Meaning in what we do


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As a 30-something convert to farming, one of the biggest obstacles I’ve come across is my own reluctance to ask for and accept help from people–and it’s plunked itself in front of progress again and again (and again!)  This may be a puzzling notion to anyone raised on a farm, or indeed, in any small community where everyone knows everyone and sharing in life’s difficulties is par for the course.  However, big-city dwellers know exactly what I mean.  The anonymity of a city of millions means you often don’t even know your neighbour’s name, much less his personality well enough to ask if you could, say, borrow an egg for your kid’s birthday cake.  And a big city complicates things further by having a 24 hour grocery, so even if you DID know your neighbour’s name, you didn’t really need his egg anyway.   Those unfamiliar might find this quality of city-dwellers rather unfriendly, but in reality, it is a survival mechanism.  We can only know so many people, so the nuclear structure of urban families is merely a way to cope with the barrage of faces that pass in and out of each day.

Dropping an urban girl on a soon-to-be-farm can be an interesting experiment. She is convinced that she can Do It All, like a soccer mom who is also a full-time nurse and a volunteer firefighter. She is convinced that healthy grass-fed meat, free-range eggs and abundant organic crops will soon be flowing like a river from her land. She slaves day and night, hammering and digging and herding and collecting. Alas, this particular urbanite is discovering–as her farm grows and her flocks expand– that trying to Do It All makes for a very tired, frustrated farmer at best. At worst, it causes injury and can lead to some pretty serious doubts.

Yep, they volunteered.

Yep, they volunteered.

Icing the torn muscle in my shoulder and recognising, finally, that I probably shouldn’t be shoving the 500 pound chicken tractor around or wrestling a 30 foot plum tree with a chain saw on my own led me, at last, to a logical conclusion (most farm kids have this imprinted on their brains at birth): doing everything on your own is not the farming way. It is not particularly commendable nor even prudent. On the old sustenance farms, various people with their special skills pitched in all over the place, in exchange for your special skill when required. Sally helped correctly prune your orchard in November and you spun her wool in May. Fred sunk your fence posts in April and you dug his potatoes in July. One person couldn’t possibly acquire the myriad pieces of knowledge, skills and time that were required to run a farm perfectly. You knew your neighbours and you needed your neighbours.
Starting a farm has been a gigantic education. In making various contacts, through selling farm products, extra cages, or just perusing craigslist, I’ve discovered that there are many, many people who WANT to help. Thus, my front fence was finished with the assistance of Ellen. I could not have moved the greenhouse without Chelsea and Kris. And there would have been no vacation without Leona and Tara and Ana coming by to mind the farm in my absence. This help was a tremendous blessing and, more importantly, an essential part of the new sustainable future.

Friends and neighbours.

Friends and neighbours.

Old Dane smaller

In the end, they compromised as to who owned the chair.

It started out hopefully enough, the slow days of January leading into a busy February lambing.   Although I’m sure there must have been fair, beautiful days, in my memory now, it is mostly raining. The lambs, born into the tail end of winter storms, were protected by our sturdy shelter, but by the first of March, the lion-winds had ripped out every last grommet of the tarp and the ground beyond their pen was saturated into mire.  Still, Rupert Dane didn’t mind standing in it to stare in unabashed amazement at the new woolly lives, bouncing in the deep, clean straw, little tails waggling madly as they sought nourishment underneath their mothers. The day-old chicks arrived the weekend of the first lambs, peeping in bright springtime voices through their temporary cardboard home. With the goats near kidding, it seems the farm was a bastion of life and newness–but it was the last I’d see of life for a while.  The death of the young black lamb was the first hit, I wrote about her earlier in the year.    Days later, it was Rupert.  Magnificent Rupert, Prince of Dogs, it was he who brought the farming life right inside the house, his enormous paws tracking our improved soil all around the living room, his coat spraying the coastal rain over the walls and chairs and door as he shook off after evening chores.  His death ripped a hole in our lives;  his omnipresence, his cheerful goofiness, his stoicism in his last hours on this earth; I can not forget his watchfulness that last night, his look that seemed to say, “It’s okay, my friends, you’ll be all right, you’ll be all right without me.”    But the farm was to see more death yet.

