Monday, December 30, 2013

Land Slide Show

This past summer and fall our biggest challenge and greatest accomplishment, was for my family and I to produce the "Textured Structure". It was for an art show, mostly outdoor, at the Markham Museum and Pioneer Village, curated by our friend Janine Marchessault.

 We were asked to build a simple structure that showed the past and future and incorporated an artistic component as well. There were another 32 artists exhibiting also, but we were the only ones that actually built a building.
Whew, to say it was not easy is an understatement, as we really didn't realize how much work was involved. But, as in a lot of hard work, the result and being actually finished by deadline, brought big rewards.
The building is a stick frame, 8 feet by 12 feet, Amish lumber throughout, with a pine floor and unfinished inside. The 4 different outside walls were divided up among myself, and my three sons. Skyler chose stackwall, Ian a painting on the front gable and Misha used cedar slab wood from the local sawmill to finish the back wall. I did a passive solar style wall, with a Trombe wall inside to keep the heat in during cold weather and keep the sun out in the summer. Lillian did the concept for the roof-- cedar shingles on one side and cedar coloured ashpalt on the other, mixed with metal and a photovoltaic solar panel on the south side. Lillian also planted a garden of veggies in 2 planter's boxes we built, and then we added a cedar deck in front. All the windows and door were used and recycled.
We began in early summer looking towards a September 21st opening. Along with our other building projects, there wasn't much time for anything else, such as barn tours, canoe trips, or reading in the hammock, but in the end, it was fun.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


I’ve been repairing, inspecting and generally interested in historic timber frame barns for about 25 years, so one day I was rubbernecking down a small concession road north of Ravenna, Ontario, in the Beaver Valley and unbelievably, an 8-sided barn came into view. It was the first time I had ever seen one in Bruce and Grey Counties, but there are many in the USA and some in Quebec.
There was a for sale sign in front of the long driveway and no one seemed to be there so I took a few photos from the road and later called up the real estate agent. She gave me the name of the owner, who had lived there over 40 years but now had retired and moved in with his children in the big smoke. He gave me the scoop and allowed me to go into the barn to take more photos. I find most farmers who I have talked to about their barns, really hospitable, many just saying, “go into the barn and do whatever you like, I have work to do.”
This unique barn was originally built in 1892 in the heart of orchard country. It’s of post and beam construction, notched and pegged with large timbers, mainly pine and white ash, cut down on the farm. The roof is a lattice work or round rafters with a hip or joint in the middle. The science behind being 8-sided was that as semi-round, the cattle would be tied up in a circle in the stables, around a central feeding chute. The farmer would simply feed the livestock going around to each cow instead of up and down aisles, as in regular rectangular barns. As well, cows could be milked easier and manure gathered by going around and out without having to back up a wagon, or wheelbarrow.
In the mow where the hay and straw were kept, a horse and wagon could come into the barn unload and keep going around and out without having to back up the horses. That was the theory anyway, but the long time owner of the farm, told me a different story. “It was terrible, the stabling arrangement was a nightmare,” he said. During the winter the manure froze and during the warmer months it was difficult to gather up as there was not enough space behind the cattle.
Still, for me as a historic building, it’s quite unique in the way it was constructed. The rules about raising a barn in the late 19th century, would be thrown out with this type of structure, as each bent would have to be raised and secured until the all the eight sides were up, making it an integral structure able to support itself.
It was purported that the original owner liked working with cement, as the barn foundations are all poured concrete, unusual for its time. His love of this material was exhibited uniquely as in 1902, he built a new two story house, all from concrete.
As the farm enterprise expanded the barn could not hold enough livestock or hay and straw. Two rectangular timber frame additions were built, the first in 1930 and the second in 1939. Orchards were planted when the farm was first settled and apple storage was need and as more trees were planted and the need for two more barns further arose.
The old owner told me there were two old pear trees planted 100 years ago and still semi-producing.  As I walked around the back of the barns I spied two gnarly trees, the pears were Flemish Beauties, brought over by the original owner when he settled the farm. Amazing, to think in this day and age when apple trees are up up-rooted every few years to suit the market that two living pieces of history are still surviving along with a historic barn, both from the same era.

