“We’ll live off the land.”
That’s what my wife says when we get too stressed about money, our jobs, the cost of living in an overpriced city, or just our lives in general. When we’re driving through southern Ontario, gazing at the farmhouses that dot hilltops and fields and fantasizing about a rural life, the grass can literally look greener.
Neither of us has any agricultural experience. I once milked a goat — but I don’t think that counts. The phrase “living off the land,” then, is more stress reliever than back-up plan. It’s something to say to avoid feeling trapped.
But people do leave the city to live off the land.
Michaela Cruz did. Here is how the line cook and bike courier became a farmer.
Born in the Philippines, Cruz moved to Toronto when she was nine. Her high school had a greenhouse: she’d spend recess there, drawing plants and learning about urban agriculture. Her grandparents had raised pigs and grown rice. Although in Canada, her mother worked in an office, back in the Philippines, she’d owned a landscaping business. Cruz was mostly interested in art, but she couldn’t shake a desire to reconnect with her family’s farming past.
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“This process is like a re-knowing of agricultural roots, which I think a lot of people have in my generation,” says Cruz. “But it seems to have skipped our parents.”
At the University of Guelph, Cruz studied plant science and earned a degree in biology. At the time, she was planning to get into ethnobotany, possibly as a field researcher. She moved back and forth between Guelph and Toronto, where she got job as a courier and a dishwasher, eventually graduating to cooking at such restaurants as Lasa, Rickshaw, and BB’s Diner.
“I was working as a courier and also still working in restaurants, and I had kind of a crisis of what my purpose was,” recalls Cruz. “I have a weird love/hate relationship with the food industry. It feels like an exploitation of labour. And just the dominant maleness of it, even if you work with women chefs. I never felt like myself. I loved the process, learning about different techniques, prepping for service. But I never felt totally fulfilled doing that work.”
Soon she landed a job at Grow to Learn Garden, an urban farm at John Polanyi Collegiate Institute. Her experience there reaffirmed her sense that she wanted to be outside, growing food.
In the summer of 2017, Cruz and her partner, Dan Fuller, rented some land on a 10-acre property outside of Guelph and began farming. The couple spent the winter in a garage with no running water. This year, they moved to a more permanent space, a 70-acre farm near Fergus. She regrets not taking the intro-to-agriculture elective at Guelph: its unit on tractors, she says, would be helpful to her now. But their new landlord is a retired farmer. And, though he raised cows and chickens, he’s been able to share some farming knowledge. They live in the house with him and other roommates. So it’s not exactly the serene spot in the country so often fantasized about by frantic urbanites.
“But, compared to the garage,” Cruz says, “we have running water and a toilet.”
Planting a main crop of Asian greens— bok choy, mizuna, yu choy, tatsoi — Cruz and Fuller have created a small niche for themselves with a Toronto clientele. Once a week, they operate a stall at the Evergreen Brick Works farmers’ market under the banner of Healing Hands Farm. Customers can also pick up subscription boxes from a depot in the city. They tried delivery but found that driving around Toronto making individual shipments of potatoes, long beans, carrots, lettuce, and eggplant wasn’t a good use of time. And Cruz would rather be weeding.
This summer, Cruz and Fuller were able to pay the bills by farming. “Sometimes I’m like, what the heck?” she says. “We make a living selling bok choy?”
Their decision to move and pursue farming was based less on career planning and more on values and lifestyle. Growing food and selling it directly to people gives Cruz a sense of fulfilment she didn’t find in cooking. But now that they’re out in the country, they’re going to have to make farming financially viable year-round. In the cold months, Cruz makes soap. But that doesn’t provide a full-time income. Last winter, the two returned to the city to courier and cook — that’s probably how they’ll get through this winter, too. They haven’t figured it out yet.
“We didn’t raise any capital,” says Cruz. “We just kind of dove in, living paycheque to paycheque. Trying to spread out investments.”
Growing their operation (and revenue) will mean acquiring more infrastructure. For the moment, they have no storage for harvesting; they’re getting by with just a fridge and improvising as they go. But Cruz believes that farming was the right choice and that they wouldn’t have been better served if they’d planned things down to the last detail.
“I think the approach to diving in and immersing yourself in the growing and selling of vegetables helped us,” she says. “I think if we were hesitant, it wouldn’t have been as good as it is right now. People can tell at the market that we’re really doing it.”
She’s right about that. A retailer can slap a claim, branding, or illustration on packaging meant to convey values. But you can’t buy sincerity.
However, while I’m inspired by Cruz and Fuller’s leap of faith, I’m not sure I could make a similar one. I don’t have a background in agricultural science. I studied cooking at George Brown but never finished my diploma. My wife has a master’s in journalism. So we definitely don’t have the science foundation for growing food. And the willingness to sleep in a garage without running water? Again, that’s gonna be a no.
And I know other people who have left the city to run or start businesses in rural Ontario. The common experience involves near-constant work and side hustles upon side hustles. As one friend who moved to Prince Edward County says, "The argument I hear for many people escaping the city is that they are overworked and they’re looking forward to a quieter slower way of life. My life is definitely quieter some days, but I’ve never been busier or worked harder … I think when country life gets crazy is if you’re an entrepreneur and trying to make it work launching a business in the country. Ten times busier than I ever was in Toronto!"
Making this kind of life change takes hard work, sacrifice, and no shortage of skills. But it’s possible if you want it enough. And that’s something we all need to remember when we feel trapped by our city lives.