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Doug & Nancy Martin Remember Growing Vegetables

May 10, 2023

Nancy and Doug Martin in their maple woods, c 2015

For many years, a lot of people have stopped by at Doug and Nancy Martin’s farm, on County Road 8 between Bobcaygeon and Fenelon Falls, to buy farm fresh vegetables. Today, when practically all food is distributed by grocery stores and restaurants, for many people, a visit to Doug and Nancy’s is one of the occasional instances where they see where their food came from and the people who grew it.

Both Doug and Nancy grew up on family farms in North Verulam, between Fenelon Falls and Bobcaygeon and when they were married, they moved to what was Doug’s family farm. Doug is the third generation on the farm, and when his grandparents arrived, they first lived in 16 x 30 log house, now located out in the field. Rather than situating their homes and barns by the roads, many early families built them centrally on the farm, minimizing the distance to bring in crops.

While his father, Edgar, grew up in the old log house, by the time that he and Stella were raising their family, they were living in a house closer to the road. While their oldest children were toddlers, it was struck by lightning and burned. For their new home, the family decided to build a cement block house on the opposite side of the driveway. The blocks were made on site using Mark Fell’s forms, then assembled into the new house, which was completed about 1939. Nothing would go to waste, so the old log home became a henhouse.

As a youngster, Doug grew up helping on the farm. At the time he was born, his family did not have a tractor, but had 6 horses to help with the many tasks that needed to be performed. As a very young boy, he could remember his older brothers working the fields with the horses, but by the time he was old enough to help, Edgar had bought a tractor. “I don’t exactly remember getting a tractor. I can remember there were 2 or 3 people trying to sell my Dad a tractor. He bought a Massey Harris from Hugh Dixon. My uncle bought a case from a dealer on the south side of town, and Monty Robson also sold tractors on the main street…. With a walking plow you can plow 10 inches, the tractor can plow 10 feet.”

Doug’s family kept their horses after they got the tractor, using both sources of power, depending on the application. They cut their hay using a 5-foot-wide ground driven mower. “We would not cut it when it was wet, we had to wait until it was deadly dry. My brothers cut hay with the horses, but by the time I was old enough to help we had a mower behind the tractor.” But for many years they still used the horses to pile hay on the wagon, using the hay loader. Doug’s family kept chickens, cattle and pigs, and they pail fed their calves.  Each morning would go out and feed the cows and chickens. He also spent a lot of time helping process milk in the family’s cream separator, “I turned that separator a million miles when I was young.”

Each year, the neighbourhood would gather for two bees: to thresh grain and saw wood. Erwin White owned the threshing machine, subsequently taken over by his son Bob. He would set up the machine beside the barn. To prepare for the bee, each farmer cut their own wheat and oats, bound them into sheaves, then piled 6 to 8 sheaves into a stook to dry—they could not be processed while wet. On the day of the bee, six or seven men would work out in the field gathering the stooks of grain and stacking them on the wagon. When it was full, it would head off to the barn, as another which had just been unloaded would be heading back to pick up more grain. About five men would be working at the barn, feeding the threshing machine, and piling the grain inside. “At one time, farmers grew more grain than hay, because it was easier to handle with the machinery of the day. When I was a boy, it was all for animal feed and the straw was used as bedding. The wheat was to feed the chickens, while the flour used at home would be purchased.”

After the bee, the grain would still have to be ground to produce feed. Doug often helped his dad bag the grain to transport to town, “I held the bag and my dad filled it up with a pail.” They drove their produce into Fenelon Falls, where there were two feed mills. Whereas pioneer gristmills customarily took some of the grain as payment, by the mid twentieth century, it all worked on a cash basis. There was a different mixture of grains for cows and pigs.

Harland Kelly owned the sawing machine that was used at all of the bees in the vicinity. It was a large circular saw blade that was mounted on the front of the tractor. To prepare for the bee, each family would have their trees sawed up into logs and piled. There would be enough men there to pick the logs up and put them across the machine, which would saw them into blocks. Two men would be gathering the blocks at the machine, and throwing them in a pile, all to be split after the bee was over. When the men were hard at work sawing wood, Stella and one of her neighbours would be busy preparing enough food to feed everyone dinner. They typically made meat, potatoes, carrots and pie. As youngsters, Doug and Nancy grew up on that monotonous diet “We ate that pretty much every day”—no one would think twice about it, it was just the way things were.

Both Doug and Nancy learned about gardening from their mothers, who both spent countless hours cultivating plants to feed their families. Like most families, both households grew and processed their own produce. Their mothers spent much of the summer preserving, making beet and cucumber pickles. “Our gardens were big,” Doug recalls. “We grew strawberries, raspberries and most people had an orchard. We stored everything in the cellar and my parents had a bed of sand to keep the carrots in. If you kept them in leaves, they would shrivel up. Turnips and potatoes both kept, as long as they were in a cool place.” Nancy continues: “carrots, beets, potatoes, turnip, onion, picked beans, cucumber pickles, apples and cabbage. That’s more or less what you ate all winter. You didn’t have any asparagus, let me tell you.” Because they had their own livestock, many farmers ate a lot of meat.  To have fresh meat in the summer, families joined a beef ring, taking turns slaughtering animals and sharing the meat.

As a youngster, Doug enjoyed gardening and asked his parents if he could try growing raspberries. His one-acre berry plot was very successful. But he was also interested in carpentry, and at the age of 16 he started working with Wilfrid Fairfield. Many of their customers wanted cottages built along the lake, while others built or remodelled existing homes. In his 20s, Doug got into a union and started working on large commercial jobs, like hospitals, Trent University and the Darlington Power Station. He also worked for Beaver Lumber in Oshawa building chicken and hog barns for farmers.

