Saturday, March 19, 2011

Virtual Farm Tour

Living on a farm, we get a lot of offers from people to come and help. Often they want to show their children where food comes from. This includes everyone from city slickers to back-country folks. I guess we all have an interest in food in the end. We’ve not figured out yet how to accommodate the requests we get for tours or to come and work for the day. We do have respectful friends who we invite and we make our way through a series of tasks together. Having our own children with us when we work brings a different pace to the work. Other families seem to bring the workload to a screeching halt. We happen to have a diverse operation that runs on a relatively small scale across the board so it does make for good educational opportunities on the one level. On another level, our farm isn’t very representative of how food is generally produced these days.

I know that there is an idyllic vision out there of how it is to be on a farm. The wide open pastures with sleek animals grazing about, dogs running freely and chickens laying eggs in their tidy nest boxes. The barns are spotless with only one token cobweb for the star spider and there are healthy barn kitties running about lapping up milk from clean bowls. The row of apple trees is impeccably pruned and full of red, shiny apples. The fences have fresh paint on them and the well is always full of spring-fed, drinkable water. All of the equipment is neatly displayed and always functional.

On our farm, we often have to jump start the truck or the tractor. We are constantly repairing our fences with bandaid solutions using whatever is on hand (we ought to rebuild those fences some day soon). Although I prune the apple trees every year, they always seem to have too many branches. My barn houses many families of spiders, bats, mice, rats and you name it. My barn kitties smell of manure (of course they do, what did you think?) or disappear in the jaws of fishers or coyotes. My dogs run away if I don’t tie them up. My chickens lay their eggs in secret corners or under the cow’s manger no matter how much I re-teach them where their egg boxes are. Our well is always kicking up a drama – a whole blog post in itself – my favourite of which was the time it filled up with snakes that died and my laundry stank of rotten reptile for weeks. In the winter, my cows are splotched with manure. A few of my chickens have been pecked down to the skin around their necks by each other or the rooster we have. That’s just the way it goes.

Other times what you see is beautiful enough to take a photograph that will take your breath away. And I do take these pictures all the time, sometimes only in my mind.

Certain tasks are conducive to having a crew on hand. Planting thousands of strawberry plants, raising a barn, collecting sap, filling greenhouse pots with soil, maybe seeding or transplanting – all of these tasks are better shared with company. Unfortunately they are not always the most exciting tasks, they are often repetitive and insular and not representative of the ‘wide-angle’ view people are looking for. They do, however, show the continuous, hard work required on a farm. And for many jobs, explaining what is needed to a new helper can cost more time and effort than is gained.

That is not to say that showing people around the farm isn’t enjoyable. It surely is! We are proud of what goes on here and love to share it. The trouble is that if we obliged every request for a visit, we could have people here every day of the year. What is hard to relay to people is that this is a functioning place of work and that we are not set up to teach in the middle of our workday. Nobody would visit a lawyer in their office while they are up against a deadline and expect a tour of their job. And though the deadline looks a lot more like a crop of tomatoes needing harvesting or buckets of sap that will spoil if not boiled down, the conveyor belt just keeps on moving.

There is a fine balance required between enjoying the company of others on our farm and accomplishing what needs to get done in a day.

Of course, one way to deal with this would be to invite a slew of people out and show them around on an official farm tour day. Yet, that would involve having extra time to clean up the farm, a variety of organized, well-thought out stations to visit and visible structures to go with the plans that reside in our heads on future improvements. Basically, we never get caught up around here. As soon as things are tidied, made safe and clean again there is a whole other round of poop waiting in the wings.

I don’t know how to reconcile this. It is important to share the knowledge of farming to anyone who will listen. Before I moved to a farm, I did not understand what it took to grow food. I never knew what a combine was or what the difference between round and square bales were. I didn’t know what rye looked like, or wheat or oats. I couldn’t tell when a squash was ready to harvest. I also thought a farm was a great place to bring my dog for a run – our experience with this has led to dead chickens in our yard and horses being chased through fences so that we have banned canine visitors.

I also never knew that chore could be used as a verb – to chore. And that a man oughtta marry any woman that chores with him.

But what is true for us right now, perhaps because we have too much else going on, we don’t have the time to make a farm tour happen properly and safely. And ironically if we organized a tour at this time, we would not be able to get through the essential tasks that we have on our plates. I don’t think that is what anyone wants to see happen. It also often comes to wanting to use our down time for rest and quiet family time. Rare but precious.

What is tricky to explain to our unannounced visitors is that our work schedule for the day may well go until 1am as it is. With the visit, even if ‘help’ is included here, now it might go until 2am. The wheels keep on turning with or without us.

My husband has a great strategy for the unexpected farm visitors. He just keeps doing what he does and tells people they are welcome to come alongside him while he works. Rob is a patient man. He is one who easily goes with the flow, takes what comes and isn’t caught up in predictability the way I am.

So if I knew how to keep on top of things and remain sane while inviting you all out at your convenience for a tour and some tea, I would. Until then, I’ll work on finding a nice way to say that the best way to help is to respectfully accept that the farm tour will be a virtual one, in written word, here in a blog.

And we'll keep bringing food to the farmer’s market as a result.


  1.'re saying this might be the wrong time to ask about a cheese making day? ;)

    I hear you about the tours...they're really great to host, but a huge amount of work and invariably you spend the next week playing catch up! (that's on a rather large farm with many hands) can't imagine how far it might set you back! Keep up the great work, you're doing just fine and virtual is wonderful too!

  2. I have to say I feel a little spoiled only having a few animals and acres. I'm having tea right now and enjoying your virtual tour immensely. Thanks for sharing. BTW have you read Kristin Kimballs book "The Dirty Life"? A glimpse into the amazing life of devoted farm families. A great read.

  3. I have read that - unbelievable what those people did! I gobbled it all up! I just saw another called Growing a Farmer that caught my eye in the bookstore. Funny how many of these stories have slightly depressing lilts to them. Farming must just be slightly like that :)


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