If you had asked 10-year-old Gillian Flies what she wanted to be when she grew up, the last thing she would have said was a farmer. In fact, she was so desperate to escape her small-town Vermont roots that she fled all the way to Africa.
However, it was there she met her now-husband Brent Preston, and in 2004, together they founded The New Farm, a certified regenerative organic farm just west of Creemore.
So it’s kind of a funny story.
Gillian and Brent met while working for various nonprofits in Africa and Asia, where they spent over a decade focusing on political development, parliamentary reform, and human rights.
When they finally decided to move back to North America and settle in Toronto, Gillian started working as a management consultant and Brent became a television producer at CBC. However, it didn’t take long for them to look around what was happening on this side of the world. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth had just come out, urging people to pay attention to the consequences of climate change, and they quickly realized that significant changes would need to be made in order to save the planet.
“All of it comes back to the way we grow our food,” said Gillian. “And we’ve gotten it wrong.”
So, they decided to leave the city and start a small-scale organic farm to cultivate the type of healthy food that they wanted to give to their children, while also contributing to environmental protection. They wanted to prove not only that it could be done, but that they could make it profitable.
Interestingly enough, to this day they get asked over and over when they decided to leave the city and drop out of the rat race.
“We realized it wasn’t that we dropped out — we actually decided to drop in,” said Gillian. “Drop in to what’s important.”
So, they purchased a small, 300-acre farm in Creemore, Ontario, and “dropped into the movement that was actually doing something to stop the madness.”
“It’s been the hardest job we’ve ever had in our lives,” said Gillian. But the result was beautiful, certified organic products, and almost immediately they started selling at the Creemore Farmers’ Market and to high end restaurants in the Greater Toronto Area.
“We realized that if we wanted to amplify the story, we would have to get it in front of those chefs who can really amplify it,” Gillian said.
Conversely, they also realized that in doing so, the only people accessing their food were the upper class. So they reached out to Nick Saul, a close friend and Canadian food and social justice activist, and started donating their produce to The Stop Community Food Centre. At the time, they were still a relatively new business, and they quickly started going broke, so they decided to host a fundraiser to cover some of the costs. With personal connections to the Canadian music industry and access to some of the top chefs in Ontario, an idea was born.
It started as a “small, DIY fundraiser,” raising about $5,000 in its first year — and grew from there. Now in its 13th year, Farms for Change sees 1,000 attendees, consistently raising over $100,000 every year, and tickets typically sell out in a matter of minutes.
One hundred percent of the proceeds go towards purchasing vegetables from The New Farm and other local farms to be donated to good food organizations across the province.
The Tragically Hip, Sam Roberts Band and Elliot Brood are just some of the great Canadian artists who have performed over the years, with food and beverage provided by the most prestigious chefs in the GTA.
“It is an old-fashioned barn party, but with really amazing food, great drinks, and a super great vibe,” said Gillian. “You can feel it. The vibe of love and sharing and friendship and community here on the farm is palpable.”
When Covid hit, Gillian was approached by Shelby Taylor from Chickapea to establish a new strategic partnership, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Not only did the relationship allow them to stay afloat during the pandemic — because they previously had been selling the majority of their products to events and restaurants — but it gave them the push to go beyond the fundraiser and connect with even more good food organizations across the province.
“Fresh, organic salad is expensive and it isn’t something often donated, so that’s what we send,” said Gillian. “Kids need to taste this food when they are younger, or they won’t acquire a taste for it. You have to learn to eat when you’re younger.”
This year, if all goes as planned, The New Farm will be able to send half a million dollars in produce to over 30 good food organizations.
One of their newest partnerships is with the Butterfly Project, a food security initiative spearheaded by the Collingwood Youth Centre here in town. “The win for us is that these are our values and our mission,” said Gillian. “We are focusing really on good food organizations and growing the best food possible for these folks.”
But because they started the farm as a political act in the first place, they knew they couldn’t stop there. Gillian and Brent became the board president of Canadian Organic Growers and Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, respectively, and together, they formed a coalition to advocate for climate-friendly agricultural policy.
“We recognized that no big change happens without policy change,” Gillian said.
And remarkably, the government listened.
Over the last few years, Gillian and Brent consumed themselves with education and advocacy, and they realized the only piece left was the consumer. So their next move is building The New Farm Centre for Climate Action — which they recently secured core funding for — and Gillian’s vision is that they will be fully operational in five years.
“It will be about giving people hope,” she said. “There really is still hope, and this is how you do it. The food is healthier, the soil is more resilient. There are tons of benefits, which is why farmers will adopt it.”
Also this spring, The New Farm officially became the first farm in Canada to be certified as regenerative organic. And at the end of the day, Gillian truly believes food is medicine, and what she loves most about her job is establishing a connection with other people who understand this, and are trying to do something good for themselves and the planet as well.
“I truly believe that we have a shot at solving climate change before it’s too late. We’re in the window of almost too late, quite frankly, but I truly believe that there is still hope,” Gillian said.
And, as recent empty nesters themselves, she adds that her and Brent are “all in.”