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A Weekend Homesteader Seeking Resilience

Blue Jay Feather Montage

By Aurelia Thevenot

There are many challenges facing the beginner homesteader… and even the more seasoned practitioner who is running out of wind. Recently, I had the opportunity to reflect on these challenges in my own personal journey, and actually went out to get some answers.

For those of you following the humble beginnings of Wellwood Farm, I have a full-time off-farm job (two jobs if you count family life). We’re also new to farming, the countryside, and Canada, so we’re really just trying to figure stuff out as we go. Our challenges are linked to limited resources, namely (and in no particular order) time, money and community.

So I was thrilled to learn that, in exchange for a bit of time, the organizers of the Guelph Organic Conference were allowing me to save hard earned money while connecting to (hopefully) like-minded individuals!

The Deal Is…

Volunteers get free access to all workshops on the day they help out! 

If you want the flexibility, sign up for Saturday set-up and/or Sunday teardown, but there’s also coat check, registration desk, workshop facilitation, etc. (More information about volunteering here.)

I signed up for Saturday setup as I wanted to be free for all 4 workshop sessions that day. Although it’s tough getting there at 6am, I can tell you now that I’ll be doing the same next year.

We greet tradeshow vendors, help them unload their stuff and find their booth, and most of them are very grateful there’s someone there who knows what’s going on. 

There are some breaks in the waves of incoming equipment, supplies and props, and that’s when you start chatting with your fellow volunteers about their experiences and which workshops they’re interested in.

Like the guy that started telling us about a farm that grows native pawpaw trees under black walnuts as they’re the only ones that can, hence reduced competition and…Oh, hold that thought, there’s a truck backing up that needs to be unloaded. 

It’s a cool way to meet new people, some are veterans, some are newbies, but we’re all there to help out and have a good time. Look at these guys, for example…

Volunteer Collage Loading Unloading

Once all vendors were in place, we set off to explore and satisfy our curiosity with workshops and vendors. Here’s what I “harvested” that day…

Resource Management – Time and Money

The first workshop I attended was hosted by Hanna Jacobs of Matchbox Garden & Seed Co, and her catchy title was “How to turn a profit on under 2 acres”.

Although I’m not looking to give up my day job, I figured she must have a few nuggets of wisdom if she turns a profit on the same space as I break my back on every year. And although her profit is a third of what I need to raise my family and pay for my banker’s extravagant lifestyle (aka mortgage), there were many a gold nugget to be found in her honest talk and subsequent chat that evening as the tradeshow was closing down for the day.

Her main points were:

  • know what you want, be realistic
  • diversify into niche markets
  • have a business plan…
  • and keep revisiting those as you go along because things do change…all the time.

The last workshop of the day, presented by Catherine Stilo, was geared toward the casual gardener rather than the professional business. It wasn’t clear whether the husband and wife team had off-farm jobs, but the abundant produce coming from their rural backyard was shared mainly with family and friends (and one very lucky neighbour).

Catherine Stilo at 2017 Guelph Organic Conference

She touched on the principles of permaculture, perennial gardens and thriftiness, but what I loved the most in her presentation was those summer photos where she’s holding a fresh-picked veggie and all you can see is that smile!

Both these ladies stressed the importance of enjoying life in the process.

I realized that, sometime over the past 4 years, we had gotten lost in expectations that were disproportional to the reality of our lifestyles at that time. Eager to recreate eden on earth, I planted everything and anything in much greater quantities than we could handle. We all know the descriptions in those seed catalogues are awfully enticing in the middle of winter.

Would I plant as many if I were saving seeds year over year like Hanna?

If I had a smaller space and decided to use raised beds as Catherine did, would I plant that many tomatoes (and beets, and beans, and squash, and…)? Probably not. 

Instead, I find myself with an overabundance of food fit for a CSA that I have neither time nor energy to devote to. Now, if we were part of a community with shared values, the story may be different…

Finding a community

Last year when attending the conference, I only went to the free tradeshow looking for seeds and to see what was out there.

I was a little overwhelmed at the number of booths with all their different agendas. From large scale farming equipment to co-operatives to consultants to associations to home gardening tools and products to food brands…and all the nuances in between. 

This year, I was hoping to make some good connections to recreate the community we left behind in our home country. In addition to the two speakers mentioned above, I was able to ferret out a couple of booths that could be interesting leads.

The first was Fiddlehead Nursery, located near Collingwood, which offer tours of their edible forest setup. Not only is this a great way to see something new that works in our climate, but they also mentioned there was a community not far from there where a new generation of homesteaders had started buying up properties along a stretch of country road, each pitching in their own contributions for the common good. I can’t wait to find out more about these guys, and even maybe meet some of them when I visit Fiddlehead Nursery in the spring.

Another great conversation I had was at the Rare Breeds Canada booth, where I was told they could probably hook me up with an old-timer in my area that could talk my ear off about which chickens would be best for our setup.

And this post would not be complete without the lovely Nicole at Upper Canada Fibreshed, who immediately drew us in with her spinning wheel and winning smile. Her group seeks to connect local wool producers, and particularly from rare breeds, directly with consumers.

Nicole of Upper Canada Fibreshed at 2017 Guelph Organic Conference

Then there was Ivan from Eden in Season, a budding consultant with lots of great ideas. Although I was a bit confused at first trying to figure out what his booth was about, he was very engaging, pulled out a map of the area and circled my approximate location compared to his.

I found out he did a bit of everything, with the aim of helping confused souls, like myself, explore possibilities and connect with opportunities.

I’ll definitely be connecting with him in the near future and hopefully go out to see what he has achieved in his area. 

There were also several cooperatives, buying clubs, councils, organizations and associations that I need to do a bit of research on before providing an opinion. Here’s a little idea of the homework awaiting.

Homework awaiting - brochures, seeds and more

Other learnings

The two middle workshops were related to native plants for carbon sequestration and providing wildlife habitat, with an emphasis on pollinators. Although they didn’t help in my quest for resources, it definitely added to the list of cool things to try on the farm.

Some are embarrassingly simple, such as tying reeds together and making a mini sand/rock garden, whereas others involve intensive rehabilitation more fit for experts. 

I had previously read about switchgrass and was thrilled to find a booth with someone knowledgeable to answer my questions, photos and even bowls of the stuff to get a feel of the product.

Switchgrass display at 2017 Guelph Organic Conference

Mission Accomplished or Just Begun?

So, in short I got what I came for and more, with the caveat that I’ve only scratched the surface and need to do a bit more digging (pardon the puns).

Thankfully, we have another two months in good ol’ Zone 5 before we can really get outside, so as long as the passion doesn’t fade, there should be some exciting changes on our farm in 2017.
Bring it on!

To learn more about volunteering at the conference visit here.