Priorities

Wow – a year and a half since the last post, back in July 2016.  This is horrendously long, but with more than a year to catch up on, hopefully you’ll give me some slack and find some time to skim through.

Truthfully, although I drafted a couple of posts during that period, I never published them and now I have turned a corner in life they don’t seem as relevant.  However, I wrote a post back in the spring of 2017, excerpts of which I will share here since it wasn’t a bad effort at describing my state of mind last year (winter 2016/spring 2017).

To begin then:

Winter seemed endless this year.  When I look back on the period from Thanksgiving (October) to Valentines Day (for which we still had snow on the ground), I cannot remember doing anything farm related at all, apart from minimal chores for the laying hens.  Not because there was nothing to do.   I was, frankly, in a bit of a funk.  Last summer stretched me beyond where I could really stretch.  I was exhausted, struggling physically and mentally with the challenge of fitting an enormous list of things to do into small chunks of available time.  I could feel myself stressing about farm activities when I needed to focus on family matters, and knew that my priorities were off kilter. Once all the meat was sold or in the freezer, I came to a grinding halt, farm-wise.

I should have been waging war on the blackberries, winterizing the brushcutter, cleaning out the brooder, mending fences, bringing in the electric fence from the pig run, and all manner of other small but necessary tasks – but I didn’t do any of them.  The pullets came into lay just before Christmas, just as planned, and we quickly went from being eggless to being seriously overstocked with eggs.  Getting them cleaned and into cartons seemed like a monumental job that I dreaded each evening.  As they filled the egg fridge and my cool storage and customers were slow to come back on line after three months with no eggs, I began to believe that even keeping a laying flock was a bad idea.

Not mentioned in that post, I can say now that at that time I had a lot of medical appointments, tests etc stretched out over about a year, and the stress and fear of what they might indicate were absolutely a major part of what I called “a bit of a funk”.  On top of that, other members of the family were dealing with stuff in their own lives, and our family dynamic was changing…

Talking to my husband about this, he reminded me that our primary farming goal back when we first moved to the farm 18 years ago was to produce as much of our own food as possible, selling any surplus to cover costs.  That was it.  For the first three years, that was as big as we wanted to get with farming.  While my dreams were always much grander than that, and we even created an ambitious farm plan based on them, the reality of small children, no money and a part time library job meant that I needed to keep my head below the clouds.  What happened this past year was that I mistakenly thought that with the girls basically all grown up now, and husband super busy with his business, it was now time for me to get going on that old farm plan.  Except that now I work full time at the library and it turns out that almost grown up kids and overworked husbands, while far more independent in many ways, are still very much in need of being kept high on the priority list.

So I did some deep thinking about priorities.  And it was clear that farming as a lifestyle, as an occupation, as a business is only a priority to me.   We all enjoy home grown food, we all enjoy the space around us that living on a farm provides, but I’m the only one who enjoys the “work” of farming, who gains satisfaction from investing personal time and energy into animal husbandry or veggie production.  And I don’t have that time and energy, because I have an off farm job that I enjoy, and it fits far better with family and spouse priorities than farming does.   And at the end of the day, given a choice between a healthy family dynamic or pursuing my personal priorities, family wins, hands down.

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When I started developing some health issues and struggling with low energy, and sought help with the farm chores from kids and hubby, they were all happy to pitch in with day to day stuff like collecting eggs or shutting in birds, but no one wanted to commit a weekend morning to mucking out the brooder or pulling up electric fence and storing it.  They saw such jobs as low priority and treated them accordingly.   At the same time, they were all willing to tackle more housework and meal preparation.  So the message was pretty clear.  And if my family is my first priority, then this is kind of a no-brainer. But I really struggled with letting go…

And why do I want to farm anyway?    It’s something deep in my gut.  I usually say that I was raised to it, but that doesn’t really fly, firstly because countless farm kids over the millennia have been “raised to it” and couldn’t wait to leave.  And in point of fact, my being “raised to it” was a relatively short period of my life – about 6 years from age 8 to 14.  Certainly I come from a family of farmers on my father’s side, but almost anyone can say that if they go back far enough in their family history.  Perhaps it is as simple as the fact that I just feel right when I’m working on a fence in the field, or struggling to catch chickens in the wee sma’s on butchering morning.  I am immensely satisfied by the sight of animals – relaxed and content because I have given them the living conditions that make them happy.

I’d love to not have to put a cost on my why.  How can you put a price on contentment, peacefulness and fulfillment?  But the reality is that raising your own food costs.  It costs time, energy and money.  Every minute of time spent spreading manure on a field is time not spent on some other activity.  Every ounce of energy spent moving pasture poultry pens on the field is energy not spent in some other way.  Every dollar spent on animal feed is money not spent on other things.  Maybe it’s all good value, but it depends on what you value.

Which is to say that if I had worked at farrming as my full time job, the money would have mattered a lot more; as it was, it remained a part time occupation for me.  The real issue was the return on the amount of energy and time expended.  And even now, with a massive shift in our farming activities (ie we no longer do any farming), we still keep laying birds because in our area, selling eggs is an easy profit, which we need to help maintain our farm tax status…so money is even now a factor.

 

Obviously, efficiency can mitigate a great deal of these costs.  And selling surplus eggs, meat, veggies can cancel out the cost of feed and bedding, perhaps even create profit.  To a point, economies of scale matter if one wants to farm long term.  It’s all very well to prefer to do things by hand, the slow way, spending all of your time and energy on farming.  There won’t be much money, but if this is the lifestyle of choice, that may be OK.   But you better be sure that if you are doing this with a spouse and/or family, that they are 100% in it with you.  That you and your spouse both believe it will be nothing but good for your children to grow up with their days revolving around the rhythms of the farm.

