April 2012

The most useful piece of equipment on the farm.

When your farm operates on someone else’s property, it’s a different world. At Horse Drawn Farms, we have been lucky to be comfortably encamped here for many years with an excellent landlord. But always, always in the back of our head is the black reality that it will all end one day; we will get the dreaded phone call–“We will not be renewing your lease.” Acreage after acreage along our stretch of road has been developed into condensed housing–hundreds of people living where once stood grassy fields, some cows, an orchard. Right now, these people are our customers, but eventually their presence will push us out. It’s hard to be psychologically prepared for this, but we have at least tried to minimize the complete upheaval it will cause.
In terms of stock-keeping, for example, we made the decision early on to use temporary, portable  fencing, for the most part. Under many real estate laws, permanent fencing with set posts becomes the property of the landowner once it is installed, no matter who installed it. Although permanent fences would be far more convenient in retaining difficult stock like sheep and goats, we have decided the loss of such a tremendous investment in post and wire perimeter fencing would be too great to bear.  For the horse fencing, steel stock panels which lock together have been invaluable.  The panels will keep in full grown sheep in a pinch, but for our smaller grazing stock, we now run three separate sheep/poultry nets which rotate through the available grass.  Each net squares off a decent 1600 feet of grazing and will keep five ewes happy for several days under prime growing conditions.  There is nothing like the satisfaction of watching your girls charge into fresh pasture with a relish–it’s the pleasant feeling of Mission Accomplished.

But make no mistake: if moving nets with two people is a pain,  moving them by yourself is…well…awful.   Usually the attempt results in some sort of injury, psychological or otherwise.  Passers-by to Horse Drawn Farms may have seen me, face down in the field, struggling, with my right boot, left boot, and right arm up to the elbow entangled in that demonic orange mesh.  (With the left hand, I may be calling any friends that live nearby, or 911.)  Even when well-organized, it’s a time-consuming rigamarole to place a net, peg out the corners, make a sweeping funnel entry (galloping sheep have trouble finding the entrance otherwise), and hook up the fence controller.   We do it several times a week for the lambs, the ewes and goats, and the poultry.

Protected lambs are happy lambs.

Time considerations aside, there’s no debate about an electric net’s efficacy.  One touch, and no sheep goes near it again.  The lambs can graze one net over from their mothers and feel at ease, and the chickens love to spread the sheep pellets around making manure spreading unnecessary.  Since the regular use of electricity, the bears and coyotes have kept a wide margin between themselves and the farm, despite the changing locations of the nets.   Oh sure, it would be easily to just chuck out the stock onto acres of permanently fenced fields.  But then, we wouldn’t have the up-close observation of what the animals are up to, what they’re eating, how they’re doing.   It’s a trade off that makes life interesting here on Horse Drawn Farms.

Horse Drawn Farms feels like a bit of an island sometimes.  Awash in a sea of development on our particular street, we try to hold on and do some honest to goodness farming,  but it can be tough.  Both Peter and I, while relishing what we have on our acreage, crave the quiet of the true country.  With the street’s improvement in 2009, the backdrop of car traffic is now omnipresent.  The noise overwhelms the calls of our resident songbirds, the rustle of wet leaves in the temperamental April atmosphere, even the spring peepers calling from the back field puddles at 2 am.   The nearness of drivers zipping past the farm’s frontage poses a significant danger as well; should any stock escape up the driveway, it isn’t likely that a lamb, goat or horse would have a chance.

Kids of all kinds are welcome on the farm.

However, our improved road does bring something that is less likely to occur on a country lane:  a sidewalk.  And with that sidewalk comes kids: young and old, on foot, bicycle, skateboard and scooter.   Barely a day passes when we don’t have a kid climbing on the frontage fence, reaching up to pat our horse Jimmy, or to peer over the top railing at the sheep and goats  in the paddock beyond.  To these city kids, such animals are at first a novelty, creatures read about in books and seen on TV, with no more foundation in reality than The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  But once on the fence and the onlooker gets an approving wave and smile from me, the questions begin:   How many lambs are there?  Do you ride the horses?  Do chickens really lay eggs?    It is truly a delight to watch the answers light a spark in the faces of the the young people.  A nearby Mom or Dad seeing the interest often chimes in with questions of their own.    When we have something extra neat, such as this week when our dairy goat Elizabeth gave birth to her kids, I extend an invitation to kids and parents alike to come down and have a look.   The number of kids to which I have held out a lamb, bunny, chick or baby goat for petting is now in the dozens.  Elizabeth has been milked by several small experimenters, and Jimmy’s coat has been brushed to a glossy satin.  The look of excitement when a young face peers into our chicken coop nestbox and gently lifts out a newly-laid egg is something to behold.   It’s almost universal:  in the hearts of our visitors, a transformation occurs, a slowing down, a timelessness, a connection with the animals which feels ancient and natural.   And although it produces no income, I firmly believe this transformation is our little farm’s most valuable product.

Will any of those kids on the fence become farmers themselves?  No one knows–but we’ll keep the railings kid-friendly, just in case.