The Beginning Farmer: Why Farms Look The Way They Do

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Nyberg
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I have to admit that it was those beguiling photographs in Harrowsmith Country Life magazine that planted the idea of a farm in my head.   Especially the autumn ones.  The ones with the blazing oranges and yellows of harvested squash spilling out of baskets, or the patio furniture tastefully placed near ancient red barns with  milking parlour windows.  In those photographs, the tables always have fruit in a bowl.  The fences are straight.   The animals are tidy, with nary a pile of manure in sight; neither are there  flies, weeds, or exhausted farm owners wearing the same dirty ball cap they’ve worn for three years straight.  Yes, farm visitors, I’ve learned: the places in those photographs do not exist. 

It’s not like I haven’t thought about it.  Living in a farmhouse that is one-hundred years old makes the character element a slam-dunk.  “Look for the old farmhouse,”  I say to new customers trying to make their way to Horse Drawn Farms.  It sounds good, anyway.  It’s only when they’ve already pulled in the driveway that the customers realise  “derelict farmhouse”  is perhaps a more apt description.  Up close, they see that the paint is somewhat beyond distressed.  Missing, is more like it.   And the pile of scrap wood to be burned with the nails sticking out at all angles next to the honey display doesn’t have the same effect as the fruit baskets on tables they’ve seen in magazines.  Nevertheless, new customers are keen, so they hop out to take a look around.  I welcome, nay, encourage this, much to my insurer’s chagrin.  I am proud of how the farm operates, of how our stock glows with health, of how our pens are intelligently organised for ease of cleaning and movement of animals in all seasons.

At least, I was, until I started to see the farm from the perspective of our largely suburban customer base.  These are folks who are keen on fresh, local food, but have rarely-if ever-stepped foot on a working farm.  It took that disbelieving glance from the woman with the Audi, for example,  for me to see just how slanted the walls of the horse barn were becoming.  Oh, I’d slogged that crooked barn door back and forth ten thousand times, but I hadn’t really noticed the crazy angle on which it was now sitting.  Or the 20 centimeters of moss growing on the roof tiles.  And then there was the man with his two young daughters, each of which squealed and held her nose when walking past the muck cart full of manure and soiled straw blocking their path.   They came back up the path, still shrieking with uninvited chicken feathers attached to their fleece jackets.   I’d never really thought about how perhaps I shouldn’t send visitors down the manure alley to have a look at the chickens after all.  Or that drying out the hand-pulled weeds in a gigantic, messy pile for a week before carting them to the back doesn’t make for an attractive lawn-space.   Or that the main deck  by the door of the house, which we use as our main project area, might give a better impression to door-knocking egg-buyers if it wasn’t covered in sawdust, goat leashes, feed buckets, sprawled out hoes and the plastic bag I’d used to carry a freshly killed chicken from the killing area.

I thought about posting a sign in the driveway: “Visitors, please note:  A farm can be working or a farm can be pretty.”   There’s no doubt that the to-do list on the farm is formidable at best.  At worst, it borders on ludicrous.  There’s fencing,  felling, splitting, stacking, painting, pounding and wiring, then cutting, curing, spreading, seeding, breeding, feeding and hiring.  And that’s all before October.  There’s also mowing, mending, cutting, clearing, burning, and, of course, blogging.  And it’s nice to put dinner on the table once in a while too.  Compared to these most urgent tasks, it’s easy to relegate “tidying up” to the bottom of the page.  Those feed buckets are there, for instance, because they’re the first and last things I use outside when I step through the door each day.

But I would be foolish to think that impressions don’t matter, and if I want customers to return, I need to operate a farm that reflects the sincerity that goes into the quality of its products.  No, I won’t be taking pains to conceal the fact that our ram spends most of his autumn with his nostrils poked into the backside of a ewe, or that forty chickens will leave a considerable whirlwind of feathers and dander over their pasture while they’re out.  I can see no benefit in trying to hide the reality of what farm animals do, or what they leave behind.  But the burn pile with the sticky-outy nails?

The clean-up has begun.