Articles

How we nursed a farm back to health

We began with a hundred acres of tired land, a rundown house, a cockeyed barn, and no money. Now, twenty years later, we wouldn’t take sixty thousand for the place. This is what we did

HERBERT WATSON December 7 1957
Articles

How we nursed a farm back to health

We began with a hundred acres of tired land, a rundown house, a cockeyed barn, and no money. Now, twenty years later, we wouldn’t take sixty thousand for the place. This is what we did

HERBERT WATSON December 7 1957

How we nursed a farm back to health

We began with a hundred acres of tired land, a rundown house, a cockeyed barn, and no money. Now, twenty years later, we wouldn’t take sixty thousand for the place. This is what we did

HERBERT WATSON

“It happend us” This is another of the ÿ its of personal-experience storlej that appear from time to time ir Maclean's Í . . stories told by its readers about some interesting dramatic event in their lives. HAVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so, send it to the articles editor, Maclean’s Magazine. 481 University Ave., Toronto. For stories accepted Mac^an’s will pay the regular rates it offers for articles.

When I was a boy, the fashionable ambition of at least one Canadian out of two was to own a farm. In those days even city people talked about putting down roots and living off the land and keeping up the agricultural traditions of our country. Now things have changed, and they tell me that only hayseeds and born failures really want to farm.

That's the common theory. Twenty years ago my wife Viola and I decided to ignore it and become farmers like our fathers before us. Our life hasn't been very dramatic but it's been a fine experience just the same.

Life has been good to Viola and me at Red Haven, our two-hundred-acre farm in the Caledon Hills of Peel County, thirty miles northwest of Toronto. How many married couples are fortunate enough to have a profession they can follow together for twenty years? I can't say our work's been easy, and I can't deny we’ve had bad times, when we wondered if w'e were fools to be farming when city jobs pay high wages for short hours. But we think it's been worth it. Now our holdings are worth twenty times what we paid for them and we make a comfortable living with a little money for extras like fixing up the house with fresh paint and hardwood floors and flower gardens, or a day's outing in our new Buick. And beyond this we've been blessed with a pretty daughter, a likeable son-in-law. a grandson and friendly neighbors. Viola and I have everything we could want.

How did we manage to build a three-thousand-dollar investment into a farm we wouldn't take sixty thousand for today? I guess it was a combination of luck, work and planning—mostly planning. We were lucky to buy our first land in the rock-bottom days of the Thirties, though the Depression wasn't what you might call an unmixed blessing. We've worked steadily, but work's wasted unless it has some direction. I've always tried to think ahead, to keep up with modern methods, to plan out the most economical use of the soil and plow back my profits into the land they came from.

The other day I walked back through the

fields, up the hill tow'ard the woodlot on high ground at the southwest corner of Red Haven. I turned and looked back on our land, green with young oats and fall w heat and thick tangled pasture, curving down to the big brick house and the red farm buildings clustered near the east side of our original hundred acres. Over to the right, on the far side of the concession line, I could see the second farm we bought in 1947, another hundred acres that corners the first to the southeast. I couldn't help thinking how different the land looked when we made our start.

Of course, Viola and I looked quite a bit different ourselves in those days. When we moved in back in June 1936, we were newly married. There we were, two young people hardly out of our teens, a farmer’s son and a farmer’s daughter with our heads full of ideas picked up at Junior Farmers’ meetings. We had a handful of livestock, fifty dollars worth of used implements, an old Model A Ford and a three-thousand-dollar mortgage.

My father was a stern and religious man. but not a moneymaker. He had paid my two older brothers wages for helping on our home farm below Brampton, but when I was ready to leave school the Depression was taking hold and there just wasn't any money to spare. I was able to save nothing but the few dollars I made when I was called to help the neighbors. This didn't worry me till 1 met Viola Morrison at a choral class (she has a good voice and I was there because my father was a strong supporter of the choir) and we began to think about getting married. My father wanted to see me set up, so when he heard that a farm in Chinguacousy Township could be purchased for six thousand dollars he paid three thousand, leaving the mortgage for me to carry.

Anxious to be on our own. Viola and I were glad the farm was more than ten miles from either of our homes. It doesn't seem a great distance now', but transportation wasn't so easy in 1936 and it was quite a big step to move so far. The neighborhood was strange to us both and we had to set out to make new friends

among our neighbors.

