This autumn’s hiatus from our farm blog was not without thought from the wheels of pensivity. I had much time to muse over material for our next blog. Many ideas crossed my mind, especially with the arrival of our new greenhouse kit from multishelter solutions but sadly, with an early start to winter I was left with little to write about concerning the greenhouse installation and operation. But, we have assembled and installed the sliding door entrance this new year so only the plastic remains to be installed. Raincheck until the Spring rains arrive. In other words, we’ll hit the ground planting in the Spring with our greenhouse setup.
Over Christmas vacation, I had the great fortune of spending time with my family and loved ones around many lovely meals, and one that included a MacCurdy Farm pasture raised turkey. During a moment of midday revelry I thought about the things I would most like to say to my own children, nieces, nephews, and the next generation, if they decided to some day take up the pitchfork or broadfork and pursue a love of farming. This is exactly a topic I can pour my heart out about, with no apprehension, to create a fossil record of my insights into multiple aspects of farming.
The Farm Land
Get to know your land. So much can be learned through the exploration of every nook and cranny in the farm landscape. Every generation has draws and matters of interest that might pull you away from the farm from time to time, but make it a point of importance to explore anything that might pique your interest. This is how oral histories are formed and connected. For example, from our strolls along the brook that runs through the acreage of the farm we found a multitude of farm artifacts such as horseshoes, cow skulls, pottery shards, and old cast iron cooking pots. Each item would and will elicit responses of how things used to be done on the farm from the older generation. I’ve always said that we have to respect the ways of our forefathers and seek to make our own stamp in our own agricultural pursuits. By making connections with the generation that farmed before us, we find a commonality that elucidates a shared affinity and love for agriculture. It helps to ease young farmers with breaking new ground in implementing new aspects to a small diversified farm.
Don’t worry, this term does not mean what you think it means. Animal husbandry is defined as the practices of care and management of livestock. As farmers who are parents, new-born animals are often the first introduction for a young child to one of the joys of farming, birth. I remember the feeling of wonder when I first watched my father and grandfather assist a cow during parturition. Today, every time I bring a calf to its mother, alongside my father, I ponder the journey the calf takes until it takes a breath and its eyes flutter. A bond is not only formed between cow and calf but also between farmer and animal. Oftentimes, I spend time observing animals and I’ve watched my father and grandfather do the same thing over the years. There is something deeply tranquilizing about studying animal behavior up close. I took an animal behavior course in university but nothing substitutes for a firsthand experience of behavior between animals in a social group, such as you find in our herd.
Personally, my love affair with reading has come in cycles. I would encourage you to read as much as you can, when you are inspired to read or your pursuit of knowledge draws you down a road of discovery. As a youngster, I read books like, “All Creatures Great and Small” by James Herriott, which deepened my appreciation for rural life, agricultural, and animal medicine. I didn’t read the book on a whim, but rather, I accepted it as a gift from a gentleman who taught me music theory and composition while I was at private school in the USA. His passion for rural agrarian community reaffirmed my love for farming and my appreciation of the hard work that my grandfather and father put into their operation. I still think of him and his ability to sing gutturally (throat singing). As you grow older you will grow to more fully appreciate the people who come and go in your life. Always lend an attentive ear to those who chose to share their life experiences about farming and life in general to you. When you’re not farming and not sleeping or eating, read. Whether it’s a manual, a magazine, or a how-to book, read your heart out. It will facilitate life on the farm.
At the present time, I’ve been drawn in by author/farmer books by people like Joel Salatin, Elliott Coleman, and Jean-Martin Fortier, who embody my sentiments about small time food production and local food supply. Joel Salatin touches on the issues of stacking additional portable enterprises on to pre-existing farm systems (e.g., pastured poultry on hay fields) to allow young and new farmers to get their hands dirty without falling victim to capital-intensive start-up costs like buying a tractor or building a state of the art beef barn. However, these opportunities require trust and trust is built by developing responsibility, accountability, and consideration for others on a small family farm. Beginning at a young age I started to work in the hayfield (about 10 or 11). Some farmers joke and equate farmers children to slave labor (perhaps offside) because they get paid very little but I understand now that all of the time I spent working in the hay fields was an investment in earning trust and respect. I do not believe I would be able to pursue my agricultural interests on the farm today if it was not for that investment of time, sweat, blood, and tears over the years. Some of us would balk at the idea of lending a vehicle to a friend if we didn’t trust that they would return it in the same condition. The same principle applies in the transfer of ownership and responsibility on a family farm. Nothing is privileged, everything is earned. I am thankful for this type of experience and I would hope that you would embrace it when the time comes for you to test your mettle in the reinventive field of agriculture. Hardwork is a precursor to a successful business venture and the generation that made footsteps ahead of you will appreciate your devotion.
