our second farm spring

Today, I love this seeder as much as I love coffee.

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Contending with a third trimester belly, a toddler who’s most likely suffering a UTI, some solid sleeplessness and a long weekend (i.e. farmer spouse keeps farm working, daycare provider has holiday), this thing is as cherished as it is rickety.

In other news, the spinach has come up nicely, the garlic made it through the winter, and the strawberry plants are slowly but surely growing too.

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P. found a giant old culvert to replace the one that’s just not cutting it down in the valley, in part because we’re getting rid of the road soon.

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Take that erosion and boot mud cakes! Who needs roads when you can have more pasture.

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Also, our very handy summer farm help, J., has built three shade and shelter homes for the twenty-four piglets who’ll soon join our ménagerie.

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To say nothing of this gorgeous feeder.

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Sadly, our barn cat problem is alive and well. When moving the last of the hay bales, P. found three kitten nests (which he moved to prevent them being trampled by the bull calves). Not sure how many will make it, and not sure how to solve this ongoing problem. Predictably, my strategy of giving them kibble is not having the desired effect of encouraging them all to relocate (in my defense, it did solve the problem of the sad looking hungry cats all over the place).

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It would appear that the heyday of summer and farm work are upon us.

And ha!, juste comme ça, we’ve been living on this farm for a year now.

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?

what the hay.

 

one should make hay when the sun shines, so in a fencing lull, with our eye on the weekly forecast, we went about making plans to cut, ted, rake, and bale a few pastures. we need around eight hundred bales to feed the cow-calf pairs through the winter and i think both p. and i were getting pretty anxious seeing the neighbours hauling cart after cart of luscious golden hay, so the time was ripe.

 

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we were hoping to harvest at least a hundred bales and we figured we’d need at least four consecutive  days of sun and warmth to get the job done. the thermostat was to be in the 30s for a solid mid-week and the sun was set to shine. we embarked. hay making means something like sixteen hour days, endless hours bumping along in a tractor, and being super OCD about listening to weather reports.

 

 

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when p. started talking about us « entering hay season », we were all pretty stoked to partake in this true farm experience.  turns out it’s a lot of taking over someone else’s house chores (cooking, milking, etc.) and not that much excitement. regardless, all of those who wanted tractor shifts got a kick at the can. i’ll admit it was my first time driving the thing. and as a standard vehicle, let me tell you, it’s easier to drive than our focus.

 

 

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here’s the hay tedder. the teeth spin to aerate and spread the grasses out, or to « wuffle » the hay, to expose more of the cut to sunlight, air and wind and thus speed up the hay-making process.

 

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and here’s the awesome warning sticker on the tedder. the words, if there were any, have rubbed off, but that twirly body says it all.

 

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despite five solid days of heat and sun, the humidity and stillness of the air did us in. on the sixth day it poured. it rained like it hadn’t in months. p. managed to bale 30 solid bales of dry stuff, 50 of moist, and the rest is still (rotting) in the fields a week later. so effin deflating. in cities, you just don’t have that sort of experience. my closest is probably when a day or two of freezing rain in february ruins the ice on the rideau canal and the city closes the skateway for the season despite an upcoming cold snap. it’s never been about livelihood for me. and these failed bales totally are. there’s also a significant strain from having a partner away for a child’s entire waking hours, from rejigging house chores, and from not really sharing daily experiences enough for true empathy. mais c’est la vie, these days.

 

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here’s p. rolling in with the dry bales in the pouring rain.

we’re going to be giving it another go in september. and undoubtedly buying a bunch of hay for our first winter.

our making of home.

 

we have been prolifically productive this past week.

