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Centre Burlington man discovers passion for old-fashioned farming

CENTRE BURLINGTON, N.S. — Jake MacDougall grew up on a vineyard caring for grapes, but he knew early on that life as a winemaker wasn't for him.

His heart lay somewhere else, though it took working in construction and buying a hobby farm to discover what would ignite his passion.

“My partner, she always had horses. So, we kind of wanted to buy a hobby farm,” he said while preparing to greet guests at MacDougall Meadows in Centre Burlington.

“We started looking and this place came about and we bought it and I put in a garden and got some chickens and stuff. I thought, 'Well, I can take this a bit further; I think I'll try and sell some,'” MacDougall recalled.

“At that point, traceability for my food was there. I was producing it myself; knew where it came from, knew what (the animals) ate.”

He decided to start selling product four years ago and, while the farm is still a small operation, MacDougall has a steady but growing clientele.

And he's just 28 years old.

MacDougall is among the province's growing number of young people helping to redefine farming and agriculture. For him, it's about taking pride in the product and providing customers with healthy, local options.

“It's important to know what you're eating, how it was grown and how it was produced,” said MacDougall, smiling as his young son, Foster, plays in the yard.

MacDougall Meadows is situated on 11 acres off Highway 215 in Hants County. The farm produces and sells free-range chicken, free-range turkey, pasture-raised pork and duck, and a variety of vegetables. They have a presence at the Halifax Forum Farmers’ Market and Brewery Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and are set up at the outdoor Windsor Farmers’ Market on Sundays. They also participate in the monthly pop-up market at Meander River Brewery.

One aspect that makes MacDougall's farm really stand out is the use of horses versus expensive farming tractors.

“All of our garden work is done with horses. We did that up until this year,” said MacDougall, noting the springtime death of one of their best horses. He is in the process of training a new horse, Tina, to work alongside the already-trained Callie, so much of the gardening work has been done by hand.

While tractors can do the work faster, MacDougall said the benefits of using horse power far outweigh the cons. Horses, which are loved by both young and old visiting the farm, cause far less soil compaction than heavy machinery. That, he said, benefits the soil — and the crops — in the long run. Horses also produce manure and while they have costs associated with them, it amounts to less than the cost of specialized, motorized equipment.

As the farm's website indicates: “We practice natural and sustainable food production methods. We recreate what a farm should look like — the chickens can run, turkeys can fly, and pigs can root.”

Family support

MacDougall's mother, Sandra MacDougall, and stepfather, Bruce Wright, both volunteer their time in the garden and help wherever they can.

She said they are immeasurably proud of MacDougall's entrepreneurial spirit and the good food he's providing.

“I'm retired from health care. Because we really believe in what he's doing — providing good, clean food, which I think in the long-term benefits your overall health — and we know it's a struggle for a small business to start, we are volunteering our time. We actually quite like being outside doing the gardening and we do the markets for him,” she said.

The pair share MacDougall's passion for promoting and supporting the 'eat local' movement.

“I think Nova Scotia has such great potential to provide their own food. You know where it comes from and you build a relationship with your farmer,” she said.

“Someone once said you should choose your farmer with as much care as you choose your dentist, doctor and lawyer,” she added.

Wright said there are numerous spin-offs associated with supporting local farmers, one of them being reducing the carbon footprint.

“The idea of small farms providing food is actually import substitution. It's improving the local economy while you're providing healthy food for people that's not being trucked from hundreds of miles away. I think that's terribly important,” said Wright.

Connecting the dots

For the past two summers, MacDougall has hosted a From Farm to Table dinner where clients, people interested in the local food movement, friends, and family join together to tour the farm and dine on protein and vegetables produced either at the farm or nearby.

At the sold-out event Aug.10, diners were treated to charred carrots with lemon, roasted potatoes, green onions stuffed with local goat cheese; a yellow and green bean salad; liver pate and tomato chutney; barbecued chicken and pork butt; plus a mixed berry cobbler with a crème anglaise made with lemon and nutmeg for dessert. Bread from Gold Island Bakery was also served, and wines from Avondale Sky winery as well as beer and cider from Meander River was also available for purchase at the dinner.

MacDougall said offering a farm tour and a meal not only serves as a chance to meet face-to-face with supporters, but it helps people better connect with where their food comes from.

He said many children, when asked where a dinosaur-shaped chicken nugget comes from, often wouldn't know the answer.

“A curly fry: what vegetable is that? They don't know. There's such a detachment from food starting to develop because it's so easy to go into the grocery store to buy boxed, frozen stuff. People don't know where their food comes from anymore. I think it's important to bring that back around. Get people on the farms and see how they're produced,” said MacDougall.

It's a sentiment that chef Dennis Johnston shared.

Johnston, who owned and operated Fid in Halifax for about 14 years, catered the second annual From Farm to Table dinner. He appreciates how MacDougall is championing the 'eat local' movement and hopes consumers will start being more savvy with where they spend their money.

Read the entire BACK ON THE FARM SERIES: A collection devoted to a vital industry in the Annapolis Valley:

“If you can't get it from Nova Scotia, get it from the Maritimes; if you can't get it from the Maritimes, get it from Canada,” said Johnston. “Follow that process of finding out where your food is coming from; question where your food is coming from. Don't let the economy decide how you nourish yourself.”

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