Ruth Mathewson was told in no uncertain terms: farming is a rough life. But she also knew someone had to do it.
Now 50, Mathewson spent more than a decade studying and working in Toronto and Halifax before finding herself back on the family farm in Central North River, Nova Scotia, in charge of more than 250 acres, a flock of North Country Cheviot sheep, some cattle, a few goats and an array of other barnyard animals.
“I seemed to always go away and come back to the farm,” she says. “This time I just stayed.”
After studying fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, Mathewson worked at Nike, developing window campaigns for their retail stores. She headed home to Nova Scotia eight years ago, but spent two years living and working in Halifax before taking over the helm of the farm.
She originally planned to be mentored – gradually – by her father, Bill, who grew up on a sheep farm in Scotland and taught at Truro’s agricultural college for decades. When he died suddenly in 2008, Mathewson moved her plans up and headed straight home to help her mother, Greta, run the farm.
Although his career had been dedicated to training new generations of farmers, Mathewson’s father had other ideas for what his own sons and daughters might end up doing.
“I had to pretty much argue with him,” she remembers, “he told me that farming was a rough life and he didn’t want me to do it. Both of my parents had been in farming their entire lives but had seen lots of changes.”
Mathewson’s mother Greta, now 84, grew up on a farm in Alberta. She met Mathewson’s father while working as a missionary nurse in Tanzania. He was stationed there working in agriculture with the British government.
When they moved to Nova Scotia and bought their first farm in 1968, both had to find work off the farm. Bill taught at the agricultural college, while Greta looked after their four children and continued to work as a nurse. “I applied for work on the night shift at the hospital in Truro. That way we had one car that he could use during the day and I could use at night,” Greta says.
It was hard work, she admits, and having another vocation and the ability to work off the farm was critical to their success. “You really have to have further training somewhere else that you can fall back on,” she says.
Both mother and daughter recognize the need to constantly update skills and diversify their business to ensure survival.
In addition to selling the meat from their sheep and cows, Greta makes and sells a line of over 20 jams and jellies, mostly crafted from berries they grow themselves. They also sell cheese, sausages and other products, but among their most popular sellers are their wool comforters, pillows, mittens and slippers.
Mathewson processes the wool in a mill set up in an outbuilding beyond the barn, while her mother crafts wool creations by hand, as she has done nearly all her life. It’s a skill she learned from her childhood in Alberta.
“When I was growing up my Mum would go to the next door neighbour who had a few sheep. She’d pick off the wool that was caught on the fence and that was brought home to make blankets so we’d have something to keep warm with,” recounts Greta.
The desire to carry on that tradition today has less to do with nostalgia than it has to do with sustainability and good business sense. Wool is a byproduct of lamb production and due to high processing costs, most excess wool is sent to the landfill. By processing the wool themselves, the Mathewsons turn waste into a value added product, benefit the environment, and create a new source of income.
“They are very unique in what they are doing,” says Jamie Alcorn, who manages the Truro Farmers’ Market. The Mathewsons have been regular vendors there for over 20 years and often participate in skills training programs targeted at vendors.
“Customers know that if they want a particular product they can come here on a Saturday morning and get it from them. And not only is it a good thing for them, it’s a good thing for the environment.” The efforts to be sustainable and earth-friendly earned the Mathewsons an environmental stewardship award in 2012.
Alcorn visited Upperbrook Farm last year and was amazed by the operation, which is managed by the two women almost single-handedly. “[The visit] gave me a real appreciation for what they do,” Alcorn says. “They are definitely assets to our market. ”
Greta hopes she provides some inspiration for younger farmers who are starting out, but both women caution against idealizing the agricultural way of life.
“Farming is not so much just looking after your sheep and making sure they are healthy… that kind of thing,” Mathewson says. “These days if you want to be in farming, you have to have a business.”
After six years, she is still learning financial lessons, she says. With every decision she asks herself: ‘what is that going to cost?’ and ‘how is it going to benefit the farm?’
“There’s no romance [in farming] anymore,” she says.
With no children of her own to take over the farm from her, Mathewson hopes to one day pass the torch to a like-minded young couple or family who would be willing to preserve the efforts her parents have put into the property.
In the meantime, she is working hard just to match her mother’s tireless efforts. “She had a new hip, she needs a new knee and a new shoulder, but I still can’t keep up with her,” says Mathewson with a laugh. “She’s going to be bionic soon!”