Ontario urbanites learn the art of small-scale farming in Antigonish

·3 min read
Meghan Johnny, left, and her partner, David Matheson, are two of the participants in the Marthas New Growers program in 2022. (Beata Gesicka - image credit)
Meghan Johnny, left, and her partner, David Matheson, are two of the participants in the Marthas New Growers program in 2022. (Beata Gesicka - image credit)

Meghan Johnny says with the rise in severe weather events and increased instability in the global supply chain, she feels a duty to be a farmer.

"The better I can learn to grow food for myself and my community, the more equipped I am to continue to take care of my community for the future," she said.

Johnny is one of four young Ontarian urbanites learning the intricacies of organic farming through a mentorship program in Antigonish, N.S.

The Marthas New Growers program was launched by members of the Sisters of Martha in 2013 as a pathway for participants to learn the skills required to run a small-scale organic farm before buying a farm of their own.

Johnny is from Hamilton and her partner — whose family lives just outside Antigonish — make up of half of this year's participants. The couple moved to Nova Scotia in 2020.

David Matheson
David Matheson

"Our goal has always been to start our own small vegetable farm and we are right now in the process of looking for land," said Johnny. "But as many people know, it is kind of a difficult time to find land in the province," she said.

Johnny said they will be growing a variety of vegetables, ranging from lettuce and tomatoes to cucumbers and winter squash.

Describing the choice of crops as a "balancing act," Johnny said people want to see a variety of things on their table so they have made a choice to grow some less profitable crops like broccoli.

Hillary Rancourt
Hillary Rancourt

David Greenberg of Abundant Acres Farm near Centre Burlington, N.S., has been the mentor for the program since its inception nine years ago.

In 2012, he said he drove his wife to a meeting with the Sisters of Martha and mentioned to the sisters after the meeting that they should consider running a farm school on their grounds that could benefit the community.

A year later, Greenberg said he got a call from the sisters saying they had "reviewed his proposal" and had decided to go ahead with the idea.

At first Greenberg said he thought they had called the wrong number, but then he remembered the conversation and realized he had "accidentally auditioned for the job."

Niche program

Greenberg said it's a niche program for a very specific type of person, so there aren't many people applying to participate every year.

"A very large proportion of the market gardeners I know of had a hard time in school [and] are smart, creative, self-directed people who just want to be outside moving their bodies all day," he said.

"It's a pleasure to see people who have that kind of quirky, energetic, hyperactive, independent streak do something that's life-giving every day for a living."

Greenberg said the number of participants ranges from two to four annually.

Program cost

The 0.8-hectare farm has greenhouses, tools, a small walking tractor and walk-in coolers.

Participants get to keep the profits they generate from farming and must pay a fee of either $4,000 or 50 per cent of their profits, whichever is less.

Meghan Johnny
Meghan Johnny

Greenberg estimates between 80 and 90 per cent of people who graduated from the program are farming today, with many owning their own small-scale farms.

He describes the program as a passion project for him — he lives around 200 kilometres from Antigonish — and urges anyone interested in signing up for next year to contact him via the group's Facebook page.

Antigonish Movement

The Marthas New Grower program is very much an extension of the Antigonish Movement of which the Sisters of Martha were part.

The movement, which dates back over a hundred years, encouraged rural development in Nova Scotia through education, co-operation and economically and socially-just systems, Greenberg said.

Johnny said she is aware of the rich history of social movements in Antigonish.

"It kind of brings into focus that this type of this type of thing doesn't happen by accident," Johnny said.

"It took a lot of hard work from dedicated people to build momentum up to a point where this sort of thing can exist."