Photography by Daniel Vaughan
Honesty behind the labels
Heidi knows how food gets on her plate. She is part of the complex and intense farm life to which her parents committed when she was just a baby. Now all grown up at six years old – a big sister to Sam and Josie-Jade and the baby due in November – Heidi understands the cycle of life on the farm. Whether it is planting the grains, milking the cow, or helping process chickens for market. Heidi understands food is personal, hard work, and a life commitment for the family.
Heidi and her siblings know no other way of life. “They’re our free-range children,” her mother Angela laughingly concedes. “When people drop by, most likely they’re going to be welcomed by the kids. They’re very willing to take people on a tour and explain the farm.”
That’s Jubilee: The Forest Farm, almost one hundred acres of land and swamp on Bethel Road just outside Picton. Heidi’s parents, Angela and Tim Bakker, might be accidental farmers, but they are absolutely fully invested, committed, passionate, and some would say militant about their farming ethos. They would argue the militant part, probably agreeing to radical and revolutionary, at least in terms of modern farming practices. Militant implies an aggressive or confrontational stance, and that is so far from the gentleness with which they educate their customers, friends, family, followers, doubters, and probably complete strangers on the street, if they ever had time to leave the farm for a stroll.
They wouldn’t blink an eye at the accidental farmer description. This was not on their radar. At all. Ever.
Tim grew up on a dairy farm. In fact, it was the last dairy farm on County Road 49, north of Picton. While he liked some aspects of the farm, he didn’t like the dairy life. He started working as a plumber at 18, did a semester of college, then returned to plumbing full-time.
Angela, a self-described townie, grew up in Picton in a house with perfectly manicured lawns and gardens. She graduated as a registered nurse with a cardiac specialty, and almost left the country for a position in Charleston, but that turned out to be in neurology, so instead she worked at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
She came home to visit one weekend, went to church with her parents, and her life changed. “I met Tim. Turns out we grew up not far apart, had even played baseball against each other on church leagues, but never met. One of us went to public school and the other to Christian school, and somehow we never connected.”
Angela moved home, they married, and she retrained as a labour and delivery nurse at Picton, smiling when she reveals she delivered all three children at home. After Heidi arrived, Angela returned to nursing on a casual basis, retiring after Sam was born. She was becoming disillusioned with it and committed to full-time parenting. “My life changed and nursing no longer appealed to me. I wanted to help people and realized I’d rather help them be healthy than treat the illness. I looked at healthcare from a preventive aspect rather than the treatment; I realized there was such a disconnect between our health and our food.”
Tim and Angela’s families were both part of what they call Big Ag – mainstream large-scale agriculture – going back generations. They grew up in that world and understand the spectrum. They are not judgmental about it, but they can’t help but be critical of many parts of it, particularly the labelling that leads to misconceptions, which is the genesis of Jubilee.
Angela recalls buying free-range organic chicken for five dollars a pound. “That was pricey at the time, but I thought I was being responsible, supporting humane agriculture and putting healthy food on the table for my family. Free-range organic had to be happy and healthy, didn’t it?”
They thought so, until they watched Food, Inc., a 2008 documentary examining corporate farming in America. Robert Kenner, the documentarian, concluded industrial meat production was inhumane, and economically and environmentally unstainable. He came to a similar conclusion on industrial growing of grains and vegetables and challenged misleading labelling. It was controversial, to say the least. The giants went to war, and a young couple bought a farm.
“I went back and looked at the label of this expensive chicken I’d felt so good about. Turns out, these were factory birds with only enough access to the outside to satisfy the free-range designation,” said Angela. “It changed the way I bought food, how I fed my family, how I trusted our food sources.”
She was on a mission, looking for food honesty. “It wasn’t easy. All I wanted was food I could feel good about.” She found a source, not far from home. Island Meadows Family Farm, owned for five generations by the Thompson family on Big Island raised chickens and lamb, in a way Angela could trust. “They were so helpful to us in those early days and we still consider them mentors. They showed us it could be done.”
