Sheep farming is a family affair

Published in The Pioneer on March 11, 2021 (March 11 Pioneer)

Brothers Craig and Adam Voith, both in their 20’s, are following in their parents’ footsteps while diversifying by running a successful sheep farming operation called Sugar Hill Rideaus, in Battersea, South Frontenac.

“We bought the farm in 2012 when I was 17,” says Craig Voith, who is the main caretaker for the sheep farm.

“It was a horse boarding stable when we bought it but we changed it to sheep farming. We didn’t want to be horse boarding people, it’s not as fun as this,” he adds.

Adam, the older brother, had already joined the military when they bought the farm. He is still serving in the army and helps on a part-time basis when his career in the military allows.

“We have between 250 and 300 sheep at the moment,” says Adam Voith. “The whole flock of adults are female and we have three rams.”

Their parents, Mike and Janet Voith, have been running their own farm, Sugar Hill Farm, since 2002, where they produce black angus beef as well as some pork and maple syrup. So the boys grew up on a farm and developing the new sheep farming operation was a natural development for them. Mike and Janet provide help to their sons but it is obvious that Craig is now well in charge and loving it.

“We started with one breed of sheep called the Dorper,” says Janet. “It’s a hair sheep so you don’t have to pay to shear them.”

But they quickly realized that since their main goal was to produce meat, the Dorper was not the best-suited breed as it only produces one or two lambs a year. After some research, they found the Rideau Arcott breed was more appropriate. The Rideau Arcott was produced from a breeding program that was created in 1966 by Agriculture Canada’s Animal Research Centre in Ottawa. This breed has strong maternal traits and they typically produce twins or triplets.

“The Dorper sheep only gave 1.2 to 1.3 lambs per year. But with the Rideau Arcott, we get more like two and a half lambs per year per sheep,” says Craig Voith.

The inconvenience with the Rideau Arcott sheep is that they have to be sheared once a year.

“We have to hire someone to shear them,” says Adam Voith. “It would take us much longer to do it ourselves. The professionals can shear all our sheep in one day. It would take us weeks to do that,” he adds.

“We sell the wool to the co-op in Carleton Place but we don’t get a lot for it. It just helps recoup some of the cost of shearing them,” says Adam.

Their operation is going well enough that they are slowly expanding with the help of some automation like a recently acquired Total Mixed Rations (TMR) machine, essentially a big blender, that facilitates the preparation of the feed for their flock.

There has been an increased demand for their lamb in the last few years, especially by new Canadians which appreciate this type of meat.

But like everyone else, they have also been affected by the pandemic this past year.

“Restaurants are no longer buying our lamb,” says Janet Voith. “They cannot commit at this time.”

The other impact of the pandemic is the unreliability of the abattoirs. When there are COVID-19 outbreaks at abattoirs, they are often closed which means that the abattoirs which remain open get that much busier.

“We have to book so much more in advance now at the abattoirs,” says Janet.

As a small producer, much of their product is sold directly to consumers, thereby avoiding the middle man.

“We sell by half a lamb or a whole lamb,” says Janet Voith. “We don’t sell smaller cuts because we don’t want to become a store with staff, freezers and inventory,” she adds.

It becomes obvious while walking around the farm that these young men are loving what they do and they are rightly proud of what they have done so far. But that is not stopping them from exploring how they can improve their current operation.

Adam Voith (left) serves in the Canadian Armed Forces as an engineering officer but he helps his brother Craig (right) whenever he can. The brothers bought the farm with their parents in 2012. While brother Craig is the main caretaker of Sugar Hill Rideaus where they raise sheep, Adam Voith helps as much as his career in the military allows. « We have between 250 and 300 heads, all females except for three rams, » Voith says. « Each ewe has an average of 2.5 lambs per year. » Demand for lamb meat has increased in the last few years, especially with new Canadians. The farm sells mostly directly to consumers. Photo by Daniel Geleyn

Maple syrup a sweet tradition

Published in The Pioneer on March 11, 2021 (March 11 Pioneer)

The Conboy name in the small central Frontenac village of Sharbot Lake has long been associated with maple syrup and that tradition continues with the new spring flow of sweet juices.

