ArticlesDestinationsFood & Wine

Zach and Luhana’s Littlejohn Farm

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

It’s the middle of the night, in a deserted train station in southern France, in a town on the Bay of Biscay, just a short ride from the Spanish border. A young man arrived late. Not wanting to spend 60 Euros for a pension for a few hours, he headed for the train station, planning on taking an early train into Spain. For a while, he was alone at Gare de Bayonne, until another train came in. A young woman disembarked, arriving later than she planned, and she also made the decision to wait for an early train rather than take a hotel.

Two strangers in a train station, so far from home; many lines leading to the same point.

Zach grew up on a 25-acre farm in Stouffville, Ontario, just outside Toronto, one of six children. His father is a veterinarian, his mother a therapist. A competitive hockey player, Zach helped his father with the gardens and hobby farm, until the family moved to Toronto. He studied food and wine across Canada and around the world. He worked the front and back of the house in restaurants while customizing his culinary diplomas. He would work, save, travel, repeat.

After earning his sommelier papers, he treated himself with a trip to the wine harvest festival on the Isla Madeira, where he saw the old-school techniques, pergola-trained vines, and tasted the wine. “One flight started in 1867. It was like drinking history,” he explained.

Before Madeira, Zach travelled through Portugal. His ultimate destination of this trip was southeast Asia, but first there was Spain. Zach wanted a culturally rich reasonably priced experience and chose the traditional route of Camino de Santiago. He was registered, and had his scallop shell, which identified him as a Jacquet, a pilgrim. The scallop shell is highly symbolic for participants of the Camino – many paths leading to one point – and highly practical. Iconic and ubiquitous along the routes, it gives comfort to hikers, assuring them they are on the right path, pointing the way to Santiago.

Luhana grew up in Salvador, Brazil, an ethnically diverse city in the coastal region. It has a large Afro-Brazilian population integrated for generations with the Portuguese. “There is a lot of mixed culture, and it shows in the cuisine,” noted Luhana, in her charmingly accented perfect English, one of several languages she has mastered fluently. One of three children, her parents still live in the city. Luhana has fond memories of visiting her father’s citrus groves in the countryside as a child.

After earning a degree in International Relations, with a long-range goal of politics, social projects, and diplomacy, Luhana moved to Brussels. She worked with a Non-Government Organization (NGO) for five years, specializing in social projects in Peru and Africa. She was rewarded by seeing the impact of the NGO’s work. She pursued a master’s degree in Micro Finance, and again saw the difference a small investment could make. “Putting that power, that instrument in their hands is life-changing.”

Switching careers, she worked in Microsoft’s finance division in Belgium. “I loved it, I learned so much how the culture of the company matters. Microsoft makes you feel empowered. They make a community and we loved going to work every day. There was a huge sense of pride, and we felt the employees mattered more than anything. Maybe part of it was a European culture, and part Microsoft culture.”

With encouragement from her father, who had also walked the Camino, Luhana decided to treat herself after her master’s degree, and embarked on her personal journey. She registered, she had her scallop shell.

Two young professionals from separate American hemispheres, sitting alone in a train station in the south of France, each about to embark on a very personal, very spiritual journey, days of walking, reflecting, alone with their thoughts.

Except there were only two of them, and one was from a small Ontario town.

“It was his Canadian politeness,” laughed Luhana.

“I’m Canadian,” smiled Zach. “There are two people in a train station in the middle of the night. How could I not say hello? I walked up to her and noticed the scallop shell. We didn’t know it, but that’s when our journey started together.”

Luhana disagrees. “He introduced himself, and when he shook my hand, I felt something special.”

Two scallops and a handshake started a 34-day walk on the Camino de Santiago, and both speak of the highly personal experience.

“The Camino is like life,” explained Luhana. “You walk at your own pace. You pass people and they pass you, and sometimes a group walks together for a long time and gradually disperses. Often you walk alone. The Camino is a very special journey – it’s very magical in how you meet and connect. People are there for a reason. It’s a mind, body, and soul experience. You’re walking every day with your thoughts, it makes you live in the present.”

