How things got started


I have to admit that it was those beguiling photographs in Harrowsmith Country Life magazine that planted the idea of a farm in my head.   Especially the autumn ones.  The ones with the blazing oranges and yellows of harvested squash spilling out of baskets, or the patio furniture tastefully placed near ancient red barns with  milking parlour windows.  In those photographs, the tables always have fruit in a bowl.  The fences are straight.   The animals are tidy, with nary a pile of manure in sight; neither are there  flies, weeds, or exhausted farm owners wearing the same dirty ball cap they’ve worn for three years straight.  Yes, farm visitors, I’ve learned: the places in those photographs do not exist.

Isn’t that lovely.

It’s not like I haven’t thought about it.  Living in a farmhouse that is one-hundred years old makes the character element a slam-dunk.  “Look for the old farmhouse,”  I say to new customers trying to make their way to Horse Drawn Farms.  It sounds good, anyway.  It’s only when they’ve already pulled in the driveway that the customers realise  “derelict farmhouse”  is perhaps a more apt description.  Up close, they see that the paint is somewhat beyond distressed.  Missing, is more like it.   And the pile of scrap wood to be burned with the nails sticking out at all angles next to the honey display doesn’t have the same effect as the fruit baskets on tables they’ve seen in magazines.  Nevertheless, new customers are keen, so they hop out to take a look around.  I welcome, nay, encourage this, much to my insurer’s chagrin.  I am proud of how the farm operates, of how our stock glows with health, of how our pens are intelligently organised for ease of cleaning and movement of animals in all seasons.

At least, I was, until I started to see the farm from the perspective of our largely suburban customer base.  These are folks who are keen on fresh, local food, but have rarely–if ever–stepped foot on a working farm.  It took that disbelieving glance from the woman with the Audi, for example,  for me to see just how slanted the walls of the horse barn were becoming.  Oh, I’d slogged that crooked barn door back and forth ten thousand times, but I hadn’t really noticed the crazy angle on which it was now sitting.  Or the twenty centimeters of moss growing on the roof tiles.  And then there was the man with his two young daughters, each of which squealed and held her nose when walking past the muck cart full of manure and soiled straw blocking their path.   They came back up the path, still shrieking, when uninvited chicken feathers attached themselves to their fleece jackets.   I’d never really thought about how perhaps I shouldn’t send visitors down the manure alley to have a look at the chickens after all.  Or that drying out the hand-pulled weeds in a gigantic, messy pile for a week before carting them to the back doesn’t make for an attractive lawn-space.   Or that the main deck  by the door of the house, which we use as our main project area, might give a better impression to door-knocking egg-buyers if it wasn’t covered in sawdust, goat leashes, feed buckets, sprawled out hoes and the plastic bag I’d used to carry a freshly killed chicken from the butchering area.

I thought about posting a sign in the driveway: “Visitors, please note:  A farm can be working or a farm can be pretty.”   There’s no doubt that the to-do list on the farm is formidable at best.  At worst, it borders on ludicrous.  There’s fencing,  felling, splitting, stacking, painting, pounding and wiring, then cutting, curing, spreading, seeding, breeding, feeding and hiring.  And that’s all before October.  There’s also mowing, mending, cutting, clearing, burning, and, of course, blogging.  And it’s nice to put dinner on the table once in a while too.  Compared to these most urgent tasks, it’s easy to relegate “tidying up” to the bottom of the page.  Those feed buckets are there, for instance, because they’re the first and last things I use outside when I step through the door each day.

But I would be foolish to think that impressions don’t matter, and if I want customers to return, I need to operate a farm that reflects the sincerity that goes into the quality of its products.  No, I won’t be taking pains to conceal the fact that our ram spends most of his autumn with his nostrils poked into the backside of a ewe, or that forty chickens will leave a considerable whirlwind of feathers and dander over their pasture while they’re out.  I can see no benefit in trying to hide the reality of what farm animals do, or what they leave behind.  But the burn pile with the sticky-outy nails?

The clean-up has begun.

The bonfire cometh.

