Isabelle Spence-Legault and Ryan Spence, the husband and wife team of Field Good Farms / Ferme j’me champ bien, (Cache Bay, Ontario) have been an inspiration to many people in the eat local movement throughout the northeast region. Not only do they have an operation which supplies many tables from Sudbury to North Bay and all points between, they have also been vocal advocates and standard bearers; they have dug into the trenches and supported organizations physically, mentally and spiritually, from Eat Local Sudbury, West Nipissing Agricultural Task Force, North Bay Farmer’s Market to being an instrumental part of the organization of Festin à la ferme/ Feast on the Farm. It’s been an incredible journey, and it’s just begun for this young couple. They farm at the Legault family homestead farm, just outside of Cache Bay, a farm which has seen many changes over the more than 100 years of family ownership. How did all this come to be for these two young people? What created this dedication that is bearing such wonderful fruit for their community? What inspires them?
Isabelle Spence-Legault separates some fennel out of the patch. The tunnels serve to protect the crops from various predators.Isabelle Spence-Legault explained, “At one point Ryan and I watched a movie called Food Inc, at the very beginning of our relationship. I was working at an Eco Internship in Montreal, setting up a collective gardening project at two low-income housing projects in St-Marie which is a kind of area ‘défavorisée’ – a harder area — it was really nice but the part that really attracted me was not so much the urbanized culture, but the agriculture component of it.” That work affected the two of them profoundly, and watching Food Inc. clicked something in their psyches. “Ryan and I hummed and hawed about it and when we saw the opportunity of an internship at Dalew Farms in Lavigne, we decided to both apply, because they looked kindly upon couples; they saw it as a partnership experience. …We got the job and fell in love with farming that summer.” While working at Dalew Farms the couple stayed at the Legault Family homestead, and the arrangement developed into something with deeper roots. “We stayed here while doing our internship. You get to that point in your life where you are no longer looking just for adventure but you’re looking for your roots all of a sudden… I grew up in agriculture – my father had cattle when I was growing up until I was 15, so it was very much returning back to roots.”
Ryan Spence maintains a booth at the North Bay Farmer’s Market, where you can purchase the produce grown locally at Field Good Farms.Ryan Spence grew up in the southern Ontario hamlet of Nithburg, on the Nithburg River, in the heart of Mennonite country. Isabelle explained that her husband’s parents were also involved in agriculture. “They had a beautiful apple orchard in the back of their property, and Ryan worked on garlic farms and asparagus. He was also bit early by the agriculture bug.” She added that for Ryan farming is a very deep calling. “For him it’s also more like a whole body experience. Sometimes you do things that are cerebral, and sometimes only for the body. When he worked only with his mind, it was in front of computer for 24 hours straight doing editing, I think for him agriculture was a way to live all aspects of his being.” She also said that Ryan, who wanted to be there for the interview but had to attend to a farming emergency, has fallen in love with West Nipissing and is trying to encourage his family to move north. The Legault homestead farm has seen many changes over the years. “Since my father stopped farming, when I was 15, the land had been used for hay primarily, but not by my family. My dad wasn’t the one farming it. When my father got out of agriculture farming was no longer really viable; it was at the beginning of the large Alberta feed lots. Also my Dad is a bit of a shy person and direct marketing has some challenges. But Ryan and I got into it when were young and exuberant and wanted to start something, and right away my parents said ‘Yes’. We weren’t even thinking of this place as an option because we didn’t want to encroach. Initially we were looking at the Ottawa Valley because Ryan wanted to keep his roots in Montreal; he had a community there, but you can’t buy land in that area. Plus it was a middle ground, we didn’t really have [deep] roots there, where here, at least, we had mine.” Going into farming is not something a lot of people want to do, because commodity farming can be a risky business, and let’s face it, it’s hard work. Isabelle and Ryan looked at various business models, and appear to be extremely adaptable, willing to try things, to change up as required, to share their triumphs and their defeats, and to be realistic about challenges.