Clearly we were not all 100% in.  I’d actually known this for years – back when we’d created the farm plan when the girls were tiny, the plan had acknowledged that my husband would be working off farm and not engaged with farm work in any way, and we were both happy with that as part of the plan.  But as we juggled family life, jobs and priorities over the years, I came to realize that Joel Salatin’s wise words, emphasized throughout his book “You Can Farm“, were absolutely correct…

You think Joel Salatin is having one of his exaggerated over the top moments when he says that if you’re going to make a success of farming, you better forget Little League and ballet lessons?  Think again.  Something will have to give.  if you place a high value on extra curricular activities for your kids, that will take time and money and energy from you and your farm.  In an attempt to make it work for all of you, you may well end up compromising your farming values – perhaps you will choose to keep your pigs in the barn instead of on pasture so you don’t have to worry about them getting out while you’re at the ball diamond 3 nights a week through June, even though in your heart of hearts you have always believed they should have the opportunity to root and dig and wallow in a shady pasture. What if you spend 40 hours of your week off the farm, not counting commuting time?  That 40 hours certainly represents dollars coming in, but it also represents time and energy going out – and for me at least, my best energy of the day.  Moreover, that 40 hours is nearly always during daylight hours, which are coincidentally pretty valuable for farming.   And there’s a real danger that you’ll become so focussed on getting to work on farm projects in your “spare” (aka time not spent at your off farm job) that you will have no time to spend on fun or relaxation or time with your family.  All work and no play – that’s a real danger.  Maybe you are able to get your family out there with you, all working together on the various things that need doing and maybe you’re the kind of parent who can make that kind of fun.  Way to go.  But bear in mind that when you get home from that off farm job, most of the family is ready for down time just around the time you are ready to get the blue jeans on.  So they go off for a walk at the beach, without you.  Or you decide to go with them and skip moving the pig fence, putting off the well being of the pigs in favour of your kids. 

I have always been impressed by the example of how the Salatin family lives out work/life balance – of engaging the kids of multiple generations in meaningful farm work while still providing fun and family time.  There were times when we seemed close to living in alignment with the Salatin family’s example…

My family have always 100% supported my farming endeavours.  But they have never been 100% interested in being farmers.  Over the years, they have helped build sheds and shelters, they’ve lugged hoses and water jugs, feed and bedding.  They have been up at the crack of dawn catching broilers for butchering or fetching chicks from the post office.  They have collected eggs, held fence wire, emptied rat traps and held flashlights while we try to secure tarps in a windstorm.  They are as preversely proud as I am that we have not bought chicken from a store in more than 10 years, nor pork in the last 5.

But make no mistake – that balance the Salatins have achieved in their family is a result of one very fundamental priority – that they identify as a family as farmers first.  This one priority is the benchmark which affects other decisions they make regarding extra curricular activities like travel or clubs or other jobs.  In our family that benchmark priority has never been farming, whatever my own private priorities might have been…

My husband and I have placed a high value on education and the broadening of character that comes from travel and similar opportunities.  I have always felt strongly about volunteering and participating in the community.   For all that I love farming, I love my family more, and over the years I have happily prioritized family over the farm.  As a couple, we have felt that our money, time and energy are best spent on family goals.  So yes, our girls were in Girl Guides, church youth group,  and school extra-curricular activities.  While they were both paid for farm work in their teen years, as they took on some major responsibilites while I was at work off-farm, they both looked forward to the day they could work at other things, which has come to pass.  We have travelled quite a bit throughout the girls teen years – and the’ve done trips without us as well.  My husband’s business has grown to the point that he no longer has time or energy for farm tasks.

Family trips overseas, missions trips for each of the girls, RESPs providing for the girls post-secondary education if they wanted to pursue it, extended health benefits – those things were all achieved through my husband’s business success and my off farm job.  While we could have enjoyed a fulfilling life as a family of farmers, and that would have provided it’s own opportunities (and was the path I dreamed of taking), it would have been different financially.  Or not.  We’ll never know, because we took the path we took.

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Joel Salatin has said that farming is much easier when you work with Nature instead of against her.  If you take Nature as being something much larger than the physical acres and animals that comprise a farm, it becomes true of the people that live there as well.   I think that a paraphrase of this maxim might be true for more of us than admit to it:  Energy flows best when it’s going in the right direction.   The last few years when I struggled to balance work off farm, involvement with family and grow the farm – I struggled.  Like uphill, upstream, against the wind struggled.

I’m 55 this year.  I’m apparently not one of those people who ages gracefully.  I’ve come to an awareness of the process with denial, stubborness and ultimately a somewhat grudging acceptance.  5 gallons of water feels heavy nowadays.  I am not up for lugging bales of hay any distance.  I take breaks more often if I’ve been on my feet for a while.  If my energy is on the wane, then I wamt to spend it wisely.

And now?  Well, last summer I told everyone these were the last pigs.  I thought I’d feel bitter and resentful about that, but instead I felt peaceful, and relieved.

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Which brings me to now, nine months after I wrote out all this internal turmoil.  I’m 56 now, and all the medical tests that began in spring 2016 culminated last May (2017) with a diagnosis of “high risk for MS”, which is a doctorish way of saying that I have some of the symptoms of MS, but not enough to be formally diagnosed with the disease, for which I am supremely grateful.  I have some (not a lot) demyelineation, which is when your body attacks the myelin sheathing that protects your nerves.  This means my feet are more or less numb, one leg has noticeable muscle weakness, and I get fatigued sometimes – tired to the point of finding it difficult to move smoothly, so tired that I am weepy and cranky.  MS is an auto-immune disease, and there are more people diagnosed with it in Canada than anywhere else in the world, which is thought to be related to the fact that one cause of the disease is believed to be vitamin D deficiency, to which Canadians are typically prone living so far north as we do (which makes me wonder about Scandinavia and Russia, but anyway).  Not uncoincidentally, stress is probably also a factor, as it is with other auto-immune diseases, and there is no question I found 2016 to be a very stressful year, in no small part because of the whole work/family/farm balance thing.