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“We needed the crop to keep ourselves alive throughout the winter.

Then came the drought”

I think we both felt somewhat lost when we moved into our new home, though we wouldn’t admit it to each other. Viola was disappointed in the house. It had been well built but by the time we took it over it was in terrible

shape. The plaster had fallen off every ceiling; the previous owners had put tin ceilings in the three rooms they used most anti left the rest bare. The woodwork was charred from fires and it took us years to make the place presentable.

I was more concerned about the frame barn and stable, which were in equally sad repair. The posts had settled off their stones, the sheeting boards were sprung and warped, the sagging eaves lacked troughs. These black weatherbeaten build-

ings were poor accommodation for our little herd. My father had been able to spare three cows and a team of Clydesdale mares, and my bride had managed to draw three more cows from her father's herd. 1 paid twenty dollars for a brood sow and sixty-five for a cheap third horse, a Percheron mare called Pearl. Her rear foot had a ringbone, a growth that circles the bone above the hoof, but after a series of blisterings she became a useful animal.

Until we could carry more livestock we had to depend on cash crops such as wheat and potatoes, which drain the land of its nutrients much more quickly than crops sown for pasture. Could our farm support us? My heart sank as I realized that the soil under my feet was as rundown as the buildings. It was Woburn loam, a light, easily worked type of earth halfway between a sand and a clay, and it had the advantage of a loose, gravelly subsoil that allowed it to drain freely. But it had been exhausted by years of mismanagement, and the previous owner had never replenished it with fertilizer. Run-down land is just like a run-down body: without the proper nourishment a man or a farm becomes unproductive. We had to nurse our soil back to health by giving it lime, phosphate, manure and spells of summer fallow, just as a doctor prescribes iron and rest periods for a child who's anaemic.

Though we could enrich the soil gradually. there was nothing we could do about the contours of the earth underneath it. The gently rolling countryside in the foothills of the Caledon Hills is pretty as a calendar picture, but the city people who drive out here for picnics on .Sunday don't realize that land that makes a good golf course doesn’t always make the best farm. Sloping fields are difficult to work with machinery and must be constantly protected against erosion. My first look at our farm told me that erosion was going to be my big problem.

The thirty-odd acres at the east end. running back from the concession line to the farm buildings, were fairly flat and easily workable, but behind the house our troubles began. Here the land rose steeply toward the west, falling away at the south side in a series of deep gullies and small swollen hills. At the far western end the farm levelled off again, forming a ridge of high flatfish land with a sixacre woodlot in the south corner. The whole farm had been divided into rectangular fields about equal in size, without regard for the most economical use of the land. I could see that it should be laid out differently, but changes would have to wait. It was June, and we had to get seed into the ground right away to keep ourselves alive through the winter.

I sowed fifty acres of spring grain, mainly oats and barley, and planted ten fortyrod rows of potatoes, while Viola tended the vegetable garden by the house.

But we reckoned without the weather; 1936 was a drought year, and our total harvest was threshed in four hours. Land that should have produced fifty or sixty bushels to the acre had a miserable yield per acre of less than ten bushels. One fourteen-acre field of oats showed no sign of filling and I cut it green to use as hay for the livestock. My barley was so overgrown with Canadian thistles that the man who had agreed to thresh for me refused when he saw the field. Finally he

softened, advising me to blow the straw into a pile and burn it. but I made him stack it in the barnyard. My father-inlaw had told me of the value of thistles for wintering horses, and we couldn’t afford waste that season.

Our potatoes saved the day. We sprayed them by hand, cultivated them with the hoe, picked them up after the plow and sold them for a hundred dollars. It wasn't much but it paid the taxes.

We set in for our first winter together, knowing it would be a hard one. My bride had canned a quantity of tomatoes, strawberries and other fruit for our meals, and the green oats and thistles helped feed the cows and horses. But w'e were short of money. One month we sold wood from our bush to a neighbor for forty-five dollars, but I'd hired a man to cut it for twenty-five and his keep, so we weren't making much. Then we began selling cream, but our weekly cheque from the creamery averaged only three dollars. We used to carry the milk into the house, separate it in the cellar, feed the skimmed milk to the pigs and take the cream into Brampton once a week in the Model A. When one of Viola's cows had to be sent to the market because she wasn't in calf, my father-in-law insisted that we must replace her with two calves. He was right, but we were sorely tempted to spend the money on clothes, food or doctor’s fees. For by this time we were expecting a baby, and cod-liver oil alone demanded $1.49 every two weeks.

