By Jeff Tribe
Charlotte Campbell traded in her GTA (Greater Toronto Area) condo for a RR (Rural Route) Hen House and couldn’t be happier for it.
“I miss nothing about the city,” she said from her and husband Mike Rattan’s Norwich-area farm. “Nothing, nothing, nothing.”
The Pickering, Ontario native was on her first date with the former national-level equestrian (currently employed as a heavy equipment operator), when Mike announced he wanted to be a farmer some day.
“I was like, ‘OK, yup, red flag,’” she laughed.
Having been around horses, Mike knew enough to lead her incrementally toward his goal, letting her drink in the concept gradually. After moving to Woodstock in 2018 he built a rabbit hutch in their backyard, painting it red and white to look like a barn.
“It was really cute,” Campbell conceded. “Really cute.”
Responding to a ‘Facebook sad ad’, she found herself in possession of Oreo, a black and white goat, subsequently housed in a garden shed. Being a ‘city girl’, Charlotte didn’t realize goats were herd animals.
“She cried every night, so I had to get her a friend.”
Enter companion goat Oatmeal, along with the couple’s first daughter Nova. Despite forgiving neighbours, their growing brood relocated to a rural property west of Norwich, adding a pre-fabricated 12-by-24 barn and flock of chickens. Nova’s penchant for falling asleep best in a moving vehicle led to weekly crop tours, the first revealing a “For Sale” sign on a 14-acre property north of Norwich along Oxford Road 59.
“It was a disaster,” Campbell recalled.
In Mike’s view it was beautiful despite a ramshackle house, overgrown foliage and a barn in serious disrepair.
“I thought that was the stupidest idea he’d ever had,” she confessed after he declared his intention to purchase it.
They drove past every week for 11, during which the house was torn down and cleaned up, trees trimmed and bins full of garbage removed.
“My argument kept getting weaker and weaker.”
To finally put paid to her husband’s obsession Charlotte called the listed real estate agent for a price check. As expected, the land was expensive, however a builder owned the property and even her frugal Scottish background considered a package deal requiring construction of a custom-built home advantageous.
On the vintage CBS sitcom Green Acres, Eddie Albert punctuates the final two musical notes of the opening sequence with hay fork taps. Charlotte’s welcome to their green acreage featured four shared days inside the barn, tackling a two-and-a-half-foot deep pile of manure with tined implements.
“When we finally hit concrete, that was amazing,” she smiled. “That was a transition moment for sure.”
The barn was re-roofed by an Amish construction team, re-sided and repainted by Charlotte with a rented sprayer.
A braws Scots lassie both genetically and by nature (their second daughter is named Alba, Gaelic for Scotland), Campbell laid down a non-negotiable condition for farm life – acquisition of Scottish Highland Cattle. Mike conceded, countering they had to earn their keep.
“You can’t just have big, expensive pets.”
They discovered a fold (herd), “all named, friendly and adorable,” which Charlotte would not consider eating, proposing charging for photography and videography of them in conjunction with their scenic property. Despite Mike’s skepticism, the cattle have appeared in movies and numerous photo sessions including weddings, booked in 2022 from May 2-4 to Labour Day.
“The odd weekday, but mostly Saturdays,” explained Campbell, who as of January, 2023 already had double-digit bookings. One neutered calf, little Johnny, has also been purchased as a form of scenic lawn care.
The couple has a half-dozen purebred Rideau ewes for meat production and a game bird license to breed and release pheasants, including 30 chicks for a Friendsgiving event.
Their chicken flock grew to between 30 and 45 chicks annually, “full-circle” birds who after two years of laying transition to meat.
“We sell a lot of eggs, actually,” said Charlotte, who built their shelter out of material from recycled skids, christening it The Hen House. The moniker was repurposed for what has become an annual tradition of hosting vendors to a form of farm market in their driveway, beginning in 2021.
“It looked like a giant garage sale,” said Campbell, a post-COVID event attracting 25 vendors and 1,000 customers. In 2022 the number of vendors doubled and a food truck and caterer were added, with the 2023 edition tentatively scheduled for August 12th. A companion September, 2021 fall event was well attended despite cold, rainy weather, however illustrated the advantages of permanent space.
“That’s how The Hen House started,” Charlotte explained of a repurposed former Sears pickup depot north of the stoplight in Norwich. “It's a permanent storefront that was once a, go-to-the-farm-market gone to a permanent off-farm market.”
Roughly 25 vendors pay rent in basically a cost recovery business model covering facility rental and associated costs. “It covers its own expenses,” explained Campbell, whose modest financial incentive comes from the sale of her own items. “Keeps itself afloat.”
There is some small turnover, departures and new arrivals, which “keeps it fresh.”
Buoyed by positive response, Charlotte added a Hen’s Night Out at the Norwich Community Centre in December of last year. Seventy-five vendors were vetted for quality and hand-picked to present a balanced mosaic. Nervous about response, she was thrilled to see over 200 people lined up prior to opening for an event considered an unqualified success.
Each Hen House iteration remains true to what Campbell believes is a farming field-to-table equivalent, 95 per cent hand-made goods rather than a MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) approach with imported product.
“That’s not what The Hen House is all about,” she declared. “In MLM there’s some guy sitting on a beach chair in Hawaii getting the money, not the woman who made it.
“With this, I know where the money is going, it’s going right back into the community.”
There are few mom and pop stores in Pickering where Campbell came from.
“It’s just huge brand names and big box stores. You come here and there are so many stay-at-home mothers, women with side hustles. It blew me away how many high quality products can come from someone’s kitchen table.”
Charlotte pointed to Alba’s teething toy as an example.
“I know the girl who put these beads on a string,” she said. “Her name is Rose and I see her mom once a week walking around town. That just doesn’t happen in the city.”
Charlotte does miss urban-bound family members, but not the congested, grassless, treeless expanse of cold concrete she has come to view her former digs as, a place where odds of meeting someone she knows on the street are literally one in a million.
“In Norwich, I’m always going to see at least one person I know I can say ‘hi’ to.”
And painful as this may be, Campbell was even prepared to say her husband’s “crazy idea” wasn’t so bad after all, leading to a better life for both they and their children.
“Mike is right far more than I give him credit for,” she laughed. “He has vision and the courage to do a thing. And when he jumps in, he knows I have the drive and determination to make it what I need it to be to feel comfortable.”
Their farm does not fit into a standard view of agriculture. Charlotte has continued her job as a commercial insurance broker but is now equally comfortable in a boardroom or barnyard, and has happily made the metaphorical transition of trading her condo and Kia Rio for a Jeep Wrangler, tractor “and the 75 implements that go behind it.”
“You have to figure it out,” she concluded. “And if true farming is not the option you have, then you have to get creative, utilize the space you are given.”
“Redefine the definition of farming, put it that way,” she concludes. ◊