STORY BY CATHERINE GERSON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BERNICE HALSBAND
If you had the pleasure of meeting Murray Thunberg a few years ago, it might have been while raising a glass at a Louis Vuitton event in Kuala Lumpur or a music industry party in Nashville. Perhaps you met while exchanging pleasantries with the prime minister of Singapore. It's possible you even air-kissed at Chloé's private label party.
The A-list-lifestyle stories wouldn't sound so far-fetched, I suppose, if I weren't trudging through pig shit to meet the newest litter of day-old Hereford piglets on Murray's Ontario farm.
I visited him near Cambridge one afternoon last spring. He was unloading a few fresh bales of hay for his calves as I hovered on the sidelines in my rubber boots. I was thrilled to be there, albeit a little nervous that I might step in something I shouldn't.
"Wanna take a walk around?" he offered.
We stopped in to see the litter of piglets, guarded by a giant sow who grunted loudly as Murray approached. Two Gloucestershire Old Spots followed us around, tripping over one another to sniff my city boots. We crossed a hill to a small herd of cows and pigs grazing together. Yet another fearless animal, a cow this time, brazenly nuzzled my rear while another exfoliated my arm with her rough tongue. A nearby sow soaked up the sun as a half-dozen piglets snorted noisily, wiggling in where they could for a feeding. Finally, we made our way back to the henhouses to collect eggs. Three hundred heritage hens—Americaunas, Blue Marans, Black Minorcas, Silver-Spangled Hamburgs—pecked, perched, dust-bathed and milled about in apparent glee. As I plucked eggs of various sizes and colours from straw-lined boxes, underneath the hens' warm soft bellies, and hidden away on top of wooden beams, I felt a wave of pure satisfaction.
This bucolic scene is worlds apart from Murray's life just five years before. He describes his foray into the music and fashion scene as a happy accident. Photographic remnants of his posh past as a music-industry professional linger in his Facebook photo albums but you won't find any sign of it in his farmhouse today, other than a handful of promotional CDs. Instead, stacks of empty egg flats ready to be filled line every corner of his house.
A self-proclaimed dreamer, he left Alberta for Toronto at the age of twenty-one with a suitcase and $100 in his pocket. A few bartending and serving jobs later he found work for the celebrity-packed, but now defunct fundraiser, Fashion Cares. With charm and gregariousness and a stack of contacts, he embraced his new status—the go-to guy for special events—with relative ease. The social nature of his new career inevitably saw him frequenting trendy restaurants, where his contacts list grew to include several chefs and restaurateurs.
"Farming was always on my mind, but throughout the 1990s and 2000s, you just accepted things," he said about the state of food in the city. But the local food movement was gaining traction and they were demanding pasture-raised animals. "It's obvious that people aren't accepting industrialized food anymore," he added. "It's a sorry state that people have tried to consolidate the whole food industry into factory farms."
A witness to the rapidly changing restaurant scene in Toronto, Murray gathered that there was a market for heritage breeds and decided to make his move. In 2011, he left the city after a friend tipped him off about a farm for rent, and he sold the eggs from his first flock of one hundred to Jamie Kennedy, the tireless local-food champion. His hens laid distinctive brown, speckled, alabaster and even blue eggs that immediately set Murray apart. In his first deliveries, Murray would arrange the eggs on flats so the coloured ones formed the J or K of his inaugural customer's name. His quirks endeared him to other restaurants and, later, to supermarkets like McEwan's and Pusateri's and sustainability-minded butcher shops such as Royal Beef, Sanagan's and Olliffe. (Sold under the Murray's Farm label, the eggs are graded and are legal for retail sale.)
The setting of his farm in Woolwich Township, located in the Bermuda Triangle-like section between Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge, mirrors Murray's rural upbringing. His parents farmed grains and livestock near Provost, Alberta. His brothers later took over the farm, and today they're still surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles with farms a few miles from each other.
"The smell of certain things triggers a memory: Rubbing dirt off a carrot and eating it straight from the ground.... I'm four years old in the back seat of the car when I smell baby chicks..." Murray recounted nostalgic stories with flair. His grandmother's classic henhouse even serves as an example of his cage-free practices. "It was just beautiful. The hens were outside; the low bushes would shield them from hawks."
It's hard to imagine that a man who once depended on his social connections for work now operates an entirely self-run farm, and has since he started. Only recently has he considered hiring help though, surprisingly, not for the company. "Most days, I don't miss the socializing. A simple comment on Facebook in support of my work can make me feel so proud."
Jamie Kennedy was happy to share his thoughts on how their business relationship came to be: "The egg is such a basic part of the pantry that you don't necessarily look for excellence. It felt right and good to support Murray and this excellence that he was producing." It was a clear gesture of support to commit to purchasing a kitchen staple from a humane and local source.
Farmers and producers were also starting to see the benefits of labelling their products, even if it was obvious to them. In a sea of labels like organic, free-range, small-herd or small-flock, Murray opted for the under-used "pastured" egg label, which was something the industry hadn't really seen, he said.
His business was founded on eggs, which were small and easy to handle. But he quickly progressed to pigs, cows and turkeys, animals he had wanted to raise all along.
Certainly, Murray is not alone in his pursuit of raising happy and healthy animals for food. But it is the kind of work that merits recognition and support. His success represents the consumers' desire to know where their food comes from and the ability to make that choice with their dollar.
From our chats it's easy to gather how Murray's views on farm-animal welfare shape his practices. His care for animals is readily apparent, from the names he gives them to the selfless dedication he showers them with. It is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job in the most literal sense.
When snow and windstorms hit in early March of this year, they devastated land and separated piglets from their mothers. He shared his hardships with his Facebook friends, but these virtual connections are merely complementary to the satisfaction he gets from his work. "I find solace in animals in all the loneliness" he offered. "In some ways, I live more of a privileged life. I witness miracles on a daily basis. Watching social interactions between happy animals is...," he trailed off, "...it's real life."
Catherine Gerson is a lover of good food and happy animals. She works in Communications for World Animal Protection (www.worldanimalprotection.ca) and endeavours to share her passion through compelling storytelling and innovative connections. World Animal Protection was formerly known as WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals).