After years of working at the ends of the earth in human rights and development, Brent Preston and his wife were die-hard city dwellers. But when their second child arrived, the shine came off urban living. In 2003 they bought a hundred acres and a rundown farmhouse and set out to build a real farm, one that would sustain their family, nourish their community, heal their environment, and turn a profit. The New Farm is Preston’s memoir of a decade of grinding toil and perseverance. Farming is a complex and precarious business, and they made plenty of mistakes along the way. But as they learned how to grow food, and to succeed at the business of farming, they also found that a small, sustainable, organic farm could be an engine for change, a path to a more just and sustainable food system. Today, The New Farm supplies top restaurants, supports community food banks, hosts events with leading chefs, and grows extraordinary produce. Told with humor and heart, The New Farm is a joy, a passionate book by an important new voice.
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About the Author
Brent Preston worked as a human rights investigator, aid worker, election observer, and journalist on four continents before finding his true calling as a farmer. With his wife, he runs The New Farm outside Creemore, Ontario.
Read an Excerpt
BUYING THE FARM
PEOPLE OFTEN ASK Gillian and me how we ended up on the farm. It's hard to know how far back to go when answering that question. I grew up in Scarborough, the easternmost and most reviled suburb of Toronto. Mike Myers grew up there, too, and says that Scarborough was his inspiration for Wayne's World, which sums the place up pretty nicely. I had a great childhood, but even when I was very young I knew I wanted to get out of there and see the world. Gillian grew up on a sheep farm outside the tiny village of Williamstown, Vermont, and similarly vowed to escape as soon as she could. We launched ourselves into the world at about the same time in the early 1990s, both of us propelled by a potent mix of idealism, ambition, adrenaline and libido, both of us utterly assured of our own immortality.
The inevitable crossing of our paths occurred in 1994. We were both working for the National Democratic Institute, an American organization that sought to spread and strengthen democratic government. I was living in Lilongwe, the sleepy capital of the Republic of Malawi in central Africa. Gillian had just finished a two-year stint in Botswana with the Peace Corps and was the Malawi desk officer at NDI headquarters in Washington, D.C. Email was a new and frightening invention at that time, so our romance started by fax. I would photocopy giant cockroaches and wall geckos and make custom letterhead for my messages to her. She fell for it, of course. I convinced her to relocate to the Malawi office, and the rest is history. We became roommates, then sleeping buddies, then fell in love, in that order.
We lived together for two years in Malawi, then spent time in over a dozen countries, sometimes separately but usually together. We had the good fortune to be in the thick of the action as the world sorted itself out after the end of the Cold War. We helped organize the assembly that wrote a new constitution for Malawi, conducted public opinion research in the tribal areas of Yemen, and organized international observer delegations to landmark elections in Ghana, Nigeria and Indonesia, all while we were still in our mid-twenties. We worked incredibly hard, but it was also incredibly fun.
We would probably still be at it today, but our luck finally ran out in 1999 in East Timor. We were working for former president Jimmy Carter at the time, leading a small team of international observers in the run-up to the UN-sponsored referendum on independence from Indonesia. The Indonesian military had created surrogate militias to intimidate the population prior to the vote, and when two-thirds of the Timorese chose independence, the militias literally started to burn the whole place down.
We got caught by a group of drug-crazed, sword-wielding thugs in the port in Dili, the capital, while trying to evacuate our local staff. Gillian and I escaped in separate vehicles, our translator's father clinging to the hood of my car while his extended family screamed inside Gillian's as she raced along behind me. After a high-speed chase through the streets of Dili, a motorbike darted in front of me, the passenger on the back trying to aim a pistol at my head as I swerved. I finally ran down the motorbike to avoid being shot.
We ended up being arrested by the Indonesian police, forced to pay compensation to the guys on the motorbike who had been trying to kill us, escorted to the airport and placed on the last civilian evacuation flight out of East Timor. There's nothing like staring down the barrel of a Colt .45 to shift your focus to the important things in life, one of which is actually staying alive. After East Timor, we moved home and got married.