Hay for the baby

One day in March, after she’d done the washing, Viola asked me to drive her down to the Brampton hospital. Our daughter Joan was born shortly after midnight but I didn't hear of her arrival till eleven next morning when the bread man brought me the news. He used to call in at the Morrison place before he came to us, and it wasn't out of the way for him to deliver messages from my mother-inlaw along with the bread. We were busy here too, for one of the mares had her first colt that morning.

Before my wife came home my neighbors helped me bale fourteen tons of June-grass hay that sold for ten dollars a ton. I can still see the expression of relief on Viola’s face when I visited her and our little baby girl in the hospital, proudly displaying the cheque for a hundred and forty dollars, enough to pay the doctor's bill, the hospital expenses and the interest on the mortgage.

Cash was still short, so I had to find a cheap way to get the farm buildings into shape. In the spring of 1937 my father's hired man, a young German who had been a contractor by trade, agreed to help me straighten the barn. We borrowed two or three twenty-ton jacks from neighbors, cut hemlock posts from the woodlot. drew stones from the huge stone piles accumulated through the years by more particular owners, and with three days’ hard work we had the posts straightened and the frames plumb and square. By fall I had taken logs to a nearby saw mill, closed in an open shed, cemented the floor and installed eight wooden cow stalls with chain ties and three box stalls for calves and the brood sow. The old stable sheltered our horses and also provided loose housing for dry cows and heifers. All this fixing took much work but little money.

Though our stabling was better we would have to depend on cash crops for at least a couple more years, so we set about improving the soil. We plowed in the winter's manure, thistly straw and all. and sowed twenty-six acres with buckwheat about the first week in June. It

grew luxuriantly, as buckwheat will with early sowing and plenty of rain. When it was three feet high and beginning to bloom we plowed it in and summer fallowed. sowing to wheat in September. This costly adventure proved an outstanding success, for the crop was beautiful, yielding close to fifty bushels per acre.

Our second year’s cash for interest and taxes again came from potatoes and excess hay. We borrowed a neighbor’s digger to harvest two acres of potatoes. Our spring grain crop, though polluted with

thistles, was much better this season and wc were able to winter our small stock more easily.

We had a doctor’s bill again that fall, but this time it was mine. One day during the haying I harnessed the ringbone mare to the rake and was adjusting her blinkers when she ran away with me. 1 grabbed her halter and she dragged me a hundred yards, stepped on my ankle, jumped a fence and hit a big Snow-apple tree on the other side. She wasn't hurt and the rake wasn't damaged, but I was in hospital five days while they set my broken

leg and mended my face and back where the rake had clawed them. After a few days’ rest at my aunt’s, I came home in a walking cast to start in at the threshing.

By 1939 we had enough cash in hand to begin concentrating on milk production. Dairy farming doesn't bring quick returns but in the long run it’s easier on the land. By this time we were carrying about fourteen head of cattle. We began shipping milk to a Toronto dairy, a much more profitable arrangement than selling the cream alone. To allow for an expanding herd we remodelled the stable, using

planks from the floor and partitions for wooden cow stalls that increased the number of tie-ups to twenty. Extra pasture was provided when a neighbor, who had inherited more land than he cared to work, suggested I rent a hundred acres from him.

Though the two farms touched at the corner, the one 1 rented was entirely different from the one I owned. It was low springy land covered not with loam but with Chinguacousy clay, a heavy black clay characteristic of this township, fertile but very imperfectly drained. Half the farm was taken up with swamp, bush and widened fence bottoms, where choke cherries, thorn bushes, wild apples and pears had been allowed to spread fifteen or twenty feet on either side of the tumbled-down rail fences. The fifty acres of workable land took careful handling but with summer fallowing grew fair crops of wheat and grass pasture. Over the next few years we came to depend on this land as a handy outlet for young cattle.

One summer afternoon in 1947, when I was riding the binder on the rented farm, my wife came over with a drink of fresh water in one hand and a letter in the other. It was from a Toronto realestate agent who told me that my landlord had decided to sell the farm and offered me first chance to buy it.

