Chickens and Roosts

All these metaphorical chickens are coming home to roost. I wish I had a farm to place all those chickens in.

Someone just shared a nice, short piece by Dave Pratt about how hard work isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As a farm kid, and as an adult having grown up as a farm kid, hard work is what it’s all about. My work ethic has opened more doors for me than any name I’ve dropped, connection I’ve known (aside from the ones that could directly vouch for my ability to work hard, and did), title or letters after my name. (Granted, there aren’t that many, but aside from that…). My dad worked really bloody hard to keep the farm going. To my knowledge they remortgaged it three times and now, my dad and his 2nd wife (now past the 20-year mark, which is longer than my parents were married, so there’s that) are finally wrapping up the last. To my knowledge, which isn’t much, but I seem to remember hearing that. I hope it’s not a point of shame for them and that I’m not airing dirty laundry (I should probably ask), but I think it’s important. Mom and dad bought the 300-acre farm for $65,000 CAD with a $10,000 down payment loaned to them from my grandparents (who also lived on the farm in a second house my dad and grandpa built in the mid-70s before my older sister was born in 1978). Today that farm is likely worth $400-500,000… could be more, although the house and farm are in such disrepair that they bring the value down from a similar-sized working farm with a nice house and big shop, barn, fencing, etc. The barn, which was built from fire-killed spruce and cedar off the property, burned in the early 2000s after an electrical wire sparked a 12-ha forest fire that burned most of the timber on the property – the pine and spruce forest I grew up playing in, where we’d often find the cows and occasionally the horses bedded down on hot days, where the ground was silent and spongy with decades’ worth of dropped needles. Looking back, there was about zero diversity in that forest, and no ground cover to speak of except along the edges where some light could penetrate the dense stands of mature-ish trees, but it was our playground nonetheless.

But the other day I was talking to my dad about daycare and when I’d go back to my PhD and so on, and he said that he and mom had made a decision early on to ‘raise the kids themselves’. Now that’s no comment on working moms or stay-at-home moms or anything but relaying what was said; but it gave me pause, because he followed with, “That meant I was working 16, 17 hour days in the bush, but at least I was home every night.”

So here’s the thing: for a long time I felt pretty bitter about those long days, when he’d leave and come home in the very dark, very cold winter, when he was driving 2 or sometimes 3 hours – each way – to get to and from work on some remote logging block where he ran equipment. I remember resenting that we’d eat our dinner and have to leave any seconds I wanted for dad, who would come home exhausted, often short-tempered, and get the rest. Looking back I’m embarrassed and ashamed of feeling that way, and I don’t remember it happening very often — my memories are generally singletons, and this one hinges on spaghetti and meatballs that I couldn’t have my fill of — but again: there it is. I wonder if he, and we, wouldn’t have been happier if he’d been in camp on rotation where he had a number of full days off in a row, rather than moments of sheer exhaustion and frustration at the tailend of every weekday. I’m pretty sure those weeks had more than 7 days in them, too, and Sunday just isn’t always a day off: and on a farm, it never is when calving comes in January or February to make sure calves are ready for shipping in September and October; when hay season is mercilessly short in the narrow window of a northern summer; when you spend more time fixing others’ tractors to keep them running (and pay some bills) than you can spend on your own — and on old tractors, there’s always something to fix. (New ones too, probably, but I wouldn’t know.)

My point is that dad worked brutally hard to keep that farm. So did my mom, running a boarding and grooming kennel since I was 3 years old (so it’s now in it’s 35thish year); she left in the early 90s, and dad stayed on, and remarried. But even when I wanted desperately to stay (or to come back), he discouraged me: there were better jobs elsewhere, there wasn’t much (or any) work in the valley, I had better options. All, likely, true. And yet, looking back: now with the growth of regenerative agriculture, and the options available for growing markets, and the necessity of climate-adapted solutions, I feel like that farm could be a real jewel, an example of northern temperate agriculture to live by. The population around it hasn’t grown much – it’s still a very remote, rural area – but the opportunities for on-farm training, shipping value-added products, and higher-value innovations have expanded immensely. As it is, last I heard, it’s their retirement fund. It’s the backup plan; the land-based bank account, unless I or my sibs can come up with the cash to buy it out and fund their retirements.

So was it worth it? It’s not like he worked so hard to keep something no one wanted; it’s that he had to work so hard to keep it that there was no time, energy or capacity left at the end of the day to make it feel like something worth keeping. It’s gone precipitously downhill in the 25 years since I left. To bring it back up to a working farm would take an immense amount of time and energy, which would be time and energy well-spent — but I can only imagine if the tools, thought, courses, and mentorship available today were available 40 years ago when they bought the farm, what might be different.

Anyway, what might have been, wasn’t. Now it’s time to look to the future and build the farms that will carry us forward into the future we want. I just hope that someday, that farm of my childhood will be both one of the future, and that of my own daughter’s.


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