By Cindy Fairs
In the spring of 2014, I came to live in Grand Forks. Little did I know what I was getting myself into when I answered an ad from a woman who was herself new to town.
Looking for a roommate to share her seven and a half acre organic farm and century-old farm house, I gladly accepted Colleen Ross’s gracious invitation to come and live with her and to share in the peaceful surroundings of the mountains nestled up against the property and the pigs, chicken and sheep that roam the farmland around us.
Having lived in Grand Forks for several months, I came to know a woman who was very hard-working and who was up at the crack of dawn to get her chores done. Although extremely dedicated to tending to the details of her farm, Colleen was just as certain to make sure that she took in the natural beauty of the lakes and rivers and to explore the wilderness around her.
It is not uncommon to see her putting on her hip waders to go to the local fishing holes to do some fly fishing, nor is it surprising to see her take off for a weekend jaunt to hike into the mountains with a backpack on her back and a few friends in tow. But when she is home, one might find her entertaining groups of friends with an abundance of home-made dishes of salads, Moroccan lamb, an Indian feast or good old fashioned chili, everything made from food that has been grown right on the farm or close by.
The interesting thing for me, however, was when I went to an afternoon celebration party in August and was sitting with a person I knew who inquired as to where I was living.
I proceeded to tell this fellow that I was living with an organic farmer. He mentioned that he had heard her name before and inferred that she was someone of importance in the community. I assured him, however, that she was not and that in fact was an ordinary woman, an organic farmer who had not lived in Grand Forks very long.
You can imagine my astonishment, when in fact I came to learn that this woman was not yet a common household name in Grand Forks, but rather, she was known more so around the globe as an activist, feminist and trendsetter on the subject of organic farming, food systems, the environment and issues related to woman’s rights.
Although at times gregarious, self-assured, pragmatic and vocal, I also realized at this point that there was an underlying quality of quiet humility and unpretentiousness about this woman. I was determined to find out all that I could—about this woman and her organic food and farming values which I literally knew nothing about.
As the story is told, Colleen was born the third of six children and was raised in Burlington, Ontario. Her deep appreciation and respect for agriculture and the wilderness stemmed from her upbringing as a child where she would spend countless hours going to local farms with her father to stock up on food for the family.
Her love for the wilderness was experienced through her activities with her parents and siblings when they would hike, ski and rock climb along the Niagara escarpment.
Colleen first studied animal science and agriculture at the university in Guelph, Ontario before embarking on a venture to Tasmania where she would go on to study theology, finishing university at the young age of 20.
She realized that farming was really where her heart was, and so she settled onto a homestead in Queensland, Australia where her three children were born, and where she grew and harvested crops and raised cattle.
Sixteen years later, Colleen would eventually make her way back to Canada with her family, where she replanted her roots once again in Ontario. She started Waratah Downs Organic Farm—200 acres of certified organic farmland and more than 10 employees.
Mentorship and being a role model for young aspiring farmers and food activists became a vital and significant part of Colleen’s purpose in life—and as a result, became an activist in procuring and garnering support of organizations around the world including the National Farmers Union of Canada where she held executive board positions for 12 years. She also served on the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network and Food Secure Canada.
Colleen has worked with non-government organizations, federal and provincial governments and at international forums. In 2006 she was offered a scholarship to study biotechnology as it pertains to liability at the university in Tromso, Norway. Although it was a PhD level course, Colleen had no desire to continue studying at that level as she felt her credibility was that of a farmer and not as an academic.
As a newcomer into Colleen’s home, and for the first time in my life eating organic food, I have come to learn so much more about what I am consuming on a day-to-day basis.
My awareness and understanding of growing foods organically has most certainly increased my sensitivities around the values of organic agriculture, food and farming. To be living in a home where almost everything is organic including the salt and pepper and all the spices and herbs that go on our food, the fruits and vegetables, the tea we drink as well as the wine and beer we serve, is a testament to Colleen’s preservation of living consciously and living intentionally.
Colleen believes that her work at the international and national levels better equip her with the knowledge and understanding of what needs to be done at the local level. She is convinced that her experience in working with groups in places such as India, west and south Africa, Japan and Asia, Spain and many European countries brings a greater depth to her role as a newly elected city councillor in Grand Forks.
Having moved to Grand Forks because of the beautiful region, soil and farming opportunity, Colleen has made this her home community and intends to invest herself in a meaningful way where she can make a difference.
Living with Colleen has not been without its challenges and occasional fright. She can be a bit rough around the edges for this city girl, preferring to keep things simple yet tasteful.
Her cupboards and freezers are overflowing with foods that have been dried, canned or frozen. In her busy life she insists that she must be self-sustainable, otherwise she asks, “What’s the point if I can’t feed myself yet I talk about sustainability?” Without doubt, Colleen walks the talk.
Colleen’s greatest love, though, is her three adult children, Jessica, Melanie and Isaac, and one grandchild who was born while her daughter lived here for eight months. Sadly for Colleen, Melanie and her little family returned to Ontario recently.
All three children have graduated from university and have chosen paths that clearly indicate their shared love and respect for others, and the environment. All of Colleen’s children are either farming now or plan to be in the near future. Colleen’s obvious desire is to entice at least one of them to join her on her little farm here in southern B.C.
During the winter months, when not planning for next year’s crops, or working in the community as a board member of the local agriculture society, or attending council and community meetings, you might find Colleen on one of the local cross country ski-trails, or traversing down local ski hills.