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Back from the Brink; Breathing New Life into a Farm in Decline

In 2006, Danielle French and her ex-husband bought the dream of country life complete with a crumbling barn, missing floorboards, and too many pigeons to count. The marriage didn’t survive, but along came a cowboy. Together they restored the farm and the dream.

It was 2006 when I moved with my four daughters from Toronto to a 60-acre farm in Pontypool, Ontario. I was searching for a different life for my girls and I, one that was more like my childhood in rural Vermont. And even though I hadn’t grown up on a farm, Brattleboro was – and still is – a small, rural town, and the house was on a piece of land just big enough for this little girl to get lost on.

Our family was driving home from somewhere in southern Ontario when we saw the For Sale sign. We weren’t really looking, but one thing led to another and in no time at all, the place was ours. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable property – traditional red brick Ontario farmhouse, driveway running straight up one side, barn and several outbuildings – all terribly neglected. But the land spoke to me. I could see the beauty of the hills, the way the land rolled down to a pond and then to the forest.

The decision to move was big. I would move with the girls to the farm, and my husband would stay in town while we fixed it up as a summer place. But, the best-laid plans and all – soon, the separation was permanent.

The girls agreed to give country life a two-year try. They were so young – 11, nine, seven, and five – I doubt they knew what was coming, and honestly, neither did I. I hadn’t anticipated being on my own in my 40s, and I certainly hadn’t anticipated taking on a farm as my living. I was rethinking my whole life. I decided to take a chance and dug a large market garden with the intention of turning its bounty into delicious foods I could sell. I called my fledgeling business Farm Flavours.

I didn’t yet have a vision for what would eventually become South Pond Farms; it started piece by piece, project by project, driven by my need to earn a living from the farm instead of driving away from it and my daughters each morning to a job in the city.

Then, enter The Cowboy.

Beautiful but broken down; one of the sheds before its make over

I met my current partner, Shawn – The Cowboy – when I called in professional help for my dilapidated barn. Boards were missing, large areas of the floor were gone, and a rowdy flock of pigeons had been roosting in there for who knows how long. The barn had not housed actual farm animals for many years, and while the fields were farmed by a neighbour, not enough care had been given to soil stewardship. It was a farm in decline.

Shawn arrived one Saturday morning wearing cowboy boots and hat – a novel sight for us urban gals – our first real cowboy! He spent a few weeks coming back at different times of the day – he wanted to see the barn in all aspects of light – the girls and I would often look out a window to see him driving around in the fields. Then, he reappeared one day announcing I needed to move the driveway. The driveway? That seemed completely illogical. I wanted to fix the barn, but Shawn was looking at the land. He felt the location of the driveway was pivotal to the look of the property. So we moved it. He was right.

Once a straight line, the driveway now hugs the land’s curves. (South Pond Farms)

Meeting Shawn was a turning point in my life and in the life of the farm. I loved the land but didn’t see it the same way he did. He saw neglect and potential, while I saw raw beauty. He saw ways to improve the land, while I simply saw lovely fields, a pond, and forest. We did, however, share a love for that land. Over the next several years, we worked tirelessly to bring the farm from forgotten to flourishing, with healthy, bountiful fields and beautiful gardens.

After doing the driveway, Shawn recommended building a second kitchen for my growing business. This was a big step and a large investment. The barn was in shambles, but the kitchen was my source of income and it had to take priority. In time, we gave my beloved barn and outbuildings the care they deserved and now they enjoy a renewed purpose in agricultural- and family-life. I too found a new purpose. My first love will always be mothering my girls, but I now enjoy a love of creating unique culinary experiences for others. This whole journey – from the crumbling to the rebuilding – has given me a new energy that keeps me excited about life.

The barn under construction; new floors and boards wrapped around the existing beams.