People often ask my wife Krista and I why we don’t own our own farm. We have three horses. We have barn clothes. We even have a farm pickup truck – complete with a bale and a half of loose, wet, mouldy hay and about a quarter mile of baler twine (tangled beyond all recognition) in the back. But the short answer is that we don’t have our own farm, because we don’t want one.
We both spent our childhoods on farms. Krista, on what my father would refer to as a “hobby farm” – 50 acres, with a few horses, a goat, one small, semi-reliable tractor and zero automation. I grew up on a dairy farm, where we had hundreds of acres, scores of cows, lots of automation, massive machinery and zero horses. But there were things about that upbringing that made both of us more than willing to pay the horse board instead.
One might suppose it stems from an aversion to work; but it isn’t the work, it’s the fact that the work never ends, never goes away and never takes a vacation. People who have farms know what I’m talking about. When you’re warm and cozy by your tree on Christmas morning, opening presents by the fireplace, people on farms are feeding, watering, cleaning, thawing and freezing.
Want to take a vacation? Who’s going to take care of the farm? Want to go to someone’s cottage for the weekend? Who’s doing the chores? Plus, you’ve got to fire up that semi-reliable tractor, and even less reliable snowblower, before you can even get out the lane! I remember so many Sunday afternoon summer barbeques, where everybody else would be back in the pool, with the aroma of the evening meal of steaks and ribs hanging in the air – and we’d have to climb into the station wagon and drive back to the farm to milk the cows. I actually began to hate milk.
There’s a freedom in having someone else take care of your livestock, and, in our case, that freedom comes at the relatively low cost of horse board. There’s a misconception out there that having your own farm is somehow cheaper. This is an Urban Myth (pun intended), which is actively promoted by real estate agents. Some will even try to convince you that you can turn it into a profit centre. Here’s how the math works: take what you pay for your mortgage and add it to what you pay per month in horse board. Then compare that to what your mortgage on a farm would be, and buying that farm looks like a no-brainer. But that equation leaves out a few items. Even if you discount the cost of being forever indentured to doing chores 365 days per year, there’s still the cost of building upkeep, increased taxes, tractors, wagons, feed, bedding, fences, insurance, well, septic systems and a million other little expenses that no one ever thinks of, like keeping the dust down in the arena and grading the driveway.
As for the whole ‘profit centre’ notion – people take the number of stalls and multiply by the cost of horse board – or they take the number of lessons, and multiply by the price per lesson. On the surface, it looks like a surefire venture, ‘How could you not make money?’ Whenever I hear someone say that, I just smile and nod. Then I remind them that most of the costs listed above increase with each additional horse on the property – some exponentially. And the level of care expected by your boarders may be much higher than what their board will justify, or what could be considered reasonable. Unless you’re prepared to entertain requests for organically grown, native species, free-range hay, or be berated for not calling (or alternatively calling) the vet, or enjoy being lectured on proper equine management by people who’ve owned one pony for 15 minutes, I’d stay away from opening a boarding barn.
Lesson barns have a unique set of problems too. “My daughter would really like to ride Mr. Snickers,” soon turns into “My daughter needs to ride Mr. Snickers,” shortly followed by “If my daughter doesn’t get to ride Mr. Snickers we’re not coming next week,” immediately followed by “We’re going to another lesson barn where our needs will be better met.” This pattern will happen, even if she rides Mr. Snickers 90 per cent of the time, and is only asked to ride another horse when Mr. Snickers is lame, because he’s a 22-year-old Shetland pony that does a dozen lessons per week. Or even if the daughter is also 22 years old, and weighs as much as a Shetland pony herself.
So, the only way that it makes financial sense to have your own farm, is to fill it with strangers and people who you really don’t like, and have them tramping around the property 15 hours a day, seven days a week, telling you what you’re doing wrong. The best part is that eventually one of them will try to sue you because they slipped on some ice or got kicked by a horse. Add to that, that you have to do all of the chores yourself to make it work, and now you know why Krista and I don’t have our own farm – like I said, we don’t want one. But we are very glad our boarding stable owner does.