For a moment, stunned, I sat there on the binder seat surveying the wilderness around me. The road fence w;as matted with huge willows and tall branching cedars undergrown with brush. East of this fence ran a useless strip of land, twenty feet wide and as long as the farm, which had to be tilled to keep the undergrowth from spreading but produced nothing because the giant trees drained its fertility. Fifteen acres in the centre of the farm, last plowed about thirty-five years ago and then abandoned because of swamp, were now grown up with red willows, wild apples, hawthorn, poplar, birch and elm trees twenty feet high. On another four acres stood the ghost of an old orchard, where the biggest apple trees I have ever seen harbored an infestation of railroad worm and the healthiest burdocks ever grown. And the swamp land at the back of the farm had rotted the rails in the line fence, so the cattle could wander over to the neighbor’s any time the fancy took them.

Yes, I well remember the answer I gave my wife as I looked down on her from the binder seat: “It would kill any man to buy this farm.” And i watched her trudge back over the prickly stubble and home across the road.

But many thoughts went through my mind the rest of that afternoon. Now we had nearly twenty cattle and needed the extra pasture. I remembered my motherin-law’s theory that it took a hundred acres to make a living and two hundred to make any money. I had a feeling Viola wanted me to take the risk. Unlike her mother, she was rather backward about expressing her opinions, but I usually figured if she didn’t disagree she was more or less in favor. We talked it over at suppertime and decided to buy the farm.

I was quite a determined man when we headed for Toronto next day. Our landlord wanted $4,000, I offered $3,500, the agent suggested splitting the difference. I took the best end of the split and settled for $3,700. Two years later I added $1,100 to this price by hiring a bulldozer at twelve dollars an hour to get the new farm in shape. By removing willows and cedars, cleaning up fence lines and wasteland, filling bog holes and improving surface drainage, we increased the number of workable acres from fifty to eightyfive.

No sooner had we fixed up this land than we ran into trouble on our original hundred acres. Our weak spots were the steep rise behind the house and the fifteen-acre area of knolls and gullies at the south side of the farm. The slope was laid out in two rectangular fields that I had been using for cash crops, and row-cropping of potatoes and summer fallowing for wheat had left the soil unprotected from each rain. New boulders kept appearing as the topsoil was washed off the slope and down the barnyard lane.

The awakener came in 1950. We had ten acres of potatoes running along the slope and down into the gullied area, a lovely stand. The plants were in bloom and small potatoes were beginning to open the ground in a network of crevices, when it happened. One of the fiercest thunderstorms I've ever seen hit Chinguacousy township and poured down all afternoon. By sundown the storm had passed. but Viola and I had no admiration for the beautiful rainbow that appeared in the southern sky. We saw only the vast white lake on the fiat below the potato field, riled and thick with silt and fertilizer. I put on my rubber boots and walked down the field, which lay desolate as the earth after Noah's flood. The rushing torrent had uprooted tiny potatoes and flung them against the straining fence. It had carved out whirlpool basins and ditches four feet deep, gaps no tractor or horse-drawn machine could cross to dig what potatoes were left.

We went to Brampton the next day. It was one of those days when farmers go to town, a day when the land was still too wet to work and neighbors met and lingered to talk about the storm. Everybody offered advice about my potato field but most suggestions were aimed at the past instead of the future. Some people thought I should have bought a level farm, others said the land should never have been plowed, still others said I should have planted trees on it.

As we drove home that evening, downhearted and silent, doubts crowded my mind. Should the field never have been plowed? It had helped to pay the taxes other years. Should it be planted with trees to save the soil? Save the soil for what? I asked myself. That fall, when I salvaged the potatoes I could dig between the gullies, I felt my use of the field had been justified because they brought an average of forty dollars per acre, a poor return but almost as much as I had paid for the land in the first place.

For the future I resolved to find a crop that would protect the soil from erosion. Grass was the obvious answer, but was there any money in growing grass on hills too steep for a hay loader? After worrying away at the problem night after night I finally gave up and let it lie fallow in my mind, hoping for inspiration.

Sure enough, in the spring of 1952, I hit on a solution. Short of pasture for my twenty-one cows, I was concentrating on a six-acre field of timothy on the steep slope. Before growth started I dressed the soil heavily with ammonia nitrate and kept the cows out until the grass was twenty inches high. I had never seen timothy so thick and broad-leafed—a tremendous amount of feed.