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When you’re a suburban farmer and you’ve never had lambs before, it might be tempting to build your temporary lamb pen within steps of your house.  You’ll want to keep an eye on your new arrivals, no doubt, and be able to get there fast, should the need arise.   But make no mistake:  there  are cons to having  sheep  just outside the back door.   Many, noisy cons.   Retrospectively, in fact, having five pregnant ewes back in the converted garage at the end of the driveway wasn’t bad at all.  Although their  hungry yells penetrated the solid wood doors every morning when they finally heard my footsteps crunching on the gravel, I knew that with the touch of the latch, the noise would switch off and five woolly, fecund balloons would come catapulting  out in a headlong rush towards their paddock, and breakfast.  But lambing time changed all that.

Silence is golden.

The wonder of free stuff on Craigslist got the lambing pen off the drawing board and into action.  Winter wind storms can be brutal here on the west coast, and a great many Costco tarpaulin car shelters love to go tumbling through the suburbs, up streets and down alleys, until they rest in little piles against the local telecommunications compound.  Others simply get flattened when the occasional heavy snowfall turns to rain, and their owners aren’t inclined to leap out of bed at 3am to brush off the 40000 pounds of snow mush.  After such weather extremities, Craigslist comes alive with offers of tangled metallic wrecks, and the messes often end up at Horse Drawn Farms.  Many an animal shelter here has been constructed  fitting undamaged portions together, with good success.   The lamb pen was more elaborate in that it required a full floor, (delicate young lambs must be protected from moisture),  but Craigslist provides all needs.  Ten sturdy pallets were procured, as were some discarded plywood sheets once used for forming concrete.  At last, with the overhead tarp securely fastened and a deep bed of clean straw, all was ready.

A week later, when the  pen was occupied by its first mother, Daisy, with her twin ram lambs, I began to notice how she watched the back entrance to the house.  It would happen in the morning, just after putting on my boots and hat and gathering the dog and cats for their dawn egress.  With impeccable timing, as the door opened a crack, Daisy would unleash a bellow that could raise the dead.  And would repeat it,  constantly, until her breakfast was  served.  Since this involved a walk to hay shed to retrieve the goods, a considerable three or four minutes could pass. And all the while her volume increased, utterly drowning out not only the pleasant cheeps of the morning songbirds, but the nearby traffic,  Tintin the rooster, and even the din of the still-pregnant prisoners of the sheep garage.   I had been used to stopping at the chickens first– a simple tip of ration into their feeder took only seconds–  but no longer.  Daisy’s gratification was now the priority.

Then Spotty Legs had her twins, and the ante was upped.  Either hungrier than Daisy or just with sharper vision, her peculiarly deep rumble preceded the door opening, for she saw me well in advance through the picture window, reaching for my jacket.  Cowering under two ewes giving full voice only steps from the door, I started trotting to the hay shed, rather than my usual sleepy stroll. When Lucy, known for her persistence in shouting even when her mouth is stuffed full,  joined the group with her single lamb, I began to leave the hay ration next to the stairs instead, ready to pop it straight into the pen.  The cacophony was added to daily by high-pitched little baas, ever increasing in number and confidence.  I tried skulking into the back room.  But it was no good keeping the curtains closed, because sharp-eyed Spotty saw the movement of my silhouette and let loose.  Then Emily had her twin lambs and moved in.   The smartest ewe of the bunch, she learned by association and began to bawl when she heard my alarm clock ringing upstairs.  And Charlotte, last of the ewes to join the congregation with her twins, simply didn’t want to miss out on any potential activity and baaed at random, sometimes at 3am.

A moment of quiet. It won't last.

 

I was beginning to feel hunted.  Both ewes and lambs now shouted at every sight of me, their hapless caregiver.  Oh, the morning hay kept them quiet for a few minutes.  But I could no longer move through the yard, at any time, without being bombarded by baas.  The appearance of the muck cart set them off.  Me leading a horse set them off.  Heading out in the truck for supplies set them off.  Me slinking away to hide behind the horse stall walls with my hands over my ears only seemed to spur them on.   In the morning, I  worried, and watched the windows of the neighbours, lest a shotgun should appear.  By the afternoon, I was considering the shotgun myself.

Luckily however, time marches on, and the lambs are now old enough to spend all day turned out in a paddock with their mothers.  This morning was their first time out, and the relief in the home yard is palpable.  Tintin, the birds and the traffic have the place to themselves, and I have plans already hatching for next year…to build that lamb pen as far away as possible.

