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BEYOND THE GARDEN GATE: Enchanted Reality

author: Chris Cameron   photography: bekky O’Neil & Keith Del Principe

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On a small farm outside of Roseneath, a couple of young entrepreneurs combine the art of market farming with the art of creativity. Now that’s food for thought...

THE ROLLING NORTHUMBERLAND COUNTRYSIDE CAN BE A PLACE OF DELIGHTFUL CONTRASTS, WHERE unlikely dreams take root and grow. Keith Del Principe and bekky O’Neil, owners of Cardboard Reality Farm and Studio will tell you that contrasts are really only similarities brought full circle.

bekky and Keith are respected creators of animated films. Their work has been screened around the world. They are also organic farmers whose desire is to feed the land while the land feeds the community. If these two career paths seem contradictory, bekky and Keith know that they aren’t.

It’s hard not to wonder about the name “Cardboard Reality.” A metaphor, the two of them say: Cardboard suggests repurposing something that already exists into something new. This in turn links to the idea of renewal and growth in agriculture. Reality suggests the truly earthy, objective aspect of farming: the opportunity to observe the progress of your work on a daily basis, which isn’t always possible as you pursue an artistic goals.

Cardboard Reality Farm is hidden at the end of a gravel lane near Roseneath. The first impression upon arriving is one of growing things. Trees tower overhead; the ground underfoot is spongy and alive. “When we first moved here we started by just letting everything grow,” says Keith. “We needed to see what the land was offering us.”

The nineteenth-century farmhouse evokes images of an off-the-beaten-path B&B in Provence. Thick stone walls support wide sills under large windows, used to get seedlings started in winter months. A rabbit scampers across the floor upstairs. Behind the house lives a flock of Indian Runner ducks, and in a nearby compound, the farm’s two malamutes are kept. The dogs love to live outdoors and will vociferously discourage predators from coming near the other animals.

The largest square footage of the farm is occupied by the growing area, where green rows of produce poke out of the ground and reach toward the sun. You can tell what month it is by what’s ready for harvest: asparagus and strawberries in June; turnips and pumpkins in September.

bekky grew up in downtown Toronto and met Keith when they were both apprentices at the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont. They settled in Montreal and discovered a mutual love of animation, which they studied at Concordia University. Keith originally worked as a marine biologist. He found he was in serious physical decline due to his sedentary work and lifestyle, aggravated by health challenges. Working on the farm has reawakened his body’s sense of wellness. “You need that balance,” Keith says, “where your body is working as hard as your mind.”

In 2016 the couple moved to a family property near Roseneath, which was originally bought as a retreat. Their goal was to combine the seemingly unrelated career paths of farming and animation. When they first came to rural Ontario from an apartment in the Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal, they were agricultural newbies in nearly every sense of the word.

“It was quite an adventure the first year we were here,” bekky admits with a smile. They had problems with contaminated water in their well and sometimes felt isolated out in the country. Now, their dream is becoming a reality, although such a path is rarely clear or straight. Keith notes, “We break a lot of rules, but we break them knowledgeably. We make a lot of mistakes, but we learn.”

Not long after they began farming, bekky and Keith saw that their products would be more accessible if there was a bricks-and-mortar shop people could visit. A website is not a farm, they realized, because there is no community involved; accordingly, they opened the studio on King Street in Cobourg. Cardboard Reality also connected with colleagues and customers through the Cobourg Farmers’ Market, where they sell their produce and goods every Saturday. bekky works in the Cobourg studio from Wednesday to Sunday, selling crafts as well as hosting a variety of crafting workshops.

Keith and bekky embrace the philosophy of permaculture, a set of cultivation and conservation principles that makes use of the natural features of their ecosystem. Keith mulches with wood chips he receives from farmers who might otherwise just discard them. “You take material from everywhere and use it or make it better.”

bekky makes greeting cards and affordable art from recycled cardboard. She also uses it to package their produce. “Our vegetables never come wrapped in plastic,” she says. Cardboard Reality Farm is a practitioner of CSA – Community Supported Agriculture. Simply put, CSA is a crop sharing program in which community members pay a subscription to a local farm at the start of a season and receive a weekly basket of brightly coloured vegetables, fruits, and other seasonal produce.

The main advantage of CSA to a small farmer is that many of the upfront cultivation costs are partly offset. In addition, knowing how much to plant at the beginning of the season helps farmers plan crop volume and type, resulting in less wastage. And because of the one-on-one relationship between producer and consumer, there is direct dialogue. Nearly all CSAs embrace organic farming techniques such as composting and avoidance of tillage and synthetic fungicides or pesticides.

Cardboard Reality has added the letter “A” to CSA. The “A” in this case stands for Art. In addition to fruit and vegetables, each weekly basket contains a small piece of work from the arts and crafts studio, which adds a whimsical touch.

Both bekky and Keith continue with active careers as animators, especially in the wintertime when the fields are dormant. A visit to their website to watch their animated videos is a treat. bekky is also finishing up her Master of Fine Arts, and as you might expect, her thesis is an animated documentary about the process of organic farming. “I see no difference between food and art,” says Keith, “between animation and farming. It’s not a contradiction, but a connection.”

Keith and bekky are committed to sustainable agriculture and to being organic producers. Of course, the vision of organic farming has its realities as well. As the day wears on and the sun glares down from a cloudless sky, Keith heads back out to the field. “Weeding,” he says, smiling.

“Every day is both a challenge and a blessing,” the two affirm, a seeming contradiction. But if you think about it, both attributes balance one another. Cardboard Reality works collaboratively with the earth, animating it and feeding it. And the earth pays back in kind.

Cardboard Reality Farm and Studio – www.cardboardreality.ca

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