in the thaw

 

it’s been a really good couple of weeks. i don’t know if it’s the completion of our financial planning for the year (and our first year really using holistic resource management planning tools together, p. and i), the fact that we have a number of rad farm-based projects on the go, that i’ve been managing to spend more time with other adults, or that every family member just happens to be in a good place at the same time, but i’ll take it.

spring is coming and going. we’re making the most of it.

the hens have started venturing further from the barn, joining us in our work and play when we’re out in ‘the yard’.

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we’re making concrete plans to repair things we’ve been wanting to get to since moving here.

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and we’re soaking in our puddles. today we learned that old baking sheets make really excellent ferries.

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(in other news, while amortization and depreciation are fascinating concepts, thinking about them too much in your day to day is probably unnecessary and can make you go a bit bonkers.)

 

infants and supports.

A few days before I gave birth to my second child, there was a story in our local paper about a father who was being detained. The police had been called to the family’s home and a six week old infant had been found unconscious. They suspected the baby had been shaken.

These stories break my heart any day, but maybe especially so when I’m nine months pregnant and am gearing up for sleepless marathons, feeding challenges, and everything else that comes with caring for an adorable ball of truly endless needs. I felt for those first time parents, for the frustrations and for how hard it is to ask for the support you need. I’m not really a praying type but I sent warm thoughts and wishes to the skies that this babe would be okay and that this father wouldn’t have to live with his child not making it.

After coming home from the birth centre with our perfect day old creature, I checked the news, thinking that there might be a way to help the family, given our solid supply of diapers and breast milk. I learned that the child had died the day before, as I was birthing mine. I can’t fathom what that father and that mother are going through.

I made the mistake of reading the comments section of the article that named the father and said he was out on bail. They were vindictive and lacked all compassion. A lot of the comments seemed to be written by parents which made me wonder if they either were all blessed with remarkable support networks or if they were being totally dishonest about how overwhelmed and despairing our screaming infants can make us feel.

If we’re going to find ways to support young parents, new parents, all parents, I suspect we need to start by admitting that children can make us lose our cool, that no one is immune to this. Otherwise, we’re shaming people instead of providing supports, which makes vulnerable families (which we all are at some point) all the more isolated.

I’m more confident the second time around (and thus ironically, more likely to ask for help) but there’s such pressure when you bring these little people into the world to do it all yourself, to try to prove that you have your shit together. This really doesn’t serve parents or children.

I was pleased to see that there were documents about the anger that hours of infant crying can cause in the stack of forms and pamphlets that we received from our midwives. One was a form to be filled out by both parents with the names and numbers of people they could/should call if they needed a breather. Given the isolation I often feel living far away from my old urban hub, I appreciate the need for this. For that conversation, those safeguards.

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I am reminded of how overwhelmed I felt when I was alone with our first for over a week in the early days. For some reason I had to bathe him (probably just to prove to myself that I could do it alone), but my wee ones hate baths and infants in water are very slippery and I just cried. Luckily I had a very friendly upstairs neighbour at the time. I didn’t know her very well but her smiling presence was always a joy to me and knowing that she was from the Maritimes made me insta-trust her all the more. I am heartened now knowing that I did ask for help. And that after washing my infant with another woman who had never washed an infant — the two of us getting just as wet as the child — I felt lighter and safer.

So here’s to knocking on a neighbour’s door, or to being the one who opens that door.

And wishing solace to those who didn’t or couldn’t.

farm themed everything.

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Kiddo is big into puzzles these days, so I thought we could up the ante with some 12 piece puzzle sets. Pretty exciting times for all, to be honest. Pretty soon this kid will be rocking his very own tricotin, I bet.

Trouble is these things appear to be grouped into themes, so we could get four mermaid puzzles, four construction truck puzzles or four farm animal puzzles. I went with the farm animals but realized, as we were doing them together the next morning, that it’s kind of overkill to give a farm kid farm animal puzzles. Melissa and Doug (and other kid stuff manufacturers), if you’re listening : please make a medley puzzle box ! We don’t need four dumptruck puzzles, but one would be nice. We also don’t need four mermaid puzzles, but one would be nice. Can we not assume that kids only like ONE CATEGORY OF THINGS?

