We've told the story of suits to overalls before (and we'll tell it again) but Hugh's voice resonates with us, in part because of his practicality. There's nothing whimsical about his approach to a rural lifestyle, his desire to have more time for his family, and the fact that he isn't willing to entirely give up financial success. Here's a man who knows what he wants, has done the work to find out how to get it, and is kind enough to share some of his resources.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
For me the process was very gradual. I started my career as an electrical engineer at a great wireless communications company and expected to continue along this path until retirement. However, as time passed by it seemed more and more difficult to lead the type of lifestyle that I wanted to in terms of striking a good work/personal life balance. Just imagine living in a large city like Toronto, fighting traffic every day, both my wife and I with very demanding jobs, two young kids, daycare, business trips, Blackberrys buzzing day and night, way overpriced homes with enormous mortgages and I could continue? A classic example of the rat race. After mulling this scenario over for years I came to the realization that I needed a rural/country lifestyle. I needed to live at a much slower pace so that I could make time for what really matters in life ? family, spirituality, community etc? Although it is possible to remain in my career and live this way it seemed highly unlikely, and instead of waiting around hoping to get lucky I decided to look into getting a career better suited to a rural, country lifestyle. The obvious career choice for me was to become a farmer. After doing some research I realized that I was not alone, and that quite a few people have left their big city careers and are making a decent living farming. Then I thought if they could do it, I could do it too.
How did you get your current good food job?
I guess I created my own job. I have a small organic market garden. However, there were two organizations that were very instrumental in helping me reach this point. Here is a short version of my story. In early 2011 I stumbled onto FarmStart which is a not-for-profit organization established in 2005 to support and encourage a new generation of farmers to develop locally based, ecologically sound and economically viable agricultural enterprises, and began volunteering there with one of the start-up farmers. Later that same year I came across Fresh City Farms, an organization that believes in and supports city farming, and began volunteering there also. After getting my hands dirty for a couple years I was accepted as a startup farmer with FarmStart and still continue to be a member farmer with Fresh City Farms. I really can't say enough about how much these two organizations helped me to be where I am today.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
I was fortunate to have worked for a number of leading edge companies that were market leaders in their field. There I was exposed to their rigorous design and operational practices and having associated with several brilliant and highly motivated coworkers has helped to mold my character and transform me into a true professional. I plan to bring a high level of professionalism and a dedication to quality to make my farm business a success.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
The biggest obstacles were the apparent low pay and long working hours that it seemed were necessary just to survive as a small organic farmer. I did this downshift to spend more time with family, not to be working long days for next to nothing. I would quickly pick up my old lucrative career if this was how it was going to be. What helped me persevere was seeing others make use of very simple but effective sustainable techniques to significantly reduce their work load and produce higher quality product. I intend to implement those techniques.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
From my perspective as a newcomer to the field I do not know of any one area that I can identify as the greatest opportunity. I think the local food movement needs individuals or companies that are great at what they do, all working together to form a robust local food network. For example I hope to be able to produce great tasting, nutritious produce and I will need to partner with others who have other areas of expertise e.g. retail, CSAs, wholesale distribution. I think each person needs to find their niche and be the best at it. I will never be able to do it all myself nor am I interested in growing a company large enough to do it.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
Silver or gold, baby? I've got to be honest.