The Reluctant Farm Wife

Columns

By Heather Walker

I invented the iPod. I was walking past an antique store and saw a jukebox, and thought: “how amazing, to own a personal jukebox – you could have all your favourite music in it. If only it were portable, so you could take it with you around town.” And then I realized: the iPod. It was 2005 – the iPod had been launched four years earlier.

Once we started our farm Brock and I began to (re)invent all kinds of things. We planted our fruit trees in aesthetically-pleasing locations. When they died from lack of watering, we decided it made sense to plant in rows for easier irrigation – or “orcharding” as this strategy is commonly known. We mourned our rusting tools and exposed equipment, and concluded that what we needed was a very, very large shed. Oh … that’s called a “barn.”

And then I invented the farm wife.

First: some context. At university I read feminist theory and chose the courses that studied women’s writing. I use birth control, work full-time and use the word “wench” subversively. At twenty-five I chose a partner who considered me a partner, and we’ve lived together for six years. Whoever is done work first makes dinner and gets a head start on housework. This arrangement balanced out quite well when we lived in the city. Then we bought ten acres of land.

When Brock and I started our farm in 2007 we began it as equal partners, quite literally – the business is registered as a 50/50 partnership. We built our temporary home together, installed a fence together, and wandered the farmers’ markets hand-in-hand, scouting out best practices.

The one summer I spent working alongside Brock as a farmer looked like this: we worked until dark, then stumbled wearily indoors, stomachs aching with hunger. We fantasized about having a personal chef who would transform our vegetables into decadent, satisfying meals. Too often we settled for delivery pizza and nachos. Our bodies and home were filthy with dirt, but there was no time to clean. I wondered, exhausted, how on earth other farmers managed to feed themselves and vacuum their floors in the hectic summer months.

Even more importantly, I did not like farm work. Farming is hard, physical labour, requiring a series of routine tasks: till until it’s all tilled, plant for months, weed for months, then harvest until you discover oversized zucchinis in your nightmares. Then keep harvesting until frost euthanizes most of your crops and you weep with relief. There are gorgeous moments of happiness and peace and satisfaction sprinkled throughout the process, and although I enjoy sharing those moments with Brock I learned I am not a farmer. I much prefer to make my living staring at a computer screen all day, drinking tea and looking up words in the dictionary.

Eventually we sorted ourselves out and Brock reveled in full-time farming while I worked my day job wearing kitten heels in an office. Brock worked thirteen-hour days in peak summer, seven days a week: I was home by six pm, with statutory holidays and weekends off.

But I felt a little guilty drinking crantinis and reading in the hammock while Brock sweated in the fields. After my experience working on the farm I understood the hunger that comes from non-stop, physical work, and the importance of “making hay while the sun shines” – Brock could not spare time to cook meals. So I took on the challenge of making our dinners using the food Brock was growing.

I fell in love with our farm again once I started “grocery shopping” in our fields with a big bowl and a knife. I pull fresh garlic, snap off a head of broccoli, cut some Swiss chard leaves with their neon, multi-coloured stems, pull a few plants’ worth of new potatoes, and spend some quality time in the strawberry patch tasting the different varieties. During my grocery shop I track down Brock, usually on his tractor or picking vegetables, to give him a kiss and an ETA on dinner.

Our summers have worked this way for four years.

At first I was self-conscious about this arrangement, because I never wanted to be a woman who worked full-time, then made dinner while her husband lolled on the couch, seven days a week. When I mentioned to my girlfriends that I came home from the office and made dinner every night, I felt I also had to explain how hard Brock worked, or assure them that he did his share in the off-season. I still carried the baggage of my urban perspective, from university and living in the city, that sees no reason for dividing labour: in the city, men and women can do pretty much everything equally well, from writing briefing notes to making lasagna.

But on a farm there is a natural division of work, depending on your inclination and ability. Someone needs to work the fields, and someone needs to keep the home running. On our farm, Brock likes to do the physical work and has the strength and endurance to do it. I love feeding us zero-mile meals and perfecting my crunchy pickle recipe.