In the meantime, if a city kid wants to trade some farm themed toys for some other themed toys, drop us a line.

We’d probably be up for a swap.

Thanks Danny ! Or : Why I still don’t care for lawns.

Today, in an effort to truly (and productively) procrastinate and to pull my (pregnant) weight, I took on the job that no one, since the farm departure of our dear friend Danny, cares for. I got on the ride-on mower and proceeded to butcher our field of dandelions and tall wild grasses.

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I’ve come to the conclusion that I am well served by my complete disregard for nice lawns. The first 15 minutes or so were entertaining (mostly because of our substantial terrain slopes and because the speeds on these mowers are indicated by turtles and hares) and then, I was brainstorming a business that would see me traveling about with a herd of small livestock to graze people’s lawns in lieu of mowing. (But I couldn’t come up with an animal that would be happy to graze, consistent enough in its grazing, and that produces small, sufficiently unobstructive poop. The cattle certainly won’t do on the poop front, the pigs would total the lawn (a blessing perhaps?), and the hens have a mind of their own and will always prefer seedlings and cherry tomato buds to lawn.)

It was a humbling experience though as I’ve chuckled at people on ride-on mowers more than once, and because apparently a very pregnant lady with a big sun hat on a mower, plowing through knee-high dandelions, is worth a good stare.

All this to say : big thanks to Danny for mowing and weed wacking all of last summer.

The lawn will surely be exponentially more uneven and unkempt this year.

and the cars came marching in.

Yesterday was a bit of a heartache on the ideological front.

I drove a 6 hour commute to get to a research gig and we bought a second family car.

This time last year, I was commuting to work on a bicycle, I didn’t know how to drive, we owned a car for business purposes and hid it in the garage the rest of the time (in part because we were paying to rent the garage but not a ‘parking spot’ and didn’t want our landlord knowing we had a vehicle). And here we are. A two car family. A two car family who thinks about and worries about its environmental footprint and buys fuel efficient used cars, but a two car family nonetheless.

It all makes sense : we live quite rurally on a road without a proper shoulder (not at all bike-with-kids safe), we need the car for beef deliveries which means I’m stranded at the farm with a child two Saturdays out of four, we adults have a slew of solo summer engagements on the horizon, and with a percolating fœtus in my uterus, my comfort level with being here alone with kiddo sans car whole days is growing pretty thin.

 

I know our footprint as quasi-(alt)homesteaders is offset to some extent in some ways, but having spent decades demonizing car culture, it’s quite the switch. And even though it’s the right choice for us at this point in time, oi! is it ever uncomfortable.

 

And I wonder then, is it surprising that even the ‘bébés’ go for car and bus rides all the time?

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In lighter news, the snow is melting. The frozen, sleeping garden will soon be awake and blooming again. I’m starting to feel it.

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on winter and homesickness.

 

It is cold and desolate around these parts.

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I am looking forward to the season of holiday visitors. It’ll brighten this place for me, as I remember longingly all the summer friends who shared our home and broke bread with us. The workload has yet to lighten, and the promised winter farm « cards and coffee » season has yet to really make its appearance. The novelty of heating this home with our wood stove has worn off, as has wearing long johns all the time.

I took the day yesterday and drove myself to the city. No small feat as I’ve only been driving, and driving standard, for some eight months now. It was my second time going it without another adult, and the first time sans kiddo. There were no close calls, no missed highway exits, and no overwhelmed teary traffic moments. I parked on a residential street and went to sit in a busy café, ordered a hot organic beverage without feeling like a weirdo, and took in the very pleasant and very familiar feeling of being in a crowd, unconcerned about seeming friendly enough or welcoming enough. Being both mildly interesting and uninteresting to those around is a real treat. I hadn’t realized how exhausting small town shopping was for me until yesterday. (And this begs the question : have introverted people found ways of living rurally and happily without resorting to becoming hermits?) I took in the joy of jaywalking, the pleasure of having quick friendly conversations with acquaintances, and being able to walk to cross a number of errands off a to-do list.

I realize now I’m quite city-homesick.