Zach concurred. “This is a spiritual journey; it is very intense. There are a lot of first dates,” he smiled. “I didn’t want to intrude on Luhana’s Camino experience with romance.”

It showed up, regardless.

“We spoke of our dreams and found they were so similar,” Luhana remembered. “We spoke of Littlejohn Farm, and by the time we were finished the Camino, we had so many details finalized. It just flowed naturally.”

At the end of the Camino, Luhana had planned to return to Brazil for a two-week visit with her family. She had her return flight to Brussels booked and projects to finish at Microsoft, the company and job she loved. Zach was continuing his global adventures, heading to southeast Asia. Instead, Luhana invited him to come with her, to meet her family for the two-week vacation.

They stayed four months. Luhana finished her Belgian project from Brazil. Zach fell in love with the country and the family. They found more common ground. Luhana spent a year in high school in Winnipeg as an exchange student, her family joining her for travels, and they fell in love with Canada. “We enjoyed the Canadian culture and felt more Canadian in Winnipeg than in Toronto. Maybe it was the winter,” she laughed. “I always felt raising a family in Canada would be wonderful.”

Zach’s travels had led him to the southern hemisphere, where he spent time on an organic farm. “I learned a ton about gardening, small scale homesteading, and off-grid artisan production,” he said. “There is a necessity in New Zealand to be practical and figure out solutions without just throwing money at a problem. New Zealanders are more resourceful out of necessity. They have a simple way of life; it’s less complicated and very refreshing. That impacted me the most.”

Farming is in Zach’s blood. Before the family sold their property in Stouffville to move to Toronto, he helped on the property. “Dad tended the gardens and animals and then would go to work in the city. I saw the structure and the commitment necessary, and realized weather and nature dictated the days. My first job was haying. We had our barn to fill, and then I’d work for the neighbours. You work because it needs to be done and you take pride in the perfection of the property. There’s a beauty in doing it right.”

Although Toronto was his hub from his teenage years, “The idea of raising kids on a farm stuck.”

He lived in Whistler for three years and fell in love with the food and beverage world. He studied culinary arts in Vancouver, started his sommelier papers, studied cheesemaking in Guelph, and breadmaking at George Brown College, always with a focus on the craftsmanship of cooking. His education inspired him to become an avid food traveller.

In Brazil, Zach and Luhana talked about where they would live, where they would raise their family. Zach had his apartment in Toronto, Luhana had hers in Belgium. “In Belgium, you need at least two languages to work,” she explained. They chose Toronto, and in 2015, she applied for an international internship and was offered a job.

The idea of life in the country pulled at the young couple. Zach wanted the land and animals, Luhana wanted a spiritual retreat, and both knew they wanted to raise their children outdoors. “Toronto let us figure out the details,” explained Zach. “We were looking for a place for agri-tourism and had three places in mind – Guelph, Prince Edward County, and Creemore Springs/Blue Mountain. The County checked all the boxes. It all made sense. We knew we wanted to be close to town on a main route, near Sandbanks, and have good soil for vegetables.”

They found a place online but didn’t think it was right for them. It was a group home run by an elderly couple, and Zach and Luhana dismissed it, but it kept coming up in their search. “Finally, we realized it was a sign,” recalled Zach. “We convinced ourselves to look at it as a blank canvas. We knew it was great location with great soil, and a strong well. We looked at positives, even though we saw it in the winter, and everything was so stark.”

Pieces of the puzzle just came together. “As first-time homeowners, there were things not even on our radar, but we found them. The County can mess you up with directions. We didn’t realize the sunset is right through our dining room windows.”

They put in an offer in February and it was accepted. Zach and Luhana’s Littlejohn Farm was now a reality.

The farm, located just south of Picton on County Road 10, boasts 3.5 very efficient acres, and the couple dove into the new challenge. Sustainability, low impact, and permaculture are more than goals – they are a lifestyle, reflected in the business plan.

