“I was a pub owner, now I’m a farmer”: When Covid killed her business, she reinvented her life

By Liz Guerrier| Photography by Daniel Ehrenworth
"I was a pub owner, now I'm a farmer": When Covid killed her business, she reinvented her life

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In 2010, after becoming disillusioned with my career in academia, I took over Dave’s on St. Clair, a mom-and-pop pizzeria, and turned the place into a pub. There was a learning curve, but I eventually transformed Dave’s into a bustling community hub. We had a ton of regular customers, and hosted open-mic nights, live music and trivia. Everything was going great until Covid. When we closed for the first lockdown, I considered doing takeout or a bottle shop, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to turn a profit. Also, I share a duplex with my mother, who’s 89; my partner, John, lives nearby. I didn’t want to put either of them at risk.

My pockets weren’t deep enough to sustain the pub while it was shut down, so in early May, I decided to close for good. It was an absolutely devastating decision. I’d been carrying some debt, and I was forced to file for bankruptcy in June. I had to start from scratch and figure out what to do for work. I applied for an assistant position with an MPP. I applied to drive a truck for an organic food delivery company. I applied to manage a marijuana dispensary. But I didn’t get a single interview.

John and I often went out to Erin, Ontario, in Wellington County, where his mother, Kathleen, has a beautiful 23-acre farm property. It had been fallow since 1989 at least, when Kathleen bought it. One day, my wheels started spinning. I’ve grown vegetables in the backyard for decades. It’s a soothing activity for me. Why not start a vegetable farm on Kathleen’s property? We decided I’d keep my place in Toronto as a home base and we’d split our time between Toronto and Erin, so John, who’s a landscaper, could keep a few of his clients and I could take care of my mom.

First we had to prepare the land to be farmed. In early September, we had a local farmer come in to plow about two acres of field. We planted some garlic and ryegrass as a cover crop, to prevent erosion and hold moisture over the winter. We’re also preparing an area as a glamping site, which we’ll rent out on Airbnb when things go back to normal. We’ll have two large tents with real beds, sitting areas, fancy outhouses, an outdoor shower. I’m hoping to tap my community in Toronto to build a customer base. I’ll try to get into farmers’ markets downtown too.

Our living space is a five-bedroom house on the property, which has enough room for my mom, my 24-year-old son and John’s kids to visit when the pandemic is under control.

We’ve still got some work to do on the farm. We’re renovating an old storage shed, and in the spring, we’ll build a high-tunnel, which is like a greenhouse covering that helps us extend the growing season. There we’ll grow things that like heat: tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. We’ll be doing a lot of the standard vegetables like chard, kale, lots of greens, lettuces and herbs. We’ll grow strawberries and cut flowers. I’m researching opportunities for financing, but we’ll be running things pretty lean to start. Luckily we’ll have some of John’s landscaping contracts to count on while the farm gets going.

If it weren’t for Covid, I’d probably still be running the bar. My life would be the same as it always was. I liked that life, but I was always under a huge amount of stress because the margins were so thin. I had nightmares about the business failing. There were a lot of times when I wasn’t around for my family. But now that we’re starting up the farm, I’m looking forward to a more balanced lifestyle.

We’ve been having a great time at the farm so far. The sunsets are gorgeous, and there’s a fire pit right outside the house. We sit out there and listen to the coyotes singing through the night. That’s what inspired the name of our new business: Coyote Song Farm and Forest. The allure of a simpler life is very appealing, but I know how much work we’re setting ourselves up for.

This story is part of a package that appears in the February 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.


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