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So it’s just as well that I came to this relatively peaceful place in my mind about farming without knowing the diagnosis – because I’m absolutely stubborn enough that I would have likely been determined to prove that I could still do what I wanted despite physical limitations.  Not a good reason for farming and probably not possible anyway.  I miss the satisfaction of farm work, but truthfully I’m relieved not to be driven by that never ending “should do” list.   Nowadays, I still work full time at the library, but I go to yoga twice a week, I have upped the quantity of leafy greens I eat by a huge amount, I take a fairly hefty dose of vitamin D daily and I see the doctor more regularly than I ever have except during pregnancy.  I also have seen more movies with my husband, had more family games nights, had long morning coffee chats with our eldest daughter, and gone craft store shopping with the younger daughter.    My husband and I had a fabulous summer getaway on a nearby island staying in a cob house on a working sheep farm.  The elder daughter and I went to a women’s retreat together in September, and the younger daughter and hubby and I spent a few days geeking out over dinosaurs in Alberta in October. It’s a little sad that it took the risk of an auto-immune disease to make me wake up and recognize my priorities for what they were, but I’m there now.  And I’m loving it.

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Growing Young Farmers

Ever have one of those phases where something not really in your consciousness suddenly pops up repeatedly?  Like when you buy a new car, and suddenly everyone seems to be driving the same model?   It’s been one of those times for me.

I had a leaning on the tailgate of the truck kind of conversation with a farmer friend a couple of weeks ago. About our farms, our friends, our families. Same old. Except that day he was not his usual optimistic self. He is a full time farmer, has been since he was 15, when his Dad died.  He loves what he does, but that day he expressed worry about whether he could keep it all going. He touched on the fact that all three of his kids are in college, planning futures that will not depend on farming as their livelihood, even though they all love the farm and are more than happy to help out as needed.   He also has a bevy of young lads who work for him throughout the summer season, loyal followers all, some of whom work for him sporadically through the winter as well.  He sees as few do around here, the need to inculcate the possibilities of future farming in the minds and hearts of young people, to show them that it can be done, in a huge variety of ways and scale.   He has a gift with young people, a kind of natural leadership that makes them keen to keep working for him.  He empowers, trains, builds confidence, builds skills, and generally grows these teenagers into responsible adults.  Will they be farmers, any of them?  He hopes so, so do I, but it’s hard to know.

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That was a couple of weeks ago.  Last week, our eldest daughter began discussing with us the possibility of starting a farm enterprise or two of her own, using the resources our farm can provide to save her some costs.  Now, I’m the antithesis of my tailgate friend.  I’m a micromanager, naggy kind of supervisor.  Ask any of my Navy subordinates – I have a t-shirt one class of trainees made for me that says “Mother Wren” across it.  Wren is an acronym from the Royal Navy short for Women’s Royal Naval Service, and it was at that time part of my rank designation, Master Wren (my male counterparts who were Master Seamen), and thus the shirt slogan was an allusion to my tendencies to mother hen them too much.

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I’ve done all right as a mother; my characteristics fall into the “typical” category for the role. But as a mentor of a young adult?  I’m not most people’s first pick.  So I did what I’ve learned to do best as a mother of teenagers. I breathed calmly and thought before I spoke (this takes practice).  I remembered Salatin’s advice in Family Friendly Farming.  And I said, “Sure, absolutely, how can we help?”  More or less.  I’m a work in progress.  She has a lot of ideas, but the most immediate are that she wants to start a layer flock of her own to sell eggs, and she wants to raise veggies to sell at our roadside stand (which is currently a seasonal egg stand, but we’re talking future tense here).   From us she needs space for winter housing for her flock of 20 birds, and permission to run a chicken tractor on the field during the warmer seasons.  We’ve offered a third of our veggie garden space plus a little more in an unused flower bed for the veggies she wants to grow to sell.  It’s not a bad plan.  I don’t know if it will last, but she’s full of passion about it.  My job is not to throw any cold water or criticism or to say that she’s not doing it my way (the right way, obviously), but instead to be like my friend above.   Will this exercise grow a farmer?  I have no idea.

Skipper's Canyon near Queenstown, NZ

Skipper’s Canyon near Queenstown, NZ

Recently, our youngest daughter went to an awards ceremony at Government House.  She and two friends had been involved in a local initiative called Vital Youth through the school, wherein their team was given the responsibility of finding a local charity deserving of a $2500 donation.  They had a list of criteria the organization had to meet, and quite a bit of legwork in narrowing down to their best choice.  It’s an interesting concept, and I invite you to check out this link to learn more.  However, the point I want to make is that these three girls, after several weeks of work determined that a group called Growing Young Farmers was their favourite choice.  How cool is that?  Not one of these three girls is likely to be a farmer- two intend to pursue careers in the medical field, while one is a musician.  But at 15 and 16 years old, they recognize the work this awesome organization is doing and it’s importance for the future.

And then finally, I was catching up on emails after a nasty bout in bed with stomach flu and noticed that a blog I follow written by a young farmer in PEI, who has not been writing for the last six months or more had suddenly posted.  This is Barnyard Organics (For Love of the Soil in my sidebar), in the western part of PEI.  They are a young couple with 4 kids under the age of 8, one a newborn.  They are certified organic, grow grain, raise chickens, both layers and broilers, hogs and lamb, have recently built an on-farm, inspected poultry processing facility and do all this on a farm originally owned by Mark’s Dad, who still helps out a lot.  Sally, the blogger, is as passionate as they come in the Maritimes (which is pretty passionate), articulate and willing to speak her mind about what she believes in, all of which makes her a popular speaker at local farming and/or organic conferernces.  This particular post is one of her best, an excerpt of a speech she recently gave.  Here’s the link for you to read it yourself, which I urge you to do, because her topic is the Family Farm, and she focuses of course on growing young farmers.

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clearing blackberries from future farmer’s future chicken house

In the week since I began drafting this post (this is clearly why my recent posts are so long, I’m writing them over several days :)), things have moved quickly.  My eldest is now officially on payroll, and has the sunburn and tired muscles to prove it and has taught the piglets to fist bump (they use their snouts).  My friend from the tailgate session is up to his ears in making hay, thanks to the 5 day run of sunny, warm weather.  He’s in full gear, running morning till night, making hay while the sun shines.  He’s got no time to think beyond the next weather forecast, let alone ponder the fate of future farmers.  But they’re out there with him, driving tractors, stacking bales, getting sunburned and building muscles.