Tim and Angela read and follow Joel Salatin and consider him their farming inspiration and distance mentor. “He was interviewed on Food Inc., and we recognized this is the way we wanted to farm. He wrote The Marvellous Pigness of Pigs: Respecting and Caring for all God’s Creation. A Christian libertarian farmer, Joel Salatin, encourages readers to honour the animals and the land, and produce food based on spiritual principles. He teaches us to respect the uniqueness of each animal.”
Before they could apply the Salatin principles, Tim and Angela needed a farm. They bought a lot on Bethel Road in 2011 and started building in 2012. Both were still working at full-time careers. By this time Tim was a licenced plumber and Angela was still a nurse at the hospital. Starting a family was still a year or two away. With the house finished to the studs, Tim broke his ankle and finished the home on knee pads and crutches, and they had a home on a small lot, adjacent to a big field.
They noticed patterns, like three times a year the neighbour would spray the field, killing everything, just six feet from the Bakker’s garden. Angela had a solution. “We bought the property,” smiled Tim. “We now had an acre with a house on it, 40 acres of arable land, and a 52-acre swamp.”
They planned on traditional crop rotation of corn, soy, and wheat. “I was going to be that farmer,” acknowledged Tim. Then reality hit. “We realized it wasn’t our way and I didn’t have time to farm. We read Restoration Agriculture and were hooked.”
Their first full year with a farm – 2015 – things were complicated. Tim quit his full-time job and started his own company. “I had a lot of jobs lined up, not realizing I was going down the rabbit hole of farming,” he laughed. Or maybe grimaced.
They contoured swales and planted hundreds of fruit and nut trees, knowing there was a 50 per cent attrition rate, knowing it was long range. They dug little plots between the tree lines, using the land as much as they could, like permaculture on a large scale. They created a pig forest and a food forest. The pig forest was over the horizon – the fruit and nuts falling from the mature trees would feed the pigs. The food forest was more immediate, providing produce for family consumption.
They talked about getting chickens the next year, and Angela decided they had to grow the food for the birds. “Every single grain,” laughed Tim again. Or maybe it was a grimace. Their adjacent farm wasn’t ready to grow healthy crops, so they turned to Angela’s father, Ed Courneyea, and convinced him to let them grow the chicken feed on his plot near town. They broadcast the seed manually, and that was the start of their grain growing. Ed also runs their farm stand at his home on White Chapel Road.
In 2016, Tim and Angela’s neighbour, Herman, tilled and planted grass seed and barley on the 40 acres of workable land with the intent to pasture animals, and Herman could have a portion of the crops. “That was the year of the drought, and we had very little yield. We are so grateful to Herman for helping and supporting us. He’s been a friend throughout this.”
The next year was a bit better, with some crop success. They harvested some, and turned a lot under as green manure, understanding the quality of the food they raise depends on the quality of the soil. “If we have healthy soil, it will provide for healthy plants, healthy animals, and healthy people,” explains Angela, referencing her proactive stance. “Our soils are becoming much more resilient than they once were. They now harbour billions of life forms that feed the food we raise. Biologically active soils produce foods higher in vitamin and mineral content. These soils are also able to store more carbon and water which has a positive impact on the environment.”
The same year, the Bakkers, good grains in hand, started raising meat birds for their own table. They turned again to Joel Salatin, building chicken tractors, rotating grazing areas, feeding healthy grains and letting the birds range and peck as a contented colony. The next year, they started selling the chickens as part of the Chicken Farmers of Ontario Family Food Program, which allowed them to sell up to 300 chickens. They sold out.
This year, they joined the Artisanal Chicken Program, and they plan on producing 1,100 chickens. So far, growth and demand are hand-in-hand. “We’re trying to scale manageably,” explained Tim. “We could go to 3,000, but we want to make sure we have the market.”
