Olga.

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Olga passed away tonight.

That fateful Friday morning when it was confirmed that Trump had won the presidency, my dear Olga, scrambled to our front door as I was setting off for the coop. She looked so battered, tripping and tumbling, her paws darkened. I brought her into the house, kept her warm in a basket. It was the worst day. The pinnacle of political and personal powerlessness paired with too much farm work to do.

Two days later, this survivor of a cat jumps out of the basket and starts eating turkey like it’s going out of style. It gave me a ridiculous amount of hope, her coming around. As though it confirmed that small gestures, smalls proofs of love and caring could turn ships around. Maybe not a big U.S. political machine ship, but still, an everyday, caring for diverse one anothers kind of ship.

 

Given how much time we spend walking in/around manure, and how soiled our farm clothes usually are, we have a pretty strict rule about no animals in the house. It was really such a lovely presence, though, having her in our home. Lovely too to see how gentle the children were, how interested and tender they can be with living things needing rest.

I was sure she’d make it.

She’d even hide when the kids got home from daycare, just to reclaim her space in the foyer the minute they were both in bed. Ces moments de complicité.

 

Olga had been on the farm since we moved here. She was the barn cat ring leader. She could look so mangy, too lean, but she bounced back every spring. She was by far the most prolific reproducer, so she was the one we ended up having spayed. Afterward, her coat got thicker, her body healthier. She was beautiful.

 

Friday she stopped eating and moving. She just wanted to hide and lay. My only regret is that I waited so long to call our vet.

 

(Blessed be the rural (large animal) vets who’ll do house calls late on a Sunday, during the first big snow of the season, to end an animal’s suffering.)

 

 

 

on eggs and gardens.

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For the last week, my farm mornings have been slightly ruined by my being a ‘road rage’ sort of mess because of the barn cats. The (misguided? paralysing) compassion that has kept me from doing something about this terrible year-long ethical dilemma is running low. (Long story short : when we bought the farm, we inherited 8+ unsterilised feral barn cats to whom I’ve been feeding kibble but who are inbred, and predictably, procreating. Most of the kittens don’t make it, but they’ve been looking worse for wear, the lot of them, and we’re/I’m getting tired of all the cat faeces in the garden/barn/etc., amongst other woes. We’re allowing the breeding of cat misery : wrong. I don’t know how to euthanize or sterilize cats we can’t catch : problematic.) So with the hens free rangeing, and in the barn’s coop at night (as opposed to the chicken tractor I used last year), the cats have taken to hanging out in the coop — which I’m not down with, in part because I suspect they’re the culprits for some eaten eggs, and because, heck, they can’t own this whole place (plus I refuse to clean cat faeces out of a chicken coop, it’s too much and I’m too pregnant).

This morning, I opened the coop later in the day and I found one eaten egg (the hens have been doing this?! est-ce possible? why would they start doing this now, when they have such a luscious varied summer diet?!) and a white egg! These hens have been laying only brown eggs since they arrived over a year ago. Je n’en croyais pas mes oreilles. I need to solve this though — we only have 3 hens at this point, so already not a big egg surplus, and it seems like a poor use of limited funds to pay for organic layers mash (hen food) if we’re not going to get eggs this summer.

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Cela dit, the hens are well. They’re happy seeming, great company when I’m working in the garden and still missing feathers from their run-in with the neighbours dog last summer.

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P. harvested our garlic scapes tonight. (It would seem that I’m eager to plant, but not so to harvest.. the joy of seeing a bountiful garden trumps good eats, strangely). I felt like a real ‘foodie cool kid’ seeing our very own scapes in the kitchen.

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The beans are climbing !

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The beautiful Vermont Cranberry dry beans from la Ferme Tourne-Sol are looking like they’ll be plentiful encore this year. Cracking open those shells to find purplish-pink dry beans might be one of my fave Autumn garden activities.

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Some favourite leaved plants. I’m especially hopeful about the brussels sprouts (the second). I hear they don’t love the heat, but they’re one of my very favourite vegetables and I somehow managed to not eat a one last year. Plus those giant cones they grow on look pretty awesome.

The spinach u-pick idea is no more (to seed you go! down with blanching!) but replaced with a bok choi and lettuce mix u-pick. We sure know how to overdo it.

june on the farm : brassicas and bullcalves, swathers and spinach.

Summer has arrived and lovely green things have sprouted in the garden. I want to say « against all odds! » and realize that a) this was my anthem last year; and b) it’s a bit over the top. The garden is not growing against all odds. Seeds want to grow. Especially the ones that are direct seeded, I’ve found.

I got very excited reading Elliot Coleman during the winter months and convinced myself it was a great idea to seed a lot of crops in trays in the basement under lights to ensure both a better use of (near unlimited) space in the garden and to avoid excessive crouching and squatting. The seedlings didn’t fare very well at all. The lights were too high off the trays (which left us with spindly everythings) and either it was too cold, or they would have liked to be watered from the bottom or more regularly or something. Oh and the bulk of plants that made it to transplant day were then killed by a surprise frost a few days later. Ha! All this to say, I am not a market gardener and I don’t need early or exquisite crops. So I may skip the whole pre-planting thing next year.