Gillian and I bought a house in downtown Toronto with my brother Mike, a big old place on Palmerston Boulevard, the most elegant street in the city. Mike and his future wife, Sue, had the top-floor apartment, Gillian and I were on the second floor, and we rented out the first floor and basement apartments. We could walk five minutes south to the bars and restaurants on College Street, the heart of Little Italy, or three minutes north to the sushi and barbecue places in Korea Town, along Bloor Street. Gillian found a job at a public-sector management consulting firm and I started working as a producer for CBC Television, the national broadcaster. Living in a big North American city after ten years in the developing world gave us a heightened appreciation for how good we had it. For a time, just the fact that the roads were smooth, water came out of the taps 24/7 and no one ever tried to kill us was enough.
It didn't take long, however, before we became restless. The first issue was children. The prevailing narrative around the arrival of kids is one of revelatory joy and happiness, the sudden realization that everything has changed. This held true for Gillian and me, but it also became clear that having kids was a major impediment to doing many of the things we most enjoyed doing in the city. What's more, the continued enjoyment of those things by neighbours was affecting our new lives as sleep-deprived parents. It's great to live in a place where you can stumble home from the bar at three in the morning. It's not so great to live in a place where you are frequently woken up by other people stumbling home from the bar at three in the morning, just after your screaming infant has fallen asleep. Foster arrived in 2001 and Ella in 2003. They were both an indescribable joy from the very beginning, but having two kids under two in a two-bedroom apartment can really take the shine off urban living.
The second issue was the rat race. Perhaps a decade of immersion in other cultures had given us the ability to see the flaws in our own more clearly, or perhaps we just weren't the kind of people who could put up with working for the man. Either way, we had trouble accepting the idea that donning a suit and sitting in an office for ten or twelve hours every day was a good way to spend your life. It didn't help that both of us had horrible bosses. It wasn't long before I started spending a large portion of the workday sitting at my desk, quietly plotting my escape.
WE FLED THE MADNESS OF our child-infested apartment and the tedium of our office jobs by leaving the city on weekends. My parents had bought an empty piece of land about two hours northwest of Toronto, and that summer the extended family was building a timber-frame cabin on it. Gillian and I would pack up the kids and fight the Friday afternoon traffic, then spend the weekend camping out, building and drinking beer. We stayed in an old tent trailer, there was nowhere to bathe and the only facilities were an outhouse with no door, so it wasn't particularly relaxing. But once the cabin was done, we thought, we would have a weekend refuge.
In the fall of 2003, the cabin was finally completed, and we were getting ready to spend our first weekend inside. It had no electricity or running water, but at least it had a roof, a couple of sleeping lofts and some decent beds. Ella had been born in June and Gillian was still on maternity leave, so she had the car all packed up and ready to go. I was just finishing up at work when I got a call from my father.
"You can't sleep in the cabin," he said abruptly.
"Some prick from the township just called and said he would fine me a thousand dollars a night if anyone sleeps in it."
My father, it turned out, had neglected to obtain the proper permits before building the cabin. A legal dwelling must have things such as potable water, a septic system and stairways that conform to the building code, requirements that would surprise no one except my father. He had saved himself a bundle of money and paperwork by taking out a permit for a storage shed, a pretty accurate description of what the cabin actually was. But a neighbour had complained, and now our plans for the weekend — and all subsequent weekends — were shot.
When I called Gillian to give her the bad news, she already had both kids in their car seats and was ready to pick me up from the office. "There's no way I'm unpacking everything and taking it back up those stairs," she said. I wasn't about to argue. As we crawled north on Avenue Road, Gillian suggested we find a hotel near the cabin and call a real estate agent. If we really wanted a weekend place, it might be time to look for one of our own.
