There’s always been dirty dealings within Ontario’s farming community, relatively little things for the most part, individual farmers putting the screws to their fellows.
Then there was the crisis of the early 1980s sparked by interest rates topping 20 per cent.
Through it all, the number of farmers has continued to fall at a steady rate to the point that the farming community is now a mere shadow of its former self, a minor member of a larger team that calls itself agriculture and genuinely endangered to boot. So, it’s been especially sad to have witnessed the shenanigans of the past three and a half years forcing farmers from their participation in the province’s processing vegetable industry at a time when more people, not fewer, are needed on the land.
I grew up in Oxford County, about five or six miles north of Woodstock, an area that is currently represented in the Ontario Legislature by Ernie Hardeman. It’s an area of loam ground, some of the highest-priced farmland in Canada.
In the early 1960s, 100-acre farms were the norm. Statistics Canada put the average farm size in 1966 at 162 acres but where we lived farmers could make a go of it with just 100 acres, even less.
Mixed farming was the norm. It was common for families to have two or three livestock species. Hybrid corn was rising in popularity but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the drive toward cash cropping truly took hold.
There were neighbours, plenty of them. For the annual Christmas concert, the one-room school house, a quarter mile from our farm, would be filled to bursting. My grandfather had worked as the caretaker there and over the years amassed a gallon-jar of pencil stubs, the purpose for which he evidently never did discover, the collection having outlived him.
Living frugally was something that certainly wasn’t lost for his generation or my father’s.
The families I was most familiar with lived up and down the 15th concession. They shared labour and equipment. A single combine or corn picker would be used on multiple farms. Two or three farm families might even share in the purchase of a new piece of equipment, like the crimper that allowed my father and two other small dairy farmers in the area to speed up the harvest of hay by a day or two.
There were conflicts, of course, petty jealousies for the most part or perhaps an affair of the heart. I remember my dad grinning at a neighbour woman leaning forward from a second-storey window, cleavage generously exposed above folded arms – the implications of which were obscure in a young boy’s mind.
It is the remembrance of fellowship though that I remember best, however, not the things of conflict. The idea that by working together we all were stronger, and that conflicts could indeed be amicably resolved was key.
Every farm had a dog in those days, if not two, and they would roam the neighbourhood in a pack at times, something my father did not approve of. He went to particular lengths to keep our collie/shepherd male at home, once shooting across a 10-acre field to scare away little Frisky, a female that attracted admirers from miles around.
They’d run for days at a time and our dog, Sponger, would arrive home as much dead as alive.
My father used his 25-20 rifle which featured a fat, slow-moving bullet. He sighted with no support and fired and, after what seemed a second or two, Frisky dropped.
“Shit, I never thought I’d hit it,” he said.
I don’t know exactly what he conveyed to the neighbouring family but when dad returned, he said he was told that there was no need for an apology.
Dog fights were another occurrence but to my knowledge were never formally organized. Poor Sponger, who wasn’t the brightest mutt on the block, would occasionally take on two neighbour dogs that worked in concert. As Sponger attempted to deal with big Mickey’s frontal assault, the little collie Blackie would attack from the rear.
The two were always called off before things became serious and after all, two against one is never fair.
Another fight that comes to mind took place two farms down the road. My dad was there. So was the fellow from the next farm down and the farm’s owner.
My father kept strangely silent during the interchange between the other two men. Both claimed their dog was the better, one a chunky, little German shepherd, the other a hound. It’s only in retrospect that I came to understand that the two men, though they shared equipment and labour, didn’t particularly like the other.
As a lad of perhaps six, I watched in fascination as the two animals tangled in a blur of fur and tooth, waiting for one to gain the upper hand. That never happened.
One of the neighbours, a small agile man, stepped forward and with a well-aimed foot strike separated the two animals and uttered the words, “that’s enough now!”
Conflict resolved. ◊