No Showcase

We bought our farm here in Michigan three years ago this month. No one is quite sure how old the house is, as it was built before the county kept reliable records. The best guess is it dates from the 1880s, but it’s had considerable work (and additions) done over the years. The cornerstone in the big red barn reads 1913, so we’re pretty sure that’s when that building was erected.

The previous owners had it for about ten years, and were selling so they could retire and move closer to family in Arkansas. We met them a couple of times, and thought they were very nice people, but didn’t really know that much about them. The husband had some kind of a job in town, and the wife was a professional artist. The detached 25′ x 30′ building that is now my office had been her studio. Neither she nor her husband did any kind of farming here. Apart from five house cats, they had no animals. Apart from lots of flowers in the front yard, they didn’t cultivate a garden. Their kids were grown. The upstairs of the big red barn was little more than a basketball court, and the downstairs was little more than storage. The only fence was a white rail composite thing that gives visual separation from the lawn to the pasture — but is far too porous to serve as a barrier to any kind of animal.

When the wife wasn’t working in her studio, she seemed to have spent her time painting everything in the house that didn’t move. Exhibit A: the basement has a poured concrete floor, but she painted it to look like it was made of flagstones. Exhibit B: she painted quotations from her favorite author all over the trim at the top of walls in various rooms. Exhibit C: she painted the fuel oil barrel in the basement to look like a wine cask.

I could go on, but you get the point. She did all kinds of things to the house that were kind of cool, very artistic, but that few other people would ever consider spending time doing.

We’ve stayed in touch with the previous owners, chiefly through Christmas cards, and also with an occasional call to ask about the myriad quirks present in a house this old and the way it was built / added onto. But given that they now live several states away, we haven’t actually seen them since buying the house.

That almost changed this summer. Almost. I was working in my office, and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer was inside tending children, when we saw a car pull into the driveway and stop. It pulled a little closer. It backed up. Pulled closer again. Backed up. Stopped. Waited. Waited. Waited. But just as I was preparing to go out and ask if the driver was lost (it happens a lot around here), the car pulled out and drove away.

We wouldn’t have given the incident a second thought, until a letter arrived a few days later. MYF had already read it, and handed it to me with a bemused grin. “We got a letter from [Artistic Previous Owner Lady] today,” she explained. “Just read it.”

I did, but quickly grew so infuriated that I almost didn’t make it to the end. I won’t quote verbatim, but the take-away is this: she’d been in town visiting friends, and had tried to stop by to see us. But she’d taken one look at how terribly we’d neglected the property, and it’d pulled her up short. The longer she’d looked at what a horrific wasteland we’d turned the place into, the more she decided she just couldn’t bear staying. She’d driven off before getting out, because she wanted to remember the property the way it had been in all its glory. This property was such a special place, she said, and they and previous owners had done so much to make it special. She hoped that someday we could get it together and preserve this special place.

“How. Dare. She,” I seethed.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer simply laughed and asked if I wanted to read the response she’d already written. Being the queen of graciousness and tact, MYF’s letter led off by telling the previous owner how beautiful we thought her flowers and manicured yard had been, how much we like the house, and how much we wish she would have stopped by and spoken to us. Because if she had done so, we would have explained why the property no longer looks the way it used to. Instead of spending our limited resources cultivating flowers and decorative shrubs, and putting up beautifully-painted bird feeders, we have:

  • Fenced the entire pasture, including subdividing it for sheep and goats (this project took basically an entire summer, and cost many hundreds of dollars in fencing material);
  • Built three livestock areas in the barn’s basement and subdivided outdoor paddocks;
  • Built pasture pens for poultry, and raised many dozens of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys;
  • Harvested and stored well over a thousand bales of hay in the upstairs portion of the barn. (This was made possible in part by spending over $2,000 one year on fertilizer, which was necessary because no one had bothered fertilizing the hay field for the last ten years and the yields were dropping crazily low);
  • Grown our flock of sheep and herd of dairy goats significantly;
  • Replaced all the windows in the house with brand new, energy efficient ones;
  • Done the same with all the windows in the office building;
  • Dramatically increased the amount of insulation in the attic (to our shock, there was basically zero up there when we moved in);
  • Been saving money to replace the roof (which we ended up doing later this fall);
  • Planted and fenced an enormous garden, which we have admittedly have not had time to properly weed and cultivate this year, because we have also…
  • Adopted a baby, who is the light of our life, but who requires all the attention any baby requires. While homeschooling three other children, including a high school sophomore. Which is much more draining for a woman in 40s than for a woman in her 20s.

MYF’s letter concluded by encouraging Previous Owner to stop by the next time she was in town. And that if she could give us a few weeks’ notice, we’d make sure we spiffed up the front yard before her arrival.

