Every April we buy a farm

And every May we sell our dream

R. LAIRD O’BRIEN May 1 1974

Every April we buy a farm

And every May we sell our dream

R. LAIRD O’BRIEN May 1 1974

Every April we buy a farm

And every May we sell our dream


It is that first melting Tuesday in April, when the sun turns ice to rivers of brown water in the gutters and the cabs spray it all over your pants. Bloor Street in Toronto. I

have just had two mid-afternoon beers in a dark place and now stand blinking on the corner of St. Thomas Street, pushing away thoughts of work, sniffing the spring, wondering how it must be out where you can swing your arms and shout “Yahoo” or something. People bump past me, still deep in their winter lurch — hands jammed in pockets, eyes on their boots. Few notice the candle seller tucked up against the window of a bank, his gaudy, handmade candles standing in rows on a strip of dirty burlap. I pick up a green-and-white one. The seller, a kid with stringy hair and a pink T-shirt, sits on a Del Monte puddings carton and stares past me.

“Hey, man,” he says, nudging his chin toward a pair of long legs darting across the street. “It’s really spring!”

We watch her and start talking, first about the candles (“guaranteed not to smoke”), then about himself. He used to live in the city.

“We’ve got a farm now, about an hour north. Scrubland. A falling-down barn with six inches of shit from one end to the other. Bought it from a guy who was into beef.” We talk about vegetables and candles.

“How do you take this?” he asks suddenly. “Cities aren’t for people anymore, man. Are you really here because you like it, or because you need it for the bread? My soul is in the country now!”

Soul! Is that another word for peace, together — what we’re all chasing after but can’t seem to find? Now there’s a new approach that says make your own road. It was the disillusioned kids who discovered it first, who headed back to the land — away from bigness and buying, toward nature and crafts. This isn’t so strange when you remember that we began as a nation of restless farmers. The flow has been steadily to the cities —to get warm, to get rich — but now, for many, the prize isn’t worth the price.

Somehow personal freedom and nature — a piece of land if you can get it — have become intertwined as the mood of the Seventies. Farmland sells for as much as $2,000 an acre. There’s a buyer for every dilapidated barn and lakefront shack. Sales of recreational products — boats, trailers, tents, bicycles, axes — soar up and up. Even our horse population is booming.

Standing here, beside candle-man on Bloor Street, I understand a little of my own frustration. He points to the candle still in my hand.

“We’re leaving now. Do you want it?”

A girl has double-parked their old panel truck and is in a hurry to load and get away. I buy my candle and carry it east along Bloor Street, thinking country thoughts. Distant images crowd in — half-forgotten, half-concocted — of a big workhorse mare and her foal, of a barn filled with the smell of hay and the flapping of swallows up in the rafters. Of fairgrounds, strawberry preserves... Everything that is good and clean and free is suddenly out there — way out there — in the country.

I leave the sunlight for the subway and lean hard into strangers so the doors can edge shut behind me. Well, it won’t be for much longer. Move out! Get some land! Just the thought of it is a great gulping gusher of ice water when I am parched.

The decision to seek a rural valhalla is not without perils or encouragement. Two evenings later John-Boy Walton is bouncing along in the back of a truck, on his way to buy a birthday present for Grandma. It is the early 1930s on Walton’s Mountain and life is sweet. The family is close-knit, honest, gentle, hardworking. Their pleasures are simple ones of fishing, swimming and just being together around that huge table. Yes, they’re poor but perhaps that aids our fantasy, helps us shed some middle-class guilt.

I, along with millions, succumb to this weekly injection of corn. Six Emmy Awards and a soaring Nielsen rating testify to our hunger — our false memories and hopeless longings.

As the credits rolled and the lights blinked out on the Mountain, I turned to my momentarily weakened family with an impassioned sales pitch: “God, let’s get some land. Walk in the dirt and have things born and collect eggs in the morning and hear the wind whistling across the meadow and smell something instead of french fries. God, let’s get some land ... with some bush, too, and with a stream or lake frontage, and good soil so we can grow crops and have a big garden and maybe some livestock. Close enough to the city so we can get in and out if we have to. Or maybe we’ll go all the way and learn to live off the land. Wouldn’t that be something? A hundred acres of beans! . . .”

