Looking back at my childhood, all my best memories surround growing up on a farm. There’s just something about that country air, all that land to explore, and the freedom to do it. We were lucky enough to even have a woodlot at the back of our property with a creek running through it. An adventurer’s dream! Going “back the lane” meant hopping on our bikes and riding on the grass covered pathway with our dog panting beside us.
Over the years my brother built a treehouse back there, only accessible by climbing a long-knotted rope. I can only imagine what’s inhabiting it now. There was also a zipline through the trees that my Dad installed when we were older. Plus, the only “hill” (cause let’s face it, we’re in CK) on our farm, opened to a small field hidden by trees. We could often be found (and by we I mean my big sisters Jenny and Linda, my younger brother Daniel, and myself) racing down this hill on our bikes in the summer and toboggans in the winter.
My absolute favourite activities back the lane revolved around the creek that meandered through the forest. It wasn’t deep, but it made for the perfect conditions for hunting fish, frogs, and turtles. A long culvert connected the 2 sides and I can still hear the way it made our voices echo. The odd fallen log across the ditch tested our balancing skills. When the 4 of us had cousins or friends over, which happened frequently, we couldn’t wait for them to join in the fun. We craftily made rafts just big enough for us all to fit on and set out down the shallow creek. We may have lost a few rubber boots in the process but the sound of laughter and shrieking I’m sure was heard throughout the bush.
During farming season, the fun shifted from the bush to the fields. Having lots of siblings is great until you have to wait your turn for a tractor or combine ride with Dad or Grandpa. The grip of that steering wheel while sitting so high up gave you that on-the-top-of-the-world feeling. Learning to drive a tractor came before learning to drive a car, as I’m sure is the case for most farm kids. Baling straw or hay was my favourite part of the season. Usually my Grandpa drove the tractor (he was preceded by my mom who used to drive tractor before they were even married), attached to the baler, carrying the wagon with my Dad and us kids behind it. You only wear shorts or short sleeves once otherwise you’d have the red stripes to prove it. As the small rectangular bales pushed onto the wagon, our castle began to take shape. As the stacks grew higher, so did our view, allowing us to see all the snakes and mice run out of their hiding spots.
Along with cash crops, my Dad raised pigs. He had a farrow-to-finish operation which allowed us to see the newborn piglets grow to market weight. I always dreamed of keeping one of the runts as a house pet and feeding it through a bottle, but my parents weren’t having any of that (animals belonged outside), plus they grow too fast and their cuteness fades pretty quickly! I know the birth of a litter of piglets is just nature but it’s a phenomenal scene to witness. The way they all cuddle together under the heat lamp is beyond adorable.
One of the challenges of living on a livestock farm is that you’re pretty much married to the farm, since you have to take care of the pigs-both day to day care and also in case of emergencies. One potential threat-when the hydro went out that meant the fans weren’t working, and it could get dangerously hot in the barns. We had an alarm system to alert us to this, so dad could get the generator working if need be. The alarm system was wonderful for this reason- however it couldn’t differentiate between a long outage and a flicker-and of course these flickers would always happen at night! The way the alarm worked-it would beep for maybe 30 seconds, and then the alarm would sound (imagine loud, ear-piercing, basically unignorable!!) and then neighbours would be called after another couple of minutes because the system assumes we aren’t home. So to keep the siren from being triggered after a hydro flicker, often my dad would race down there to try and keep from waking the whole house unnecessarily. I’ll never forget the time the power flickered in the middle of the night, and dad was racing to disarm it-but it was a pitch dark night and he managed to get his toe caught on the cord of some small appliance, and he dragged it halfway across the house, waking us all up in the process! it still makes me laugh today, and that is exactly the kind of thing-a little physical comedy, a non-serious injury, and the ability to laugh at ourselves- that all four of us find beyond amusing and we definitely inherited from our father!
Summertime meant setting up bike ramps in our long driveway, catching crayfish in the ditch, camping with the 6 of us in a tent, playing graveyard with the neighbours, riding our bikes down the dirt road to a specific tree we named “Kids R Us” (because Toys R Us had every toy that a kid could ever want, and Kids R Us had every activity a kid could ever want to do- we actually thought that tree and small ditch was everything a kid could ever want), and even the simplicity of jumping in puddles with bare feet. Summertime meant getting messy and making memories.
Winter brought different activities. Our absolute favourite was snowmobiling- we would snowmobile for hours with a toboggan in tow-a toboggan that had *almost* enough room for four kids on it. Weeknights we could almost always be found zipping around the fields on that snowmobile-or chasing after it! From building snow forts in the big ditch in front of our house, to pond hockey at the neighbours, and family skating every Thursday night in Blenheim, we never had to go very far to go for fun.
