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


The Mud Bowl

One sunny day in July, we were out in the field with our boys, weeding. Jim, who was ten years old at the time, turned to his dad and asked, “What day can I have for my summer holidays?”
In farming, good weather is almost always accompanied by hard work. You really do have to make hay while the sun shines, as the saying goes. Since we didn’t have much hired help back then, we couldn’t afford to waste time. So when we did get a good rain, it was cause for both celebration and relaxation.

While the city folks sat inside lamenting all their spoiled fun, we thought about our thirsty crops. Rain is a make-or-break proposition for farmers. If, as the legend goes, the Inuit have twenty different words for snow, farmers have almost as many names for rain. There’s drizzle, soaking rain, pounding rain, and the highly coveted three-day-soaker, to name just a few.
Anytime the right kind of rain came at just the right time, Ted would gaze out of the window and say, “That’s a million dollar rain.” He wasn’t just thinking about our place, but about all the farms in our area.

A good rain was our signal for an impromptu holiday. Since there was no work we could do out there in the muck, we gave ourselves permission to take a break and have fun.

When the boys were young and the first truly rainy morning came along each summer, I’d turn to them and say, “Hey boys, it’s your birthday today!” Now Bill’s real birthday is in August and Jim’s is in early October, both very hectic times on our farm. It’s not that they didn’t know the truth. As far as they were concerned, though, their birthdays were on the same day. They never asked, “How come you didn’t say yesterday that tomorrow was our birthday?” or “Why does it always rain on our birthday?” They just accepted the arrangement.

We’d have an instant party. I’d whip together a cake, and they’d invite their friends from down the road. If my mom and dad had time, they’d come out and join the celebration.

I used the same strategy with the annual Klondike Days festival in Edmonton. If the weather was sunny all that week, we wouldn’t get the chance to go to the Exhibition. However, there was almost always at least one wonderfully rainy day. We’d put on our rubber boots and raincoats, and off we’d go. With practically the entire fairgrounds to ourselves, we’d have an absolute ball.

I remember one rainy afternoon when the boys were quite a bit older. A downpour turned a summer fallow field into a sea of mud. The boys had a brilliant idea. They called up their football buddies from high school and a whole crowd came over. Out they went, into the field. Although they started out playing an actual game, it quickly dissolved into chaos. The boys were slipping and sliding all over the place, tackling each other and diving face-first to make spectacular catches. I’ve never heard so much whooping and laughing in all my life. When it was over, we actually had to hose them all down. The “Mud Bowl” remains a neighbourhood legend to this day.

Yes, rainy days certainly provided us with some of our best times and fondest memories on the farm. Maybe that’s why I still enjoy splashing through a mud puddle now and then.

-Lois Hole I'll Never Marry A Farmer


Let Kids Be Kids


Child labour is a hot topic these days, as well it should be. All over the world, young people are robbed of their childhoods by unfair and exploitative labour practices. Of course, when Ted and I farmed, we relied an awful lot on kids. If they hadn’t helped us so much, we would never have been as successful.

Work can and should be an integral part of growing up. Children gain a strong sense of satisfaction when they’re given the chance to contribute, and they build habits and attitudes that will stick with them long after they’ve grown up. You just have to find ways to keep the work fun and ensure that it doesn’t interfere with other equally important parts of their lives.

When they were young, Bill and Jim were always bringing friends home from school. Their buddies from town loved the chance to be out on a farm. It felt like a different world to them, even though their homes were only a mile or two away.

As the spring evenings lengthened, they’d be up in the field transplanting seedlings. They’d hoe the rows throughout the summer, and they’d help out as the vegetables became ready to harvest.

Sure it was hard work, but the kids wouldn’t have kept coming back if they weren’t having a good time. It wasn’t even the fact that we paid them—although they never complained when I handed out the cheques. When I’d take drinks or popsicles up to them, I felt like I was walking into the middle of a rather sweaty social occasion. The radio would be blasting away, competing with a steady stream of jokes and conversation.

I have to admit I pushed them a little from time to time. As their energy started to flag, I’d go out there and say, “Come on, kids, just five more minutes!” Ten minutes later, I’d go back out and say, “Just two more minutes!” Somehow though, when the break finally arrived, they always seemed to find the strength to pick up a football and start an impromptu game.

Their parents, naturally, were thrilled at the idea of their children coming out to our place. The kids were happy and healthy, they were earning a few bucks of their own, and if they were tired out at the end of the day, that was a bonus.

I’ll never forget one afternoon, though, when a man drove out to the farm, his poor teenage son slumped in the back seat of the car. Something about this man’s manner put us off, even before he opened his mouth. He told us, “I want you to put my boy to work. He’s a lazy kid, and I want you to show him what real work is like. Straighten him up.” The boy had gotten drunk one night, and his father wanted to teach him a lesson. I guess he thought we were running some sort of boot camp.

Ted and I were appalled that this man would think of farm life as punishment. Clearly, he was the one who needed straightening up, not his boy. I don’t imagine he ever thought of sitting down to talk with his son, although it was obvious he was very mad at him. I wonder, if we had taken the boy, could we have helped him? But when you’re not the parent, when you’re only there for a short period of time, there’s not much you can do.

If you talk to the kids who worked for us over the years, I don’t think you’ll hear many complaints. Sure, they’ll joke about how we made them slave all day under the hot sun, but they’ll also talk about all the good times they had together. Many of them still come out to visit us from time to time, and we’re always thrilled to see them.

As a matter of fact, a few of them still work for us. And, if I’m not mistaken, they’re still finding a way to have fun on the job.

-Lois Hole I'll Never Marry a Farmer