I have a fondness for storytelling because of my grandparents. My grandfather liked to spin a yarn that made you question every word out of his mouth but in it he had a remarkable ability to bring a smilish grin to your face. On the other hand, my grandmother always had farm stories to tell. My siblings and I would gather around the table for cookies with milk in our favorite cat mug, while Grammy proceeded to tell us about how she rode the draught horse bareback to get Grampy in the woods or how her mother-in-law had a hen that would follow her in the house and peck at the specks on the linoleum floor. When she’d finish sharing stories about the animals, she’d tell us about how the landscape of the farm used to be with its orchard, milk house, and in ground cold storage on different parts of the farm. Afterwards, we’d spill out of her kitchen and into an area on the farmland that we were drawn to and, unknowingly, we formed our own stories to share with future generations. To this day, I still listen to Grammy’s stories about the farm, even though I have heard them multiple times, because they bring a great deal of mutual joy to the both of us. I get a break from physical exertion to recharge the bio-battery and she has someone to sit and converse with about how times used to be. Always ask questions, it deepens your understanding and it assures a person that you are interested in what they are saying. In my grandmother’s case, it allows me to tap into her wealth of knowledge about the farm’s history that I can in turn share with you. I would strongly encourage you to pursue your own adventures on the farmland. We roamed at will as youngsters through the acreage and are no worse for wear.
I do not believe there is a topic of greater importance than farm safety. My father always insisted that I read the manual before I used a piece of machinery. To a great degree I always read the operational and safety portions of manuals when I purchase something for the farm. However, even more can be learned from listening to those who have worked on the farm before you. It may get under your skin and, if you are like me, test your pride and patience but in the long run you will be better equipped to work safely on the farm. Where there are tractors and PTOs (power take-offs) used to run implements there will be injuries. Unfortunately, livestock operations have a higher incidence of injury than other farm types (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/ca-ra2006/articles/snapshot-portrait-eng.htm) so one needs to be even more vigilant. I’m telling you this, not to scare you, but inform you that farming requires safety training and farm first aid, when available. One rule that I live by is to never work when I am fatigued to the point that I lose motor control. When this occurs, accidents happen. As gung-ho as we may be, take frequent breaks or vary the pace at which you do your chores and responsibilities. The human body is finite and therefore has limits. If you are a farmer, strength will find you but use restraint and lift wisely.
Stick by your principles
We are what some might consider organic but not certified and in other cases transitional in terms of our status as a small diversified farm. This change happened from the principles related to farming practices that both Justin and Jonathan have carried onto the farm in their agricultural enterprises. We determined, as have many others across the country and world, that the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, destroying soils through deep tillage, and crowded animal housing practices had to be evacuated to build a more sustainably and responsibly managed farm system. So, we developed a pastured poultry (chicken and turkey) operation and a restricted range egg laying operation. Meanwhile, we’re steadily transitioning to a higher percentage of grass-fed beef with only oats and barley fed to combat the cold during the winter months. Pesticides and fertilizers will not touch our soils by our means and as we continue to educate ourselves more changes will take place. It takes some money to make these things happen, and money takes time. For example, we are trying to source a chisel plow to get closer to no-tillage in our field practices. With all this, we stand by our principles by continuing to show a great measure of respect to all aspects of our farming operation in terms of the soil, livestock, and interpersonal relations.
Approximately six years ago, I had the opportunity to follow in my father and brother’s footsteps and attend agricultural college at NSAC. However, I felt pulled in the direction of education so I pursued an education degree in stead. Fast forward 6 years later and I am about to embark on another educational experience. I’ll be travelling to Maine six times beginning in May 2015 until October 2015 to become certified in permaculture design. I’ve decided to do this for several reasons, the first being that apart from a life of learning from others on produce and beef farms, I have no formal education in agricultural practices. Some of you may laugh and say, it’s just a piece of paper but I feel it is necessary to receive this training before the farm comes under direct management alongside my brother. My father’s generation and those before him have a profound respect for education and I know it will please my father to know that I studied alongside like-minded people to take the farm into new management and help it thrive. Secondly, community drives farming. Given our increased connectivity with social media today this course will allow me to network with other farmers in this part of our world. Thirdly, it highlights my devotion to pursuing farming and keeping the farm alive for another generation. Most importantly, it teaches my children that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish great things.
Finally, I’d like to close this address to you, future farmers, by saying that this is a living document of suggestions, which you may or may not uphold, and which form the crux of life on family farm. More importantly, you must come to your own conclusions on agriculture and life on the small family farm that will allow it to not only survive, but thrive. Add to the list, if you wish. In closing here is a quote from Alice Waters that really hits home:
“Teaching kids how to feed themselves and how to live in a community responsibly is the center of an education.”
Please feel free to leave comments and questions below.