Jul 22, 2020

A lot of city dwellers like to go camping, but for Sarah and Rob Winney, it turned out there was more to it than that. They were interested in cooking, poking around rural communities looking for small scale butchers and meat producers to eat better quality food. They were interested in escaping from their jobs in the GTA at some point in their lives.

In 2017, this led them to buy a 22-acre property with a house on Oak Flats Road, in the Piccadilly area, with a plan to slowly transition to a rural, farming lifestyle.

“We ended up spending all of our weekends at the property and we realised that what we wanted to do was start raising animals for meat on a small scale and we couldn’t do that unless we sped up our plans to move here permanently,” said Rob, in a phone interview this week, after another long summer work day at Rise Farm.

In the spring of 2018, a year after buying the property, which they describe as a farm in the making because it was mainly used as a hunt camp and then a retirement property in the past, they moved in, bought some 8 week old pigs to raise for the market, and began the trial and error adventure that they are now two and a half summers into.

As modern back to the landers, they use Instagram to document their lives, and connect to a growing local market for small-scale specialty meat such as lamb, goat, and rabbit. They also raise poultry; chicken, duck, and goose, guinea hens, and quail. It’s more than a bit of a menagerie of animals at Rise Farm.

Sarah described the last two years of their farm life in an Instagram post this winter.

“The learning curve has been huge, and of course sometimes we wonder if we have taken on too much, but slowly it's all coming together and it all made sense. Over the past two years we have made plans & seen them both succeed and fail. We have become business partners, raised goats, sheep, pigs and countless birds, survived a winter with only a wood stove and become even more dedicated to why we set out for this kind of a life. It’s bound to get harder before it gets easier but we wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said in a post dated January 20th.

Part of the sustainable path that Sarah and Rob are on, included Sarah working at the North Frontenac Arena in the winter and at the Cardinal Café in the summer. The covid-iverse put an end to all of that, for this year at least, but it has freed up Sarah to concentrate all her energy on the farm.

One of the challenges they face is making sure such a wide variety of animals are getting the nutrients they need. Another is the quality of the land, which is almost reasonable as pasture land, but was not particularly suitable for gardens. But the animals have been taking care of that over the last couple of years. They grow hundreds of pounds of potatoes, most for their own use since “we are Irish” said Rob, and some for sale.

They are also growing garlic, and just harvested 500 heads on Sunday. Their soil, augmented by manure for two years, is also bringing them a good crop of hot peppers, scorpion, habanero, and cayenne – just so there is a mild one, tomatoes and other vegetables for their own use and to produce a terroir hot sauce for themselves at the end of the season. They hope to be able to make enough to bottle and sell in another couple of years.

Part of the concept they are developing is to be able to feed themselves, and sell their surplus in order to cover all of the costs they incur each year.

“Our ambition is to be sustainable and you need to generate profit to do that,” Rob said.

Another challenge is one that they share with livestock producers across the region, the lack of abattoir capacity. It is particularly challenging when the animals they are bringing to slaughter are unusual and in small numbers. This year they will be bringing pigs (Berkshire-Tamworth crosses) to Quinn’s abattoir in Yarker, and goat and lamb to Rua meats in Stirling.

They raise different kinds of poultry, including quail, but they cannot get quail processed legally anywhere, so they can only sell quail eggs.

“We knew about this problem when we started out, and it is certainly a real one,” Rob said.

They were selling a lot of their meat to friends in Toronto when they first started out, but through their Instagram page and some local connections they have made over the last couple of years, they are finding a stronger and stronger local market for their specialty meats.

“We have rabbit available regularly, especially in pepperette form, but our pork and goat and lamb are available only seasonally and because we don’t produce a lot of any one kind of meat, it is gone when it is gone,” Rob said.

“Instagram has been a good platform for us. People can click for what is available at any time, and we do local delivery and ‘farm-gate’ pickup as well” said Sarah.

Also, on their Instagram, they post stories about their lives and about learning how they are making the transition from city dwellers to farmers.

The local market has grown for them and now they are able to sell most of the meat they bring to market directly off their website and Instagram, saving trips to Toronto.

Sarah was worried about how this summer would go for sales when farmer’s markets were not starting up in May, but that has not turned out to be a problem. In fact, even though they intended to participate in the Frontenac Farmers Market when it started up a couple of week’s ago, they find they don’t have enough supply to participate because of the success of their online business.

While they wouldn’t say they have had an easy time of it over the last two and a half years, Sarah and Rob are able to laugh at some of their rookie mistakes, and realise they will make many more in the future, and like all farmers they will be subject to market conditions, the weather and the fact that farming is not a high profit enterprise.

But Sarah isn’t going back to working as an office manager and Rob is not going to be going back into parts supplies any time soon.

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