on the Farm

A Farm-Fresh Perspective

By Sonia Mendes / Photography By Amy Zambonin | September 04, 2017
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Chatting in the shade of the century-old cattle barn, Sonia and Ian Mendes learn of the history of the farm from Brenda Dwyer.

It honestly felt like the animals knew we were coming — and took their places right on cue as we drove up the dirt laneway to Dwyers’ Farmhouse.

Like a glossy postcard from the country, a pair of farm cats lounged on the steps of the two-storey house while a handsome duo of white horses stood shoulder-to-shoulder behind a rustic wood fence next to a weathered barn. Before my husband Ian could even kill the engine, our girls bolted out of the car in excitement.

After an unseasonably cool, rain-soaked spring, this sunny Saturday in June — and the chance to experience a farm-stay vacation in the heart of the Ottawa Valley — was just what the doctor ordered. We lucked into a picture-perfect weekend, with nothing to do but relax and enjoy a little taste of life on the farm.

Photo 1: From the left, Lily and Sonia Mendes and Lydia Dwyer take a break from searching for barn kittens to pose in the loft of the barn at Dwyer's Farmhouse.
Photo 2: Sophie Dwyer introduces Lily to the horses.

Time to exhale

In the Village of Douglas in Renfrew County, locking your front door is optional — and probably overkill. The Dwyers had left the front door of their historic farmhouse open for us, so we brought in our bags and explored what would be our home for the next two nights.

We had the whole place to ourselves, since the Dwyer family lives on another parcel of land a few kilometres up the road. Built in 1910, the quaint, white farmhouse — with red-shuttered windows — is surrounded by 160 acres of rolling, green fields. The cozy interior features a small sitting room and a generous, recently updated kitchen on the main level, with three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs.

Despite our excitement to leave our suburban life behind, there was a short, slightly awkward settling in period. After a day of rushing around to pack up the car and squeeze in multiple kids’ activities before leaving the city, there was a brief feeling of “so… now what?” as Ian and I finally sat down on the couch after unpacking. He gently mocked the small, antiquated TV, joking that we’d found the perfect spot to watch the deciding game of the Stanley Cup finals.

In truth, our hectic schedule of juggling full-time work schedules and family commitments had us both feeling a bit tapped out, and the farm weekend was the perfect respite for switching gears. It felt great to let go of the everyday busyness that we all tend to wear as a badge of honour.

Nine-year-old Lily and 12-year-old Elissa adjusted to our technology-free getaway surprisingly well. Since they’re admittedly quite attached to their devices, we had already discussed the reality of (gasp!) living without Wi-Fi for a couple of days. As it turned out, the cats were a welcome distraction — and willing models for photo shoots that would undoubtedly appear on future Instagram posts.

That first evening, we discovered a basket of pencil crayons and a pile of colouring books. With a glass of wine in hand (Sandbanks — in salute to Ontario cottage country), I sat down with the girls at the long farmhouse kitchen table and tackled an intricate scene of birds and flowers. Ian delved into a massive book — a compilation of historic news articles from the Renfrew Mercury, dating back to the late 1800s. Between sips of rosé, he regaled us with news tidbits that coloured more than a century of farm life in the Ottawa Valley.

Before bed, we built a bonfire behind the house and roasted s’mores under a crystal-clear night sky — then tucked under our charming patchwork quilts to sleep.

Home on the range

It felt like I had hardly closed my eyes when Lily poked me awake just after 6 a.m. the next morning, fully dressed and ready to roll. “Can I go outside, mom?” She certainly wasn’t this keen to jump-start the day at home. Sunshine streamed through the lace curtains, and I slowly and reluctantly left my cosy bed.

As I brewed the coffee, Lily looked out the kitchen window and gasps, “One of the cats caught something!” Ian and I peered out. Sure enough, one of the cats was in the grass and was nosing and nipping at a small creature between its paws. “Wow, it must have killed a mouse,” Ian says. But it was an orange-y colour — and looked too big to be a mouse. Perplexed, we went outside and cautiously approached the cat. We were elated to discover her “prey” was actually a tiny kitten — fuzzy but definitely no more than about a week old. The mother was relaxed enough to allow us to stroke her baby — and Lily and Elissa were awestruck by the kitten’s high-pitched mews.

As we cuddled with the cats, we heard the distinctive sound of horses’ hooves. Looking up, we glimpsed a scene which must have been something like the old days we’d read about in the Renfrew Mercury: a caravan of horse-drawn buggies drove briskly past the farm — their drivers conservatively dressed in head-to-toe black garb. We joked that the Old Order Mennonites likely wanted to get as far away from us as possible — with our comparatively risqué shorts, tank tops and iPhones pointed right at them.

Around mid-morning, Brenda Dwyer drove over with the youngest two of her five children — nine-year-old Sophie and sevenyear- old Lydia. All four girls became fast friends and climbed up to the hayloft, where two more miniature kittens were nestled in the straw. Brenda opened up the door to the chicken coop, and half a dozen excited hens spilled out. Sophie and Lydia showed our kids the fresh, brown eggs that were waiting — and ran into the house to leave them in our kitchen for our omelettes the next morning.

