Growing hope in the middle of Preston

Growing hope in the middle of Preston

girl feeding goatsJeff Hicks, Waterloo Region Record (Photo: Mathew McCarthy)

CAMBRIDGE — Beneath a transformed trampoline, three dozen chickens pecked and pranced on a drizzly afternoon in Preston.

Sarah Martin-Mills pulled back the chicken-wire layers on the front gate of this ingenious fowl asylum, to give her happy hens a light lunch in the soggy centre of town.

These urban egg-layers are precious to her, like clucking gold bullion to her not-for-profit operation, which helps the Mennonite Central Committee teach people overseas to farm.

The chickens need protection from an array of merciless predators lurking beyond the Bob McMullen Trail on the bent inside elbow of the Speed River.

So, she spent $50 to buy a previously-owned trampoline on Kijiji and went to work creating this high-security bouncy castle for her 30-eggs-a-day production line, behind a little family home on the grassy, five-acre end of Sherring Street.

"This is my Fort Knox," said Martin-Mills, a 32-year-old mother of three young boys and the founder, coop constructor and budget-conscious cultivator of Growing Hope Farm.

Martin-Mills, who got another trampoline from a neighbour to create a secure pen for her 18 turkeys, had to rebuild her chicken fortress after a tragedy last summer.

A weasel or muskrat, she believes, dug under the fence and had a 30-chicken feast. She told her boys — five-year-old Nolan, three-year-old Quinn and two-year-old Thatcher — not to come outside until she could clean up the carnage.

After she did, Martin-Mills dug deeper and weasel-proofed her chicken compound.

This is her life now. This is the wonderfully wild and unpredictable existence she sought for so long, trawling the Internet looking for properties she could build such a farm on.

She remembers the horse she kept on her father's 30 acres, which had massive vegetable gardens in Orangeville. Phoebe, a thoroughbred-Appaloosa mix, was her confidant as the two galloped through the their teenage years together.

"She kept me out of a lot of trouble."

Often, the two would sit in the stall together and read. Martin-Mills took a job at Arby's to pay for Phoebe. She sold the horse to pay for her university.

Martin-Mills will have horses again, she pledges. They are great therapy. But not yet. That is to come at Growing Hope Farms.

For now, she has chickens and 18 friendly male goats wagging their tails when she approaches them in their raspberry-bush playground at the wooded end of the farm.

"It's like a goat paradise," she said. "It's like a wonderland. They're happy little individuals back here."

They'll be someone's dinner one day, too. That's the way this circle of farm life works. A fancy hotel further along the river has inquired about possibly serving her goat meat one day. That would make her happy. Already, her lovely rhubarb, which she delivered on her bicycle, has arrived at a Sportsworld Drive-area restaurant.

She pedalled with her rhubarb sitting in a kids-seat wagon hitched to her 10-speed.

But Growing Hope Farm is about more than rhubarb and garlic and egg plant and apricot trees and grape vines and empty bee boxes seeking honey-making residents.

It's not just about the eggs she will sell at Preston market on Thursdays come June. Or clingy young goats she feeds milk to at dawn, before dropping her kids off at school or day care. Or the meat chickens she will raise — 40 will arrive on Tuesday — and take to Elmira to be slaughtered, plucked and prepared for sale.

It's about variety. And fresh challenges. Like watching countless hours of online videos to figure out how to build an electric fence to keep in your goats.

"I hate doing the same thing every day," Martin-Mills said. "This is perfect for me."

Every day is unique and confounding at Growing Hope Farm. That's the whole idea.

She and the boys and hubby Phil, the executive director of the Independent Living Centre of Waterloo Region, used to live in a typical home, located about two kilometres away, on the other side of King Street in Preston.

A year-and-a-half ago, they found this five-acre gem. It once supplied zesty hops to the storied elixirs of the long-gone Preston Springs spa for the rich and famous.

It had been on the sales block for a relative eternity in this frenzied market. The property practically abandoned, waiting for the young family to plunk down their $470,000 to create the farm Martin-Mills always wanted.

And it was right up the street, in the old-town, middle of a Cambridge yearning for, and tussling with, the realities of modernization.

Growing Hope Farm is bylaw abiding, Martin-Mills says. She checked before she bought the place. She can have 300 chickens if she wanted. She's been inspected by various authorities, she assures.

Yet her city farm vision is beautifully twisted and perfectly out of place.

She knows that. She embraces every ridiculous problem she faces. Her history degree from the University of Waterloo doesn't help. She got her master's degree in theology from McMaster. She's a former Ray of Hope chaplain, who works part-time as a personal support worker for Christian Horizons.

But the Growing Hope Farm is her evolving jigsaw puzzle to figure out on her own.

"This is your gig, Sarah," Phil always tells her.

So she improvises her way along. She lugs a chainsaw into her fruit trees to trim branches. She put up two acres of wire fencing herself. And the voltage, on the electric fence to contain the goats, was right on target.

"I was like, 'Suck it! I did it,'" she said. "I was like, 'Ha! Boys, we have to do a fence dance. We're doing a fence celebration dance.' And they're like, 'OK, mom.'"

Once, she had 110 chickens inside her little Toyota Matrix. Sure, most of them were baby chicks. But that's still a pretty impressive beak count for one car. She borrowed cat cages from a friend to contain the bigger birds. Once, to haul chickens to the butcher, she covered an open trailer with a tarp, using plywood to pull the cover tight.

People have come to her front door, clutching an escaped hen, asking if it was one of hers. Of course, it was. She thanked them for bringing the bird home. What else is there to say? Just this week, a dog being walked along the back trail plunged through her electric fence to tangle with one of the goats.

She had to break up the tussle and settle down the dog owner.

It seems like there's always another fence to mend.

This is the Growing Hope Farm. You can toss a rock and hit the bus stop sign across the street, Martin-Mills says. Bring on the future light rail transit line too, she says.

It's a hub of human and humane interaction, this little neighbourhood nook of nature and nurture. This is where little Nolan gets a shiny quarter each week to collect the eggs. It's also where shop students from the Catholic high schools are building a new produce sales booth at the front gate, out of old skids Martin-Mills collected. The young carpenters are also building a new chicken coop and shed out back.

Troubled teens in programs offered by Ray of Hope and Choices for Youth come here, too. Maybe they've got addiction problems. Maybe they've been kicked out of a mainstream high school. They work. They sweat. At-risk youth tend the gardens and muck out the goat stalls.

Sometimes, they feel like they are being taken advantage of.

"Oh, I'm just here to fill your pocket," the wary volunteers sometimes say.

She replies that she's also a volunteer.

"I'm not getting paid a dime," Martin-Mills says. "We are actually losing money on it."

But she did get an Epp Peace Incubator grant for $2,600. That bought some fencing. Maybe more grants will follow. She has applied for one through the Cambridge and North Dumfries Community Foundation.

Maybe one day she'll be able to pay people a few bucks. This could be a first job for those just getting out of the women's prison in Kitchener.

This is just the start of something bigger, Martin-Mills believes. This could help so many.

"We're Christian, so we're trying to be radically generous," she said.

And Growing Hope Farm, with its trampoline coops and tail-wagging goats, is just getting started with its therapeutic produce. Goat yoga classes — adult yoga sessions held among the farm's back-acre kids — begin this summer.

"This is just the baby, baby, baby stages," she said.