Xiaobing Shen and Jonathan Davies took an unusual path to become ecological farmers north of Kingston.
Xiaobing spent his early years in a village in rural China. His mother was a peasant. His partner Jonathan grew up in southern Alberta. The two of them met in Calgary, where Xiaobing had gone to do his Master’s degree and together they spent time in Munich, Germany, before moving to Toronto.
But they weren’t happy with Toronto or the daily grind of city life; part of it was the food.
“Where I grew up, the pork was so delicious,” explains Xiaobing. He assumed that pig breeds in Canada were just different until he tried some organic pork and realized it had the same flavour as back home. “It’s how the pig was raised,” he realized.
In Toronto, they started gardening, and watched documentaries about the industrial food system. But their garden in Toronto was so far away they had to commute to it, which made moving to a farm seem appealing.
“Other young people were doing it, too,” says Jonathan. “And they seemed like sensible people, doing it for good reasons. It seemed like more people should be trying this.”
Both were attracted to the ideas of freedom, independence, and being your own boss, but Xiaobing wasn’t convinced immediately.
“I knew farming was hard,” he says.
When Xiaobing told his family in China that he was going to become a farmer, they thought he was joking.
“They never thought I wanted to go back to farming.”
Jonathan’s family pictured a sprawling Alberta-style crop farm with giant combines. Instead, the farm they purchased on Highway 38 just north of Kingston, is comparatively cozy, with a large garden, a greenhouse, and roaming poultry. They converted an existing swimming pool into a cistern, and use it to water their garden.
In their first spring on the farm they started going to a farmers’ market, but their garden wasn’t in full production yet. So Xiaobing decided to prepare some Chinese peasant food and bring that to the market. Their “farm sum” became quite popular.
Xiaobing makes four flavours of steamed bun, a dumpling stuffed with pork, vegetables, tofu, or a sweet bean filling.
“There’s something special about steamed buns,” says Xiaobing. I can attest to that: the steamed buns are delicious either freshly steamed or reheated. (I like to reheat them by gently frying them with a bit of butter.)
They also offer fermented vegetables and a chili sesame oil, as well as a delicious fermented tofu or “soy cheese.”
Their tofu is probably the best I’ve ever tasted, in part because it really does resemble cheese. The consistency is a bit like Brie, and the strongly fermented flavour reminds me of a blue cheese. It also has a spicy chili coating. I can’t think of anything similar in European traditions, and just describing it makes me want to go get more.
For a small operation, Long Road Eco Farm produces a remarkable diversity of products. They sell seasonal vegetables, including strawberries in early summer, and they have a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program.
Though they have settled in since moving to the area in 2013, farming in here is still very different from China.
“It’s much easier here,” explains Xiaobing. “You have a lot of land and a lot of resources.” But farming in Canada is also more expensive. “Back home in the village, you can’t make much income, but in the meantime there’s not much cost.”
“It’s still a really tough business,” says Jonathan. “Overall it’s been really positive. It’s a good way to live.”
You can find Xiaobing and Jonathan along with their farm sum every Sunday, year round, at the Memorial Centre Farmers Market. Look for more information at http://www.longroadecofarm.ca/ as well as on their Facebook page.
Aric McBay is a farmer and author.