A new fight began on the first day of May, when I found my thoroughbred Cirrus with an appallingly swollen leg.  In decades of experience with horses, I’d seen my fair share of lameness, but this level of inflammation was new, frightening.  His near hind leg appeared several times its normal size– I wondered if he’d broken it in a struggle to get up somehow.  He stood, swaying, sweating, shaking with pain.  Yellow lymphatic fluid oozed from every pore.   Our horse vet, arriving at her earliest availability, diagnosed his condition as acute lymphangitis and set to work with a series of antibiotics, analgesics and diuretics.  She was optimistic about his prognosis, as many horses recover well and go on to return to riding condition.  And for the first few days, Cirrus did show improvement.  He began to walk about a little.  To eat and drink a little.  To show his old brightness when the feed buckets rattled in the morning, swirling the grain around with his nose in his old ham-it-up style.  He became pragmatic about the cold hosing and leg wrapping that were to define the days of his illness.  When the hose appeared, he’d walk away for a few laps of his paddock to show his general disapproval, but later stand resolutely still as I proceeded to run the icy water over his ruined leg.

Cirrus was a fighter, there was no denying that.  He’d been given to me as a starving rescue by a friend who’d found him abandoned in a field.  Apparently he’d spent years there, eking out a living on the sparse grass, summer and winter, forgotten and alone.   He was tattooed, through which I learned that he was born in California but was sired by a British stallion.  His beauty was evident even as I first saw him, listless, emaciated and dull.  He was tough to keep, right from the beginning.  The weight was slow to come on, his immunity poor as skin conditions surfaced and resurfaced.  But finally, a year after he had come home with me, he was the horse he’d been born to be, vivacious, strong-willed and powerful.  Riding him was a revelation, especially since I soon discovered he knew far more about equitation than I did.  He was undoubtedly the most sensitive, highly schooled horse I have ever ridden, and his demands from me as his partner improved me in ways I can only begin to guess.  I could only be puzzled at how this well trained horse had simply been dumped in a field.  I could only gratefully breathe in his intoxicating horse scent each time I brushed out the tangles in his mane.

Three weeks into the lameness it became pretty clear that Cirrus was running out of fight at last.  He had become progressively thinner, with bouts of fever, and edema beginning in his three other legs.   On the good days when things seemed hopeful, we’d head up the road for a walk, he and I.   He was bright on those walks, forward and keen, and his snatching the fresh roadside grasses without stopping as we passed was as representative of his nature as anything–“there’s good stuff here, but let’s keep moving and see what’s ahead.”  However,  back home, he’d lie down for unusually long periods, deep in sleep, his legs twitching as he ran through dreamland pastures.  When he began to dribble urine,  when his fever began to rage every time his medication wore off,  when the shine of his eye began to fail,  when my mother, in the first minute of visiting him, spontaneously and sadly blurted out, “Oh, he’s dying!”, I put down my hope.

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Cirrus

The morning of his euthansia was a strange blur.  There was no sleeping the night before, so the eleven o’clock appointment seemed a torturous wait.  Cirrus had spent the night in a far off shelter, head down, away from the morning chores, away from his best friend Jimmy.   I stood with him a long while in silence, just standing.  Watching.  Later, I was lucky in my own companions, my veterinarian– a wonderful sensitive practitioner–and Steve, our local deadstock hauler.  His gentleness and empathy with animals, in life and after it,  was a tremendous comfort.  Finally, finally, on that quiet weekday morning, Cirrus leapt into death.   No serene downward crumple for him–he fell right over sideways, legs strong and straight, with a grunt and a colossal pounding upon the earth, a thunder that has left me shaken since.  I’ve read that once in your life, you, a horseman, will love one horse with everything you have, and never again, no matter how many others may come and go through your life.  For me, Cirrus was that horse.

