Justin Girard and Britt Embry may not come across as the likeliest pair of farmers you'll ever meet. Britt hails from Toronto, Ontario with a B.A. in English Lit, and Justin holds an M.A. in Cultural Studies from the University of Winnipeg. Before the two made the decision to move out to Elie and develop a spray-free farm on family land, Justin was on track to pursue a PhD. He jokes that when he told his supervising professor, "'I’m going to start farming and renovate a barn instead of doing my PhD,' [the prof] was like, 'Oh! Well I guess it’s good to know at this point.'" Justin adds, "He invested in me and then was slightly disappointed, but he was good about it." Back then, Britt and Justin were both living and working in the city. They had worked together previously at (now closed) Bread & Circuses and then later at Boon Burger. Initially living together as roommates, they began dating after their separate relationships ended. Britt laughs, "We actually never dated living apart; I just moved rooms."
Three years later, the couple is farming on a piece of land that's been in Justin's family for four generations, living in a barn that once served as a restaurant when his family ran the farm. The couple has painstakingly renovated it over two and a half years: going between Winnipeg and Elie; sleeping in a small trailer next to the barn through the warmer months; and moving in with Justin's parents just down the driveway one winter. Their first winter in the barn was without plumbing. Britt comments, "It’s so funny, now that we’re in here, I forget that we didn’t have running water for the whole winter." She laughs, "How quickly you forget." Justin adds, "It was very difficult to keep things clean, but it worked out in the end. It was a pretty massive project. Especially considering, well I had lots of help from my and friends, but on an average day-to-day it was just me."
Spend a little time with Justin and Britt and you'll see their passion for fresh, delicious and ethical produce come through. Justin's spent years honing his craft - first as a child on his family's farm, then working at various greenhouses around Manitoba, and now on a farm of this own - and Britt works eagerly alongside him. The two grew test gardens last summer and are now ready now to sell to farmers' markets, produce stands and restaurants across Winnipeg. As we walk through their fields, newly transplanted together with friends and family, Justin excitedly pulls greens from the ground and urges me to try them. The two describe the taste and visual appearance of their vegetables with animated expressions and gestures.
Justin and Britt have reason to get excited. Their vegetables are seriously on another level. Everything I tasted from their garden was absolutely bursting with flavour. I found myself repeating the words "Wow, I had no idea __________ could taste like that!" each time they handed me something new to try.
And although they are proud to be spray-free, they're also careful not to criticize the humans behind industrial farming. Justin and Britt are just glad to be part of a positive shift in agriculture towards smaller, sustainably-maintained and local farming. And the fact that there are people out there willing to pay for the delicious food that kind of farming produces has them eager for the changes ahead.
You can buy fresh greens, eggs and vegetables from Hearts and Roots at the Wolseley Farmers' Market on Tuesdays beginning tomorrow, the Red River Exhibition on Saturdays starting in July, as well as the local Elie Farmers' Market on Thursdays. Check out their website and follow them on Instagram for news and updates on where they'll be and when. I'm also excited to announce that I'll be featuring easy summer recipes monthly with ingredients from Hearts and Roots and other locals starting next Monday through to October.