City dwellers may easily forget the incredible natural beauty Greater Victoria has to offer, but a short drive out of the heart of downtown will find a small therapeutic hobby farm that is working to reconnect people, animals and land.
Tucked into the picturesque rocks of the Highlands is Bear ‘N Bee Therapeutic Farm. The drive up to the farm is full of hiking trails, small community information bulletin boards and even a Little Free Library.
Upon entering the driveway to the family-run hobby farm, Cosmo the dog bounds down the hill, eager to welcome someone new to his home.
Jess Duncan and her mother Michelle Wagner operate the farm, along with Duncan’s husband and children. With chickens, bunnies, goats, lambs, miniature donkeys and ponies, a lot of help is needed.
That is why Wagner dubs the farm a “village” that brings people together to connect with the land and the animals.
After buying the property two years ago, Duncan wanted to foster the animal-loving sides of her children, specifically a daughter who loves horses. That’s when the idea of starting the hobby farm really solidified for her and Duncan. On a little over seven acres, the farm started with just two goats and two sheep, eventually growing into what it is today.
“We slowly started wondering how we could use the land in a purposeful way,” Duncan said.
Both Duncan and Wagner have experience in fields that involve working with people with brain injuries and diverse abilities. Duncan said they wanted to incorporate that into their farm.
“We wanted to make it for people who we feel are often left out of things because it is not accessible to them,” Wagner said. “We have a variety of community groups that come to spend time here, lots of kids on the spectrum and what we’ve seen so far is that it is really successful for them. It’s not like school where everything is structured with a time and activity.”
One child who comes to the farm often has excelled in exploring the property independently, favouring the chickens over the playground and individually connecting with the animals.
“We want them to build skills and confidence and courage and curiosity to feel like they are apart of this place,” Wagner said. “It is not our farm, it’s everybody’s farm - everybody becomes apart of it. It takes all of us to create that sense of a village and connection. Connection is very important to us.”
Through a six-week program, parents can bring their kids to the farm once a week to play with and care for the animals, learn about the land, be outside and build community.
“We do a lot of farm jobs, activities and purposeful tasks for kids,” Duncan said. “The kids get to feed the animals and help out. These kinds of purposeful tasks give kids a lot of confidence and boosts their self-esteem because they are not always given the opportunities in daily life, you know, where they are given what feels like a very important job.”
But the farm isn’t just for those with little ones. After hearing from parents, they started doing more adult-only events like a painting night and wreath making.
The real magic of Bear ‘N Bee is in their “yes” policy. Duncan and Wagner said they try to respond to people’s needs with yes, regardless of financial ability and when people reach out asking if they can participate in the farm, they offer volunteer slots or will get them into the program if there is room.
When the pandemic zapped programs from organizations that work with people with disabilities, Duncan said she would get messages asking if the farm could be a place of refuge for people to come and have fun and volunteer. The best part of owning the farm is getting to say yes to those people, Duncan said.
“We just try to say yes to these people who are otherwise getting no’s,” she said. “We wanted to open our space to the community.”