February, cold and dark, and we were trapped in our small house in downtown Kitchener. The long Canadian winter was giving us the blues so, like many others, we started shopping for a new, larger home.
We had somehow misplace our dream of living on a farm. It seemed to have slipped from our minds. The rolling hills lush with crops and the stately red barns of Ontario called to us. We were a young family with children, looking for change. As a child I had spent weekends at a hobby farm belonging to a family friend. I could identify sprouting corn in the field. I loved playing in the immense old barn with its trap door leading to the animal stalls below and a big sisal rope swinging from the rafters where the hay was piled.
Long lanes and spacious homes sitting comfortably under a canopy of trees planted a century ago. What order and prosperity, quiet, purposeful industry of farming.
I even once spent a day assisting with sheep sheering.
As a teen, I once stacked hay for an entire day to earn money. It was utterly exhausting.
So naturally I was fully qualified to be a hobby farmer. Our two young children would have to grow in to it as best they could.
Our city friends all confessed some dream of country living. Try digging a few post holes on a hot summer day for practice. Old, (re)tired farmers live in town. Learn from their example and buy a farm now while you are still able. If this does not describe you then at least enjoy and imagine and let me tell you what we learned.
A big, old drafty farm house is absolutely required. It will be way bigger than anything you need but that is fine. This is a hobby farm dream you’re fulfilling and a small ranch house from the 1970’s won’t cut it. An old barn is a big plus and it must be painted red. I think that is a law.
Be like Noah and acquire your animals in pairs, always. They will exercise more and won’t be lonely. A pair of dogs is your first requirement. You cannot have a hobby farm without farm dogs. Period.
Get the right kind of dog. Hounds will run off for days on a scent. Retrievers are for hunters. Get a herd dog. They will manage the animals, you and any kids that are around. Train the dog to stay close. If there are cattle on nearby farms this is essential. A farmer might shoot your dog if it tries to herd the cattle. Your dog will be full of instinct, enthusiasm and zero experience; just like you.
Cats are good too and essential for rodent control in barns and old houses. But get them fixed as barn kittens are only cute the first time. And unless you have a good barn with animals inside to heat it, do not even think of keeping cats there. They belong in the house during our frigid winters.
Learn to talk and learn to be quiet. The art of rural conversation requires patience. You know those long gaps in conversation that you need to fill? Don’t. Those pauses belong there, you just didn’t know it. Lean on the fence rail and look out across the fields. Beautiful, now take a deep breath and pet the dog. See if you can be the one to remain silent. Farmers will go quiet for minutes at a time. They are just gathering their thoughts. You are not at a cocktail party where chatter is valued.
And don’t even think about a quick trip to town for errands. This is a social event; it is not about your shopping. You will hear gossip and tell gossip and discuss weather; endlessly. Everyone will ask you where you are from. Learn to refer to your farm by the last name of the previous owners. You will have to be there for a few generations for anyone to refer to the farm by your last name. Don’t take offence.
I once spent 3 hours buying $20 worth of straw for our pigs. The place was only down the road from us and my wife was at home getting worried. It was just that the man ahead of me was taking his time and teaching the farmer about the type of hay horses need and the qualities of different grasses and crops. Impress your new neighbours by learning the difference between hay and straw. Hint: hay is for eating.
Carefully consider the size and type of tractor you will need. Then go and buy one at least a third bigger. Make sure it has a front bucket and all-wheel drive. Don’t be silly and buy an antique tractor no matter how beautiful it looks. It can only drag things around and will be almost useless for any tasks like snow clearing and manure moving.
By the way, snow removal is your responsibility. Sure the neighbours will help you out in a pinch and pull your truck out of a ditch. But they won’t clear your laneway for you. You are expected to do that yourself. Our lane was 300 meters long and in a rut next to some marshy land. It could easily collect 2 feet of snow with no where to put it. So much for the plow I bought for the farm truck. Buy a snow blower for the tractor. Trust me.
Deer, first one, then the next.
Have kids or grandchildren visiting? Get them whistles on a string. Getting lost in a cornfield is terrifying for the little ones. Teach the children to stay put if they get lost and blow the whistle. The dogs are usually not much good for guiding the kids back home. They are good for the following the kids in to the middle of the bush and then awaiting further orders.
And no horror movies; ever. At the very least no movies about demonic children and corn. Do not let your wife rent a stalker movie if you are headed out for the night or on a business trip.
There is something about the hobby farm that lulls people in to thinking there is always someone at home, any time of day. The same friends who would call first when visiting you in the city now show up unannounced. That is because the farm is bigger than you. The farm is an institution, you are the caretaker.
And did I mention their city dogs? They will bring them without asking. Why else would they come for a visit? You will spend most of their visit trying to control their badly behaved dogs and stop them from chasing the chickens and picking fights with your dog.
Don’t resist, just get tons of animals. Between pets and kids, you will be busy anyway. Throw in some poultry and a few pigs. You wanted to stay active so go for it.
Raise chickens. Have at least one mature rooster to manage the flock. Now you will truly understand the terms pecking order; hen parties; and the cock of the walk. They are a movable feast of entertainment, a clucking soap opera of social order.
However, don’t free range them unless you want to wake up to 60 chickens on your back porch eating the dog’s leftover food and leaving the behind a generous measure of bird droppings. As you hose down the porch and hope you get it all, re-consider the free range idea.
Chickens love meat and love to eat snakes and insects. They will choose meat over grain any day. Bet you didn’t know that. Now you do. And, sorry to say, but chickens are not very bright. Now you know that too.
Free range birds and wild rabbit foraging.
Raise pigs, once. Pigs are way smarter than dogs and are the cleanest animals on the farm. We bought a pair of females from a local piggery. My young son and I raised them. Treat them gently and they will reward you with their good nature, joy and affection. I feel disloyal to the dogs when I say that pigs make better pets.
Our sows loved to tease our big German Shepherd. Sure, he was the smartest dog I have ever known. But he was not match for the pigs. One pig would taunt him while the other would sneak up and nip his tail through the fence. Sure it was funny and it drove him crazy. Pigs have a laugh, a chortle and snort that is unlike anything I have ever heard. Why doesn’t anyone tell you they have a sense of humour and a permanent smile?.
However, sows just keep growing. In less than a year, our sows reached over 600 pounds each. Size, strength and intelligence made them unmanageable. I learned the hard way that the new shed I had built for them needs a proper watering system. I spent most of the winter wading through hip-deep snow and carrying buckets of water for the pigs. They would promptly knock them over.
Fortunately, they were easy going. They would casually break out of any pen and go for a stroll late at night. There is not much that can hold a large pig when it wants out.
Buy plenty of land. An acre looks enormous when you visit from the city, after a few years you will realize it is hardly room enough for a hobby farm. As your perspective grows, that acre will seem smaller and smaller. Don’t be afraid to hobby farm on a larger scale. Neighbours will rent your spare land and take care of things. However, you must resist any temptation to plant your own crops. A little math will tell you that even if you did things properly, you will never pay for all of the equipment needed. Leave it to the professional farmers.