Doug and Nancy married on the day of Canada’s centennial, then three years later they purchased his parents’ farm, as Edgar and Stella retired to town. One of the things they had in common was an interest in growing vegetables, which would distinguish them from many of their neighbours who primarily produced livestock. Early on in their marriage, Doug and Nancy worked together to grow the vegetables.

They had a greenhouse that could start about 25,000 plants. Around April 15, they would plant tomatoes, then about a week or ten days later they would seed cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli—they grew quickly, and if they were planted sooner they would be too large before they could be moved outside. “We used to transplant each plant into trays,” Nancy recalls. “It was a pile of work.”

Once the seedlings were ready to go out in the field, they used a planter, which automatically placed each seedling into a row, with a gear that would determine how far apart they were planted. Nancy spent many hours operating the planter. “I would need a lot more pillows now, the seats seem a lot harder now.”

As they were starting out, the Martins grew a lot of vegetables, but unlike their parents who got by on the farm, Doug continued to work in construction, often commuting to large commercial jobs. So the Martins had to juggle their farm work, their young family, and Doug’s career. “For a few years we had to slow down, then when the kids were young we were at it pretty heavy for a while,” he explains. Many years, they grew about 15-20 acres of vegetables, much of it corn, which was their biggest seller. For a few years they grew potatoes, but they would need to get much more modern machinery to keep up, and instead focused on other vegetables.

“I was in the generation when a lot of people got a job that wasn’t on the farm,” Doug recalls. “I would work out during the day and farm at night. So I would say to the boys, we have two tractors and a plough and cultivator, and I wanted that field plowed and cultivated so I can plant it tonight. I did most of my farming at night. Nancy looked after the tomatoes for a year to two when I worked.” To keep the vegetable farm operating the whole family had to work together. Fortunately, their sons Paul and Scott were happy to help.

Doug and Nancy also hired help. “When we started out, we would have teenagers coming to ask us for a job,” Doug remembers. “Now no kids come to ask for jobs.” Todays youth don’t think about agricultural work as a summer job. Most have not grown up on a farm, are no longer accustomed to working all day in a field, as was the norm a generation or two ago. Fortunately, their neighbour June Yerex has been a great help. “She has worked here for years, and without her we would not still be in business.”

“We don’t spray any more than is necessary,” Doug says. “But nobody likes to eat worms in their vegetables. From the time we started there were sprays, but not as many as there are today.” When he was growing raspberries as a teenager, Doug just used manure from the farm, but by the time they went into the vegetable business commercial fertilizer was necessary. “We still don’t use nearly as much as the companies says that you should use. But we do rotate the location where we grow the crops. You will only get trouble if you grow them in the same spot.”

The rolling fields of North Verulam are not flat enough to use machinery to harvest corn, so both the corn and tomatoes had to be harvested by hand. “If the corn is good, it doesn’t take long to pick,” Doug remarks. But, as is often the case it all depends on the weather. “We tried to plant corn every week, but the odd time the weather does not let you do that. Sometimes at the end of July, you get a snapping hot spell and it brings two patches together.” Then, it would be a challenge to get the corn in fast enough and sell it all while it is still fresh.

Corn planting season begins on May 10, and at present it lasts until July 15. When Doug and Nancy were starting out in 1970, they figured that all the corn had to be harvested by Lindsay Fair Week, about September 20th, otherwise their crop would get frozen out. As the years have passed, the growing season has extended, and they now assume that they have until Thanksgiving. But the spring planting is no earlier than when they started. The weather is becoming more unpredictable all the time. “If I can’t get they haying done before the vegetables start, then I’m caught not having the time to do the haying, and then I have to do it at night.”

A lot has changed in vegetable farming since 1970. Today, the cost of inputs is about 5-6X higher than it once was, but the value of the produce has not kept pace. When they started, a dozen ears of corn sold for $2, today it is $8. Many of their customers are tourists, and the quantities that people buy keep shrinking. Whereas in the 1970s, families would buy tomatoes 6 quarts at a time (roughly 6 litres), now it is down to 3 litres, or often just a one litre basket.

Since they started farming together in 1970, “farms have gotten bigger—they had to so they could survive,” he notes. Doug and Nancy still farm the same acreage as Edgar did, 174 acres, about 100 workable. In 1970s, most of the farms were occupied by families working the land. Today, it’s a small minority and like most other farmers, Doug rents neighbouring pasture for cattle. But the price of land has vastly increased, completely out of proportion to what can be earned from working it. “You are not going to buy any of these farms at $1,000,000 and make a living off of it. Now farmers can’t afford to buy farms. Someone else buys it and rents it to him, but then you don’t know if you are going to have it the next year or not.”

As farms have gotten more expensive, equipment has gotten bigger and more expensive. “When I bought the Ford tractor in 1975, it cost $10,000. Today, a tractor like that would cost $75 or $85,000 dollars. The last few years, prices of fuel, fertilizer, iron and machinery have gone a little crazy. But we are not earning more on vegetables. It would be hard for someone to start in vegetable farming now. Not many people want to put the hours in. When things came up in calving season, I would not get in until 10 or even midnight, then the alarm goes off again at 5 am. With cattle, there are times when it is very hard to make money on them. It seems like half the time you don’t know if you are going to cover your costs. There is no control over beef prices, and you never know what next year will bring.”

“My kids won’t go into farming,” Doug continues. “They have good jobs. That is what is happening on a lot of farms around here. There are not many young people going into farming. If they are farming, it’s probably just part-time and they have a permanent job elsewhere. A lot of what farmers did in past generations people don’t see as worth doing now.”

When Doug was asked if he was young today would he start a vegetable farm? “I would not. It would cost at least $1.5 million dollars to start the vegetable farm that I have today. And how much is the interest of $1.5 million dollars? You wouldn’t even be able to cover the cost of the interest.”

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