It was 1876 when Oso Township granted J. Conboy, great-grandfather of George and Mel Conboy, the parcel of land where George currently lives with his wife Darlene, just north of Sharbot Lake. The farm has been passed down the generations for the last 145 years.

“Now I have four sons and seven grandchildren, with one more in the oven, so that is six generations now,” says George Conboy.

In December 2020, a large maple tree on George’s farm that had recently died because of tent caterpillars was cut down. By counting the rings on the cross-section, it is estimated that the tree was about 200 years old. The cross-section also shows the multiple taps done on the tree over the years, with the oldest tap being done when the tree was about 50 years old, or around 1876 when the Conboy family first arrived there.

George also raises beef on his farm but the maple syrup keeps him busy.

“The maple syrup is seasonal but it is year-round to some extent too because you’re cutting wood and working in the bush. Our sales are year-round, we have people coming here almost every day,” he says.

Less than a kilometre away, Mel and Joyce Conboy run the Oso Sweet Maple Farm, along with the help of their son Clayton.

“My grandfather bought this place in 1926 for my father. He actually bought a farm for each of his sons,” says Mel.

“While our name ‘Oso Sweet Maple Farm’ is relatively new, our family has been producing maple syrup on our farm for three generations,” says Joyce. “Each generation learned from the one before, and so syrup season has been part of our lives from the very beginning.”

Mel and Joyce’s son Clayton is a full-time firefighter in Ottawa but he likes helping his dad in the spring as something they can do together. He plans on taking over the farm at some point.

“Like all businesses, we have been impacted by the pandemic with a reduction in tourism sales and bulk sales. We have appreciated our loyal customers who have continued to support us through curbside pick-up throughout the year,” says Joyce.

George and Darlene have been living and working on their farm for over 40 years and they, along with their four sons, are also looking forward to another syrup season.

They feel the same way about the pandemic. Their favourite weekend of the season is the Maple Weekend, normally the first weekend in April, when they host visitors at their farm to visit the facilities and enjoy many maple syrup products from their farm and other local vendors.

“It’s too bad it’s cancelled again this year, (but) it’s for the best I think,” says a resigned George.

“Taking part in Maple Weekend over the years has given us the opportunity to showcase our farm and provide tours and information to the many guests who attended.  COVID-19 has made it impossible to offer this event for the past two years but we hope for its return once the pandemic is under control,” says Joyce at the Oso Sweet Maple Farm.

Despite the negative impact of the pandemic, it is clear that producing maple syrup is a family tradition that will continue to thrive in the Conboy family.

“We love working in nature, creating the first taste of spring and looking forward to visits and interaction with customers and community members. There is a feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie, knowing that our contribution adds to the success of this community,” says Joyce.

“Everyone in the family has a role to play in our syrup operation. With the help of technology, the grace of nature, and lots of hard work, we are excited to enter into this coming season, and look forward to providing an excellent quality product for our customers,” she adds.

“Two of our sons are right beside us here and the other two are a little farther away, but they all help during the season so we are not worried about the next generation,” says George.

Their grandkids love helping at the farm as well, especially as their role now is to be the official tasters.

“It’s like the first taste of spring, says Mel Conboy. “It gets in your blood a little bit. When you do it that long, you get to look forward to it.”

George and Darlene Conboy, at the George & Darlene Conboy & family Maple Syrup Farm, are preparing the evaporator, which reduces the maple sap into sweet syrup, for another season. George and his cousin Mel are the two maple syrup producers in the small central Frontenac village of Sharbot Lake. Both of them have between 1500 and 2000 taps per year. The Conboy family has been making maple syrup in Sharbot Lake for 145 years. Photo by Daniel Geleyn

Plays become a community builder

Published in The Pioneer on March 11, 2021 (March 11 Pioneer)

With no live theatre during the pandemic, Ned Dickens, a playwright from Kingston, is keeping the creative juices flowing for a large group of theatre enthusiasts by bringing to life a series of seven plays called City of Wine, which he wrote over a 15-year period.

