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Monday, June 26, 2017

The gathering place

The Accidental Farmwife
Our farm is a gathering place
By Diana Fisher
The farm is a retreat for city people. It’s a place to try out your new rubber boots, go for a hike in the forest and get back to nature by feeding a cow an apple. At our farm on any given Sunday you can fill your belly with home cooked food and nourish your soul with good conversation and the love of family and friends.

When we first started hosting family dinners on Sunday we made it sort of a command performance for our girls. It was a “be there or be square” kind of a thing. They had to have a really good reason not to attend. As they got older and had work commitments we occasionally had to excuse one or another of them but at they also started to bring boyfriends home around the same time. Our gathering grew in number. Our musical daughter brought starving musicians home to dinner. Well, they likely weren’t starving but they did appreciate a good home cooked meal. And to be honest, most of them were pretty thin. And vegetarian. And you know what they say – “don’t feed the musicians” – we joked that they kept coming back for the free food but we were the real winners in that deal. Many Sunday sunsets were accompanied by acoustic guitar singalongs on the back porch, with multiple harmonies.

I remember thinking we were really lucky that our family wanted to spend each Sunday with us. The Farmer is a creative, experimental cook and other guests bring special contributions to the meal. No one leaves hungry. But I think it is far more than the food and good company that motivates family members young and old to make the trek out to the O’Neill Road at the end of each week and the start of the next. I think it’s the farm.

If we lived in a small bungalow on a street in town, there wouldn’t be the same draw. The farm has an appeal all of its own. People don’t just come to see us and to eat our food. They come to see the farm. They come to smell the honeysuckle on the fresh, sweet air. They come to hear the geese honking their way up the creek at dusk. They come to watch the cattle return to the barnyard, single file on a crooked diagonal path across the pasture, mooing in unison.

I do believe we get a bigger crowd when they know the baby will be here. But like everything else on the farm, she brings you down to earth, demands your undivided attention and helps you to appreciate the simple things in life.

The Farmer and I were married on the farm ten summers ago, and we host a big farm party every year, in addition to our weekly dinners that average 18 guests and our Easter and Thanksgiving gatherings that top out around 43. We have accumulated the trappings of hospitality that make these events easier. He built a three-season room that accommodates a sixteen-seater picnic table made by his uncle Bob. We have been gifted serving trays and utensils, extra place settings, dishes, glasses and mugs as well as chafing dishes (I didn’t even know that was a warming plate before I met this man). We have the extra folding tables and chairs, eight table cloths, 24 cloth napkins and cutlery for 45.
But still I don’t think it’s the fact that we are set up for this sort of thing that makes people gravitate to the farm for their special occasions. This weekend we celebrated the lives of two very special women on the farm. My uncle came from Florida and his late wife’s family came from Calgary, Quebec and Toronto to celebrate her life in a memorial service. He wanted to have it on the farm because he knew it would be comfortable, casual and meaningful. He knew this because he had attended a memorial service for his brother on our farm two years ago.

We also celebrated my mother-in-law’s birthday on the farm this weekend. We had about ten people more than we expected but we were able to accommodate them with a bit of shifting and adjusting. Lorna’s short term memory is deteriorating and the crowds confuse her but she seemed to understand what was going on and appreciated the festivities. She even had a piece of cake, which she is allowing herself to do a lot more often these days.

She understands that life is too short to pass up cake on a special occasion. Or to miss another gathering at the farm. 

A full house on the farm

My daughter Anastasia needed a place to stay between houses. We agreed that she should move in to the farm for a week. That was great news, because it meant I would get to see my granddaughter quite a bit. Unfortunately it also meant I would be seeing and hearing more of Annie’s German Pointer, Skor.

Skor is a beautiful dog. He is a sweet, energetic and fun-loving three year old. But he has a bad case of nerves. He is constantly jumping up on things including people, the furniture, parked cars and the door to the house. Within a few hours of being at the farm, Skor had scratched the front door beyond repair, busted a doorway through the wooden lattice work under the porch and formed a path through the three-foot-tall flowers in the front bed. Annie said she would repair whatever Skor wrecked. It’s a good thing she is only staying a week because I don’t think she could afford any more damage.

