The New Farm

by Brent Preston

Clock Icon 53 minute read

PROLOGUE

EUTHANASIA FOR DUMMIES

All happy chickens are alike; each unhappy chicken is unhappy in its own way.

It all has to do with the coop. If a chicken’s coop is too small, the chicken will be pecked and harassed by its coop-mates. If its coop is too damp, it might catch the flu and die. If its coop is too cold, it will get frostbite on its comb and the comb will start bleeding. Worst of all, if a chicken’s coop isn’t properly sealed, varmints will slip in during the night and tear it to pieces. But when I woke on that fine July morning back in 2005, I wasn’t worried about any of that. I had built a beautiful coop. I knew my chickens would be happy.

It was a Saturday, and still early. Gillian and the kids were asleep, so I got up quietly and eased myself down our squeaky stairs. Outside it was cool, calm and silent, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. In the backyard I stopped and surveyed my domain: flat, green farmland stretching off in every direction, an unbroken ring of forest on the horizon. I had that feeling I sometimes get when I’m up by myself in the early morning, that I’m lucky to be in this place, at this moment. We had been living on the farm for almost a year, and I was suddenly struck by the wondrous realization that we actually owned this place, that all this land was ours—a realization that struck me on a regular basis back then, and sometimes still does.

In a single year Gillian and I had gone from being relatively normal urban professionals living in downtown Toronto to owners of a hundred-acre farm outside the village of Creemore, about a two-hour drive northwest of the city. We had been taken by the aspirational dream of living in the country, but like many actual dreams, this dream was fuzzy and vague and didn’t make a whole lot of sense if you thought about it too much. We wanted to raise our own food, to have animals and a big garden, but we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were enthusiastic and idealistic and profoundly naive. If our current selves could meet the people we were back then, we would look on ourselves with a mixture of pity and amusement.

I had woken up early that morning in a state of excited anticipation. Our chickens had just spent their first night in their new coop, a structure that I had spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about, designing and building. I had spent so much time that the coop wasn’t finished when our chicks arrived, so they spent their first week of life in our bathtub, in the bathroom next to the kitchen.

I didn’t know anything about chickens when we first moved to the farm. But we wanted livestock, and chickens seemed like the obvious place to start. I had to learn a whole chicken nomenclature in the beginning. Chickens bred to lay eggs are “layers” or “laying hens.” Chickens bred for meat—“broilers” or simply “chickens”—are very different animals. We had been persuaded by the hatchery’s website to order Special Dual Purpose chickens that supposedly combined the best attributes of layers and broilers. The website told us that White Rock broilers, the overwhelmingly dominant meat chicken variety, had been bred into such freakishly efficient gainers of weight that they couldn’t walk properly and were susceptible to all sorts of diseases if raised without antibiotic-laden feed (a claim that we later found to be false). If we were aiming for free-range and organic, we were assured, the Special Dual Purpose was the bird for us.

Our batch of day-old chicks, fifty of them, arrived at our local feed store in a very small cardboard box. I began learning new things about chickens at a rapid rate. Day-old chicks are tiny and fluffy yellow and incredibly cute, but they are also very loud, mobile and assertive. They chirped loudly when the kids picked them up or when they were hungry (which was pretty much all the time) or seemingly just for the hell of it, all day long. We put down wood shavings in the bathtub and hung a three-hundred-watt heat lamp over them to keep them warm. It occurred to me that many chickens’ lives are bookended by heat lamps. Even Special Dual Purpose chickens have been bred to rapidly put on weight, so the chicks had an insatiable appetite. From day one they would frantically climb over each other to get at their food, and they also drank a lot of water. I would fill up their little feed trough immediately before going to bed, but they would eat it all during the night. Our bedroom was on the second floor, but their manic chirping was loud enough to wake me before dawn.

Any animal with such a rapid metabolism produces a lot of waste. Our chicks were shit-producing machines (birds don’t urinate, another thing I learned early on). The bathroom rapidly became very hot, very humid and indescribably smelly. It was like some sort of dystopian sauna in there, and the stench began to pervade the whole house. Gillian let it be known that my coop construction should be expedited.

It takes about ten minutes on gravel roads to drive from our farm to Hamilton Brothers, considered by many (or at least by me) to be the greatest retail establishment on the face of the earth. Hamilton Brothers is a farm and building supply store, but it sells almost everything. I once left there with some plumbing supplies, a box of ammunition, 250 feet of bungee cord and a flat of eggs. I kept the handwritten receipt as a souvenir. It’s also the place where I bought my coop-making materials.

To say Hamilton Brothers is old school would be a serious understatement. I have never seen a computer anywhere on the premises, though they must have one in a back office somewhere, because the statements I receive in the mail appear to be created on a dot-matrix printer. Its many separate buildings and yards make up about half of the tiny village of Glen Huron, tucked under a dam at the head of the narrow Mad River valley. The river still powers the Hamilton Brothers feed mill, a five-storey steel-clad building filled with cobwebs, wooden chutes and giant drive belts that towers over the building supply store and the main lumberyard. Across the street is the farm supply building, and behind that is the welding shop and a big hangar where they keep the sheet metal, concrete mix and drywall. Around the corner and past a few houses is another building with tongue-and-groove flooring and fence posts, and across from that is a second lumberyard, for all the pressure-treated stuff. When you call Hamilton Brothers, you have to ask for either the building side or the farm supply side, depending on what you’re looking for. The gas and diesel pumps are on the farm supply side. The staff sometimes travel from building to building by bicycle.