All you can do is plant the seeds, nurture them as best you can and practice a lot of faith.

 

 

An Alphabetical summary

Perhaps “summary” isn’t quite the right word, as this is rather a long post, but I’ve included pictures to make it easier, so be brave…

Fellow blogger Dark Creek Farm has been posting daily for the past few weeks on topics based on the letter of the day, as part of a bloggers challenge.  I don’t have that kind of blogging stamina at all, but as I was hacking away at yet more blackberries the other day, my mind started playing with the topics I’d choose if I was participating.  I haven’t blogged in a few weeks, so maybe this list will serve to give a glimpse of what’s up here at Tyddyn-y-morwr.

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Despite appearances, this was a lovely family time at the end of a busy day. Baked potatoes in the coals of what had been a huge pile of brambles, getting ready to chow down on sausage dogs. Eldest daughter told me she felt the picture needed livening up.

A…April. Apple blossoms.  Eldest daughter’s 19th birthday soon, making her an official, legal Adult.  She’s so grown up now, that it’s nice to know there is still some of the kid in her.  Love this kid!

B…Blackberries – as in hacking, hauling and Burning.  We’ve made some significant progress this year, thanks to W getting into some patches with his tractor. Burning blackberries of course means Bonfires – I have till the end of April to burn without a permit.  Broody hen. I’ve got two.  And Broken eggs – thanks egg eaters, go get caught by the eagle please.

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Nothing in this picture for scale, but the pile is in fact about 2 metres long and 1 metre high. The only good day for burning it was a day I had to start work after lunch. But we got it done. Now the pigs can get to the roots and finish the job.

C…Clothespin holder!  Made by my elderly neighbour, who accidentally knocked my former container off the rail a few weeks ago, and vowed to make me something better – which he most certainly did.  It might possibly be sturdier than my barn.  This is what you get from a guy who used to build lighthouses (real ones) I guess.

Old container on the left, news on the right (like you needed a hint!).

Old container on the left, new on the right (like you needed a hint!).

 

The internal view.  The chain is to prevent the roof from overextending the hinges.  It sits on the rail, but is attached to the post via a screw in the post and a keyhole in the container.

The internal view. The chain is to prevent the roof from overextending the hinges. It sits on the rail, but is attached to the post via a screw in the post and a keyhole in the container.

D…Driving lessons.  With both kids, one almost ready for the test, the other still making me clutch the door handle frequently (I’m a nervous passenger).  Daffodils – almost over now, but so beautiful the last month or so.

E…Edwardian Farm TV series, which I borrowed from the library, and which eldest daughter and I have been watching most nights, followed by some very cool discussion.  We began with Wartime Farm last year, also from the library.  Sadly Victorian Farm and Tales from the Green Valley (Elizabethan period) are not available on DVD in Canada, so we will have to watch these online.  But we will.  And by then the current series, Tudor Monastery Farm will be available in DVD perhaps….(I have in fact already seen all but the last one online but I’m enjoying the sharing with my daughter).

F…Fencing.  W and crew from Warlin Farms were here for much of last week, whipping my future pig pasture into shape by putting in two permanent perimeter fences and clearing the aforementioned blackberries for me.  What would have been weeks of labour on my own was handled by a couple guys and a tractor in three afternoons.  Now I just have to get the electric set up inside this field to create pig paddocks, and we’re good to go.

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Warlin Farms crew pounding in the last post. There will be a 10 ft gate near the roll of wire, and yes, there’s quite a dip in the field near the middle of the line.

G…Gates.  W and crew are hopefully installing a few gates in the new fence lines tomorrow, and have done an awesome job repairing the gate down the bottom of the property, which for about the last 10 years had required one to untie the wire holding it to the posts and lift it to one side of the opening to come through with a tractor.  Thanks to the guys, it now hangs from one reinforced post, is secured at the other reinforced post and swings without touching the ground.  Amazing.

H…Hogweed.  Giant Hogweed to be specific.  I am dealing with two stands of it in one of the chicken runs, and it’s a wicked wicked plant.  Look it up on the web before you touch it.  Wear gloves and long sleeves.  Have black plastic bags ready to hold all the bits you’re cutting off.  And then…figure out how you’re going to get rid of your plastic bags of chopped up wicked plant.  Because the official recommendation is herbicide or the landfill, but your landfill might prohibit noxious weeds (gosh, why?).  And then do it all next year, this time before it sets seed.  I’ll be dealing with this for several years apparently.  Mowing will help.

I…Income tax?  It’s due, but it’s boring.  Instead, let’s consider Impossible.  Six impossible things before breakfast, for example.  I realize it’s a stretch, but here’s one impossible thing that happened before breakfast, up on the Atherton Tablelands near Mareeba, not far from Cairns in Australia:

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We started in the dark, and sunrise happened all around us, as we rose into the air. It was spectacular.

J…Jumpstarting the John Deere.  Lawnmower that is.  I have not had it in for servicing this year, and the battery is on strike, as a result.  I’m sure B is going to tell me to get a new battery when he does get his hands on my mower.  In the meantime, I have to jumpstart the mower from my car every time I want to mow, which is about twice a week.  This has been good for me, as I once set fire to a friend’s car in a parkade in a downtown apartment building by hooking up the cables wrong, and it has taken me decades to work up the courage to try this again.  I will admit the operator’s manual for the car falls open to the instructions for jumpstarting.

K…Koalas, Kangaroos and Keas.  We saw Kookaburras in Australia too, last month, but no good pictures, sorry.  This Koala and the Kangaroos are in a wildlife park up near Cairns in Queensland, the northeastern part of Australia.  Keas are in New Zealand, and are pests.  Not pretty birds, but very smart.  They are known to rip apart tires, window trim etc on vehicles and we watched a trio one night trying to figure out a way to take apart a chain that was keeping the public off a ski-lift platform on a mountain in Queenstown, a resort town in the mountainous area of the South Island in New Zealand.

