YOUTH DIRECTOR AND FOUNDER, EVERDALE
TEACHER, FARMER, OPTIMIST
In 1998, Karen and her husband Gavin Dandy founded Everdale on the dream that “practical learning and hands-on experience are the keys to forging a future where agriculture works sustainably with our local environment.” She lives in Hillsburgh.
Ok, so… what animal was that I just heard in the background?
They’re sheep. They should calm down in a minute.
How many do you have?
There’s only two small flocks of about forty or so.
What got you into this?
It was all by chance. Many years ago, a friend of ours asked my husband and I if we wanted to look after his friend’s farm for the winter. So we moved there, and it’s this completely treeless barren farm in Marsville. But it was a beautiful south facing slope, we were young in our mid-twenties, and we thought, Why don’t we start growing some vegetables here. Let’s just try this out and see where it takes us for a year or so. We had a little bit of money, but you don’t need a lot of money when you’re young, before you’ve got kids and cars.
So we started selling vegetables at the Guelph farmers’ market that year, we just fell in love with it, and we started farming. We read books, like Eliot Coleman’s books, but there really wasn’t a lot of books about agriculture… there’s a lot of books about gardening and horticulture, but not a lot of books about sustainable organic agriculture.
How did the Everdale connection start?
While we were at this farm that didn’t belong to us, it ended up falling back to the bank. So we were kind of stuck in the middle of this, we had a baby, and one day there’s this eviction notice posted on our door. It was a pretty comical time, because the wacky fellow who owned the farm was constantly telling people that they could go and raise goats and chickens there, there was a beautiful big barn there… we’d wake up and there would be a person with forty goats, just putting them in the barn.
Getting an eviction notice, then, wasn’t really that wacky. I think he was trying just anything to generate income. So we just put the word out in Guelph that we were looking for a new farm or land that we could grow veggies at, and a lot of people kept saying, What about that place in Hillsburgh, that commune, Everdale? Everdale used to be a pre-school in the sixties, sort of Canada’s first independent pre-school. It still has an educational charter and an educational mandate. But nothing was happening at the property, and everybody had left their luggage, their bikes, left everything. It was just bizarre, there was just so much garbage here, but such good bones, too, good building blocks. A beautiful site.
You got help, of course…
Oh, yes. There was a man named Wally Seccombe who was really supportive and excited that we wanted to start a farm. But because the property had and has this educational mandate, we either needed to sell the farm, or donate the proceeds to another charity, or we needed to start an educational program of our own. We said, let’s get the farm started first, because we had a couple of seasons under our belt, and then we’ll start the education piece.
We started farming, and we thought that the education was just going to be a goal, we’ll figure that piece out as we can.We couldn’t even get insurance cause there was so much garbage, there was a big big house that was falling down and there was no way that we could bring children here. We had our insurance rep out, and we had a to-do list of about 55 items before we could get insurance.
We’re you living on it as well?
We were living in this house that had been built by the students, so the walls were covered in carpet and another room had carpet on the ceiling… I look back on the photos and I just think, oh my gosh, what were my parents thinking about my life! It was a pretty interesting time for sure. We just slowly fixed it up right: we would take down a wall to put in a window and realize, oh, it’s a good thing we took this wall down because there’s actually no insulation in it. But it was free! Yes, it was pretty bad, but we were also starting to have a young family, and there’s a lot of joy that comes with having little kids, and you don’t tend to notice all of these things as much, or they’re not as important.
You’ve described the farm as having three pillars: the farm production, the farmer training and the school programs. But it seems that the whole thing is really about teaching, across different streams.
Through our own path we realized that there isn’t enough, or really, any education about food poverty, food production, food period — any of those pieces are just not really taught in school. Kids don’t know that a celery is a stem, or that a carrot is a root. I feel that organic agriculture has been defined by what it doesn’t do rather than what it does: we don’t do this and we don’t do that, so you’re kind of left thinking, well, what do you do? How do you grow things? We realized there’s a real need for this.
So we have a farm camp program, a farm education program, farm school programs. The kids come here on the farm, work alongside farm staff, harvest stuff, plant stuff, feed stuff, make salsa, make bread. They have a little mini farmers’ market, and for the older kids there’s this really neat social enterprise aspect to it as well. And then there’s the farmers in the schools program.
Have you worked it the other way, to try to get food and thinking about food and agriculture into the school curriculum?
Well, I sit on a couple of different committees, and there’s an amazing organization called Sustain Ontario, and as I get older and have a little bit more time I enjoy that more and more. Everdale is all about positive change, so if there’s anything that we can do to find solutions, or things we can do to either support a group or sit on a committee then we always try to do that.
How about ordinary people like me: do they come up and next thing you know, they decide they want to be a farmer? It just happens to them?
It happens like once a season at least. When you farm, a lot of the discovery that happens is inner personal discovery. People really get, either love it or don’t love it. So the changes that you see in people, the new farmers that come here every year, the staff that are here, it’s pretty remarkable.
One woman went from not understanding that wool comes from a sheep, that eggs come from hens, to owning a farm. This is all just basic information that really smart people don’t know because they’ve never been taught right. And as soon as the light bulb goes off, some people are just really transfixed by it and they want to devote a lot more time to it. It usually happens to people that are a little bit older that have already had their first career, they’ve got a little bit of a nest egg. We had another guy who was from the financial sector, and he was probably one of the hardest working people that we ever had. He was just so determined to learn, it was unbelievable. He has a farm up in Grey Bruce now.
So I’m getting that farming is personal, individual.
Yes, and the other thing about Everdale is that it’s not do as we do, it’s not “this is how we farm, so it’s how you should farm.” We take people to other farms, they see food production, a goat dairy, places that are really making a go of it, so they get a fast track to what they like. Some people come and think, Oh my God, I love pigs, pigs are so amazing… and then they’re, okay, I’m terrified of pigs!
Last thing, and maybe the most important: why are you doing this?
Well, I’ve spent a lot of my life growing food for people that can afford it. Organic food is for a small segment of people, and I would love it if there was just more healthy food available for everybody. That’s what I would love.
Well said. I’ve talked with lots of growers who say that a pound of carrots should not cost 79 cents, and we need to make people appreciate the work that goes into it, the value of it.
For sure. We also need an economic trade policy that supports local organic agriculture. Why are we bringing food into Ontario in the summer time, why are we not supporting our Ontario farmers, like other countries do? Quebec did it several years ago: they said we don’t want any Ontario cucumbers in July and August. The Ontario cucumber growers were all upset, but I was like, good on them! Good for them to support the Quebec farmers. Economic policies that support healthy, sustainable food growth are essential for us.
Are we going to see more farmers in Ontario over the next generation?
I know that a lot of the people who come through our doors are either employed in the food sector or involved in either urban agriculture or horticulture on some level. So one of the things I think we are going to see happen is edible landscaping: people growing their own food. That’s really got to happen.
People don’t necessarily have empathy for something until they experience it first hand, and I’ve seen so much change happen once something becomes personal to someone. If someone seems staunchly opposed to something, and then someone close to them is touched by it, they often become an advocate for it. With farming, there’s such a rural-urban divide, but if we can work to keep bridging that divide, and try to make farming more personal, have people growing more of their own food, then I think a greater appreciation will happen.
Making farming personal is the best thing I’ve heard in a while… so I’m going to drop the mic and quit while I’m ahead. Thank you so much!