By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
I get out of the van to be greeted by three large Maremma dogs and one host, talking animatedly on her cell phone. I wander around as I wait and Lindsay Higgins mouths an apology while continuing the conversation.
When the phone call is over she is glowing because it was Adrienne Clarkson on the phone, Canada’s former Governor General, booking her family for one of Lynn River farm dinners under the stars at the Stratford farm.
It’s a bit of good news for Lindsay and Mike Higgins who are closing their farm store due to zoning issues with the municipality, yet have thousands of chickens and a huge vegetable garden filled with produce that needs to be eaten and sold. It’s also a bit of a win for Lindsay whose goal has always been to turn farm produce into a “meals on the farm” scenario since she became captivated with the farm when she was 27.
Until then, Lindsay had good childhood memories visiting her grandparents on the farm but it had been many years since she’d been there. Her grandparents had rented out the house and fields became quarries as gravel was extracted from under the ground. Then her grandparents decided to sell and she returned with her father to check the place out.
“I was in the truck with my dad and as we were driving down the laneway and I asked him if Grandpa would sell the place to me,” remembers Lindsay, a former case manager at Stratford Perth Shelterlink for homeless youth. “He laughed and said no and I left it. But a few days later, feeling nervous, I called my Grandpa and asked. His reply? ‘How soon can you sell your house?”
She and Mike moved to the farm in 2009 and worked on a few projects as they got their feet wet in the farming life. Lindsay’s parents are chicken farmers but that’s not the way she wanted to go. Her intent was to grow food, make food and serve food.
The first project was establishing a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) garden for 20 friends on the deep, black soil in the valley alongside the laneway. Then she took part in a farm mentorship program in British Columbia where she first learned about farm dinners and KNEW that would come on her own farm. Next came chickens in moving chicken tractors via Chicken Farmers of Ontario Artisanal Chicken program, with permission to raise 2,000 birds. A farm store was built in 2015 with large fridges to store the chickens and vegetables from the CSA. To make use of the chickens, the farm began making and selling pot pies because the CSA customers were keen for premade meals. These were so successful, there wasn’t enough time for the CSA so that ended in 2017.
As the years went by, the goal to offer farm dinners started taking shape and in 2021, with an outdoor tent, a custom-made grill and their own home-grown chicken and vegetables from the garden, the first dinner was served in September.
“To me, that is what farming is all about – food,” says Lindsay. “It’s about food, connection and eating dinner together.”
The first dinner offered five courses including roasted brown butter pumpkin soup; beef/pork ravioli with organic tomato sauce, fresh basil and homemade pasta; salad with organic greens from the garden topped with roasted beets; barbeque chicken with homemade barbecue sauce then a dessert of homemade custard with elderberry sauce and a shortbread biscuit.
It was cooked and eaten under the tent, with guests free to wander the grounds between courses and relax by the firepit as they wished. The tent overlooks the large pond from the quarry. The dinner costs $115 per person and guests could bring their own booze with the evening taking between three and four hours.
With 50 dinners under their belt, the couple have now hired a chef (Mike used to do the cooking) and while not all the dinners were sold out, enough were that Lindsay knew they were onto a good thing.
“It’s just so peaceful. That’s what I want to offer the guests – a break from the everyday to sit with family and friends and eat good food,” says Lindsay. “It’s a window of time to be still.”
As a business model, the dinner allows her and Mike to stay on the farm full-time. It is a labour intensive process but because she loves the work, Lindsay feels just doing the dinners (versus running the store and CSA) is like a vacation.
On a deeper level, Lindsay feels called to do this work and without wanting to sound “out there” she says like many people, she has a spiritual yearning to be connected to the land, in the same way her grandparents did. “Many people are losing touch with the deepest parts of what it means to farm, in the way that our grandparents had it … this feels authentic.”
As I leave Lindsay to look at the chickens, I meet Eden Kontrimas who is the gardener on the farm. This is Eden’s fourth season managing the gardens and given the size of the vegetable garden (a full acre) she has her work cut out for her. However, Eden was smiling and listening to music and looked quite content hoeing in the warm sun
Up the hill are the chickens in several chicken tractors, which are moved regularly to provide the chickens with fresh pasture. Here, Mike admits getting to this point in the farm’s trajectory has been a lot of work and a huge learning curve for him. He grew up in the city and worked as a financial planner and in construction, skills he carries with him, but still …farming is its own lesson on lean times, long hours and a constant shift to what the consumer demands. ◊