The chickens are a vital part of soil health. Jubilee now has 32 cows, and Tim employs a time-consuming method to achieve successful production. “Our cattle are big herds in smaller pastures, moved every day under an intensive rotational management program. The cows clear a pasture and then are moved to another area. I’m evaluating every single day. It was tough this year due to the flooding, but typically we aim for a 30-day cycle.”
Even their dairy cow, a heritage Lynch Lineback, is rotated throughout the nut trees. Angela jokes about Tim’s early limited success at milking an untethered free-range cow. “She’s Tim’s hobby. Very expensive and time-consuming. She’s like a hot rod hobby.”
Raw milk, from their homestead dairy, is very important to their diet. Sam, they discovered, had eight cavities. A holistic dentist taught them how they could reverse tooth decay through a raw milk diet as well as changing the way they processed grains. It worked, and raw milk is open to discussion anytime.
Back to the fields. Three days after the herd moves, Tim brings in the chickens, who sanitize the pasture by removing larvae and scattering the patties, helping this most natural of fertilizers to return to the soil. “Management intensive rotational grazing of cattle, properly done, is the fastest way to heal the land. It exceeds every other method,” he explains.
Healing the land is reflected in the name. The Jubilee, in Scripture, is the year in which slaves and prisoners were freed, depts forgiven, and property reclaimed. “We see it as setting the farm free,” said Tim, a reminder of the family’s deep faith. It could be the freedom they chose from their professional careers, a decision still baffling even their closest of friends and family. “It’s hard for people to believe I’d quit a lucrative career as a plumber to become a struggling farmer.” A return to his profession would be a matter of paperwork, so there is always that option. Angela made a more abrupt end to her nursing career. Neither looks back, neither has regrets.
“We’re different than many because we have committed to making this farm our total source of income,” said Angela. “We are 100 per cent reliant on our customers.”
The trust is earned and returned. Angela understands the difficulties families face with food choices. “People are struggling with eating habits and time management. Since I started managing the farm, I’ve learned how hard this is. I really respect how mothers return at the end of the day from a full-time job to a full-time family job. I believe it’s the answer for healthy children, but it’s so difficult. We are in this because we learned to question the stickers and stamps and certificates. We learned they didn’t mean what we thought. We can help people make better food decisions because we are completely transparent.”
“Come to our farm. We’re always happy to show customers around. We have monthly guided tours, or private tours as requested. We even have a virtual tour. We really want to encourage people to visit any farm you’re buying the food from. If you can’t inspect what you expect, then question that.”
When people visit the farm, they are most likely to be greeted by the children – three gorgeous blond young farmers, already intimately involved in the day-to-day work and rhythm of the farm. Tim takes pride in announcing that each of them was part of chicken processing at a young age. “Heidi comes to market with us and sees how much we need math skills. She loves horses and riding, so she understands she needs reading skills to go through the horse magazines. We homeschool them; crops and animals are part of their education. They know how it works, they know where their food comes from, they know how important it is to produce it honestly.”
As well as chicken and beef – which are available in a variety of cuts and combinations, including a broth-maker pack – Jubilee offers pasture-raised eggs, Red Fyfe and rye flours, wheat berries, raw honey from their own hives, maple syrup, and most importantly, trust.
“We just want people to look and think beyond the labels and buzzwords. Ask what they mean. Consumers deserve honesty and answers. About 20 per cent of the population cares about food sources but much of that group will buy organic at a grocery store. Maybe three to five per cent want to have a relationship with the farmer and look beyond the label. Come visit us, see how we raise our crops and animals. Ask questions. We believe in this process, in the quality of our food. We’re feeding it to our children.”
The free-range children have been patient while Mom and Dad share their passion for Jubilee and all it represents. Sam ducked in occasionally for a snack, Heidi joined the conversation, and Josie spent time with her grandfather.
Now, though, Heidi is anxious to go to her riding lesson, and while she appreciates the field-to-fork lifestyle, she just wishes her parents would stop talking about it. Her horse is waiting.