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Winter reading

There is a good chance Small Farm Canada magazine would not exist if it hadn’t been for my chance acquisition, years ago, of back issues of a British quarterly titled The Countryman. I have issues dating from the 1920s to the 1970s. Green covered, book sized, the magazine characterized rural and farm life in a way I’d never seen before.

After reading through just one issue, plucked from the boxes I had taken away for a widow, I was hooked. That issue, I recall, was where I leaned that a fire could be started from the top down, not bottom up, as I had always done. The technique was told by a veteran countryman of the sort that the publication sought throughout the UK, and whose wisdom, outlook and lore it archived over many years. Hence the title: The Countryman.

One recent evening I turned to the shelf in our living room that houses back issues of The Countryman and plucked one at random. I have it beside me now—the Oct-Dec issue, 1938. With stories on the cover like “Two Barristers who took to the Land and the Results they Obtained”, and ”The Private Life of the Earwig”, it is clear a.) the publishers were not trying to sell the magazine off newsstands with over-promising headlines and b.) the magazine celebrated the long, artfully-wrought story, often with a naturalist’s bent. Maybe readers didn’t care about the country vicar whose garden was home to 550 varieties of wildflower, but if he submitted the story, and the story was good, into the magazine it went.

To read through this kind of article now is to learn both about the vicar’s wildflowers, and, as I go through Netflixy/digital era spasms of inattention, about myself. On a warm winter evening in front of the wood stove, I enjoy a slow read about how hedgerows were laid in the Cotswolds, or flintstone was carted onto wheat fields for better yields. Not every minute spent reading has to yield a factoid or useful idea.

As for the relationship between The Countryman and Small Farm Canada, one evening years ago I was telling a friend (now my wife) about The Countryman, and bemoaning that there wasn’t anything aimed at small farmers in Canada. “Well then, let’s publish our own magazine for small farmers,” she said.

The rest is history.

* ? * ? *

G. Henderson’s book, The Farming Ladder, about a successful small British farm in the 1920s and 1930s, is less pastoral and more instructional than The Countryman, and I enjoyed it greatly for several reasons, not least of which was for his three word summary at the end of the book of what is necessary for successful farming: work, muck (by which he meant manure) and thought.

And work Henderson and his brother did on there 100+ acre farm: 1000 tons of rock, moved by hand and cart, to make a driveway, egg and meat birds raised, a hatchery, geese, crops, cattle, sheep. They wholesaled and retailed their products. Whenever I’m conked out after day on the farm I think that these guys would have just reached their stride. The book illustrates that most farms need a lot of work over a very long period of time to be successful.

Muck. Henderson is no poet but my goodness does he sing high regard for manure. In fact, he says he’d raise livestock for no other reason that the fertility that follows. Long before Joel Salatin was born, let alone writing about portable chicken coops, the Henderson brothers were designing and building what they called poultry arks, so that the chickens ranged on, and fertilized, pasture.

Everything the Henderson’s did on the farm was thought through with the farm’s long term viability in mind; how each thing they did fit in with larger operations on the farm. These were the measures by which each endeavour was judged. Sounds holistic to me, though I doubt that’s how Henderson would have described it.

In addition to the bigger picture thinking on farming, Henderson offers some delightful tips on country life, including this gem on how to deal with rural crime, which apparently was a problem in the UK in the 1930s as it is in Canada today: buy a used policeman’s hat and hang it near the front door.