My husband had for years jokingly referred to our place as “Old Man Farm”, populated with racetrack retirees and greying muzzles of many kinds.   I’ve just come in from the death of yet another of our old men, our ram, Ramien.   He’d been ill, getting slower, always trailing his girls at a quick walk, the fastest gait he had left.  After a brief illness and no response to treatment, he, too, was to take the journey. He was a gentle, gentle old fellow that came to us late, as a gift that became a treasure.   Always ready for a friendly scratch and the piece of toast that had accidentally fallen on the floor, his solid enormity was what I watched for when trying to find the lambs grazing out back.  He guarded them with the steady majesty that defined him, and never lost his dignity, even when the goat kids discovered that, when recumbant, his head was a perfect launching platform for aerobatic leaping.  He simply chewed his cud, one eye half closing when a sharp little goatie hoof happened to land inside his ear.

I shot him myself, the first time I’ve done this.  It is quite a thing to look down the barrel of a gun at yet another friend.  We buried him on a rise in the back pasture, where he can watch over his new children, coming soon.  A year has passed in a flash, a year defined by grief and loss, a year of questioning motives for the farm, of the purpose for which we keep these animals to begin with, when we know, we know, that we will suffer their loss.

Horse Drawn Farms, entering now into the winter rain, seems a bleaker, darker place.  May the lambs of spring, the blossoms, the first bleat of a new goat kid, remind us that joy will return.

Old friends.

Old friends, now departed.

Here on the farm, August is the month of contrasts.  During the day, the dry hot brings forth an instant sweat, and flies.  The sheep hide.  The horses hide.  The chickens hide.  I would like to hide, but the farmhouse– a solid fir-framed centenarian–is woefully under-insulated and heats up like a Finnish sauna.   Besides, there are always more chores to do outside, and none of them are in the shade.  The hose is the only salvation.  Despite the pressing need to conserve water,  in between the beds of carrots and peas I point the spray straight upwards and it falls back to earth; instant, cold, magnificent rain, enough of a shock to cause that sudden, delightful inhalation, upturned face, gasp of a smile.  Weeding is bearable, then, and shoveling and mucking.  Until I dry off and the sweat breaks out once again.

But as the evening comes, everything begins to change.  The animals come back to life as the air cools.  Suddenly there are bucking, head-butting goats charging up and down their paddock.  Jimmy, a dusty-looking chestnut statue only a few hours earlier, regains his snorting horse spirit once again as he gallops in from the fields.   His delight at the break in the heat is obvious, and contagious.  It feels like the whole farm does a little jig in celebration.  And how could it not, when a cool wash comes quite suddenly up the valley, like the lifting of an uncomfortable blanket?  When the gardens are bursting at the seams with peas and beans and squash; when in the softening light, corn tassels rustle with golden threads, and tomatoes hang like rubies on their vines?   And at what other time does the livestock look so well and fat, do the new hens begin their year’s laying, does the anticipation of harvest seem a promise of unimaginable bounty?

For this farmer, it is only on an August evening that the euphoria of the farming lifestyle becomes so completely clear.

Delight.

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.

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.

 

Experienced farm folk know that the act of raising animals great and small inevitably brings with it a close connection with death.  After all, in many cases, the livestock we grow is destined to become our food, killed for that purpose.  Academically, I understood and accepted this as I entered upon this new lifestyle, but it did not stop my hands from shaking when I culled my first rabbit from our breeding stock.  After watching a few videos on Youtube to learn the techniques of killing and butchering, I realised there was no substitute for the real thing.   As a thirty-something suburbanite, the reality of removing life was quite different from that of a farm kid with a lifetime of exposure to the act of killing.  Decades of only ever nurturing and protecting pet animals that lived and played in my childhood home, and later in my own apartments and houses, was turned upside down.  Here was an animal in my arms, just the size of our pet cat, similarly vital and breathing and beautiful,  neither aged nor ill, and I wanted to take its life, break its neck, remove that miracle of electrical impulse, synapse and chemistry.  The opposition of these two poles was difficult for me to overcome as I stood over  the rabbit.  But I did kill it, and many more in the year following, becoming with each subsequent kill more and more comfortable with this self-endowed power as Giver of Life or Death.

