The year 2020 has been one of growth and experimentation for siblings Karen Pattington-LeRoy and Keith Pattington, operators of Circle Path Farm in Fournier.
The brother-sister team, along with Keith’s partner Gaby Kassas, had to jump feet first into the family farm this past summer, when their father Bruce found himself stranded at his winter home in Vancouver due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But instead of just maintaining the property – which had not operated as a working farm in more than a decade – the newly-formed team chose to jump straight into reviving it.
“We have this propensity to be either fully on and engaged, or off,” laughs Karen, describing how quickly things snowballed once she, Keith and Gaby started working on the 130-acre property, which had been purchased by her parents in 1978.
Keith Pattington, who moved from his apartment in Montreal onto the property full-time with Gaby and her two children last spring, notes the siblings had been discussing taking over the farm with their father for several years. Although it happened quickly, assuming management of the property from the 78-year-old family patriarch did not come as a total surprise.
“COVID jump-started it because my dad was in BC and he couldn’t come back,” says Keith Pattington. “But he’d already been talking about switching the management over to us, so we had some idea of what we would like to do with the property when that happened.”
With Gaby and Keith now living on the property, the first order of the day was to empty out all the outbuildings, which over time had essentially become storage units. The couple – with Karen coming down from her home in Ottawa to assist on weekends – spent weeks just cleaning out the main barn, which had been filled with old furniture.
As spring was turning into summer, Karen – who along with her husband owns Alta Vista Flowers in Ottawa – was swamped with work. The business had been closed temporarily at the start of the pandemic, but once it re-opened the phone started ringing off the hook.
“It just went bonkers – people could not visit families so they started sending flowers and plants,” she recalls.
At the same time, shortages seen in grocery stores had a secondary effect. With 130 acres and numerous outbuildings on a non-operational farm, the trio began to discuss how they could use the land and the skills they had to help both themselves and others.
“We grew up with this. My mother had a very strong conviction to grow her own food, from animals to vegetables – she didn’t know how to do it but she figured it out,” says Karen, whose mother Louise was an active and avid volunteer in the community prior to her passing in 2011. “So when COVID hit we thought ‘we know how to do this – we grew up this way’.”
A new name was chosen – Circle Path Farm, to symbolize how the siblings had come full circle in returning home – and work on the property began in earnest. Beginning by planting a large organic garden and purchasing 50 chickens to raise as meat, the trio used online research and YouTube videos to learn how to farm sustainably.
“We had memories from when we were younger, but it’s not the same thing as actually doing it.” says Keith Pattington with a chuckle. “But it grew once we got the chickens – we learned about pasturing chickens with movable coops and we started thinking about the whole system.”
“We kept saying every day ‘we’re learning’,” adds Gaby. “It’s like puzzle pieces.”
With Keith designing a mobile chicken coop to allow the hens to be moved to different grazing locations each day, the group moved on to their next project. A neighbor advised them that the Canadian Organic Growers association was looking for local producers to be part of the Growing Eastern Ontario Organically program.
“We’re now part of this program that helps us with soil maintenance and business advice and marketing – which is amazing,” says Karen, who credits the COG with providing inspiration for future growth. “We have all these things that have allowed us to go forward and expand.”
With the 2020 growing season now over, the owners of Circle Path Farm are now looking towards further expansion in 2021. They recently purchased a nearby 50-acre property, complete with a large open-concept home, which they hope to use down the road as a base for agri-tourism visits. They also obtained two large greenhouses, which will allow a quicker start to the growing season next spring.
And the ideas just keep coming.
“The snowball effect has now happened – we can do chickens well, we can grow things well,” says Karen. “Then we started seeing this vision unfold – we can grow more food to sell or to feed people, we can grow flowers for the flower shop.”
“We can see distribution points in Ottawa and Montreal,” adds brother Keith, noting the farm’s central proximity to the two major markets.
A huge key to future success, both siblings believe is to maintain the organic nature of the property. After their father stopped actively operating the farm, the fields were rented out to Phil Arber, who practiced organic farming on the land. As such, the soil is rich from having been maintained naturally for more than two decades.
Circle Path Farm will become a full commercial organic operation in 2021 and will hire several employees. Karen, Keith and Gaby will also be offering some of their products at farmer’s markets throughout the region. They have been particularly inspired by other area producers who have gone organic and returned to old fashioned methods of farming.
“It’s a lifestyle that goes beyond just growing stuff. It’s growing your community, your spirituality – it’s growing your life,” Karen emphasizes. “That’s what we really want to be able to do – not just grow stuff to sell, but provide opportunities for ourselves and the community.”