For a long time in Atlantic Canada, it was not uncommon to hear of families who had been farming for three or four generations. Today however, it’s much more common to hear of farmers who are either the last of their family to farm, or the first.
But in Falmouth, Nova Scotia, a village outside of the university town of Wolfville, one farm has been in the same family for eight generations.
At 40, Erin Bremner is the eldest of four Bremner girls. She, along with her sisters Robin, Alyson and Kathryn, as well as their parents, Jim and Frances, own and operate Castle Frederick Farms. The farm is named after Colonel Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres, who was granted the land by King George III in 1763, and lived at Castle Frederick from 1764-1774. DesBarres was a surveyor who worked in the service of the King, compiling charts and maps of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The farm has been in the family ever since.
With 1,500 acres of woodland, 200 acres of land for pasture, and another 200 for hay, one might presume it difficult to feel a strong sense of connection to something so vast. But Bremner has always felt anchored. “It’s not just land. It’s my family,” she says. “When people say that this is where my roots are, I feel like I grew from that earth. I am of this earth, and feel like I grew out of that property.”
A deep respect for the land as well as the people it has sustained over the centuries seems to be a common family trait. In the 1970s, Bremner’s father, Jim, welcomed archaeologists on to his property. When they discovered the remains of the Acadian homesteads, Jim and the archaeologists went on to invite some of the descendants of those families to visit the sites.
“Not everyone wants someone digging on their land,” says Sara Beanland of the Archealogical Land Trust of Nova Scotia. The Bremner family even went further to protect the land and the history found within it. “We approached Jim, and he agreed to sign a stewardship agreement,” says Beanland, “which means he will protect those sites as long as he owns them, which is really doing what he has always been doing.”
Despite the natural tendency of the Bremners toward stewardship, being part of the land and history isn’t enough to sustain it. There has to be a plan, too. “Ten years ago we did our succession planning, since it’s so important in family farming,” Erin Bremner says. “You have to know the direction you are going. People tend to think they don’t need to plan for that. But either you continue or you don’t. Our farm is different in that it is so old, there is a sense of responsibility to keep it going.”
That commitment is shared by every member of the family. Each pulls their weight, whether tending to crops and livestock, doing paperwork in the office, or helping organize events at the farm.
When it comes to business development, Bremner takes the lead. “My role on the farm is [as] the ideas person,” she says. “I dream up all these alternative businesses we can do.” Those alternative businesses include maintaining hiking and walking trails that are open to the public, wagon rides, and even rental cabins. All help sustain the farm, otherwise “the farm doesn’t support us like it used to,” she says. In fact, each of the Bremner girls have other jobs on top of working the farm – Bremner as an inspector with the department of the environment, and two of her sisters as teachers.
Bremner doesn’t see her and her siblings outside work as a hindrance to the farm, but rather as an opportunity to help bring it forward for future generations. “I am seeing farmers in my generation who have extensive educations and diverse backgrounds in business, agriculture and science. You have to change. You can’t always do it the old way. And, you have to constantly be coming up with ideas,” she says.
Bremner notes that when her parents ran the farm, the connection between consumers and farmers was tenuous at best. They would not have advertised their farm, and their products – whether beef or lamb – would go directly onto store shelves.
Today, the Bremner girls allow their customers to interact with the farm in a much more immediate way. “We have invited the public onto the farm,” she says, which is a way for them to understand why she loves Castle Frederick as much as she does. “They visit the trails, go hiking, and they see that farms can provide more than just what is on the shelves in their grocery.”
For Bremner and her siblings, their work, their business, and a sense of responsibility to their history are entrenched in the soil. “We are stewards of this land,” she says. “That’s why we all remain interested, since there is something that interests all of us.” She pauses and adds, “Why would I want to live anywhere else?”