PEI·First Person

I left Charlottetown for a rural homestead and it changed my idea of work-life balance and food

Erin Gillespie always wanted to start up a homestead someday. When opportunity knocked, the idea of moving her life and her business to the country seemed impossible at first.

There really is nothing like trading gardening secrets and produce with friends

A person with pigtails holds a garden tool. A garden can be seen in the background.
Erin Gillespie threw herself into homesteading in 2016. (Submitted by Erin Gillespie)

This First Person column is the experience of Erin Gillespie, who is a master hairstylist, homesteader and podcaster in Sea View, P.E.I. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Hobbling downstairs at breakfast time, every muscle from my hips to my toes was aching. It felt like I had done 900 squats. But I wasn't at the gym. I had been planting 900 onions by hand to last my family through the winter.

Homesteading was something I dreamed of doing someday but leaving Charlottetown and moving out to the country didn't seem feasible. I'm a master hairstylist and own my studio. Running my business and commuting into town every day for an hour each way seemed not only ridiculous but maybe even impossible. Guess what? It wasn't. 

In 2016, my wife suggested we take the leap and see if we liked country living. We had the opportunity to rent her great-grandparents' property on the north shore of P.E.I., so there was no long-term commitment but it would mean giving up our affordable apartment in Charlottetown. I grew up in a small town just outside of Sydney, N.S., so it's not that I didn't want to move to a small, rural community. But I believed I couldn't live in and enjoy the country if I worked in the city. I had it in my head that those were two different worlds and I could only pick one. 

But I love my wife — and we've all done crazy things for love. So I decided to go all in, embracing this opportunity with everything I had.

Grass and a garden in the foreground with blue sky and big clouds visible.
Gillespie’s homestead is in Sea View on P.E.I.’s north shore. (Submitted by Erin Gillespie)

Just a few weeks after we arrived at the family homestead, I settled in by planting the massive garden. My neighbours have a tractor and they helped me expand the existing garden on the property to about 1,400 square feet. 

I had never planted a garden before but I had worked on an organic farm in Ontario for a brief time in my late teens and early 20s. While gardening in P.E.I. is in some ways different from Ontario, I realized I could grow a lot of the same vegetables. 

It was wildly ambitious, but I just dove in and started figuring out what I wanted to eat, what could grow in this climate and what things you can plant together (also known as companion planting) to help deal with pests naturally. 

I found my information mostly on YouTube and Google. Admittedly, expanding the garden was a massive undertaking but I learned so much in that first year. 

A loaf of bread, eggs, herbs in pots, and jars of various foods sit on a counter.
Gillespie quickly learned how to preserve and store the food she grows in her garden. (Submitted by Erin Gillespie)

The potatoes were the easiest to take care of. I packed them into big mesh bags and kept them in a wooden bin in my kitchen. I found a simple way to braid the onions together on YouTube and hung them all over my pantry walls. Taking advantage of the uninsulated walls of our 150-year-old home, the kitchen and pantry were exactly the best places to store food. 

The tomatoes proved to be a steeper learning curve. I tried canning recipes for salsa, tomato sauces and whole canned tomatoes. But I learned time is of the essence when trying to preserve hundreds of tomatoes before they decay. Turns out it's easier to get the skins off and can whole tomatoes in the fall rather than waste precious time turning them into sauces first.

I was able to preserve and store enough tomatoes, onions and potatoes to last us until spring. 

Lastly, I rented a couple of chickens. Since I had no experience with hens, I figured renting them from a friend's farm would give me a low-commitment way to learn as well as having a mentor along the way. 

A person with long hair in braids stands in a field, wearing gloves and holding a shovel.
Gillespie eventually moved her business closer to the homestead, giving her more time to work in the garden (Submitted by Erin Gillespie)

I've gained so much more than just practical knowledge. I've learned that there really is nothing like growing your food, saving your seeds as well as trading secrets and produce with friends. There's a feeling I can only describe as magical when I walk out to my yard in the morning and pick fresh foods for breakfast. Truly, the flavours and bright colours of fresh food make my heart so happy in a way I never imagined. 

WATCH | Wave of retirements threatens farming in Canada: 

Intense labour shortage looms in Canada’s farming industry: report

12 months ago
Duration 2:17
A recent report says Canada needs to welcome 30,000 immigrants to offset a labour shortage and the rapid rate of retiring farmers, but there are challenges for newcomers looking to take up farming in Canada.

The homestead has been nothing short of transformational. I eventually moved my business closer to home, cutting my commute short and giving me more time to spend in the garden or hiking country roads with my dog.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, we were fortunate and grateful for those preserves and stored vegetables. I watched bartering come alive over the last few years as we traded and shared what we grew with our friends in exchange for their resources, foods, and skills. 

That garden, it turns out, has been a small sense of security during hard times. Now I know what vegetables I want to grow and how much. I also try something new every year. This year, that's going to be luffa. Yes, the original shower luffa is a vegetable. Who knew?

How to submit a First Person pitch to CBC P.E.I.

If you've been struggling with the rising cost of, well, everything — you're not alone. P.E.I. has seen some of the highest inflation rates in the country, average rents are higher than they've ever been, the cost to buy a house has just about doubled in the last decade, the cost of food seems like it just keeps going up, and the list goes on.

That's where you come in. Have you ever thought about writing your own story, sharing your perspective or life experience?

Here's how you can share your story with CBC Prince Edward Island.


Erin Gillespie

Freelance Contributor

Erin Gillespie is a master hairstylist, homesteader and podcaster in Sea View, P.E.I.