Written by Janet Davies
It’s an interesting journey from a farm in Milford to the jungles of Sumatra. Throw in Brazil, Cambodia, India, Peru, Indonesia, and Hong Kong and you’ve got part of the road map of Rebecca Sweetman’s life so far. Her decision to come home to farm and raise a family was made for love … and it’s a different kind of adventure.
“Neil Usher was my first love when we were just teenagers,” she says. “So when he Googled and found me 20 years later, I was delighted. It was 2014 and I was in Hong Kong, but would be returning to Canada for a board meeting which was handy.” That first love was rekindled, Rebecca became a mother to Neil’s son Tristen, now 15, and today they live on Rebecca’s family farm on Morrison Point Rd., together with their one-year old Nicholas and a growing number of heritage pigs and chickens, and various other wild creatures.
WAIT, BACK UP … WHY THE JUNGLES?
Rebecca’s parents bought the heritage farm on Morrison Point Road in 1995. Both stained glass artists, they admired the work of the glass artists who lived there, and fell for their home, too. When the property came on the market, the Sweetmans bought it, and began restoring the 1848 farm house. Rebuilding its iconic limestone fence with her father when she was a girl is one of Rebecca’s happiest childhood memories. Upon researching the property they learned it was originally called Hawkridge Farm in the 1800s, and the newspapers then used as insulation still adorn some of the original walls of the house. After Athol public school and Albert College, Rebecca studied Global Politics and Sustainable Development at university and worked on conservation, development, and humanitarian projects with NGOs all over the world – including the jungles of Sumatra.
“In between jobs I came back to Canada and worked in the film industry, where my dad had been a well known transportation coordinator,” she says. “In 2008 it occurred to me I could combine my interests, and I created an NGO of my own, and running it became my full time job.” The Paradigm Shift Project produces educational documentaries to share international best practices on social justice and environmental issues. She remains deeply involved as Founding Director working from her base in The County. “My office was always pretty virtual, and with decent Internet here now it works just fine,” she says. You can learn more about PSP on YouTube (www.youtube.com/paradigmshiftproject) and also catch Rebecca’s TED Talk, titled “What Can I Do?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLccHLwd_6Q) that discusses how, as global citizens, we can contribute to social change.
But back to the farm. “I used to dream of somehow being able to do sustainable development work from The County, and now we’re doing just that with our business, Hawkridge Homestead (www.hawkridgehomestead.com), sustainably farming the land and preserving its ecological importance along with the bounty from our harvests. We brought back the farm’s original name – Hawkridge – no doubt named for the numerous red-tailed hawks that soar over this limestone ridge – and added Homestead since we’re doing a little bit of everything! We’re pursuing Neil’s passion for growing things and my interest in preserving and local food security and,” she laughs, “seeing whether I can actually raise pigs and kill them to eat! Yes I can! And they are pretty darned good, too. Too bad Neil is vegetarian.”
They raise their heritage pigs in partnership with Marg Kerr of Kervan Farm, a deeply knowledgeable neighbour farmer who raises lamb and Norwegian fjord horses. “Marg is an amazing resource. We love learning from farmers with such deep roots in this land. We are so lucky to have advice and support from people like her and the Hudsons (of Valley Pine Farms, known for their incredible organic heritage grains and flours) who know so much about farming here. I used to ride horses with Don and Deb Hudson’s kids, and galloping across these beautiful fields is an experience I hope our children get to share, too.”
Neil and Rebecca’s goal is to demonstrate sustainable small scale food production and contribute to local food security. Though their farm is not yet certified organic, all their animals are fed with certified organic feed and their chickens and guinea fowl range freely. “That is for tick control, too,” says Rebecca. As well as learning from locals who have “farmed here forever,” Rebecca has picked up farming techniques all over the world. “We keep guinea fowl, despite the fact they make a God-awful noise like a car alarm, because they eat up to 4,000 ticks a week,” she says. “I worry about Lyme disease, I want Nicholas to be able to run barefoot, and our birds are a fantastic natural defence.”
Rebecca has spoken at international permaculture conferences and developed permaculture aid resilience strategies for communities. She knows her stuff, and she knows sustainability includes sustainable livelihoods too. Value added products help. Their organic pork sells well. “We’re getting repeat business which is great, and I am a big fan of bartering. I’m happy to exchange our homemade gluten-free sausages for berries I can turn into preserves! I also do some graphic design and will gladly trade my design services for other local services or organic produce. And Neil’s a big fan of ‘Sweat-Equity’- it’s all about how we can support each other to achieve our goals.”
To Neil and Rebecca, permaculture and striving for sustainability is just common sense, and so is reducing the heating bill for their big old farmhouse by using wood stoves instead of a furnace. “So we need to preserve our sustainable forests,” she says. “And protect our water sources by concentrating on collecting rainwater. As The County becomes more developed, these sustainable conservation practices should be no-brainers. It’s common sense. Of course being a lumberjack with a newborn baby was a bit of a struggle,” she laughs. “But that’s okay- weenjoy being pioneers.”
One more point about permaculture. “For me it is not just a type of farming, it is about planning systems, integrated, mutually supportive systems. Permaculture is an alternative model to the rather desperate ‘economy of fear’ that drives much of modern life. It’s based on faith that things ARE going to work, that humanity will thrive when it centres its paradigm on trust and community building as opposed to isolation, independence, and doggedly trying to make it alone. I think the model is growing. Especially here.” You might say she’s a dreamer … but she’s not the only one.
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