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L…Library.  I think you all know I work for the Local Library system.  I Love my job.  Most recently I love that thanks to a former colleague retiring, I have been able to transfer from the branch I was in for the last 5 years, to the one in my local community.  I really miss my colleagues at my old branch, and also the wonderful patrons there, but I’m loving the 5 minute commute (15 if I walk), and the fact that I know 90% of the people coming through the door.

M…Mud.  There’s still a surprising amount around, even though here on southern Vancouver Island, we’re definitely in full Spring mode, with mild temperatures, light if any frosts, and much less rain.  It’s only been a week though, and with a lot of heavy clay in the local soil, and farmers anxious to get the ground seeded, hay fertilized etc, there’s been a couple of tractors in up to their axles.  It’s not quite safe to stop wearing gum boots around this farm, either – a soft spot just before the hen house often catches me, and the garden soil is still pretty wet.

 

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Bubbling, steaming mud pools in Rotorua, New Zealand

N…New Zealand.  And Australia (though it doesn’t start with N).  We spent most of March Down Under, loving every minute of it.  I’ve been slowly creating albums on FB from the 1ooo or so pictures I took, and if you live nearby, you can watch the slideshow that hubby put together on his laptop – you’ll need to be prepared to stay for about an hour, longer if you don’t know how to make us stop giving commentary (we’re talkers here). I keep planning to post about it, but we just covered so much ground and did so many things that I am…

O…Overwhelmed.  As you will be if we ever inflict our NZ/Aus slide show on you.  I am also overwhelmed with farm and family life just now.  I am not good at prioritizing, though I’ve read books on the topic, and taken courses.  It’s the doing that’s hard.  There’s just so much.  I write lists, and break them down.  I try not to have too many projects on the go at one time.  But I find myself always spinning my wheels, having to fix something before I can do something else, or make a trip to buy screws only to get home and discover that I was short a couple of pieces of wood as well.  Or I’ll start the day well, but get bogged down in a morasse of small tasks that lead me down a red herring trail away from the priorities.  It’s like looking at the long list of possible tax forms for the first time, as elder daughter just did recently for her first tax return.  There’s just so many.  How to even start?  Yup, I can relate.  Fortunately, there’s Simple Tax for her.  For me it’s just a case of taking a deep breath, and following what I know I need to do to keep my priorities straight.

P. Piglets.  Coming this Saturday, from Alberta, because I couldn’t find any here on the Island.  There are people here breeding pigs, but most of them are doing so for their own farms.  Those that are available are spoken for months in advance.  I was slow to start looking and basically missed the boat, and being away for a month didn’t help.  The people bringing in this load of piglets are very nice, and have a lovely little farm where they are establishing a CSA box programme and raising many of the pigs they’re bringing  back themselves, so I’m sure all will be well, but with the PED virus spreading like wildfire, getting pigs from a big producer in Alberta is a bit of a risk.

Q.  Quail.  Who are not happy that we’ve removed so many blackberry stands, which they love to shelter under.  I love hearing them piping away through the day, and usually see a parade of them bravely rushing across the back lawn when I’m heading out to the chickens in the morning.

R.  Rats.  Big problem right now.  The cat seems more interested in rabbits and voles (probably easier to catch).   The dog used to be a great rat catcher, but less so as she aged.  Now she’s gone, I guess they clued in.  I’ve bought a few traps and will have to start using them, but man, I don’t like this part of the job.

We had lunch at the RSL club house on Bondi Beach, just outside Sydney Australia.  It's nickname is the "Rat House".

We had lunch at the Retired Servicemen’s League club house on Bondi Beach, just outside Sydney Australia. It’s nickname is the “Rat House”. Enlarge to see the explanation.

S.  Strawberries.  We’ve planted some for the first time in years, me in a part of a former flower garden, the elder daughter in a raised bed she built herself.  Hers is deer and rabbit proofed, mine is not.  It’s like an experiment, and I’ve got the control group.

Her strawberry bed.  I'm not showing you mine.

Her strawberry bed. I’m not showing you mine.

T…Truck.  I keep passing a truck for sale, a GMC Sierra 250 4×4, 1995, single cab, long box, bright red.  I want it.  Every time I pass it, I slow down.  But it’s got more than 201,000 km on the odometer, and the model is known for fuel injection issues, and 1995 means it will need some maintaining, which is a skill I most definitely don’t have.  I could really use a truck, hauling feed, straw, junk, garbage, kayaks, chickens, pigs, etc.  But so far, I’ve been managing OK with the little Echo and the help of friends from time to time.  A 3/4 ton might be more truck than I really need.  I should stop yearning for this one.  But I still keep slowing down to look at it.  And it’s red.

U…Undone.  There is an old prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer which resounds in my head frequently in this season of too much to do:  “I have left undone those things which I ought to have done, and done those things which I ought not to have done, and there is no help in me.”.  Yup, pretty much describes me these days.  I have a list of things to do a mile long, and yet my day seems to fill up with countless small things that crop up.  The struggle to focus and get one project done at a time is huge.  And not possible – to focus on one big project is to stall the others.  If I focus on getting the pig paddocks ready and don’t do anything else, they might in fact be done in time.  But the chickens desperately need to move to new ground, and I have some fence repair to do (it’s the fence I share with a gardening neighbour) before that can happen.  Moving the chickens to fresh ground will make them happier, and should reduce the egg eating issues for a bit.  If I don’t hack blackberries now, I lose the chance to burn the clippings, since I won’t be able to burn at all after the end of April.  See the problem?  I’m behind on seed planting because I keep leaving it for night time, and then being too tired to go downstairs and get started on it.  Driving lessons are eating up my Sunday afternoons – but that’s better than when we tried just using errands to double as driving time – elder daughter ended up getting no driving practice as she was never around when I did errands.  It’ll pass, it always does, but as I get older, I’m getting more aware of how quickly it passes…

V…Vancouver.  Youngest daughter and hubby are headed over to Vancouver this weekend for the provincial level of the Concours d’Art Oratoire, a public speaking competition for Francophone and French Immersion students. It is held annually across Canada at the class, school, district and provincial level, starting in grade 6.   This will be the fourth time younger daughter has made it to the provincial level, and her sister went once as well.  Youngest daughter’s topic this year is “La depression chez les adolescents” (teenage depression), which came out of some research she did in Psych class last semester.  I can’t join them this year because of work and the pigs arriving the day of the competition, but I’m crossing my fingers for her.  It’s amazing listening to the proficiency and fluency of these kids, seeing how confident and articulate some of them are in front of dozens of strangers and expert judges.  Yup, proud of this girl!

