BLAKENEY – An area farm couple has donated their $200
winnings in a province-wide competition to the Hub.
“They were really good to us when our house burned down in
2000,” said Shelley McPhail. “Then, someone in our own community can benefit.”
The McPhails won the money in a competition sponsored by the
Ontario Rural Institute to identify one thing they would do to make their rural
community an even better place to live.
Shelley and her husband Harold entered with an idea that
they first tried out in their fields in 2009, when they started labelling their
roadside crops with signs identifying the crop and its outcome. The couple grew
canola on their property for the first time that year, and wanted to let people
become aware of what it was they were planting, and that it could be made into
“We’ve always been big on agriculture awareness,” said
Shelley. “We’re big on bragging about what we do. We’re blessed to be here on a
farm, working for others.”
becomes more urbanized, and people lose their connections to farming and the
rural way of life, the couple decided that a roadside information sign would
help people connect the dots between what was growing in the field and what
ended up on their plate at dinner time.
“I don’t know the difference between a wheat field and a hay
field,” is one of the statement Shelley and Harold would most often hear from
their non-farming friends.
After the first season, the signs were a big hit.
“When we were putting them up last year, people were
stopping (their cars), saying ‘Good, we were wondering when you were going to
put them up,’” said Harold, who noted that they were very lucky to have their
farm border Martin Road North, the main artery between Blakeney and Almonte,
which is also used as an alternate route to Almonte by some Pakenham residents.
“It’s a really busy road,” Harold said.
“Now people have started to stop on the road to read the
signs and that’s created a bit of a traffic jam,” said Shelley. “We didn’t
intend to create a traffic jam.”
The signs have also gotten a good reaction from people they
have met at the Almonte Fair.
“We had people coming up to use, saying ‘Oh, I love your
signs,’” said Shelley.
The idea to erect the signs in the first place was itself
spawned by an earlier incident, when the provincial government set up cages to
trap deer on their property, as a way of conducting a survey of the damage done
to fields by deer.
“Why don’t you put up a sign and let people know what they
are doing?” some of their neighbours asked, pointing to the out-of-place cages.
“There’s no government grant for this,” Shelley notes of the
farm’s 10 signs, which cost about $125 each. “We’re doing this for our own
“It’s social responsibility too,” added Harold. “People are
busy. A lot of people don’t know what’s going on any more (on the farm).”
Education about where people’s food comes from, and showing
passing drivers that the produce in the fields might well be in their brown-bag
lunch on Monday, is another reason for the couple’s signage.
“Food safety is huge now…and it helps to know where your
food comes from,” said Harold.
The couple were married in 1985, the same year they bought
the farm off of Shelley’s parents. The farm is the same place where she grew
up, and the couple celebrated 25 years of farming and marriage last year. They
were involved with cow farming and milking for 17 years, but when fire consumed
the family home in 2000, it signaled a shift in direction for the family.
“We were out in the barn when the house caught fire,” said
Shelley. “The kids had to break their windows to get out. I blame the cows that
I couldn’t save my kids. I should have been there.”
While the kids made it out of the house safely, the disaster
took its toll on the family, and changed the course of their farming and family
In 2002, they left dairy farming to focus on other crops
like malting barley, hard red spring wheat, canola, and soy beans.
But farming is becoming less and less of a part of even
their family life. The couple have a grand daughter who lives in Ottawa.
“She will probably be the only one in her school who will
have any connection to a farm in the Ottawa
Valley,” said Shelley.
The couple is also thankful to see farming production
marketing campaigns that highlight the goodness of Ontario-grown eggs, for
example. They joke that while the ads set the facts straight that white eggs
come from white hens and brown eggs come from brown hens, some people are still
confused when it comes to milk, believing that chocolate milk comes from brown
“You want young people drinking milk, not cola,” said Harold
of milk advertising campaigns that use hip hop and rock ‘n’roll music.
“Here (with the signage) we’re not ramming it down their
throats,” Shelley said.
Shelley and Harold will start planting again about the third
week in April, but they stress, as many farmers do, that farming is not so much
a business as it is a way of life.
“You have to be happy with what you do every day,” said
Shelley. “Right now, there is a lot of optimism.”