The sheep. The windmill. The crisp snow contrasting the bright blue sky. It doesn’t take a semiotics scholar to see those images and pronounce: Farm.
I never lived on a farm but grew up in a small town surrounded by them. Those farmers grew mostly corn or wheat and raised beef cattle, dairy herds or chickens. There was even a long-standing chick hatchery and egg-grading station in the community. In 1963, a committed group of volunteers, my father among them, opened a golf course outside the town. The fifth hole green was adjacent to a cattle barn and, when the wind blew in a certain direction, the stink was powerful. People used to call jokingly call it “Chanel No. 5.”
Canada began as a rural nation: more than 80 per cent of people lived in rural areas in the 1870s. That number has declined steadily in the past 150 years and is now at the inverse, Statistics Canada tells us: only 19 per cent of Canadians are rural dwellers, with 81 per cent living in towns and cities. For children growing up today in our more-urban nation, cows and sheep can seem as exotic and unknown as koalas and sharks were to me, as a child.
One place that goes a small way to addressing this switch is the Riverdale Farm. It’s a short walk from where I live in Toronto, nestled on the eastern edge of Cabbagetown, framed by the Toronto Necropolis cemetery to the north, a park to the west and south, and the Don Valley to the east. At points, urban apartment towers jut into view but at other angles, like here where the sheep gently graze, you might think you really were out in a rural pasture, not near the heart of Canada’s largest city.
Riverdale Farm, opened in 1978, began life in 1894 as the Riverdale Zoo. Old photos show grim conditions compared to the more animal-friendly compounds created for the large Toronto Zoo, which opened in 1974 in what was then the separate municipality of Scarborough, now part of an amalgamated metropolitan government.
The farm sticks to animals that would have been found on an Ontario farm, circa 1900: cows, horses, sheep, goats, chickens of many shapes and sizes, geese and pigs. There’s a fish pond, trails through woods, some plots of vegetables and flowers, meeting spaces and activities. Sheep shearing day is particularly popular. There is no admission so families are free to come and go as they please, a boon to parents whose three-year-old child is suddenly obsessed with visiting the baby pigs every day.
It is farm lite: animals aren’t sent to the slaughter house to become meat, the cows don’t get hooked up to milking machines, and what produce is grown is picked by hand, not mechanical harvesters. But it gives city kids a chance to see, to feel and, when the wind is in a certain direction, to smell what it’s like to be on the farm.
Photo: Kelley Teahen