“The principle character of this thing is a city. It takes a city to play a city,” says Dickens.

City of Wine started when Dickens was commissioned to write a new version of Oedipus, a king of the ancient Greek city of Thebes. He then wrote the prequel Jocasta and the sequel Creon which then became the trilogy of City of Wine.

“For a while, City of Wine was this trilogy which was very big, incredibly huge,” says Dickens. “As we tried to do it, we found the solution was to go bigger rather than go smaller.”

Dickens wrote another four plays which covered different generations in the same ancient Greek city of Thebes. All these plays required many actors and this was way too large for most theatre companies which struggle to do plays with more than a few actors.

But for professional theatre schools across Canada, they normally have the opposite problem as they try to find plays that can involve all their students.

“We got every professional theatre school in the country involved as they were studying them. The seven schools, from Newfoundland to Vancouver, each chose one of the plays. We did a bunch of workshops with them and brought all 155 students to Toronto for their graduating class performance,” says Dickens.

All the students shared the cost of travel between them to make it affordable for all. In addition, to give a boost to the students’ careers in theatre, they were all billeted with prominent Canadian actors.

This was 2008-2009, but unfortunately, the appetite and conditions to continue performing the series of plays were not there and City of Wine has since languished.

Just before the pandemic, Dickens was working on another play called Icara. This was planned to take place in a theatre in Kingston when COVID-19 hit. By September 2020, they were able to make the play happen at a smaller venue and within public health guidelines.

“Suddenly I found myself with a little theatre company who were really keen and they wanted to do more,” says Dickens. “I said, well, you want to do some plays, I’ve got lots of those.”

Dickens started thinking about doing City of Wine as a way to keep theatre enthusiasts active and interested while they were required to isolate, not knowing where this would lead.

“The damn thing itself is a machine for community building,” he says. “You put 30 people in a room and you work yourself through them and you read and talk about them and you’ve got a little society at the end.”

Dickens still has no idea if City of Wine will ever get produced in Kingston but he and the many participants are enjoying the process nonetheless.

“We may find ourselves, maybe as early as late summer or early fall, when theatre becomes a possibility again. Celebration may even be in order, and some rebuilding of community may be in order and a project like this that’s already ready and under way may be possible,” says Dickens.

For now, they have a group of about 200 theatre enthusiasts who are working their way through the plays. Plays get read one at a time every two weeks by amateurs and professionals alike but all with no compensation.

“I’ve been involved in amateur theatre in Kingston since I was 12,” says Margi McKay, a programmer for the public library system in Kingston. “I plan programs for people using the library. I do something different every week so I’m performing all the time in that sense.”

McKay is a trained singer and has three adult children, Theatre is her hobby, although one that normally takes much of her time.

“One of the people involved is Jim Garrard whom I met in 1970 when he led a workshop with the Domino youth theatre that I participated in when I was in high school,” says McKay. “He has had a successful career but I had not encountered him since then.”

Siobhán McMahon, a third-year media and performance production student at Queen’s University, is also involved with this project.

“I got involved with Ned through my audition for Icara,” says McMahon. “It helps me with my artistic and professional development for sure. Right now I don’t have any performance opportunity so getting involved with City of Wine has allowed me to tap into characters again. Ned’s plays are so well written, so fantastic, his characters are wonderful to delve into.”

This project has been a blessing for many in Kingston during this pandemic. The size of City of Wine makes it possible for so many amateurs and professionals to get involved.

“I thought this was a good way to get back into theatre in a safe way right now,” says Suzanne Garrett, another amateur theatre enthusiast from Kingston.

Garrett took a bit of theatre in the 90’s at Queen’s University but did not get back into it until 2017 with Domino Theatre and Kings Town Players.

“I had decided before COVID that I was not going to do any more theatre but now that I’m back in, I have so much fun and it’s very interesting. I’ve learned so much about history and the gods,” says Garrett.

Dickens certainly seems to be fulfilling a need for theatre enthusiasts in Kingston and even beyond. There are now other groups developing outside of the community that are aiming to do what is being done in Kingston with City of Wine.

“If I can keep City of Wine in my life, I will for as long as possible. I’m really inspired by this project and I love working with Ned,” says McMahon.

Ned Dickens, a Kingston playwright, is going through some of the acting details for the City of Wine plays he wrote to theatre enthusiasts Margi McKay and Suzanne Garrett. City of Wine is a series of seven plays Dickens wrote over a period of 15 years, based on the story of the ancient Greek city of Thebes. « The principle character of this thing is a city. It takes a city to play a city, » says Dickens. There are over 200 theatre enthusiasts currently working on this series of plays with the hope to possibly make them a reality in Kingston after the pandemic. Photo by Daniel Geleyn

A sanctuary for creativity

Budding artists have chance to develop their artistic talents

Published in The Pioneer on Dec. 10, 2020 (Dec. 10 Pioneer)

The Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning, a unique centre of excellence for the arts in Kingston, offers many avenues to develop budding artists in our community.

The Tett Centre is a charitable arts organization which operates in the beautiful JK Tett heritage building on Lake Ontario’s waterfront in Kingston. Its mandate is to provide a dynamic arts hub that co-ordinates and creates high-quality, accessible, arts-focused programming for all levels of artistic abilities and experience.

The building now known as the Tett Centre was originally part of the Morton Brewery and Distillery complex which was reputed as the largest of its kind in North America during the mid-19th century. It later served as a military hospital and army Headquarters until it was sold to the City of Kingston in 1971 as part of the vision of the director of recreation at the time, John K. Tett. The building was then used for many years by a variety of cultural groups until the city did a complete renovation from 2010 to 2015.

The Tett Centre is now home to nine tenant arts organizations, eight resident artist studios, and four multi-use rentable public spaces. Together, it forms a dynamic hub that promotes the arts in many different forms including individual artists, craft guilds, a dance schools, a mineral club, a theatre group, and even a musical instrument-lending library.

The Creativity Studios are located at the south end of the second floor of the building. Each of the artists rents his/her own personal studio and has access to it 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year so they come and go as they please.

“I have had this studio at the Tett Centre for one year but I’ve used the Tett Centre for 27 years on and off,” says Bethany Garner, a textile artist who has been quilting for more than 45 years. “The art hub gives an opportunity for a few artists to have studios, share some space, and exchange ideas. Our studios are individual but we also have common space and we welcome visitors any time.”

The common space the artists share is right in the middle of the studios so it is readily accessible. This space promotes interaction between the artists and it allows them to socialize and learn from each other. Although they all work on different mediums and they have their own unique style they get inspiration and motivation from each other.

“Before I came here, I knew what I did and I know people appreciated what I did but I had impostor syndrome as I did not see myself as an artist,” says Lisa Morrissey, who works with reclaimed wood and branches found on the ground to create a variety of decor items. “But since being here in the last year, the other artists have helped me see that just because I work in a very different medium, I am still an artist. When I see an old branch on the ground, I see something that nobody else would see.”

The current pandemic has made things difficult for many people. The isolation imposed by COVID-19 is very real for artists that work alone in their studios, especially when no one is shopping for their creations. But this small island of creativity has provided a great support for these few artists during this difficult period.

“During COVID, there are many days when you get disheartened,” says Morrissey. “You continue to create every day but it goes nowhere, just on your wall. But here, we see each other through that, there’s always great support.”

The other spaces in the building also continue to be used by other permanent or temporary tenants, while following public health guidelines, during this pandemic.

“There’s always something going on,” says Morrissey. “It’s just such a vibrant building.”

Bethany Garner has been quilting for more than 45 years. She rents one of the creativity studios at the Tett Centre for Creativity & Learning in Kingston. The artists in the creativity studios are currently holding the Fall and Winter Market to encourage everyone to come and see how they create. Kingston has a great artist community. The Tett Centre is a not-for-profit charitable organization that provides a welcoming destination where artists, arts organizations, and the community come together to explore, create, and be inspired. Photo by Daniel Geleyn

The changing face of veterans

Published in The Pioneer on Nov. 12, 2020 (Nov. 12 Pioneer)

Seventy-five years after the end of the Second World War, the faces we see at Remembrance ceremonies are much less often those of WWII veterans but more often those with more recent military service or members of the community who still see the importance of remembering those who served.

Canadians often think of a veteran as someone who served in the First World War, the Second World War or the Korean War. But the definition of a veteran is much broader as it includes any former member of the Canadian Armed Forces who successfully underwent basic training and is honourably discharged. Even though many ex-military members may never have served in combat, it is important to recognize that by serving in the military, they essentially signed a blank cheque of unlimited liability, including their own lives, to protect our rights and freedoms.

As time passes, it is not surprising to see fewer veterans from these major conflicts. Any remaining Second World War veterans would be well in their 90’s by now. Even for the Korean War, in which combat operations were concluded in 1953, any veterans who were involved in that conflict would be at least in their late 80’s in 2020.

The changing face of veterans in Canada is illustrated by the yearly selection of the National Memorial Silver Cross Mother who is selected to represent all of the mothers of military personnel killed on duty. For the last 22 years, 15 were mothers of military personnel killed in Afghanistan, which is appropriate, since this was the most significant military mission for Canada since the Korean War. Three were mothers whose sons or daughters were killed in accidents, three on a peacekeeping/peacemaking mission and one by suicide following a mission to Afghanistan, therefore recognizing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a combat related injury. You have to go back to 1998 to find the last Silver Cross Mother whose child died as a result of the Second World War.

Tom Briggs, the president of Branch 361 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Kingston says he no longer has any members who are Second World War veterans.

“Only about one third of our 400 members are veterans. The rest are members of the community,” he says.

Briggs himself, now well in his 60’s, is a 21-year-veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. But even his father who completed 27 years in the military, was too young to serve in the Second World War. “My dad joined the Army in 1945, but he was too late to see combat,” he says.

Malcolm Holt has been a member of 416 Wing of the Royal Canadian Air Force Association in Kingston for 41 years. He is turning 88 this year but he is also too young to have served in the Second World War. “I was born in 1932 in Birmingham, UK,” he says. “A little before the war, when I was five years old, I noticed my mom putting away a small box of extra sugar cubes,” he says. “I asked her ‘Why are you doing that?’ and she said ‘We’re going to have a war.’ but I did not understand what that meant at the time,” he adds.

Holt has memories of his city in the UK being bombed while he and his family would have to hide in shelters. “We did not have toys during the war so we collected pieces of bombs, shells and shrapnel,” he says. “That’s how we amused ourselves.”

When he was old enough, Holt served in the Royal Air Force for two years in the mid-1950’s. Shortly after his service he came to Kingston and he has been living here ever since. Despite the fact that the time he served in the RAF was very short, those were formative years that made him become an ardent follower of everything related to aviation. He still holds fond memories of his time in the RAF and he enjoys exchanging stories with his friends at 416 Wing.

On November 11, even though you may not see veterans who served in the major conflicts of the last century, don’t forget to remember those who served and gave the ultimate sacrifice, no matter how that sacrifice came about.

Tom Briggs, President of Legion Branch 631, proudly stands wearing his Legion uniform while we discuss their plan for the Remembrance Day ceremony to be held this year under the Covid-19 restrictions. Briggs served 21 years in the Canadian Armed Forces and he is proud to give back to his community as the president of his Legion Branch. From the 400 members of his branch, none are WWII veterans and only about one third have served in the armed forces. The rest are community members who may or may not have any affiliation to the military. This is the new reality for the Royal Canadian Legion who is happy to welcome any members who want to honour our veterans. Photo by Daniel Geleyn