June 2012

In the farming calendar, there will always be a few major chores which are approached with particular reluctance.  For some, it may be rounding up fall slaughter stock, when a favourite steer hops onto the trailer for a final ride.  Or it could be that first cut towards the commitment of haying–the hours of working under a hot sun, or under cloudy skies, the anxious hope that the weather will co-operate until the bales are safely stowed away.

For this beginning farmer, there are a few runners up in the Most Trying Task category. Clipping the wings of my entire laying flock comes to mind. The pastures of Horse Drawn Farms are peppered with trees that allow easy escape up and over the electric net to any bird with a sense of adventure, making it necessary to limit vertical advantage. The first few are easy–one just reaches into the mass of feathered bodies in the coop and grabs the first pair of available legs. Invert legs, find wings, snip off feathers, done. But as the number of legs decreases and the hens have room to run away from grasping fingers, it becomes progressively dirtier, dustier, and dandruffier to catch the little devils. By the time the second-last hen has exploded up and over my head for the fourth time in a cloud of flapping feathers, pulverized bedding and scrabbling poopy feet,  I usually regret that I began the whole operation. But this is not the worst chore on Horse Drawn Farms. Oh no. That dubious distinction belongs to the sheep barn.

Equipment for the Tri-Annual Sheep Barn Marathon

A pleasantly innocuous place, the sheep barn. At least, most of the time. Most of the time, it has a mild, sheepy smell.  The smell of lanolin and fresh straw.  The straw is fresh everyday, layered over the old straw, building up the floor a bit at a time.   It’s a method that works well with sheep as they pack it down into a straw mattress, and it makes preparing their night quarters laughably easy compared to, say, the horse stalls, which must be carefully cleared of all soiled bedding.  The addition of fresh straw can continue for quite a time.  As long as one can find other things to do with one’s evening hours–and what farmer doesn’t?– it’s easy to just keep layering.  And layering.  No matter that the sheep are now leaping up a foot or so onto the bedding,  or that the hay bunker, bolted to the floor, is slowly disappearing.  It’s clean, odorless and comfortable in there.  So what if I have to duck to avoid hitting my head on the rafters?

It is usually around the time I can spot the ears of three foot high sheep protruding above the five foot high door that I realise the inevitable has come around once again.  The bedding has become ridiculously high, and all those time-saving layers are about to get their revenge.  Ushering the ewes off the edge of the straw precipice and back to solid ground outside the barn for the last time, I steel myself and head to the tool shed for the pitchfork and the muck cart.   For unlike my more fortunate compatriots who would be able to complete the job in ten minutes with the bucket on their John Deere, this tractorless farmer is obliged to scrape out the sheep barn by hand.  Scrape is perhaps not the appropriate term under these circumstances.  The floor is so packed that it requires agonizing, vicious fork-jabs to even begin to loosen into manageable chunks.  Chunks utterly sodden with urine and manure, disgorging a most remarkable stench, and weighing seventy-five pounds each.  I can manage to lift three or four into the cart before its wheels begin to flatten in protest and I won’t be able to push the thing to the muck pile.

Three or four (or five or six) hours of  hideous labour is not necessarily a bad thing, however.  There is a rhythm to monotonous, difficult work that I believe has been largely forgotten by the mechanized farmer.  There is a joy in movement, a delight in the heavy use of muscle and sinew that must be experienced to be believed.  It is the kind of physical effort that, in the old days, was shared by family and community and brought people together under the common banner of food independence.  Granted,  no family usually appears at  my sheep barn.  Luckily, the work can also be a time for reflection and observation.  If I had a tractor, for example, would I have noticed how the moment I turn the first piles of bedding back, honeybees immediately come to investigate the pungent scent?  How they land and extract something or other from the urine-soaked straw?   Would I appreciate how my hens carefully size up each cart-load that is dropped for their scratching and spreading services?   How the entire flocks runs frantically to each new pile in case they miss any getaway grubs?   And how often does one have the opportunity to bask in the relative quiet and simply listen to what’s happening on the farm?   These small occurrences are the soul of the land, and I, for one, am glad to experience them.  As for the reward of the scraped-down barn–that speaks for itself.   A fresh, empty floor.  A hay bunker once again apparent along the wall.  Fresh straw for the sheep, and weeks and weeks of easy husbandry ahead.

Time will push on, I suppose.  Soon I will once again be able to reach the rafters, or perhaps step out of the barn window with minimal effort.  But by then the season will be changing and there’ll be new things to see and hear when the pitchfork makes its appearance.  Unless anyone has a tractor to donate?