Carrots being harvested. Field Good Farms has a CSA, or Community Shared Agriculture, component which community members can buy into. But be prepared – everyone who buys into CSA will tell you, it’s a lot of food!“We looked at the viability of farm models, and I think one of the impediments which stops people from going back into farming is that it is not always viable. We wondered how we could make it viable and we figured that direct marketing is must, because then you can figure out cost of production and set your own pricing based on what you need to live. We figured commodity was definitely not the the way to go because of the volatility of the market. …So, diverse farming with a diverse offering, was a way to ensure a viable farm for us.” How diverse is the farm? “We have over 46 different kinds of vegetables. We also have meat birds. We used to do egg layers but found it wasn’t lucrative, not using the ethics we felt comfortable using; pasture, organic feed (which is really quite pricy). It was the winter that was most difficult.” Isabelle Spence-Legault feels a strong connection to the animals under her husbandry. “Chickens especially. I felt when we had our original six chickens, we had a good relationship, but when we got over 100 it changed.”
The farm is located just outside of Sturgeon Falls between Cache Bay and Verner at 1345 Levac Road, Cache Bay, Ontario, P0H 1G0. To reach the farm by telephone call 705-978-1664. To send us an firstname.lastname@example.org, and the website is:http://fieldgoodfarms.ca/The direct marketing of their product is a real switch up for these young farmers, and involves their other skills; modern networking skills. “We try to do things which aren’t commonly done in agriculture, but which ought to be, especially when you’re trying to tap into a direct market. Using social media is something we haven’t shied away from, right from the beginning, and it has netted us quite a few calls. When you’re operating a small business word of mouth is everything. Unfortunately we don’t have the time to stand on the corner and talk to everyone that passes by, and social media does that for us. People have friends and family …and they are our spokespeople.” The other area Isabelle homed in on was Lean Management. “It is something used in manufacturing chains. Toyota …made that particular management model popular, but just now we’re understanding how that applies to farms; minimizing steps, for example. It seems like something obvious, but we’re on our feet all day. If I can use a bicycle to jet out to the fields, that is going to save me X number of hours a year and that means at the end we can charge less for our product because the cost of production is lower. …You will often see our interns whipping around the field on bicycles. Ryan also designed a little cart, so we can put more bins on it and it hitches onto the bicycle. It really surprises me how much time we can save utilizing those techniques. …Keeping organized is also another way we utilize Lean Management on our farm. Everything that is related to harvesting is in one space, everything related to transplanting is in one space. Having all those things organized in a way that makes sense in a layout perspective has been phenomenal.”
Ryan Spence built a cart to draw behind the bicycle.Growing in the northeast also present climactic challenges. “We operating on 110 frost-free days, approximately. Compare that to southern Ontario, it’s a loss of 30 days!” Isabelle opines. “For certain varieties it makes a big difference. Cost of production, we realized, for corn …we were losing money on it. That has to do with the kind of season we have here. Organic open pollinated varieties need a longer growing season. …Plus corn needs a lot of space, but greens don’t so it’s easy to extend the season and that’s why the tunnels are there.” Parts of the fields are covered with the structures. “We’re not trying to grow anything like Lychee there, but we’re gaining approximately 20 days on our season, which makes a huge difference on our bottom line. We can sell produce when most area farms can’t. And when you’re thinking of cooperatives likeEat Local Sudburythat means we’re guaranteed a sale there.” How is it possible that people so dedicated to farming can also be so heavily committed to community involvement? What is it that drives farmers of all different stripes to dedicate so much time to their collective and individual community efforts? Isabelle said, “One of the strengths in being a small farmer in this northern community is that we band together. There is no competitive feeling between us. Building those relationships and networking is a total strength. We’ve learned so much from our peers and we hope they have learned from us in turn. So the volunteer work we do as part of cooperatives and different committees and organizations, it comes back. It’s already really exciting because we’re at a point in this area that local food is just starting to emerge, and being part of a movement is thrilling to us. We want to see this advance and we believe in it strongly. The fact that Ryan is on the board of Eat Local Sudbury takes a lot of time out of his schedule, and it feels like a lot when you look at your calendar for the month, but it’s something we’d never give up. Same with the North Bay Farmer’s Market.”
