on spring and survival.

ça y est. the trays of seedlings are showing signs of life.

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the snow has taken to melting.

the cattle are finding patches of grass.

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and the days of puddle stomping (and soggy feet) have arrived.

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I think that makes it official : I have survived my very first farm winter.

 

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

farm seasons.

 

we’ve been hearing the sounds of geese heading south for the past few weeks now.  the flocks criss-cross the skies; the perfect soundtrack to these hills making their multicolour debut.

 

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a friend who visited a few weeks back stressed that every season on a farm is different. that the place feels different, the rootedness, the feeling of calm, the work, the ease of living all change with the seasons. for better, (for different) and for worse. the underlying message being that a happy summer farm person shouldn’t expect the autumn and winter to bring more of the same. the transition is constant.

 

 

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we woke up to our first dew three weeks ago. it was at once beautiful and terrifying. it is then that it dawned on me : we will be here in the dead of winter. after all the vacationers have packed up their RVs, after the geese have flown, after the herd of yearlings makes its way to the abattoir. after the lightness of summer visits and the ease of feeding hens in the summer warmth has passed and moved on. we will be here on the farm. in the snow banks and frigid winds. a little family tucked along the cold hills.

 

 

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in the last month or so, we’ve harvested the rest of the summer produce, received and covered our bales of hay, hosted our first open house, given the barn a good cleaning, built two walk-in freezers and a cooler, sent the first seven animals to the abattoir, worked on our corral, built a sandbox, found someone to combine our nine acres of oats, and celebrated a little person’s second birthday with family and friends.

it’s been busy but the mood has been light and there’s been a comfort to it all. we’ve been joking that the fall and winter will be our « cards and coffee » season, but i wonder what it will actually look like, and what i’ll need to muster to make it through.

 

in the meantime, i’ve been shelling the most beautiful beans i’ve ever seen (seeds from the awesome  ferme tournesol), i’ve been harvesting some of the fall crops (including the lovely popcorn corn !), thinking about what new farm enterprise i should start, wondering what sort of social service work could be found in this town or the next, and have been trying to devise strategies so that kiddo has more kid-company.

 

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no dénouements yet.

 

some things i’ve learned today.

this is why we (adults) haven’t been eating cherry tomatoes.

(fact : the hens peck and eat only the red ones. the child picks and squishes only the green ones.)

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no one needs 10 zucchini plants. no one. lesson learned.

(fabulous irony : i had just finished loading the zucchini into the wheelbarrow, as no other recipient would hold them all, when a neighbour drove into our yard to offer us a welcome zucchini loaf and some welcome zucchini relish.)

also, even if you vow to be very diligent about harvesting zucchini before they turn into monster zucchini, if you’re kinda zucchini-ed out (and too well aware of the mountain of blanched and grated zucchini already in your freezer), it’s hard to be disciplined about it.

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knowing when to harvest vegetables is as important as knowing when to plant them (especially if they’re under row cover and you don’t check on them for some time. but even then : some plants flower and they’re « going to seed » (and you should PANIC!) and some « are flowering » which is no cause for concern. ou encore, a nice plump vegetable is good, except if you’re a bean, and then slender is really best. etc.)

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No matter how much chard you think you have, once it’s blanched, the whole lot will almost fit in your pocket. immanquablement.

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A calf can do a number on a chicken coop. Some hoof holes in the coop meant some early comings and goings for the hens. Luckily all four are still with us. We patched up the tractor’s edge with plywood and voilà ! the coop will last until D. and I build a fancy roomy one with bike wheels.

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the cows and calves like watching these two buddies as much as the buddies like watching them, je pense.

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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.

réflexions du jour.

1. it’s a rookie mistake to tuck your rain pants into your rain boots.

2. milking a cow actually requires a lot of skill.

3. building an adequate roost for an A frame chicken tractor isn’t as simple as it might first appear.

 

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4. tractors can actually almost drive sideways when they need to.

5. solid rain gear is priceless.

6. laying 16 kilometers of cedar post fence (over a summer) is actually really a lot of work.

 

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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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power tools, poison control and other lessons.

 

Sprouting tips have started coming up all over the garden. I feel as though I am witnessing a great springtime miracle. The potatoes are up, the sweet corn, the popcorn, the brassicas, the beans, the onions, the leeks, the beets, the winter squash. The summer squash and pumpkins, the peas and the basil. Plus the tomatoes survived the late transplant and the rains of the past few days mean that I get evenings off from running around, moving our single sprinkler around to make sure everything gets a good soak.

(on that note : having an « A » shaped garden makes it really hard to water. maybe there’s a reason people typically have rectangular shaped plots. 20/20 hindsight.)

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The grasses’ slow takeover is hard to keep up with but keeping up I am.

The fields that had been left bare have now been cultivated and seeded, the last of the kitchen wallpaper has been ripped off, and we’re keeping up with Ursula Franklin’s milk production. Busy and good days.

 

Some thoughts and lessons from the last few days.

 

1. there is such a thing as too frugal. sometimes you need to just get rid of rusty, old, bent nails.

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2. no matter how many times i see these pasture pumps, i’m still quite taken with how smart the technology is. the cattle essentially come to the pumps, see the bit of water pooled at the back and, in trying to drink it, they push the lever, which pumps more water into the trough portion.

 

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3. i too can make attractive looking butter.

 

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4. like human beings, cattle love shade on hot sunny days.

 

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5. sometimes, a kick in the ass is needed to DIY. you need to feel quite badly that the dairy cow has no shade to pick up some power tools (for the first time ever!) to build a shade structure some for her.

(and on that note : do me a favour, if there’s a kid in your life who might not otherwise learn how to work tools or machinery (and you do know), offer to teach them. i’d give a great deal to have the same tinker-confidence as the menfolk around here.)

 

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6. Even if you have had a very urban appreciation for animals (as pets), when you inherit 10+ barn cats, you become a bit more pragmatic (especially when a number of them have seen better days. and are in heat. and you spot a litter of kittens.)

 

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7. mixing seed by hand (because the folks seeding have run out and you need to rush to the store to shell out a big lump sum to get more and have it ready asap because the rains are coming) is a very esthetically pleasing process.

 

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8. sometimes you accidently purchase seed that’s been treated with a fungicide. and sometimes that seed will be spread all over the place. and sometimes your kid will put some in his mouth. having the number for poison control on your refrigerator is always a good idea (and man are those people awesome! courteous and quick help. having a few tele-health ontario fiasco phone calls under my belt, let me tell you, those poison control people are fast and pleasant).

 

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9. even if their boots have cracks in them and their feet instantly become really cold and mud-wet, kids will gallivant in a downpour, in the rain, through the puddles for as long as you’ll let them.

 

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10. even if you curse all the laundry that needs to get done (see number 9), you still think your clotheslines look really beautiful in the evening skies.

 

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