Rooted in the Soil Con’t

Ken and Katya Riley

Ken and Katya Riley educate customers about healthy eating and living on their land in Milford Bay.

Story and photo by Sarah Ryeland

For the past 134 years, the Riley family has been working the land in Milford Bay.

Brooklands Farm, named after the stream winding its way through the property, is a haven of fresh vegetables, berries, honey and old-fashioned hospitality.

Ken and Katya Riley are the husband and wife team that owns and operates the successful farm. Located just off Highway 118 on the aptly named Butter and Egg Road, the farm is both easily accessible and peacefully quiet.

The only sounds you’ll hear are those from delighted customers picking berries, purchasing corn or asking the Rileys for advice.

“Great conversations happen when Katya is helping customers,” says Ken, a fifth-generation Brooklands farmer. “She often chats with our visitors while they’re making purchases.”

Those chats include tips on healthy eating and living – not to mention great recipes. Ken and Katya pride themselves on living “from field to fork” and are always willing to share their philosophy with customers.

So much so in fact, the couple is currently renovating the “Dairy” – the original Riley homestead and former pasteurization facility – into a space to host cooking classes. Using the original log cabin as a base for the modern workspace, they look forward to welcoming chefs and students to their beloved farm.

And that’s just one small step in the evolution of Brooklands. The farm is constantly expanding and contracting with the addition of new crops or items (they now keep bees that produce delicious buckwheat honey) and the dismissal of old techniques, or ideas that didn’t pan out.

Yes, much has changed since Charles Riley first broke ground in 1876, but there is one thing that stays the same: a passion for the land.

“We live it, we eat it, we breathe it,” says Katya.

That, coupled with plenty of hard work, is the reason Brooklands has been so successful.

Muskoka isn’t exactly known for its forgiving farming conditions. Hundreds of stories throughout history have told of farmers moving to the area with hopes of making their fortune off the beautiful Muskokan land – only to be bitterly defeated.

This, according to Ken, was the result of some seriously bad advice.

“Those gentleman farmers made a lot of mistakes,” he says “but they didn’t have the right information.”

According to Ken, those farmers weren’t told how to work with the land they’d been given – they used farming advice based on a different environment that ended up killing their dreams and their crops.

He knows what he’s talking about. With a PhD in agriculture, he has travelled the world learning and educating others about sustainable farming methods – techniques he puts to use in his own backyard.

It’s called biological and sustainable farming, and it’s a process that has proven successful for Brooklands.

The farm is constantly nourishing itself as well as its customers. With intricate crop rotation schedules, each and every seed planted on the farm is either replenishing the last crop’s soil, or growing the vegetables and berries customers love.

To those who aren’t agriculturally savvy, that might just seem like good sense. But really, it’s a fine balance that allows the soil to hold on to its nutrients while preventing erosion and discouraging weeds, diseases and pests from moving in.

Ken plants specific crops so he doesn’t have to spray the fields with chemicals unless it’s absolutely necessary.

“We have a certain threshold,” he says. “We tolerate a certain amount of pests, but if they get too bad, we’ll spray.”

Luckily that hasn’t had to happen in a long time, meaning the produce is naturally delicious and nutritious. Customers devour the produce the Rileys dub “better than organic” and take pleasure in supporting a farm with so much local knowledge and history.

Life at Brooklands might sound like a dream, but for Ken and Katya, it’s been a long time coming.

The couple met in India when Ken arrived in Katya’s hometown to complete his PhD thesis. From there they travelled the world, living in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Singapore, Malaysia and nearly everywhere in between. Their two sons, Nikhil and Rohan, were both born in India.

But no matter where he roamed, the family farm was never far from Ken’s mind. In 1999, the family returned to Milford Bay for good and surrendered themselves to the land.

For a place that’s been in the family for six generations now, it’s safe to say that Brooklands has a way of calling her sons home.

Many Rileys have moved away from the farm, only to return years later. George, the son of original owner Charles Riley, moved to the Toronto area to become a train conductor when farming couldn’t support his growing family. Successful until he caused a train to overturn near Oshawa in 1899, the engineer made his way back to Brooklands to tend his father’s land.

George made many improvements to the farm, including the construction of more modern buildings. His son Roy eventually took over and turned Brooklands into the pasteurization centre for every farm in the area – at that time, a total that reached 13 on Butter and Egg Road alone.

Roy’s son Walker began working on the farm in earnest after returning from Europe and his stint as a bomber pilot in the Second World War. After years of farming, he moved his wife and children (including Ken) to southern Ontario while he completed his education in agricultural studies.

From there, Walker became a university professor and moved the family to various locations in Ontario and Quebec before finally returning home.

As for being pressured to follow in his father’s footsteps, Ken says no. So what makes the Rileys keep coming back?

“You have to have passion and a bit of craziness to keep it going,” says Ken “but it’s a special part of our life and has a lot of meaning to the family.”

His wife agrees.

“The land is a family member and you’ve got to care for it,” says Katya.

And care for it they do. Working with seasonal interns, Ken and Katya put in 15-16 hour days and rarely get time off.

“It’s like a 24-hour job,” says Katya. “Nature doesn’t wait for you. The zucchinis don’t just say ‘I’m big enough to be picked, but I’ll wait until you’re ready!’”

In the winter the couple often dreams of going on vacation, but faces busy days filled with woodcutting (they heat their home with wood-burning stoves) and preparing for a maple syrup season that starts earlier and earlier every year.

The maple syrup produced at Brooklands is one of the most popular items sold, and one of the biggest sources of income for the farm. No longer keeping livestock, the Rileys take pride in producing various types of syrup right on site. Visitors come from far and wide just to stock up on the famous Brooklands maple syrup.

According to Ken, Muskoka may not have the best soil, but it does have the best customers. With both seasonal and full-time residents, Brooklands has the market that other, more fertile, areas of Ontario dream of.

And while summer might be the height of the busy season, autumn has its plusses too. Fall crops like corn, root vegetables and pumpkins are a treat for customers who come to the farm not only for the produce, but to take in the spectacular scenery as well.

After a lifetime of caring for the land, Ken still finds the farm fascinating. The wetlands surrounding Brooklands and complex ecosystem of the area make it impossible for the farm to expand its acreage, but the Rileys focus on integrating Brooklands into the natural environment in a positive way.

It’s that level of care for the land that makes the produce so delicious and the family so admired.

As for the future of the farm, his sons are showing interest, but Ken sticks to his father’s philosophy: if you want to, come back.

And if they don’t, the Rileys will welcome an outsider.

“Hopefully whoever comes in will make it a part of his family too,” says Katya.

For now though, the Rileys continue to put their heart and soul into the soil. Whatever the future holds for Brooklands, one thing is for certain: the Rileys are a part of Muskoka’s history and will feed local communities for years to come.

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