When I first started making trips to buy coop supplies, I was accustomed to the anonymity of big-box building supply stores, where I would pile everything I needed onto a giant cart and haul it out to my car without speaking to anyone. But at Hamilton Brothers, not much is self-serve, and I was forced to interact with the guys at the counter. These were all middle-aged men who evidently knew a lot about everything. They would ask me questions about my order that I often couldn’t answer. “What size chicken wire?” or “Ardox nails or regular?” or the one that always struck me with fear, “What you doing with all this stuff?” It seemed they were running my order through a vast mental database and determining that there was nothing known to humanity that could be built properly with the list of items I wanted. I was terrified of looking like an idiot, so I would blurt out an answer and end up back at the farm with the wrong thing, and be forced to return the next day.

After dozens of trips, one of the guys finally took pity on me and took me under his wing. Ivan is a giant of a man, probably six foot five, with massive hands and a huge head. I confessed to him that I was building a chicken coop but had no clue what I was doing. Ivan took me up into the loft above the store where the chicken wire was kept and helped me choose from the surprising range of options—rolls of different lengths and widths, with different size holes and different gauges of wire. After a while he would break into a broad grin whenever he saw me come in. “That must be some chicken coop you’re building!” he’d say. I promised to bring him a bird in the fall.

One of the reasons the coop was such an undertaking (beyond simple incompetence) was that my father-in-law’s warnings about varmints had put the fear of god into me. Gillian’s parents had raised chickens and other birds on their farm in Vermont since the mid-sixties, and Dick warned me that there is almost nothing that won’t eat a chicken if given the chance—skunks, foxes, coyotes, all members of the weasel family. Raccoons, he said gravely, will kill your whole flock just for the sport of it, and leave without eating anything. The salient point when it comes to coop construction is that varmints will find and exploit any weakness, no matter how small. Chicken-loving predators share a special evolutionary adaptation, Dick explained: the ability to squeeze through tiny cracks in any enclosure.

But the coop I had constructed was solid, tight and completely varmint-proof. It was built into a lean-to that had been added to the east side of our classic Ontario bank barn, a majestic structure constructed of massive beech beams that was at least a hundred years old. I had framed in a section of the lean-to that was about thirty feet square and then sealed the whole thing with chicken wire, all the way up to the roof. Every corner was meticulously tacked down, and the overlapping runs of mesh were wired together at the seams. I had built a sturdy door that locked with heavy slide bolts, leaving a gap at the bottom of less than a quarter of an inch. Nothing could get in there that didn’t have opposable thumbs. So I was confident as I strode across the lawn that fine June morning.

I could see the chicks through the chicken wire as I approached the coop, sleeping in a pile right up against the mesh in a corner. They jumped up as I got closer and started running about in the straw on the concrete floor. Chicks are ridiculously cute for the first five days of life. Then their yellow fluff begins to give way to tufts of white adult feathers and they take on a mangy, adolescent look. At a week old, my birds had bodies about the size of a baseball, with spindly legs and heads half covered with moulting chick fluff. They were ugly.

I hooked my fingers in the wire and peered in at the flock, and a wave of relief washed over me. Everyone appeared to be fine. But as I stood there longer, I noticed a pile of white feathers near the front corner of the coop. I looked down and saw more white feathers outside the wire, near my feet. What was going on? I scanned the flock again. Every chicken was up and moving. None of them was dead. Could a varmint have entered the coop, killed a chicken and then removed the body? I couldn’t accept that this was possible. I had sealed that coop.

Then I caught a glimpse of something strange: one of the chicks appeared to have something wrong with its wing. I opened the door and stepped into the coop. This caused the birds to run around frantically, making them harder to observe. I knelt down and let them settle. As the funny-looking chick walked toward me, I realized that there wasn’t something wrong with its wing; its wing was completely gone. I felt a little sick. Another chick ran up and turned broadside in front of me. It’s left wing was also missing.

It’s hard to keep track of fifty birds as they move about in an open coop, but after a few minutes I determined that five chicks had been injured. The most disturbing part of the whole scene was that none of the wounded birds seemed distressed. They were mangled, but they were acting completely normal—The Walking Dead, chicken-style.

I retreated to the house, not sure what I should do and completely mystified as to what had happened. (We eventually realized that a feral cat had reached through the wire while the chicks slept.) Gillian was up, and I told her the unhappy news.

Gillian called her parents. Kathi, her mom, answered. She remained completely calm. “You can usually get spray iodine at the farm supply store,” she said. “You’d be surprised what a chicken can recover from.” I discussed this with Gillian after she hung up. “I don’t think your mom realizes what has happened to these birds,” I said. I’m no veterinarian, but it didn’t seem to me that iodine was going to fix this problem. Gillian explained that her mom had once brewed a bucket of comfrey tea every morning for three weeks and fed it to a lamb that had broken its leg. “The lengths to which my mother will go to save an injured farm animal are not normal,” she said.

Gillian persuaded me to call Hamilton Brothers to see if they had anything that could help. I badly wanted to talk to Ivan, but he was a lumber guy and I knew he would tell me to talk to someone on the other side of the road. Mike, the main farm supply guy, answered the phone. We’re now good friends, but back then I was intimidated by his deep well of practical knowledge and his ability to point out my ignorance in a way that was both cheerful and unfailingly polite.

I knew if I simply asked for spray iodine he would ask “What for?” So I briefly explained my problem and threw myself on his mercy. There was a long silence, then Mike said, “I usually find a bullet works well for that.”

After a period of reflection, I came to the conclusion that Mike was right—the most humane course of action would be to kill the unfortunate chicks. There was a chance that some of them might recover, but it seemed much more likely that their wounds would become infected and they would die slow, painful deaths, no matter what I did. I had long ago made peace with the fact that eating meat requires the killing of animals, but that peace is easier to make standing in a supermarket aisle than outside your own chicken coop.