THE FAMILY CABIN IS LOCATED near the town of Collingwood, at the south end of Georgian Bay, a landscape dominated by the Niagara Escarpment. The escarpment is a sort of one-sided ridge running from Niagara Falls in the south to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the north. In some places the escarpment is a jumble of hills that is difficult to recognize as a distinct landform. In others it's steep and abrupt, with sheer limestone cliffs. Near Collingwood it winds and meanders back on itself, cut with deep river valleys and caves that hold snow into the middle of July. The rolling landscape is a patchwork of beautiful farms and huge tracts of maple forest.
We checked into a hotel in Collingwood and called Vicki Bell, the real estate agent who had helped my parents buy their land. Vicki was born and raised in the area and knows every back road for miles around. We spent all day Saturday driving around with her, the kids squirming in their car seats, Gillian and I becoming increasingly depressed. We thought we could buy an empty chunk of land for a hundred thousand bucks, then slowly build our dream cabin. We were sorely mistaken. Land on the flat, featureless stretches above and below the escarpment was relatively cheap, but also flat and featureless. Places in the hills and valleys of the escarpment itself were crazy expensive. As we drove down the dirt roads, we passed enormous mansions on huge country estates recently built by wealthy weekenders from the city. There was nothing we could remotely afford.
I spent much of the next week poring over real estate listings at work. There must be a deal out there somewhere, I thought. I called Vicki about one place that sounded great — right on the Mad River, with a cool little cottage, for less than $350,000. "I won't even show you that," she said. "It's right behind the Hamilton Brothers' chicken barn." I didn't know why that was such a bad thing, but now I'm glad I listened to her.
Spending too much time on real estate websites can play dangerous tricks on your mind. We had started out looking for a few forested acres to build a modest cabin. After less than a week, we had resigned ourselves to buying a much larger piece of land for way more money, simply because that was all that was available in the area. We probably should have looked elsewhere, or given up on the idea of a weekend place altogether, but we didn't. Instead we got excited when Gillian found a listing for a piece of property — a hundred acres of flat farmland on top of the escarpment with a crappy old farmhouse — that was nothing like what we had set out to find and that we couldn't afford. The weird thing was that Vicki was the listing agent. When we called her about it, she sounded surprised. "Oh," she said. "I didn't think you'd be interested in Cona's place."
THE NEXT WEEKEND WE LOADED UP the kids once more and drove north. Vicki was busy with other clients but had arranged for the owner to let us in. It was a cold, grey October morning. The leaves were already off the row of old maples that lined the lane leading up to the small, square, two-storey farmhouse. We drove around to the back and parked. There was a big old barn just to the south of the house, and a large steel grain bin in the backyard. A cedar hedge blocked the view to the west, but to the south and east were flat, open fields for just about as far as we could see. The word that sprang to mind was "bleak."
There were no other cars in the drive and no one answered when we knocked at the back door, but it was open, so we let ourselves in. The interior was much like the exterior: cold and desolate. It seemed like the heat had not yet been turned on for the season. Before we could get too far into the house, a pickup arrived outside. A burly man with a scruffy, unshaven face stepped out and came in the door. He paused as he entered to take off his winter boots, revealing a plastic shopping bag on each foot. "I had a bit of a leak," he explained with a grin. I'll never forget my first sight of James Strathcona Metheral, standing in the empty living room, hand outstretched, feet clad in white plastic bags. "Nice to meet youse," he said. "I'm Cona."
When I think back to that first tour of the house, I can't figure out why we liked it so much. Cona had bought the place only a year earlier, moved his family in, then after a few months moved back to his house in the valley, a few miles down the road. His wife didn't like the winters "up on top," he explained. There was no furniture in the house, and it wasn't particularly clean. Cona's idea of staging had been to pile a huge mound of fresh manure in the barnyard, in a spot that dominated the view from the large living-room window. There was green shag carpet throughout the upstairs; the kitchen had a beige linoleum floor and lime green appliances. One of the bedrooms had some utterly terrifying murals of cartoon characters. I half expected the twins from The Shining to step out of a closet. The house was probably a hundred years old, but the interior was straight out of the late 1970s. It smelled mouldy.