The coming of  Horse Drawn Farms’  very first lambs was  a delight, and in my newness as a shepherd, I could not help but choose a favourite.  The only black lamb, with a small white patch or two across her back and the daughter of my best ewe, was an obvious candidate.  I carried her around in her first week, making friends, removing her fear and being gratified when she came to nibble at the tops of my boots or barely batted an eyelash as I approached her curled-up form tucked into a corner of the pen. By now,  my life-or-death power was in full swing.  This one will stay, I decided, and become one of my breeding flock. As I stroked her velvety wool, still coiled in little twists over her body, I envisioned her all grown up and perhaps having black lambs of her own–and all for me.   Yes, I had made my mind up about her, I thought, giving her warm little head a sniff.  The wonderful no-smell of baby lamb was a perfume.

And then she was dead.  I found her the next morning, hung.  She had strangled herself upon a hay net left, by me, hanging too low in the lamb pen.  I stared, aghast.  Hundreds of twists in the nylon of the net and the bare patch of flooring underneath swept free of straw told the story of a lengthy struggle.   Perhaps it was hours, spinning, gasping, kicking; plunging as the life was slowly squeezed out of her.  This was the power I had begun to feel smug about– she had died a horrible, prolonged death through my carelessness.

After loosing the stiff little body and laying it aside just outside the pen, I opened the door for turnout as usual.  Four ewes and their lambs charged out, but Emily only stood over her dead child, sniffing it carefully, chuckling her humming mother-call, puzzled as to why it wasn’t ready to go.  I left her for quite a while, to see if the pull of the flock would bring her along, but nothing would induce her to walk more than three or four steps.  In the end, I had to carry the lamb out to the paddock for her, and laid it in state where she could watch its still form as she ate.   In the afternoon, I finally removed it.

Writing this now in my office two days later, I can still hear her loud and obviously worried calls outside, reverberating into a stillness from which comes no answer.  I cherish the luxury I have of seeing the sheep run out each morning, the young ones joyously leaping and bounding in their exuberance at the freedom, the wonder of their new lives.   But I am weighed now, perhaps as all farmers should be, by the sense  of responsibility I have.  As a farmer producing animals, I am the cause of their life.   It falls to me, then, to remain vigilant, to ensure that their lives are the most comfortable, the most natural lives possible, and that their end, no matter when it comes, is the best possible death.

...it's here...

It happens to everyone, but on a farm it’s scary.  Suddenly, the year changes and everything is imminent.  How easy it is to be cavalier   when the old calendar is still on the wall, well marked, dishevelled, a ripped nail-hole or two.  But when the new year is staring you in the face, the icy January image (ok, well, on my calendar it’s giraffes, but they look cold) hung up in the office, then it’s real.  It’s real that the sheep aren’t just fat, they’re getting ready to lamb and the lambing stalls must be prepared for twelve new lives.   It’s real that the greenhouse, well-ensconced in the sodden old weeds of winter and with a green tinge well established across its windows, now needs to be moved and cleaned for this spring’s crop rotation. It’s real that eggs will soon be carefully collected for an early hatch, rabbit kittens and baby goats born and a green flush will come to pass over the land.  And there are still the fences to mend, field shelters to re-roof, garden boxes to build, seeds to purchase, composts to blend.  Isn’t that sign painted?  Where’s my new produce stand?

Spring arrives quickly here on the west coast–we’re heading up the first hill of the roller coaster.  And here at HDF, we wouldn’t want it any other way.

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