True Confessions from the Ninth Concession
by Dan Needles
Surrounded by fields in Southwestern Ontario, it is easy to appreciate the integral role that farms play in the food system of any community. When that community includes Larkspur Farms, a little further north near Collingwood, the contributions tend to be literary as well as culinary. Canadian writer Dan Needles moved there to raise his family among pastures and barns, instead of parking lots and high-rises, and in his latest book, True Confessions from the Ninth Concession (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017, $22.95), he recollects hilarious episodes on the farm from 1997 to 2016.
Having been raised a city kid, Needles recognizes that country living has given his family a new sense of purpose in relation to the animals that share their living space and the fresh food right outside their door. He writes, “We wake up in the morning surrounded by things that must be done and move through the day with no clear line separating work from the rest of our lives.” His plot of land provides for his family of six, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy life since “there always seems to be some hiccup between the barn and the kitchen table.” Those hiccups have become the anecdotes that have given Needles the distinction of being known as “Canada’s funniest farmer” and being appointed to the Order of Canada for his work celebrating rural Canada.
His intention was to keep the farm small, even as neighbours combined their acres for mega-crop production, and Needles writes about how hobby farmers face the same issues to keep the farm chugging along (protecting livestock from predators and crops from weeds), especially when the extended family is counting on fresh food for holiday meals. Food preparation throughout the seasons shows how the farm provides the essentials to support his family. The biggest operation takes place in the fall, with canning and pickling to stock up for winter. His wife and mother-in-law do not stop “until they have filled four freezers and forty feet of basement shelves with every fruit or vegetable that can be put through a blender” — so much that he feels compelled to remind them that stores do still stock groceries in the winter.
It is the communion with nature and daily interaction with creatures other than humans that make a farm such a special experience. His four children fully participate on the farm. His youngest daughter has helped with the chicken and duck populations each spring; one year she took in a baby turkey that ended up eating with them at Thanksgiving rather than being eaten by them. He writes, “I suppose it is a risk to give name and character to a potential Sunday dinner entrée” but all the goats, cows, lambs, and chickens earn names from his children, including the Spice Goats, each with a name resembling those of the British girl band members.
He cannot vouch for being truly organic or sustainable, but he is up-to-date on modern farming practices and experimented in 1998 with techniques touted by Joel Salatin, who has since become a major voice in sustainable farming. Needles conducted “symbiotic livestock management and compost production” by having pigs and cows mingle together. He describes it as “a natural cycle that would repeat itself again and again. Moments like these come as close to perfection as any that can be found in a place as chaotic as a farm. In this little circle there is economy, not much work, bacon, beef and compost. There seems to be something in it for everybody, even the pigs, if I may presume to speak for them. They enjoy a lifestyle that is not available to the average bacon hog these days, and they have only one bad day.”
Even on vacation, Needles is the consummate farmer, reaching a compromise with his wife about holidays — she sunbathing on Cuban beaches, he out with the locals in their banana, yam, mango, and corn fields. Another ongoing marital debate is whether to breed chickens that produce white eggs or brown. Needles spends plenty of time looking for the right shade of white that will appease his wife. Another disagreement that crops up with his son is how Ontario is only like southern France two weeks out of the year and not conducive for growing grapes, but he eventually warms to the idea of experimenting with wine production.
Amid his memories of the simple life and working hard on the farm are observations about activities that keep the rural community bonded: livestock auctions, rural schoolhouses, 4-H club events, and church Christmas concerts. What Stuart McLean did fictionally for small-town record stores with the Vinyl Café, so has Dan Needles done, in the same hilarious and heart-warming style, for Canadian agrarian life with his real-life Larkspur Farms.