Horse Drawn Farms is, as yet, a small affair.  Small enough that one of us still has to stump out the door to work for someone else each morning–bills must be paid.  But HDF is growing…oh yes.   It’s growing and it just might make it.  For us, the shock of this discovery came when we counted the ripening cucumbers in the greenhouse on a summer afternoon.  Seventy-five.    Those seventy-five cucumbers and a whole pile of up-and-coming buds startled us into realising it was already time for our first vegetable market.   There was bounty all around us, way too much for us to possibly consume alone…the squash, the tomatoes, the beans…we needed to sell some of this stuff.  After all, that was the whole point of growing it, we thought, but we were still surprised we had actually succeeded.

It was a humble affair.  It was us, sitting at a table at the end of the driveway with a scale and a cash box.  A far cry, perhaps, from the slot at the Farmers’ Market we had envisioned.  There was no bold vinyl banner proclaiming our identity, no fancy vegetable cart with our wares angled to the light for best appreciation.  But people came–oh, they came all right.  We sold most of what was laid out that day, and much, much more in latter days.  Customers began coming down the driveway for the tomatoes, sign or no sign, and when we finally wanted a cucumber for a salad, there was one hell of a search in the greenhouse to find one (albeit it WAS in the dark with a flashlight.)

Horse Drawn Farms is on its way.

The cucumbers sold out first.

I visited a friend and walked into his greenhouse on a hard, clear day in February.  The door swung behind us, and whoosh, the cold was gone.  Inside it was twenty degrees and the broccoli seedlings sent up the heavenly damp smell of growing things, an April smell.  I was hooked then, I knew I needed one of these things.  At first, I must confess, it was not so much to grow food as to have a big box of Spring out there in the farmyard.  Who wouldn’t want, on a miserable February day, to step into the next season through a simple door?  It was only when I discovered Eliot Coleman and his four-season harvesting (see links) that I realised the significance of its potential and plotted to stuff it full of edible delights.

It’s taller than it looks. April 2011

Right off the bat, I knew I wanted the greenhouse to be mobile.  Crop rotation is essential in all food farming, and a moveable structure would mean I could rotate the greenhouse crops through the raised box pattern I had planned.  Luckily for me, the Costco car shelter frame I procured was not only free, it was light.  And the many commercial greenhouses in the Fraser Valley meant that finding some used poly was easy; when one large outfit replaced its sidewalls, I had enough plastic to cover my small frame many times over.   Alas, the challenges of assembling a greenhouse alone on a cold, blustery day in the rain are many.

First is positioning the thing.  A great fan of Costco shelters (I house two horses and the sheep under them), I was aware of their dimensions and had set the raised boxes at a tight fit.  But after assembling it in the driveway, walking a 6-legged steel octopus into place over boxes in foot deep mud seemed to take forever. This leg. That leg. This leg. THAT leg.  Little did I realise it was easy compared to getting the poly up over the ten-foot roof struts.  I’d slide it up to the centre, it would blow off.  I’d slide up the right corner and secure it, then the left corner would blow off.  When I finally managed to slide the entire thing into place and stopped for potty break, it blew into neighbour’s field across the road. Eventually, in a blessed moment of seven minutes’ calm, it did go up, and stayed there with some frantic temporary duct taping.

The door frames and ends I constructed of repurposed studs, salvaged from a demolished shed. The only exception was the bottom board, as to span the wide base I needed a single piece more than 12 feet long.  The lathing along the base was some old used baseboard from my parents’ house–in fact, I seem to remember having painted it myself, still on the old walls, some 20 years previously. For over an hour, I tacked the plastic in place, pulling and straightening as best I could.

Finishing that last bit of lathing, I could hardly wait to step through the unfinished door.  The sun had peeped out, and I was dying to know if my little makeshift room would be able to do what seemed somehow magical.  Would it? Could it? I slipped inside and smiled.  I had crossed from a cool windy April into a warm May afternoon–and the food would be coming soon.

Leaving at this point is a bad idea unless you need some exercise. April 2011.

I added a wood frame for the door. April 2011.