With all that country living has to offer, it also comes with a ton of work (and I’m becoming even more aware of this with our own place). As a kid, the last thing you want to do are chores, but (*Mom voice*) “it teaches you responsibility”. Hoeing was the most dreadful word ever mentioned. Walking up and down fields in the heat of the summer was so not my idea of fun. Yet every summer, there we were. I still believe that’s why my parents had so many kids- free labour. However there were some bright spots- I found an arrowhead one time, which I was thrilled about! My eyes were then concentrating on finding other treasures in that field, rather than weed elimination. Also, with the development of the Walkman, hoeing became more bearable. Same with the vast amounts of grass cutting.
In addition to our daily household chores, we also had barn chores. They ranged from shoveling manure, feeding, sweeping, dusting cobwebs, to mouse eradication. Picking up stones was another super fun childhood memory….NOT! Unless you were the lucky one who got to drive the tractor, the rest of us walked along throwing stones into the bucket. Dad’s rule of thumb regarding stone picking- you only have to pick up the ones you can’t swallow. And you better believe that was the challenge you would get if you missed any big ones!
Growing up in the country gave me this profound love for nature and animals. Likely due to being surrounded by it constantly. There was always a dog around, multiple barn cats (which meant kittens), and of course pigs. We had hens occasionally and my sister raised pygmy goats, named Charlie and Daphne and we were lucky enough to board a horse named Gypsy for one winter. The farm also allowed us to chase snakes, frogs, butterflies, grasshoppers, the rare walking sticks, praying mantis, and any other creature that roamed the land. My Grandpa and Dad were amateur beekeepers, so we learned how to extract the honey. We got used to what is now a rare opportunity- to taste the honey straight from the comb.
Grandpa (my Dad’s Dad) was a farmer himself so him and my Dad were always together during farming season. I had the privilege of many lunch dates with Grandpa, whether it was around the kitchen table or in the cab of a tractor. Family unity is a huge part of small family farms. They would be nearly impossible to run without the help and support that family offers, and it also binds a family together. Although I dreaded hoeing and rock picking, we always did it as a family, and we were actually decent at putting a fun spin on it to make it tolerable. Walking up and down the fields, mom and dad told us lots of stories. Stories about what it was like when they were kids, including (and this was my favourite)- tricks my dad would play on his sister when they were hoeing. And they also listened to our stories about school or friends or whatever. We were all important- kids and parents- not one of us was more or less important than anyone else.
My Dad is the definition of handy. I swear that guy can build or fix ANYTHING. He built fun kid things around the yard for us- a swing set, pool, deck, sandbox, but those projects don’t even come close to showing his talent- he built the house that they live in today from the ground up. We were fortunate enough to see the house going up AND even help in the process. For big projects like bins and barns our family, friends, and neighbours volunteered their time to help. They knew they would need similar help down the road. Everyone needs an extra hand now and then and that was just what we did.
I know I’ve primarily talked about my Dad when it comes to the farm, but my Mom was seriously just as crucial to me having THE best childhood. My Mom is the most selfless, reliable, patient, humble, social individual I know. She loves to keep busy and she definitely accomplished that by raising 4 kids so close in age. She often babysat friends’ kids and allowed us to have friends over quite frequently. She makes tasks look so effortless even with kids running around CONSTANTLY, yet she had the patience to let us help even if it took 10 times longer. She’d often be found preparing food, hanging infinite loads of laundry on the line or with her ear attached to our extra long phone cord chatting away. Our house was one in which it was unmistakable that children were welcome- they were to be seen and loved.
Planting our own vegetable garden, as well as raising our own chickens for meat, gave us an appreciation for the food on our plate. And when certain fruits and vegetables were in season, it was “all hands on deck”. We took full advantage of the pick-your-own farms in our area. My Mom orchestrated the whole canning and freezing process from picking, washing, peeling, blanching, cutting to bagging (using reused milk bags of course-we went through milk at lightning speed, and the milk bags were better quality than the ziplocs anyway!). She made sure we had enough local peas, beans, corn, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, pears, pickles and applesauce all year round. And it’s not until you grow up and try to imitate this for yourself, that you realize how much work that actually is. I know I make my parents sound like saints here but just keep in mind they weren’t willing to throw off their crop rotation when I got married on the farm and requested corn for a backdrop!
When I think back to my childhood, most of my memories are of all the fun we had as kids, but turns out somewhere in there I was also learning how to be a semi responsible, socially contributing adult in the process. Who knew?? We weren’t running wild, our parents gave us lots of space to learn things for ourselves, explore the unknown, yet always being there for us when we needed help. You’ll notice all my favourite memories have a common theme; being outside and experiencing life on the farm. While the farm life may not be for everyone, it was the only one for me.
#FamilyFarmBeer- the 3 most important things in our life, in which we want to share with you!
Sandy Vervaet (with input from my siblings!)