Whether you have three backyard hens or 300 broilers, they need care at least twice daily. And if you want to go away on holiday, then you need to find someone to help care for your homestead. In the last 8 years of vacationing away from the farm, we’ve learned a lot about the dos and don’ts of farm sitting.
My husband, Ken, and I have been living on our 17-acre farm for 4 years after moving from our first farm just down the road in 2018.
Now that we have the space, we raise all our own meat, plus far too many eggs, of course. We grow a select few vegetables and fruits, but gardening is not our passion. Animal husbandry, eating nose to tail, and letting the pigs be pigs, the cows be cows, and the chickens be adorable is what gets us out of bed in the morning. But having all these animals makes it difficult for us to get away on vacation.
I think we’d call ourselves fairly laid-back farmers, although we are driven to understand, if not try our hand at, every part of raising animals for consumption. Ken is laid-back and optimistic, while I am fastidious and want to have a plan for every possible scenario. But once our vacation plans are in place, and I have found the right farm sitter, I am probably too relaxed and forget that I even own a farm. Finding the right farm sitter is the key, and I am happy to share what I have learned along the way.
Harrowsmith: HOW DID YOU GET THE IDEA TO LOOK FOR A FARM SITTER? DO YOU KNOW OTHER PEOPLE WHO HAVE DONE THIS?
Claire: Necessity is the mother of invention, and in order to get away but maintain the level of care required at the farm, it was clear we needed someone to live-in at the farm while we were away. I’ve heard of some other farmers doing this, but I don’t know them personally.
Harrowsmith: WHAT EXPECTATIONS DO YOU HAVE FROM SOMEONE WHO WOULD BE FARM-SITTING FOR YOU?
Claire: We would expect a farm-sitter to have their own transportation, have some experience with large livestock, or at least a keen interest in learning about them. Finding a sitter who has handled a chicken or been around large dogs is a huge asset to us. We also expect a certain level of transparency — what the sitter doesn’t know, doesn’t feel comfortable doing, and whom they are hoping to entertain in our home.
Harrowsmith: HOW DO YOU FIND SOMEONE TO SIT YOUR FARM? DO YOU PAY THEM? DO THEY PAY YOU? DO YOU SIGN AN AGREEMENT?
Claire: In the beginning, we relied on open calls over social media. While this has a place, we now prefer going by referrals.
Over the years, I’ve collected several names of trusted individuals and couples who have volunteered to farm-sit. So when we need help, I go down the list. People who come here usually look for one of two things: a free place in the country that isn’t their own home or experience with managing a farm. That’s the trade. We’ve never signed an agreement, but I like the sound of that…
Harrowsmith: WHAT IS IT LIKE WHEN YOU COME HOME AFTER SOMEONE HAS STAYED AT YOUR FARM?
Claire: Oh, I have some stories for you. It was around midnight in 2017 when we finally made it home after a long 2-week holiday. Our farm sitter had left after the evening chores so we returned to an empty house.
Naturally, the first thing you do is survey how the house and farm were left by the sitter. We weren’t prepared to find a loaded pellet gun on the couch beside track pants left inside out on the floor. Over the next few months, we’d find Monopoly pieces all over the house, under rugs, stuck in the heating vent. I can only imagine the epic Monopoly battle that resulted in little plastic hotels strewn about the room, climaxing in some kind of pellet-gun fight. I don’t have an explanation for the pants. And that wasn’t our worst farm-sitting experience. By far. Our animals have never been injured or badly neglected by sitters. The worst was coming home and they hadn’t been given water that day. Which was terrible, but turned out okay. And we’ve returned from a holiday to stumble upon a questionable Netflix history enough times that we now have a separate user account for our sitters. And don’t get me started on the number of suspected liaisons our farm has facilitated…
Harrowsmith: SO WHAT TYPE OF SITTERS SHOULD FARMERS LOOK FOR WHEN THEY NEED TO GET AWAY FROM THE HOMESTEAD?
Claire: We’ve found that these 4 things are essential.
- Call on an adult(s). Do yourself a favour and skip over the nieces and nephews under 21. There are legal, moral, and familial concerns you will want to avoid.
- Determine if you need one person or a duo. A single person is very low impact, which is great. But often, it can be daunting to farm-sit solo. If you have a few hens, then a single person can handle that. If you have cattle that like to jump the fence and frighten the neighbours, ahem, then you should be looking for a couple who can work as a team.
- Have a reference from a trusted friend. It’s best to find someone between a family member and a
stranger off the street. Our favourite sitter comes with an endorsement from a trustworthy pal.
- Find someone who has some experience on a farm. Look for someone who wants to try farming and has also done some of the work and chores before. We have found that these like-minded people are motivated and excited to try managing a small farm. This can be someone who works in the city and
wants a country getaway, or someone who farms for a local CSA but hasn’t been able to farm solo before.
Our favourite farm sitters have been teachers who have the summers mostly off already, a couple of mom friends who want a getaway (guaranteed they will leave your home spotless!), and a solo Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) worker looking for room and board in exchange for some farming experience.
Harrowsmith: WHAT DO YOU NEED TO PREPARE FOR THE FARM SITTER?
Claire: Take the time to give your farm sitter an in-person tour of the farm and chores and/or a video that they can refer to when necessary as they are going about the chores you’ve listed. It is essential that you have contingency plans in place, too, which includes having an emergency contact that is nearby. We ask one of our farming neighbours to be that emergency contact, and their service has come in handy a few times.
In addition, outlining what kinds of ‘new normals’ they might expect at the farm will make the experience much better for all. For example, a person not used to living in a rural area or with animals might be troubled by the dogs barking through the night or finding a chipmunk head by the back door (it happens…). Outlining some sights and sounds that are commonplace versus those they should be concerned about can help your farm sitter adjust to spending time in an environment that is new to them — and save you a call on your vacation. Speaking of calls, establish what kind of communication (and how often) is expected between you and the sitter. A daily update is nice, but establishing boundaries ahead of time will help everyone relax.
When we go away, we try to stock the fridge with the basics, leave far too many instructions for every possible scenario, do a light cleaning of the house, and hide anything too personal or valuable. The last one is not because we don’t trust whom we’ve chosen but because we don’t know whom they might invite over, and it’s easier to relax when we know our sitter isn’t reading our diaries in the hot tub.
Harrowsmith: IS THE FARM-SITTING EXPERIENCE WORTH IT FOR YOUR CAMPING GETAWAY?
Claire: In the end, finding a farm sitter can be time-consuming and a little nerve-wracking, but also the key to getting away from the homestead is feeling (mostly) confident things will be well cared for in your absence. It also feels good knowing that your home and way of life are providing someone else a (mostly) peaceful getaway to a place that you’ve forgotten can be pretty magical.
Harrowsmith: DID YOU REPLACE YOUR MONOPOLY GAME, OR DID YOU FIND ENOUGH PIECES TO MAKE DO WITH WHAT YOU HAVE?
Claire: I’m literally still finding pieces, years later, and putting them back in the box. service has come in handy a few times.
Claire Dam is a farmer, a homesteader, a creator, a writer, and a photographer. She specializes in portraiture – such as weddings, families, newborns and lifestyle headshots. She shoots with film and digital on variety of cameras old and new.