Putting the Yak in Pontiac

EMILY HSUEH

Gema Villavicencio was never a farmer. She grew up in Nicaragua where she and her family owned some chickens, but she never raised cattle, tended to fields of vegetables, or harvested crops.
At the age of 14, Villavicencio moved to Canada with her mother to begin a better life. She learned English and eventually found employment as a banker. She met her husband, Marc, a member of the Canadian Forces. Because of this, Villavicencio, Marc, and their daughter Sofia have been on the move from city to city in Canada, staying no longer than three years in one place at a time.
As they settled in new places, the family realized they wanted more and more land. So with each relocation, they bought bigger properties. Their last home in Quebec City sat on half an acre of land. There, they decided to plant some fruits and vegetables for themselves.
“That’s where it grew for us the difference we saw in food that we would grow compared to what we would find at the store that comes from other countries,” Villavicencio said. “So we decided that going back to basics was the best thing for us.”
Now, Villavicencio and her family are the proud owners of Pure Conscience, an 80-acre farm in Bristol which is only in its second year of production. They have laying chickens, honeybee hives, greenhouses with an abundance of unique vegetables and, most recently, a herd of yaks — a bovine native to the Himalayas. Villavicencio says that her husband is nearing the end of his career with the Forces, so their Pontiac farm will be their new long-term focus.
“Did I see myself on a farm when I was little? Not exactly,” Villavicencio said. “I think it’s something that just grew with us within the past five years because of what we eat, because of what we have available and because we know that what we grow is completely different than something that is commercially made.
“Once that clicked, we said, ‘Hey, there is a lot of land that is not used in all of Canada. Why don’t we do something? Why don’t we produce our own vegetables, our own meat, our own everything and we become self-sufficient?’ And along with that, we can share the products that we offer so they also eat healthy.”

Villavicencio holds up a bunch of sweet potatoes that were grown from seeds on her farm and harvested by Pascal Richard.

Pure Conscience prides itself on being completely natural, organic and health-conscious. Villavicencio explained that all of their products are sourced and produced locally, without the use of pesticides or chemicals. They are the only certified egg producers in the region, and are working towards getting all of their products certified as organic.
It began with their bees. When they moved to the Pontiac, Marc took a beekeeping class and they set up a few hives to make their own honey.
“Our first harvest was an amazing, magical thing, our own pure honey,” she said. “Our honey, when we tasted it for the first time, we realized, ‘Wow, what a difference.’ The flowers throughout the year change the taste of the honey.”
From there, they couldn’t go back; store-bought honey was no match for the liquid gold that they harvested themselves, thus they came up with the perfect name for the farm.
“It was a pure honey that came out of there, so it was Pure Conscience.”
According to their website, the experience of producing their own natural honey brought about a dream, one which they hold to a high standard three years after their first harvest: “to share naturally-produced food with others and to change the world’s conscience.”
Not only do they want Pure Conscience to be completely organic, they also want their farm to be unique. To bring something to the market that not only upholds their dream of health but also introduces people to new products that will surprise them.
Hence, the yaks.

One of the 18 yaks in the herd at Pure Conscience farm. According to Villavicencio, they are smaller than cows, but much more nutritious and are easier to care for.

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“We want to be different. We want to bring to the people — and to us as well since we eat what we produce — something that was pure and also different,” Villavicencio said. “We wanted to change the conscience of people or just open up the conscience of people to look at different things as well.”
Yaks fit into their vision for their farm so well because of that fact that so much of the animal can be used, Villavicencio explained. Their long hair is soft and good for crafting. Their meat is more nutrient-dense than a cow’s; three to five per cent fat, rich in protein with no cholesterol. Their milk is said to make wonderful cheese.
However, Villavicencio was not expecting to be a yak farmer so soon after establishing her farm. In fact, they were not planning to have yaks on their property for another five years at least. But a opportune series of events sped up the process.
“My husband had gone to a meeting of the MAPAQ where there was somebody who had yaks,” Villavicencio recalled. “We started researching the yak, and then we realized that there are so many good things about yaks in general, and it goes along with our organic, health-conscious farm. So we started researching to see…how we can go and get ourselves some yaks.”
They contacted a man in Gaspésie who had a herd of yaks to get some advice. To their amazement, the man was retiring and selling his yaks and Villavicencio saw it as their chance.
“We were like, ‘Oh my god, I think we are going to be getting yaks a lot sooner than we thought.’ And that’s what happened. We bought a herd of yaks.”
They hired some help and built a fence in three weeks. After traveling with her daughter to see the herd, the 18 yaks made their new home in the Pontiac on Aug. 19.

Villavicencio smiles after feeding her herd of yaks, who had just let her touch them for the first time. She was not planning on getting yaks at her farm for another five years, but opportune events led them to her just one month ago.

In addition to the produce they sell, Villavicencio also offers soaps she makes with local ingredients like the farm’s honey as well as clay from the Quyon River. They call it Opera of the Soaps, after Marc’s love for the genre. Each kind is named after a different opera. They can be found at several local farmers’ markets with these soaps as well as produce.
Despite only being in their second year of production, business has been booming and Villavicencio is proud of what her family has accomplished.
“We’re very new to farming, so everything is a learning experience,” she said. “I couldn’t say I’m more proud of one thing over another. Everything has been an entire project on its own, and I’m proud of everything we have done.”
Villavicencio said she is grateful for all the help she and her family have received from the people of the Pontiac. She plans to continue producing organic goods for the region and is excited to bring her farm to its full potential.
“It’s a lot of work but at the end of it, it’s something tangible that we can actually see…It’s amazing, we’re super happy.”

Pure Conscience farm.

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