Younger daughter horseback riding near Queenstown, New Zealand.

Younger daughter horseback riding near Queenstown, New Zealand.

W…Water pipes.  I have an issue getting water to the future pig paddocks.  The plan was to run the line from the chicken house which is plumbed for the automatic waterers, but over the winter, one of the pipes has split, and a new section has to be plumbed in.  More than can be fixed with plumbers tape.  It wasn’t an issue when I was just taking out water to the chickens – a five gallon bucket is good for the day, but the pigs are going to need the same, more as the summer wears on, and it’s a good many more steps from the hose on the back of the house to the pigs area than it is to the chickens.  Water is something I definitely need to deal with.

X…Exercise.  This time of year, I start using muscles that have been idle over the year, which can make me pretty sore at the end of the day.  In addition, my issues with plantars fasciitis resurfaced a few weeks before our trip.  The massive amount of walking I did that month was great exercise but didn’t help my heel, and on return I was back visiting my favourite physiotherapist, who has begun training me in several stretching exercises designed to keep my left foot more flexible (I tore a muscle decades ago, and some stiffness has set in, causing much of my problem).  As the exercises increase, they are beginning to work my whole body, since, as my physio guy points out, everything is connected.   This is turning out to be a very good thing – a session with the mattock last week when I attacked blackberry roots for 3 hours left me stiff, but not immobile, and I actually woke up the next day feeling more or less normal.  Hauling dozens of wheelbarrow loads of brambles to the bonfire place? No problem.  Tired, but not sore.  This is excellent news, because as I move into this season, I will begin lugging more 20kg feed sacks around, hauling more buckets of water, and eventually will be moving the field shelters (200 lbs) daily.  It’s a good weight loss and strength training programme actually, but I also strongly recommend some stretching exercises.

Y…Yawning.  That’s about to get more common for me, as things start to speed up outside.  I love it, but it does tire me out at the end of the day.  Currently morning chores include chickens and breakfast.  Come Saturday, tending piglets will be added in, requiring a slightly earlier start.  Once I start brooding chicks (in about a month), an even earlier start.  Laying pullets will still be out in the pasture pens, being moved every morning when the broiler chicks start in the brooder at the end of July.  As they get ready to go onto the pasture, the layers will move to the (hopefully) repaired and refurbished hen house and it won’t be till the broilers and pigs get processed at the end of September that things will die down in the mornings again.  Evening chores are kind of the same.  Yup, I’ll be yawning quite a bit, but I’ll also be enjoying it all.

Z…And of course, I am sleeping very, very well these days.  Nothing like a lot of fresh air and exercise to make me sleep like a log.  In about a month, I won’t be awake much past 1o or so, and going deep under till the alarm goes off at 530.  ZZZZ…

It takes two to tango

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I have a quote taped to the inside of one of the kitchen cupboards:  “You cannot walk in your own strength”.

Joel Salatin has commented more than once, including in his book “You Can Farm“, that one of the most common reasons that beginner farmers fail is because their spouse and/or family is not on the same page with them about farming.  Farming is a lifestyle as well as a livelihood, and it is really not for everyone, blood related or not.

My family does not share my deep desire to farm. They are supportive:  they all do chores when I am at work, they cook meals, undertake maintenance projects etc.  My husband in particular has developed his interest in farming over the years, partly through an appreciation of just how much better our eggs and chicken taste compared to what we had been eating, partly because he’s in a “if you can’t beat them, join them” kind of situation with me.

As parents and spouses we have always had to deal with some tension due to our differing levels of passion for farming, careers, children’s activities, etc. and have had to do some give and take about family goals, plans, direction, etc.  One result of that is that the girls have developed non-farming interests.  They are great kids, turning out to be fabulous adults, but not farmers.  And I’m fine with that:  our goals as parents were to raise kids that would be good members of their community, contributing to the welfare of where they live and who they live with, living their values with integrity.  They are capable, responsible, smart, have wide interests and know how to laugh.  What more could we ask for?

I need to be respectful of my family’s different interests, desires, goals.  While they support my desire to farm, I need to support their love of adventure, travel, their goals for financial security etc.  We have to find a balance that allows each of us our thing, while still supporting all the others.  It’s not the way I hoped farming was going to shake out for our family – I had pictured us working together on a common passion.  But it is what it is, for whatever reasons, and so our common passion is being family, supporting each other.  While I still have goals in farming to develop production and diversity, and things I want to do with the land,  my family will always come first.  In return, they will support me when and how they are able (as long as it doesn’t involve manure, apparently!)

With regard to the physical side of farming support – yeah.  That’s an issue too.  Building projects are difficult by yourself.  So much stuff needs to be lifted and/or carried.  Catching loose chickens is faster with an extra person.  Working off farm really requires assistance from someone to be around during the day.   It’s lonely and sometimes scary in the dark, it’s great when someone is out there with you.   We don’t have a lot of equipment, no truck or tractor, nor very many useful skills (like carpentry), and we have relied heavily on neighbours over the years for tractor work, construction work, transporting things/critters and advice.  I’m not good at asking for help, and my husband was raised to value independence. So we’ve had to develop some humility in this regard.