Our pup Fergus loves having Skor and his considerably better behaved brother Rupert the Yellow Lab on the farm. Rupert puts up with Fergus bobbing up and down under his chin, nipping at his jowls and his ears. The bigger dog even teases the pup and engages him in play. Fergus is in heaven.
One day Annie needed someone to watch the baby. Of course I volunteered. Leti and I were having a great day together, splashing in the pool and playing with her Barbie and pony collection. Then I noticed Fergus was missing. He had wriggled under the snow fence that I had strapped to the bottom of the barnyard fence. He was standing on the rock pile on the cattle side of the fence, challenging a groundhog he had discovered within. I called him to come back but he ignored me. I picked up my 18-month-old granddaughter and started toward him. He’s a smart dog, and he knows he isn’t supposed to be in the barnyard, where he could be harmed by a bull or over-protective cow. I approached him carefully. The trick is to catch up to him before he notices and starts running in the opposite direction. That’s when I saw the coyote.

Not much bigger than Fergus, the young coyote was bounding along the fencerow toward my little dog. He appeared to want to play, but my instincts told me to get Fergus out of there. I picked up the pace, Leti bouncing and giggling along on my hip. I waved my free arm at the coyote and made as much noise as possible, hooting and hollering. Leti helped. That seemed to scare him, because he turned tail and ran back in the direction from which he had come. Then I bent down and scooped up my gangly and awkward Golden Retriever pup. A dog on one hip and a toddler on the other, I turned and headed back to the house. It must have been quite a picture. Fergus was all wiggly and squirmy in my arms. He wanted to be released so he could go back to investigating groundhog hill. Leti kept trying to reach around and stick her fingers in Fergus’ mouth. I tried to keep them separate while walking as fast as physically possible, back out of the barnyard and across the lawn to the house.
It’s possible that the coyote thought Fergus was one of his kind and just wanted to play, but I wasn’t taking any chances. For the next two days my back ached from the effort of carrying nearly fifty pounds of human and fur baby while running across a rocky pasture.

The Farmer was less than enthusiastic when he learned we would have houseguests – some of them with four legs. We kept the dogs in the basement or out on the porch when the Farmer was around – no use in poking the bear.

On their second night with us, the baby wasn’t feeling well. Fever kept her up most of the night and so no one got more than a couple hours sleep. In the morning, Skor tested our bedroom door and found it to be unlocked. He bounded up onto the bed and licked the Farmer right across the face. That day my husband packed up his fishing equipment and took off to the lake with a few of his closest two-legged friends. The only full house he wants to see in the next week is in a card game.

The magical power of Dad

Fathers, do not underestimate your power. You have the ability to influence a young life without saying a word. Your child will be watching your every move – studying your facial expressions and second guessing everything you say, searching for hidden meaning. You are the number one man in your child’s life at the beginning and although someone may someday take your place, those formative years are extremely important.

Your son will shape his own identity in large part by studying yours. He will try on your expressions, your habits and mannerisms to see which ones fit and which do not. Some things he will consciously try to mimic and other things will just happen organically, as a magical product of genetics. He may walk like you, but will he share your weaknesses as well as your strengths?  Your relationship will heavily influence whether your son matures into a man of character or whether he struggles with personal failings all his life. There will of course be myriad other factors shaping your son’s future, but they don’t diminish the power of your influence.

You can’t determine every aspect of your child’s future by your own behavior. But it is extremely important to watch not only what you model in front of your child, but also what comes out of your mouth.

The relationship between a father and daughter is a particularly special and powerful one. The way you relate to her will help her to define her feeling of self-worth. Now if that isn’t a heavy load to bear, I don’t know what is. I remember carefully examining everything my father said to me in terms of my looks, my dress, my intelligence and my talent. He helped me to grow into a confident, self-assured young woman, but he also provided a very realistic perspective on where my challenges lie. A high school science teacher for over thirty years, he told me, “you are smart in ways that will get you nowhere in the world.” That was when I won top marks for English. I took it as a compliment but I got the message. He just didn’t put the same value on writing ability as he did on math or science.
He also treated my sister differently than he treated me. I’ll never forget looking out the window and seeing him teaching her something about the car. They were huddled together out there, under the open hood. When I asked him later why he didn’t show me too, he said something like, “well Cathy likes to learn how to do things on her own.” That one left me puzzled for a while.

