By Janet Davies
As a child Dodie Ellenbogen dreamed of becoming a zookeeper. Instead she grew up to be a farmer, herb-grower, mother and more – living a life that revolves very much around nature and nurture. She told us how three generations of her family came to be living together at County Bounty Farm.
“Mike and I moved here in 2015, when our son was four months old. We had been planning to lease farmland from the National Capital Commission, but it was becoming clear that financially we couldn’t do it. In the meantime my parents had sold their house in Ottawa and were looking for somewhere new to invest in. They had heard about Prince Edward County and came down on a whim and saw right away it was an up and coming place. They saw this farm and called us right away. We looked at it on Wednesday and the deal was pretty much done by Friday. Now we all live together.
Mike is a brewer with MacKinnon Brothers in Bath and I run the farm pretty much by myself with some help from my parents. We moved here jobless. Mike had worked in vineyards, but he much preferred brewing, so when Mackinnon was hiring he jumped at it. He has to commute to Bath, but they are so great to work with it’s totally worth it.
My background? I did want to be a zookeeper, yes, so I studied biology, and I have worked outside all my life. I worked at outdoor education centres, doing summer camps and fall and autumn sessions where we taught people all sorts of things from canoeing to high rope courses. With my biology background I did a lot of nature walks. But I had no desire to run my own centre so when I was 25 and wanted a change I went out west to study art and design at the University of Alberta. Which is where I discovered farming!
I worked on a small dairy farm helping with the cows, and when I came home that summer I emailed Vicki’s Veggies to volunteer. After a few days they said Hey you’re good at this, do you want a job? I worked there all summer in 2013 before going back to finish my degree, but I knew then I wanted to get into farming – I just didn’t know where or how. I’m grateful to have this opportunity.
WHAT DODIE GROWS
We have five acres with two under cultivation, and I’m using bio-intensive methods, basically packing in as many vegetables as possible. We grow organically, although we’re not certified. We built a little nursery with a good-sized green house where we start the plants off, and I’m growing everything that’s possible to grow here in the course of a season. Luckily I have a great well! Our first summer was that awful drought and our well just kept going and going.
I grow peppers, tomatoes, lettuces, eggplants, turnips, rutabagas, potatoes, the whole lot, and last year it all went to the Drake Devonshire and they shared the produce among all their chefs in the Drake chain. It was amazing to get that kind of “in” as a start-up, but I just went for it. I had lots of beets and carrots left over the first year so I emailed Michael Portigal who was chef at Drake Devonshire at the time, and offered it all to him. He was thrilled. He wanted to use more local produce and asked me to keep him informed of whatever I’d got. This year he’s starting his own place, Seedlings, at Angelines, and I’ll be supplying him. I sold to Sand and Pearl, too, and to the Vic Cafe, and Pyramid Ferments uses some of my produce.
There is big demand for good organic vegetables here. None of my stuff has gone to waste. Last year my problem was how hard did I want to work? How hard COULD I work? I got burned out, I was so tired, but luckily a friend was available to help me through the busiest three weeks. We just had to get through it and keep the customers happy, and I guess she enjoyed it because she’s coming back this year! I fell prey to the labour shortage here. Even though I got funding to hire a student I just could not find anyone. Part of the problem is they wouldn’t be able to find accommodation and my house was full so I couldn’t help, and partly it was lack of transportation for kids who don’t drive.
This year we’re splitting our produce between restaurants and weekly veggie boxes that people sign up for in advance and collect each week. It’s called a CSA program (Community Supported Agriculture) and you get 14 weeks of organic fresh produce. You can pay upfront or in two instalments or pay-as-you-go and a half share is $360, good for a couple, a full share is $560 and enough for a family. We pack a good selection of everything in season and make sure there’s a lot of stuff to be excited about and not too many things you’d pick up and say What the heck do I do with this!? It’s popular with people who would love to grow their own organic stuff but just can’t. It saves them a lot of time and effort and compares well to buying from a supermarket and it feels good to support a local farm.
This past winter I discovered how to make cordials and sodas. I had a lot of herbs leftover and was Googling interesting things to do with them when I found great recipes for cordials, concentrated syrups you can add to fizzy water or use in cocktails. I experimented using my own herbs and local fruits from places like Northport Farms and the County farm centres and they were really delicious cordials. I sold them at the Busy Hands show and got great response so we thought Let’s do this! Especially with a brewer in the family who knows about carbonating and storing and kegging. Mike and I worked on the concept and business plan over winter, made soda and bottled it and are launching it this spring. Three Dog Winery bought some to offer at their Family Day event. Do you like the labels? I did the artwork and Alex at Pyramid Ferments helped with with the final design.
Did you know? Grants and tax rebates are available for research and development costs. NRC could help with things like microbiology testing. PELA CFDC can help with equipment purchases. OMAFRA’s Growing Forward 2 Funding can help agri-producers with market development, adaptability and industry sustainability.
We have three flavours and all the ingredients are sourced locally, from our farm as much as possible, or regionally from somewhere in Ontario. All except the lime! Can’t get that locally yet. Roadside Botanicals is herbal made from things we can forage like sumach and juniper berries, it has some cedar and pine and our own lemon balm. Sour Cherry and Mint is self explanatory, then there’s Raspberry and Lime which is super refreshing. Sour Cherry and Mint is the sweetest with about the same sugar content as regular soda, the others are lower sugar, but it’s all 100% natural.
FUTURE PLANS & ADVICE FOR OTHERS
After two very weird summers, drought the first year, tons of rain the second year, who knows what’s coming next? What I do know is I plan to grow vegetables for the foreseeable future. I have good land and I love working it. It’s good soil, good earth and there are ton of possibilities here.
We meet a lot of people thinking about getting into small farming who are inspired by what they see here in The County. They are a little fearful of leaving the city, and we felt that, too. Our first winter was hard. We didn’t know where to look or where to go to find things to do. But boy does it pick up when you get to know people! It’s easy to meet people here, other business owners are supportive and the whole community is friendly and outgoing.
The transition is bound to be hard, but you’ll get where you want to be. I did it with a four-month old baby, and that was a challenge. I was so unorganized. I was used to everything being easy and close in the city, and here you can’t just grab stuff at the last minute, you have to plan and drive to get anywhere. So you have to stop and think, “Okay, I’m going to town. What do I NEED?”
But there is so much freedom on a farm! So much space. You feel you can do anything you want to if you work hard enough. You can build things, try things out. If you’ve got the energy, you have the freedom.
And maybe moving to The County is easier than some other rural places, because there’s so much already in place for you to join in with. There are festivals and seasonal things that have been happening for years and all sorts of new activities. It’s a pretty easy community to ease into, and, it’s funny, when you read about people on this website you feel like you already know them when you get here. It’s kind of like an ice breaker.
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.