Story and photos by Michelle Annette Tremblay
Sue Harvey is hard core. The single mother of four grown children, who works as an educational assistant, doesn't seem particularly radical at first glance. Oh, but she is.
Today she's giving me a tour of Strawberry Hill Farm, just outside the small hamlet of Gunter. Tucked away on St. Ola Road, Harvey's farm is everything you picture when you fantasize about running away from that office job in the city in favour of the simple life in the country. There are gently rolling hills, multiple gardens, the secretive remains of a pioneer homestead and even a mystical wooded area with an emerald green canopy above and a soft floor of fern and moss below. I'm not generally one for folk lore, but I wouldn't be particularly surprised if we came across a fairy or two in these woods.
As we walk through the wide open pastures, Genie the Labrador Retriever, and Lucky, the three-month old Jersey calf, both stay glued to our sides, competing for attention. I instantly fall in love with the calf. He's just so cute, with those giant brown eyes, and still-lanky legs. He reminds me of a very large puppy, affectionately nuzzling, and licking my hand with his sandpaper tongue. When I crouch down to take a photo of the broody silkie hens, which all look as though they're wearing big furry Russian hats, Lucky nibbles on my pony tail and makes both Harvey and myself giggle.
We walk past gardens overflowing with vegetables and perennials, and Harvey talks about her gardening experiences. She grows her own parsnips, corn, potatoes, kale, zucchini, cucumbers, and peas, as well as various herbs and flowers.
“I used to have beautiful begonias over there, until the turkeys wandered over and ate them. I didn't even know turkeys liked begonias, but I guess they do,” she tells me, with humour in her eyes. She has lots of stories about wandering turkeys. One time, all 22 of them meandered down the road and gave her neighbour a start. They all came back home though, no worse for wear.
So how exactly is this unassuming woman a bad ass? Well, first off, she's tough as nails. Not in the guarded, edgy, chip-on-the shoulder way that some people are tough, but rather in the resilient, determined and strong sense. She manages Strawberry Hill Farm, on a nearly-hundred-acre homestead all on her own. And she's a rebel. As a self-sufficient organic farmer, Harvey is part of a movement that is about as rebellious as you can get in this day and age. She grows her own food without commercial pesticides, fertilizers, or GMO seeds. Her grocery bill is significantly smaller than her hay bill. She raises her own cows, pigs, turkeys and chickens, and also sells organic meat at her farm-gate. And she's planning to teach others how to do the same.
“When I retire I'd like to give educational tours. One of my sons is a teacher and brought his students over in June to learn about the farm and the animals. I'd like to share my knowledge, and my passion,” she says.
Even though the educator has a few years to go before she leaves her job with the school board, Harvey is already open to having school or summer camp groups come to explore the farm. After all, it was during her own childhood that she first fell in love with the idea of homesteading. It's something she's always wanted to do.
Back in the late 1970's, Harvey and her now ex-husband purchased the farm together. It wasn't much back then -- just a large piece of property with potential. There was no well, hydro line, septic or home. Just land. They built a stone foundation and lived in the basement for two years while they saved up money to complete the rest of the house. Even after construction was finished they went without electricity for nine years. They lived within their means, only adding to the homestead as they could afford to. They had their children, worked the land, but then parted as the boys were entering their teens. Harvey readily admits that she had some doubts at that time about whether she could handle the farm on her own.
“I think it's important for people to know that single people can do just fine,” she says. “The boys were teenagers when their father left, and we did fine. I'm happy. The boys are happy. It all worked out.”
There's a gentle matter-of-fact candor to her. An openness and sincerity you don't often encounter in someone you've only just met. I wonder to myself if it's from years of living 'in real life,' or IRL as our digital-addicted youth culture call it, rather then spending time in the fast paced, media-driven, high-tech world that most North Americans exist in today. Harvey owns a TV, but she doesn't watch it much. She's too busy living her dream.
“There's always something to do,” says Harvey, smiling, as she leads me around. “I keep busy. I make myself a list and work through it. And when the boys are here they get a list, too.” She gives into Lucky's nudges and scratches the calf's long fuzzy ears.
One of the boys is here today, but that's just a coincidence. And, he's not really a boy anymore. In his thirties now with his own outdoor adventure business in British Columbia, he's just visiting and will fly home in a few days. But while he's here Harvey has given him a to-do list, and he flies around the acreage on an ATV, doing chores for his Mom. There is brush to be cleared and pig manure that will need to be spread soon.
“The pigs just went off to slaughter yesterday,” Harvey says, disappointed that we missed the opportunity for me to meet them. “I'm a pig person,” she chuckles. I just love them.
“But you eat them,” I answer. “Is that hard?”
“Sure,” she responds. “I miss them when they go off to slaughter. But I focus on giving them the very best life while they're here.”
This is true for all the animals in the farmer's keep. She loves them. It's plain to see. And they love her, too. Not all the animals are for food, of course. There are several different fowl species that are around just because Harvey likes them. She calls the various types of quail her 'farm canaries,' and the peacocks are the darlings of the farm, strutting about with their beautiful tails dusting the ground behind them.
“The year I turned 40 I needed a project and decided to build a guest cabin,” Harvey tells me. We leave Lucky with the other cows, and start down the path through the wood toward the cabin. It's a bit of a hike. Genie comes along, tail wagging, happy to have us all to herself. Harvey tells me about how she rents the cabin out to people wanting to reconnect with nature. It doesn't have electricity or running water. I don't suspect she gets that many cabin guests, being so far off the beaten track, but it turns out I'm wrong.
“Even in February, sometimes it's booked every weekend,” she says, just as the cabin comes into view. When I see it, I get it. It's lovely. Small. Very, very private. And it resembles one of the 'tiny houses' that are currently in vogue. The area around the cabin is tidy. The grass is cut, and there's a sitting area with picnic table, but beyond that it's nothing but trees. Nothing but nature. The stars must be phenomenal at night. There's a screened in porch with comfy chairs. Inside, there is just enough room for a kitchenette with a little propane stove and table for two, and a small sitting room with a pull out sofa. Up above there's a simple but romantic sleeping loft.
“I provide drinking water and fire wood,” says Harvey. “And of course there's the lake just down there.” We walk down to it, and Genie goes in for a little swim, coming out muddy, smelly, and very happy. She rolls on the soft mossy forest floor.
I'm 20 years younger than Harvey, and go the gym a few times a week, but as we walk back up the forest trail to the homestead I become winded. She's fine though, and keeps chatting, not out of breath in the slightest. I mention to her that I think she's in great shape, but she shrugs it off.
“I work,” she chuckles. “But I love my work. I couldn't live here if I didn't. I couldn't live here by myself if I didn't. And I feel incredibly grateful to live here.”
It is definitely a certain type of paradise, and I feel grateful myself for having the opportunity to meet Harvey and spend time with her on her farm, in her element. Looking around at the greenhouse that she built by hand, the calves she helped her cows birth, the gardens she tends, I think to myself, 'Wow, this lady is hard-core. She's bad-ass, in the very best sense of the word. Rock on lady farmer friend. Rock on.'
For more information about Strawberry Hill Farm, visit harvesthastings.ca.