Unusual Barn and Contents

I got a call a few weeks ago from a local farm lady. “You want to see our barn, it’s unusual, I think you’ll be interested,” she said in that direct local way.
Well, yes, it was different in many ways. On a sunny day I drove up the long driveway in Bentinck Township, north of Hanover, Ontario, with the barn half hidden by Manitoba Maple trees. There was Orval and Marion Becker, 83 and 81 respectively, sitting in their driveway on lawn chairs waiting for me.
They had purchased the farm in 1954, for $11,500, from the Patersons, who had taken the land out of the crown in 1855, making the Beckers only the second family to own it.
The Beckers started out farming in the traditional way , a mixed farm operation—milk cows, beef, chickens, eggs, pigs-- and crops that fed the livestock and a large vegetable garden that fed the family. “We had everything we needed at one time,” Marion said. Soon Orval purchased another two adjoining farms and expanded his operation into beef, milking cows and up to 800 laying hens.
The home farm had an unusual barn. The main barn was a 40 foot by 60 foot timber frame built in the 1880’s while the attached straw barn, 30 by 50 feet, built a few years later, was a little different. Because of the steep slope where the original barn was constructed into the bank, the second barn’s stables, were lower the main barn’s. And, it used to be a drive through barn, meaning two main doors that a horse and wagon could go in one side and come out the other, so at one time it was on ground level. Now one set of main doors are eight feet in the air! When Orval decided to go into the egg business, he built another floor in the straw barn to house his hens, with the windows still evident near the peak of the barn, making it a three-storey barn.
In about 1980 Orval sold all his commercial livestock and began a cash crop business. Although he was very busy at certain times, planting and harvesting, it left some time open for a passion he had, collecting antique vehicles.  As I entered the main barn I was met with an amazing sight—the barn was full of antique cars of every description, and parts piled high in every corner. There was his first car he bought, a Model T Ford, and there was his favourite, a 1928 Erskine, so named after the Studebaker president. “People ask me what did you get all this junk for,” laughed Orval. When others heard of his collection they brought over their antiques and soon Orval had a part time business repairing antique cars and finding parts for customers. There is a field of cars behind the barn and two more driving sheds full.
When I asked him why he didn’t begin to sell some of those valuable vehicles , he told me he didn’t know where to begin. “Now everything I got makes me a prisoner to what I have collected.” 
This year Orval had a local Mennonite repair his main barn as the gangway foundation was caving in. “You have to decide whether the barn is an asset or a liability,” he said.  He laments the fact that so many are not being maintained and are falling down.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Up Until the 1950’s work bees were common in Grey and Bruce counties. Neighbours would gather to help a farmer raise his barn, help thresh his grain, pick stones, or put up a new common fence.
Here in eastern Thailand, where I have been travelling this winter, is the center of agriculture in this developing country of 65 million. When it’s time to plant or harvest rice, the main crop, neighbours get together to help each other with the work, but there is plenty of chatter throughout the day, with a small break at lunch under a tree. Rice is planted as seedlings, mostly into low water by individual hands. Once one farmer’s fields are finished, everyone goes off to the next, with more family members being involved.
 The animal used for the preparation of the land for planting for harvest, for pulling carts and special holidays, is the water buffalo, much like our oxen in pioneer times. The Thais have a special fondness for the water buffalo, its nickname is, “jao-tooy,” which is heard throughout the villages as the great beasts pass by pulling carts filled with of rice, rice hay, wood, or other agricultural burdens. The Thai water buffalo is generally smaller then is seen in other parts of the world, such as India, and are much less excitable. The fully grown work beasts, which average between 400 and 600 kilograms, have wide, long bodies, protruding bellies, are big boned with long legs and splayed hoofs. The head is relatively small compared to the body, with curving outward horns.
Lately the traditional plowing by water buffalo has given way to the, “mechanical buffalo,” a small, hand guided tractor, with wide paddle wheels, almost like a large roto-tiller that could plow or pull a large cart. Recently, modern tractors have also appeared where a group of farmers pitch in to buy one. In my local community near Chesley farmers used to band together to buy a square hay baler back in the 1960’s, and then help each other in turn to harvest fields of hay.
Although the water buffalo are still valued, it’s now the meat value that is becoming more important. Today’s price for a 400 kilogram market buffalo is around $600. Given that farmers’ work and produce is  generally undervalued here, like in Grey and Bruce,  the average yearly income of farmers in Thailand is around $2,000. Water buffalo than, are prized for bringing in much needed cash.
The taste of the meat from the water buffalo is similar to beef but the water buffalo is more lean, with high levels of Omega 3, a fatty acid that is generally found in marine and plant oils. The significantly lower fat content makes it about 40 percent less cholesterol than beef. Water buffalo meat, which is darker in colour, is less prone to marbling (white flecks of fat within the meat), which is often valued in choice cuts of Grey Bruce beef.
Thailand cities are often congested with traffic and noise, but in the village where I am staying, morning comes quietly, people usually are getting up at 5 am, before the heat of the day comes, and smoke begins to drift from breakfast cooked over charcoal fires.  There are still mostly houses on stilts made of bamboo or local hard wood, with a ladder or rudimentary steps, a roof of grass or steel, while underneath the raised floor, in the shade, is where the days’ events unfold. Water buffalo pass by, or the mechanical buffalos on the way to the fields along narrow dirt tracks that turn into mud during the rainy season. Villagers call out to each other to pass on news or talk about the upcoming day. The village is surrounded by paddy fields (small rice fields surrounded by dikes to hold water in when needed), streams, swamps and grazing lands. Each family owns some land that has been subdivided for individual family members over the decades, so the walk to the fields may be long. Land is valued here, one rai (.4 acre) sells from $3,000 to $12,000. Sometimes big debts are paid for in this way, or more land can only be afforded if a member or members of a family  go to work in Bangkok, where wages are much higher. In this village, where the older generation came from 10 or more children, today’s generation is often having only two or three children, and most are leaving for the bigger centres, much like in our part of the rural world. What will happen in the near future in rural Thailand when there is not enough farm labour, or enough children to fill local schools, is a question we are also asking in Grey and Bruce counties.