Who would imagine that a diagnosis of cancer, along with an evacuation due to forest fires would lead to a new career, a productive retirement and a thriving small business that supports a healthy community.
This is how The Fifty Acre Garden in Oro-Medonte came about three years ago. Owned by Lauren McEachern and her dad, Rob Cutler, both of Orillia, the 50-acre farm features locally grown vegetables, fruits, herbs, teas, and cut flowers.
“I retired a few years ago, and after about 15 minutes was ready for something else,” said Cutler.
A long-time avid gardener, Cutler had thought about expanding the big garden he maintained at his home, which provided for his family and for the local food bank, but his plans were delayed while he was being treated for cancer.
Meanwhile, his daughter Lauren, who lived in Fort McMurray, Alberta at the time, was not only motivated to come home when she heard her father was ill, but was also forced to evacuate the area because of forest fires.
“Once my dad got better, we thought about turning his gardening hobby into something that would recover our costs, while providing a lot more to the local food bank.”
The father and daughter team found a rural property and began to develop their unique garden business.
“We’re different than many small farms because we use gardening techniques which are much more hands-on than traditional farming. We grow everything organically and don’t use pesticides or herbicides. We rely on natural systems to manage our crops,” explained McEachern. “We use over 20 tons of certified organic compost per year,” added Cutler.
Pests are even controlled by hand.
“We designate Mondays for this. We search for them by picking up each leaf to find and kill the eggs,” explained Cutler.
Their techniques must be working. Since its beginnings three years ago, the Garden has grown substantially.
The crops include a wide range of vegetables such as squash, zucchini, eggplant, pumpkins, beets, carrots, peas, cucumber, corn peppers, onions, and lettuce, along with tomatoes, melons, cantaloupe and watermelon.
A recently added new greenhouse supports the introduction of hydroponics, used for plants such as lettuce and onions.
“We produce about 500 heads of lettuce per week when we’re in full production, 4,000 to 5,000 tomatoes a year and a couple of thousand cucumbers,” said Cutler. “We plant every single week because we want absolute freshness coming out each week. Today alone, we planted 5,000 seeds.”
McEachern admits that the full-time job of running a farm is a lot of work. She estimates that she and her dad work an average of 60 hours a week, six days a week.
They also rely on a team of “farmshare” workers – who receive a produce subscription in exchange for their work – along with volunteers and full-time farm supervisor, Meghan Goodall.
“Meghan oversees our farmshare workers and volunteers. We are fortunate to have Meghan because she is such a phenomenal worker," said McEachern.
"You have to love being outside in the elements, enjoy challenges and have stamina, as it is a physical job. Meghan has all of this, plus, she just fits in with our vibe,” said McEachern.
For Goodall, working at the garden fits right into her studies. She is in her fourth year of the International Development program, specializing in Environment and Sustainable Development at the University of Guelph.
“This is a really cool opportunity to apply a lot of my academic knowledge to real life,” said Goodall. “As an example, we use a drip line irrigation system here and one of my classes involved looking at different types of systems to determine which are most sustainable. It’s great to apply what I’ve learned! I also like the community focus and the real passion that Lauren and Rob have for helping others.”
In keeping with the philosophy of The Fifty Acre Garden, fresh produce is donated to the local food bank regularly.
“Our goal is to provide super fresh and high quality food that supports our community and sustains the environment,” said McEachern. “A big part of why we’re doing this is to better our community. We want to be affordable and accessible.”
The plentiful bounty from the Garden is purchased and enjoyed by a sold-out roster of subscribers who enjoy fresh produce weekly, as well as customers who visit the Garden’s farm stand on Saturday mornings.
In addition to fresh produce, The Fifty Acre Garden also offers subscriptions for weekly bouquets of cut flowers. The bouquets are picked from long rows of sunflowers, dahlias, asters, gladiolas, and zinnias, to name a few.
“Our flower garden is our fun thing to do,” said McEachern. “It’s like food for your soul.”
If you would like to treat yourself to some fresh produce or a delightful bouquet of freshly picked flowers, you can visit The Fifty Acre Garden farm stand on Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. It’s located at 3682 Line 11 North between Horseshoe Valley and Warminster Sideroad.
To learn more about the products and opportunities at The Fifty Acre Farm, visit thefiftyacregarden.com.