But what would happen if I turned twenty-one cows into this field? I had been with cows all my life and 1 knew their habits. They stood in the lane behind me, bawling impatiently as I paused with my hand on the gate, pulled up short by my mental picture of what was going to happen.

The herd would push through the gate and fan out across the field, nibbling at the most delicious morsels until they were

stuffed and thirsty. Then they would track back through their haven of food for a drink at the barnyard. But would they rest in the barnyard till they were hungry again? Not cows. They would plod leisurely up the sloping field and lie down under the shady maples by the west fence. When milking time rolled around they would have to be driven reluctantly down the entire length of the field. Within a few days they would spoil and trample the rich grass that should have lasted most of the summer.

waste. I.eaving the herd fretting in the lane. I hunted up an electric-fence unit I had used to reinforce fences on the other farm. I stretched a long wire across the field, giving the cows access to only about an acre and a half nearest the gate. Then I hesitated again.

If I could keep them from trampling three quarters of the field, why should I let them trample any? With a shorter wire running from the new electric fence to the permanent fence I closed off a portion of the acre and a half, leaving the cows only a half-acre square in the cor-

ner of the field. They filled themselves in this tiny Eden, went to drink, were milked and settled down for the night. Every day that week I moved the short electric wire to give them their daily needs, allowing them to back graze on the first sections.

The following week I ran another long wire across the middle of the field and used the second strip in the same way, moving the cross fence each day. The timothy was higher now and this strip lasted longer than the first. A third section was fenced and rationed out, still

allowing back grazing on the other strips. When we got to the last strip the timothy was coarse and unpalatable, so we cut it for hay.

Here was the result: four and a half acres of timothy had fed twenty-one mature cows for twenty-eight days, and would have lasted even longer if rain had fallen in those four weeks. The herd was producing daily about eight cans of milk at an average price of three dollars per can. Here was a gross income of $672 from four and a half acres—$150 per acre. Here, in fact, was our answer to erosion. Cows, not machines, would harvest the rolling part of our farm and milk would be the future cash crop on this problem section.

The following January, when I went as a delegate from the Peel County Crop and Soil Improvement Association to attend a short course on land use at the Ontario Agricultural College, in Guelph.

I found 1 wasn't the first farmer to hit on the idea of strip grazing. Since then I’ve read in magazines that the method is used extensively in New Zealand and is becoming more common in the States, but it's seldom used here. Farmers are slow to change their ways. You’d think the ones who depend entirely on the land for income would be the ones most interested, but letters asking me about strip grazing always come from city-bred farmers, never from men brought up on a farm.

They put our farm on the map

At Guelph I learned for the first time of the free farm-planning service supplied by the provincial government, and of course I applied for it. I watched students from Guelph measuring the two farms as a tailor fits a suit, taking soil surveys, recording elevations, marking in woodlots and bog holes. They drew contour maps and classified the land according to its fertility and workability. Class 1 land is rich soil without serious drainage and erosion problems, suitable for intensive cultivation. The poorest is Class 8. which is usually turned back to wild life and reforestation. Our land ranged from Class I to Class 6. Then I waited anxiously for Professor Tom Lane of the Soils Department at the college to come and look over the place.

I couldn’t help being a bit proud of the farm when I saw our years of hard work and happiness blooming in the fields and shining in the coats of our cattle. I thought how my wife had taken hold from the beginning and worked beside me and handled the business end of the farm as well as any man. I remembered how our daughter Joan had helped out after school and on holidays, driving the tractor and the hay loader from the time she was five. I remembered the neighbors who pitched in in bad times, and the hired man we’d employed when we could afford it.

A good hired man can show you new' methods he’s learned in his travels, and even a poor one can sometimes surprise you. One time I sent an immigrant hand up to the woodlot to cut a few fallen trees into firewood. “Are you finished?” I asked him that evening. “No, no, a long time yet,” he said. I suspected that, knowing little English, he had misunderstood my orders. Sure enough. I was right. Thinking I wanted him to chop down the whole woodlot, he had felled all the growing trees in one corner of the bush.