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The bull calves + Ursula (our family dairy cow) left the barn area, ate away our side pasture to a nice manageable height, and were moved across the road, where they’re intensively rotationally grazing with glee.

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This is also, hopefully, the last year that yearlings need to be purchased. The plan is to grow our own herd. To overwinter animals and keep them on the farm for two years before sending them to the abattoir to be CSA beef shares. Here are those new yearlings, taking in their new summer home.

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Here’s P. posing with our new-to-us and very old swather ! Why a swather, you ask? To cut grain crops. P. has seeded barley and triticale which we’re planning to use as pig feed next year (to make the endeavour more financially viable as organic feed is pretty costly).

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One victory of the last weeks has been P. and J. removing all the rotten pressure treated forest green and orange fenceposts from around the barn pasture. The colour scheme of this place makes me sigh a mighty sigh almost daily and seeing those posts being harvested one by one and carried off brought great joy to my heart. Now we just need to finally host that great « Paint the Barn Red! » event and I will be one happy camper. (I’m serious, if you’re reading this and interested, let me know. We’ll make it a fun time, I promise.)

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And piglets ! Twenty-four piglets, who were around six weeks old, arrived late last week. They have been on pasture since Monday and have gotten the hang of it. Sadly, one little guy, lovingly nicknamed Pickle isn’t doing super well, but his buddies are happy and healthy as clams.

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The barn cat problem is far from resolved, sadly. The good folks at the SPCA can’t help (their feral barn cat pilot project starts after Christmas, turns out), so I’m at a bit of a loss, again, as to how to proceed. Perhaps the municipality has some solutions to offer, but in the meantime, our seven or so adult cats are looking very worse for wear, the kittens are not as numerous as they were (although at least they are no longer being hidden in barn walls and feed bags by their mothers as they were a month ago), and the sadness that comes with feeding these sad looking animals daily is wearing on me. If it is unethical to shoot them, (as rural/farm folk have suggested we do), then leaving them all to fight and procreate and lose the battle to whatever disease(s) seems equally heartless.

With research work winding down, the garden has been weeded and (some) tidy rows of growing things have been uncovered. The beans and peas, potatoes, rutabaga, kale, cauliflower, lettuces, spinach, sweet corn, popcorn, leeks and onions have so far really shone. There seems to be too few summer and winter squash plants, so I hope I haven’t swung the pendulum too far the other way (in an effort to not have to deal with the processing of wheelbarrowfuls of zucchini and Godiva pumpkins).

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The week’s personal victory (save for finding a doula for my upcoming birthing!) was the blanching and freezing of 18 pounds of spinach. Take that winter ! Saag paneer year round !

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And last but not least, and to confirm that « home ownership is not all it’s cracked up to be », a few of our appliances have decided to have a little race to the bottom as of late. The dishwasher now spews the occasional moat, the 85 gallon toilet sometimes thinks we’re interested in a nice continuous « babbling brook » soundtrack, and our old wall oven has gone and burnt its bottom element clear through. Luckily I have a wicked smart partner who can cook the best of quiches using a stock pot and a canning rack to create an « oven like » heat.

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The list of things to get done before birthing is too long. For those visiting this summer, our house may very well not be painted majestic blue by the time you arrive, and we may not have a deck or any outdoor seating that isn’t cement or a wagon. Please bear with us.

Stay tuned for my next post on the theme of : stress and precarity.

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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the cull cow dilemma

 

Okay, hear me out.

 

We have an old cow (a cull cow) who’s losing weight and quite old. We bought a herd this Spring and have been surprised by the advanced age of some of the cows. When animals aren’t doing super well after a luscious summer on fresh pasture, it doesn’t bode well for them for winter. Our vet said there wasn’t anything she could do for the animal and the best thing for us to do would be to ship her to auction. From what I understand, animals shipped to auction are bought for feed lots and feed lot animals are not treated well.

We care deeply about our cattle, but can’t afford to feed an animal who will deteriorate during the season and cost a fair amount to have her body removed from the pastures should she pass.

Since she hasn’t spent the bulk of her life at our farm, we can’t guarantee that she is entirely ‘grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic free’ as we do our yearlings, but she has been pasture fed since her arrival in May. Our 5+ year plan is to have a closed herd, with all animals born here. At that time, our older cattle would be turned into ground beef and we won’t have to deal with this issue of auctions and of how to recoup costs without sacrificing our ethics.

In the meantime though, I feel we have an unspoken agreement with the cattle here. They get all the fresh pasture they can eat, move about freely, have water aplenty always, their young with them for as long as it is feasible, and they are not shipped to feed lots (or to any place where we feel they won’t be treated with the same respect and care they receive here).

As a result, we would feel better about sending her to the abattoir and selling her meat, knowing that she lived well and that she won’t needlessly endure hardship. However, the cow is older and skinnier and we have no way of knowing the quality of the meat (i.e. steaks wouldn’t be great but ground beef should be alright). So we’re brainstorming ways of marketing this ‘compassion beef’.

