Why are there so many old barns
May 12, 2015 7:38 PM   Subscribe

I live in southern Alberta Canada and love driving around on backroads. I have noticed that in the farm areas there are lots and lots of old barns. Lots of them are literally falling down with their roofs collapsed, too old to store anything in, and still remain next to the farmer's new barn. We were wondering why there are so many that haven't been torn down?

Because they look cool? (as a photographer I would love to do a photo project). Because of sentimental or heritage value? Because of insurance reasons? Because it costs to get a demolition permit? You would think they would be a liability in case someone got hurt but they are on private property so maybe it's not an issue. Just curious. Thanks!
posted by photoexplorer to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I can't say for sure about Alberta, but tearing down an old barn (especially doing it safely) takes some work.

I once rented from a couple who owned and were restoring an older farm property. They had an old barn which was picturesque but no longer structurally sound and the husband spent a fair number of his weekends tearing off bits of the barn and burning them. It made me sad to see the historic and wonderfully aged structure burned for scrap because I had quite a bit of sentimentality tied up in the issue but he just needed the barn down, safely and as cheaply as possible.
posted by Nerd of the North at 7:45 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

The size of an economically viable farm is much larger now than it used to be, so a lot of barns are no longer needed after several farms are condensed into one. Farming practices have also changed, so old barns may not fit modern machinery or may not be needed for livestock.

And, as noted, barns are expensive to maintain -- reroofing a barn is a serious endeavor, for example.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:48 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think they are so beautiful and love seeing the old barns in Michigan. Maybe the owners think so too or like the idea of the history of their farm shown off that way?
posted by cecic at 7:52 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tearing the barn down costs money, and the risk of injury in tearing it down is much greater than the risk of someone getting hurt should the barn collapse on its own.
posted by plastic_animals at 7:57 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I live in Minnesota and drive through the Midwest a lot, and have wondered this, especially since as someone who grew up in the western US, they seem like they'd fall into the "attractive nuisance" realm as with empty swimming pools and such (I would totally have partied in an abandoned barn if there had been one in my Arizona suburb as a kid).

I have been told that one major reason is that the wood in old barns is so full of lead and arsenic and whatever that the expense of disposing of it properly is high enough that landowners are willing to accept the risk that some dumb kid will get high and set themselves on fire in there or whatever.

I know that there are people who deal in reclaimed barn wood so that's another reason I wondered about this when I moved to the midwest and started seeing dilapidated barns all the time--why wouldn't you sell that wood off post-haste? so the idea of it being too toxic to even sell makes a little sense to me.
posted by padraigin at 8:00 PM on May 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

I wonder what the planning laws are like in Alberta? In some places it's better to leave up a tumbledown building because it 'counts' as continued building use/residential space/commercial site/whatever, so if you do want to redevelop you have fewer issues getting permission.

(This is why, in Scotland, you see so many completely destroyed old croft buildings where only the fireplace/chimney remain - the legal position, so I've been told, is that as long as the chimney stands, it's a residence, and you can rebuild it with fewer legal issues).
posted by AFII at 8:02 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I come from a family of farmers. The 80's were really hard on farmers. You can google something like "farm crisis 80's" and come up with a lot of things. Every other story on the news in my little part of Iowa was about how many farms had been "collected" on. Family farms went the way of the dodo bird it seemed. It really did worry me as a kid.

I have talked to my grandpa and uncles about it. They were fairly safe because they had diverse assets, everything from corn to soybeans and popcorn and sorghum and all that that you could expect on an Iowa farm. They had also held about 2200 acres for around a century. They had split it up between family to make it manageable and rented the rest.

There were lean times, sure. But they made it through just by the sheer size of their acreage mostly, and they had specialty beef herds that were coveted apparently. My uncle and nephew still raise them.

That said, tearing down a barn costs money. Money people that lost the farm don't have.
posted by sanka at 8:13 PM on May 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

When we redid out kitchen, we purchased an old barn in Connecticut to use as the flooring and the cabinets. We paid the cost of tearing it down, hauling it away and a few hundred dollars ($500?, I can't remember) to the property owner. It seamed like a good deal for all.

