With one look at the razor-sharp part in his hair and his perfectly groomed beard, you’d be forgiven for thinking Phil Taber is just another style-conscious 20-something walking around UNB Fredericton’s campus. However, the scarlet plaid wool jacket and rubber boots tell a different story: in addition to working as a librarian and serving as the don of Harrison house, Taber is an active farmer, working the land that has been in his family since the 1870s.
When you turn off the winding country road and crawl up the snowy drive to the nearly 150-year-old gingerbread-style farmhouse, it’s hard to believe that Saint John is only a half hour’s drive away. The house and farm buildings sit halfway up a steep hillside overlooking the Kennebecasis river and marshland to the South.
During a tour of the farm, Taber ducks from shed to barn to garage, explaining his plans for almost every item he comes across and every corner of the property: old lightning rods to install on the new barn, shoring up the floor in the livestock pens, how he’ll be clearing the woods downhill from the house, planting maple trees along the driveway so they can keep making maple syrup, how last weekend he and his dad cut timber to repair a barn down the hill.
Small though it may be, compared to an industrial farm, the family property keeps Phil busy.
Last year, the Taber farm was home to two pigs, four sheep and 25 chickens, in addition to a quarter-acre garden, oats and hay. In the spring, sugar maples drip sap for syrup, and in the fall, currants are turned into jam. Firewood for heat and timber for construction both come from the back lot of their 200-acre plot.
Speaking passionately about rotating garden crops, maintaining fields and a seemingly endless schedule of renovations and improvements, Taber has come a long way from his youth.
“When I was a kid, I hated the farm. I liked living there insofar as it’s a great place to play, excellent games of tag and great sliding, but I despised the farm work. Hated weeding the garden, hated going to the woods with dad on bitterly cold days in January, being sent out with a peanut butter sandwich and a bottle of water and some cookies.”
Any resentment for cold January mornings or tedious chores has long since faded, and then some. Before returning from a ten-year stint in Halifax for school and work, Taber felt a tug known to many Maritimers — a deep longing for home, even when the home is just the next province over.
“I felt like I was exiled from my home, exiled from my family history, exiled from southern New Brunswick, which I deeply love. It felt like I’d been exiled and realized, only once I was away from it, this farm and this place and these activities are really integral to the way that I view myself as a person and the way that I want to be in the world.”
Taber first felt the pull towards the end of his undergraduate degree, but thought that an academic career and a life on the farm were exclusive to one another. Reluctant to chalk up his desire for family obligation or a love of nature, Taber found justification for his return to the farm in the literature of Wendell Berry.
“It seems silly, it seems tangential but discovering Wendell Berry’s poetry and his essays … it really gave me a theoretical underpinning for why the kind of farming I’d been brought up with, the kind of farming that I wanted to do that is to say the small, intentional, subsistence-based farming, why it was important.”
With full justification for his decision, Taber was fortunate enough to find a job at UNB’s Harriet Irving Library, only an hour and a half from the family homestead. As close to home as he may have been, balancing his love of the farm with the obligations of work and his role as the don of Harrison proved to be challenging.
While Taber has a passion for the land, his parents still live in the house, and his father is still the primary caretaker through the fall and winter. For Phil, the farm is mostly a weekend project, and he makes the drive from Fredericton most weeks when he’s not occupied by responsibilities in residence.
“As humans, we’re usually obliged to juggle things that are more or less convenient, that we like to greater and lesser degrees, but all of them are essential to either our livelihood or our happiness … I mean, things are always changing, but for now, I’m happy with the balance that I’ve struck.”
The Taber farm was not always a hobby; up until the mid-’50s, the farm had a commercial dairy operation. However, the quotas imposed by the new dairy board squeezed the small farm out of business.
That’s not to say the farm will never return to a commercial operation, however. The food industry has seen a push away from the products of industrial farms half a continent away, toward locally-grown produce and meat. This, says Taber, is where the future of small farms comes into play.
For example, industrial cattle farms work on a model of a fast turnaround and slim margins: get cows to gain weight fast eating grain, soy and corn, fetch a reasonable price, and repeat as soon as possible. Contrast this with the grass-fed, free-range model which requires more space per cow and more time, but commands a much higher price and in turn gives the farmer a better profit per animal. On top of a better profit, Taber believes there’s value in knowing where your food came from and how it was treated.
“I think it’s a good thing for people to know where their chicken lived, where their beets were grown where their apples were picked and how those things were treated between the time they were a seed or an infant and the time they landed on the table.”
Phil plans in years, not days. Ask him about next year’s harvest and he’ll haul out charts of the rotation of crops for the garden that year. About the future of the farm, and he’ll describe the delicate balance in which it sits: to fix up the buildings, he must first pay off his student loan. To expand his farmland, he’ll have to cut down the current sugar bush. If he wants to keep making maple syrup, he’ll have to plant the maples 25 years before he wants to tap them.
Whether or not the farm becomes a commercial enterprise again doesn’t seem to faze Phil. He’s more concerned about keeping the farm going for his sake, and for his future family.
“I want to do it sooner rather than later so I and my family can enjoy them. I’d like to have it underway by then. I have an unrealistic notion of strapping a baby to my back and going out into the fields, but there may be opportunities to do major bursts of work.”
Baby on his back or not, for Taber the farm is more than a source of food, its traditions or a way of life — it’s what gives him a feeling of connection to the world. He points to a line in Wendell Berry’s “A Standing Ground” as a summary of how he feels:
“Better than any argument is to rise at and dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.”
“If I could pin my heart on something that I think is crucial to what it means to be human or maybe the challenge of being human, it is that. Everybody finds the activity that ground them and I just feel blessed to have found something that has such rich context.”