 

our kitchen has a new counter that’s about 96% installed. (here’s a ‘shortly before shot’ to give you an idea of how pressing the change was)

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(true before and after shots to come)

 

the living room is on the verge of having a whole new floor. to cover tired old linoleum with something like hardwood, but not as costly, d. sliced up sheets of plywood in five inch planks, and then stained them, varathaned them, cut them, and now, is laying, glueing and nailing them down. it looks beautiful. and the esthetic craftiness of it all totally makes up for having no furniture to sit on and having everything stacked in the hallway and bedrooms. (note to all : if at all possible, get shit done in new home before moving in. not always possible, as in our case, but worth striving for. otherwise you’re going to have paint in your dishes, and be packing and unpacking stuff endlessly).

 

something this living room has taught me about home renos and life in general : if you cut corners, si tu tournes les coins ronds, someone somewhere down the line will have to fix it. it is probably best, then, to do the job once and to do it right.

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Here, instead of finishing the flooring, the moulding, and the stucco wall (yes, we have a stucco wall), previous owners decided to just put bookshelves on either side of the room, between the living room and kitchen. not practical for those of us uninterested in having an identical room layout or similar shelving units.

It means we got to get a glimpse at the multiple layers of linoleum, carpet, etc. that have been on the floors these past decades (but we’d’ve passed up this archeological flooring foray, for say, layout options pre-new floor era).

 

turns out cupboard handles are expensive (who knew?), so the old ones were spray painted, with fine results.

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the kitchen got a third coat of green and the child’s bedroom was (re)painted. (and i choose to believe that said child started using the word « mooi », a dutch word for « beautiful », on this very day to signal his love of the colour and his appreciation for the change)

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an old busted shed was taken apart, all of its toxic garbage was disposed of safely, some of the wood was salvaged, a fire permit was obtained, and it was burned down.

 

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the page wire fencing reel (to remove all page wire from the pastures) was completed, blackout curtains were sown, potato beetles were smushed, tomato plants were trellised, a stack of used dishes and a gaggle of cutlery were purchased to better welcome (and feed) friends and family coming to visit in the coming weeks, a child was kept happy and healthy, cattle were moved, milked, and cared for, the hens moved and fed. and so on and so forth.

all in all, an exhausting but good week.

 

other good news :

 

the bean teepee i’ve been hung up on is going to happen ! the circularly planted beans have finally germinated.

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and d. found this in the shed he was demolishing.

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needless to say, we will be on the look out for a tree large enough to support this communal tire swing-to be (or, alternatively, we will pound in a few posts and make it happen closer to home).

 

‘every year it dies on him’

 

what a day.

i’m glad i stumbled onto this article yesterday. reading these passages, i can come to terms with the fact that the chronic overwork here has nothing to do with our shoddy workpersonship, or lack of know-how.

I just wanted to get across how much you struggle, how much of yourself you pour into a farm. And ultimately the farm dies. Ultimately there’s only so much you can do. Because I’ve watched my dad my whole life completely invest all of his being into this farm, and every year it dies on him. And every time he’s sort of shocked, like ‘Oh my God, really? It didn’t all work out somehow?’

My experience of the farm was always like, ‘Shit, our backs are up against the wall, this farm is teetering, what are we going to do?’

 

maybe it’s just how it goes.

 

the potato beetles have invaded the tomato patch, a newborn calf isn’t doing well, the two herds ended up in the same pasture due to a busted fence (which will mean a good half day of work to get them back into separate fields), the electric garage door is jammed open (also a solid half day’s work to fix), and i have yet to stake the tomato plants. it’s also becoming clear that the laying hens want more space than our chicken tractor can afford. i’m not sure i’m sold on the tractor idea anymore. it’s nice to have different animals doing a rotation on the pasture, but not nice enough to justify cramped quarters for livestock who live on a roomy 270 acre farm.

also, we finished the shade structure i had started for Ursula Franklin, but she hasn’t set hoof under it. it might take a while (and some highly desirable edible being placed there at first), but it’s an underwhelming response, for sure.