I told MYF that her letter was perfect, and was again grateful to be married to the Queen of Graciousness and Tact. We puzzled over why Previous Owner would send such a nasty note, because she’d struck us as a very nice lady.

Whatever the reason, the incident reminded us of something we’d read someplace. There are two basic types of rural properties with acreage: (1) The Working Farm and (2) The Country Showcase. The previous owner had gussied our property up into a Country Showcase worthy of a glossy magazine, and in her head it still was. But many years ago, it’d been one of the biggest working farms in this township — and we could still see and appreciate its possibilities to become one again. With a lot of sweat and time, we’d invested our resources into making it the Working Farm that our family needed.

Working farms aren’t always pretty, but they’re productive. And in our minds, that gives them a beauty all their own. I’d a thousand times rather gaze out on two dozen Icelandic sheep grazing behind a utilitarian metal fence than look at an empty field bordered by a pretty white porous rail fence.

We know of a few Country Showcases in the area which are also working farms, but they tend to be special cases. One of them is the family with the produce stand I discussed in the most recent post; their place is beautiful to look at, and also extremely productive. But that’s possible for them because the wife works full time at a professional job, while the husband tends the garden full time (he’s the world’s greatest green thumb). They have no children to tend to, so the farm can get all of their attention. The other “working country showcase” properties tend to belong to breeders of expensive purebred horses (or people who stable such horses on behalf of city people), where image is an important component of their business. They tend to look something like this (note the McMansion, pretty white fence, immaculate horse barn, and perfectly trimmed pastures):

Which is not what our yard looks like. But we really couldn’t care less. It works for us, and that’s what matters.

UPDATE: Mrs. Yeoman Farmer pointed out that the FRONT view of this particular house is even more of a beautiful showcase. I managed to get a picture of it this morning.

The house across the street from it is also pretty amazing:

By way of a postscript, a few weeks after sending the letter to Previous Owner, we got an extremely contrite note back from her. She apologized for jumping to conclusions about us, said she was very sorry she didn’t stop and visit, and assured us she would do so the next time she was in town. And then she said something revealing: her friends in the area had been telling her we’d been “letting the property go,” so when she’d stopped by to look at it her first glance only reinforced that preexisting supposition. She apologized for not getting the whole story directly from us.

We appreciated that explanation, but then couldn’t help wondering: What have the neighbors been saying about us? Not like we care, but still…it’d be nice if the locals would get to know us rather than talking about us behind our backs.

No matter. Gossip is a part of life everywhere, maybe especially so in small towns. We’ll just keep on loving our Working Farm as much as ever.

3 thoughts on “No Showcase

  1. Once again, you hit the nail on the head. He have the SAME issue. Or had. When we first moved in we immediately changed things… and added chickens. Then the baby came and I struggled to keep the huge lawn mowed as every 4-5 days is necessary here in the summer. We knew precious few neighbors. We got goats and were horribly misinformed about them so our original plan was a flop the first day. They ended up residing for over a year in orange electric fencing in the front yard. But when they had babies… oh everything changed! Suddenly we met EVERYONE on the street as they came to see the cute kids. And many admitted to thinking that the neighborhood was about to go to pot. Instead they got to hear our vision for the place… and also understand a bit of the major constraints on our time and finances to make everything picture perfect immediately. Only 1 neighbor has continued to be a grump. He refuses to wave as he drives by. He was with another neighbor when I stopped by to get his sawdust (for the garden) and he got up and turned his back on me! We've come to the conclusion that we do look bad. Every once in a while we try to look at things from a non-functioning perspective, pick out the biggest eye sores and do something about them. We also try to clean up around holidays for neighbors' visiting family. But frankly, lately I've had several neighbors come by and tell me how much they respect me for all work I do to provide good food for my family. They see me sweating, working all summer in the heat and taking twice as long to do something because kids are “helping” me. Not everyone is an artist, nor has the time to dedicate to pulling every weed and pruning every shrub. As I greeted someone this morning, I appologized for the mess and said, “But its a functional mess.” Some day more people will understand that utility is its own beauty.

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  2. Excellent post! I honestly envy your working farm… we'll be messing our yard up in the spring with some baby chicks in the hopes of fresh eggs next year. Your wife makes some excellent points and I'm sure the former owner has a better understanding of living off the land now. Maybe her sense of pride of ownership over the way it was got the best of her. You did inspire me to haul out the saws and prune the overgrown apple orchard. I did the fun part, Vin gets to clean up the branches on Saturday. -Loretta

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  3. Having a wife like MYF is a blessing. Her tactfulness (and “Let's give it the best interpretation possible” attitude) complements your straightforwardness (and “What did they really mean?” attitude). Looking at things both ways bridges the gap between implications and inferences in a really healthy way.

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