Sharon’s parents met in England during the Second World War and her mum – like mine – immigrated to Canada as a war bride. They settled in northern Alberta, but returned to England for a two-year stint when she was six. Back in Canada, they had a mixed farm: cattle, pigs, chickens, grain, hay and a market garden; she and her mum raised meat birds. For awhile they ran a cattle ranch north of Edmonton, but by the time she was a teenager they had settled in Grande Prairie as city folks.
Sharon met David in their Junior High School’s Drama Club. They married when she was just out of high school and he was in college taking a degree in social work.
They’ve got two sons: Patrick, who has a Masters in Sustainable Development from Oxford University and Paul, who is a graphic designer and teaches art. When the boys were kids Sharon was a stay-at-home mum, involved in their child care centres. That got her interested in child development and was the spark that spurred her to go back to school to train in Early Childhood Education.
They pulled up stakes when David went back to school to attain his Masters degree in Family Therapy in Seattle. They put the compass point on the map and looked at all the potential places they could live for two years while he was going to school and settled on Bainbridge Island. It’s three times the size of our island, Gabriola, but with, six times the population. Sharon couldn’t work in the USA, but got involved in the community: animal sitting and volunteering at a local non-profit that ran the food bank. Living on a small island, like Bainbridge, agreed with them, so when they moved back to Canada and David got a job in Nanaimo, Gabriola was a the perfect fit.
When Jan and I first moved here in 2000, Sharon and David were our neighbours, having moved here shortly before us. I’d see them in our neighbourhood or commuting to town on the ferry. Back then, David supervised Child Protection and Mental Health Teams. Sharon worked for the Snuneymuxw First Nation in their Head Start and Pre-School programs. And back then, we both lived on ½ acre lots. We moved to an acreage at the far end of the island 14 years ago, while they’re still in the same house. The other difference is now we both have chickens. I got mine within a year of the move, she got her’s over four years ago.
The new neighbours behind them inherited a playhouse when they bought their house. It was 8’ x 6’ on stilts, with a rotting floor, so was deemed unsafe. The old building was destined for the burn pile when Sharon and David stepped in to reclaim it for a new lease on life. They managed to get the massive structure home without killing themselves and found a nice corner of their lot to park it. They replaced the floor and exterior cladding, and re-roofed it using leftovers from another job. The inside was a blank canvas and now has a bank of nest boxes, roost bars, opening windows and pop door opening into a fenced pen. The run is made from a re-purposed old gazebo frame which they have enclosed with wire netting.
Sharon got 14 day-old chicks from a local breeder knowing that half of them would likely be cockerels – and they were. She grew them out and butchered most of them and kept one, Romeo, an Easter Egger. The pullets were a mix of Marans, Welsummers and Easter Eggers. The first year she had them, I roped her into participating in the Tour D’Coop, a self-guided tour of chicken coops on the island open to the public.
She’s down to seven birds now: six from her original chicks and one hen, who is the daughter of Romeo and one her hens (unfortunately her two siblings were cockerels). Romeo was rehomed in consideration of the neighbours. It’s difficult having a crowing rooster when you’ve got houses nearby, but he’s lucky, in that, he now lives on a large acreage with 20 hens all to himself.
The girls are about 4 years old now and their egg production has slowed down. Her plan is to let them live out their days and allow one hen, who goes broody each year, to hatch some eggs for some new stock. They like having their eggs and aren’t concerned about selling eggs or making money.
David is like my partner Jan – they help out if required, but the chickens aren’t really their thing. Sharon confessed that if she lived on her own she’d have a few more chickens. She’s realistic though – on a ½ acre lot there is a limit as to how many you can manage without them causing damage to your garden.
She’s got the attached pen and another extended area where they are let out to free-range under supervision. They’ve been lucky not to have to contend with predators – just the occasional raven sitting atop the coop or the mink tracks in the snow, but so far, no attacks. They do however have a flock of feral turkeys and a feral peacock that have moved into the area, which is a concern for potential pathogens that can be spread by other poultry.
“David says that I retired from teaching to become a farmer, but I’ve always been a farmer.”
Now Sharon’s retired she can spend more time devoted to food production. They’ve got a kitchen garden at home for herbs, raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb, but can’t grow as much as they like due to the shade cast by their tall fir trees. They’re lucky, in that we have access to allotment gardens and they’ve got two. Each has its own microclimate: The Commons plot has a traditional growing season of May-September and the other, at Namaste Farm, is a heat sink with a Mediterranean climate and a longer season. Between the two they’re able to grow a variety of vegetables including eggplants, cantaloupe, basil and beans.
She’s also been a volunteer at The Commons, mostly as part of the Farm Management Team whose mandate is to protect their agricultural potential by:
- enhancing the land to produce food for generations to come;
- engaging in organic food production, modeling sustainable community agriculture;
- modeling sustainable supported agriculture, using renewable energy practices; and
- engaging in horticultural research specific to Gabriola.
They plant, weed, harvest, collect seeds and make food with what is grown there. There are work bees every Saturday and the food that is grown on site is used for the weekly volunteer lunch. Some of the produce is sold at the Wednesday Market and some gets diverted to the seed bank for future planting.
As part of the Kitchen Steward program, Sharon helps with the running of the commercial kitchen which is available for public rental. It has to meet local health authority regulations, which means all stewards have their Food Safe training and the kitchen is routinely monitored by the stewards, who also organize bookings and rent collection.
They’ve offered a variety of workshops that involve the produce that they grow: baking and making candy, apple pies and sauerkraut. It’s a way of getting the community involved in food production and making local, organic food accessible to many who might not be able to afford it. There are lots of ongoing projects and great opportunities for volunteers.
We’ve both lived here close to 20 years and as we sat having coffee we reminisced about our time on the island, talked about the influx of new people coming here and the changes we’ve seen. For her, and I concur, one of the most exciting shifts is the number of young farm families choosing to make Gabriola their home. It’s great to see more folks interested in growing their own food, buying local, and keeping small flock poultry. As a life-long farmer and gardener, Sharon is still involved in the full circle of growing and happy to pass the torch to the next generation.