One of my recent plays opened at the Blyth Festival in southwestern Ontario in July and I went down to sit in the crowd several times during the run. The Team on the Hill is a play about a family battling over the future of the farm on a spring weekend in 1978. The son has just come home from ag college and desperately wants to try growing soybeans but the father wants him to find another line of work, one that offers a better return for his labour and is not filled with the long hours and bitter disappointments he has known himself.
The son sees it much differently. He believes the business of farming is about to change drastically and he doesn’t want his family to be left behind like so many others on the sideroad. His teachers at the agricultural college have told him soybeans are about to sweep the country.
Both men are trying to imagine what the world will look like in a few years and neither of them realize how bad they are about predicting anything. Fortunately, the grandfather is sitting in a chair on the veranda, fading in and out of reality. He, and the women in the room are the ones who eventually explain to the father and son what the word ‘hope’ means.
Our species is the only one on the planet that attempts to predict the future and you have to wonder why we bother because we are so terrible at it. Weather forecasters take a lot of grief because they are right about 40 % of the time. But that’s a pretty good batting average compared to the investment analysts, horse race handicappers and the army of crop specialists and economists who tell us where soybean prices will be this time next year. If a weather forecaster just made a rule of saying that the weather tomorrow will be the same as it was today, he or she will be right 50 % of the time. And what use would that be, especially when we are struggling with something as important as our life’s work?
It is far more important to rely on the genius we have for adapting to all of the shocks and surprises life hands us. This talent we have for coping is the main reason the world’s population has now clicked over 7 billion.
One of the key lines in the play comes when the old man quotes a passage from Romans 8-24. “Hope that is seen is not hope . . . if we hope for what we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.”
This is the trick of farm succession. You can’t ever know what the world is going to look like in 10 or 20 years. But if you understand that hope is something you’re going have to wait for patiently without being able to see it clearly, you have a much better chance of surviving a volatile business like agriculture.
I sat in the theatre during intermissions and I noticed that the noise level was almost deafening. People were visiting up a storm and talking about their own experiences of succession, not just with the farm but with a host of other family businesses. One woman came up to me after the performance and said: “My husband is too emotional to talk to you, but I just wanted you to know that he went through all of this with his father in 1978 and now he’s going through it again this summer with his grandson!”
The play is rooted in my own experience watching farm families around me figure out what to do with the farm, some more successfully than others. Deciding what we will do with our lives should properly be a work of the imagination, just like a play. It’s terrific exercise, scary and exhilarating. I have come to believe that a work of the imagination, whether it occurs in the theatre or on a sideroad, should involve not only our heads and our hearts, it must involve the land under our feet.
All my imagining has been done in a small place, this little rural community in the northwest corner of Simcoe County. The human stories I find within a few miles of the farm have sustained me as a writer for 40 years now and it looks like I will never run out of material.
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.