When I bought this little farm in the 1970s, I had no illusions about being a farmer. Even back then, the idea of cultivating a plot of forty acres for profit was laughable.
In 1975, the price of a weanling pig was $50, while a bushel of corn traded for $4 and everybody complained there was no money in it. Those prices have remain unchanged for half a century now, despite long periods of steady inflation that have doubled and tripled the cost of everything else you need to raise pigs and corn. Down in the diner in the village, they are still complaining there is no money in it. The landscape around us has changed dramatically over that time, as all the farms are consolidated into vast acreages for agribusiness. It’s hard to believe, but there are actually fewer farmers in this township now than there were in the very first year of settlement in 1833.
But we’re still here. We have the same little flock of sheep, and we still put beef, pigs and chickens in the freezer every fall. We are “lifestyle” landowners in the tradition of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, without quite so many freeloaders in the spare bedrooms. Like Emerson, I sometimes wonder if humans are really supposed to live like this.
Every so often some Realtor comes to the door to tell me I could sell the place for a million dollars. There is a force in human history that wants everybody, including me, off the land. Hunter-gatherers are pushed out by herders, herders are pushed out by farmers, and farmers are pushed out by urbanites and skiers. Once it happens, there is no going back.
A few Mennonites and back-to-the-land eccentrics like myself may try to fight off this implacable force for a generation or two, but I notice even the Mennonites now have Wi-Fi towers and CAD/CAM programs running in their welding sheds and shoe repair shops.
I have a big dog who struggles with this same problem. He was born to be a livestock-protection dog, and for the first six years of his life, he lived outside in all kinds of weather. But keeping a farm free of coyotes has become soul-destroying work because no one else in the neighbourhood is doing it and coyotes now rule the land. So he came to us. Within a few days, he discovered central heating, learned to climb stairs and installed himself on my side of the bed. He’s there right now. He still loves the great outdoors, and for a couple of hours every day, he patrols the fence lines, hurls insults at the coyotes and visits with the sheep. But the rest of the time he’s sawing logs in the master bedroom, thanking his lucky stars that he has been brought in from the field to do desk work. To ask him to return to his old life at this point would be cruel and inhuman punishment.
Anyone with a country property feels a bit like that dog. We all discover sooner or later that farming is very hard work and will, if taken seriously, consume every waking hour of a person’s life. The trick is not to take it too seriously. If you have some off-farm income, you can still follow your heart and carve out a very pleasant way of life. The old farm neighbourhood of my childhood may be long gone, but the farmhouses have been taken over by a host of hobbyists and dabblers like myself, spinners and weavers, glass blowers and storytellers, all fascinated by the rhythm of the seasons and the surprises the land brings each day.
My dog has become a hobbyist, too. He even sits in the same places I do, here on the veranda or on the hill opposite the house, marvelling at the difference between life as he imagined it and what it has become.
Dan was born in Toronto and raised partly in the city and partly in the country. His mother moved the family out of the city each spring to a hobby farm near Rosemont, Ontario where he and his brothers and sisters tended to a herd of Jersey cows and worked on the neighbouring farms of the 7th Line.