Three boys responded with enthusiasm; wife responded with minor stipulations: a five-bedroom house and a guarantee in writing of total freedom from cleaning stalls, churning butter and having cows poking their heads in windows. Agreed!

When hordes of city people want to “return” to the land without ever having been there in the first place, a dizzy profit potential is created. This attracts hordes of real estate agents,

retiring farmers, well drillers,

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BUYING A FARM from page 32

teachers of crafts and publishers who spew out texts on everything from turkeys to green manure. My own personal orgy included Country Living — A Guide For City People, City People’s Guide To Country Living, Buying Country Property, Grow It, and — my favorite — How To Make It On The Land, by Ray Cohan. The last one is published by Prentice-Hall of Canada Ltd. who report about 4,000 copies sold across Canada in just over a year. A big seller.

Each evening I prowled through the manuals of my newfound lifestyle: how to get straight rows in your orchard, the needs of adolescent chickens, hints on butchering, the humble soybean, making fence posts last longer, digging a well, swine dysentery, cannibalism in the henhouse.

We wrestled with a dilemma: which escape plan to follow? Some keep a home in Montreal, for example, and scoot off to a weekend chalet, cottage or farm in the Eastern Townships. That wouldn’t be enough for us. Yet could we move to the land completely and be satisfied to scrape out a simple living for the joys of country and independence? Candle-man does it. So do many others: potters, writers, beginning farmers. Some love it; others can’t make it through the winter with only a wood stove and an outhouse 40 feet away.

The middle road — earning income in the city and supplementing it with farm production — suited us best. With luck and good management, commuting could be kept down to four days a week. Our plan was fairly straightforward: a five-bedroom house, big barn, stream or pond if we couldn’t have a lake, sugarbush. lots of wildlife, 50 to 100 acres, not too close to the road, not too far from a good town, on a paved road, off a busy road, close to schools, well away from dumps and gravel pits. As Í said, straightforward.

Our “crop” would be sheep. 1 made this decision after going through a friend’s notes from a 10-week lecture series called. Farming Today — An Introductory Course.

About sheep he had this to say: “. . . worms are big problem . . . dogs and wolves another big problem . . . need to breed twins to keep up production and make a buck . . . there’s no such thing as sick sheep — either healthy or stone dead with four feet up in the air . . . Suffolks are a good breed and you don’t need much money to start . . .”

The lady who had vowed never to clean out a stall thought it might be fun to spin a little wool. Of course we would also have a horse or two, and as the kid said, “A few poopers to give us eggs.”

Over several muddy Saturdays we chased down newspaper leads and dis-

covered the art of writing country real estate. Things are not always as described: Handyman’s dream home complete with country kitchen. Newly treed property. This really means no dining room in a house that’s falling apart, and the view from any window is row upon row of eight-inch spruce trees.

Gentleman’s secluded hobby farm set amidst beautiful rolling country. Look out! There’s no road to this patch of bush or rock which is impossible to farm and probably sits on a mountainside.

On our first Saturday we learned that to inspect a farm effectively in springtime you need rubber boots to the waist; that cars are best left at the head of the lane; cultivators and manure spreaders are not identical; at least half of what a cow eats comes out the other end. Not bad for the first week — but we didn’t find the farm.

On the following Saturday, when we visited 40 acres of bush, a 200-acre dairy farm, and a flourishing piggery, our

agent-guide answered a number of unspoken questions. On the quality of country schools, he said we had nothing to worry about: the best teachers had moved to the country years ago.

Would we be welcomed by the local community? “If you’re planning to be a part-time farmer,” he said, “real farmers won’t take to you.” I had suspected as much. “They think it’s a tax dodge. They’ll call you a jerk-farmer ’cause you’re always jerking off to the city.” I gave a hollow laugh.

We visited one farm where the owner, about 50. still had his 83-year-old father living with him. The old man was against selling and disappeared into the bush whenever prospective buyers showed up.

It would be tough to exchange a lifelong friend for an amateur farmer, three city kids and a woman who is afraid of cows. Jerk-farmers.

Our rural friends, those who had moved out ahead of us, did a big selling job — partly, I suppose, to reassure themselves as well as to expand the pool of baby-sitters and emergency help. Said one: “The best way to be accepted

out here is to act stupid. Show them you need help.” That would be easy.

