Growing food and family values

Arno, Heather, Ben, and Sam.

“There’s something primal about eating, this activity that we engage in several times a day, something that keeps me rooted,” says Heather McLeod. “It’s really important to me to make sure that every meal I eat, that every meal my family eats, has as much to do with our hands as possible.”

Heather, 47, lives with her husband, Arno, and their two sons — Benjamin is 10 and Sam is 7 — on about 160 acres just outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario. For generations, the land was farmed by Arno’s family, who operated first a dairy and then a beef farm before letting the ground lie fallow. Today, Heather and Arno are engaged in the slow but exciting process of reestablishing the farm: repairing and rebuilding barns and outbuildings, raising chickens and bees, and growing increasing amounts of their own food. This past summer, their vegetable garden yielded more than enough produce — potatoes and carrots, turnips and beets, cabbage, squashes, parsnips, onions, leeks, garlic, tomatoes, and more — to feed the family and preserve for the winter. They’ve even been able to sell much of the bounty, and look forward to growing more.

What they can’t grow, they try to source locally. “Meat, for example,” says Heather. “I think it’s important to have conversations with my kids about the fact that our meat comes from an animal that died, that we killed, and to have respect for the fact. That shouldn’t be a revelation to kids when they’re teenagers. And so we buy beef and pork from other farmers, people we know, whose practices we’re comfortable with. The animals we buy tend to be pasture-fed, from well-managed herds. I know exactly who we’re buying from.”

In the kitchen.

Benjamin and Sam are actively involved in the process. “They get off the school bus, run up the driveway, and help their dad” — now the family’s at-home parent after retiring from 3½ decades at Bombardier — “with farm chores.” The kids earn money for their efforts, which makes them endlessly proud and gives them, says their mom, a real sense of the real value of food. “There’s something about understanding just how hard you have to work for a 10-pound bag of potatoes that’s really valuable, and not just in terms of money but in terms of having a relationship with the land.”

That relationship, she points out, isn’t always romantic. “I mean, chickens? They’re not magical little creatures from children’s storybooks, with chicks that stay chicks for about four years. There’s a real reason they call it a ‘pecking order.’

“What is magic,” she adds, “is watching how high a sunflower gets. When your kid, who’s so proud because his feet grew half a size over the course of an entire year, looks up at a sunflower and says, ‘You’re so tall. You were a seed in my hand a blink ago.’”

In her work as a financial planner, Heather tries to help her clients cultivate the same sense of value and growth. “We talk about their actual values, what they want to achieve in life, the kind of legacy they want to leave. My job is to craft a portfolio and help them manage their finances so that they can live those values and achieve their goals.” Our day-to-day financial decisions are just as radical as our day-to-day choices around food, she says. “In my work, I try to get people to appreciate how powerful their small decisions around money are, how over time they can create radical shifts.”

Ben & Sam: fireside.

Financial planning is Heather’s fourth career: she studied music at university and paid for her education working as a busker and jazz singer, later working as a singer/songwriter. She hosted a daily current-affairs program on the CBC in Thunder Bay. And she’s an accomplished writer: her children’s book, Kiss Me! (I’m a Prince!), was named a 2012 Blue Spruce honour book, voted for by hundreds of thousands of Ontario kids.

She’s always been passionate about growing her own food. Even when she lived on her own in an urban condo, she tended plots in community gardens, cultivating friendships and networks along with vegetables. When she does eat out, she favours restaurants that serve local. “It costs me more in one way, but less in how I feel at the end of the day.”

Mostly, though, Heather would rather be at home for meals with her husband and kids, prepping, cooking, and preserving the food they’ve grown or bought at local markets. It sustains her, she explains, and not only nutritionally:

“It can be exhausting, trying to integrate your values in your day-to-day life. For example, saying ‘No’ every time someone offers you a plastic straw. It’s okay if you have to do it twice a month, but when it happens twice a day, when you have to march up to the counter and say, ‘No, no thanks, no plastic; I’ve got my own reusable straw,’ you can start to feel like you’re fighting a battle. So why would I put myself in that situation? I’d rather eat at home.”


Being with her family, in their little house on their big plot of land, surrounded by barns and fields and a beaver pond, helps Heather cope with that exhaustion, and with her fears and doubts about the state of the planet. “I do get panicky when I think about how much and how quickly we have to turn this boat around if we’re going to stop things like global warming. I have children, and I want grandchildren, and I want to see future generations being able to enjoy this land.

“And if I can look down at my plate and feel pride and hope in what I see there, that’s a great source of strength.”


SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s ParentFull Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.

The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Join us on Facebook.


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