 

the saving grace on days like these is really our toddler-adult rotation. i’m with kiddo in the morning, and he alternates one afternoon with p., one with our good friend d. who’s here working with us for the summer. because more than the sheer amount of work to do, the really taxing part for me is the lack of consecutive minutes and hours to do the work (outside of the 1.5 hour of nap, and post-bedtime, anywhere between 8pm and 9:30pm).

it’s quite stellar that this child gets to grow and play in the company of three adults who love and get a kick out of him. and while i worry and wish that he got to spend more time with other littles (we were SO well served in the city with drop ins and playgroups, library storytimes and public parks), i think this rotation at least provides some diversity (and time to regenerate patience for this mama).

 

 

because sometimes when you’re losing the weeding and potato beetle battle, spending a few afternoon hours rocking out and getting some filth off the old inherited ceiling fans makes you feel surprisingly productive.

 

and tomorrow is another day.

 

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here our star head butting calf, that p. affectionately calls ‘Simon’, poses with the laundry.

urban longing.

 

(a short preamble : i always hesitate to write and share posts like these, the sadder more doubting kind. but given that our new lifestyle is so often romanticized — young farmers living the dream, going back to the land to raise children who know where their food comes from, who know how to tinker and fix things, who take time to breathe in the sweet pasture winds, who can identify trees and edible mushrooms — i figure the myth busting, like the story sharing, is a must.)

 

Some days i feel like this is one huge mistake.

A picture that a friend posted keeps coming back to me : he’s cycling on a sunny hintonburg street, pedaling a beautiful bakfiets with an adorable child in the bucket.

My life used to look like that. And how i love that esthetic. The beauty of a bicycle. The freedom of cycling to your destination. Of deciding on a whim to go stroll about with your kid. To a park maybe. Or to a meeting place. The satisfying edge of being urban alt, of critical and conscious urban living. And to raise a child to embody and appreciate these things too.

 

I just went for a quad ride last night to see the back acres (of our 270 acres) to see how far they got with the tilling and seeding today. Those back acres are FAR. They’re on a seldom used side road. Some kids were parked there and smoking up. That’s what kids do to smoke up in rural places, I guess. They drive somewhere where no one will see them and then they drive back home. THEY DRIVE BACK HOME. Stoned. City kids don’t have to do that. Some probably do but this one didn’t. The point is they can easily choose not to.

 

 

And some days are glorious, of course. But some, like this one, just start out too exhausted, too on edge, too overwhelmed and worried.

 

Our dairy cow has been losing weight. She’s been producing less milk also. She has her twin calves with her, who are, collectively, most likely drinking somewhere around twenty liters of milk, which isn’t a terribly high amount for a Jersey, but still. We’re trying to figure out what she needs to stay healthy. More oats, or some other grain, more minerals. While cows are meant to eat grass, dairy cows need more protein. Anyways, it makes me sad to see her thinned out. And exhausted as I am, I feel I look like that too. Which makes her plight all the sadder to me. Between that and what I feel are really crappy animal husbandry practices going on at the farm next door, and the numerous sickly barn cats we have on our hands, and the work, the work, the work, yet to be done, I’m longing for an urban night stroll right now. An urban anything, really.

 

I undoubtedly need more sleep and more play.

sow focus.

i finished seeding the bulk of the garden.

 

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i recognize that this planting thing — especially so late in the spring game and with no transplanting/seedlings whatsoever — is a total gamble. and there’s already something so unlikely seeming about the whole ‘potatoes from a potato’ or ‘beet from a little seed nugget’ thing (for me anyways).

what’s been really eye-opening about it all though (and joyful despite the toddler pulling out my hair as i try to back carry him down the rows, or as i barrel towards him as he stomps all over the freshly planted beds) is how this work is exactly the opposite of the bulk of the jobs i’d been doing for the past yea long. instead of having to remind myself to focus, to concentrate, to stay on task, i get irritated when i’m interrupted, when i have to stop mid seed packet or mid row. while it’s still multi-task heavy work (i still can’t really wrap my head around the multidimensionality of successive plantings, crop rotation, and companion planting), it doesn’t scatter or bewilder the way the constant clicking back and forth between tabs and browsers and email accounts does.

despite the exhaustion, i may feel healthier yet.

