Fallow Fields

I was rummaging in boxes on the farm in Ontario recently I found an old issue of The Canadian Forum with my essay “Fallow Fields” (The Canadian Forum, January 1987). My father had died in 1984, leaving the family tobacco farm to my mother in a troubled time. We were havering between different imagined futures for the land, much as we are today. I wrote this essay in an effort to think through the situation for myself. It made a splash. Peter Gzowski, Captain Canada, interviewed me on CBC Morningside.

Some of the text is dated now, that moment in economic and technological history is long gone. But the bulk of the essay about the history of the farm and tobacco growing is golden in capturing the times. Here’s an excerpt:

The farm I grew up on has been in the family since 1900, when my grandfather bought it (155 acres less five when the Lake Erie & Northern Railway expropriated a right-of-way through the property in 1914) for $7,000. About 40 acres of this was mixed woods — maple, beech, and oak — with a swamp and springs that flow eventually into Lake Erie 20 miles away. There were some damp, low spots, which were fenced for pasture then and planted with corn or soybeans now, and some persistently sterile and yellow hilltops (“sandy knolls” my father called them) that still require extra fertilizer and careful erosion control. The rest was relatively fertile sandy loam, good for growing almost anything; ideal, it turned out later, for tobacco.

Besides the farm buildings, a hired man’s house, and a smaller house for summer help, there was a large Georgian fieldstone farmhouse, beautiful, imposing, but hard to heat, built by the farm’s original owner, a Dr. Duncombe (brother of Dr. Charles Duncombe, who raised the flag of rebellion in Scotland in 1837). I have looked the place up in an 1877 county atlas: there are three orchards marked, along with a small graveyard.

Whether those orchards survived, or whether my grandfather had a special predilection — his Loyalist forbears settled for a while on the Niagara Peninsula  — he started out as a fruit grower. But not just one fruit, or one variety of fruit. This was an era of agriculture before mechanization, agribusiness, monocultures, and, for that matter, tobacco. In the field next to the house, my grandfather grew black currents (picked in 11-quart baskets and shipped by the L.E.&N. to Brantford or taken by car to Norwich and Kitchener) and gooseberries. There was a stile across the railway fence and then a patch of raspberries. South of the raspberries we had a five-acre apple orchard (that’s where the kiln yard is now; one lone apple tree is left, dropping its scant, wormy fruit on the cureman’s shack year after year). The apples were old-fashioned varieties, mostly out of favour now because they don’t store or ship well: Greens, Northern Spies, Snow Apples, and Tallman Sweets (packed in barrels and sent away by rail). North of the barn there were a couple of acres of cherries and about the same in pears (my grandfather tried peaches first, but they were frozen out) — again, what is striking is the variety: Kiefers, hard as bullets when picked; Bartletts for canning; Clap Favourites, a dessert pear that started to spoil practically as soon as it came from the tree.

But the farm’s main income came from strawberries, which my grandfather grew in eight- to 12-acre patches, moving the patch every couple of years as the plants went past their peak. Strawberry harvest was the busiest time on the farm, with as many as 60 people; whole families of Iroquois Indians —Generals, Sowdens and Jacobs — came from the nearby Six Nations Reserve to live in rough duplex shacks (they had bunks inside and a cook stove on the porch) my grandfather provided while the season lasted. (There is a shade of irony in the thought that these Iroquois were the same fierce warriors who exterminated the first Ontario tobacco growers, the Neutrals and Petuns, while Canada was still a French colony.) The berries were taken on flatracks to Waterford and loaded onto Michigan Central refrigerator cars bound for Montreal or Detroit. My grandfather did his selling by telephone, anxiously calling between the two cities for the highest price.

By modern standards it was a very mixed farm and quite self-sufficient. Behind the house there was a garden, a chicken run, a hog yard, and along, red hog barn; once a year my grandfather killed a pig and made sausages and lard and cured hams in the stone smokehouse. He kept cows, too, six or seven of them for milking, though he never liked them and my grandmother refused to let him build a silo or get too deeply into the livestock side of the business. During the summer the cows were pastured at the edge of the woods on the north side of the property. Twice a day my father or my aunt walked to the head of the pasture lane to shout, “Cow-Boss! Cow-Boss!” and the cows would amble home and into their stalls for milking. Some of the milk was used on the farm, some was sold in large metal cans picked up every day by a dairy truck.

There was a gabled drive shed for storing machinery,with a weather vane and a circular glass window in the gable, and a large two-storey barn with stables for cows and horses on the ground floor, and a grainary and hay loft above. Hay, oats, rye, wheat, and turnips were grown on the farm and stored in the barn to feed the animals (some of the grain was ground into grist at a nearby mill; my aunt split the turnips with a hand-turned cutter), and, naturally, we did not need to buy commercial fertilizers. A windmill pumped water to the house and barn. For labour my grandfather depended mainly on a permanent hired man (and his wife) who worked on the farm in return for a rent-free house, firewood cut in the woods, milk, use of a driving horse, land for a garden, and wages that amounted to about $400 to $600 a year (I’m talking about, roughly, the time of the First World War — the troops were getting $1.10 a day). During the summer, my grandfather would often employ a temporary hired man as well. There was a second, smaller tenant house for him and his family and, of course, he also got the free milk, firewood and garden.

You can download and read the rest of the essay here.

And here is a selection of earlier blog posts about the farm (lots of photos).