Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Last Day on The Farm: A Conversation

By +Katrina Siks

 “Unfortunately, it’s a good time to get out of apples”, he ponders on this last weekend his family will live on the farm. We’ll call him Sam, as while he’s happy to talk with those he knows all about the sale of the land, it feels too close to home to broadcast his family name.

got hail, frost, diseases… Infestations come up from the south, and they’re on the rise, that’s clear. There are different regulations between the States and Canada, and by the time the insects get to us they’re immune to what we can use.”
I felt honoured to have the chance to talk with him on the last day his family was on the farm. Three generations of sweat, 150,000 apple trees and 25,000 maple tree taps - or, as Sam’s grandfather described it, “your land, your college tuition… your inheritance”. A self-made wealthy man, his grandfather had been a pharmacist who had arrived in Canada with nothing. He didn’t want his children to grow up as spoiled city kids, so he’d put them to work on the farm.  

Those four children worked every summer, learned the value of their sweat, grew to love the land, and expanded operations. Soon they had degrees in agricultural science, families of their own, and a total of 4 farm plots of land they had joined together.

It was not an easy life, “there are so many things that can just destroy your crop in minutes, all your work all summer long.  Hail can hit you and not your neighbour – 10 minutes of large hail can tear your crop to shreds, and leave it to rot on the tree,” from the disappointment in his voice, you could tell that this had happened more than once.

“Though I’m glad I don’t have to spend two-thirds of my year pruning any more, I’m going to miss the place that’s for sure. It’s weird, it’s really weird. It hasn’t really settled in.”
With so much hardship, what had kept them there? “It was our family identity – to have a well run orchard... There were only another few growers around that put as much effort into their crop as we did.”
“My dad, he’s been in the orchard every day for the last 50 years, and the last 5 years with a cane, even in the snow, you’d have to fight the guy! He’d be out there with a cane and a pruner in the other hand. Beside him you’d have a new hire, an 18 year old football player type just sweating bullets, the young ones couldn’t keep up to him. They just don’t make them like they used to. My dad is a machine!”
“It’s amazing to spend even a day out there with someone like him that can just look at a tree and know instantly what it needs, how to prune it. Pruning is an art.”

It’s easy to imagine Sam learning from watching his dad – and both of them, learning from watching the land.  “There can be frost, they call them death valleys, where the cold air gets trapped in low land in the early mornings. My dad figured out a way to reduce damage from frosts – after watching the patterns of death over the years, he created wind tunnels to move air through the lower lands, carving out sections of nearby forest. This was something he came up with.” 
Hearing this, I’m in awe of the generations of observation allowing them to harness these assets of the land. Surely this depth of understanding is invaluable – but Sam shakes his head. The new owners, fresh from the city, “think they know everything…  we tried to let them know about diseases they might want to look out for, strategies to work with the land, but they’ve turned us down.”

“(The new owner’s) latest plan is to make an apple pie factory - but they’ve already missed their first window to prune the trees this winter! I wouldn’t be surprised if 10 years from now there’s no orchard there, or they’ll just let it go to shit. The trees grow so fast – even if you prune twice a year you’re barely keeping up. Its’ really sad, it’s not going to take long for them to be over-grown and out of control.” Sam sounds strangely matter-of-fact.  

“They’ll learn, or they’ll give up. But if they decide to sell the land, but it’s gone to shit, how will they make it marketable again?” Sam sighs.

“It’s just not going to be our family farm anymore.”


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