Farm Groupies: A Breed Apart

Taking a selfie with my rock star farmer/father George Tobin in Newfoundland this summer. Farm groupies can be family members, too.

Do you know a farm groupie?

For many, a big part of being a groupie is rubbing shoulders with a celebrity. Most farmers don’t consider themselves rock stars, but some attract a hoard of loyal, dedicated peeps – even if it’s the last thing they want.

Before the digital age and the ubiquitous cell phone, however, farm groupies could best be described as those people in your neighbourhood who always seemed to appear at the most inopportune time – just when cows needed to be milked or important chores needed to be finished.

They didn’t send you texts or ping you on Google Chat, they actually showed up on the farm. For most it was an opportunity to share the latest stories and gossip – an early form of social media, no doubt. Others simply wanted to hang out and even contribute in some meaningful way.

Today’s groupies may not show up in your barnyard. They connect with you via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. My father, George Tobin, doesn’t know anything about social media, but he’s one of the biggest rock star farmers I’ve ever met. Here’s a look back at the groupies who descended on our dairy farm just outside St. John’s, Newfoundland circa 1984…

They came from across the road, across town, and from out of province. Friends, vagabonds and revellers with time to kill, looking for a place to kill it.

The weather-beaten red clapboard that lined the exterior of our farm’s main building didn’t look all that inviting, but the rickety old barn wasn’t enough to deter their visits.

The oldest was 65; the youngest 29. Sitting on hay bales, buckets or whatever could support them, they talked predominantly about the past – when the Leafs were a good team – and more relevant issues like when a case of beer cost only three dollars.

Farm groupies is what they were. Just a bunch of fellas with nothing better to do than hang out at my father’s dairy farm.

In general, the boys were just a bunch of social outcasts. They preferred the sanctuary of the barn to the gyrations of outside world. It was a quiet place where little changed from day to day.

There were intense moments, but nothing catastrophic ever happened. The same 40 cows showed up every day, but they just stood around and chewed their cud. It gave the boys a peaceful easy feeling.

cow_guitar_2060895Will, John, Mart and Steve were just some of the regular visitors. They worshipped my father like groupies at a rock concert. The music my father and the cows seemed to enjoy, however, was the sounds of VOWR radio, Canada’s oldest church-supported radio station. But that didn’t discourage them. I guess you could consider them renaissance groupies – they liked gospel and country and western.

They followed my father wherever he went. I often wondered why they would give up a relaxing afternoon of network soap operas for a trip to the sawmill.

Simply put, the sawmill was hell. Confined in a small room with no vents, my father and his flock would spend hours bagging sawdust used to bed the cows. My brother and I hated those days at the mill, but for the boys, coughing wheezing and spitting up wood chips for a couple of days after the trip was a small price to pay for an afternoon of hanging out with their idol.

Will was the horse racing enthusiast. The familiar “Are you going to the track tonight?” was his opening line on Wednesdays and Sundays. He always had a rumour about a horse or an owner. Where he came up with all those tales I never knew. After all, every time he went to the racetrack, he was usually blind drunk by the third race. He could never remember what horse he bet on or whether he won or lost.

John was the youngest of the lot. A friend of my sister, he drifted onto the scene as teenager. Somewhere along the way he adopted my father as a friend and mentor. As the pressures of adulthood began to mount, he too joined the other who sought refuge inside the barn.

John worshipped my father almost to the point of harassment, but he was harmless and willing to lend a hand whenever he could. When we began renovating an old house my father purchased, John immediately volunteered his services.

wile_e__coyote___classic_cartoon_network_collab_by_moonymina-d92w3lvHe took it upon himself to begin cutting down the roof, which needed to be replaced. With chainsaw in hand, he cut a circle around himself. Despite warnings that he might plummet to the ground like Wile E Coyote, he proceeded without fear. A fortunate grasp of his shirt as the roof gave way was the only thing that saved him on that day.

Despite his follies, John soon became the group’s demolition expert. So well respected by my father that he and Steve were contracted to demolish a building that stood on the same property.

Over the years, Steve acquired the nickname Speedy, probably because when he started talking he was impossible to stop. But when it came to work, he was equally tough to engage.

Both Steve and John arrived early one morning to start the demolition. Armed with crowbars and a pickup truck to carry away the debris, they were indeed a formidable pair. But one thing stood in their way – the hourly beer break. And there were many on that warm July day. Ten hours later, the barn was still standing, but Steve and John were not. They took a taxi home, leaving the truck and all the equipment behind.

The farm was sold for development in the late 1980s. A house now stands on the plot of land where the old barn stood for more than 80 years. Like many farmers, my father bought another farm about five miles away, beyond the grasp of the encroaching city. The cows were shipped to the new location and adapted well, but the groupies never did feel comfortable.

Steve and Mart would visit and help themselves to coffee in the new barn office, but they rarely stayed for long. The move also impacted my father. He hated to admit it, but he rather enjoyed the fascination the groupies had with the old farm.

He always complained that they drove him crazy, but when they drifted away, he missed the spotlight.

 

Bernard Tobin

Bernard Tobin is Real Agriculture's Ontario Field Editor. AgBern was raised on a dairy farm near St. John's, Newfoundland. For the past two decades, he has specialized in agricultural communications. A Ryerson University journalism grad, he kicked off his career with a seven-year stint as Managing Editor and Field Editor for Farm and Country magazine. He has received six Canadian Farm Writers' Federation awards for journalism excellence. He's also worked for two of Canada's leading agricultural communications firms, providing public relations, branding and strategic marketing. Bern also works for Guelph-based Synthesis Agri-Food Network and talks the Real Dirt on Farming.

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