The emotional side? I’m female, I’m middle aged, my tear ducts get a work out.  I can be knocked down pretty easily by small challenges, like weather or broken doors or sick animals…it may be why I was put in this place, to develop some resilience and strength to cope with the curves life throws.  I have a stubborn streak that gets me back on my feet most of the time, but I could not do it without my husband there to pick up the pieces of me at the end of a bad day, dust me off and come help me build an emergency fence in the dark and the rain.

Something not often mentioned when successful farmers speak about their success is that someone is “keeping the home fries burning”. The vast majority of them have someone cooking the meals, keeping the bathroom clean, making sure the mud that gets tracked in also gets swept out.  I’m not saying that has to be gender specific, but it frankly often is.  Especially when there are small children in the picture, there are routines to the day that are kind of relentless:  meals have to happen, and someone has to cook them, baths, story time, bedtime routines.  It is very difficult to make headway on a project when you are only able to give it an hour before naptime ends or you have to pick up kids from school or take them to swimming or…  There is nothing more depressing than coming in tired and dirty on a wet, cold night to the prospect of a cluttered kitchen and no dinner till you figure out what it’s going to be.

I read a lot of farming blogs.  If there is one single thing that successful farmers have in common, I think it would be that none of them are farming alone.  First of all, farmers, especially beginner farmers cannot afford to be independent.  They have to rely on the farming community around them for knowledge, skills, help.  They need customers (what Joel Salatin calls his cheerleaders) – I know from experience that a bad day can be made wonderful when a customer phones to say “I just wanted to tell you that was the BEST chicken we’ve ever had!”.  They might be a couple of partners, they might be spouses, or siblings or a family or a single person with apprentices or employees, but NONE of them do this alone.

My parents farmed with a network of support around them, from the hippies next door, to the dairy farmer down the road, to my grandmother coming every Monday to vacuum and dust so my Mum could get stuff done outside.  In the 15 years since we’ve moved back to the farm where I grew up, it’s probably taken me a decade to realize that this farming thing of mine – it cannot be mine alone.  If I’m going to make it work, I’m going to have to get better at engaging in the network of support that is all around me. Change that me to we.  Somehow.

Family Barbeque

Every year, the local fair happens on Labour Day weekend, right across the road from our place, attracting about 50,000 over the 3 days with halls of vegetables and fruit, jams and jellies, lego, sewing, all kinds of livestock,horses and of course the midway. All of which means that for three days we are not able to drive anywhere as a line of cars reminiscent of the one in Field of Dreams snakes its way past our driveway, and down the road for more than a kilometre or two all day long.

So, in a spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them”, we have had a tradition for several years now of hosting a family barbeque one of the nights of the fair, inviting  local friends to park at our place for the fair, stay for food, and head on up at sunset to catch the headliner on the music stage. Those who have already spent the day at the fair often choose to hang loose at our place, as once the evening settles in, we usually bring out the propane fire (we still have a fire ban here due to the dry summer), and drag chairs up.

Guests bring their own plates, cutlery etc and lawnchairs, as well as a salad or dessert to share. We provide burgers, sausage dogs, corn on the cob, plus juice and sangria. We had an amazing array of exotic salads this year – quinoa, kamut, antipasto, two types of green salad. People brought watermelon, home grown grapes and brownies for dessert, and one person decorated all the tables with huge branches of cherry tomatoes, which everyone picked at all night long.

There were some changes this year – One friend was able to come for the first time in years, as until this year she has always worked this weekend in the Gulf Islands, and it was she who brought all the cherry tomatoes.  One family who is ALWAYS with us were not able to attend as they had a number of out of town family staying with them – it didn’t feel quite right without them, but there’s always next year.

The pigs enjoyed salad scrapings and corn cobs for breakfast the following morning and the dog spent the next day checking the lawn for dropped bits, and all the kids went back to school.  So ended the summer.

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parking lot!

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boys burning energy

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That’s not a beer fridge, it’s the smoker (where he smoked the sausages for the bbq)

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Eldest daughter and her friend slack lining – it’s harder than it looks, and yes, the line is about a foot off the ground

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First time they’ve seen each other in two months – lot of talking to catch up on!

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Oma and Opa, parents of one of our close friends, surrogate grandparents to many of the kids here.

The dog days of January

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It was the last day of first semester today, and the teens of the household rejoice and clap their hands, figuratively at least – such a visual display of joy in front of parents would be far too uncool.  Above are the teens themselves – call them Sound and Lights, because that’s what they were called during the Senior musical theatre production last week – and here’s the picture of them in the booth to prove it.

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At the beginning of the month was Dad’s birthday – the cake was made from scratch by our eldest daughter – as in eggs, flour, blood sweat and tears (not really), and a lot of chocolate.  I could have only the smallest sliver thanks to the gallstone diet, but that just meant more for everyone else.  Please note that the candles do not represent his actual age (though that might be what he wished).   Dog walk, dog days 006

A favourite dog walking place called Island View Beach, on a beautiful day last weekend, with our younger daughter in tow – or is the dog the one in tow?   Dog walk, dog days 011

This is why it’s called Island View Beach – the nearest island is Canadian, the others you can see in the picture are American – the small islands in this strait are called the Gulf Islands if they’re Canadian, and the San Juan Islands if they’re American.  Way in the background, more or less centre picture is Mount Baker, a volcano that is pretty much asleep but which steams occasionally – it’s in Washington State in the US.  I don’t know why, but Mt Baker is always referred to as “he” around here – as in “he’s looking really clear today”. Dog walk, dog days 016

This is one of the smaller flocks we’ve chased off this week.  I was asked why I cared about the Canada geese being on the field when I go to great trouble to put chickens on my field for their fertilizing value.  The geese certainly provide that, but they also mow the grass very short in a season when it’s not growing, but the main reason I don’t want them is that this field is quite soggy and the geese paddle around with their feet making craters and mudholes.  If it was a couple of pairs, or even a dozen birds, I’d probably ignore them, likewise if they were just passing through on their way North or South, but they live here year round, and as you can see, this small flock of 80 (I counted) is more than just a few.  Earlier in the week, I counted 120 at one time.  We’ve been chasing them off every day, so far, and the numbers are dwindling, so hopefully I can be more persistent than them.  Hunting is not an option – no gun, no license, and there’s about 10 square metres in the  middle of the field where I could actually shoot them, as I have to be 100 metres from a perimeter border.    Moreover, I’m told these are often called “flying carp” by hunters – as in more bones than good flesh. Dog walk, dog days 021