Our ever vigilant Farm Ambassador.

No farmer can rely on a static environment.  Farming’s very nature is change, the dynamics of the weather, the shift of the seasons, the tasks that diversify in the warm months and contract again as it grows cold.  But there are elements of farm life that remain, that are comfortable, familiar, perhaps for years.  And then, suddenly one day, they disappear, too.  And then the farm feels like it might never be the same again.

Our farm dog wasn’t much of a farm dog.   He was far more a farmhouse dog,  a big softy that didn’t like to go out in the rain.  While sheep held a definite fascination for him, he never did quite figure out what to do when he came face to face with one, and generally stood stock still with only the high point of his tail whisking gently back and forth.  Impressive in stature and spirit, however, he made a point to personally welcome each customer of Horse Drawn Farms.  Some, after seeing the gigantic form of a jet black Great Dane come charging down the driveway towards them at full tilt, never came back.  Those that did came to enjoy that the huge head in their car window, the eager, laughing face and the deep bark  were as much as part of the visit as the very fine eggs they were there to procure.

The weather was vacillating from hail to sunshine the day it happened, the typical coastal spring.  Seedlings were nestled in the greenhouse, and the lambs quietly moved between grass and shelter while my mind rehearsed the upcoming mad dash of planting.  Rupert had been out  with me most of the day, his familiar black outline following me, now to the goat paddock, now to the horses where he waited for Cirrus’s grain to be set down.  Cirrus, ever obliging, was the only horse who seemed not only to tolerate Rupert sharing his breakfast, but actually to welcome the companionship of a second head in his feed tub.  (More than once, I watched the old boys, each with half of the same carrot in their mouths, politely demur as to its ownership with a definite clamping down of  teeth.   Cirrus, with his advantageous incisors, usually won out.)   As the afternoon drew late, the motorcycle of my husband came up the drive signalling Rupert’s daily off-farm walk, and after some joyous greetings,  he and my husband set out together.

A phone call interrupted dinner preparations.  Rupert, now soaked with a sudden violent hailstorm, was not well and needed to be picked up by car.  Immediately I jumped in the truck and pulled out of the driveway to find my husband standing with him less than 100 meters away–they had not even been able to cover that small distance.  It did not bode well.  Once home, my husband and I thoroughly dried and warmed him, but it was clear he was feeling faint.  He teetered to his bed in the living room and collapsed, exhausted.  Later, standing up by his water dish, he vomited.  We were somewhat relieved–perhaps he had only picked up a bug. We made him comfortable and warm for the night, hoping for improvement by morning.   It was clear within those few hours, however, that he was, in fact, gravely ill.  He gamely stood up at the sound of the feed buckets being filled for morning chores, but quickly lay down again, and  we decided then and there to carry him to the truck for a trip the emergency veterinary hospital.  A battery of ultrasound and blood tests confirmed: he was in heart failure.

We euthanized him at home that evening, on his bed in the living room.  He lay in state there the following day, a practice I had never understood until I felt the strange comfort that his still body provided.  I could pat his head, stroke the familiar ear, and yet look in his eyes and see that he was dead, that his spirit, our dog, our beloved friend and companion, wasn’t there any more. It was soothing, and final.  Our grief spilling over, my husband and I wept helplessly together as we buried him near the kitchen window.

The change is keen, and lonely.  So often does Horse Drawn Farms feel like a one-woman show as my husband drives out each morning to his own work, that the lack of companionship during my day is now dreadful.   I lost a friend, one who had been at my side–much MORE at my side, in fact– during my transformation from suburban nine-to-fiver into a farmer out in the fields all day.   But there is a realization in this new loneliness–that the business of any farm is not meant to be a solitary endeavour.  I realize how very much I looked forward to the animated bark from the driveway, because it meant visitors, chat, laughter, and most of all, excitement and enthusiasm about fresh, local food.  My dog lessened the solitude after the visitors went away, and his absence amplifies it.  I felt this reality still more strongly when I attended a farm lecture/concert in the city less than a week after his death.  Many people gathered, talked and sang about their adventures in discovering and growing food in their community, and their  enthusiasm was infectious.  At the lecture, I felt my own passion for the subject begin to rise once again.  Back at home, alone the next morning with a shovel in my hand, it all seemed dreary, and pointless.
What do I do with this revelation?  Do I contact a local school or gardening group? Do I advertise for a partner, or for volunteers?  The possibilities are there, and will need looking into if I am not to lose my way.   Thus is the struggle of one beginning farmer.