Story by Meghan Sheffield
Photography by Jeannette Breward
Merridy Senior and Eben Hancock live on Puddleduck Farm with their young son, Sawyer. The farm is also home to chickens and beef cattle and a big white dog with muddy paws, a few cats, an exotic snake, a cockatiel, and of course, the ducks. A pair of Indian Runner Ducks, to be specific, one white, and one black, who are a little skittish, paddling their feet in perfectly cartoonish circles when a stranger approaches.
The chickens and ducks range free in the farmyard while a little further away from the house, ruddy brown cows blend with the landscape in the fog. Rain drips, the barn yard is awash with mud, but inside a wood stove keeps things warm, while the farmhouse kitchen fills with the smell of a sweet treat baking.
“Eben came from a farm and even though we lived in the village of Millbrook for a while he always wanted to get back out to the country. I grew up always wanting to live on a farm,” Merridy says.
The whole scene is about as dreamy as it sounds, even on a muddy day spring day.
It also hides the truth of the matter — the hard work all year round, the long days that lie ahead. On the day of our visit, after Eben feeds the cattle and Merridy checks in on the recently seeded kale, the temperature is expected to climb high enough above freezing for the sap in Puddleduck’s sugar bush to flow — meaning the day will stretch into a long night of sugaring.
Much like the farm, the wooden shack with the yellow door and the vintage Ontario Maple Syrup sign is classic in every way. The maple syrup operation is the perfect complement to the family farm: rounding out their offerings at the local farmer’s market and crowning their “deluxe” CSA option. The site has been a working sugarbush for 90 years, where the Kennedy family tapped and boiled sap for five generations.
The modern operation runs differently than it did 100 years ago — plastic pipes and hoses draw the sap to the shack, there a sensitive reverse osmosis machine condenses the sap, and that moment when sap becomes syrup is now marked by a computer, which automatically draws out the finished product at precisely the right temperature.
Still, there are some steps in the ancient process that require the human touch. A team of people trudging from tree to tree on snowshoe tapped two thousand maples by hand over a few days in mid-February. When the sap runs, pipes feed it from the trees into the sugar shack, where the wood fire used to heat it requires adding a mix of hard and soft woods to the firebox below the evaporator almost constantly.
Running a maple syrup operation means constantly watching the weather forecast, and keeping the calendar open. “We’re always happy to see the end of the season, because it’s an exhausting time of year,” says Merridy. “You know the season it’s finished when the trees bud.”
When those trees start to bud, it’ll be time to plant out many of the market garden veggies, and tending the sensitive seedlings kept indoors until warmer weather is a sure thing.
Still ahead, as days lengthen and the seasons change, are the long days spent seeding, watering, replanting, weeding, and along with it, promoting the fruits of their labour on social media and crafting e-mail newsletters to their CSA subscribers describing each weeks’ bounty. Sometimes it’s good, old-fashioned hard work, and sometimes it’s a more modern kind.
“Being a farmer today means that communication and education is a big part of what we do,” Merridy explains. “Sometimes it means that at the end of a long day in the field in the middle of the summer, I need to get online and send recipes to let our CSA customers know how to use the produce they’ll be receiving that week.”
Merridy and Eben aren’t descended from the family that worked this sugarbush for so long, and though Eben grew up nearby, neither of their parents were working farmers. Despite their more mainstream roots, they embrace their calling to this land with the apparent strength and determination of older souls than their relative youth belies. “It really is a lifestyle and I think we are suited for it, but it definitely isn’t for everyone,” is how Merridy put it.
They’ve both put in their years in other industries — property maintenance for him, veterinary tech and manufacturing for her — and despite the workload the farm represents, they have some feeling of having arrived.
“I would call it a humble lifestyle, but I wouldn’t change it,” Merridy says. “ I have worked in other jobs and was never as happy or settled as I am here.”
This farm, with all of the work it requires, the commitment to staying home and feeding the fire, the long days at the computer and in the market garden, is the home they dreamed of for all those years. For themselves, and all of those animals, and for their little boy, the only home he’s ever known. Eben and Merridy’s dreams have come true in the form of the little white farmhouse and the hundred acres it sits on, and every day, they do the hard work to keep the dream growing.
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