For me every acre on the farm had its own little history of experiments, mistakes and successes written right into the ground, but you couldn’t expect an outsider to read it. What would the professor think of us? I felt we had been moving steadily in the right direction; our

profits were not merely a matter of luck.

I hoped Mr. Lane would see that we had been trying our best.

To my relief, he suggested further improvements along the line we were taking.

1 learned how farm plans can be handled in the same flexible way they plan modern houses. Just as we remodeled the farmhouse by taking off some of the inside doors and throwing two small rooms into one big living room. Mr. Lane advised me to replace permanent fences with electric fencing, which can be moved where needed and doesn't waste a strip ot land. Instead of old-fashioned squares, he laid out fields that suited the contours of the land. The level Class 1 and 2 land at the east side of the old farm remained unchanged, but the gully to the south, classified from Class 3 to 6. was set aside for permanent pasture.

He divided the fields with the steep slope into three strips, to be planted and plowed alternately. If the middle strip was plowed the crops on the top and bottom strips would protect it from erosion, and vice versa. At the top of the ridge he marked out a narrow strip of Class I and 2 land, only a few hundred feet wide but stretching right across the farm from north to south, so it could be worked efficiently with only a few turns of the tractor. I was glad he suggested leaving the woodlot in the southwest corner. It's worth quite a bit to me just to be able to look up at that bush in the mornings and evenings.

I went right along with the professor’s plan and it's worked well for us. The Department of Agriculture supplies all kinds of free assistance with farm planning, but only a few of the farmers use it. That’s the human element, I guess. I’ve been told Moses traveled in the wilderness forty years, waiting for a generation to die off before he could persuade his people to enter the Promised Land. That's the way it is with farmers; they take a lot of convincing. There’s a tendency for a man to farm the way his father taught him to farm, and many of the older farmers never knew what made things grow, apart from the weather. A dentist or doctor would soon get outdated if he didn’t read the latest bulletins and keep up with the times. To my way of thinking, farming is a profession too.

For my cows I use the Dairy Herd Improvement Association, another government service that keeps track of your production, cattle sales, all the figures in connection with your herd, and analyzes them to show your labor costs and feeding efficiency and so on. I he district supervisor spends one day a month looking over our records, and Viola and I arc always glad to see him because he brings along his wife and one-year-old son Billy, who happens to be our grandson. Young Bob Davis married our Joan back in 1955.

It was Joan who named the farm, settling a long-standing argument between me, my mother-in-law and the HolstcinFriesian Association, which wanted us to choose a name it could use for our registered cows. I favored Stony Ridge, after the height of land at the west end. and I went so far as to have a man paint it on the mailbox. Then Viola and 1 went to Georgian Bay for a holiday and when we came back we found my mother-in-law had painted out the name and written in Sunny Ridge instead. For a while nobody called the place anything. Then one fall day in 1954 we painted all the farm buildings red. That afternoon our daughter came home from her job in a bank at Brampton and gave us a name that suited perfectly—Red Haven.

Our home has been truly a haven through years of war, depression and

prosperity. Nowadays our herd of thirtyfive Holsteins assures a steady income and an economical way of transforming grass and hay into cash. Our hills, fertilized each year, have always produced a gross yield of more than two hundred dollars per acre, even in the drought summer of 1955. We use strip grazing constantly. knowing that a man can make a higher hourly wage moving an electric fence than operating any farm machine.

On the level fields we grow wheat for sale and for feed, and we’ve built up a market for seed oats. 1 make a regular

practice of sowing red clover along with the grain, to pasture the cows after the cash crop has been harvested and their own grass has been used up. You wouldn't think it would pay to grow clover on land that is to be plowed in fall, but last year a twenty-acre wheat stubble seeded with red clover carried my herd all through September, producing twelve cans of milk a day. a gross profit of over a thousand dollars.

Viola and 1 have worked hard at Red Haven but we have no envy for those who have left the farm for higher-paying

jobs. City life would seem dull after farming, for milk production, feed and fertilizer provoke lively discussion when we get together with our neighbors at euchre parties and the CBC Farm Forum on Monday nights. We always spend a day at the Royal Winter Fair and two or three at the Canadian National Exhibition, and we count on seeing all our friends at our own fair in Brampton.

For us. farming is a way of life that supplies everything we could ask: work, pleasure and a standard of living hard to surpass. VF