Trial And Error

When my husband Ted and I first arrived on our farm just north of St. Albert, Alberta, we hadn’t the first idea what we were going to do with it. Ted had just completed his degree in agriculture, but that didn’t exactly make us farmers. As a child, I had spent only brief periods on my grandparents’ farm, and Ted couldn’t claim even that much experience.

Still, the day we stood together for the first time on that gently sloping hillside, gazing down toward the Sturgeon River, we knew we had found the right place. We were young and we had a gorgeous piece of land: our potential seemed limitless.

Ted reached down and grabbed a handful of topsoil, squeezed it in his fist, and smelled it. I was surprised that someone who hadn’t been brought up on a farm would ever think to do that. There’s a beautiful smell to good soil, particularly when it’s a little damp. Ted, from his courses at university knew that. He inhaled deeply, then turned to me and said, “This is number one soil.” It was so black, so deep, so rich, and so wonderful. He knew we could grow practically anything we wanted on this land.

Of course, no matter how perfect your little corner of earth, finding the right use for it takes a certain amount of trial and error. And in those first years, we certainly had our share of trials and errors. We tried again, but at 200 acres, our farm wasn’t nearly big enough for that. We tried chickens and found we didn’t have the right facilities. We tried pigs, we tried turkeys, we tried cattle—nothing seemed to work out.

During those lean times, we developed a few tricks to get by. I’d say to Ted, “Let’s go to my mom’s for supper tonight.” And then we’d go to his Mother’s for supper the next night. I have to admit it was a conscious strategy  on our part. Of course, the benefits reached far beyond the money we saved on groceries. Parents always love to see their kids, and those frequent visits brought us that much closer together. But parents can offer only so much shelter. In the end, we still had to fend for ourselves. Sometimes, our lack of experience was positively comical—although I must admit it didn’t always seem so at the time.

One winter, we were really struggling to make ends meet. Ted was working in Edmonton to pay off the debts from our previous year’s mishaps (this was a recurring pattern in those days). I stayed at home and tended the cattle.

One of my jobs was to keep their trough filled with water. Well, it was one of the coldest winters you could imagine, just desperately cold, and our pump kept freezing up. Every evening we’d be out in the barn, thawing out the darned pump. One time we even had a friend come out with a blowtorch. No matter what we tried, by morning Ted was off to work and I was left at home with a frozen pump. I finally resorted to melting snow, working all day just trying to keep the cattle in water.

Much later, long after the weather had warmed up, Ted told our tale of woe to a farmer friend. He came over to our place, took one look at the pump, and said, “You know, the problem is that your pump doesn’t have a drain hole.” All we needed was one tiny hole to allow the water to drain back down and that pump would never have frozen. It was that simple.

The funniest part was we never got discouraged. I still wonder about that. I guess I always had the feeling that since it couldn’t get any worse, it would have to get better. We had found our place in the world, and by God we were going to make it work.

Eventually, of course, I was proven right. It took us quite a few years, but we finally figured out how to make the most of our location. Even through the hardest years, while we struggled with our wheat, chickens, and cattle, our vegetable garden kept thriving. When people started stopping by the side of the road, offering money for our extra produce, the light bulb finally came on.

To this day, our vegetable garden sits right next to our old house, on the very patch of land where Ted first smelled the soil. Trees protect it on three sides, and its gentle southward slope seems custom-made to catch the spring sunshine. Every year we’re able to get onto the land weeks ahead of most of our neighbours, and we enjoy some of the earliest and most bountiful crops you could imagine.

Like the plants in a garden, people will flourish if they find the right location. After more than 40 years on our farm—years of frustration and triumph, of sorrow and joy, of hard, dirty work and good, clean fun—I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

-Lois Hole I'll Never Marry A farmer