As the weeks dragged on and nothing seemed to match our vision and our price, we faced the prospect of having to steal money or settle for a smaller place. Finally, about 11.30 p.m. one night, the phone rang. A woman had a place being listed the next day and wanted us to have first crack at it. (They always say that.) She described it, including the sugarbush and six bedrooms. The next evening we prowled the property in fading daylight (and rubber boots), slipping and sliding as we checked off our list of musts and maybes. The pond was stocked with trout. The barn had acquired a new roof four years ago. The house needed some decorating, but was big and “stately,” we thought. The trees weren’t elms. The land was rolling, in an area of medium to good soil. Twentytwo Suffolk ewes would come along in the deal if we wanted them. It was a long drive to the city, but what the hell.

We went back the next night and the next. Each visit added more features, more reasons to make the jump. We talked to our lawyer about financing.

That Saturday night we went to a city party in a state of boastful euphoria. The search had been successful! I described the place in glorious detail to a crowd of skeptics — city cynics and lousy golfers. Their rural put-downs were not what I had expected:

“Harry bought a place — then he had the water tested. Cost him $2,000 for a new well.” Big laugh.

“Man that’s going to be something to plough isn’t it. One hundred-and-five acres? I’ll take golf.”

“Hope you make out better than a guy I know. He did this whole farm thing about three years ago. Only in the fall. First big snowstorm he discovered he was at the end of the snowplough route. They didn’t touch his road until about noon. Two storms and he was fired for not showing up at work.” He winked. “Of course I guess you’ve figured some way around the snow problem up there . . .”

“Jeez, if you’re going to have stock, you better hope the pipes don’t freeze. Sheep need water, you know.”

“Well it’s been nice knowing you, farmer. Don’t call me when your sheep get out.”

Two women cried at the prospect of losing us from the community.

We went home quietly. Thoughtfully.

I couldn’t stop thinking about what I would do with a set of frozen pipes at 4 a.m. And it was only spring!

I woke up the next morning and thought, if I were on that farm right now, 50 miles from here — I’d have been up for two hours already. And if I walked out the back door and met one

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BUYING A FARM continued

of those sheep with his four feet up in the air, what would I do? I mean what do you do with a dead sheep? In the city you grab the telephone. But here’s this sheep — stone cold dead — lying so that you can’t even back the car out. What do you do?

That was something to think about. We also spent much of that day — Sunday — thinking out our true feelings toward mice, manure, frozen pipes, silence, commuting, friends, and take-out pizza. Some considerations had been ignored in our enthusiasm. For example, I have trouble changing washers; I do not enjoy prolonged darkness without a light switch or streetlight nearby.

You can laugh, of course, and shout cold-feet, chicken, coward. But lurking somewhere in this headlong search for freedom and land is a large dose of idealistic, naïve escapism. Only when you come down to specifics — 105 acres, 22 Suffolk ewes, a laneway almost a quarter of a mile long in the snow belt — does a full and honest evaluation of city vs. country living really begin.

I recalled one farmer who stood inside his bigTarn and pointed to a powerboat, snowmobile, small house trailer and tractor. “The tractor’s mine,” he said. “Rest of the stuff belongs to my brother-in-law. He comes out from the city on weekends. I don’t have time for any of that.”

There is a tremendous return to the land — both spiritually and physically — but for some the return is a wishful escape from rather than a conscious running to. What false memories of childhood lead us on? What powerful, hopeless longings? It is a daydream, not a reality, to expect that animals will be easier to live with than people. Perhaps the mental vision of a dead sheep on your lawn is a good way to find out if you’re ready. Some of us aren’t. And isn’t this easier than sinking a bundle into purebred cattle or racehorses and then pulling out? Isn’t this better than discovering after six months that you can’t live with so much silence?

We backed out. We didn’t buy the best farm we’ve ever seen. We didn’t move from the city.

Yes, for us, the search was in large part an escapist’s dream, I suppose. We’ve been through it before; it’s an exciting, satisfying experience in itself. We saw beautiful country, met fascinating people, and stood teetering on the brink of a new lifestyle. Just that is good for the soul. For now, we’re planting rosebushes along the hedge behind the garage, and thinking about a summer drive to the Maritimes.

But when you read this, in the spring, chances are we’ll be looking for a farm again. And if I can figure out how to cope with that damned sheep with its legs in the air, we just might do it. ff