A lot of people in the modern world are locked into the way they live. They have a job, a boss, a mortgage and a lot of obligations. They live their way into a box and it becomes very difficult to get out of that box. Oprah Winfrey made a brilliant career selling the notion that you can magically transform your life just by changing your mind. But for many people that is a cruel fantasy.
Farmers complain they are at the mercy of forces beyond their control: Weather, the vagaries of the market, input costs, disease and pests. But they still have more freedom to make decisions and act than most people I know. They can decide what they are going to do today and tomorrow and next month and next year. Not everyone in the modern world can do that sort of thing and we should be thankful for this privilege.
My neighbour Hughie, the apple farmer, pointed this out to me 30 years ago when I quit my job at the life insurance company and moved back to the farm with my young wife to make a career as a writer. Hughie was delighted that he was living beside another person who didn’t drive off to work every day. Work was all around us and we just puttered away at it. Personally, I found that if you took the commute and the meetings and the office traffic out of your day, your productivity soared. One day during that little window, between the end of the haying season and the beginning of the wheat harvest, Hughie came over with his trumpet and a 12-pack of beer at two o’clock in the afternoon. We sat in his truck in the orchard listening to Louis Armstrong while Hughie played his trumpet.
And Hughie said, “Who else on the planet gets to do this? Who can stop in the middle of the day without the boss telling them to get back to work?” Of course, we both did have bosses. It was that little voice in the ear that says ‘enough of that . . . better get something done today.’
Hughie grew up on a farm, the son of a man who was famous for making abrupt decisions. The farm had been lost by the grandfather during the Depression and Hughie’s father made enough money raising meat chickens on a half-acre lot in the village to buy it back in 1947. Then he went crazy with the chickens. In the summer of 1953, the price of chicken dropped from 30 cents a pound to 10 cents. He went off to the city on the train with the last load of freezer-burned chickens and came back with the announcement that they were now in the cattle business. Forty-four stockers were coming up on the train the next day. They had no fences, no corral and none of the cattle were dehorned or castrated. After a chaotic season with the cattle, Hughie’s father noticed that all the chicken manure had brought the old orchard back to life. Hughie and his brothers picked a bumper crop of apples and took them out to the highway at the other end of the farm and set up a roadside stand.
“Over one weekend we made enough money from the apples to buy a new Chev car,” recalled Hughie. “What can you do over a weekend today, that is legal, that would let you buy a new car?”
It was a life-changing moment. They started selling all of the farm produce at the road and then they put in gas pumps, a garage and a snack bar. By 1965, Hughie started a tire business that became one of the most successful businesses in town.
Hughie sold his interest in the tire business to his brothers in 1977 and bought a farm the same year I did, right across the road from me. Over the next 40 years, I watched him decide his way from tires to chickens to turkeys to pigs and finally all the way back to apples where he stayed and prospered until his death in 2016. He complained every day about the forces ranged against him and he worked like a rented mule, but he kept changing his mind until he found the formula that worked.
Whenever I feel trapped in a way of thinking, I remember his example and I make a Herculean effort to back up and change my mind about something. It’s uncomfortable and even painful but it can be the beginning of something very good.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.