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Family has stake in fruit, vegetable business

August 19, 2010  By Fruit & Vegetable

August 18, 2010, Mount Stewart, P.E.I. – Row by row, the Cousins family is growing its family farm at a sure and steady pace.

August 18, 2010, Mount Stewart, PEI – Row by row, the Cousins family is growing its family farm at a sure and steady pace.

Stephen and Cindy Cousins and each of their five children have had a hand in the creation of their certified organic vegetable and fruit business, now known as Shepherds Farm Organics.

It’s a work in progress.

“My motto is ‘grow into it, don’t just go into it,’” says Stephen from their 44-hectare cleared and woodland spread that is also home to their naturally raised chickens, turkeys, sheep, cows and pigs.

“One of the things we promote it as is a family farm in the truest sense where the kids have ownership as well. … My children don’t just work here – they own a market, they own decisions, they own part of the business.”

The Cousins started out on the Mount Stewart property 18 years ago. Stephen, who is a minister, and Cindy, who is a nurse, operated His Mansion Maritimes, a Christian retreat program for troubled youth.

They officially purchased the farm three years ago and changed its name to Shepherds Farm.

“It’s still a training retreat centre with a licensed food grade kitchen and a dormitory, but the focus is no longer for troubled young people but rather for youth interested in farming who need to acquire the self-confidence to do so or others interested in (the farm get-away experience),” Stephen says.

The Cousins clan includes Katie, 21, Kara, 19, Naomi, 17, Hannah, 15, and 11-year-old Daniel.

Kara is in Ghana, Africa, for three months and before that spent two summers in Rwanda, following in the foot steps of her father who has been connected with Africa since 1999.

“I travel every year. My main focus is both Congos,” says Stephen, who most recently visited there with Katie to teach sustainable agriculture methods.

Stephen’s overall philosophy for Shepherds Farm is that farming is a way of life, but it must also be a model of sustainability.

“Our whole focus here is we don’t plant or raise something here and hope we can sell it. We go and find a market and we’re dealing directly with the customer. They are no middlemen because that’s what’s hurting a lot of the industry,” he says.

“(And) the kids have all met with their own customers. They’re not known as Stephen’s children. They have their own identity in it.”

Daniel has established his own identity in the Shepherds Farm Organics brand.

“It’s Daniel’s Chicken Sales. They’re my chickens,” says this enterprising 11-year-old who was just six when he ventured into poultry market.

His sisters were into raising laying hens at that time so he followed suit. A year later he switched to the meat side of chickens and now raises 200 birds a year from day-old to sale.

He is also in charge of his own acre of certified organic raspberries, which he is selling to the P.E.I. Preserve Company in New Glasgow.

He is so proactive that he and his sister, Hannah, have even bought their very own antique 1945 Farmall tractor, which brings back fond toddler memories.

“I just remember sitting on Dad’s knee and I’d steer when I was three or four,” Daniel says.

These farm-based memories are similar for his eldest sister, Katie McNally, who at the age of 21 and now married to her new husband, Matthew McNally, recently returned from Fredericton, N.B., after a year away from home.

Her childhood memories are of sheep and lots of them; not the counting-to-get-to-sleep kind but rather the real woolly deal.

“We had sheep all along and the lambing was always my favourite time of year, which usually is between March and April,” she says.

As her father’s right-hand farmhand, Katie does a bit of everything, from looking after the animals and the greenhouse to planting, harvesting and, of course, weeding, weeding and more weeding.

“We can’t just spray and take care of it like that, so if you let it get ahead of you too much then it becomes impossible.”

The out-of-the-way location of the secluded Shepherds Farm setting means a farm gate business doesn’t garner too much drive-by traffic.

But that didn’t deter 17-year-old Naomi in the slightest. She pushed out of her local element and in doing so became the youngest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) provider on the Island.

With CSA, customers pay a fee up front for a set amount of weekly deliveries of produce throughout the harvest season.

“I guess I just liked the idea of giving other people the opportunity to be involved in the idea of organics and local. Instead of going to the supermarket and doing their produce shopping, they can get the benefits of what we benefit from,” Naomi says.

“They also learn about the struggles (of farming) because (last year) people didn’t necessarily get cucumbers every week whereas if they went to the supermarket they could. But they learned to accept that as they went on. It was pretty good.”

Last year she had 22 CSA customers and hopes to have 40 this year. However, she is keeping her future career options open.

“Right now I don’t know if farming is something I want to do full time,” she says.

“But when I do move on I think having a garden at least for myself or maybe doing small CSAs wherever I am or something like that (would be an option) – just providing the community I live in with the opportunity to have food from a local grower.”

Hannah, 15, is also on the go, growing her own line of Shepherds Farm choices.

She started her own small-scale turkey business four years ago, raising them for the lucrative Thanksgiving and Christmas markets.

She now also has an acre of certified organic strawberries, which she grows for the P.E.I. Preserve Company.

“Dad gave us our own land for an opportunity to make money and show other kids that they can do this, too,” smiles Hannah, who like her brother and sisters also works on the farm itself, for which they are paid for their time.

Add this to school, soccer, basketball and social time, she’s one busy 15-year-old.

“It’s pretty balanced,” she says of her activities.

Hannah’s organization skills will come in handy when she embarks upon her career dream of becoming an officer with the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police.

“You get a lot more exercise when you’re outside doing this stuff,” she says.

Exercise is just one of the benefits of farm living that mom Cindy sees for her children.

“Ever since they were little they had very limited time on TV and back then we didn’t even have a computer. They were always outside in all seasons playing and I think it’s given them great imaginations and helped them in their schoolwork as well as physical activity and exercise,” she says.

“And then the whole thing that they have responsibility on the farm. They’ve got life skills that some adults will never have in their full lifetime.

“But there has to be a balance in there, too, of play and rest and time for schoolwork. They’re not overly busy, but they’re very involved in their school, in sports (and other things).”

Stephen says a big part of Shepherds Farm is education, too. In that regard, the Cousins are connecting with Island students through on-farm educational days.

They are also in partnership with an organic research project on black currants being conducted by the Nova Scotia Agricultural College and are on this year’s Flavour Trail, a provincial tourism initiative that provides a comprehensive culinary guide to P.E.I. flavours in all forms.

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