Littlejohn offers a true farm-to-table experience, including accommodation for six guests, workshops, and wine tours. Zach and Luhana want their guests to enjoy as much of the farm life as they want, whether it’s collecting eggs for breakfast, picking produce for dinner, or just watching the sunset with the goats and ducks.

“It’s so peaceful when we sit in the backyard and the goats are relaxing,” shared Luhana. “They are our alarms. If anything is amiss, they’ll tell us, so when they are calm, we know everything is okay.”

Littlejohn Farm started very modestly, with a few chickens, then some ducks. They bought Abby, a nanny La Mancha goat, last spring. She was already bred to a Nubian and they were hoping for twins, which they received. They added a billy and are planning their dairy goat herd. They figure it will take about three years to establish, and this year hope to have goat cheese workshops, where participants can milk the goats and make the cheese.

The two pigs – a Berkshire and a Tamworth – add to the permaculture aspect. “They are very efficient composters,” said Zach. “They get our table scraps plus some eggs and cheese, and we bring in spent grain from a local brewery and augment it with corn mash. It’s a very clean diet, and we make sure they get lots of exercise. When we want an area cleared of grass and weeds, and turned over, they’re very good at that task. We are raising happy animals and see them as part of the team. Everyone has a role to play.”

The ducks are a joy for the couple and their guests. “They bring a lot of fun to the farm experience,” said Zach. “They are truly free range, but they stick close because they know who feeds them. They’ll greet us in the morning and follow us during the day.”

The goats have supervised freedom, redefined after displaying a knack for knowing exactly when the raspberries are perfectly ripe, and several temporary absences to visit neighbours.

The property itself is ideal. A gentle slope from County Road 10 leads to the house, and just beyond sit the barn, the chicken tractors (moveable coops and enclosed runs), the duck house, and a tranquil seating area with a pergola (and that fabulous sunset). A large vegetable garden grows between the house and the road (far from wandering goats), and supplies produce for group guest meals, wine tour picnics, and workshops.

“We want this to be a unique agricultural tourism experience at a peaceful retreat,” shared Luhana. “We want families or groups of couples to experience the County from the perspective of Littlejohn Farm.”

Zach’s workshops have proven to be very popular. This year he added charcuterie and cheesemaking workshops, and last year he had rave reviews on his pickling and preserving, and sourdough workshops. Participants get a lesson plan, a sample, and farm-to-table meal, all from the farm.

Last year, they grew Italian polenta corn, and ground it and wheat on-site. They took children to the chicken coop and let them collect eggs, and they welcomed gardening enthusiasts. Their concierge services sent guests on adventures throughout the County, and their wine tours included a picnic lunch. Zach is the chef for several exclusive winemaker dinners and shares his extensive knowledge of local wineries and wines. This year, they are planning a dinner series including a terroir tasting menu and backyard family style cookout, aligned with specific harvests. “Growing up, travelling, and here on the County we see entire communities coming together for a harvest, and we want the dinners to have that atmosphere,” promised Zach.

Guests comment on the compact scale of the farm, marvelling at all it offers, and Luhana glows. “We wanted to combine tourism and agriculture, and someone said to us, ‘You are the County.’ That made us so happy. We’re putting our souls into this and that feedback is rewarding.”

From a childhood in a busy city, to working in Brussels, and living in Toronto, Luhana is very social, and worried about being connected to the community. “We have a busier social life here than in Toronto,” she smiled. “There is a huge sense of community here. Everyone is working together and happy for their neighbours’ successes. There is still old-school integrity; we’re looking forward to raising our children with County values.”

The thread of raising their family in Canada, outdoors, on a farm, specifically on the County, morphed from theory to reality in mid-January, when Zach and Luhana welcomed Flora to Littlejohn Farm.

She is another happily ever after moment for a story starting in a train station in France, on the Bay of Biscay, when two travellers found their single point from many paths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please follow and like us:
0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *