Photo credits: Pierre Iachetti
Elm Tree Farm, Derby Township, Grey-Bruce County Line, southern Ontario. Our family farm from 1861 until 2003, carved out of the “Queen’s Bush” by earlier pioneers in the 1830’s and settled by my great-great grandparents, part of the Irish immigrant diaspora of the 1800’s. A mixture of Carolinian forest, productive pasture and cropland, creeks and river bottoms, bounded by cedar rail and page-wire fences, adjoined by similar small farms on a checkerboard of gravel roads throughout the region. In my memory, of four farms on the township road, three grand brick and mortar houses, three sprawling post and beam barns, with the fourth farm holding only foundations from an earlier farming experiment. Our family toiled five generations, through spring seeding to summer haying to fall grain harvest and to winter animal keeping, producing crops and meat for Ontario families.
The children attended small one-room, four-room or eight-room schools, formed 4-H clubs and baseball teams, and grew to know their farm and the farms around through wanderings and exploration, then through help with the many duties needed to keep food on the table. And the food was indeed local, often not the 100-mile diet but the 1-mile diet. The neighbours on our road and the numbered concessions up and down the county line were connected not by blood but by shared commitments to the land, to their families and to their communities. The local village held the schools and Christian churches populated by the faithful pioneers, the food markets and equipment shops that served their immediate needs, the banks and feed mills, and the sawmills and blacksmith shops. The neighbours and ourselves gathered when needed, to help take in crops, to rebuild barns or houses that burned, to comfort the sick and the dying, to bury the elders and the young, to share in the harvest bounty at agricultural fairs, to share recipes and to make quilts, to form bonds that stretched from grandparents down to babies, to watch the community grow and prosper. Roots were deep, and these roots helped the farm families to endure the vagaries of the changing weather of the seasons, the changing climate over generations, the evolution of the industrial revolution and movement from animal labour to machines, the tragedies of accidents, the losses of two Great Wars, the threats of bank foreclosures, the unpredictability of farm market prices, and the economics of small farming. THIS WAS RESILIENCE.
And now…..our family name has for many years not graced to simple metal mailbox at the end of the short lane from our house to the county road. The stately American Elms were almost decimated many years ago from disease that swept from Atlantic Provinces to the Prairies. Only one old barn survives of the original four on the township road, and none of the original homes are still standing. Falling victim to fires, disassembly, modernization and to disrepair, the countryside now appears more vacant without these structures. The original farm families of my youth have dispersed, and new weekend owners and distant leaseholders are cultivating the lands, or not. For farming is changing there, from small holdings to vast acreages planted to cash crops or supporting fodder for large feed lots for mass cattle production. Fencerows that held multiple small birds and animals have been long cleared, woodlots cleared, crops planted to edges of creeks, local biodiversity in decline. No longer are the neighbours called on for help, for the neighbours may be strangers. Long-standing family names are relegated to the local church graveyards, to history books of township historical societies and to museum photo boards. And the villages have seen a similar hollowing out – gone and going are the small schools, with children bussed to distant towns for learning. The beautiful Victorian-era churches are emptying of their congregations, as faith and community gathering space no longer draws people busy with Netflicks and computer games. The small businesses have lost their appeal and economic viability, and farmers have to drive further and further to find service for their machines and animals. Work is further away, workers are on the road more and more, families don’t have the time to gather to share common joys and sorrows, to catch up on news, to remain a caring community. Food comes from afar, news comes from afar, jobs and education call and children move far away, the world has expanded to the horizons of the country. The bonds that held a farming community together are breaking and slipping away, to be replaced by….?
The years and distance from home leave only memories of a time before the word sustainability was common, but when it seemed, that way of life would continue forever. Even deep-rooted RESILIENCE can be fragile.
by Thomas Munson (June 02, 2018)