Elaine Mandrona — Back to the Land Redux

Despite her misgivings, I decided to include Elaine Mandrona in this first issue of our Food Movement Beat because so many of the themes of her coming to New Brunswick echo those of many of the people we talked to in the last year, especially the young farmers.

She first came to New Brunswick from Connecticut via Wisconsin in the early seventies when she and her partner at the time visited expat friends who said this was the place to start a new life away from everything that was wrong with the world: war, social inequality, urban sprawl, crime, degradation of the environment.

New Brunswick was beautiful and pastoral, the people friendly and welcoming and the land was cheap. Really cheap. They had found a haven.

“And we believed change was imminent. We didn’t know it was still 45 years away,” she says.

Back to the land — Corn Hill

They first settled in the Corn Hill area. Elaine and her partner had a tough year of it when winter came. “We moved into a wreck of a house that should have been knocked down,” she says.  “I don’t know why we thought a cook stove could keep us warm over the winter in a cold and drafty farmhouse.”  A neighbor rescued them by giving them an old wood heater.

The idea that many of these young people had was they would go back to the very basics of life, back to the land, and live without the conveniences they believed were at the heart of all the problems they left behind.  Inspired by authors such as Helen and Scott Nearing and their book Living the Good Life, they engaged rural life in New Brunswick.

Of course, no book truly prepares anyone for reality and the hardships they endured are sometimes hard to listen to. Their neigbhours were friendly and helpful, but “I think they thought we were nuts to want to live without electricity when they had just got it in the fifties,” she says.

Back to the land — Cedar Camp

That relationship broke down and she started a new one and a new idea of an intentional community in Cedar Camp in the Waterford area not far from what is now Poley Mountain. Five hundred acres cost $40,000 then and the idea was that each person would build their own house and work the land together.

The first winter was a frigid nightmare again. “We lived in a cabin made from scrap lumber and tea box lids. We burned alders for heat.” The next summer Elaine built her house by a brook but her partner moved in, too.

“I built my own hexagonal tiny house, ten feet on a side. As a woman it was important for me to learn some simple carpentry skills and do that. My partner and I lived there off the grid for 10 years using micro hydro and solar panels. We ran lights, a radio and a small refrigerator. I figure that I earned a lot of green footprint credits living that way.”

Then the others in the community could not get enough money to make the community work so Elaine and her partner took over the farm.

They tried a market garden but there was no farmers market back then and organic produce was not valued in rural New Brunswick. The closest thing to a venue was selling off the back of trucks every Wednesday at the livestock auction in Sussex.

Eventually, the living off the land idea gave way to other ideas about how to earn a living and Elaine went into business for herself. “Being self-employed gave me a lot of satisfaction and independence. I ran my own stained glass studio and craft shop, Glass Alley (in Sussex), for 18 years and later became a massage therapist and nutritional consultant. I’ve been practising massage for 25 years now, soon to retire.”

Back to the land — Moncton

“Archie and I moved to Moncton in 2005 to start a different life, one in the city and close to our cottage in Cocagne,” she says. “We have a big yard and I felt bad that I was not growing any food.”

That desire to grow food again manifested in a couple of garden boxes that grew enough food to encourage her to build a few more. The more food she grew the more boxes she wanted. Starting on such a small scale without the desperation of having to make it pay or store it for winter made it more enjoyable. She also wanted to share the experience and invited people. A couple of young women took her up on it.

“Then I took a Community Food Mentor program and it opened my eyes to all that was going on in the area around food. The program also encouraged me to come up with my own program that could expand food capacity in my community. Now I have the City Farming Adventures group and am running an intergenerational and multicultural garden project with seniors in partnership with the Moncton Boys and Girls Club.”

There is no talk of a market garden, though. She’s in a different place now. “I don’t want to sell food. I just want to grow food with other people, especially children because they love it so much. People are coming back to the land. They’re realizing how important it is to connect with their food and how it is grown.”

She says they’re coming back to the land. “It’s just 45 years later.”