The tunnels extend the growing season by up to 20 days.One of the things that Field Good Farms does not have is a farm gate operation. It’s because of the time required to address the needs of farm gate customers. “If someone comes to the farm for two head of lettuce it takes more time to go and harvest that than if I was out in the field harvesting 200 or 300 of them. It’s also really hard to gauge what people will be seeking: a lot of people who come by are cottagers and you could harvest something they aren’t looking for and it ends up in the compost. In terms of efficiency and no waste we decided not to farm gate.” On the other hand, Ryan and Isabelle seem to be wildly successful in supplying the needs of various restaurants which like to serve local food options. They’ve developed excellent relationships with area chefs, and were instrumental in bringing that Farmer-Chef relationship to Festin à la ferme / Feast on the Farm. “I do think there is a lot more awareness,” said Isabelle. “It’s growing and it’s good to be poised and ready for what’s coming. But to make people understand what’s available, we need to do a lot of work. We’re nowhere near scratching the surface of consumer demand, and the consumer doesn’t know about us, really. For every person who walks into a restaurant that uses local food, how many actually know [they are] preparing food that’s been grown locally? We need to get to the point that everyone knows, that it’s grown locally, what’s available and how they can get it. We’ve become very disconnected. For example, we get calls in February asking if we have asparagus available. That shouldn’t happen! We need to understand how food systems work. We need to put food on that pedestal. That’s where it deserves to be. It’s a sacred act three times a day.” If food is sacred, then perhaps part of the problem is that we’ve forgotten to slow down, think about what we’re eating, and have some reverence for the whole process of getting food onto the table and putting it into our bodies. Food is what traditionally brought people together, a celebration in joyful times, and a comfort in less joyful times. This is definitely an aspect of Festin à la ferme / Feast on the Farm that inspired Isabelle to join with theWest Nipissing Chamber of Commerce to bring this event to fruition.
The Legault family homestead has been in the family for over 100 years. Both Ryan and Isabelle share a proud family history of farming, and are digging their roots into West Nipissing.“A lot of thought went into the process. To get people excited about something, you need to associate it with something that is positive. That is my hope for this event, that people leave with a good feeling, and a desire to want that good feeling again. A positive association will do so much for local food. And I think at the very deeper, innermost part of all people is the desire to do good things. I think that’s what the organizing committee is aiming for.” The West Nipissing Chamber of Commerce and the West Nipissing Agricultural Task Force organized it’s initial farm to fork dinner last fall – as a starting point for something more comprehensive. “Last November the event was incredible,” Isabelle reminisces. “Chef Gibb did an amazing job at that event, making this menu which was strictly local. Now we want to do it bigger, do it at the farm, make that connection even stronger.” “It’s a collaborative affair.”“It’s a collaborative affair. I was thrilled when Mitch (Deschalets of Leisure Farms) said we could have it at his farm, because it’s the perfect place for it; he’s all set up for it. But it’s been incredible to see all the stakeholders come together for it, all the effort that has been put in. We’re in the 11th hour now, and we can’t do much more for it, but it’s been amazing to see what the volunteers on the committee have done for this event.” Isabelle Spence-Legault and Ryan Spence are not only at the vanguard of the eat local movement, they are also helping to raise and cement a community of people who care about the future of the region, a wider and inclusive community which is welcoming all contributors to a sustainable, viable, future of food in northeastern Ontario. “That’s what we are hoping. It’s really wonderful. We get to see it at the Farmer’s Market, we see it at our drop offs, there’s so much more that can happen around the community experience. I’m very excited to see how it’s going to manifest itself at this event.” All the efforts being undertaken by the volunteers and community partners are real sacrifices, in the true sense of the word – to make sacred by giving up part of one’s life for a worthy purpose. In the end, we have a joyful feeling about the whole process, the real meaning of Enjoy. It’s the blending of many efforts, many ideas, many flavours, and serving up a dish worth eating. Isabelle Spence-Legault is looking forward to all aspects of this event: “Like watching chefs. We never get to do that! That’s one of the parts I’m most excited about, to see them in action. It’s an art what they do, and not everyone can do that. And I think that farmers and chefs have something in common besides food. It is this way of looking at your craft and immersing yourselves fully, and that sacrificial part.”
