New Brunswick

Homesteading lifestyle making a comeback in New Brunswick

Hundreds of people are drastically changing their lives by turning to homesteading. While many have no experience with animals or farming, the learning curve isn't deterring them from producing their own food and living off the land.

Pandemic driving interest in self-sufficiency, producing own food

Ben Cummings lives on a homestead in Benton, N.B., about 25 kilometres south of Woodstock. He raises chickens, rabbits and grows vegetables. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC )

Ben Cummings doesn't have an alarm clock. His rooster Tim's crowing carries easily through the thin walls of his camp, signalling the start of a new day.

The 27-year-old will be working on building a greenhouse, feeding dozens of chickens and rabbits and tending to his vegetable garden today. It's all part of the homesteading way of life.

"It is just a lot of hard work. It's definitely not for the faint of heart," he said.

Cummings lives in the village of Benton, N.B., about 25 kilometres south of Woodstock. It's tucked away in a clearing, far into the woods of central New Brunswick.

A wooden covered bridge crossing the Eel River is the only real landmark in town. There's no store, no gas station and weak internet. 

But for Cummings and his girlfriend, it was the perfect spot to settle and venture into the homesteading lifestyle, which entails producing your own food and becoming self-sufficient. They purchased a simple home by the river last August.

Cummings and his girlfriend live on a homestead along the Eel River in Benton, N.B. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

The Benton homesteader is one of hundreds of people drastically changing their lives in New Brunswick. The pandemic is driving people — many from outside the province — to buy up large parcels of land and try to become self-sufficient. Part of New Brunswick's appeal is the relative affordability of land here. 

Many have no experience with animals or farming, but the learning curve isn't deterring them from producing their own food and living off the land.

It's a lifestyle catching attention on Instagram and YouTube, where many young homesteaders are sharing their lives. More than 6,000 people have joined a New Brunswick support group online to sell goats or offer tips on building a chicken coop.

High demand for supplies

Luke Coleman, who has a homestead in Hampton with his wife, Jill, has seen this trending lifestyle first-hand. The couple sells livestock to people starting out, and offers advice.

"What we think COVID did was it pushed a lot of people who were already kind of teetering on the fence," he said. "It was the push that a lot of people needed to kind of just say, 'No, we're doing it now. We have to do it.'"

Coleman's place, which is called Belding Hill Farms, has a variety of animals, including pigs, chickens, horses, cows, sheep and goats. The homestead also offers educational tours, which have been popular this year.

Luke Coleman sells livestock to people starting out and said demand has never been this high. He has a long waiting list for chickens and piglets from his Hampton farm. (Submitted by Luke Coleman)

The demand for livestock has never been this high. There are about 140 people on a waiting list for chickens. Piglets are being sold before they're even born.

Normally, the Colemans need to scramble to sell them all. This year, Luke Coleman said they haven't even been advertising.

"We could've sold a thousand piglets probably. It's crazy," he said.

Potting soil is also hard to find. Butchers are booked up. Supplies are going up in price. 

Jill and Luke Coleman and a barn they built on their homestead in Hampton. (Submitted by Luke Coleman)

This has encouraged some homesteaders to become even more resourceful and self-sufficient. 

The Colemans want people to know homesteading can also be tough. While they document life on the farm through social media, they try to share good and bad moments so people get a full picture.

'Nothing more rewarding'

An hour and a half drive east, Jacob and Jillian Fenwick are expanding their homestead in Sackville.

Jacob is from the Ottawa area and Jillian is originally from Kentucky. The couple moved to New Brunswick specifically for this way of life.

The Fenwicks have 17 laying hens, a rooster, a big garden and fruit trees. They grow raspberries, blueberries and cranberries, The couple is waiting to get honeybees and hope to add a dairy cow and sheep in the future.

Jillian and Jacob Fenwick are homesteaders in Sackville, N.B. (Submitted by Jillian Fenwick)

Jillian Fenwick values having a direct connection to her food.

"There's nothing more rewarding than being able to pull out a jar of tomatoes that you canned in the middle of January," she said. "And to still have them and for them to still taste good and to be able to share that with other people."

The lifestyle also appealed to Jacob Fenwick. He said the weather and moon play a significant role in his day-to-day life.

"You get to live in tune with the world," he said. "You know the moment the grass starts to turn green, you know every new flower that comes up, you know any herbs that come up and what they're used for, and what wild food you can harvest."

Jillian Fenwick fleshes a sheepskin at her homestead in Sackville. (Submitted by Jillian Fenwick)

Jillian Fenwick said once you become accustomed to homegrown food, there's no going back.

"It's hard to buy a tomato from the grocery store, because it's just not as good," she said.

'I'll probably do it forever'

At Cummings's Benton homestead, the loudest noise is the sound of the river's current and the clucking chickens wandering around the property. Rabbits wander around a fenced-in pen.

Cummings had long been interested in producing his own food after feeling unwell from eating store-bought meat.

"I started down a journey of why certain foods are better for me, and make me feel better," he said. "I wanted to know and have respect for my meat."

When the pandemic hit, Cummings wanted to have a secure food supply and began researching how to grow vegetables and raise chickens.

Ben Cummings holds one of the rabbits he is raising. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

Over the past nine months, the appeal hasn't worn off. He plans to continue and has a goal of being completely off-grid.

"If you grow a pepper yourself, you have not only the dedication that you put into it, but it just tastes better, because it has the soil you grew it in," Cummings said.

"I just want to have enough that I can survive, pay my bills, pay my taxes and then I'll be happy. So I'll probably do it forever."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexandre Silberman is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. He can be reached at alexandre.silberman@cbc.ca

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