FOURNIER — Last year was the year of disrupted plans, among other things. But disruption can mean opportunity.
A pair of siblings who’d always been meaning to come home to the farm found their way there last year, partly because COVID-19 lockdowns forced their hands.
Keith Pattington, 52, and Karen Pattington-Leroy, 50, had their own businesses off the farm. He runs a Montreal café and she owns an Ottawa flower shop. Both had long nurtured a dream of coming home but didn’t know how or when to make it happen. But when their 78-year old father got stranded on the wrong side of the country in early 2020 they decided now was as good a time as ever to take their shot at farming while keeping their city businesses up and running.
The farm itself got started as a gamble. The family moved to the 130-acre farm at Fournier, north of St. Isidore, in 1978. Keith and Karen were kids and their parents, Bruce and Louise, bought the place sight-unseen. The family had never farmed before. Bruce was a pilot who worked full-time for Canadian Airlines and in their spare time they got busy farming: growing hay, tending garden and raising horses and chickens. Keith and Karen grew up, went to university and started to travel.
Their mother died in 2011. Their father rented land to a neighbour, allowing him to vacation regularly down south and in British Columbia. Last year, Bruce Pattington found himself in Vancouver when the pandemic hit. His age was a concern for him to travel.
The siblings suddenly found themselves with the clear and present need to act. So they did. They could’ve just maintained the property but with healthy businesses ready to run themselves, this was as good a time as any to jump in with both feet. Running the farm has been a balancing act, with Keith and his wife splitting time between the farm and Montreal and Karen between the farm and her flower shop, but that should lessen over time, Karen said.
It was unquestionably a learning curve. As children they’d followed along and helped out, said Karen, but taking on the responsibility for themselves was a different story. Sticking to what they knew, they opted to grow vegetables and raise chickens. Bruce was never more than a phone call away. Technically savvy and intimately familiar with his land, he was a great help. Another well-used resource was YouTube. Plenty of farmers have shared plenty of ideas and the farmers borrowed the idea for a mobile coop for their meat birds. In total they raised 150 meat birds and cropped about five acres of vegetables.
Bringing their own marketing network with them was a big help as well. Keith’s wife runs the cafe in Montreal, where she and Keith were raising a family. The farm has largely already been marketing its veggies and meat birds through that network.
Now, with a bit of experience behind them, the siblings are hoping to expand next year. They’ve already bought another 50-acre property nearby and are looking into running a Community Supported Agriculture program (where customers buy subscriptions to fruit and vegetable crops), as well as local farmers markets.
Time is the big challenge and tough to come by. Karen is married with two children and runs a busy Ottawa flower shop that saw business explode during the pandemic. So she’s largely been helping out on the farm on weekends and evenings. She’s planning to plant flowers at the farm this year to supply her city shop. They hope the winter months will be a time to calm down, catch their breath, and plot their next move.
They probably wouldn’t have made it through the year juggling multiple businesses if they didn’t have such a passion for it, Karen said. With their father stuck in Vancouver and her kids hitting adulthood. “It just seemed like the perfect time,” she said. “Give us a challenge, we’ll take it on. Now we’re doing something that feels more in line with our true nature.”