Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Real Truth About Farm Shows

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

To be a farmer, by which I mean a “regular” farmer, by which I mean not a massive corporation-style “farmer”, to be a farmer means having an unlimited supply of optimism and faith. 
Not in the weather but in the world. That enough of the world remembers where food comes from, respects the hard work and long hours that go into producing food and raw materials, and understands just what is lost every time a farm closes its barn doors.
I wasn’t thinking  about all this when we showed up at the Antique Farm Show in Lorneville a couple of Saturdays ago, however; I just wanted to support some new friends. If I’d known that there is more to a farm show than tractors and tools, I would have showed up years ago. It is a bitter disappointment, and somewhat embarrassing, to learn this, the 15th year, is the last one for the Verstraten-hosted event. 
Every loss in the farming community must be examined so I wanted to know why the show was over.
“Exhibitor interest is waning,” Polly Verstraten told me, “and that’s the whole reason behind it, to bring the machinery and people together. Everything runs in cycles and this has kind of run its cycle. It’s so busy for everyone everywhere. There are too many pulls on people’s attention.”
Fifteen years of hosting a farm show is significant considering the onus of preparation and presentation was on the Verstratens who until 2009 ran a working dairy farm. It was Polly’s husband Francis, a long-time farmer originally from Collingwood and an antique tractors and tools enthusiast, who started the show as an attempt to preserve farm history. 
“It broke his heart to look around the countryside and see all the old farms that were put aside,” explained Polly. “People had stopped working them, the fields were growing up and the barns were falling down. He knew there was stuff in those barns that people used and loved.”
The Verstratens’ former old dairy barn is full of stuff they’ve collected over the years, usually from shuttered farms. 
“People would come to the show to see their stuff,” Polly said. “They came to see the old tractors that we bought.”
So what I thought was a bunch of ol’ timers leaning on old tractors and talking about the good old days is just a fraction of the truth. The stories they are sharing are part of the history of the machines and tools which are part of the history of families and communities. 
These stories are important.
“If we don’t listen now and if we don’t gather them, they’re gone,” Polly said. “Those people, when they pass, that information and all the stuff that happened is gone with them. The more of them that are gone, the further we get back from the roots of our country and our life and how we’re fed, how a community grows, how those things happen. We need to keep reminding people that they get their food from the grocery store but this is where it started, this is how your family got here – through the hard work of these people.”
People like her and Francis whose children are the sixth generation on Polly’s family’s farm along the Amherst shore. Yet their three children chose careers other than farming so perhaps the decision to move out of dairy and simply do cash crops and a woodlot was facing reality, not following their hearts. 
 “We hit a stage where we either had to throw a bunch more money in, knowing that the kids weren’t going to come back so we’d have to sell it as a going-operation,” explained Polly, adding that it is difficult to sell now that dairy farms are getting bigger, not smaller. 
Their other choice? A familiar one to farmers and their families. 
“Let the cows and quota go, get out from under our debt and still have work to do,” Polly said. “I’m 57, Francis will be 56 this year so we’re semi-retired. We’re still keeping our hand in but with cattle, you have to be around and Francis likes to travel.”
What amazes me is that kernel of hope, that firm grip on one last dangling thread of optimism, a trait that has likely kept many farmers going long after common sense, and perhaps the bank, suggested it was time to cut loose. 
“We haven’t sold any land so if farming should take a turn around and the kids want to come back, that whole infrastructure is here,” she said.  
Infrastructure. Such a vague and corporate word for the rural history that lies fallow in those fields, waiting for another generation, another bunch of ol’ timers to turn it over and share it with the world. 

Polly chats with a member of the Sunrise 4-H club.

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