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Remote Canadian general store offering jobs and free land got over 100,000 applications

On Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada, you can find a square dance every weekend in the summer. The Celtic Colours International Music Festival, celebrating the region's ancestral Gaelic music, is an annual highlight. Other festivals include a boozy "pig and whistle" event and four-wheel mud rallies, which involve splashing through huge puddles on an off-roader.

The Cape Breton town of Whycocomagh has only about 400 residents, well over half of whom are retired. The owners of the local general store The Farmer's Daughter can find plenty of help in the summer when school is out, but in winter, able bodies are scarce.

So the sisters who run The Farmer's Daughter, Sandee MacLean and Heather Coulombe, put up a Help Wanted ad on Facebook. Because the family owns almost 250 acres in the area, they decided to sweeten the deal by offering two acres of land to any new hire who stays around for five years.

The only cost to the new hires would be the cost of the deed transfer, which usually runs a few thousand dollars, the sisters estimate.

They posted the ad at about 10:00 pm one night at the end of August. Coulombe hoped to get ten applications. MacLean was a bit more optimistic: She expected perhaps 100.

To date, The Farmer's Daughter has received more than 100,000 emails from interested applicants (they estimate five percent of those emails may be follow-up emails from the same applicant). The sisters can't keep up with their inbox.

The overwhelming enthusiasm has led them to go on a hiring spree. So far, the sisters have brought on three out-of-towners, full-time, and two of their spouses, as well as three locals. In the spring, they plan to hire another four team members and, further down the line, another six.

Now that they have so many fantastic applicants, the sisters are also planning to expand their business.

'Beautiful island needs people'

Whycocomagh: "You just have to say it fast. If you try to say it slow, you won't be able to say it," says MacLean.

The Farmer's Daughter, a general store that sells everything from vegetables to homemade pies to homespun crafts, was started by dairy farmers Jim and Fern Austin in 1992. Worried about the stability of the dairy industry, they opened the store to give themselves an alternate revenue source.

Heather Coulombe (left) and sister Sandee MacLean.
Photo courtesy The Farmer's Daughter
Heather Coulombe (left) and sister Sandee MacLean.

The Austins have four daughters, including MacLean, who just turned 40 and who has worked at the family store for ten years, and Coulombe, who moved back home from British Columbia earlier this year to help MacLean run the store after their parents retired.

Life in Whycocomagh revolves around the community and life outdoors. By car, it takes an hour and a half to get to the movies, and there are no bars in town.

"Some people think that we don't have any electricity here, but we do. We are like everywhere else except our entertainment and our pace of life is a lot slower," MacLean tells CNBC. "The jobs that are here are little community jobs like what is offered at The Farmer's Daughter. They don't pay a lot but then, your stress level isn't really big here as well."

The coast of Cape Breton, the island on which the town of Whycocomagh is located. Photo credit: The Farmer's Daughter.

Starting salaries for the jobs being offered at The Farmer's Daughter are between 10.70 CAD to 12.00 CAD an hour depending on experience, according to a Facebook post answering questions about the jobs.

Many local families depend on incomes made by men who travel to work higher-paying jobs off the island. A typical question around town, says MacLean, is, "What rotation does your husband work?"

Tourists arrive when summer does to enjoy the breathtaking scenery and epic golf courses. In winter, the population dwindles. The sisters wanted to find permanent year-round residents to enrich Whycocomagh at large. "We are not just hiring for The Farmer's Daughter," MacLean says. "We are also hiring for the community."

Meet the new hires

When Brett Walkins, 34, lost his job working as a project manager in the civil construction industry in British Columbia in January, he and his wife Kerry sold their house and their belongings and moved with their two young kids into a camper-trailer.

The Walkins family was traveling around Canada and the United States in their camper when they saw the news that The Farmer's Daughter was hiring. "The minute I saw it I knew this was something we had to apply for," says Kerry, in a phone conversation with CNBC. Kerry, The Farmer's Daugther's first hire, was brought on full-time. Brett works part-time.

Brett and Kerry Walkins with their two kids.
Photo courtesy The Farmer's Daughter
Brett and Kerry Walkins with their two kids.

"We said we have had enough of the rat race, we have had enough of him working 60 hours a week and commuting three hours a day, and we wanted somewhere we could have more land where the kids could explore and be outside and that we could grow our own food and be part of a smaller community and spend more time together as a family," says Kerry.

Sonja Andersen, a single mom and mortgage broker, read about the job offers on Facebook. Her daughter, now 10, was being bullied in school, and the two of them were looking for a new beginning.

"We didn't sell anything. We don't have much to sell. Everything that I own is stuff that we got for free off Craigslist. We threw it on a moving truck," says Andersen. With her daughter and two dogs, Andersen road-tripped across Canada in nine days. "We really need a fresh start."

The new hires have been charmed by Nova Scotia life so far. "This is exactly what we didn't know what we were looking for. It's exactly what we wanted but we never knew where it was," says Kerry.


The road to the wooded property that the sisters who own The Farmer's Daughter are giving away with five years work. Photo credit: The Farmer's Daughter.

The Walkins are already planning how to build an off-the-grid house on their new land. The road to the land is government listed, meaning that it will be plowed, but there's no electricity and no gas, and there's no economically feasible way of running power or gas to the land, either. Likewise, there's a spring, but no well.

Andersen is interested in buying a tiny house. It would match the local bank. "The bank is in a little tiny old house, it is all refurbished. It's so cute you wouldn't know it was the bank, but it's the bank," says Andersen.

The Whycocomagh bank.
Photo courtesy Sonja Andersen
The Whycocomagh bank.

The Trump bump

The job application went up at the end of August, but after the Presidential election, MacLean says she started to notice comments in application emails from frustrated Americans looking for a way out of a new reality where Donald Trump is the President-elect.

The comments in emails that jumped out to the sisters were coming from minorities "saying they fear for their safety, or that America is not the country for them anymore," Coulombe tells CNBC.

The sisters currently have 17,000 unread emails and only make their way through between 100 and 1000 a day, so it's impossible for Coulombe to say exactly what percentage of the applications are motivated by anxieties around America's new president, but she has noticed the trend.

Coulombe says that it's easier for The Farmer's Daughter to hire a permanent resident or an American who has dual citizenship with Canada, but for the right, highly-skilled worker, the sisters would consider going through the visa application process.

The enthusiastic response to their Facebook ad has brought the family a lot of media attention. The owners have been approached by 10 producers looking to feature them in reality television shows and documentary series projects. The sisters have chosen one producer, though they can't yet announce their winner.

It's all a bit shocking for the sisters. But they are adjusting, and they are trying to use the limelight carefully.

"The story is that you don't have to have a big expensive job and a big fancy house to have a life that you like living," says MacLean. "And you don't have to have a job that is stressful. Things aren't as important as being outside and being with your family."