Story by Meghan Sheffield
Photography by Jeannette Breward
The challenges of finding good childcare in Ontario have been well-documented. Most of those stories have focused on families living in urban environments, but farm families face some of the same issues of access and affordability. At Circle Organic Community Farm, perched atop one of the many rolling hills between Port Hope and Peterborough, Julie Fleming and Andrew Flaman have come up with a unique solution to their challenges: a farm-based daycare.
When their first son, Jonah, was born, the couple continued to work without a formal childcare plan in place, bringing him into the fields and greenhouses, and raising a kid with a real love of dirt! For Julie it meant long nights working on the books after Jonah was in bed, but trade-offs seemed manageable for the experience of their son growing up on the land they farmed. Once the next two boys were born within 15 months of each other, though, doing her own childcare and her own farming was no longer an option for Julie. The family experimented with hiring a nanny while Julie worked the office from home, but that set-up wasn’t ideal. With a growing market and CSA farm business, they needed a better solution.
Two years ago, while on the hunt for a new nanny, Julie received an email from a woman named Kathleen whose credentials surpassed that of a nanny, with a Master’s degree in education and years of childcare experience. Julie couldn’t afford her, but Kathleen had a suggestion: “Have you thought about taking in other children?”
The daycare launched in early 2016, and provides daytime care to Julie’s two preschool age children, as well as up to three more on any given day. The indoor space is in the basement of Julie and Andrew’s home, just down the stairs from Julie’s home office. There’s a kitchenette, a play room, and a quiet room. There’s a simple rhythm to the day, crafts, quiet time, preparing meals and tidying up together, but the schedule is centred around long periods of outdoors time in all seasons.
“Kathleen is an outdoorsy person, and she could just be out there all day,” Julie says.
The children’s main outdoor play area is an open space in the forest, anchored with large trees, that has been arranged to their ever-changing purposes. Straw and branches form shelters — here’s a grocery store, there’s a coat rack. Behind one tree is a spade, for when “nature calls.”
“The forest is a really magical space. Over time they’ve carved out this sanctuary for themselves. It started with a couple of forts and now it’s like a village,” Julie says.
To get to the woods is an adventure in itself, the long path leading around a field and alongside the raspberry bushes. On the way, the children often meet the friends who make up the “community” of this community-based farm: locally-based farm managers, the migrant workers who return from Mexico each spring, and an Australian musician and an artist who live in a trailer on a neighbouring field through the Canadian summer.
“Our farm has sort of evolved into an unintentional community, which is a very special part of it. The kids are very connected to everyone when they go for walks, and the guys from Mexico, especially, are away from their families, and so they’re pretty keen to see the little ones,” says Julie.
The children’s garden, planted this year with the tomatoes and watermelon seeds the kids chose and started, connects the indoor life of the daycare with the outdoors.
“They cook with their food, they’re involved with the whole day, preparing the food and making bread and washing up throughout the whole day,” Julie says. “They all eat amazingly and they’re all big vegetable lovers when they’ve helped to prepare it.”
While it may not be a huge profit earner, for Julie, the daycare has met some of her basic childcare needs, and some of her wildest hopes and dreams, too. There’s no long commute to find childcare and no big bills to pay, but there are also some more intangible benefits.
“I always had this dream of my children growing up knowing their own land, and that is happening. I get to overhear them while I’m working,” she says.” They’re a really sweet, happy little scene down there.”
For the children, too, who introduced us to their stuffies and toured us around their space, the daycare offers something truly unique in this era: the opportunity to spend their earliest and most formative days connected to a particular piece of land and the community it supports.