I strode grimly back out to the barn, knowing what I had to do. My father is a hunter and I had spent time as a kid on my uncles’ farms, so I had a little bit of murky experience to fall back on. On the walk out I decided that I would drown my victims, though I’m not sure where that idea came from. I found an old bucket, filled it to the brim with water and grabbed a length of board that would completely cover the top. I walked into the coop, snatched up the first wounded chick I saw and carried it out to the bucket. I tried to handle it as gently as possible. I also tried not to look at it because I didn’t want to think too much about what I was about to do. I quickly dropped the chick into the water and slammed the board over the bucket. Then I waited.

There was no scratching, no vibration, no noise caused by the chick desperately trying to escape. I began to breathe more normally and my heart stopped beating in my throat. After several minutes I carefully lifted one side of the board and peered in, expecting to see a limp mass of wet feathers. Instead I saw a chick that was very much alive, floating about two inches below the surface, eyes wide open, apparently holding its breath. Without thinking I grabbed it out of the water and set it on the ground. It shook its feathers and started hopping around, seemingly none the worse for wear. I guess I could simply have left it in the bucket longer and waited for it to drown, but I was so surprised to learn that chickens could swim, and could also hold their breath for longer than I could, that I gave up on the bucket.

When a suburban-raised, middle class, North American male finds himself all alone in a visceral, primordial, life-and-death situation, it’s difficult to predict how he will react. My upbringing to that point had provided me with neither the knowledge nor the emotional fortitude necessary to quickly and effectively euthanize those unfortunate chicks. I’ll spare you the graphic details, but I resorted to an escalating series of measures that included, but were not limited to, strangulation and bludgeoning with a length of two-by-four. I worked myself into a desperate, anguished frenzy, and I did something that a year earlier I never could have imagined I would do.

At the end of the ordeal I was hyperventilating and sweating profusely, utterly horrified by what I had done. The injured chicks were all dead, and so was the bucolic dream of life on the farm. The dream was dead, almost before it began.


CHAPTER 1

BUYING THE FARM

People often ask Gillian and me how we ended up on the farm. It’s hard to know how far back to go when answering that question. I grew up in Scarborough, the easternmost and most reviled suburb of Toronto. Mike Myers grew up there, too, and says that Scarborough was his inspiration for Wayne’s World, which sums the place up pretty nicely. I had a great childhood, but even when I was very young I knew I wanted to get out of there and see the world. Gillian grew up on a sheep farm outside the tiny village of Williamstown, Vermont, and similarly vowed to escape as soon as she could. We launched ourselves into the world at about the same time in the early 1990s, both of us propelled by a potent mix of idealism, ambition, adrenaline and libido, both of us utterly assured of our own immortality.

The inevitable crossing of our paths occurred in 1994. We were both working for the National Democratic Institute, an American organization that sought to spread and strengthen democratic government. I was living in Lilongwe, the sleepy capital of the Republic of Malawi in central Africa. Gillian had just finished a two-year stint in Botswana with the Peace Corps and was the Malawi desk officer at NDI headquarters in Washington, D.C. Email was a new and frightening invention at that time, so our romance started by fax. I would photocopy giant cockroaches and wall geckos and make custom letterhead for my messages to her. She fell for it, of course. I convinced her to relocate to the Malawi office, and the rest is history. We became roommates, then sleeping buddies, then fell in love, in that order.

We lived together for two years in Malawi, then spent time in over a dozen countries, sometimes separately but usually together. We had the good fortune to be in the thick of the action as the world sorted itself out after the end of the Cold War. We helped organize the assembly that wrote a new constitution for Malawi, conducted public opinion research in the tribal areas of Yemen, and organized international observer delegations to landmark elections in Ghana, Nigeria and Indonesia, all while we were still in our mid-twenties. We worked incredibly hard, but it was also incredibly fun.

We would probably still be at it today, but our luck finally ran out in 1999 in East Timor. We were working for former president Jimmy Carter at the time, leading a small team of international observers in the run-up to the UN-sponsored referendum on independence from Indonesia. The Indonesian military had created surrogate militias to intimidate the population prior to the vote, and when two-thirds of the Timorese chose independence, the militias literally started to burn the whole place down.

We got caught by a group of drug-crazed, sword-wielding thugs in the port in Dili, the capital, while trying to evacuate our local staff. Gillian and I escaped in separate vehicles, our translator’s father clinging to the hood of my car while his extended family screamed inside Gillian’s as she raced along behind me. After a high-speed chase through the streets of Dili, a motorbike darted in front of me, the passenger on the back trying to aim a pistol at my head as I swerved. I finally ran down the motorbike to avoid being shot.

We ended up being arrested by the Indonesian police, forced to pay compensation to the guys on the motorbike who had been trying to kill us, escorted to the airport and placed on the last civilian evacuation flight out of East Timor. There’s nothing like staring down the barrel of a Colt .45 to shift your focus to the important things in life, one of which is actually staying alive. After East Timor, we moved home and got married.

Gillian and I bought a house in downtown Toronto with my brother Mike, a big old place on Palmerston Boulevard, the most elegant street in the city. Mike and his future wife, Sue, had the top-floor apartment, Gillian and I were on the second floor, and we rented out the first floor and basement apartments. We could walk five minutes south to the bars and restaurants on College Street, the heart of Little Italy, or three minutes north to the sushi and barbecue places in Korea Town, along Bloor Street. Gillian found a job at a public-sector management consulting firm and I started working as a producer for CBC Television, the national broadcaster. Living in a big North American city after ten years in the developing world gave us a heightened appreciation for how good we had it. For a time, just the fact that the roads were smooth, water came out of the taps 24/7 and no one ever tried to kill us was enough.

It didn’t take long, however, before we became restless. The first issue was children. The prevailing narrative around the arrival of kids is one of revelatory joy and happiness, the sudden realization that everything has changed. This held true for Gillian and me, but it also became clear that having kids was a major impediment to doing many of the things we most enjoyed doing in the city. What’s more, the continued enjoyment of those things by neighbours was affecting our new lives as sleep-deprived parents. It’s great to live in a place where you can stumble home from the bar at three in the morning. It’s not so great to live in a place where you are frequently woken up by other people stumbling home from the bar at three in the morning, just after your screaming infant has fallen asleep. Foster arrived in 2001 and Ella in 2003. They were both an indescribable joy from the very beginning, but having two kids under two in a two-bedroom apartment can really take the shine off urban living.

The second issue was the rat race. Perhaps a decade of immersion in other cultures had given us the ability to see the flaws in our own more clearly, or perhaps we just weren’t the kind of people who could put up with working for the man. Either way, we had trouble accepting the idea that donning a suit and sitting in an office for ten or twelve hours every day was a good way to spend your life. It didn’t help that both of us had horrible bosses. It wasn’t long before I started spending a large portion of the workday sitting at my desk, quietly plotting my escape.

We fled the madness of our child-infested apartment and the tedium of our office jobs by leaving the city on weekends. My parents had bought an empty piece of land about two hours northwest of Toronto, and that summer the extended family was building a timber-frame cabin on it. Gillian and I would pack up the kids and fight the Friday afternoon traffic, then spend the weekend camping out, building and drinking beer. We stayed in an old tent trailer, there was nowhere to bathe and the only facilities were an outhouse with no door, so it wasn’t particularly relaxing. But once the cabin was done, we thought, we would have a weekend refuge.

In the fall of 2003, the cabin was finally completed, and we were getting ready to spend our first weekend inside. It had no electricity or running water, but at least it had a roof, a couple of sleeping lofts and some decent beds. Ella had been born in June and Gillian was still on maternity leave, so she had the car all packed up and ready to go. I was just finishing up at work when I got a call from my father.

“You can’t sleep in the cabin,” he said abruptly.

“Why?”

“Some prick from the township just called and said he would fine me a thousand dollars a night if anyone sleeps in it.”

My father, it turned out, had neglected to obtain the proper permits before building the cabin. A legal dwelling must have things such as potable water, a septic system and stairways that conform to the building code, requirements that would surprise no one except my father. He had saved himself a bundle of money and paperwork by taking out a permit for a storage shed, a pretty accurate description of what the cabin actually was. But a neighbour had complained, and now our plans for the weekend—and all subsequent weekends—were shot.

When I called Gillian to give her the bad news, she already had both kids in their car seats and was ready to pick me up from the office. “There’s no way I’m unpacking everything and taking it back up those stairs,” she said. I wasn’t about to argue. As we crawled north on Avenue Road, Gillian suggested we find a hotel near the cabin and call a real estate agent. If we really wanted a weekend place, it might be time to look for one of our own.

The family cabin is located near the town of Collingwood, at the south end of Georgian Bay, a landscape dominated by the Niagara Escarpment. The escarpment is a sort of one-sided ridge running from Niagara Falls in the south to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the north. In some places the escarpment is a jumble of hills that is difficult to recognize as a distinct landform. In others it’s steep and abrupt, with sheer limestone cliffs. Near Collingwood it winds and meanders back on itself, cut with deep river valleys and caves that hold snow into the middle of July. The rolling landscape is a patchwork of beautiful farms and huge tracts of maple forest.

We checked into a hotel in Collingwood and called Vicki Bell, the real estate agent who had helped my parents buy their land. Vicki was born and raised in the area and knows every back road for miles around. We spent all day Saturday driving around with her, the kids squirming in their car seats, Gillian and I becoming increasingly depressed. We thought we could buy an empty chunk of land for a hundred thousand bucks, then slowly build our dream cabin. We were sorely mistaken. Land on the flat, featureless stretches above and below the escarpment was relatively cheap, but also flat and featureless. Places in the hills and valleys of the escarpment itself were crazy expensive. As we drove down the dirt roads, we passed enormous mansions on huge country estates recently built by wealthy weekenders from the city. There was nothing we could remotely afford.

I spent much of the next week poring over real estate listings at work. There must be a deal out there somewhere, I thought. I called Vicki about one place that sounded great—right on the Mad River, with a cool little cottage, for less than $350,000. “I won’t even show you that,” she said. “It’s right behind the Hamilton Brothers’ chicken barn.” I didn’t know why that was such a bad thing, but now I’m glad I listened to her.

Spending too much time on real estate websites can play dangerous tricks on your mind. We had started out looking for a few forested acres to build a modest cabin. After less than a week, we had resigned ourselves to buying a much larger piece of land for way more money, simply because that was all that was available in the area. We probably should have looked elsewhere, or given up on the idea of a weekend place altogether, but we didn’t. Instead we got excited when Gillian found a listing for a piece of property—a hundred acres of flat farmland on top of the escarpment with a crappy old farmhouse—that was nothing like what we had set out to find and that we couldn’t afford. The weird thing was that Vicki was the listing agent. When we called her about it, she sounded surprised. “Oh,” she said. “I didn’t think you’d be interested in Rubin’s place.”

The next weekend we loaded up the kids once more and drove north. Vicki was busy with other clients but had arranged for the owner to let us in. It was a cold, grey October morning. The leaves were already off the row of old maples that lined the lane leading up to the small, square, two-storey farmhouse. We drove around to the back and parked. There was a big old barn just to the south of the house, and a large steel grain bin in the backyard. A cedar hedge blocked the view to the west, but to the south and east were flat, open fields for just about as far as we could see. The word that sprang to mind was “bleak.”

There were no other cars in the drive and no one answered when we knocked at the back door, but it was open, so we let ourselves in. The interior was much like the exterior: cold and desolate. It seemed like the heat had not yet been turned on for the season. Before we could get too far into the house, a pickup arrived outside. A burly man with a scruffy, unshaven face stepped out and came in the door. He paused as he entered to take off his winter boots, revealing a plastic shopping bag on each foot. “I had a bit of a leak,” he explained with a grin. I’ll never forget my first sight of Rubin McCormick, standing in the empty living room, hand outstretched, feet clad in white plastic bags. “Nice to meet youse,” he said. “I’m Rubin.”

When I think back to that first tour of the house, I can’t figure out why we liked it so much. Rubin had bought the place only a year earlier, moved his family in, then after a few months moved back to his house in the valley, a few miles down the road. His wife didn’t like the winters “up on top,” he explained. There was no furniture in the house, and it wasn’t particularly clean. Rubin’s idea of staging had been to pile a huge mound of fresh manure in the barnyard, in a spot that dominated the view from the large living-room window. There was green shag carpet throughout the upstairs; the kitchen had a beige linoleum floor and lime green appliances. One of the bedrooms had some utterly terrifying murals of cartoon characters. I half expected the twins from The Shining to step out of a closet. The house was probably a hundred years old, but the interior was straight out of the late 1970s. It smelled mouldy.

As we were readying to leave, I wandered out by myself to take a look at the barn. When I stepped into that huge, empty structure for the first time, I felt like I was entering a sacred place, some sort of ramshackle wooden cathedral. I could see the original cedar shingles under the roof metal forty feet above me, and the adze marks on the massive hand-squared beech timbers looked almost fresh. It seemed miraculous that such a tall, square, empty shell could have withstood more than a century of howling wind and driving snow without a scrap of steel in its wooden skeleton; the whole thing was held together with mortise-and-tenon joints and wooden pegs. I was taken by a sudden, irrational desire to own that barn, to become part of the story of a structure that had spanned multiple human lifetimes. I’m not sure why, but the moment I walked into that barn, I knew we had found our place.

Gillian and I started convincing ourselves to buy the farm as soon as we got in the car. Over the years we have become expert in talking ourselves into things that normal people would think crazy, both of us having developed an intimate knowledge of each other’s most irrational buttons, and how best to push them. Gillian and I are very different in many ways, but we both have the ability to drop everything and seize an opportunity. Unfortunately, we also have the ability to view buying a rundown farm in the middle of nowhere as an opportunity.

The main stumbling block was financial. We simply couldn’t afford the $350,000 asking price. It took us a couple of days to think our way around this obstacle. We eventually came up with a two-pronged strategy: we would put in a lowball offer and we would move to the farm. That would allow us to rent out our apartment in Toronto, freeing up cash to make mortgage payments on the farm. It also gave us a double out: I didn’t think Rubin would accept less than his asking price, so the offer was probably doomed to fail. And even if he did, we could sell the farm after a year if we didn’t like it and move back to our house in the city. Vicki wrote up the offer and I promptly wrote off the whole endeavour, convinced that Rubin would say no.

A few days later, I was walking along Adelaide Street from the production offices where I worked to our studio at the CBC broadcast centre. It was a dark, wet Thursday evening. I was working on a weekly current affairs debate show called CounterSpin, which we described to our American guests as “like Crossfire, but less yelling.” Ours was one of the few shows that still went live to air, and even after four years with the CBC it was a thrill to hear the theme music as the opening credits rolled and to be part of the choreographed chaos of the control room. I was keyed up, ready for the show, and had almost completely forgotten about our hare-brained attempt to buy a farm.

My phone rang. It was Gillian. “We got it,” she said. “He accepted our offer.” I stopped in the middle of the street, stunned.

As I went through the motions of taking the show to air that night, I started to feel that moving to the farm was meant to be. I had recently found myself looking around at the people sitting silently on the subway or walking hurriedly in and out of the office towers on Bay Street and asking myself, “What’s the fucking point?” I had also taken stock of my life and realized that the times I was the most happy and fulfilled were the times when I was not sitting at a desk, when I was outside the city, when I was in the bush. I was always the “field guy” when I worked in Africa, the one who volunteered to take the five-day road trip though the jungles of Liberia a few months after the end of the civil war, to see what was going on outside the capital. I jumped at every opportunity to get out of the office and into the countryside. As a teenager, I had worked as a canoe-trip guide at a summer camp, sometimes spending weeks at a time in the wilderness.

It didn’t matter where I was, I loved to get dirty, to sleep in shitholes, to interact with real people, to do things. But I had come to suppress that side of me. I fancied myself an intellectual, a sophisticate, an urban person. Smart people don’t work with their hands. If you have a brain, being outside and performing physical labour are things you do on the weekends, or when you’re young, not as a way to make a living. With the opportunity to buy a farm and live in the country suddenly before me, I began to question all that. I felt trapped in my desk job by the need to make money so I could visit the country on the weekends. Maybe I should just quit my job and live in the country all the time. Maybe deep down I was a redneck who had accidentally been born into the body of a suburbanite. Maybe living on a farm was part of who I was always meant to be.

To my surprise, Gillian was even more enthusiastic about moving to the country than I was. She had spent much of her childhood resenting the work and isolation of living on a farm, but with us and the kids crammed into our second-floor apartment, she felt like a caged animal. She couldn’t stand the fact that it took twenty minutes of organization to move both kids down into our tiny backyard, and that the weirdos who frequented our back alley made it necessary to move both kids back inside and upstairs if one of them needed a diaper change. Neither of us can remember the precise moment when it happened, but after a day or two of introspection, we had somehow decided to leave the city and move to the farm.

Vicki later told us that Rubin had been reluctant to accept our offer when she’d first presented it to him, but she’d sat with him at his kitchen table and talked it through. Rubin had received a similar offer a month or so earlier, from a Toronto lawyer looking for a weekend place. This guy had made it clear that the steel grain bin and manure pile in the backyard were both offensive eyesores that would have to be removed immediately as a condition of the sale, an attitude that rubbed Rubin the wrong way. (I learned later that Rubin was composting a dead cow in the manure pile, a detail that probably wouldn’t have gone over well with the lawyer.) He eventually accepted our offer because his balance sheet included more than just the money we were offering. He looked at us as potential members of his community, people he would have to interact with on a daily basis. Our stated desire to live full-time on the farm, in close proximity to a big pile of shit, evidently counted for something. “You can’t buy good neighbours,” Vicki pointed out. Rubin agreed.

Our newly acquired farmhouse needed extensive renovations, so we decided to wait until spring to get started. In early June we hired a small moving van, loaded up all our possessions and drove north out of Toronto. We had rented a house in the tiny village of Dunedin, three miles down the hill from the farm. Dunedin was a thriving logging town in the mid-1800s, with two hotels, several churches and a school, but now it’s just forty or so houses stretched along the Noisy River at the bottom of a deep valley that cuts into the escarpment. The only public space is the village hall, where eightieth birthdays and fiftieth anniversaries are celebrated and the community comes together for potluck dinners. Cellphone service didn’t come to the village until 2014, when a new tower was built. Before then, the steep valley sides blocked all signals.

The place we rented was right next door to the only people we knew in the area. Steve McDonald and I grew up together. Our mothers taught at the same school before they were married, and his dad, Don, was my dad’s best friend and the obstetrician who delivered me. Steve is a painter who had moved to Dunedin with his wife, Jackie, several years earlier, attracted by the stunning landscapes and the thriving local community of artists. Their second daughter had just been born when we arrived. Steve and Jackie introduced us to others in the village. Christine, a psychologist, and Kevin, a sculptor who made art out of old lab equipment and diagnostic machines he bought on the internet, lived on the other side of us. Tara, a naturopath, and Dan, a writer, lived down the road in a little house in a maple forest. They all had kids about the same age as ours.

We were immediately and enthusiastically welcomed into the community and started getting invited to social gatherings right away, although “invited” isn’t really the right word. News of a social gathering—usually a bonfire in someone’s backyard—would spread through the valley a few hours beforehand (or as people started to gather), and everyone would just show up. Potluck dinners would often occur spontaneously. I quickly realized that social norms were very different in Dunedin than they were in the city. No one I met ever asked me what I did for work, and no one seemed to think it was a big deal that neither Gillian nor I had a clear idea of how we would make a living on the farm. Almost everyone in the valley was self-employed. Whether they came from families that had lived in the area for five generations or had arrived just a year earlier, everyone lived in Dunedin because that’s where they wanted to live; they had all cobbled together some sort of job for themselves after they arrived. Economists celebrate “labour mobility,” the willingness of workers to move to where the jobs are, as a virtue of our modern economy, but for people in Dunedin it didn’t work that way. For them, place came first.

The second or third day after moving into our rented house, I got up early and headed up the hill to start renovating. It was a glorious, sunny morning as I drove up the steep, winding gravel road that runs due west from Dunedin all the way up the escarpment to the farm. Rubin’s farm was the first on the left as I drove out of the village; he raised cattle. Then his brothers’ and parents’ places opened up on either side of the road; they raised sheep. The family also ran a small abattoir called McCormick Meats. Most people know our sideroad as “the McCormick Meats sideroad.” The views over the McCormick pastures to the forest on the far side of the Noisy River valley are stunning. All the way up the escarpment I drove through forest and farm fields, until I reached the back of our place at the crest of the hill and saw the flat, green fields of my new domain stretched before me. It was a perfect day, and I was filled with what could only be described as joy.

Our farm is what’s known as a “string hundred,” a skinny block of land about three hundred and fifty yards wide and a mile long, with the long axis running east-west. The gravel road to Dunedin runs along the north side of the farm.

I turned down our long laneway and saw that the manure pile was still there. I also saw three or four pickups parked on the far side of the pile. I parked and walked over. Rubin and a bunch of guys I didn’t know were leaning over the back of one of the pickups, having a chat. I hadn’t seen Rubin in several months.

“How are ya now?” he asked as I approached.

“Fine, thanks,” I said. The others just looked at me. I had started to learn that in our new community introductions weren’t usually made right away. Some small talk was required first. “What’s going on?” I asked, hoping to break the ice. The fact that six or seven guys I had never seen before were standing around in my backyard struck me as a little odd.

“Waitin’ for the sprayer,” Rubin replied. As I started to process this information, I heard the roar of an engine behind me. I turned to see an enormous self-propelled sprayer turn into our laneway from the road, on wheels that were far taller than I am. It drove straight past us without stopping, turned into the field closest to the house, the thirty-foot booms on either side unfolding as it went, and proceeded to disgorge a fine mist of herbicide over Rubin’s newly planted corn. I sank to my knees in disbelief.

We had agreed to let Rubin farm our property for three years as part of the purchase agreement, and he had worked up part of the main field to the east of the house that spring and planted corn. Gillian and I were fairly committed organic consumers at that time. We had learned enough about conventional agriculture to know that it wasn’t sustainable, and we didn’t like the idea of feeding our kids pesticides. But the good food movement—that loose constellation of foodies and environmentalists, chefs and homesteaders—was still in its infancy, and there was a whole lot about conventional agriculture that we didn’t know. We had decided that winter to ask Rubin to avoid spraying on our farm, but neither of us had gotten around to actually talking to him about it. So Rubin, like virtually every other conventional farmer in North America, had planted genetically modified, Roundup Ready corn, and he was now spraying it with Roundup to kill the weeds. The corn was about a foot high that day, but the weeds were almost as tall, creating a uniform green blanket across the field. Within a few hours everything except the corn would be dead and withered, and within a few days the corn would be the only living thing in a field of sterile brown dirt.

I didn’t know it at the time, but an identical scene was playing out on farms all over North America that day: vast fields of corn and soy and canola were being doused with untold millions of litres of herbicide, gargantuan sprayers rolling across the landscape. Gillian and I were profoundly naive to think that we could simply have asked Rubin not to spray. The entire system of agriculture that Rubin and just about every other farmer on the continent practised at that time was predicated on a complex regime of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It still is. A conventional farmer can’t farm without spraying. For conventional farmers, spraying is farming. Now I owned a piece of conventional farmland, and suddenly I was complicit.

The guys around the pickup just stared at me, not knowing why I was so upset. It took less than five minutes to spray the twenty-odd acres of corn that Rubin had planted, then the sprayer rumbled off to the next farm. I looked at my audience and decided it wasn’t a good time to bring up the idea of not spraying next season.

The original part of our farmhouse was a white aluminum-sided box, about twenty-five feet square and two storeys tall. The ground floor was divided into two identical rectangles, one the kitchen, the other the dining room. The second floor had a central hallway and four more-or-less identical little bedrooms. A narrow, unfinished stairway led to an unfinished attic under the steeply sloping roof, with a single dormer facing north, toward the front of the house. A single-storey addition with a living room and the only bathroom in the house had been built onto the back in the 1970s. Most farms in our area didn’t have indoor plumbing until the 1960s or even the 1970s, so the old toilet I pulled out of the bathroom may have been the first one ever installed in our house. The condition of the place was generally poor. On a visit late the previous fall, I’d found a snowdrift inside the attic, criss-crossed with numerous animal tracks. Most appeared to be from mice, but some I couldn’t identify.

Demolition was the first order of business. I have always been reasonably handy and had performed numerous small do-it-yourself jobs on our house in Toronto with modest success, but demolition is really my forte. First I tore out all the shag carpet upstairs. Then my friend Alastair came down from Collingwood and we demolished the entire kitchen in one day. The linoleum came up easily, but underneath were several layers of thin plywood tacked down with little flat-headed nails on a four-inch grid. The plywood tended to splinter when I pulled it up, and the heads popped off the nails, leaving hundreds of tiny spikes sticking out of the original hardwood floor underneath. I spent several days on my hands and knees, pulling out rusty, headless nails with a pair of pliers.

Ella celebrated her first birthday and took her first steps in our rented house in Dunedin. Gillian came up to help out whenever she could but spent most of her time managing the kids; the farmhouse wasn’t a great place for a one-and a three-year-old, what with the dust and the mouse shit and rusty nails sticking out of the floor and all. Rubin generously offered his big dump trailer to load all the debris into, and we quickly filled it up with old carpet, linoleum, plaster and wood. We had decided to convert one of the bedrooms into a bathroom, so I called a plumber who had an ad in the Creemore Echo, the local weekly.

Terry Nash arrived one morning to price the job. He was probably in his fifties, short and a little round, with a pure white beard. He bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus, but he rode a Harley and used language that Santa would find profoundly offensive. Terry had spent most of his career in Toronto. He had moved to Creemore to semi-retire and found so much work that he got right back into the plumbing business. The wealthy weekenders and retirees who were buying up property in the surrounding hills were fuelling a building and renovation boom, so there was lots of work for the skilled trades.

Terry told me that even if I was going to do much of the carpentry myself, I would need to find an electrician, a well guy and someone to refinish the floors. When we got down to the basement, Terry stopped and looked around. “I remember this place now,” he said. “The last time I was here, there was a calf down here.” It turned out that when Rubin had lived in the place he sometimes kept sick calves in the basement, a dank, stone-walled space with an open stairway to the living room above. I was starting to understand that Rubin might be a little crazy.

Terry and his helper started breaking holes in walls and floors, extending pipes up to the second floor and to the attic, which would eventually become the master bedroom. One day while I was working away in the kitchen, I heard a shriek from the attic. I ran upstairs and met Terry’s assistant, Dan, barrelling down in the opposite direction. He had been cutting a hole in the roof to extend the drain vent when he came across a three-foot-long snake coiled in a corner of the room. Gillian had brought the kids up that day, so she helped me direct the snake into a cardboard box and carry it out of the house. Rubin happened to be around, and he quickly identified our catch. “That’s a milk snake,” he said. “They’ll coil around a cow’s back leg while she sleeps and suck the milk right from her teat.” Dan, Terry and the kids stared cautiously into the box, nodding in grave agreement. I checked on the internet that evening and learned that milk snakes hang out in barns not to drink milk but to catch the mice that live there. I wondered how many vermin must be living in our new house to support a three-foot-long snake in the attic.

The demolition eventually gave way to rebuilding, and our new and improved farmhouse began to take shape. The wood floors were sanded and refinished, revealing a forest’s worth of species that had probably been cut on the farm when the house was originally built—pine, spruce, maple and ash. We bought new bathroom fixtures from IKEA, not realizing that Terry worked exclusively with North American brands. He spent many hours with his head in our vanity, shouting the vilest obscenities at Europeans in general and at Swedes in particular. I used a keg of beer to tempt my brother-in-law Neil (a skilled contractor) and two other friends (skilled beer drinkers) up from the city to help me install the kitchen cabinets. A predictable relationship developed between the amount of beer left in the keg and the quality of our work: as the afternoon wore on, the difficulty of drilling holes in the right places became ever greater, evidence of which is still visible in our kitchen. Rubin’s dump trailer, which was full to overflowing by then, disappeared one day without warning. Rubin came by the next day, evidently very pleased with himself. “That whole load burned down to almost nothing!” he exclaimed. He had taken all the renovation waste from our house, carpet, linoleum and all, and burned it at the back of his farm.

When we started renovating, we also started gardening. Gillian’s parents had grown up in a small town in western Illinois near the Mississippi River, married young and moved out to Vermont to homestead. They had always worked off-farm but kept a huge garden, as well as raising laying hens, meat chickens and sheep. They even had a cow when Gillian was young, which her father would milk by hand twice a day. One of Gillian’s earliest memories is of sitting down on the front porch to a summer meal sourced entirely from the farm. I had tended a vegetable garden in our suburban backyard while growing up and I’d had a decent strawberry patch for a number of years, but my gardening chops were nothing like Gillian’s.

Our farm had belonged to Rubin’s Aunt Marge and Uncle Russell Rowbotham in the 1970s. Aunt Marge’s original vegetable garden was still there when we moved in, between the house and the barn, surrounded by an old split-rail fence that had remnants of chicken wire tacked to it to keep out the groundhogs and rabbits. It probably hadn’t grown anything but grass in over fifteen years, but Rubin had kept calves in it the previous summer that had done the dual service of eating all the weeds and depositing a generous amount of manure. Digging into that soil was like slicing a Black Forest cake; the earth was rich and light and black, and full of worms. It smelled beautiful.

We planted all the regular stuff—green beans, head lettuce, beets, carrots, zucchini, a few potatoes and beefsteak tomatoes. We didn’t do a particularly good job of spacing things or of weeding, but in soil like that it didn’t matter. Everything flourished.

As the renovations stretched into the summer, I learned more and more about our old farmhouse and the community we were joining. One of my best sources of information was Lorne Bunn, the electrician who was rewiring the house. Lorne didn’t do any of the work himself—he had two young apprentices who pulled the wire and hooked up the new lights. Lorne priced the jobs, collected the cheques and shot the shit with the clients. It didn’t matter how busy he purported to be or how hard his employees were working, Lorne always had time to tell a story or two. Lorne is solidly built, with close-cropped hair and a big round face. He always wears steel-toed boots laced up over his jeans. He was in his sixties when we met him, born and raised in the area, with an encyclopedic knowledge of local genealogy and history. He had a perpetual half-smile on his face, as if he was always about to tell you a secret.

Rubin had already told me about the previous owners of the farm (“Eye-talians in the lumber business”), who had used the place only on weekends. Rubin’s Aunt Marge and Uncle Rusty had owned it before them, farming it in the 1970s and 1980s before moving into Stayner, about twenty minutes northeast of the farm. Lorne had known the Fachnies, who lived there in the 1960s. Most old-timers still refer to our farm as “the Fachnie place.”

I was never quite clear on how many Fachnie kids there were, but it seemed like quite a lot. “One of the kids wasn’t quite right,” Lorne told me, which I understood to mean she had some sort of mental disability. “They used to throw big parties, but whenever company was over, they would lock her away up in the attic. The only time I ever saw her was one day when we were leaving, and I looked up and she was standing in the little window in the roof, all dressed up, waving at us. It seems terrible now, but that’s the way you dealt with those kinds of things back then.” A chill went down the back of my neck, thinking of that girl in her party dress, all alone in our cold attic while everyone danced and caroused below. I don’t know what became of her, or the rest of the family. Gillian can be a little superstitious, and I didn’t know what she would think of the girl in our attic. I didn’t tell her about it for years.

We finally moved into the farmhouse in August, more than a month behind schedule. The attic still wasn’t finished, so Gillian and I slept on a futon in the tiny second-floor office, while our king-sized bed was used by the kids as a trampoline in the dining room. We didn’t have much furniture yet, but the house was now bright and airy, and it felt like home. We had installed a big new window in the kitchen above the sink, and the view out over our fields to the east as we prepared dinner each evening was spectacular. The hot weather and huge front lawn inspired our kids to remove their pants at every opportunity, and they spent many hours running around on the grass bottomless, or sometimes stark naked.

Despite an almost total lack of attention, our garden began to produce prolifically. The original garden was only about twenty feet square, and we had planted less than half of it. But the amount of produce that came out of that little area was astonishing. We ate huge salads with every meal. Gillian made all the standards that her mom and dad had eaten growing up in the Midwest—roasted beets, snap peas with cottage cheese, maple-glazed carrots, and mashed potatoes with enough butter to make a cardiologist blush. For me, the flavour of the stuff coming out of our garden was a revelation. It had been many years since I had eaten vegetables grown in beautiful soil, fresh out of the garden. Everything tasted amazing. Our perennial battles to get our kids to eat their veggies suddenly stopped. They both ate everything we put in front of them, without discussion. We built a long makeshift harvest table out of old barnboard we had found stacked in the attic and recreated Gillian’s childhood tradition of enumerating all the ingredients that had come from the farm at the start of each meal.

As summer slipped into fall, I was still spending most of my time working on the house, but the tradespeople had all gone and I was forced to start thinking about obtaining gainful employment. The last outside contractor was the fireplace guy, who installed a large steel wood stove in the living room in the middle of October. The weather had turned at the start of the month, and we had woken up to snow on the ground more than once already. The fireplace guy showed me how to light the stove and told me that if I stoked it up before I went to bed there would still be a healthy bed of embers in the morning to get the fire started again.

He was right. I used one match to light the fire that day, and that fire burned continuously for the next five months. All winter, through brutal cold and blinding snow, I stuffed cord after cord of wood into the stove and sunk deeper and deeper into unemployment and isolation. I quickly understood why the old-timers I had met looked at me a little funny when I told them where we were living. “Windy spot, up there,” they would say, with an air of warning. I lay in bed at night listening to the wind roar and the house creak, wondering what we had done.

Related Reads