Homesteading: How P.E.I. couples are reinventing the family farm
'There is a generation in there where we relied on the grocery store for everything'
They're not the hippies of yesteryear who wanted to move to the country, smoke up, tune out and get away from the rat race. While a different pace of life is a likely and welcome side-effect of living on a homestead farm, food quality and safety are top-of-mind for today's self-sufficient farmers.
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The homesteading movement is based on a blend of concerns for food quality, food security, food safety, animal rights and the environment. Homestead farms are cropping up on P.E.I.
"We loved being able to go to the yard, pick beets and carrots and go inside and make supper," said Wensel Harris, 49, of how he and his partner Janice MacLean, 46, began Forever Green Homestead in 2011.
Now the couple produce 73 items including fruit, vegetables, herbs, chickens, eggs and this year, 160 jars of honey from beehives they built themselves. They grow 80 per cent of their own food on less than a third of a hectare, or .69 of an acre in Chelton, P.E.I., at the same time working six to 10 months per year at the nearby tax centre in Summerside.
"One of the biggest things for us was to know where our food came from, to know who touched it. With us doing what we do, we never fear about a recall," shared Harris.
'Reinvention' of the family farm
Leanne Bell and her husband Shawn "sort of fell into" homesteading when they purchased a run-down abandoned 24-hectare (60-acre) farm in Iona, P.E.I., in 2011.
They had no intention of farming, but that first summer when Shawn mentioned he'd like to raise a few meat chickens, Leanne readily agreed. Things snowballed, and this summer they had more than 400 animals including turkeys.
I think there's that desire to get reconnected again with the land.— Leanne Bell, homesteader
While Shawn works full-time as an industrial electrician, Leanne — who has a degree in social work — stays home with the couple's 14-month-old daughter, Emma, and does farm chores until Shawn returns home to help, sometimes working past nightfall.
Katherine and Matthew Bryson, 25 and 26 respectively, purchased a smaller farm just down the road in Iona in 2014, and jumped right into raising hens, pheasants, pigs, sheep and vegetables. Both are from a farming background and work full-time. She's a veterinary technician and he works for a pharmaceutical company, and they have a 13-month-old son, Henry.
Katherine called Bryson Family Farm a "reinvention of the small-scale family farm."
"Back in the day, even up to 70 years ago, everyone had a milking cow, everyone had laying hens and everyone had a vegetable garden," asserted Bryson. "Then there was a movement to move to the big cities and everyone kind of lost touch of where their food comes from."
Now, all of the couples work toward complete self-sufficiency, while selling surplus produce to friends and neighbours and at local farmers' markets.
'Becoming more of a trend'
"It is becoming more of a trend," asserted Leanne Bell. "I think there's that desire to get reconnected again with the land."
"There is a generation in there where we relied on the grocery store for everything."
The Bells live on Shawn's income, while the money they make selling poultry and organic eggs goes back into the farm, but say they are content to live with less while carefully planning expenditures.
Living greener is a big part of what homesteading is about for the Brysons. Shunning pesticides and reducing packaging waste is important to them.
"A lot of it too is just the lifestyle, we love our little farm," said Bryson, a sentiment espoused by all three couples. "We sit outside and watch the stars. In a city you just can't do that."
Quality of life
The poultry on all three homesteads is pasture-raised, which means the chickens graze on fresh grass and any stray bugs. They're not crowded or stressed, the homesteaders say, which results in happier animals and ultimately, better taste.
"Chicken tastes like chicken should — it has a flavour!" enthused Bell.
At the same time, she admitted she does get attached to the animals. "Butcher day is a difficult day, but I am thankful it's difficult. If it was easy, it would mean I didn't value that animal."
Just pick one thing and once you're good at that, and you're comfortable with that, move on to the next.— Katherine Bryson, homesteader
People are interested in eating animals that were raised humanely, agreed Bryson, who posts videos of her animals on the Bryson Family Farm Facebook page.
"They have great lives, it's so fun to watch them!" said Bell.
"It's not a question of going as big as we do," said Wensel Harris. "You don't need to be as busy as we are to enjoy fresh food from your own garden, from your own hands.
"Don't go too far ahead of what you can handle," Harris advises, and realize your limitations.
Harris and MacLean also save and share their own seeds, and note local seed exchanges have become increasingly popular.
Visit local farms, talk to farmers at the market, and read blogs, advised Katherine Bryson.
"Just pick one thing and once you're good at that, and you're comfortable with that, move on to the next."
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