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Lauren and Robert Miller, at the farm in Lombardy, Ontario. Photo by Lucy Martin
Lauren and Robert Miller, at the farm in Lombardy, Ontario. Photo by Lucy Martin

Work trumps water skiing at Miller's Bay Farm

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Lake country west of Perth, Ontario is dotted with a mix of woodland, rural homes and farms. Overlooking Rideau Lake you'll find Miller's Bay Farm Market Garden and Berry Patch.

Robert and Shannon Miller are raising their four children there, hoping to carry small-scale local agriculture into a 4th generation. The Millers farm about 350 acres - more or less, depending on what's in hay that year.

Lucy Martin tagged along on a group tour a couple of weekends ago.

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On an overcast Sunday in mid-September, Robert Miller is hosting some 60-odd visitors. They've come to see a farm with enough bio-diversity to support a bee yard and natural pollinators.

Between walking groups through the fields, Miller and his daughter Lauren talked about life on this family farm, near the shores of Rideau Lake. Robert and his wife Shannon Miller have three other children as well: Kendal, Tyler and Seth.

Fruits of the pumpkin patch at Miller's Bay Farm. Photo by Lucy Martin
Fruits of the pumpkin patch at Miller's Bay Farm. Photo by Lucy Martin
The business now centers around small vegetables and berries, with some hay and commodity cropping as well. Strawberries are the first crop each spring, followed by lots of sweet corn and summer vegetables. Pumpkins and squash finish the growing season come fall.

Robert Miller is the 3rd generation on this farm. “My parents farmed for 50 years, before we came into the picture. And before them, then, my grandparents. We are hoping to leave something viable for our kids to make a good, honest decision, whether they want to take over or not, come that time.”

Theirs is not an organic operation, but they are prudent about what chemicals get used and when. Miller knows people have strong feelings about that subject. Here's how he put it: “We feel that organic is – I gotta be careful how I say this! It's maybe over-rated. I think local – for people, our customers – to see where their food is being grown, is so much more important.”

We talked about farming as a spectrum of choices, and how each operation has to find a path that works. Miller said he thinks about it this way: “I guess I would rather die of something than starve to death. And I really feel that if we had to produce organically, we wouldn't produce the volume per acre that would be necessary to feed people.”

Pointing to the green beans all around us, ready to pick, he says he's quite careful. “We could spend countless amount of money on sprays, on chemicals. But because of the cost of chemicals we certainly try to use them wisely. You know, right where we're standing has been basically chemical-free, our staff has hoed and roto-tilled to create what you see.”

He didn't mind sharing his Sunday with so many visitors. “We are delighted to think that people would want to come and we think that educating the public in general is a very smart thing to do, whether we're milking cows or whether we're growing vegetables. To educate people bigger than what they are used to seeing in their own back-yard garden is very worthwhile.”

I couldn't help but ask if a childhood of constant weeding and no summers off didn't fuel an urge to ditch farming as soon as he could? With a a laugh he said, “There's been those times, definitely! Dad and I didn't see eye-to-eye for a period of time. And I dare say that happens, at 18, or 20, or 22. Whenever that does happen.”

Looking at the distant vistas, he continued, “But you know, right where we're standing here today, I'm facing Miller's Bay, the Rideau Lake, and it was very difficult. We weren't as big into the vegetables back then as we are now – but we would be haying on this land. And it was very difficult to be slugging bales of hay and watching my friends waterskiing – something that I have a passion for – down here on the lake.”

He shakes his head and smiles, remembering that form of mild torture. “I've made that comment often to others. It was difficult to hay that day on a Saturday afternoon. But, 25 years later, to be raising my own kids, we're going to make them hay – the same place, the same way – and watch their friends skiing while they're loading a load of hay.”

Striding through rows of green and yellow bush beans Miller quizzed his daughter about what Monday's top chore might be. “Picking beans!” she replied, with the cheer of a child who is content with life.

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