The Giving Farmer

Even on a cold January day, these pastured heritage pigs are nice and cozy.

Even on a cold January day, these pastured heritage pigs are nice and cozy.

In search of feet and hocks

I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment when I started to fantasize about a simple, agrarian, back-to-the-fat-of-the-land lifestyle. The idea took hold slowly, intimately tied to my ever deepening obsession with every aspect of food. Fueled by the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, this fantasy jarred against my actual urban, debt-laden, young adult life. And it’s then that I first heard of Mariposa Farm.

On the outskirts of Plantagenet, a mere 24 kilometers from my new home, I’d passed by the entrance to Mariposa Farm several times. The television interviews I’d seen made me think that in there, through those woods, lay an oasis of sorts. A mixed farm where they lived the good life.

The pretense for my visit was pork. More specifically, pork feet and hocks, those odd bits that make for the best possible stock. (See my recipe for porky baked beans.) Suzanne, flying solo because her husband was gone on his yearly trip to Mexico, didn’t want me to pay. Feet and hocks are next to worthless for her and her restaurateur clients. They have no idea what they’re missing.

Fields of snow complete with peace and quiet.

Fields of snow complete with peace and quiet.

All important land

Suzanne grew up in northern Ontario in a small village buried deep within the boreal forest. Her grandfather had been lured there by colonial recruiters who sought to develop what they called “New Ontario”. There was nothing new about it, of course. It was just isolated. And so far north that agriculture was and still is a difficult endeavour.

Despite discouraging all of his children from taking over the land, Suzanne’s grandfather had a golden saying: Sur la Terre, il n'y a rien de plus important que la terre. “On Earth, there is nothing more important than the land.” This idea stayed with Suzanne as she grew up surrounded by gardens and livestock. It’s what led her to study agriculture, teach at the Alfred Agricultural College for 19 years and, with her husband, maintain large gardens the products of which were sold to local restaurants.

It was only in 2002 that Suzanne quit her well-paid, benefit-rich, stable job to work at Mariposa Farm full time. Ian, her husband, had only abandoned his contractor gig two years before. Though they diversified their income streams by starting an on-farm restaurant, launching a delivery, storage and sale hub to connect local farmers with local restaurants, and even building two cabins to be rented out to people wanting to dabble with the notion of the rural life, the farm hasn’t made Suzanne a financially rich woman.

“Our passion is agriculture,” Suzanne tells me. “Our objective is to support agriculture. Our goal isn’t to get rich or to retire. It’s really about developing agriculture, encouraging the young people getting into it.”

But there’s more to Suzanne’s motivations.

Suzanne Lavoie, the giving farmer of Mariposa Farm.

Suzanne Lavoie, the giving farmer of Mariposa Farm.

The good life

In certain circles, the idea of being a farmer is incredibly appealing. Just you, the dirt and happy people eating the healthy food you produce. But in addition to nearly always being a vow of poverty, farming as Suzanne farms is no cakewalk. “It’s one thing to say you want to live from the land but to do it every day is very demanding,” admits Suzanne. “When we eventually decided to do it in our mid-30s, we were very conscious of what that decision implied since we’d been doing it part-time. We knew what we were getting into. We have interns who come here and after two or three months they find it boring. With animals, every day you have to feed them, every day you have to give them water... It’s the same routine every day and it’s the same with plants. So if you’re not amazed by the process itself, of cultivating your potatoes or milking your cow to make cheese, it’s just redundancy.”

I admit I was once like Suzanne’s interns. I toyed with a great many dreams for my adult life as a young adult. Farming was one of them. I saw it as a simpler way to live. A life connected to something real. But farming is more than that. It’s making ends meet. It’s baking under the sun and freezing in winter. It’s working long hours for sub-minimum wage. It’s all of that. The good and the bad. Yet working downtown and having to commute three hours a day is not what I call the good life. So I put the question to Suzanne. Despite all the literal and figurative shit she has to deal with on any given day, is she living the good life?

“If you feed your cow well and if you provide a suitable shelter, she’ll give freely. If we did this with every human. If we made sure they had something to eat, had shelter and if we tended to them, the human potential would be enormous. If I didn’t tend to my animals, I’d have nothing. That’s where happiness lies. If you give, you receive. And I receive so much here. Every morning I get up and I feel blessed.”