When I’m gone from farming

A retiring farmer thinks about what he will most remember about his farming career

Reading Time: 5 minutes

You wake me before the dawn, stirring the passion within. The excitement of a new day, a new challenge, a new chore. I will miss you when you’re gone.

The scent of hydrangea invades my thoughts as I step out from my house into the cool, fall, morning air. Stems bowed from the weight of their heads, flower petals beginning to brown, the massive floral clusters emit one last invitation for any pollinator who might be interested. I’m going to miss this daily sojourn.

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Mist clings to the air like a soothing blanket protecting the crisp apples beneath it from the invading rays of the morning sun.

I feel at peace in the stillness. Somewhere nearby a great horned owl gives his last haunting hoots before dawn.

Dawn is the transition between nighttime terrors and daytime terrors for small rodents storing seed for the winter. The respite vanishes with the return of the distant fox. I’m going to miss the daily calm at the start of my day.

The fox and I have developed an understanding. She now knows I mean no threat to her. Throughout the summer as I drove through the orchard, I have met her many times carrying fresh kill as she returned to the den and her hungry pups.

At first, I would stop the truck so we could observe each other at a distance, me not wanting to scare her and her being cautious and giving me a wide berth.

She was gaunt. I could see her ribs and knew she must have a hungry brood keeping her thin. Today she is carrying a muskrat; yesterday they feasted on duck.

Over time, as I see her trotting down this laneway I still stop but now, as she passes my truck, she barely leaves the gravel. She looks me in the eye — perhaps as a caution, perhaps as a boast. I interpret the look as respect.

I was driving home one day and as I approached, five fox pups bounded into the ditch. I stopped and shut off the engine to watch. Soon the mother fox appeared and I could hear her bark to the pups. One by one they reappeared and after cautiously checking on me, they began to play with each other and romp about. The mother lay down on the road and watched.

As a car approached from the other direction, the mother stayed calm until it was nearby and then barked to them and everyone disappeared into the ditch. The driver took no notice, but after, the mother fox reappeared and barked again to her pups. Five fuzzy balls of fun emerged once more and began to play.

She looked at me as if to say, “I’m street-proofing my kids, we will do this as long as it takes.”

When my wife left the city to move to the farm, I told her, “There are always eyes watching you here.” I will miss looking to find them.

‘I am happiest when I am working on the farm, but I am in the least pain when I am away from it.’ – Murray Porteous.
photo: Jennifer Glenney

During asparagus harvest, I’m in the field at 5:30 a.m. I measure a random collection of asparagus spears from ground to tip, determine the average length, consult the daily forecast and use those numbers to calculate what time the asparagus will have reached optimum harvest size.

As soon as I get out of my truck, I hear a “caw” from the nearest sentinel crow and marvel as I hear that warning call relayed by other sentinels.

Very quickly every crow within a five-kilometre radius knows a human has emerged. Annoying as they can be, I will miss their morning acknowledgements.

Crows hate great horned owls, the most feared predators in the night. They love to eat birds’ eggs and newly hatched young, and crows are the only birds brave enough to fight them. One afternoon, I placed a stereo on my back deck to play a recording of a great horned owl fighting with crows. It was a good time to experiment because there were no crows nearby.

Within 10 minutes of pushing the play button, my backyard was bedlam. Every time the owl hooted, about 30 crows would erupt into angry cawing. Peeking out my garage door, I could see them perched in the trees surrounding my house like fans in bleachers as one tattered crow flew back and forth looking for a fight.

The unkempt bird was missing tail feathers from previous battles and was the obvious enforcer in the group. I will even miss the crows when I no longer am farming.

For the first 17 years, I prided myself on being the fastest picker on the farm until Clive Henry, a farm worker from Jamaica, beat me. Now I teach others how to pick instead.

The past two years I haven’t picked a bag full of apples or pears at all, not because I wouldn’t like to, but because the strap from the picking bag and the weight of the apples could crush the pacemaker I now have in my chest. I miss the physical demands of harvest.

It seems cliché to say you love your employees, but I have had a great crew to work with. Because I couldn’t find local labour to pick fruit, I have 60 Jamaican workers who come to help. Several have been coming back for 20 years now. Some of the workers are older and have kids finishing university. Their entire education is funded by their parent working part-time on my farm. I am grateful for arrangements, which have been made to ensure none of them will lose their opportunity to support their families by coming to Canada when the farm goes to someone else.

This is my last harvest on my farm. Every year presents a different challenge and this year was no exception.

After 30 years, I have done the best job I can possibly do with the hand Mother Nature has dealt me. I love seeing apple trees in the tractor’s lights as I work late at night.

This year, we harvested the first pick on three-year-old Gala trees, collecting more than 600 bushels per acre. I had calculated my estimate given the number of fruit per tree, but had not counted on three-inch apples. The other night I said to myself, “This block of fruit trees will yield around 950 bushels per acre of large apples. You can’t do better than this — maybe it is a good time for you to retire.”

The truth is I do not have a choice but to retire from farming. There are a lot of stresses associated with a farm that take a greater toll on my body than the years of physical labour. Combined with a lack of sleep, the results are literally crippling. I am happiest when I am working on the farm, but I am in the least pain when I am away from it.

Even so, I will miss you when you’re gone.

Murray Porteous farmed with his father Ken and brother-in-law Ray Vogel near Simcoe. They farmed 750 acres of tree fruit and 110 acres of asparagus. He’s also had a career of serving the industry as president of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association and the Canadian Horticultural Council. He’s also a past chair of Agricorp, the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario, the Ontario Agricultural Commodity Council and the Agricultural Adaptation Council. He represented Canada during negotiations for the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program for several years.

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