The Canning Chemist
Here are two job titles you wouldn’t expect to find on a backwoods farm in Eastern Ontario: toxicologist and pharmacokineticist. Yet that is what you’ll find when you peel back the curtain of South Nation Eco Marché; ex-Montrealers who, one day, simply decided to move to a farm and strive for self-sufficiency.
A book is to blame
Sabile has only lived in the country for the past three and a half years. Before then, she’d only known the city, chemistry labs and computer work. Though her husband had relatives who farmed, she did not. She had no concept of the realities of rural and farming life. So what happened? A book. More specifically, The Pioneers: An Illustrated History of Early Settlement in Canada.
“I was pregnant with my third kid and the library was having a used book sale,” Sabile tells me. “They had this book about Canadian pioneers. It wasn’t that big. I read it and I was like, oh my god! They slept more hours than we do. They ate healthier than we do. They exercised more than we do. They were surrounded by people in their community, in their family and nobody died alone. Socially, they were better off than us. So something just switched. I told my husband we were moving to a farm. He had spent all of his summers on his grandparents’ farm, he knew what was involved. All I had was a plot in a community garden.”
Pieces of the local food puzzle
Sabile is now well entrenched into her farming life. With her husband, they’re working towards having chickens, eggs, and certified organic cows. Her three kids, for their part, now have acres in which to play instead of a few feet and their Montreal accent has morphed into something more Franco-Ontarian. Yet what Sabile is most known for are her canned products.
I met up with Sabile at the Ottawa Incubator Kitchen where Mark Dunham, the executive chef, was helping her with her efforts to scale up her operation. Though she’d always been into canning, this is now a whole other level; hence the need for help from a professional chef who, it just so happens, ran the kitchens of Cirque du Soleil for 12 years.
Now you may be wondering how all this works. It goes something like this works:
- Make an arrangement with a local farmers to glean their leftovers from the weekly farmers’ market;
Process and can the produce;
Give half of canned products to farmer;
Under the South Nation Eco Marché brand, distribute the other half of the canned products throughout the area all year long;
To me, this arrangement is brilliant for so many reasons. The primary reason is that farmers know there is money in value-added products. They just don’t have the time or resources to prepare them. As a micro-processor, that’s where Sabile fits in. “I love canning so much that I found an excuse to can,” Sabile laughs. “I’ve been making my own jam for many years. Then I started making tomato sauce for myself and other people. Just as I was trying to source things to sell, I realised there was a problem because it’s not fair that when I make tomato sauce I’m making so much more profit than the guy who’s growing the tomatoes. Right? He’s throwing his tomatoes away because he can’t sell them and meanwhile I’m selling out. There should be some kind of partnership there. Give me more and then you’ll get more sales. It just kind of evolved. I see it as a piece of the puzzle. The person whose processing and freezing and drying and canning is a necessary piece to the food economy.”
In touch with reality
The Montreal days are officially behind Sabile. Beyond the simple chemistry of canning, she no longer has any ties to her old life of commuting, sitting at a desk and eking out a garden in a few square feet of urban dirt. From a book to a real backwoods farm and a small canning initiative, Sabile has never questioned the radical rerouting she took in her life.
“You know how like for the Amish, farming is part of their religion? First it’s like, why do they insist on being that way? But I get it now! I wouldn’t have gotten it until I was there. Because you’re so much more in touch with reality when you’re living a natural way instead of just drive, shop and that’s your life. My water comes from a well. I’m conscious of where my water comes from. It doesn’t just magically appear out of a tap. It somehow give you some innocence. I think it’s necessary for me to reach a spiritual level to live in that way. I couldn’t have reached that in the city. I needed that.”