As we were readying to leave, I wandered out by myself to take a look at the barn. When I stepped into that huge, empty structure for the first time, I felt like I was entering a sacred place, some sort of ramshackle wooden cathedral. I could see the original cedar shingles under the roof metal forty feet above me, and the adze marks on the massive hand-squared beech timbers looked almost fresh. It seemed miraculous that such a tall, square, empty shell could have withstood more than a century of howling wind and driving snow without a scrap of steel in its wooden skeleton; the whole thing was held together with mortise-and-tenon joints and wooden pegs. I was taken by a sudden, irrational desire to own that barn, to become part of the story of a structure that had spanned multiple human lifetimes. I'm not sure why, but the moment I walked into that barn, I knew we had found our place.
GILLIAN AND I STARTED CONVINCING ourselves to buy the farm as soon as we got in the car. Over the years we have become expert in talking ourselves into things that normal people would think crazy, both of us having developed an intimate knowledge of each other's most irrational buttons, and how best to push them. Gillian and I are very different in many ways, but we both have the ability to drop everything and seize an opportunity. Unfortunately, we also have the ability to view buying a rundown farm in the middle of nowhere as an opportunity.
The main stumbling block was financial. We simply couldn't afford the $350,000 asking price. It took us a couple of days to think our way around this obstacle. We eventually came up with a two-pronged strategy: we would put in a lowball offer and we would move to the farm. That would allow us to rent out our apartment in Toronto, freeing up cash to make mortgage payments on the farm. It also gave us a double out: I didn't think Cona would accept less than his asking price, so the offer was probably doomed to fail. And even if he did, we could sell the farm after a year if we didn't like it and move back to our house in the city. Vicki wrote up the offer and I promptly wrote off the whole endeavour, convinced that Cona would say no.
A few days later, I was walking along Adelaide Street from the production offices where I worked to our studio at the CBC broadcast centre. It was a dark, wet Thursday evening. I was working on a weekly current affairs debate show called Counter-Spin, which we described to our American guests as "like Cross-fire, but less yelling." Ours was one of the few shows that still went live to air, and even after four years with the CBC it was a thrill to hear the theme music as the opening credits rolled and to be part of the choreographed chaos of the control room. I was keyed up, ready for the show, and had almost completely forgotten about our hare-brained attempt to buy a farm.
My phone rang. It was Gillian. "We got it," she said. "He accepted our offer." I stopped in the middle of the street, stunned.
As I went through the motions of taking the show to air that night, I started to feel that moving to the farm was meant to be. I had recently found myself looking around at the people sitting silently on the subway or walking hurriedly in and out of the office towers on Bay Street and asking myself, "What's the fucking point?" I had also taken stock of my life and realized that the times I was the most happy and fulfilled were the times when I was not sitting at a desk, when I was outside the city, when I was in the bush. I was always the "field guy" when I worked in Africa, the one who volunteered to take the five-day road trip though the jungles of Liberia a few months after the end of the civil war, to see what was going on outside the capital. I jumped at every opportunity to get out of the office and into the countryside. As a teenager, I had worked as a canoe-trip guide at a summer camp, sometimes spending weeks at a time in the wilderness.
Excerpted from "The New Farm"
Copyright © 2018 Brent Preston.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Euthanasia for Dummies 1
Dear Reader 10
Chapter 1 Buying the Farm 13
Chapter 2 Baby Steps 35
Chapter 3 School of Hard Knocks 55
Chapter 4 The Groundhog Wars 75
Chapter 5 A World of Pain 101
Chapter 6 The Culinary World 123
Chapter 7 Castration IOI 143
Chapter 8 Learning to Work 163
Chapter 9 Cash Cropping 191
Chapter 10 Los Muchachos 217
Chapter 11 The Stop 239
Chapter 12 Small is Beautiful 257
Epilogue: Viva la Revolutión! 273
Creemore, Ontario, Canada