‘Farmerettes’ trade Yonge Street condo for Norfolk County micro-farming
The Fancy Farmerettes couldn’t be happier to have traded in the concrete confines of the GTA for Norfolk County micro-farming opportunity, transferred their caffeine fixes from the Second Cup to Simcoe’s Joy Bakery Cafe, and transitioned from streetlights and emergency vehicle sirens to starlight and birdsong.
“I don’t think we’ll ever go back,” smiled Irene Kicak. “It’s (Toronto) home, but this is where we want to be.”
The relocation for two born-and-raised Toronto women from a condo on Yonge Street to ‘farmerettes’ living in a farmhouse along Concession 2, Townsend did not happen overnight.
“I would have said you’re crazy,” laughed Veronica Tunzi, had the idea been floated twenty years ago. “We ask ourselves that same question - how did this happen?”
The name they chose for their microfarming business pays broad homage to females in agriculture, more specifically to programs which recruited young women during World Wars I and II to offset a serious labour shortage on Ontario farms. Women aged 16 and older lived in supervised camps during the summers, ably filling in for men serving in the army.
“Weeding, harvesting, some would drive a tractor,” said Kicak. “Various things to help the farmer.” A neighbour informed them of a WWII camp in Waterford staffed by University of Toronto students, providing a personal connection to their own experience.
“And so, Fancy Farmerettes started.”
Their door to rural living opened during enjoyable time spent at a family cottage in the Kawarthas. Considerations for a geographical shift were further encouraged by rampant real estate bidding wars for properties, pushing their dream of West End, Toronto home ownership beyond the scope of two teachers’ salaries. Extending their search outside city limits, they discovered a beautiful three-acre property along a creek in Norfolk, impulsively deciding to visit it on a beautiful November day.
“This is heaven,” Kicak recalls thinking of her first impressions of the county, ample amenities in Simcoe and a residence whose subsequent sale left them devastated.
“I felt it was supposed to be our home,” said Tunzi.
Further discussion and research revealed they would lose seniority but maintain position on the salary grid if they were able to find employment in the Grand Erie District School Board. Taking a massive leap of faith both resigned from full-time employment, renting what seemed to their Toronto-based sensibilities an eminently affordable apartment over a store on Peel Street, downtown Simcoe and headed to Norfolk. Tunzi was fortunate to be offered a French immersion position in Brantford on her final day of teaching in Toronto, Kicak using the interim between picking up employment with the Six Nations STEAM (Science, Technology,
Engineering, Arts and Math) Academy to research potential properties. “We had no concept of acreage,” Kicak admitted, recalling passing thoughts of a hundred acres, and then the compromise of 50, before ultimately settling on their current one-acre plot.
“And we’re barely keeping up with that,” she smiled.
The property they chose and moved to in July, 2019 had enough space to expand their 19th-floor balcony cherry tomato and nasturtium pots into a garden where they planned on growing some of their own food.
As teachers, they embraced self-education on sustainable practices following farm-to-table tenets, figuring it would result in an enjoyably-productive hobby. “But the hobby has kind of turned into a business,” said Tunzi.
The first of three Fancy Farmerettes endeavours evolved from a year-long beekeeper course Kicak received as a gift. “She signs up, she does it, she loves, it,” says Tunzi, resulting in the plan for a ‘couple of hives.’ “It turned into much, much more than that.”
Kicak entered the 2023 season with 14 hives, anticipating between 20-25 after splitting and adding new queens. Four are destined to Meuse Brewing this year to help create a honey beer, another four to Concession Road Garden. Each hive can produce up to 100 pounds of honey in a good year says Kicak, “And hopefully it’s a great season.”
Fancy Farmerettes honey, homemade beeswax candles and branded merchandise are available in four stores currently, as well as online or via porch pickup for local customers seeking to avoid shipping. “They’ll just come and get it.”
The company’s second offering came out of the desire to get a few chicks to produce their own eggs. The proposed number began at four, went to 16, ‘at least 12’ and has now settled on a flock of around 30, mostly heritage breeds with some rescue birds. They are housed inside a former rabbit hutch refurbished, insulated, rodent-proofed and expanded by Kicak.
Eggs are available either online or locally. “It will never be a big part of our business,” says Tunzi, who provides individualized care to each named bird. Nest boxes feature flax bedding and herbs, theoretically providing avian aromatherapy during laying. For the record, Tunzi and Kicak enjoy eating meat and will happily consume a chicken taken off a grocery store rotisserie. “But not our own,” clarifies Kicak.
The final pillar of their business, hemp bedding sales, is directly relatable to their initial poultry bedding choice of river sand, having tried and rejected straw and shavings. The process of scooping poop daily, ultimately removing the sand and rewashing it before reusing it may have worked better for their original number of four hens than the 12 tonnes their expanded flock required.
“That was the worst summer of my life, you can quote that and put it in capital letters,” Tunzi laughed.
Hemp bedding has provided a welcome alternative, sustainable, ‘super absorbent’, compostable and with reputed anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties.
“We’ll never go back,” says Tunzi.
Sourcing hemp provincially has proven difficult since renting a trailer to pick up 30 bales from a horse farm along Lake Huron. Questions regarding the carbon footprint required to ship it from the west are leading to considerations around a switch grass alternative.
There is no shortage of excitement for new opportunities or lack of enthusiasm for learning within the Fancy Farmerettes realm. The long-term plan is to create a sustainable model encompassing both hobby and business as they move forward into retirement. However, part of their farming education - along with desire to be part of the community and an ability to smile at some of their agricultural mis-steps - has been realizing their efforts should eventually ‘pencil out.’ They are fully aware their careers allow them to enjoy the animal companionship aspect of their poultry without strict adherence to profitability. But while they’re not looking to get rich and they accept a period to establish their company, any company has to make money at some point. “At first, we didn’t even have a concept of that,” Tunzi confessed. “But we are trying to get better.”
Meeting other Norfolk agri-entrepreneurs, collaborations like that with Meuse and exposure to Amelie Chanda’s Core Impact Coalition have both helped focus that intention and made them feel much more a part of Norfolk County.
“Our lives have changed.”
They do admittedly miss easy access to a wide variety of ethnic foods, not so much the serenade of sirens and honking horns along Yonge Street.
“You come here, the first month we just sat out on the front porch and listened to birds,” said Tunzi. “It was mind-boggling,” Kicak added of nighttime stars revealed by the lack of light pollution.
They don’t even have a TV at this point, exchanging streaming devices for spending more time in the outdoors than they ever have. Kicak points to the fresh air, sleeping and eating better, eating things they have grown themselves.
“This is why we do this,” Tunzi summed up. “The chickens are having fun, the bees are buzzing. “It sounds kind of corny, but you have these moments.”