A whole new way to buy the farm
Adoption of land trust concept earns local farm distinction from Ontario government
27093 New Ontario Road, Ailsa Craig
Photos and story by Casey Lessard
One of Ontario’s most innovative farms is a short drive east of Parkhill, down a dirt road off Highway 7. Sunnivue Farm recently won a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for creating a sustainable farm business operating on land held by a non-profit land trust.
“We think farms should not actually be owned like a piece of junk or a house or a car,” says Alex Nurnberg, who moved from Germany to Canada in 1991 with his wife Ellinor. “It’s not ethically possible to own land. Ask any native from North America. But our law tells us someone has to own it.
“We’ve seen places where people form a community around a farm to protect it from ownership, so we thought that’s what should be done. We met some people in London who were circling that idea for 10 years. They met on a regular basis in London and talked about it. We came along and found a farm we would like and said, Why don’t we do it? That scared the hell out of them because $500,000 was involved and no one had the money to do that.”
The group developed plans to raise the money, including offering vacations at the farm. Alex traveled to Europe for three months pitching the deal.
“We made $95,000 that way. Then I walked door to door in London and told people the concept we were working on. We convinced enough people to gather another $30,000 to $40,000. The idea was they would pledge any amount of money with monthly payments between $5 and $200. People would ask, “Well, what’s in it for me?” Well, nothing really physically, but if you want you can give this farm a future so there might be a small farm surviving when your grandchildren grow up. If that’s enough for you, sign up. Enough people believed in the concept to make it survive.”
ROSE (Redeeming Our Soil Economically) took over the deed in 1992, and the Nurnbergs have been running their farm business on-site since.
“It’s one of the first places I’ve seen where they have a land trust,” says Felix Stohlmann, 24, of Stuttgart, Germany. He has spent part of the last four months visiting Sunnivue to get a feel for the farm, which his brother hopes to take over when he finishes agricultural college. “It’s a good solution for my brother to get a farm without buying it or taking big credit. To make organic food for the people who live here, it’s a super place to live and great lifestyle.”
If he succeeds in taking over the farm, Felix’s brother hopes to focus on cash crops instead of the organic dairy operation favoured by the Nurnbergs. Sunnivue recently won an award for consistently high quality milk from the Organic Meadow dairy.
“It’s too much work,” Felix says. “These guys are here 12-14 hours a day.”
And the farm’s residents – the Nurnbergs and Dagmar Seiboth – are early risers. Saturdays, the farm store is open to the public and Alex and Ellinor rise at about 3:30 a.m. to bake bread.
“This is a farm that really exists and fights to survive,” Alex says, noting school and tour groups come to the farm to see the operation in action. “This is not a showplace where people can come and watch reality TV. But they can come and touch life. Particularly for children, this is important. We offer stays for school children between two nights and two weeks. Dealing with animals gives you a feedback that is so real and so straight that you are stunned if you haven’t had it before. When we have children from Detroit come here, they’re not the same when they go home. This is an experience that can feed them for 20 years.”
At Sunnivue, it’s their mission to nourish both the bodies and minds of future generations.
“If you take the whole Earth and divide it between all the people living on Earth,” Ellinor says, “then there is a certain number of people responsible for a certain area of land. The goal is to create a responsibility among people who don’t farm.”
Visitors to the Saturday store hours will find the farm’s trademark bread, a large variety of fresh organic vegetables from the large garden maintained by Seiboth, meat from the farm’s animals, and trade items from other local organic producers.
“I don’t know what comes first: the people or farm life,” says Seiboth, who keeps the store stocked, when asked what attracts her to the Sunnivue lifestyle. “I like interacting with people, and if they piss you off, they show you your weaknesses. And living on the farm, you have the ability to wake up, grab a cucumber and eat it.
“I came here 10 years ago. I never planned to stay; it just happened. I would go home every time my visa expired and I eventually ran out of visa programs, so I had to immigrate. My family doesn’t like it, but what can you do?”
Others, too, are making sacrifices to make the farm sustain itself. Eighty-one year old Maria Mustaf of Toronto has come to the farm several times a year for the last six years. She has a room reserved in the house for her weeklong stays. This week, she spent each day bent over pulling weeds from the vegetable garden.
“I enjoy this work. In my life it’s important to do something without expecting anything in return.
“My motivation is to help the people here and to help the earth. I am concerned about the quality of food. I see people who are sick and I wonder why.”
The farm’s permanent residents welcome Mustaf’s helping hands, and those of others. They also hope others will realize the value of their work.
“Farms that are good for the earth, the soil, and wildlife need support from people who don’t think of farming, people who are just eating,” says Ellinor.
Her husband Alex worries for the future of agriculture when he sees the culture surrounding him.
“I’m scared by the idea that the people who grow up playing video games will be running the show. Those people need to come and touch life.
“If people want food grown in an environment that is still understandable and healthy for them, then a farm like this can survive forever.”
To discover Sunnivue Farm, take Highway 7 east out of Parkhill and turn right at the first curve, which is New Ontario Road. The farm is the first on the southwest side immediately after you’ve crossed the one-lane bridge. For other directions, visit http://www.sunnivue-farm.on.ca. The store is open Saturdays from June to December, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m..