This is the 11th year that the Dwyers have opened up their secondary property for guests to enjoy a farm-stay vacation. Brenda, who has a business and marketing diploma, saw the potential for city dwellers to get a glimpse of life in the great wide open.

“The vast majority of people are just so far removed from where their food comes from,” she says, recalling a teenaged guest who was stunned at her suggestion that he eat an egg fresh from the hen house. “He said to me, ‘But it just came out of that chicken’s butt,’” Brenda laughs. “When I told him that all eggs come from a chicken’s butt, he replied, ‘No, I get my eggs from a grocery store.’”

Over the years, the Dwyers have played host to many guests from Montreal and across Ontario — as well as travellers from overseas. Since the house is available year-round — for $135 per night, with a minimum two-night stay — the flavour of farm life is always different.

“Our guests always have a unique experience every time they stay; it just depends on the time of year,” Brenda says. “In another couple of weeks, the lambs will no longer be bottle fed, but our guests will be watching the hay being cut, raked and baled.

“Once the produce is ready in the garden, we dig potatoes with the guests and share our produce with them. I had one woman squeal with delight when she watched me dig up potatoes — she had no idea they came from the ground. Another family saw a calf being born. The guests last weekend saw the sheep being sheared.” The Dwyers invited us to drive over to their primary property, where the main business is a cow-calf operation; they currently have 110 cows. First up on the tour, we were introduced to their 25 ewes — and their 45 baby lambs, born back in March. The sheep are raised for meat, as are the cattle.

Last spring, three little lambs needed to be bottle-fed, including one that the Dwyer girls affectionately named Sugar.

“She was born during March break and we brought her into the house,” Brenda says, adding that typically she never allows animals indoors. “She looks like a great big stuffy; she’s white and she’s a total princess.”

The girls became quite attached to Sugar. “Lydia firmly told me, ‘Mom, we are not eating Sugar!’”

Elissa and Lily got the chance to climb in the pen to bottle-feed a set of twin lambs — which Brenda explained have just been weaned down to two feedings a day. A funny scene unfolded as the growing lambs, which were clearly hungry, came charging in and began sucking aggressively from their bottles — which look less like baby bottles and more like two-litre milk jugs. It was a challenge for the girls to keep hold of the bottles with both hands and not topple over, on account of the lambs’ enthusiastic sucking.

Brenda’s husband, Terry, explained that the first of the lambs will be harvested in the fall — by which time each one will weigh in at about 115 pounds. He added that there are a number of occasions to sell them throughout the year; there’s always a higher demand around Christmas and certain Muslim holidays.

Next, we met the Dwyers’ 53 baby chicks — which are already sprouting white feathers and getting gangly at just a week old.

“We raise those every summer, just for ourselves,” Brenda says. “They’re just seven to eight-pound roasting chickens; we do eat our own lamb, beef and chicken.”

Ruby, the friendly family dog, followed our entire tour around the farm. We end at the family garden, where the lettuce is already up and the tomato plants are neatly caged. Sophie, who clearly adores her mom, was keen to show off her own section of the garden. She told us about her involvement in 4-H, where she participated in a “farm-to-table” club and made her own tea biscuits and jam.

A-spelunking we will go

After touring the farm on a hot day, Brenda recommends the perfect spot for us to cool down — Tracey’s Ice Cream in Renfrew, just a 20-minute drive from the farm. A family-run company offers premium ice cream made with real cream — an old-fashioned, indulgent treat.

En route back, we decided to stop in at the Bonnechere Caves, a geological wonder alongside the Bonnechere River. The tour, which lasts about an hour, led us deep below the ground’s surface, where it was a blissful 10C — a reprieve from the stifling heat of the afternoon. Single file, we squeezed through narrow passageways and learned about the process of fossilization while admiring the stalactites.

Back at the farm, we went four separate ways to partake in some afternoon reading. For two of us — the older, wearier two — the reading naturally progressed into a delicious nap, as a warm breeze drifted through the open bedroom windows.

After dinner that night, we gathered around the kitchen table once again. This time, we played a rousing round of Uno, complete with trash talk. It’s a game our kids love and we’ve enjoyed in the past, but we realized we hadn’t played in ages.

When the kids were tucked into bed, Ian and I slipped out behind the house and settled next to a bonfire. Lounging in the Adirondack chairs, we shared a bottle of wine and admired the strangeness of the moon, orange and low on the horizon. We watched the fireflies in the tall grass, listening to the steady whir of June bugs all around us. And for a short while, it was just the two of us — side by side under the vast country sky, just a short drive from home — yet a million miles away.

Dwyer's Farmhouse
2822 Stone Rd., Douglas, Ont.
dwyersfarmhouse.com, 613.433.4522

Article from Edible Ottawa at http://edibleottawa.ediblecommunities.com/things-do/farm-fresh-perspective
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