Blackie the headless dog – she dug that hole with great enthusiasm, chasing after some prey, real or imagined.  Feeling her age at 12, she flopped in happy exhaustion a moment later, muddy but content. Dog walk, dog days 024

Snowdrops!  I look forward to them every January – the very first signs of new life.  My Dad planted them all over the place – along the fencelines in random places in the field, in the orchard, beside the house, in what I now use as a herb garden.  They are a delightful surprise everywhere I look. Dog walk, dog days 028 I’ve had three or four laundry worthy sunny days this month.  No, even here in the PNW, it’s not quite warm enough for shorts – that’s someone’s gym strip.

And that’s the kind of January it’s been here on the soggy, foggy, but unfrozen Small Farm of the Sailor.

Happy Birthday Mum!

Today my Mum would be 81. She died in 1994, two days after her 64th birthday. I was 3 months pregnant with our first daughter, though I didn’t realize it at the time.  Have you ever noticed how often birth and death coincide?

My Mum would have been a fabulous grandmother, and she had been looking forward to it “someday” – she would have been no nonsense, but a ton of fun.  She could read all the characters in a book and sound like they were different voices, without really changing her own.  She was a great listener, made awesome pancakes, was definitely not huggy/kissy, was hospitable no matter what state the house was in.  She always started up camp songs when we were driving long distances, sung lustily and tunelessly.  She loved taking a pack of kids to the beach,  jug of juice for them, thermos of coffee for her.  She always had a coffee on the go, usually cold.  I never understood why, till I became a mother myself.  She had been a debutante in her teens and had the kind of manners that could be used in the Queen’s company, but tended to be dressed in the most odd combinations of clothes in her daily life.    She had a great sense of humour and loved a practical joke – she once sewed a thread through the legs of her cousins pyjamas on April 1st, so they wouldn’t be able to get them on.  She could be pretty gullible too – on their honeyoon trip, camping their way across Canada to Halifax, my Dad told her to cover her watch going under power lines because of the magnetic effect – she did it faithfully for a month, before riding with someone else in Halifax and learning that not everybody did that.

Born here on Vancouver Island, she was second generation Canadian, but spoke with a definite English accent.  She never left the Island until she was married (the day after her 21st birthday – Happy Anniversary, too!), and then, since my Dad was a naval officer, moved 12 times in 18 years.   She loved the adventure in those early years, but eventually yearned to put down roots.  When they bought this farm, she thought they’d never move again, but my Dad’s career changed after several years of farming, and though they kept the farm, they actually lived two other places between 1976 and 1987 before finally retiring to the farm for good.  Upon retirement, she set to digging up the old chicken run to become a perennial garden a la Penelope Hobhouse, with heritage varieties.  The roses are still there.  When the weather drove her indoors, she got to grips with computers so she could delve into genealogy, eventually compiling complete records for both of her parents families back to the 1400’s and for my father’s family before that.

She was a smoker.  She had been raised very strictly, and though she loved her parents all her life, I always felt she probably started smoking to bug them.  By the time I was old enough to understand, in the 1970s, she was trying to quit, but was never successful.  The habit was expensive, so for years she rolled her own; she had this tabletop gizmo that you loaded the tobacco into, stuck a pre-formed cylinder onto the end and pushed a handle to force the tobacco into the tube.  The year my Dad was in and out of hospital – a slipped disc, a ruptured ulcer that required surgery, a gall bladder that got removed – the hippies from next door (another story) used to help out with animal care so she could get time to go visit him in hospital, and she paid them in cigarettes.   It was probably due to smoking that she developed an inoperable brain tumour.

I have missed my Mum many times over the years, especially when I went into motherhood, without her there beside me, as I had fully expected that she would be.  I’m not sad anymore, though that took a while.  I’m blessed to live in the house she made into a home, and while I strive to make it a home for my family, there remains so much evidence of my mother all around me.  A trellis full of heritage climbing roses, all in honour of me and my wedding, by virtue of their names (one was Wedding Day).  A transplanted row of hawthorns that were waist height in her time and now tower over me.  Clearly labelled boxes of sewing material, special china etc.  A box of photo albums.  Knicknacks.  Silverware.  A wall of drywall she did when my Dad was away.  The piano.  Best of all, I am left with memories, happy and otherwise.  Life stuff.  Some of my best parenting comes from those memories – the need to follow through on what I say to the kids.  The need to listen actively.  The ability to be sympathetic and still not give in.  To know when to give in.  To push when they want to give up.  To have fun.  To read a lot.  Would I have wanted to lean on her more had she been here with me in those early years of parenting?  Possibly.  This way, I was forced to rely on God, myself, and my husband to figure things out and get stuff done.  My Dad, shy and awkward with babies, got way more time with our girls as babies than he might have had there been other arms to hold them.  I’m glad he got that chance.

Mum wasn’t one to waste time.  She was a doer.  I drove her crazy with my tendency to procrastinate and overthink things.  She was thrilled with my choice of husband, not least because he is so enthusiastic about everything and a doer himself.   I don’t believe she had much to regret about the way she lived her life.  But I do.  When we learned about her cancer, a cousin came over to talk to us; her adult daughter had died the year before of the same thing, and she took me to one side and told me that my Mum would soon be not able to understand what I said, nor would she be able to say what she wanted to me.  So it was important for both of us to say whatever we really needed to say as soon as possible, while we both could.

I meant to.  I was going to.  The right moment didn’t come up immediately.  Then there were no more right moments, and she was gone.  I’ve said it to her many times since then in my heart and in my prayers, and I know she knew I felt this way, but…

Mum, I love you.  You have been the best Mum I could ever have.  Happy Birthday.