I talk to a lot of people in my daily life and I have recently come to realize how few of you have a grasp on what people are meaning when they mention “farm life”. Depending on your age and television experience you probably envision an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” crossed with “Corner Gas”. Myself, I have in-laws that actually own a farm in small town Saskatchewan so I get to experience some of the nuances first hand and I will tell you that only one of those TV shows is remotely accurate – and it isn’t the Ingalls.
The first trip out to the farm we made I was a little unprepared for the experience. Frankly I had no idea. We pulled in to the gas station of this tiny town and it looked pretty much like any gas station but looks is about where the similarities ended – this was not just a place to buy gas. As we walked inside I realized that a larger than expected percentage of the entire town was hanging out inside. Lawn chairs leaned back against coolers, boots scraped on the floor and heads turned as us “strangers” invaded their space. The conversation stopped almost instantly, leaving only the sound of the Roughriders game (Saskatchewans football team) on the television. Yes, we were enough of a spectacle to pre-empt their afternoon football game viewing. The silence was broken by a charming little lady who politely blurted out “who do you belong to??”. Apparently if you’re a stranger in this town you are obviously there to visit someone – there couldn’t possibly be another reason to show up unannounced. Fortunately my wife looks enough like her mother that they quickly ascertained who us city folk were in town to see and, as my mother in law is a member in good standing of the towns friendship committee, we were suddenly greeted like long lost family. I really just wanted a jug of milk and a Snickers bar but we were now amongst friends. Thankfully I wasn’t wearing any sports clothing that may have had a rival team on it, these people take that stuff pretty seriously. I promised not to make fun of their team though so I will leave it at that.
As we headed out from town to the actual farm my wife warned me about the “grid roads”. This is the first lesson in farm life – if you want to get anywhere you will need to drive down a grid road. These grid roads parallel each other and run straight, crisscrossing the countryside like the lines on a sheet of really large graph paper. While that might sound like an easy and efficient way to get traffic from point A to point B, they are not without adventure. Problem number one is that there are NO signs or road names. None. If you are lucky you will get directions like “go three roads past the railway tracks and take a left at the barn with the giant cock weathervane on the roof”. (If you picture anything but a large metal rooster you have been corrupted by city life). The road crews have developed a special coating for these grid roads that has the unique property of turning into axle grease should it rain. This is the only place on earth where the traction is improved once it snows. To make these roads even more fun, they also have no stop signs at the intersections and at any time you could find yourself sharing the road with a piece of farm equipment that is approximately twice the width of the road you are travelling on. Keep your eyes open, they have the right of way. Always. If you have to choose between going in the ditch or hitting a piece of farm equipment, take the ditch every time. The reason is simple: if you hit the ditch the farmer will happily pull you back on to the road. If you hit his tractor however your body will probably never be found. I believe the farm equipment is one of the few things they take more seriously than their football team. Don’t mess with either.
As we drove out what we hoped was the correct grid road I began to notice how flat this part of the world really is. This brings up the third lesson: don’t joke about how flat the prairies are with the locals. I promise you, no matter how witty you think you are, they’ve heard your joke. A thousand times. I would like to tell you that I used my sharp survival skill and followed the stars to ruggedly navigate my way through the wild countryside but in reality my wife has been here numerous times and she told me where to turn. We finally arrived at the farm and moved our luggage into the bedroom that we would call home for the following four days, and then it was time to eat. This is the next important lesson in farm life: it is always time to eat. The food never stops, and it is all home-cooked and natural. It is pretty much the best part of farm life in fact. If you are used to eating three meals a day you are in for a pleasant surprise: you can have three meals down and not even hit noon. Of course that is partially because you’ve been up for eight or nine hours already, which is another point to keep in mind on the farm: you get up when the sun hits. I don’t mean when the sun is way up in the sky and finally manages to break over your apartment windowsill and wake you from your date with Pamela Anderson. I mean when the sun first peeks over the horizon, and due to the vertically challenged landscape (remember the previous rule about no flat jokes) that horizon is a loooong ways away. I haven’t actually confirmed it but I am almost sure that the sun rises about the same time as the late news ends. At this point you simply need to be thankful for the entire 37 minutes of sleep you received and crawl out of bed – breakfast is ready. Truthfully, no one is sleeping through the smell of coffee and bacon anyway.
There are a few other smaller details that you should keep in mind if you are ever visiting a farm. One of which is that the smell of poop is normal. Now when I’m at home relaxing and watching the Voice or maybe a Star Trek rerun I will instantly investigate if I smell poop. I would hope that you do too. On the farm however this is a normal and very natural aroma. Let’s be honest, cows don’t spend a lot of time worrying about where they relieve their bowels, and it is going to end up on your boots at some point. It’s fine. Another interesting facet of farm life is the proverbial knock on the door. Living in the city an unexpected knock on the door causes no small amount of panic. In fact, if a stranger knocks on your door unannounced they are undoubtedly there to kill you – there can be no other reason. On the farm though these random visits happen all the time and when they do you instantly know it’s one of two reasons: either your livestock got out of the fence or someone is in the ditch and needs a tow. If your livestock wandered onto the road it could easily be both. Either circumstance has the same result: grab a flashlight and start the tractor. The situation will be rectified shortly. This will be followed by neighborly offers of cash to pay for fuel which will be met with equally neighborly refusals for compensation. Then it’s back to the table because it is time to eat again.
If all of this sounds too good to be true, there is an even better time to be had apparently. We have not been fortunate enough to visit the farm during an exciting period referred to simply as “calving season” but it sounds fun, and by fun I mean absolutely horrifying. For reasons unknown to us city folk, cows can only give birth when the temperature falls below absolute zero and even then it is preferable, in their minds at least, to drop their babies in the deep snow at 2am. I only have this as second hand information, and I am doing my best to never have to learn first hand. Some things are better left to the imagination and I am sure this is one of them. If wading through snow in your pajamas to bring a calf into the house while the momma cow chases you across the yard only to sit up all night bottle feeding the calf in your bathtub sounds like a good time to you, then you possibly have what it takes to raise cows. Me, not so much.
One final point that I feel is important to know: fresh lettuce has bugs in it. So do carrots. So does virtually any produce pulled straight from the garden. It’s natural, it’s covered in dirt and it is delicious. We tend to forget that as we look over the vegetable aisle in our clinically sterile grocery store where everything has been sorted, washed and selected for the best looking specimens. Fresh off the farm has that beat hands down. Next time you are grocery shopping please take a moment and silently thank these tireless working farmers that put in so many hours to bring us the meat, diary and produce that most people just take for granted as sitting on the shelf. It is an amazing and unique lifestyle that very few have the dedication and character to maintain. From sleepless nights looking after animals to fighting harsh weather to get the crops off the fields, we owe these people a debt of gratitude that can’t be understated. If you ever have a chance to visit a farm I strongly suggest you do. Just don’t forget to wash your boots when you get home.