Little house on the trailer: Couple travels across the nation to document farmers’ stories and speak to city dwellers about rural issues
A crowd is forming in the downtown Winnipeg parking lot, but it can’t obscure what has sparked the interest — a small red tractor pulling a tiny farmhouse.
For more than a year that tiny farmhouse — veranda included — has been home to John Varty and his fiancée Molly Daley. The couple is driving across Canada in an effort to speak to farmers about the issues that concern them, while bringing rural issues to the attention of urbanites.
“I have loved for the last year now, taking off my professor hat and putting my listening cap on,” said Varty, who had been teaching agricultural history and farm economics at McMaster University prior to embarking on the trans-Canada journey.
He said the idea for the journey came to him suddenly.
“One night in November about two years ago, I sat up in bed and said, ‘I’m going to drive a tractor and a small farmhouse that I’m going to build on a trailer across Canada and we’ll just interview farmers along the way,’” Varty said.
One concern he’s heard consistently from farmers since beginning his trek last July, is that producers are having serious issues maintaining credible and stable farm income, especially those running mid-size, commercial operations.
“You take simple examples like… the number of people who work off the farm full time to support cheap, secure food in our grocery stores,” he said. “There needs to be awareness about this.”
Varty has also heard concerns regarding the amount of political power wielded by farmers, who make up less than a per cent and a half of the Canadian population.
He said small numbers make it difficult for farmers to direct political issues and debate.
Although people may be aware of the issues affecting farmers in a vague or abstract way, the academic hopes his travels and research will help put faces and names to stories of struggle and survival in Canadian farming, changing the way non-farmers think about food issues.
“The only way things are going to change is if enough city people are willing to listen and maybe even vote along an agriculture issue,” said Varty, who grew up on a farm near Kingston, Ontario.
So far, the couple has received positive responses during their urban stopovers.
“The number of city folks who have said, ‘you are doing a really good thing,’ and ‘keep going’ has been really, really encouraging,” said Daley. “It’s a great experience, and in a way, I’m sort of an example of one of the city people who we would like to reach with what we’re doing.”
A Florida native, Daley had been living in New York City before moving to Canada two years ago. She has no family history with farming.
“I used to be completely unaware of where my food was coming from; I paid no attention to it,” she said. “I always say this, and apologies to my mom, but I come from a family who made their mashed potatoes from a box.”
All that has changed now, and Daley is working to bring urban dwellers closer to those who produce their food.
Varty added that current social trends have been a good fit with the project’s goals.
“There is this energetic food movement everywhere, from sort of neo-hippie market gardeners to the foodies, and I think there is a great deal of sympathy out there for food issues,” he said. “And what we’re keen to do, is to try to link some of the energy and enthusiasm, and quite frankly resources, that are in that movement and have them available to a wider array of farmers; conventional farmers even.”
But the story of farming in Canada can’t be limited to people purchasing the occasional heirloom tomato or organic garlic, Varty said, adding mid-size, conventional farms need to be the first focus of farm revival.
Varty and Daley hope to reach Victoria, British Columbia this fall, where they will sell the Massey-Ferguson 1660 that has towed their wood-framed, barn board clad home across the country.
“It’s my nest egg,” said Varty.
Originally, he had intended to use his grandfather’s Massey-Ferguson 35, but after contacting Agco about their plans, the company donated a new tractor for the journey.
The couple is hoping to market a documentary-style miniseries about their travels, while Varty also plans an academic publication based on his interviews with farmers. Daley is compiling a cook book based on the experience.
And although travelling by tractor and sharing a tiny house has had its challenges, like 29 flat trailer tires, neither is looking back with any regrets.
“For me, it’s been such a learning journey and a great experience,” said Daley.