 

p. interrupts me with : « do we want to get a kilogram of cheese salt? it’s not iodized! »

and i wonder : in who’s life have i landed, pray tell?

 

 

on sleep, home-making and the gender divide.

 

Kiddo and I are under the weather. Just enough for him to sleep super poorly, which means just enough for us both to be sleep deprived and pretty grumpy throughout the day. I don’t know if it’s the move and transition, but he’s in a pretty intense « MAMAN! » phase right now. Being on child care and homebound for the bulk of the day these past few days is making it challenging for me to feel settled in, to feel like a co-farmer, to feel like anything but a full time stay-at-home-mom (and for the record, I have nothing against stay-at-home-parenting, but I know it’s work that I couldn’t sustainably or happily do myself).

Both P. and I are struggling with our division of labour, trying to figure out how to structure our workdays without it all falling down very traditional gendered lines. I unfortunately don’t know how to work the tractor, and am not yet comfortable working with livestock. I’ll learn these things, but right now there are 45 cows on pasture with 10 calves, the Jersey and her twins are in need of a move onto grass as well and the 40 yearlings (that are going to be the CSA beef this fall), are being trucked over sometime this week. Fertilizers need to be spread before fencing goes up and fencing needs to go up asap. Which leaves laundry and food and kid and cleaning on my plate, malgré nous. Sub-optimal.

 

We took a half day off yesterday and drove the four kilometres to town to check it out, walk around, see the sights and the people. It’s the sort of thing that leaves me feeling a bit desolate. The last time I had to make a new home and to craft a new feeling of community, it was in Halifax and it was clearer to me how to tackle the task. The cafés, the dancing, the bike culture. Not so clear here. We did find the schools though and there were some pretty solid play structures there, albeit for the slightly older crowd. But he’ll grow into them.

 

st andré park

 

Entre temps, I’m just trying to remember our medium to longer term goals for this place : to both be farming (if we so choose), and to live with other farm families on this land — making the community building piece a bit more manageable.  And that lack of sleep makes even the most resilient of people quite cloudy headed and miserable.

 

on the farm. day three.

We moved onto the farm three days ago. I am writing from a house that’s nestled between a highway, a barn and some mountains. The pastures are greening, the birds chirping, the cars zipping past, and the former owner is still hanging around, using our tractor to move farm implements in some master plan that we have yet to grasp. We are simultaneously peeling off old yellowed wallpaper, replacing drywall in the kitchen, trying to find the source of a leak with the inherited washing machine, pounding fence posts and installing fence lines to move the cattle off the conventional mucky paddock they’ve been on since they arrived here a month ago, finding a veterinarian to figure out what’s wrong with our feverish Jersey dairy cow, and taking care of a curious toddler in a space that is not childproofed in the least.

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In the same way that I had a hard time conceptualizing what forty-two tonnes of sulphur looked like prior to seeing the delivery of fertilizers that came yesterday, I still don’t fully grasp the extent of the work that lays ahead. It is endless. It is overwhelming. Empowering too to think that Paul and I can make this place our farm home, we can set it up as we please, and decide for ourselves the makeup of our days. But it is still so so much to take in.

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And then there’s the lost feeling of home and rootedness. The not knowing how to carve out a space here. These feelings of being quite lost and scattered amidst the overwork, the sharp edges of exhaustion, and this rural newness.

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But I am grateful for the strolls through the fields as we install insulators for the electrical fencing. I am grateful for a partner with more know-how than I realized. Grateful for the remarkable friend who came and so generously stayed with us for two whole weeks to work, to keep us company and to keep us sane. Grateful for this child who’s so eager to get his rubber boots on to go look at the calves and push his little red wagon around. And at this point, I’m just trying to focus on the ‘adventure’ quality of all of this. Despite the blood, sweat and tears.

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Here’s to hitting the ground running, and to starting a farm in May.