I think living in a mighty and in many ways unforgiving landscape requires that you either muster that same feeling of might in yourself, or that you foster a great humility of your person (ideally both). I remember feeling this as I lived near the Atlantic some years ago. But both the might and humility require much resilience, and mine feels very frayed right now.

 

 

On another note, a hen died yesterday. I was pretty devasted. One of our original four. The one that had been badly injured by a neighbour’s dog. Her feathers hadn’t really grown back, as they have on the other who was mauled. I don’t know if it was the result of the injury or the cold. I can’t seem to find authoritative information on keeping hens warm enough in our Canadian winter. Some sources seem pretty cavalier, some very unpractical.

The hens are in the barn, with plenty of straw, out of wind’s way, and with a heated waterer, but I worry it isn’t enough. I’ll add a big wooden nesting box to facilitate cozying up and try to see if there’s a way of getting a heating lamp in there without it being high up on the ceiling (and thus useless). Up until now, I haven’t used a light, because they get all the daylight we do from the coop and from what I understand it’s to stimulate egg production moreso than for hen wellbeing and really, if they need a break from production to stay warm and keep their energies, that is more than fine by me.

What sucks about all of this is, because it hasn’t been financially viable for farmers to call veterinarians about hen care (as a vet averages at 65$ an hour and most hens cost around 20$), it is hard to find vets who know about hens. If we housed cats in that coop, we’d have no problem having them seen by professionals.

Perhaps I should just knit them all ponchos to assuage this feeling of guilt.

 

on trenches and beauty

 

we’ve been digging a lot of holes, as of late. we hired someone with an excavator to come and dig seven thousand feet of trench five feet underground, then put a wee one and a half inch pipe in, and close it back up.

 

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i convinced kiddo that watching from inside actually afforded us a better vantage point.

 

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the first thousand feet were dug, starting at the house. the pipe went through the wall and into the basement so that we can get water to the herd throughout the winter. p. ordered some great winter pasture pumps (more on those later).

 

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d. and p. also dug a trench from the barn to the house to get an insulated ethernet cable from our walk-in freezers to our wireless router. that way we’ll receive emails and text messages if the temperature doesn’t stay within range.

 

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it’s really remarkable that these projects are either under way (the water pipe project) or successfully completed (the ethernet cable/monitor solution). we’re breathing easier. but with all this turning over of sod and gravel, this place is looking very chantier-esque. and with the rain this aft, we have a pretty unfortunate mud moat around our house and most outbuildings.

 

 

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on most days, i appreciate that while this farm isn’t yet beautiful, it has sexy infrastructure and a great deal of potential.

we’ve totally cleaned up the inside of the barn, turning it into something really ‘old barn pretty’ and useable (hopefully as a store front, eventually).

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as for the barn itself, the paint job and colour scheme discourage me to no end, but it’s already proving to be a useful building, in terms of hay storage, walk-in freezer area, winter hen coop, and onion (etc.) drying area.

the shop, while hideous, is a great space for building, fixing, for tools and equipment. it’s heated, has fans, windows, and a solid concrete floor. the land that is part of the original farm is tile drained and bouncing back admirably from its GM soy days. the soil is otherwise rich and eager to grow foodstuffs.

 

but man oh man, that post-digging mud lot look sure isn’t doing very much for my feeling of home. having been blessed with quaint urban homesteads, and having taken the time to paint and fix up all of those homes, it’s hard to be in the midst of mud and building supplies and rock piles and wood stacks and tractor parts and compost and shit without it getting to me on the greyer days. and given the sheer scale of all of this, tackling these eye sores takes, if not scaffolding and special equipment, then at least considerable funds and time. both of which we’re low on at this point in time.

 

 

on a brighter note, operation harvest-the-remainder-of-the-vegetables is right on track. the carrots are done, the beets are on their way, which leaves only the potatoes.

 

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it’s probably not a year’s worth (and they’re definitely not prime carrots), but it’s really not bad, all things considered.

 

i expected to find an excellent how-to on storing vegetables, but came up with pretty wishy washy, contradictory, and unworkable advice (« only preserve the highest quality produce » good one! we didn’t do all this work to make compost). after eating some very leathery textured blanched zucchini though, i’ve decided not to put all my eggs in one basket with the rest of the crops. half the carrots went to sand buckets and the other, to bags. both in the walk-in cooler which will be equipped with a space heater when the weather gets very cold. we’ll see which fare better.

