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Back to the Farm

Young urbanites reach for the crops

Special to National Post Oct 8, 2011

Darren Calabrese / National Post

Young urbanites are trading city careers for the risks & rewards of farming life

About five years ago, Brent Preston and Gillian Flief decided to leave downtown Toronto and purchase a 100-acre farm in Creemore, Ont. Although Flief had grown up on a farm in Vermont, the couple were initially thinking of the farm only as a weekend place. Real estate was pricey, though, and they couldn’t afford two homes, so “somehow the plan morphed into moving out of the city altogether,” Preston recalls.

While Flief continued working as a management consultant in the city, Preston renovated the farmhouse. They started out with one acre, growing about 150 varieties of vegetables, which they “whittled down by trial and error” looking for things that would grow and sell well, settling on salad greens grown mostly for the restaurant market. Now, 12 or 13 acres are being cultivated, and Preston says they’re beginning to see that farming “is and can be a viable business, and a reasonable way of life.”

But if they had known five years ago what they know now, they might not have taken the plunge, Preston admits. “It’s been exceedingly hard to get to this point, it’s tested our marriage, and it’s physically exhausting.”

They are not alone in wanting to leave city life behind, as small farms continue to pop up around the Greater Toronto Area, tended to by people who want to return to the land — people who want to feel proud of their work and to contribute to the burgeoning local food market.

Mostly, they’re like Preston and Flief, who see farming as a political statement: “We felt we had to do something that would have a direct impact on climate change and environment.”

But wanting to farm — and making a living doing so — are not such easy goals to achieve. It’s thanks to food brokers, who pair farmers with restaurants and chefs looking to buy fresh and local, that small farms are increasingly sustainable.

Around the same time that Preston and Flief were starting their farm, Paul Sawtell and Grace Mandarano, disillusioned by their careers, decided to quit their jobs in pharmaceutical sales to search for something they “could be proud of, that would contribute to solutions.” After attending a discussion on the politics of food, where they met chefs frustrated by the shortage of accessible local food, along with farmers in need of ready markets, they founded a food brokerage called 100km Foods, and business quickly took off.

At first, they focused on specific areas north of Toronto and in the Niagara Fruitland area, cold-calling local and certified sustainable farmers they found from Local Food Plus’s producer list. “In the winter of 2007, we drove to a lot of farms, and sat down at kitchen tables pitching our idea. There was definitely some skepticism at first, but we started sourcing from them in the spring of 2008.”

Preston and Flief were among that first group approached by 100km Foods. So was Paul Brooks, who credits the local food movement with allowing farmers to make a living by selling produce to restaurants at a fair price. From his Mt. Albert, Ont., farm, Brooks and his family grow specialty crops such as the unique fingerling and Russian blue potatoes for 100km Foods.

Sawtell and Mandarano act as brokers for more than 40 farms in the GTA. Usually they will hear from a chef looking for a specific ingredient, and will then hunt for a farm that can provide it. Farmers new to the process receive an explanation of how the system works; often, Sawtell says, the farm will then become part of the 100km Foods network.

Thanks to the cash infusion from an urban market willing to pay more, farmers are able to invest back into their farms. The Brookses, for example, have upgraded their equipment, buying potato and squash washers, which not only cut down on labour, but keep “extremely rich and valuable soil,” where it belongs — on the farm.

One of the keys to success for food brokers is to make the process as easy as possible for all parties. “The food is literally harvested to order,” Sawtell says. Farmers provide 100kmFoods with a list each of what products are available. Chefs get the list — which includes how the produce is grown and packaged — and place their orders at night. By 6 a.m. the next day, farmers start harvesting; food is picked up by 5 p.m., and in the restaurant the following morning.

As Scarpetta chef Jeffrey Claudio puts it: “It’s pretty much out of the ground and to us in 24 hours, instead of getting something that’s been sitting in a plane for a week.”

The food costs more, but it’s worth it. Le Select Bistro’s head chef Albert Ponzo explains: “Our dinners are definitely more expensive to produce, like the pasteurized eggs we use from Mennonite farms — double the price but wonderful. To get our usual percentage is difficult, but worth it because it comes out in the flavour of the food.”

Preston hears these kinds of comments all the time, from chefs who tell him “they spend twice as much on our salad mix as the California-grown, but ours offers a more interesting variety, and lasts twice as long so they never throw any out.”

What 100kmFoods is doing has a cumulative effect. As more consumers insist on knowing where their food comes from, and are willing to pay for it, more — and younger — farmers are encouraged to take a stab at tilling fields. And the long term benefit is creating stronger rural communities. Preston, who has become a local councillor, says that one benefit is creation of stronger rural communities: “Agriculture … is about being connected to a place,” he says, “and being rooted in a community.”

Brooks, who has had plenty of opportunities to leave the family farm for good, agrees: “This is my whole life. I’m a farm advocate.”

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