Morning follows night, spring follows winter, things are born, they die. It all makes some kind of cosmic sense, down on the farm.
There are a lot of things to love about life on a small farm. The list (and, because I am a list-maker, it could be a very long one, but I’ll restrain myself) includes:
-being outside a lot
-knowing where my food comes from, esp. meat and eggs
-being part of the farming community – total bonus and a conversation worthy of an entire post all its own
-being surrounded by animals – living, growing, just being
-having a flexible work day – if I need to grab a tea before putting together the new wheelbarrow, that’s fine
-making customers happy – there’s nothing quite so satisfying as hearing that the turkey someone enjoyed over the holidays was the best they have ever tasted
-every day is different – seasons change, animals are bred, incubated, hatched, delivered, nurtured – it’s never boring!
-I love the food! I know I sort of already mentioned the food, but wow, we really do eat well around here and for that I am very grateful.
A basic white cheddar made with our goat milk. Oh. So. Good.
For every good point, though, there’s a corresponding down side.
It sucks to have to be outside in the pouring rain just this side of freezing, slopping around the hog pen trying to figure out where the electric fence is shorting out before the boar takes off and starts terrorizing the neighbor’s kids.
While it’s great to know exactly where my food comes from, I take no pleasure whatsoever in loading pigs I’ve watched grow from day one into the back of the truck for their one-way trip to freezer camp. Contrary to popular belief, I think it’s a good thing to name the animals, even those destined to be dinner guests. If hog pen 53B is low on water, maybe it wouldn’t get topped up quite so quickly as when Olivia stands and stares into her water tub after Gizmo and Oreo (two big Muscovy drakes) have had such violent baths in there they have basically emptied the water out and made what remains undrinkable.
Can’t beat ducklings when it comes to cuteness…
Being part of the farming community is a challenge on days when I feel like I know nothing and am and always will be a ‘newcomer’ (there are farm families around here who have been around for multiple generations and I can tell you that a five minute conversation with one of the seasoned elders is a fast reminder that nothing takes the place of decades of having your hands deep in the same bit of dirt…)
Being surrounded by animals certainly lends itself to many ‘awww, how cute’ moments, but it is also a sure fire way to have your heart broken and your bank account emptied on a regular basis. Raise enough livestock and it doesn’t take long before you are dealing with deadstock, one way or another. Turkey poults trip and drown in their shallow water dispensers (seriously, 1/4″ of water is enough to do in a poult who is clumsy enough), sows sit on their piglets or, during the stress of labour, pick the closest one up by the scruff of the neck and slam it against the wall of the farrowing hut, turkeys within days of a major holiday go on a mushroom-eating binge and keel over, ducks become fancy dinners for raccoons, old horses must be put down (double-whammy there – the cost of dispatching a horse is insane…), old goats get ovarian cancer, and any chick or poult foolish enough to somehow escape the safety of the nursery pen may fall victim to raven, eagle, hawk, cat, or even dog attack. Gads. There are days when I long for the simple predictability of a cat and a basement suite.
Oops… horse sat on the fence! A quick ‘for now’ patch job in sad need of repair!
Being flexible during the work day only applies when it doesn’t involve being ten minutes late to feed everyone (ever heard a chorus of squealing pigs who believe they have been forgotten?). Broken gates and fences can’t wait to be repaired until the gale force winds subside because by then the horses will be charging across the highway causing who knows how many horrible accidents. The feed store trip can’t wait until you have a bit more time or a little extra cash – all those mouths need to get fed every day, regardless of whether there’s some health scare that has put people off pork and the bottom suddenly drops out of the bacon market. Electric fence walks are not a ‘I’ll get to that soon’ kind of job. All the animals are experts at testing the fence and know exactly the moment when something shorts out. See ya!
Making customers happy is great – and a good reason to go to Farmers’ Markets so you can chat to all kinds of people interested in food. Except, as anyone who has ever worked in retail can tell you, sometimes customers are… well, a pain in the donkey. Except, no matter how wrong they are or how misinformed or how obnoxious, they are also always right. Sigh.
Every day is certainly different, sometimes for logical reasons (seasons change, something is born, something dies), and this perpetual state of flux makes planning tricky. You don’t always know what lies ahead and all the best laid plans can go right off the rails when the day was meant to be spent hauling the new boar to the farm but the truck breaks down on the way to the ferry. When help fails to show up when planned (and, when it’s bucketing down some creepy mixture of sleet and slush and mud, it’s amazing how many headaches and backaches and visiting inlaws suddenly prevent farm help from materializing) that can really mess up a day that was meant to be spent in town running errands that really can’t wait another day but will have to wait another day because you know what will happen if those hogs don’t get fed on time… The day you have planned rarely matches the day that actually shows up because that is the nature of the business. Farming is always a bit of crap shoot. What happens when your seeds don’t germinate? Or, after germination and planting out get devoured by cut worms? Or slugs? Or rabbits? Or deer? What if the sow you thought was pregnant eats her way through almost four months of expensive organic feed, shows all the signs of impending labour right down to producing milk but not a single piglet ever shows up? False pregnancies don’t happen often, but when they do… that can really mess up the planning process. Ditto for lower than expected fertility rates on poultry eggs, higher than expected mortality rates for young birds, feed prices that shoot through the roof due to drought on the other side of the world, or feed orders that don’t make it onto the truck coming to the island meaning your whole week of feeding livestock turns into a crazy juggling act of scrounging, begging, borrowing, and substituting.
What else to do when it all freezes over except think of all the stuff that’s going on underground in preparation for spring?
There are certainly moments when I am ready to throw in the towel and give up. But I am, at heart, an optimist. In the depths of winter when everything (including me) freezes solid I imagine garlic sending down deep roots in beds prepared in the fall, roots that will fuel the plants’ amazing growth in the spring. Because there is always another spring coming, more seeds to start, another litter to farrow, another crop of apples to pick. And with each cycle, I learn a little more and feel just a tiny bit more confident that maybe I am doing exactly what I am meant to be doing. Which would explain why, even on the very worst days when everything seems to be going wrong, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. And besides, the food really is pretty good.