Heather Elliott was on track to become an environmental scientist when she graduated from McGill University in Montreal, but then she heard the singing of the fields.
So she bought the farm.
Today, Ms. Elliott, Eby Heller and Jenna Jacobs are co-owners of La ferme coopérative aux champs qui chantent (The Singing Fields), a co-op farm about 45 minutes northeast of Montreal.
"We had been friends for a long time and we talked about living together in a collective way in the country," says Ms. Elliott. After graduating in 2006, she took a course in organic gardening and design and then worked for the City of Montreal's inner-city gardening program.
After lots of conversation among the three friends, a business model evolved: "The idea was that we would buy a farm together, maybe with other people, and there would be a living arrangement separate from the farm."
Champs qui chantent was born in early 2012, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River near Hawkesbury, Ont. The 46.1-hectare farm is a long, skinny tract, laid out in the seigneurial style of New France. (That's almost a quarter section of land.)
It's an unusual business pursuit for a young university grad, especially someone like Ms. Elliott, 31, who grew up in suburban London, Ont., and has no farming background. Statistics Canada's 2011 figures show the average age of farmers was 54, with under 35s making up just 8.2 per cent of all Canadian farmers, down from 11.5 per cent a decade earlier.
Ms. Elliott recalls the thoughtful, concerned letter she received when starting out from her grandfather, a retired executive who grew up on a Depression-era farm and remembered all the physical and financial hardships his parents and siblings endured. Nevertheless, she and her partners were determined to start an alterna-farm.
"I started working on the business plan first. I took a free planning course in Montreal in November of 2011 and we bought the farm in January," Ms. Elliott says. They paid about $385,000 for the land and put another $15,000 to $20,000 into equipment.
The bilingual Ms. Elliott got her planning advice from Quebec's SAJE (Service d'aide aux jeunes entreprises) and mortgage backing through the province's Financière Agricole. "Otherwise, we would have been given a rate that we couldn't afford," she says.
The three share the farmhouse for meals, meetings and social get-togethers. "We use it as a community pavilion," Ms. Elliott says. She and her partner Charlie O'Connor (who co-owns the land but not the farming business) moved into a new separate cabin after Ms. Heller and Ms. Jacobs had a baby girl, Simone, in April of 2013.
"We cultivate about five acres [two hectares] of vegetables each season," Ms. Elliott says. "We grow pretty much every vegetable you could imagine, and we've started animal production – pork, veal and chicken."
The vegetable produce is certified organic. The meat is not yet, "though we do follow organic principles as much as possible," she says. More important to the farmers is to connect to the community –neighbours and Montrealers who are looking for healthy food, and aspiring farmers like themselves.
In addition to tending the farm, the three partners also prepare weekly vegetable baskets for 120 customers in Montreal and the rural area near the property. After deliveries, they sell off extra produce at market stalls in Montreal. The farmers also hold professional development workshops for aspiring farmers on site.
"We're trying to recruit people for co-management of the farm," Ms. Elliott says. "We don't seek employees, but if someone is interested in working with us, we're open to it." The farm also has an agronomist who comes in to work with them every month.
Ms. Elliott estimates the farm has an annual revenue of about $100,000 and is profitable, with each of the partners drawing about "minimum wage" pay.
There's a clear, if not strict, division of labour among the three partners. Ms. Elliott focuses on the farming, Ms. Heller keeps track of the finances and Ms. Jacobs is the go-to for fixing and building equipment and structures.
Sharing is critical to Ms. Elliott and her partners, though "we're not a commune," she stresses.
"We are pretty collective, though. We're a partnership that owns the land, and a workers' co-operative that owns the business."
The farmers draw additional help from interns, who work to acquire skills and receive free room and board and from WWOOF participants – volunteers in the global Worldwide Work Opportunities on Organic Farms work exchange program.
"In the first year it was Eby's brother's girlfriend's sister from Minnesota. In the second year we went to the local agricultural school and sought interns, and in the third year they found us," Ms. Elliott says.
Life on the farm is not easy, but it's rewarding. "The biggest challenge and the biggest surprise is our group dynamics," Ms. Elliott says. "So much of our lives are intertwined that the potential for stress is high. We risked our relationships."
At the same time, she says, "Who knew that my best friends could make such great farm partners?"