Family farms surrounded by suburbia

Barns may be razed to make way for new homes, but the true heart of farming endures.

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    Development: Holstein cows graze on a Toronto farm while new housing looms nearby.
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Peering over the split-rail fence, the brown mare and foal startled me. I was, after all, driving down our suburban street in my SUV. I was, as usual, a bit harried – the kids were already late for after-school choir rehearsal, and the icy, winter roads were hazardous. Then, like a gift from another time and place, I saw them: two chestnut horses, mother and baby, softly pawing the snow-covered earth.

"Look! There are horses in that field over there!" I stopped the car alongside the road, at once forgetting our other commitments.

"Hi horsy!" my girls called out.

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Curious about this carload of suburbanites hollering out their open car windows in the middle of a snowstorm, the horses lingered, much to our delight. "Isn't she a beauty," I remarked, noting the mare's reddish-brown coat, dazzling against earth's wintry, white blanket.

Looking at the pasture, a lonely island in a sea of new home sites, I started to wonder if my neighborhood had once been part of this adjacent farmland. Had the farmer been forced to sell part of his property? What did he think of our oversize houses, backyard swimming pools, and sports cars? Had I unknowingly contributed to the downsizing of a family farm? My stomach tightened as I stared at our new equine friends – such a curiosity juxtaposed against a backdrop of urban sprawl and excess.

For more than 200 years, my mother's family has farmed a hardscrabble piece of land in western Pennsylvania, raising dairy cattle in a classic red barn atop a grassy hill. As a young girl, I spent my summers on the farm, chasing kittens in the haymow, hoeing weeds in the vegetable garden, and washing the stainless steel milkers in the old milk house. On the farm, I learned about life – how a tiny seed can produce bountiful fruit; how a wobbly, newborn calf can deliver a sense of peace and wonder. I learned to cherish the simple things, from a bumpy ride on the back of my grandfather's pickup to the buttery taste of the season's first sweet corn.

But time has marched forward. On my last visit to the farm, the barn, once full of Holsteins, sat vacant. My uncle, who inherited the farm from his father, is now retired. "I have a business you could run someday," he once quipped to my husband. Reality, though, speaks to a different truth. We are not farmers. Somewhat guiltily, we enjoy city life, with its major-league sports teams, world-class orchestras, and excellent schools.

But what is to become of our cherished farm?

Last week, I noticed a new housing development just a few miles from my home. "Call's Farm," the sign said. "Home sites for sale." As I drove past rows of cookie-cutter houses on postage-stamp-size plots, I drew in my breath, stunned by the harsh reality of "progress." Angry yellow bulldozers hastily cleared pastureland, ruthlessly tossing away pieces of history. A proud white farmhouse still overlooked the property, refusing to yield.

On the way home, I passed Barlow Farm Park, an open area of baseball and soccer fields situated behind an old barn and farmhouse. I began to wonder what stories lay within the whitewashed walls of the old house. Did the crimson barn, lovingly repainted by a historical preservation society, hold tales of Jersey calves, scampering kittens, and majestic mares? Was this a good compromise – turning pastureland into ball fields and parks? Was this the future of family farms – vacant barns, with the exception of the occasional pony, like the one brought to the farm for its annual harvest festival?

Although sadness rises within me with each new housing development and ball field, I know that the true heart of farming lies in its people. Farm or no farm, my extended family will always gather – sharing casseroles and gossip at holiday time, celebrating together, and comforting one another in times of need. Barns may be razed, but my family ties, cemented years ago on a Penn­sylvania dairy farm, run deep. In the end, it is people who deliver happiness – not barns or farmhouses. I am thankful that I will always have family, a reassuring constant in an ever-changing world.

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