The Newman Farm

It’s spring, the list of things to do around the farm is beyond huge, school has about a thousand events happening (seems like it, anyway), and hubby’s business has been running at a level that means that any togetherness or family time has to be booked days in advance, in pen, or it won’t happen.

And then along came today. We had the opportunity to play hooky from our own church, and visited that of some friends. This small act of non-conformity was surprisingly energizing, though maybe the country twang rendition of an old childhood hymn helped. When an appointment hubby had booked for 1pm was cancelled, we rolled with it.

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apparently this person eats their fish first…

Fish and chips, wrapped in newspaper, finger lickin’ greasy and delicious (Fish on Fifth if you’re local – great stuff), was eaten on a huge log down on the rocky shore that is part of a newer park quite close to our home called Newman Farm Park, after the pioneering family who owned the 17 or so acres from up the hill all the way down to the shore. I find this farm quite interesting.  It’s only a few acres larger than our farm (we have 14+ acres).  I find the idea of a farm that runs down to the shore pretty idyllic – I have to admit, the Newman’s bit of shore is pretty rocky, but I’d take it.  Beautiful view, gentle stretch of water, lots of fish and seafood to supplement the diet.  A couple of the Newmans were keen rowers and they did some boat building as well, hence the boathouses. Fish and Chips 019 small Fish and Chips 020 small From the time they bought the land, till 1996, the family practiced mixed subsistence farming.  That’s a century of farming.  One of the reasons the farm is considered historically significant is because the family never acquired electricity or plumbing, and lived much as they had always done, right up till the last Newman living there died, in 2000.  I realize that to all of you down East dwellers, this is not exactly ancient history, but the West coast was settled long after the rest of the continent.  The first white people to settle in my area took up land in 1862.  So the Newman place IS old by our standards.

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The boathouses have had some repair work since 2007.

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view from the boathouses. That’s James Island in the background, with Sidney Spit off to the left.

Fish and Chips 011 small Fish and Chips 007 small When we’d finished exploring rock pools and watching tiny crabs scramble through the rocks, we started to head home, but made a detour after we’d crossed the highway, to go visit the Newman house.  It’s down a quiet dead end lane, surrounded by fields.  The peacefulness of the place was disrupted only by the singing of a nearby starling.  We contemplated what it might have been like during the family’s heyday, according to the park’s webpage:

True to the pioneering spirit, the Newman family was self-reliant. They grew their own fruits and vegetables, ground their own cereal and raised prize-winning jersey cattle. Fresh cream and butter they produced provided extra income for the family. George, along with younger brothers, John and Henry, spent most of their lives on the family homestead, which was actively farmed up until 1996.

In addition to the original cabin and farmhouse, other structures on-site include a creamery, garage, chicken coop, barn, outhouse, a second cabin, milking barn, four sheds and two boathouses on the east portion of the property. (from the park webpage, linked above).

As we left, our older daughter said, “wouldn’t it be great to live somewhere like that?”  Old house full of character, fields all around, wild rose scenting the air, glimpse of the sea just a few acres away…

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the Newman beachfront is just out of sight down the hill to the right of the bushy trees in the centre background.

“We DO live somewhere like that” I said, and it’s true – well, we don’t have glimpses of the sea, but we do have beautiful hills around us, and the sea is just a few minutes drive down the road.  Our farm is only a few acres smaller, our buildings include house, barn, old dairy, outhouse, chicken coop, equipment shed and old chicken house.  We even have starlings nesting in the century old apple trees in our orchard.  We have pigs rooting around behind the barn, we have chickens fussing in the tall grass near my neighbour’s fence.  Seeds in the veg garden are germinating so fast you can almost see it happening right now.  The Newman farm must have been like that once – people coming and going, animals creating noise and work all over the place, someone needing to hoe between the potatoes, someone hanging laundry…on a warm, mild day like this, the farm wouldn’t have been a restful place at 2 in the afternoon, it would have been full of activity.

I know what she meant though, and that’s true too. After our morning and afternoon of escaping our normal routine, we turned into our driveway, all our minds clicking towards we’d be doing next.  Back to cell phones and email, chores, homework, supper prep.  Back into our regular lives.

It takes two to tango

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I have a quote taped to the inside of one of the kitchen cupboards:  “You cannot walk in your own strength”.

