Sunday, 27 January 2013


When I first proposed the idea to XB, he laughed at my naiveté.  "You know farming is work.  It's not just fun and relaxation."  Part of the work is planning how to access land and how to transition from working day jobs in the city to working on the farm.  In fact, many new farmers I've spoken with love the actual farm work, but struggle with planning, bookkeeping, adherence to regulations and the like.  In the spring of 2012 I discovered Farmstart, which offers courses to new prospective farmers from urban backgrounds.  We signed up for their introductory hands-on farming course, which would start in February 2013.  In the meantime we continued to read up on growing, marketing, assessing soils, controlling pests naturally and the myriad other issues that farmers need to understand.  We also began checking out land in southwestern Ontario, just out of curiosity.

We made our first farm visit in November, before winter set in.  It was a 10-acre property with a newly renovated 4-bedroom house about a half-hour drive north of Brampton.  The seller, a man in his late fifties, was asking $650,000.   He explained that he did contracting work on houses all over the GTA, which meant he spent a lot of his time on the road.  This was where he spent his evenings and weekends.  It was nice, quiet, and close enough to a small service town, just off the highway heading back to the city, but far enough away that you wouldn't hear the traffic as you sat on the deck after a long day.

We realized though that with our savings and the money we would make on the sale of our house, we would still have to take out a hefty new mortgage that we'd never pay off.  At this point, we were still thinking one of us would hang onto his job in the city, while the other might get started on developing the farm.  XB works in a northern suburb and could still drive in if need be.  he has colleagues who live as far out as Hamilton, who still managed to make the commute regularly.  But it seemed to defeat the purpose of moving out to the country if we were still spending the bulk of the day navigating urban sprawl and long hours in offices.  We decided to refine out search criteria.

The second visit happened in early January 2013, after we had realized that, with all of the small university cities in the area, we could find a patch of land and make a much easier commute into a smaller, friendlier city if we had to earn off-farm wages.  We drove out just north of Peterborough on a rainy Saturday morning to meet Gabrielle, who had her 50-acre farm up for sale, and had been trying to sell it since the previous spring.  Gabrielle had an abrupt manner, but was kind and keen to give us a thorough look at the property.

We started with a tour of the 19th century house, which had been upgraded over the years.  It had a substantial add-on and included four bedrooms upstairs, a root cellar and a general coziness.  We headed outside afterwards, walking across tall waterlogged grasses  and over to the second structure, a storage shed.  Then there was a massive barn for keeping hay, and finally a long building that looked like it could be a community hall - likely suited to keeping animals.  The land was beautiful, quiet, with a wooded wetland at the outer edge of the rolling expanse and a small, vibrant greenhouse behind the house warmed by solar energy.

We thanked her for the tour.  I was impressed, but we realized that all of the buildings would require continual repair or would have to eventually be demolished and hauled away, which would cost a small fortune.  fifty acres would also be a lot more than we would need, especially starting out mainly growing vegetables.  Then there was the hydro transformer sitting in the middle of the property, a foreboding point of focus. The asking price was about half of the first place we looked at, but we passed.

Before the end of January we managed to look at another couple of farms in Norfolk county, known as Ontario's Garden.  On a wildly windy Saturday we drove past Brantford and on through an indian reserve until we reached another old farm house on a 20-acre parcel.  The realtor greeted us and brought us inside the charming house with its high ceilings and walls adorned with Christian-themed cross-stitches.  Once again, four bedrooms, a nice deck and plenty of land.  The structure of the house, we were told, was okay. The owners had propped up sagging parts, and the insurance company was willing to insure it.  But we weren't convinced that it was truly solid and the last thing we wanted was to have to do substantial renovations or live in a sagging house.

The current owners had been raising horses and growing hay on much of the used land.  There was a barn, which was sturdy but for the east side, whose boards were starting to rot because of a leak in the roof.  The price was $400,000.  We were some distance out of Brantford, the nearest city, and though there were a couple of nice towns in the area, we knew it would be a struggle to find a community and a market and way to pay the mortgage.

On our way back we checked out a 1960s-style brick bungalow on about 13 acres. The property was listed for $330,000.  The house looked solid but untended.  There was a cluster of tall trees out back, a good expanse where crops could be grown, and access to roads that led to towns.  But the area had a sketchy feel to it - it was a bit run down, a patchwork of houses that all seemed to be slowly heading toward dilapidation.  The neighbours across the road had a couple of semi-trailers in their driveway and there was a loud roaring that persisted throughout our visit, probably from some kind of machinery they were working with.  It sounded like a jet engine.   The realtor wasn't able to meet us and so we didn't get to see inside the house, but from what we did see and hear, we were hesitant.

Noise was one thing;  contaminants, planned industrial developments, mega-quarries and the like were quite another.  It would be disappointing to find a great piece of land only to find out afterwards that the environment was toxic (literally or otherwise).  Maybe it was best to hold off for now, talk to people who know about this stuff.   Still, I had a sense we would eventually go with something knowing full well that a million things could go wrong.  More likely, though, we would have the task of looking at imperfect properties - imperfect in any combination of size, location, water access and house condition - and deciding which imperfections we could best live with.

Some Background

I present a blog whose name is derived from one of the most famous odes to the quiet life.  When on the range, so goes the ode, one can expect little in the way of discouraging talk and the skies can generally promise some sun over the course of any given day.

Of course, Home on the Range doesn't mention the fact that, once land is acquired in 21st century Ontario, a new farmer still will most likely visit the cities to sell produce and to buy some goods at a Costco or Sobeys, he or she will buy gas at a Petro-Can or an Esso, he or she will curse drivers who cut him off on the way back to the range, and then there will be moments when the farmer, who hails from a hands-off world, will not know how to fix a water heater and will have to shell out for service.

It's two of us thinking about what it might be like to make a go at a market garden with some chickens for ourselves and maybe a pig or a small herd of goats.  I grew up in a small Canadian city, unacquainted with country life but for the odd childhood visit to an aunt and uncle's farm, where most of his time was spent fleeing bumble bees and holding tightly to one of the older, more sluggish horse's reigns on a short walk around the corral.   My partner, XB, grew up in the Chinese countryside during the last leg of the Mao period, where he helped raise pigs and chickens and gathered firewood to heat his family's hearth.

We've both been through the rigours of university, of jobs that require collared shirts, we've shared the start of a suburban Toronto mortgage and we've travelled a bit, across Canada, through Europe and bits of Asia.

Toronto is a great place - it is bursting with life.  But I am curious to know what life would be like outside of an urban world, in places that are bursting with life at other paces and in other ways.

We are beholden to transit systems, to industrial food systems, to property management corporations, lenders, insurance companies and energy purveyors.  On the farm, we will be beholden to most of these things, but to a lesser extent.  We will be forced to learn about the soil, the trees and the needs of animals, since they will be more directly tied to our livelihood.

We've been advised that it's hard work, it does not guarantee a significant income, and it can be lonely. We've also received our share of bemused encouragement.  But what motivates me most is that it is more a pursuit driven by an interest in the things we are working towards than it is by a desire to merely get away from the grind.

The hope is to develop a simple livelihood rooted in self-sufficiency and community.  It may be a long ways off and it may not materialize, but it's an idea that more and more people my age are batting around.  In fact, I suspect most people see a sliver of appeal in rural life and would be curious to see how our journey develops.  Here goes nothing.