Realities of a farmer’s life: raising kids and asparagus in rural Ontario

Sarah with her daughters last summer.

Because she was raised on a farm Sarah Harrison never imagined becoming a farmer herself. “It isn’t something you dream of when you’re 16 and knee deep in horse manure while your friends are all at the movies.” But as her parents readied to retire Sarah and her husband, Barry, knew taking over the farm was exactly what they needed to do. Now the couple raises asparagus and three kids on Mazak Farms in the Ontario countryside, and despite the challenges, love the life they’ve built. We chatted with Harrison about the realities of farm life and what makes it so great.

From the outside, your life looks pretty idyllic.

We find that people come to the farm and say, “Oh you’re so lucky to have this.” But it isn’t luck — we work every single minute of the day. It’s not this romanticized life people like to think it is. I live in ratty old boots and a farm coat. It is lovely, and we’re grateful for the life, but we work everyday for it and some days it’s not pretty.

People don’t have any concept of how much time and money it takes. We have one raised bed of strawberry plants — just enough strawberries for the family — and I could spend 24 hours a day out there pulling weeds and it never looks like I’ve done anything because it’s just constant. Then you get one basket of strawberries a year and you’re thrilled! I could just go to the grocery store, spend three dollars on those strawberries and be done!

Asparagus gone wild!

How did you get to the point of taking over your parents farm?

I went to university and became a recreation therapist, then spent the first part of my career working with seniors. When mum and dad said they were thinking of retiring, and I had my first baby, I knew I wanted to be home. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but now I see such value in this way of life for my kids.

We made a very conscious decision when we had our eldest that I would primarily be at home. That was part of the reason we moved to the farm, so I could be home with the girls. My mom was a nurse and only ever worked part time, and I remember that excitement of seeing my mom when I got off the school bus. We’d try and guess what was in the oven for supper because we could smell it cooking. Thinking about that stuff still gives me comfort, and I wanted my girls to have the same kind of memories. We might not have a $60,000 minivan or trips to Florida, but we value the simple things. It is hard though. In these days where everybody has the biggest and the best, and your kids are in grade one and all their friends have tablets.

What are some of the things you love most about this life?

We’re kind of old fashioned compared to most families and I’m kind of proud of that. I think there’s a lot of value in throwing your kids outside and letting them ride bikes and climb trees. Maybe that’s my background as a recreation therapist coming out, but we really believe in the value of free play. I still do a lot of old school canning. Every summer I make pickles with the girls, and they love it. There’s a value in that. It might not be a flashy trip to Disney, but making pickles, freezing corn, and making spaghetti sauce from the tomatoes in our garden — our kids really value that stuff. I’m so glad my kids get excited about simple things because these are the things important to us.

Harvest time.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

The unpredictability. Our busiest time is spring during harvest. There’s only a six week harvest window due to the nature of the crop, and last year we lost three of six to bad weather. And we can’t plan for that, we just have to roll with it.

That’s why we need off farm income — you need to pay the mortgage even when the weather is cold and rainy. My husband still works off the farm, and that’s the reality for most farming families. It just doesn’t make sense any other way. Our asparagus can’t sustain all our bills and the five of us.

Also the balance of trying to do so much, and then your kids want to play soccer. How do you get three kids to soccer, three nights a week, when the crop still needs to come off the fields at 5pm? We do have the support of my parents being close, and my sister nearby, but it’s still hard. You can’t ask your kids’ lives to stop because of the needs of the farm but the farm’s needs don’t wait. Everything all happens at once.

Why is organic farming important to you?
My mom has always told my sister and I, “You know better, you do better.” Being a certified organic farmer makes me feel that we are doing better. It isn’t perfect, and our little farm isn’t going to feed the world, but we have created our own little world right here and that makes us happy. I know that when our neighbours stop in to get some of our products for supper that they are going home with something that will provide their family with a healthy and wholesome meal. That is a fabulous feeling.

Little hands can harvest asparagus too, and everyone helps on the farm.

The farming life is all-consuming, isn’t it?

Absolutely. There’s no after work for us. We’re back out working after supper, and then there’s chores again in the morning. Before we moved to the farm we were very involved in rowing, we used to run, read — all sorts of stuff. We don’t anymore. I feel like a hypocrite about that because my whole career has been about using leisure and activity as a means to heal. I got to the hairdresser this week though, so that was exciting and kind of a big deal! But, despite all this, hard work is very satisfying, and we enjoy this life.

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