Monday, 8 April 2013

Farm Tours

At this point we are well into our course with FarmStart, which we attend Saturdays at a community hall in Etobicoke.  Part of the course, indeed an integral part, is a full day of farm tours, which involves visiting two established organic or ecological farms in Ontario, where we are introduced to what a small-scale  farm in Ontario can look like and how it tends to function.  The farmer him or herself would lead us through and answer questions, in hopes of making us more aware of the kinds of things we want and do not want on our own farms, should we wish to buy a farm, as well as making us more aware of the challenges...the many challenges that keep coming no matter how wonderful farming may be.

Saturday morning we got up and drove out to the country.  It was sunny, the skies were blue and the fields along the secondary highways we took were a pristine white, with snow-dusted trees.  It was a bedazzling sight and certainly an auspicious beginning to the trip, though I tried not to indulge too much in the idyllic scenery that whizzed by, knowing it looked different up close.

We pulled up to the first farm after exiting the quiet two lane highway for a rougher, downright silent road. We were greeted by a pack of big farm dogs that had endless energy and excitement.  We walked up to see a few cattle standing in a pen and a woman in her early thirties greeted us and began the tour by mentioning that the cows were a new addition, and she was still getting the hang of raising them. As the tour progressed and we saw her chickens, her greenhouse, her pigs, it became clearer that she was not a seasoned expert but a perpetual experimenter who had put together an impressive little farm, something I envied.

There were few hard and fast rules she could give us about what to do.  She had determined over a couple of seasons that the half dozen pigs she had were the right number she could keep without strain on her land and physical stamina; the chickens were a thriving brood, free to wander and scavenge their own food, a diet which she supplemented with feed. They matured, were brought to slaughter, sold but for the few that served her and her household.  A cooler in the barn housed vegetables and remained at a steady temperature. She'd spent $500 on that.  Her boyfriend would bring his tractor from down the road to bale and pile hay in the adjacent portion of the barn and the bales were tidy and abundant, like they are in cartoon depictions of country life.  There was an apiary that was slowly establishing itself.  The farmer remarked that sometimes one of the four hives wouldn't make it through the winter and she would have to retire the failed one for the rest of the season until there were enough in the other three to repopulate it.

Somehow, out in the boonies, this young farmer was putting her 50 workable acres to good use and not ending up with freezers full of beef and pork she couldn't sell.  It was a working business and she was not rushing into the nearest city for the bulk of the day to supplement a static farm business.  It clearly helped that she had a significant other who was an established farmer from an established farm family. I didn't really find out how she could afford the land and set up such a seemingly well-functioning operation at her young age and I didn't press her for the stories of sweat and blood on the learning curve.  I suspected that there were the requisite struggles and that she was just one of the resilient ones who had made it this far.

The film "To Make A Farm" showcases three small-scale "new" farmers/faming duos over a season, all of whom do quite well on their season ( at least by small-scale "new" famer standards).  What it reveals is the fact that in spite of the successes, each farmer/farming duo hits a few crises before the harvest, some of which push them to the brink of total failure.  The smiles and laughter at the farmers market stall, where beautiful produce is briskly sold, do not reveal the tough moments. 

We drove on to the next stop, even further from the busy world.  It was a dirt road that brought us to our instructor's farm.  We drove up and parked by a beautiful old farmhouse with a large sun room at the back. A Pyrenees greeted us and as we waited for the stragglers, we took sips of maple water from a canister on a tapped tree.  There were no pigs to be seen, but there were a couple of cows and a herd of sheep clustered on the snow covered field.

"How much was the electric fence?"  asked a classmate

"Well, it cost us about $5,000.  We got it because we didn't want to take any chances with the sheep."

"I guess it does the job?"

"Well, my dog has gotten through it.  You can imagine how I felt when I saw that,"  our instructor told us in a casual tone.

There were downsides to her farm:  the land was a bit low and the neighbouring farms sprayed their crops, leaving residue to wash into the vegetables she raised as ecologically as she could.  The climate was harsher than that in more southern parts of the province, and clientele was less abundant.  Sheep were prone to many contagious disease that could unexpectedly spread and wipe out a herd, and the kind of drought Ontario saw last summer could recur in coming years, perhaps becoming more common with weird weather trends.  She relied on steady business to pay her mortgage, on a piece of land that had not been dirt cheap.  While I've often assumed that farmland would cost little and be abundant for anyone willing to subject him or herself to the hardship of working the land, it is actually quite a challenge to access a decent sized farm and then pay it off.  But our instructor, like the first farm's owner, was running a business that worked and allowed her to live in the rugged oasis she loved.

I realized that all of these farmers were smart and exceptionally devoted to their work; they were constantly running into challenges and while they were doing well by most standards measuring small-farm success, they were not living lives of leisure and secluded bliss.  They were very much engaged in their surroundings; they were busy; and they were conscious of the almighty dollar, even if they were not slaves to it.  The piece of advice she most stressed was that farms with the latest, state-of-the-art equipment were often the least successful.  Farming required being resourceful and spending on things that made money and made the farm more sustainable, not things that made one look and feel like a pro.

When the sheep came trotting unexpectedly into the barn to be oohed and awed over, we got to pet a friendly ewe.  She had a big fat belly - maybe she was pregnant - and it was a pleasure seeing her goofy smile, hearing her goofy bleat as I scratched her woolly body.  Our instructor told us that working with animals was a very calming, healthy thing, but that was already evident to all of us.

We wrapped up back at her house, where, in the back yard, there was a door to a small cavern dug into the ground.  It was the swimming pool they had converted into a root cellar.  In the corner near the entrance, they had an apparatus for cleaning off the soil - a sort of big hampster wheel connected to a stationary bike. They would ride the bike, which would spin the root vegetables and remove the dirt which would then be collected in a bucket and reintroduced into the field.

Would I ever come up with something like that?  Maybe not.  But good farmers, I have to assume, don't come up with every smart technique themselves.  They take the vast wealth of knowledge and ingenuity that has emerged and continues to emerge in the realm of small-scale farming, and try things and see what works and what doesn't.  The tours reinforced the idea that every ecological, small-scale farm operates differently and no farmer has a formula that can be transplanted onto another farm.  That is has to be a creative process makes it challenging but more appealing than the formula-based alternatives.