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Why the Ganyards sold the farm

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In his book About Looking, radical art critic John Berger describes how zoos ease our collective nostalgia for a period--long past--when people had essential relationships with animals through their daily work. At the zoo, we regard the living animals in their cages as dead symbols of that vanished connection, he says. It's almost a form of mourning. "The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them, is in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters," Berger writes.

I was thinking about that essay on a recent trip to Ganyard Hill Farm in southeast Durham to buy a Halloween pumpkin. It's a seasonal ritual observed by many in the Bull City. That day, the place was crawling with urbanites of all ages in fleece jackets and fancy athletic shoes who'd come to feed the animals, milk the mechanical cow and select a pumpkin from the rows alongside the ramshackle barn.

This year, the nostalgia is sharp as a change in the weather, because the farm is moving to a new site in Fuquay-Varina after years of struggling to make ends meet. Oct. 30 marked its last day of operation. A small portion of the 60-acre Durham property will become a nature trail. The rest will fall to the development bulldozer.

The Ganyards, a couple of research scientists, fought the good fight for years, trying to maintain their small-scale growing operation in the face of varied obstacles. They battled plant viruses, hurricane damage, even a sign ordinance that discouraged roadside marketing of the 25 fruits and vegetables they used to cultivate. Finally, the same development pressures they thought they'd vanquished when they bought the former dairy farm 10 years ago grew too great, and the Ganyards sold their land.

We'll certainly miss Ganyard Hill's quirky charms. But was it ever really a farm? From the start, its owners leaned more toward "agri-tourism" than agriculture, setting up hayrides and picnic areas alongside their fields. The fresh produce was long gone, replaced by the cash crop of holiday pumpkins. (This year's batch was actually trucked in from elsewhere.) As Milton Ganyard says, "People are more willing to pay for fun than food." Besides, how much actual growing can you do when 400 schoolkids are tromping across your property every day?

The new location in Fuquay-Varina, known as Ganyard Family Farms, will feature the same mix of rides, picnic shelters and animal petting areas. It's bigger--100 acres--and is also a former working farm, so preservation principles are being upheld.

While I wish the Ganyards well, Berger echoes in my mind when I think about our fading ties to family farms. The survival of faux farms buys us green space, but like the zoos in About Looking, they're more about loss than a viable living.

"Everywhere animals disappear," Berger writes. At the zoo, we go from cage to cage like visitors at an art gallery or museum. "Yet in the zoo, the view is always wrong."

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