I first got the gardening bug as a kid, planting seeds in front of our Winnipeg duplex. It was great tending to the plants outdoors.
But it was not until my early thirties, married and living in Ottawa, that the enthusiasm for gardening was reawakened after helping out at friends’ farms. It helped that my wife Debbie had studied horticulture, worked in greenhouses and then began work at a local wholesale florist.
My focus became researching the food marketplace, joining and purchasing healthy food through buying clubs, running alternate food awareness campaigns and advocating for an ecological diet for Canadians.
Then, in the late 1970s, we had an opportunity to buy land in the Pontiac, QC, region, when we learned that a friend’s uncle wanted to sell his backup market garden site. The place was beautiful, with a creek running through the 32 acres, surrounded by neighbouring farm land, the Eardley Plateau and the undeveloped wild part of Gatineau Park. We both jumped at it.
There was no electricity, well or house, just a little storage cabin and a machine shed we added. We brought drinking water from Ottawa and, for a while, used a pump to draw water for the plants up from the creek until we made do with water barrels for the plants.
Before the children were born, we slept overnight in a tent, but later got a trailer for the whole family. We never built a farm living quarter because our customers, friends and kids’ schools were in the Ottawa-Hull area.
Still, with dinners in a gazebo, stars overhead and a nearby hammock and swing set, the place had its playful side for family and friends. Having a nearby swimming hole at Lac Ramsey in Gatineau Park provided a place to go and relax. Later, as the kids grew up, it became less of an overnight or entertaining destination.
We began growing, using organic methods, planting vegetables and flowers in the front fields. We invited friends to have small gardens on our land, although that died off quickly as it required serious commitment to regularly tend their garden plots.
Our farm neighbours probably laughed themselves crazy at the newbies and their vegetable patch. With one 1952 International Harvester Farmall Super C tractor, an old Troy rototiller, a 1981 Sears riding mower and much labour, including help from some local boys, we grew crops to sell. Today our newer Troy rototiller and Husqvana riding mower are still the workhorses, along with my own labour to keep the growing field and surrounding lawn maintained.
With sandy soil, to which leaves are added each year, you get used to what will grow and what will sell or what we want to eat ourselves. We have had frost as late as June 16 and as early as August 18, with some years just too rainy and others too dry.
We grew carrots and squashes, herbs—especially basil—and cut flowers like baby’s breath, snapdragons and statice. One summer my nephew worked with us. Once our two kids were old enough, they ended up helping, with son Dan becoming a regular and daughter Wynn coming out more recently.
Our markets included hotels, restaurants and some of the area florists and funeral homes. It was a 45-minute drive each way and the back of our little VW Beetle was always filled with pails of flowers and some produce going into Hull and Ottawa twice a week. Later, purchasing a pickup truck made it much easier to haul produce and supplies.
The back fields were always “rented” out to a nearby farming family, the Dubeaus, who originally had cattle in our back fields and, later, hay. This meant fencing, better ditching of the property and their help with discing the garden, roofing repairs, clearing downed trees and more. Most area farms are gone but the big Nugent farm operation nearby, originally centred on a pungent pig farm, is now full of fields planted with corn and soybeans. A few non-farming neighbouring houses have been built as development creeps our way.
The work was two or three days a week, from starting seeds in late winter to closing up the farm in December. The black flies are an annual nuisance, and pests and wild animals are always nearby. Some days can be bitter cold but the beauty of the land never escapes us. There is nothing as motivating as a colourful fall day, the quiet of the place or the drive there along Highway 148 through the world-class Breckenridge Creek Nature Preserve.
In the early days, we joined the local chapter of the Ottawa Canadian Organic Growers Association, helping with the producers’ newsletter and giving workshops and talks. Our sales were sufficient but did not support going full time and expenses ate away much of what was earned. To become more than part-time would have meant growing more, hiring more help, getting more machinery, selling at farmers’ markets and to families via a community shared agriculture (CSA) arrangement.
Besides, our other interests made it difficult to farm full time. Debbie was teaching at the local college in town that included stints in the floral design, recreation and special events programs. I was engaged in various research and access to information battles, including investigations into the faulty inspection of the food marketplace.
By the 1990s, when Debbie’s participation dropped off, I decided to concentrate only on vegetables and one edible flower—nasturtiums—for sale. I missed the variety of floral deliveries, but getting around to over twenty florists was too much to handle. Those deliveries with sweet-smelling, beautiful flowers were special. Some restaurants had small vases of cut flowers on each table, so deliveries then included veggies and flowers.
I will always remember a late-night delivery to the Le Hibou coffee house, where the entertainer, not missing a beat, sang out, “Here comes the flower man!”
I have fond memories of delivering to hotels like the Chateau Laurier while they prepared for banquets or watching the artistry of chefs like award-winning Marc Lepine at the Courtyard and then his own L’Atelier restaurant.
Deliveries to places like Cafe Henri-Berger sometimes came with feedback such as how much Mila Mulroney enjoyed my fine green beans so expertly prepared, or seeing my name on John Taylor’s Domus menu for stuffed zucchini blossoms and squash soup.
Participating with local chefs in the Feast of Fields at Vincent Massey Park or the Experimental Farm and giving people delicious samples containing your produce is very cool. Stops at long-time customers like the neighbourhood Pantry community centre restaurant always meant conversation and occasionally lunch. Interesting customers such as Zen Kitchen saw tumultuous times and others, like Henri Berger, closed. But still the lure of entering restaurant kitchens is aromatic and stays with me.
Among the ten to twenty-five capital area deliveries were places like Dalhousie Parents’ Daycare Centre, where staff and kids were in constant motion. And there was always time to drop some produce at food banks and missions.
Certainly, the organic nature of the food grown and developing sales with restaurants and hotels helped keep me going.
Times changed. Although there were very few organic growers, many had much bigger operations and were doing it full time with more produce variety. So, by being smaller, I got by experimenting with some new crops and serving fewer customers.
That suited me just fine but it was still demanding work from starting seedlings to planting, weeding, and harvesting each year, with very little help.
Now, after forty years, with Debbie’s ready agreement, I’ve decided to stop commercial growing, but continue growing for ourselves. Sitting down to a beautiful colourful salad full of different greens, carrots, radishes, herbs, and nasturtiums is still going to happen.
We’re exploring ecological uses for the land but most of all, I’m looking forward to the rest of this and next year’s crop, going back to wading through the creek bed and seeing all the seasons of the farm and the adjacent Gatineau Hills unfold.
It’s been a major passion, a source of plentiful exercise, a marketing challenge, a point of pride being able to feed thousands and a sure source of yummy eating. You gotta feel all of these vibes while down on your hands and knees weeding and harvesting, taking in and contending with the surrounding environment.
Knowing that I was a pioneer in joining organics and chefs together is gratifying. And now, we are helping fund, through our foundation (the Ken and Debbie Rubin Public Interest Advocacy Foundation), the New Farmers Initiative campaign by Food Secure Canada to get the next generation of farmers’ needs recognized and more feet on the ground. Talk about coming full circle forty years later!
Ken Rubin is best known for his five decades of investigative research work and as a user of freedom of information legislation. He is reachable at kenrubin.ca. Debbie Rubin’s days of teaching are behind her but she now sings and plays banjo in local Ottawa bands and is a local artist whose paintings include scenes from our farm.