So, I have no idea why more have not been torn down or hauled away. The toxic issue makes sense, but it was not a consideration for us. Maybe that was because the woodworker carpenter who did all the work was not concerned? We planed down planks and planks of chestnut and wide plank pine.
posted by AugustWest at 8:14 PM on May 12, 2015

You wouldn't need a demo permit in Alberta in order to push down a barn on farmland, but farmers leave them anyways. It's kind of a funny combo of sentimentality and independence and duty. In the vein of, "if anyone's pushing down that barn, which my grandpa built with his own hands, it's got to be me." And then it's expensive and time consuming to pull down a barn, so it gets put off until next summer. And also it could be a carryover from the rough times when you never got rid of anything because you might be able to repurpose it later, so they leave the old barn, thinking they could always fix it up and get big into cattle again, until the barn just falls over one day.
On my farm there are several barns and outbuildings in various states of decay and I assure you that we have grand plans for all of them, even if the roofs are half caving in.
posted by bluebelle at 8:21 PM on May 12, 2015 [9 favorites]

Costs a shit-ton of money to tear down old buildings around here, and it's tough to DIY because you need a crew to do it quickly ... most big farms don't have farm hands these days. If you wait long enough, it will either fall down on its own or you'll get a big enough insurance payout from tornado damage that you might as well have it demolished while you've got the crew out anyway. If you drive near where tornados have touched down, they've all had their old broken barns pulled down, and they all have nice aluminum garage-sheds in their place, and the "new" barn where the tractors used to live now has the junker cars and spare parts.

They're attractive nuisances close to town, but courts in my state aren't friendly to that claim when children are trespassing on working farms. The whole operation would be an "attractive nuisance." Tough case to bring if the land's zoned agricultural.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:30 PM on May 12, 2015

This is an article on the costs of disposing of an old building in Minnesota. Some folks are tempted to just burn them down, a practice that the state does not look kindly upon.
posted by zamboni at 8:33 PM on May 12, 2015

There is a strong push in Minnesota to save old barns, one of the organizing groups is here and the website has some good info on saving and losing barns:
posted by littlewater at 8:39 PM on May 12, 2015

Thanks everyone!
posted by photoexplorer at 9:11 PM on May 12, 2015

On Ontario, they can be considered barn swallow habitats, and subject to a hefty penalty if demolished.
posted by scruss at 5:05 AM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Farmers keep them around the same reason they save baffling twine, it might come in handy one day. I lived on a farm with more sheds than I could count, father wouldn't tear down even the most dilapidated because he might need it day to put hay somehaystore something in. Add to that the time commitment for a non essential job and do barns and old sheds never actually die.
posted by wwax at 6:01 AM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

The size of an economically viable farm is much larger now than it used to be, so a lot of barns are no longer needed after several farms are condensed into one.

The past two decades have seen Alberta farms employ half the people now that they did in 1995, and the number of farms have fallen by half as well. The same amount of land is being farmed, more or less, but by half the people on much bigger farms. The family farm is mostly gone, replaced by medium sized businesses.

One of the main cost savings bigger farms do is centralize. That means that all the old infrastructure is isn't needed. The old barns fall into disrepair. As others have said above, that's an expense. In the low margin world of grain farms, if they don't need to spend the money, they won't.

So the abandoned barns are physical markers of the last few generations of the family farms, left behind by an industry that's needed to modernize to compete with the big agribusinesses in the US and elsewhere. Those original plots were given out to the original settler farmer families from the Ukraine, from eastern Germany and even the US. Their kids and grandkids all live in the cities now. I'm one of them (though from Saskatchewan, in my case).
posted by bonehead at 9:03 AM on May 13, 2015

Many insurance policies for farms will cover the outbuildings including the decrepit falling apart barns (because whoever underwrote the policy originally may not have done their research and realized the barn was about to collapse). So if an insured peril destroys the building, such as fire, money will be paid to whatever the policy states it is worth (provided a loss adjuster investigating the occurrence determines everything is on the up and up). It's way better than spending your own money to get rid of it. Some farm policies have a stipulation that if you don't rebuild the structure to it's full stated value you will only get a settlement of a percentage (such as half) the stated value. So now you can see why some choose to leave these ramshackle things on their property.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 5:30 PM on May 13, 2015

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