 

So we’re wondering :

Would you be interested in buying sausages, salami or ground beef for this or other such animals? Or meat for pets?

Alternatively, do you have any other ideas of ways to transform and market this meat?

 

the end of october.

 

Colder times are upon us. We wake up to frost and bundle up before going out to work or play. We’re still in the midst of our big water works project, with more than half of the trench dug, pipe laid, and backfilled. it’s going to cost us more than we budgeted but we keep reminding ourselves that getting water to all the pastures is a really solid and important investment. Orchards, market gardens, etc. It opens up interesting opportunities for ourselves and the community we’re hoping to create here.

Speaking of community, some kind (feminist! food sovereign!) folks from town have lent us their dehydrator. It’s the perfect solution to my pumpkin seed drying woes. The first batch is dry as a fiddle and crispy as a chip. Time to roll up my sleeves and get the seeds out of the other 30 some pumpkins.

 

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In other news, D. got his bus out on Friday. He’s been a stapple here, one of the family. It was hard to see him go. Luckily kiddo loves to talk about the people he misses but in joyful ways. Telling us what the person would be doing, or yelling out their names so that we include them in our songs. The last thing D. did before we drove off  was to sit across the tractor’s forks to take a good aerial shot of the corral that he worked so hard on. It was quite a happy sight.

 

 

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I’m also quite grateful that I met these friendly town folks right before this departure. It gives me renewed hope that we won’t always be alone here, this nuclear family of mine.. that our home will again know the sounds of friendship and laughter like it did this summer.

 

We had one of our last family harvest days. Getting the chard, the beets, the beet greens, and the cabbage sorted, into the cooler or into buckets for processing.

 

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Récolter les choux avec mon chou. C’est beau quand même.

 

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And with the below freezing temperatures, I thought it wise to move the hens from their chicken tractor to the old coop in the barn. When I first saw the coop, I vowed that I’d build something new for the hens, convinced that they needed a cozier home than this. But time got away on me this summer and with a thick layer of straw, it doesn’t look so bad. plus the place is full of roosts, has light bulbs in it, and hooks to hang both the feeder and the waterer, which is super handy. And as much as I’d love to paint them a cheery mural, the paint will be pecked and the chips are quite toxic, so this is alright.

 

 

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As a previously urban person, though, it’s hard to move past this feeling (this conviction!) that all of these animals need to be indoors. I could appreciate that the dairy calf enjoyed frolicking in fields during the heat of June, but in the dead of a cold winter? Seems unlikely to me.

For all I know the conventional animals are itching to get outside, I guess.

 

Next up, packing a whole lot of beef into boxes and digging up the better part of the potato patch.

 

the abattoir.

 

We spent a few hours packing meat at the abattoir tonight. I had never really spent much time in a factory type workplace before. A place where people have to wear hairnets and hard hats, smocks and special footwear. I was struck by the clear class hierarchies in there. by the prevalence of class. the shift work, the lay offs and the concern for EI eligibility (because of an arbitrary number of hours required to qualify for an insurance that you paid into). c’était marxiste comme expérience. the machines, the conveyor belts, the bright fluorescents, the scales, the shelving, the concrete. For a sociologist, it was seeing the workplace and work culture that taylorism and fordism built.

(In writing this, I realize that most of my older-than-me relatives have worked in factories. pas mal dommage que j’en ai pas un souvenir, une expérience).

 

I’ve been meaning to write about my uneasiness with meat, with breeding animals for humans to eat them, for some time. tonight’s not the night, but between the sorting of cattle in the corral this afternoon (for them to be trucked out tomorrow in the early a.m.), to this packing of boxes of meat cuts, it’s been quite a carnovire-heavy day.

 

 

 

 

crazy cat lady.

 

yesterday, d. had a conversation with a neighbour two houses down about cats. turns out this neighbour, let’s call her a., has three cats, three tomcats to be precise. she told d. that the great thing about tomcats is that they don’t get pregnant. turns out she also doesn’t sterilize her cats because she loses too many to the highway, and she said that her cats come over to our barn to « play with the lady cats ». something was perhaps lost in translation in their conversation, but d. said she didn’t seem to get that the « pregnant cat problem » she was avoiding, she was instead bestoying upon us with her tomcats.

it made me incredibly angry.

and then this morning i turned into a crazy lady who yells at cats when as i was giving them their daily ration of milk and kibble, chasing away the sturdier looking cats (who clearly don’t live in the barn) so that the frail female cats (the true barn residents) could eat. as i’ve said to anyone who would listen, i’m not interested in having over a dozen cats, not interested in perpetuating the cat cycle that makes it so there are always too many too sick cats on the farm. and i’m certainly not interested in using our very limited resources to feed the neighbours cats.

i realize i need to speak to a. but there seems to be such a culture of just letting cats breed in misery because it takes care of potential mice problems. (except Mme P., my first friend here, who totally gets where i’m coming from and proudly cares for her cats, despite the financial strain of it).

i feel we’ve cracked the mystery here, though. and between that and some mild progress with the good folks at the SPCA, i might be able to stop thinking and talking so much about feral cats in the nearish future.

 

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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