Starting a farm from scratch isn’t for the faint of heart, but Lauren McEachern knows what it means to start anew — by choice or out of necessity.
She used to be an industry relations officer with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, working out of an office in Fort McMurray, Alta. Her job was to work with oil sands companies to address socioeconomic issues in the region — issues that ebbed and flowed along with the fluctuating population and availability of work in the northern Alberta area.
In May 2016, everything changed.
A wildfire forced the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people. McEachern was studying at the University of Guelph at the time. Her husband, Gordon, and son, Wyatt, headed for the East Coast to stay with family. Their house survived, but many were not as fortunate.
“To see your workplaces, your church, your friends’ homes destroyed was just terrible,” she recalled.
Around the same time, her father, Rob Cutler, was diagnosed with cancer.
“It was a turning point for us to reflect on what we were doing and what we wanted to do with our life,” McEachern said.
The McEacherns returned to Alberta, sold their house and headed for Simcoe County.
“It really opened my eyes to the fact that life is pretty short, so it’s important I do something meaningful with it,” she said.
That something is the Fifty Acre Garden. The Oro-Medonte property, on Line 11 North, is owned by Cutler, and the McEacherns run their business there. It’s a young operation — the family started it up this summer — and it will be growing for years to come.
They grow a potpourri of crops — among them, peppermint, echinacea, anise hyssop, chamomile, elderberries, goji berries, flowers and a variety of fruit and veggies. The focus is on sustainable, healthy, pesticide- and herbicide-free products. Four-year-old Wyatt loves to eat straight from the garden, and McEachern “would rather he not eat a bunch of stuff that’s meant to kill.”
The crops grow closely together; McEachern will plant a tree, a shrub and some other kind of “nitrogen fixer” nearby.
“It mimics a natural ecosystem,” she explained of the permaculture approach, adding the set-up is also meant to draw a diversity of insects. “Because we are growing without pesticides, it’s important we attract predatory insects. It’s kind of a natural pest-control method.”
Growing such a variety in close proximity comes with risk and reward. One example of a risk: McEachern’s arugula crop was wiped out as a result of bad weather.
“The reward is it looks beautiful, it uses the land efficiently, it’s better for the soil and you’re attracting positive insect life,” she said.
She enjoys the challenge of growing different species so close to one another.
“It’s almost like a symphony: Every little piece has its part and they all work together.”
Water waste is kept to a minimum thanks to the use of a drip-line system rather than sprinklers — the lines run along the garden bed, distributing water directly to the soil.
The business side of Fifty Acre Garden is slowly starting to yield results. McEachern has a table every Saturday at the Orillia Fairgrounds Farmers’ Market, and local chefs are showing interest in using her products in their restaurants.
“We’re starting to develop these business relationships, which is very exciting, especially in our first year,” she said.
While getting the business to become the success she envisions is a work in progress, McEachern still finds time to give back. She makes a weekly delivery to Living for Jesus Outreach Ministries in Orillia.
“I see the amazing work they do. It’s phenomenal. They feed 50 people a day — kids and adults,” said McEachern, who became a Christian in her late 20s. “There’s probably nothing more terrifying for people than the thought of not being able to feed themselves and their families.”
With that in mind, she also wants the farm to become a place where people can learn.
“We really like educating people about food,” she said. “I have a lot of friends in Toronto, and not many of them have been to a farm or seen how their food is grown. I’d like this to be a place that grows some interesting products but also provides some education about food and agriculture.”
The “ultimate vision,” she added, “is an operation where we’re mostly family-run, that’s really involved in our community.”
It’s not easy — the work is hard and the hours are long — “but you feel more alive,” McEachern said.