Too often, people think a farm is a place of drudgery that can’t feed the creative human spirit. So, when I was asked to write about creativity, music, and art on the farm, I felt inadequate to the task at first, since I’m known as a workaholic. I try to get people to love the farm for the farm’s sake; since I love my work, I don’t need to escape from it.
But the little ditty “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is also true, especially for children. So what kind of diversions offer outlets for entertainment and artistic expression here on our farm? When I started making a list, I found a lot of things that fit this category. And I found that maybe I’m not such a workaholic after all.
Let’s start with the children. Since we had no TV and we home-schooled, you might think our kids grew up deprived. We didn’t do Little League sports, ballet, or other urban creativity exercises. But their childhood was full of forts, treehouses, and creek dams, same as my childhood and now our grandchildren’s lives.
What could possibly compete with using some old pallets, baler twine, and scrap lumber to build a play area? Whenever urban friends visited, guess where they went, happily, for hours? Out to the forts. With a proper cloth flag waving triumphantly overtop, a homemade fort represents the pinnacle of young imagination. We have a massive woodpile by the outdoor wood furnace; a bit of shoving and repositioning by children turns it into a defensive fortress. Tape a flag on a broom handle, and it’s official.
And what about a hay mow with small square bales? The mother of all playgrounds is a hay mow with tunnels through the bales and ropes hanging from the rafters. It beats anything a gym could ever provide. Oh, the friendships forged and make-believe enemies vanquished in these imaginative play areas are the stuff of memories, imagination, and wisdom.
Treehouses are another simple but functional entertainment area. Never put a bolt or nail in a tree; all of ours use undergirding lashed with nylon rope. But getting up off the ground gives a youngster a perspective they don’t often get — being the highest rather than the lowest. My favorite play place growing up was in a massive pear tree that had a perfect crotch above a treehouse that seemed like just the right cockpit for an airplane. Who needs video games when you can “fly” a peach tree?
Today on our farm, we have an honest-to-goodness farm playground for customers and visitors. We have a teeter-totter, tire swing, living tent (pole beans on a simple pyramidal trellis), and corn box. You can play in a sandbox anywhere, but on the farm, we have a corn box. It’s about 12 by 12 feet and covered, and it contains about 18 inches of whole, shelled yellow corn. With some children’s excavation toys in there, it’s magnetic for kids. Parents collect their children after hours of play; the kids come out of the farm playground covered in corn dust, but with faces lit up with smiles — or crying because they don’t want to leave.
This play area is in a shady spot under some trees, and it includes several picnic tables. Few respites are as enjoyable as a picnic. Over the years, we’ve developed favorite picnic spots on the farm, and they all hold special memories. The first one was up by a creek, where my aunt and I stepped on a rattlesnake when she was visiting from Indiana. When we finally installed the 2-mile road up the mountain, we created two picnic areas, complete with outhouses, where we could get away with family and friends.
Now that our farm family includes apprentices, stewards, and additional permanent staff, these picnic areas create places for storytelling, whittling, and, of course, music. Someone brings a guitar and regales us with live entertainment. We’ve had numerous musically talented visitors visit the farm as well, and we generally offer them a meal in exchange for an impromptu concert.
One of our most unusual musical guests was a three-man band called Moon Hooch; a percussionist and two saxophonists. They called me one day and asked if they could play for our cows. Their performance has gotten more than 650,000 views on YouTube under the title “Moon Hooch Cattle Dance Party.” Who says you can’t have fun on a farm?
One of the most creative things I did for the children when they were young was a birthday treasure hunt. I hid clues all over the farm. Each clue sent them to another location where they had to find the next clue. Eventually, they found the treasure, but it took a couple of hours of going all over the farm. Of course, they had to know where north, south, east, and west were in order to understand the clues’ instructions.
Without TV, we spend a lot of time reading aloud. What makes reading aloud come alive? Losing yourself. Making faces and voices brings the stories to life for children. It’s true-blue theater. Reading with emphasis and dramatic flair is entertaining and creative. Some of the best off-farm entertainment is the community theater. You can either join as an actor or support cast, or you can just attend the performances. In either case, exposing kids to literature and drama feeds the imagination. Literature and stories are the stuff of world awareness, whether you physically travel the world or not.
Finally, farms today enjoy a mystique revival. Seeking connection to the land and nostalgic experiences, many people yearn to come to a farm for events. Whether it’s a concert, a meal, a dramatic presentation, or an Easter egg hunt, you as a farmer can enjoy a cosmopolitan nexus at home. That’s pretty cool. Hosting an event puts you in touch with community leaders and artists you might never meet otherwise.
Tap into your local experts. We have a neighbor who’s one of the foremost ornithologists in the United States. We invite him over for supper, and he entertains us with bird songs and information. We call it “singing for supper.” A community has all sorts of expertise and storytellers. A local historian, poet, business owner — almost any topic and any person can be interesting with a dab of passion and verve.
Think back to how folks entertained themselves in the Little House on the Prairie series. Towns had spelling bees, mock political debates, and dramatic recitations. They made their own fun, if not out and about, then at home as a family. A farm is the best place for this kind of entertainment, because you won’t disturb the neighbors. What better place for revelry than a farm?
Joel Salatin’s family owns and operates Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The farm services 6,000 families and 50 restaurants, and offers many educational opportunities for people wanting to explore pasture-based systems. Learn more at Polyface Farms.