Joel Salatin has commented more than once, including in his book “You Can Farm“, that one of the most common reasons that beginner farmers fail is because their spouse and/or family is not on the same page with them about farming.  Farming is a lifestyle as well as a livelihood, and it is really not for everyone, blood related or not.

My family does not share my deep desire to farm. They are supportive:  they all do chores when I am at work, they cook meals, undertake maintenance projects etc.  My husband in particular has developed his interest in farming over the years, partly through an appreciation of just how much better our eggs and chicken taste compared to what we had been eating, partly because he’s in a “if you can’t beat them, join them” kind of situation with me.

As parents and spouses we have always had to deal with some tension due to our differing levels of passion for farming, careers, children’s activities, etc. and have had to do some give and take about family goals, plans, direction, etc.  One result of that is that the girls have developed non-farming interests.  They are great kids, turning out to be fabulous adults, but not farmers.  And I’m fine with that:  our goals as parents were to raise kids that would be good members of their community, contributing to the welfare of where they live and who they live with, living their values with integrity.  They are capable, responsible, smart, have wide interests and know how to laugh.  What more could we ask for?

I need to be respectful of my family’s different interests, desires, goals.  While they support my desire to farm, I need to support their love of adventure, travel, their goals for financial security etc.  We have to find a balance that allows each of us our thing, while still supporting all the others.  It’s not the way I hoped farming was going to shake out for our family – I had pictured us working together on a common passion.  But it is what it is, for whatever reasons, and so our common passion is being family, supporting each other.  While I still have goals in farming to develop production and diversity, and things I want to do with the land,  my family will always come first.  In return, they will support me when and how they are able (as long as it doesn’t involve manure, apparently!)

With regard to the physical side of farming support – yeah.  That’s an issue too.  Building projects are difficult by yourself.  So much stuff needs to be lifted and/or carried.  Catching loose chickens is faster with an extra person.  Working off farm really requires assistance from someone to be around during the day.   It’s lonely and sometimes scary in the dark, it’s great when someone is out there with you.   We don’t have a lot of equipment, no truck or tractor, nor very many useful skills (like carpentry), and we have relied heavily on neighbours over the years for tractor work, construction work, transporting things/critters and advice.  I’m not good at asking for help, and my husband was raised to value independence. So we’ve had to develop some humility in this regard.

The emotional side? I’m female, I’m middle aged, my tear ducts get a work out.  I can be knocked down pretty easily by small challenges, like weather or broken doors or sick animals…it may be why I was put in this place, to develop some resilience and strength to cope with the curves life throws.  I have a stubborn streak that gets me back on my feet most of the time, but I could not do it without my husband there to pick up the pieces of me at the end of a bad day, dust me off and come help me build an emergency fence in the dark and the rain.

Something not often mentioned when successful farmers speak about their success is that someone is “keeping the home fries burning”. The vast majority of them have someone cooking the meals, keeping the bathroom clean, making sure the mud that gets tracked in also gets swept out.  I’m not saying that has to be gender specific, but it frankly often is.  Especially when there are small children in the picture, there are routines to the day that are kind of relentless:  meals have to happen, and someone has to cook them, baths, story time, bedtime routines.  It is very difficult to make headway on a project when you are only able to give it an hour before naptime ends or you have to pick up kids from school or take them to swimming or…  There is nothing more depressing than coming in tired and dirty on a wet, cold night to the prospect of a cluttered kitchen and no dinner till you figure out what it’s going to be.

I read a lot of farming blogs.  If there is one single thing that successful farmers have in common, I think it would be that none of them are farming alone.  First of all, farmers, especially beginner farmers cannot afford to be independent.  They have to rely on the farming community around them for knowledge, skills, help.  They need customers (what Joel Salatin calls his cheerleaders) – I know from experience that a bad day can be made wonderful when a customer phones to say “I just wanted to tell you that was the BEST chicken we’ve ever had!”.  They might be a couple of partners, they might be spouses, or siblings or a family or a single person with apprentices or employees, but NONE of them do this alone.

My parents farmed with a network of support around them, from the hippies next door, to the dairy farmer down the road, to my grandmother coming every Monday to vacuum and dust so my Mum could get stuff done outside.  In the 15 years since we’ve moved back to the farm where I grew up, it’s probably taken me a decade to realize that this farming thing of mine – it cannot be mine alone.  If I’m going to make it work, I’m going to have to get better at engaging in the network of support that is all around me. Change that me to we.  Somehow.