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Betting on chickens, vegetables and carnations to grow a future together on the farm

Mhari Lamarque and Chris Pyke are so in love, with each other, with their life and their surroundings, they make it sound like fun to put in 80-hour work weeks.
 
The young couple, married a year ago on their farm in Pleasantville, Lunenburg County, under an arch made from saplings that Pyke cut and wove himself, is part of a trend.
 
The most recent agricultural census, in 2016, showed that seven per cent of all farm operators were under the age of 35, the first increase in that category since at least 1991.
 
In its first year as a business, Sweet Fern Farm is growing about every vegetable you can think of, plus flowers and chickens. An orchard of fruit trees and nuts like northern pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts has been planted.
 
 
“I really like growing things with the food in mind, the dish in mind,” said Pyke, 29, a former chef and baker. “That’s really exciting.”
 
Sweet Fern Farm is a presence each week at farmers markets in Lunenburg and Chester, where they quickly sell out of 30 dozen or so eggs.
 
On the farm, an old travel trailer at the bottom of a slope serves as an Airbnb for chickens, surrounded by flexible fencing and 60 laying hens. The trailer is moved around every few days to give the chickens fresh grass and a new crop of worms and bugs.
 
“There’s roosts and nesting boxes in there, so they can lay their eggs and they’re protected from predators. It’s their natural habit to go up on roosts,” Lamarque, 28, explained. “We call them pastured because we move them around our pasture. Free range is a certification that we do not have for them, but people who are interested in having free range eggs, this would probably satisfy them.”
 
The trailer is latched at night and surrounded by an electric fence to keep away foxes, raccoons, skunks, minks and weasels.
 
“Minks and weasels are the worst,” said Lamarque. “We haven’t had a problem with them but they kind of get in a frenzy and just kill everything, rather than one or two. During the day, aerial predators are our biggest concern, like eagles. The trailer is enough protection for them, they have crazy eyesight and can see them soaring, so if they see a predator above, they’ll just scoot under the trailer.
 
“There’s a really big demand for organic eggs in this area as well, which we hope to transition to. Organic grain is quite expensive. We care most about animal welfare, being able to have them out on pasture, moving around so they can forage and have fresh air and shade and wind.”
 
A hen produces an egg about every 28 hours, though the heat can affect the laying rate. In the winter, the hens will move into the barn where 100 meat birds lived this spring.
 
But aren’t the meat birds in there, Lamarque is asked.
 
“No, they’re in the freezer.”
 
The couple raised some meat birds last year to be used for their wedding. But getting up at 3 a.m. one morning a few weeks ago to load a hundred sleeping birds into crates and taking them to the processing facility was a different experience.
 
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an emotional connection to the beings that you care for every day, it’s a very big part of your life,” Lamarque said. “Especially the meat birds, we found ourselves checking on them a little bit more than the hens. I love having animals around, it feels very different when they’re not. But I try to keep a bit of a distance.”
 
Behind the house is the greenhouse the couple built, as well as fields of vegetables and flowers. There’s no fencing but, somehow, no deer. Pyke thinks the local deer remember the livestock that former owners pastured here and are still leery.
 
“Deer become very habituated to that sort of thing,” he said. “When the Berlin Wall came down and the extension of the electric fence through the countryside came down, the deer still wouldn’t cross for many years afterward. So there’s probably that kind of a mentality here. We’re lucky but we have a feeling that they’re getting an eye for the lettuce, so we’ll have to make that investment at some point.”
 
Both Lamarque and Pyke worked in community gardens, she also worked on a flower farm and he in a butcher shop. Their varied backgrounds helped them decide what kind of farmers to be.
 
“As to what to grow, it’s just what’s popular this year. My background is in cooking, I worked in restaurants and at farmer’s markets so I have an idea of what’s popular,” Pyke said. “Everything at the grocery store is varieties grown for shipping, because it’s all mostly come from away stuff. For example, our carrots are a mokum variety, which for the last 10 years have been voted the sweetest carrot at a carrot seed competition. We grow those sorts of things.”
 
A walk through the greenhouse shows crops poised for harvest. Some of the carrots have a citrus flavour, which the couple attributes to the compost that fertilizes the bed they’re grown in.
 
The gardens were just pasture land a few months ago, but with a seed collection, compost that incorporates peat trucked from the valley and seaweed gathered in the winter, and “the Ferrari of tillers,” the land is proving very fertile.
 
“It’s how you make your living, the soil, so we have to really take care of it,” said Lamarque.
 
Though there have been some bulk vegetable orders from caterers, most of the vegetables and flowers will be sold one bunch at a time at the market.
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