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another dumbfounding issue is drying. no matter what i try to dry the popcorn, it still won’t pop. on the cob, off the cob, in the oven, air dry. last i read, the cobs need to be cooked at low temperature for 8+ hours and then hung for a few months. we’ll see what that does. and the pumpkin seeds, i’m still unclear. i fear storing still-moist seeds and finding mason jars of mould in a few months time. given the number of seed pumpkins, i’m thinking of just roasting them and sparing myself the surprise. unless we can get our hands on a dehydrator.

 

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another week, another adventure.

quick reflections on this farm kid.

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he’ll splash and stomp smack dab into mud puddles, but step carefully to avoid cow pies.

he’ll point to any mammal, male or female, and show you where the milk would come from (« lait! melk! ») .

he can name most of the garden crops and knows where to find them.

he thanks the resident hens whenever he sees eggs.

he has yet to touch an electric fence.

 

farms and kids. who knew.

on safety.

 

a few weeks into our living at the farm, with so much heavy work to do and a curious toddler, i had a ‘safety meltdown’.

i was exhausted, worn down by the constant need to evaluate the safety of activities, spaces, machines and foods. tired of being the more safety-conscious parent. tired of the buck stopping with me, of having to make judgement calls on things foreign to me.

 

in the months prior to finding this place, we had gone to visit a number of farms p., kiddo and i, and it had occured to me, as we walked through a bull herd’s pasture, that i had absolutely no idea how safe it was for us, or at least for me and this child on my back, to be there given that my knowledge of how to act and react around livestock was pretty close to nil. here i was, stuck in a bull pen, snow up to my knees, with a kid and no farm smarts.

when we got here, i told myself that p. being so farm-literate, i’d just leave it in his hands. after feeling too much discomfort at the thought of him babywearing while riding the quad, however, i figured that actually, even in the city, this was our (unfortunate, stereotypical) dynamic. i wanted us to wait for kiddo to be closer to the recommended age before taking him cycling with us. i wanted to wait until he was 6 weeks old to take him swimming. i wanted to avoid night cycling with him (and a whole bunch of other, not as reasonable sounding things that i seem to have erased from my memory).

i figured i needed to be honest with myself and speak up, if only so that p. and i could meet in the middle. so that my safety consciousness could pull our decision making to a more comfortable middle ground and his less cautious stance would ensure that our child got to do at least some fun farm things.

when we think farm, we often think of these idyllic spaces. wee ones running in the fields, fetching eggs in coops, playing in creeks and in hay stacks. the stuff of dreams and picture books. but really, farm fatalities are common and a sad fact is that 14% of reported agricultural fatalities (between 1990 and 2008) were those of the children of farmer/owner operators.

 

back at our farm, there’s machinery all over the place, periods during the year when we have contracted workers with even bigger machinery coming through the yard, there’s the manure pit (to which we’ve lost a calf and probably a number of barn cats), there’s the highway about 25 meters from the house, diseases related to laying hens and chicken manure, there’s the raw milk, the raw milk butter, the cattle, the sick barn cats, unknown berry-like bushes that look like « framboise! » to a 2 year old, wild parsnip in the pastures (which will actually burn and blister skin), electrical fencing, old  barbed wire fences, power tools, rusty metal bits all over the place, et on passe. (to say nothing of the safety fears that come with moving to a new/rural place : new and strange neighbours, theft on our rang,  the incidence of drinking and driving, what it means to be different in a small place..)

these things aren’t always paralyzing, but often stress-inducing.

 

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coming back from a day in the city on sunday, i caught myself breathing a sigh of relief. i know it’s not all bad. i am grateful that this child gets o tbe pretty free-range, learns about life and death, seeds and harvests, the seasons and the rhythms of the day. but i sure don’t have the cultural and safety codes of the farm down pat yet.

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i would love to hear about others’ experiences on this from farm kids and farm parents. what are some of your non-negotiables rules, what kept you feeling free and safe on the farm, what helped you carve out a good space for your kids in a rural/agricultural/more traditional setting?

cat ethics and days off.