I’m a natural farm wife. I’ve had a passion for learning practical skills since I was eighteen, when I learned to quilt. If we had stayed in the city I would be making soap on our balcony and buying flats of organic strawberries to boil into jam. Instead, I learned to can because of necessity: I came home to a tub of beets and Brock said, “Do you want these? Or should I compost them?” So I Googled a sweet pickled beet recipe and we stayed up until eleven pm listening to jars “ping.”

Our farm lifestyle depends on both of us: Brock can’t work if he doesn’t eat, and I can’t have a seven-acre garden if he doesn’t grow it. I suspect that our great-great-grandparents’ farming families understood this synergy, and valued the farm wife just as much as the farmer. The problems came once society began to restrict the individual’s right to choose their role, and women who weren’t interested in making pickles were told that was their job.

I’m a feminist farm wife, and that’s not an oxymoron. I am contributing to our farm life in the way I choose, which is what feminism fought for. I don’t have to make pies and can salsa – I get to.

Just like I “invented” the iPod by following the logic behind it, I am discovering why “the farm wife” makes sense, and is a role worthy of respect. Every time Brock thanks me gratefully for a meal before racing back to the fields, or apologizes for not doing more to keep the house clean in the summer, he reminds me that we are partners. And in the winter, when Brock works normal-people hours indoors, drinking coffee and planning his next season, he also keeps the house tidy, makes dinner and does laundry. One day when I came home from work he took my bags at the door and handed me a martini.

I can be a farm wife to a man like that.

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7 Comments

  1. Erin Ward
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Hi Heather,

    This article speaks to how I have been feeling the last few months! I am in a similar, yet also different situation as you. I grew as a sporty city gal in Victoria, and through different circumstances than you, am now living in Cowichan Station on 10 acres and learning about farming with my ‘partner’. I plan to come find you at your farm stand one day and have a chat ! :) I really enjoyed your article, inspiring and it’s nice to read how you describe things that I have felt, but not put into words. Thanks!
    Erin

  2. Posted March 22, 2013 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    Heather, thank you for sharing this portrait of the ebb and flow of your life. I loved the article: it made me laugh, made me reflect, and gave me some points to ponder. Hmmm… shall I ask hubs to pour me a martini so I can ponder a little longer? ;-)

    xo Sheila

    • Posted March 22, 2013 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

      Your hubby does make the best darned martinis ever! Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Sheila.

      - Heather xox

  3. Posted February 22, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Great article! I know I am a feminist but desire to have that farm life. I too accepted that I cannot live without pursuing my architecture career I was trained for. But I Amos wish I could be the 50/50 partner with my husband. This hit home!

    • Posted February 28, 2012 at 2:02 am | Permalink

      Thanks so much for commenting, Krista! We live in funny times, that’s for sure.

  4. Posted February 21, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    I was having this very conversation with another friend named Heather. She can’t believe I do all the cooking in our house. But if the mister and I wrote out who was responsible for all the jobs that needed doing in and out of the house, the division of labour would be even.

    He’s not a chef (though his tuna pasta is the kids’ favourite) and I’m not a log chopper. We could switch roles, but it wouldn’t be efficient. Jobs need doing, and sometimes a traditionally blue job needs to be done by a blue, and a pink job needs to be done by a pink (giving birth and breastfeeding anyone?).

    Then again, imagine if I came home from work, was handed a crantini, and sat on the sofa with a newspaper, while the mister made supper with three hungry kids around his ankles, him threatening them within an inch of their lives if they disturb mommy on the sofa they will go to bed without dinner. I can see the benefit in that…

    Thanks for another great read.

    Maeve

    • Posted February 22, 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

      Yes, kids …. that’s a whole next level of this video game. For the first time in my 31 years (7+ years with a career) I’m starting to think about how a “partnership” works once kids come along.

      What do you do if a woman is passionate about her work, and her man isn’t so much, and yet because of biology she’s the one who has to take time off work to deliver and care for their babies, at least for the first while? It’s amazing that so many women manage to progress in a career they love, and still create a family.

      There is a natural division (to some extent) between pink and blue roles, no matter how much that annoys us modern folk.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Maeve!

      - Heather

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Up on the Farm

Heather McLeod


Heather McLeod's fiction has appeared in The New Quarterly and The Winnipeg Review. She has a passion for learning practical skills, and shares her adventures on a blog here.