When you become a farmer, and thereby broke, never underestimate the power of Craigslist.  It’s become a useful tool in populating Horse Drawn Farms with that marvel of marvels: free stuff.  Like most surburban Gen X-ers, I spent most of my early shopping  years equating free stuff with junk.  If it was sitting out at the end of someone’s driveway, that’s what it was.  Junk.  But poverty has enlightened me.  No more shall those odds and ends of lumber, old chairs and busted up vacuum cleaners be passed by with upturned nose.  I’ve become that weirdo in the ball cap, cruising the suburbs in my pickup truck at ten kilometres an hour, peering at the wonderful potentials of Spring Clean Up Week.  Those mountains of delight!  Those caverns of treasure!  And Craigslist….ah, bless dear Craigslist.  No street prowling required, you simply scroll through the offerings for what you might need.   Thus, HDF was able to procure some raised beds, pre-assembled and in perfect shape.  And greenhouse bits, how wonderful.  The frame from an old car shelter from a backyard.  The poly from a hothouse producer replacing his covers.  And lumber of all shapes and sizes to hold everything together.  Yes, farmers: free is easy, and free is beautiful.

April 2011.A free car shelter frame. The dog wasn't free, he cost us a fortune.

April 2011. Filling the free boxes from Craiglist: a soil blend over the double-dug bases.

When I decided to add market farming to Horse Drawn Farms’ portfolio, I had to do some serious research.  Luckily, in the age of smart phones, that was easy.  Outside with cup of tea, shovel leaning (as yet undirtied, alas) on the stairs beside me, I spent a pleasant morning googling my Blackberry through the 19th century French market system.  This intensive system, based entirely on manual labour and horse manure, produced massive amounts of vegetable food for the big cities of France.  It employed something called “double digging” , in which the farmer dug way, WAY down into the soil to turn, aerate and improve it before adding raised boxes.  The advantages to elevating the growing surface were multiple, and on my always soaked, heavy clay soil, they would be an absolute necessity.   When the earth is double dug below the box, I read, the plant roots grow down–rather than across– the soil strata for their nutrients, leaving room for very close rows and large crop yields per square metre.   I was short on room, so the more intense, the better.  The double digging sounded… interesting? (ok–awful), but it was the use of horse manure that really swayed me.  Horse manure!  I’d been storing it by the ton for years, and now, finally, it was to be an asset rather than a weedy, steaming mountain out back.  I’d handle the work, oh sure…

And then I tried it.  In the pouring, freezing rain of the worst spring day for fifty years, I pulled on my work gloves and dug.  And dug and dug and dug and dug.  First, a foot wide trench across the grow space, pitching each 10 kilo shovelful of clay (soon to become clay-mud: yay!)  into the wheelbarrow for later.  Then a matching trench alongside the first one, pitching THAT clay, now loose and aerated, into trench number one.  Trench number three’s clay into trench number two, and so on down the line.  When all that was finished (and the original clay from the wheelbarrow went into the last spot), I added a mixture of well-rotted manure compost and sand to lighten things up a little, although it was getting a tad soupy in there.  I think I blended it all well, although the hypothermia had a good hold of me by then.  Next morning, at least, I found a beautiful deep underbase for the coming raised bed.

 

April, 2011.  First, mark the dimensions of your raised box.  Then pull up the sod.

Now get your broadfork in there to break up the soil.  Have a cup of tea, the real digging is about to begin.

April 2011. Humble. And grassy.

It could happen to you:  one afternoon you’re sitting on your back step with a cup of tea, perusing your backyard acres and ruefully contemplating just how long it’s going to take to mow that much grass, when it comes to you.  You don’t have to mow it.  You could turn that grass into a market garden instead.  It would cut down dramatically on the mowing, after all.  You’d just need a few raised boxes, perhaps, say…40 boxes at 2 metres by 4 metres?  That should suffice if you want to sell some produce.  And you’d need to fill them with soil, of course.  And compost.  And blend it all up and add some organic fertilizer.  And you’d need to seed everything with appropriately scheduled rotation crops for maximum production and have a portable greenhouse or two, cobbled together from old Costco shelter frames and fitted with heat-activated windows… yep, that’d fill the space nicely.   And then hey presto! –no need to mow a thing.