Up from the Farm

Up from the Farm

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Up from the Farm

There is a profound attachment to the land rooted in the Canadian character. Farming is the single most important factor in the Canadian experience.

Allan Anderson, broadcaster

The tractors started going by early—about 7 A.M. One by one they roared past, a majestic parade of sound and colour. Blue ones, red and white ones, green and yellow ones. All with signs anchored to their fronts, backs or doors. Signs that read: “Don’t criticise farmers with your mouth full,” and “If you ate today, thank a farmer.” From where I stood at the window, I could actually feel the vibrations all the way from the highway. The goose bumps rose on my arms.

When the last tractor passed I returned to my easy chair, but I felt far from easy. Restless, I switched on the radio to see if I could learn more. “. . . The biggest farm demonstration this country’s seen since the dirty thirties, maybe bigger,” the announcer was saying. “They’re on the move, and they’re coming into the city from every direction. Traffic will be backed up on most major routes. Let’s go live to Cindy, who’s in the procession coming in from Winchester.”

I listened, enthralled. How could I settle into my morning routine when I couldn’t erase from my mind the image of hundreds of huge tractors invading Ottawa? This wasn’t another demonstration; this was a piece of living history—something that once witnessed would never be forgotten. Most unusual was the fact that the demonstration involved a segment of the population who rarely even spoke, never mind shouted. Indeed, they were virtually an invisible group, at least from some perspectives. That they left their farms unattended even for one day spoke volumes about the troubles they were facing. Their message was, “If the government doesn’t help us now, God help us all later.”

But would the support they needed be forthcoming? Would the public rally around them? Who was the public? Wasn’t I part of that public? And didn’t I have a personal stake in the matter, having been raised on a farm myself, and having come from a fourth-generation Ontario farming family?

Galvanised, I sprang into action. I searched my attic for a sheet of construction paper and some coloured markers. I laid the paper on the kitchen table and wrote out my message. Then I found some wire and heavy tape and raced out into the biting March wind to secure the sign to the front of my car. Despite the wind trying to lift me, the sign and the car into the air, I was finally ready to roll.

As I sped down the highway, praying that my sign wouldn’t fly off into someone’s field, I noticed other drivers waving at me. I beamed back at them. Halfway to the city I passed an older tractor stranded by the roadside, its front-end loader raised as if in supplication. The sign on its side read, “Headed for Ottawa—Went Broke.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but it did make me more determined than ever to lend my support.

I caught up to the procession just as it was entering Landsdowne Park at the heart of the city. Hundreds of tractors filed by, interspersed with farm trucks of every description. The streets were snarled and horns blared— some in support, some in obvious anger—as city dwellers were trapped within the dramatic web being spun around them. People poured out of apartments and stores, shopkeepers and customers alike lined the streets, all curious, all awestruck, most waving and smiling.

One woman pointed at my sign and spoke to the man beside her. They both smiled and waved at me. I nodded with the dignity befitting the occasion. As I approached an intersection, a police officer started to wave me aside until he spotted my sign. With a small grin, he signalled me to continue.

I may have looked tiny and insignificant in my little Mazda, but I was riding as high as any of those in the big machines.

As we crawled along the Queen Elizabeth Driveway, and my clutch foot began to ache, I had plenty of time to pause and reflect upon the moment. Other than the obvious pride I felt, I also harboured a deep regret about the fate of my own family farm. None of us were in a position to take it over, and even if we did, it wasn’t large enough to be financially viable.

Hand in hand with the regret came the memories: my father struggling in the burning sun to fix the baler for the twentieth time . . . my father stooped in the dusk, picking stones with bleeding hands . . . my father shouting and waving his arms at an errant cow in a predawn, rain-soaked field . . . my mother’s straw hat glistening in the sun as she drove the tractor while I loaded the hay . . . my mother allowing a sick baby piglet to be brought in the house to “warm up” . . . my mother’s tears when farm life seemed a little too hard to bear . . . my parent’s delight when their hard work paid off and the money came in.

I also remembered my own rosy dawns when I slipped and slid over silvery-dewed grass to pick up the latest crop of duchess apples that had fallen the night before. I remembered the heartbreakingly sweet smell of fresh cut hay as I drifted off to sleep beneath a fluttering curtain that flirted with a full moon. I remembered delicious evening swims in a sun-warmed lake after hours of struggling with heavy bales in a boiling hayloft.

No, I don’t have a farm, and technically, I’m not a farmer. But I’ve lived the life, and it will never leave me. Even the arthritis that dampens my body and spirits can’t extinguish those bright flames of memory.

That’s why I drove with the farmers on that cold day in March, and that’s why my sign read: “On Behalf of My Parents, Who Farmed all Their Lives.”

Wanda James
Morewood, Ontario

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