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Linking past, present and future at O’Brien Farm in St. John's

Shannie Duff, chair of the O’Brien Farm Foundation, holds eggs from the chicken coop at the farm. She said the goal is not to leave the farm “frozen in time” but to recognize its history while educating people and encouraging sustainable farming into the future.
Shannie Duff, chair of the O’Brien Farm Foundation, holds eggs from the chicken coop at the farm. She said the goal is not to leave the farm “frozen in time” but to recognize its history while educating people and encouraging sustainable farming into the future. - Juanita Mercer

Fundraising efforts to create interpretive area at Thimble Cottage, construct learning centre

A fundraising frenzy kicked off this week for O’Brien Farm in Pippy Park. Plans for the 30-acre property will acknowledge its history while focusing on the future of farming.

The farm’s former owners, the O’Brien family, operated it as a family agriculture enterprise for about 185 years.

An architectural rendering shows what the learning centre at O’Brien Farm will look like when it’s completed in 2021. -Computer screenshot
An architectural rendering shows what the learning centre at O’Brien Farm will look like when it’s completed in 2021. -Computer screenshot

Aloysius (Aly) O’Brien defended the farm from encroaching development until his death in 2008, and through his will, he continues to defend the farm today.

With no direct descendants, O’Brien decreed that he wanted either a non-governmental organization to buy his farm and use it as a centre commemorating Irish-Newfoundland heritage, or for the province to buy it and ensure that it was leased as farmland.

The O’Brien Farm Foundation aims to operate the property consistent with his wishes – specifically, to advance public education on past, present and future sustainable agricultural practices, and preserve the history of Irish settlement and farming on the Northeast Avalon.

Last year, the foundation received federal/provincial funding of a combined $863,750 to help with those aims.

But another $500,000 is needed to complete improvements to the land, infrastructure and programming.

Plans for the farm include turning three rooms in the historic Thimble Cottage farmhouse back to the style of three historical periods during which the farm was in use. A room at the front of the cottage will reflect the 19 century, a middle room the turn of the century, and Aly O’Brien’s parlour – where he frequently welcomed visitors – will be replicated in the last room.

The foundation also aims to build a modern learning centre near the cottage.

It will house two classrooms that can merge into one large assembly space, a small kitchen, outdoor class space, and a reception hall. The building will be fully accessible, including a small bridge linking the parking lot to the centre.

Shannie Duff, chair of the foundation, said the learning centre’s modern design picks up on elements of the cottage, such as the peaked roof.

“We’re linking the past, present and future with the whole bit,” she said.

“It’s not intended to be frozen in time; it’s intended to bring farming into a better profile so people can begin to realize how important it is, and where it started because there’s been very, very little done to show people about the history of farming.”

The foundation aims to have the centre completed by 2021.

When it’s up and running, they will also hire three staff: a program coordinator, manager, and farmer-in-residence.

O’Brien Farm is undergoing many improvements, including work on the farmland trails, which was done by members of Conservation Corps’ Green Team during the summer. (From left) Ellen Power, Kathleen Clarke, Mark Singleton, and Gurzint Singh.
O’Brien Farm is undergoing many improvements, including work on the farmland trails, which was done by members of Conservation Corps’ Green Team during the summer. (From left) Ellen Power, Kathleen Clarke, Mark Singleton, and Gurzint Singh.

Currently, architects are finalizing the detailed drawings and the goal is to begin construction before this winter.

Duff said the significant amount of work involved getting to this point has been done by a dedicated and large group of volunteers or community organizations – everything down to clearing the farmland trails of its overgrowth.

Members of Conservation Corps’ Green Team worked during the summer to revive a walking trail. They even built a bug sanctuary along the trail for overwintering butterflies, and ensured flowers along the trail originally planted by Aly O’Brien are visible for people walking along the route.

“Aly originally built the trails because developers were encroaching on farmland in this area, so he built this forest trail through the woods here to sort of stake a claim on that edge of his property so the developers wouldn’t co-opt it,” said Green Team member Ellen Power.

“It’s exciting to bring it back to life.”

Twitter: @juanitamercer_


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