 

we’ve decided to take the whole weekend off. (minus milking Ursula Franklin the dairy cow twice a day, corralling the cows back in their pastures, moving them every day, moving the chicken tractor and filling feed and water containers for all, retrieving eggs and processing milk into yoghourt and butter).

 

it’s been a good but a long week. we re-planted the garden rows that saw no germination (i suspect there are some ants eating the bean seeds), we discovered that potato beetles have discovered our potato patch and i’ve been angrily squiching said beetles and their eggs every day since (all six rows of them.. so very time consuming), p. and co. managed to corral the herds into a single file labyrinth in the barn to get their tag numbers (to send them to Agri-Traçabilité Québec, to get our ATQ registration, to finish our farm registration with the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries, et de l’Alimentation du Québec, to get our MAPAQ farm number, to be eligible for the agricultural rates for vet fees, water usage, etc.), and we’ve been settling back into being a four person (three adults) farm team.

the cat situation is still undealt with. my initial hope to trap them in the old chicken coop in the barn (by getting them used to being fed there and then, one day, just closing the coop door on them and getting the vet to anesthetize the sick ones, and spay or neuter three healthy ones that we’ll keep), is proving to be pointless. they are feral cats, are extremely skittish, and even if we did manage to trap them, someone would then have to go into a cage with all of these sick, angry cats. i have called the SPCA to ask for advice but they’ve yet to return my call. all the information we can find seems to point to three options : poisoning, drowning, and shooting. poisoning would mean hours of excrutiating pain for them, so is totally out. and really, the two other options don’t sound very cheery either, so i’m unsure how to proceed. in talking to a previous owner, i learned that they sometimes had up to 20 cats in the summer, that the population would plummet to 7 or 8 during the winter, that given the inbreeding, only about 2 or 3 kittens per litter survive, and doing nothing but feeding them has been a good strategy to keep the farm mouse-free (minus all the mouse poop we found in the cupboards when we moved in). while i’m having a really hard time wrapping my head around hiring someone to shoot these cats, i think doing nothing is basically breeding cat misery, which i think is unethical. we’ve already found a dead cat in the barn, two more are looking really worse for wear, and i want to believe that it’s possible to have a farm with only healthy and cared for animals (and people). plus while f. knows not to approach these cats, i can forsee a situation where a young city friend would come to visit and want to pet the cats here, thinking they’re just like the cat he or she has at home and getting, at best, clawed, at worse, rabies. we’ve been feeding them well, both Ursula’s milk and store-bought cat food, but we’re going to be processing more of the milk into cheese and anyways, we’d much rather the surplus go to a pig. the challenge, of course, is that i feel both the ‘doing something’ and ‘doing nothing’ are unethical. (any chance you want to adopt one or a dozen barn cats?)

on the bright side our four laying hens seem to be adjusting just fine to their new home.

 

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they quite like all the pasture pecking and scratching they get to do, and the calf that’s in that same pasture seems entertained by their presence.

 

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in the garden, i’ve been finding it pretty fascinating how much you have to kill in order to grow food. all the squiching of bugs, the trapping and drowning of insects, the agressive turning-on-of-sprinklers as animals enter the patch, etc. and of course, the sheer amount of work involved in vegetable growing is flabberghasting. on that note, i remember working a farmer’s market for friends who had just welcomed their babe into the world and having to justify the prices of their beautiful, fresh grown greens. i’m not sure how market gardeners do it without losing all faith in humanity, in the good of people. to work tirelessly, to grow organically, and to be met with « i could grow that myself for a quarter of the price! » also, i’m not sure folks of the veg persuasion appreciate all the work and killing that goes into growing their food.

 

*

 

it takes some effort, on these days off, to look around and see the beauty of these surroundings without just seeing all the work that needs doing. we usually end up leaving the farm to make sure we don’t end up fixing, painting, or building something. and i quite miss the city. it was good to go running down our old city blocks with kiddo yesterday. to visit 3 parks, see some friends, order espresso, and find all the forgotten trucks our old stomping ground can hide.

 

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