Article paru dans la Tribune, le mercredi 15 juillet 2015 Un festin sur la ferme Juste 24 heures après le lancement de son évènement Festin à la ferme, la Chambre de commerce de Nipissing Ouest avait déjà reçu 50 réservations et continuait à vendre des billets à toute allure. L’évènement aura lieu le 9 août à Leisure Farms et mettra en vedette les producteurs alimentaires locaux ainsi que plusieurs chefs-cuisiniers de la région, dans une soirée de dégustation et de divertissement musical. «L’objectif de l’évènement, c’est de faire mieux connaître nos agriculteurs locaux ainsi que nos chefs,» explique Jolene Lisk, gérante de projet pour la Chambre de commerce. «L’évènement va célébrer la création culinaire à partir des aliments locaux et fera mieux connaître les produits alimentaires retrouvés dans le Nipissing Ouest.» «En ce moment, quatre chefs ont confirmé leur participation. Ils viennent de Pasta Kitchen & Bar, White Owl Bistro, Miner’s Son (…) et Food Reflections, dont l’un est chef principal [du programme d’arts culinaires] de Canadore College,» ajoute-t-elle. «Ceux qui ont été sélectionnés sont ceux qui utilisent déjà les produits locaux, donc c’était la recommandation des membres du comité d’approcher ceuxlà en premier,» précise Mme Lisk, en ajoutant que le groupe cherche encore un ou deux chefs-cuisiniers pour participer. Pendant la soirée, chaque chef aura son kiosque, et les kiosques seront parsemés autour de la ferme. «Les invités pourront se déplacer en wagon ou à pied le long des sentiers pour se rendre à chaque kiosque et y déguster un plat fait d’aliments locaux, et lorsqu’ils auront visité tous les kiosques, ils auront mangé un repas complet,» décrit Mme Lisk. Isabelle Legault, co-propriétaire de la ferme J’me champs bien avec son époux Ryan Spence et membre du Comité consultatif sur l’agriculture de NO, dit qu’il y aura de la musique acoustique entre chaque kiosque, et un groupe musical qui jouera sous une grande tente. Plusieurs agriculteurs seront aussi sur place, donc les invités pourront les rencontrer et leur poser des questions sur les aliments qu’ils auront goûtés. «C’est vraiment une occasion pour les participants de rencontrer les producteurs alimentaires locaux et les chefs,» souligne Mme Lisk. Ces producteurs comprendront Leisure Farms, la ferme J’me champs bien/Field Good Farms, Somewood Farms dont le propriétaire tient aussi le White Owl Bistro, et Boreal Berry Farms and Winery de Warren. «Je pense que c’est d’une valeur inestimable parce que ça fait découvrir nos produits à leur meilleur,» dit Mme Legault. «Notre but c’est vraiment le marketing direct aux consommateurs et nous dépendons vraiment du bouche à oreille pour faire découvrir nos produits. C’est aussi très valorisant, comme producteurs, de voir nos aliments mis en vedette de cette façon, car les chefs infusent un élément de respect et de cérémonie à la cuisine et ils vénèrent les aliments, ce qui est très satisfaisant pour moi.» Il y a seulement 300 billets pour la soirée, et Mme Legault dit que le comité s’attend à les vendre tous. Les billets se vendent 36$ chacun au bureau de la Chambre de commerce et chez Leisure Farms, puis la ferme J’me champs bien les vendra au Marché agricole de North Bay.