I have so much time, respect and admiration for so many farmers. Let us introduce you to the Theriault family the way we met them as we drove through a small Eastern town that I have been going to for more than 30 years.
Before we speak of this charming stand, some context is needed.
I have never lived in Nova Scotia and the context is largely based on conversations, anecdotal evidence and research from credible sources online. This is not meant to be an expert’s study of what is/ has happened in Nova Scotia in so much as it is a summary of my experience which may or may not be typical.
My Mother was born on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. More specifically, she was born on Isle Madame. To be exact, the name of her town/island is Petit-De-Grat. Any more specific than that and we’d be sitting in my Grandmother’s kitchen pointing at houses where different family members were born, raised, married. It is one of my favorite places on earth.
We were traveling to visit family and attend a wedding for a week – it was a wonderful vacation and a great escape from what has been a very hectic 2009. I have visited the island more times than I can count from before I can remember. There are so many memories from childhood, young adulthood and now my 30-somethings.
The community was (and is) largely based on the ocean and it’s riches. As Cod disappeared, it became a difficult place for young people to live and raise families. The fish plant closed and many jobs moved away. People hoped and waited for Cod to come back – the most industrious set up a small cottage industry or found work in cities or towns (the closest being about 50 km/ 30 miles away in Port Hawkesbury, others went more than 300 km to Halifax and more fled west).
Isle Madame’s population decreased more than 10% from 1991-2001 (I could not find census data from 2006 for the Island). Crab and Shrimp have provided signs of hope and the mass return of lobsters brought a lot of excitement in the last few years. As an example, you could buy a lobster license, boat and traps for around $25,000 10 years ago when they were scarce before prices skyrocketed into the 6-digits in the last several years. This year has people holding their breath as they were challenged by the low cost of lobster that much of the country celebrated earlier this year.
A grassroots movement is happening in Isle Madame (led by the Development Isle Madame Association) to bring people back tot he island. As an example, read the bottom of page 2 of this newsletter from 2005 which set a 3-year goal of bringing 25 individuals the Island.
Petit-De-Grat and her surrounding communities are a resilient bunch. She’ll find her way and she deserves to.
I’m not positive that other communities will be rewarded with the same fate. We drove more than 500 kilometers on August 4th with very few signs of youth, jobs or new industry; a case accented by the fact that we passed 1 gas station, no crops of any sort, 2 places to eat and 1 place to buy water in that distance. The pub that everyone raved about appeared to have gone of of business and the two restaurants we saw were owned by an entrepreneur living 200 kilometers (1,200+ miles) away in Toronto.
It appeared that people had either given up hope or were waiting for the return of the fish and the return of the youth. Many of the young men and women who would have worked within the fishing industry are now moving to cities or flying to the west to work within the oil industry for weeks at a time.
We had hoped to take photos of any crops we encountered to contrast them to what we returned to in Ontario. Here’s the approximate route taken (although we did a giant loop, including the coast and most of the crossroads).
2 people, 7 hours and not a sighting of a farm. I am not naive enough to think that crops should or can grow everywhere. The closest thing we found was an organic garden attached to a hotel in Guysborough (one of the two restaurants mentioned previously). The entire region was covered in gardens in the youth of my Grandmother – everyone grew food for themselves, stored their results in their cellars and survived the winters. While there was no evidence of this in our travels, the people were great and we met several fantastic fisherman (mostly of Crab) who are making a great go of it.
It is an absolute paradise that comes with it’s challenges – it can be a difficult place to set root to raise and support a family. Perhaps it is tough on roots in general.
Our long journey ended when we reuturned to Isle Madame and made plans to visit the only farm we had seen – the Theriault family farm in Arichat (less than 5 miles/ 4 kilometers) from Petit-De-Grat.
I had seen this farm my whole life (the market was added in the late 1990s). My Uncle had a house two doors down and I would frequently stare at their cows as we drove between my Grandmothers house and that of my Aunt and Uncle. The cows wander in a field bordered by the road on one side and the ocean on the other. The family homestead is across the road and consists of the family home, farm market and crops of fresh produce. The small cabin is sweet and idyllic and we popped in for a visit.
We were greeted by Joy Theriault and spent about 30 minutes with her. She was filled with laughter, joy and stories of the hard work the family puts in to keep the farm thriving with food. Her sister and brother-in-law (or brother and sister-in-law; I’m afraid I am uncertain) supplement this farm with chickens and other goodies and they pool their food to share sustenance with each other.
The Theriault Farm Market is a small roadside stand sells daily-picked produce to locals and tourists alike. Her young son has gotten into the action with his own version of a lemonade stand (by selling daily fished mackerel and daughter is getting in on the funwith wild flowers for sale at the counter she colors at.
Well Preserved has taken us a lot of unexpected directions in the 8 months since starting. One of the most delightful (if not my very favorite part of this entire process) is experiences like we shared with Joy. It has pushed us beyond our comfort zone and really inspired us to ask questions, listen patiently and really get to know the people who work so hard just trying to feed us. Each is an individual, each with their own vision, struggles and successes. The stories are inspiring at times, boggling at others and, occasionally, sad as all get out.
Joy told us of a local strawberry farmer who lost his entire crop of berries to the weather this year. Her entire crop of corn was pulled out by crows this year – twice – and will not make an appearance at the annual harvest this year.
Not all the stories make their way here – the most intimate, sensitive and (in some cases) scary are treated with the sanctity of the conversation between people – not a public broadcast. We do introduce the blog towards the end of the conversation if we decide we are going to post about our visit, often so that we can send a copy or get permission for photos such as the ones here.
You would think a local stand with little competition (there is a small grocery store which imports groceries from afar and the closest supermarket is about 40 minutes away by car) would be doing a bustling business.
Joy has many loyal customers but not as many as we would have thought. It is difficult to get the younger generations that are around to buy fresh when competing with the mass selection of the supermarket. Tourists form a significant percentage of their business – perhaps more familiar with the idea that selection has it’s costs.
It’s a tough go and a challenge the family embraces with passion.
Take time to meet people like this family. Get to know their stories and consider supporting their cause – after all they are trying to help us with out own goal of providing sustenance for us and those we love.
Our host did mention that she knew my Grandmother by name (Jeanne D’Arc – translated as Joan of Arc – is not a common name after all) and that she shopped there. That made me smile as I left – both out of respect for this hard working family and for my Meme.
Any stories of farmers who have left their mark on you? We’d love for you to share.