitting in one of the boxes. There's a moment of genuine concern for her that passes between Phil and Carmen, since it's too soon for her to hatch any eggs. Carmen shakes her head and says "They'd just die when the cold weather comes again." and we move on with the tour. It's mid morning, and most of the chickens have eaten and gotten past the day's business of laying, so they're just being sociable with each other on the floor now. They have a trough of carrot scrapings left over from the farmers market as well as the feed that Carmen and Phil prepare for them. Later in the day, when we're back home again and I'm making us all an omelette for dinner, I notice how orange the whites of these eggs are compared to the one I had left over from the store that I broke first into the bowl.
Clearly, Phil is very proud of his greenhouse. About the footprint of a typical Toronto bungalow, Phil has heated one area with a woodstove to keep his fig trees alive and to get some seedlings going. Here the work of getting the farm ready for spring is really in action, and even in the cooler areas of the greenhouse baby spinach carpets the ground.Outside, garlic is king of the garden plots, though a monster broccoli that grew as big as a lamb overshadows one plot, waiting to be taken down for seed before ploughing begins. There's also tobacco on this farm, grown to be used as a pesticide to control aphids. Phil still relies on his parent's knowledge of farming to inform a great deal of what he does, and though his farm would be considered a conventional operation by market standards, "I sell what I eat myself, exactly what I would feed my own family, nothing else!" He says with much emphasis.
After a delicious lunch of rabbit roast and rissoto with a little home made wine, we watch Carmen take the mornings goat milk and make some of her Halumi cheese with it. The children of the house are pretty much grown up now, and they come and go with friends and to jobs as the day wanes. We forgot to visit the rabbit barn this morning, so we go back out there and meet all the bunnies in their cages. Here Phil also shows me the 'bad chicken pen' that he keeps for chickens who start to break their own eggs. In most settings, if a farmer finds a chicken breaking into it's own eggs then the job is clear: wring it's neck. For Phil, this chicken probably isn't getting all the nutrients it needs from it's feed, for whatever reason, so he puts those chickens into the main barn during the winter and outside in this pen in the summer, where they can scratch up the ground and get what ever it is they crave as well. This way, he says, "Maybe I don't get 10 eggs a week from them, maybe only 8, but everyone is happier!".
Before I leave I tell them that if they'd like to come to the city for a show or dinner out, I'd love to plan that for them or with them. Phil is grateful, but he tells me "When you are here, and you are doing what everything needs and you have the time to do it, you don't want to get away, it's all you need." What can I say? I was warned before I became a market manager that one of the dangers of the job is that you will come to want to live on a farm. I believed I was immune, but after today, I'm not so sure anymore.