Dad didn’t say it often, but I knew he loved me. I knew this because he looked forward to the time we spent together after school and seemed disappointed when my part-time job wouldn’t allow me to do that anymore. He joked about my boyfriends but I always knew he cared. He teased me regularly about my hairstyles and wardrobe choices but in reality he was saying “I see you.” That is all that really mattered. My mother, sister and I were never left wishing he told us he loved us. He did that every day, by making us laugh, and giving us his time and attention. My mom said Dad told her “I love you” on their wedding day and “If it changes,” he said, “I’ll let you know.” He was a man who chose his words carefully.

A Dad not only has the power to change the way his daughter sees herself – he can also shape her choice in a future male partner. It is only natural that we will choose someone who seems familiar. Someone who reminds us of Dad. We do this without even knowing it and often don’t realize it until something happens that makes the similarity obvious. What kind of man will your daughter be choosing for herself, even subconsciously? Are you teaching her that men are strong but sensitive, kind and generous? Or will she be drawn to someone who reminds her of you but isn’t necessarily the best choice in a life partner?

On this Father’s Day, as the daughter of a man who made me feel treasured, loved and cherished (without words), I ask you to carefully consider the influence you are having on your child’s life. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

We have entered the Golden age on the farm

(photo of Fergus by Paulina Hrebacka)
The Farmer and I have entered a new era. After ten years of marriage, at the ages of 61 and 49, we have welcomed a new baby into our lives. He is a Golden Retriever and we have decided, after much debate, to name him Fergus.
The Farmer wanted to name him Red. He is a red type rather than the English blond type of Golden, but I argued that “Red” is simply a colour and not a name. I wanted to name him Finn, but perhaps that is more fitting of an Irish setter. Goldens come from Scotland. We were watching Outlander on Netflix one night when the name came to me. He will be known as Fergus the Red. Fergie for short.
We have received a great deal of advice on how to train this puppy. Some say you should crate the dog beside your bed so you can get up in the night to put him outside. This will speed up house training. However, I was reminded that if you allow the pup to sleep in your room as a pup, he will think it is his room going forward. I don’t want to be sharing my room with a huge dog that is dreaming loudly about chasing rabbits and snoring in his sleep. When I mentioned this to my husband he said, “Well, you could always go sleep in the other room!”
Fergus was tucked into his pet carrier on the first night. This was settled into the larger crate which will from now on be his safe place for naps and bed time and anytime he wants to get away from us, our visitors and our house cats. (Although we haven’t seen much of said house cats since Fergus arrived.)
I left the door to the carrier open so that Fergus could use the puppy pads in the larger crate if need be. And there was a need, the first night. The second night, I awoke a couple times in the night and brought him outside to relieve himself in the long grass that I have designated as his toilet area. His crate pad stayed dry.
The first full day at home, Fergus roamed around and explored every corner in the house. He discovered that although he can wedge himself under or between many different pieces of furniture, he cannot always extricate himself. He is very quiet, and doesn’t know his name yet so I spent a few minutes looking for him before finally discovering him stuck uncomfortably in a tight space under the spare bed. I decided to block the exits so he has to stay in the room with me.
I also used up about half a bottle of enzyme spray to eradicate pup accident odours. We are starting to learn each other’s language so hopefully in the next week or so we will go through a day without an indoor mess. It’s hard to know when he is planning a pee when he spends the majority of each day with his nose to the ground, sniffing. Always sniffing.
The other thing Fergus loves to do is chew. He has a variety of chew toys in different strengths so that he can exercise his needle-sharp teeth. Unfortunately he likes toes and fingers the best. I have the marks to prove it. But for the most part our tiny Golden Retriever wants to please us. It is obvious that he is looking for instruction, so we just have to figure out how to tell him what we expect, and to reinforce it.
This is all new to me so, of course, I am reading. I’m learning how to train our pup so that he can soon go off on road trips with the Farmer / Real Estate Agent. It wasn’t our intention to buy a puppy. We have both always owned rescue dogs from shelters. But despite contacting all area shelters and registering with Golden Rescue, we were unable to find a retriever that way, so we had to place an order for one of a spring litter.
Fergus is the Farmer’s “retirement dog”, although that man may never really retire. He has always wanted a Golden, so I suppose he deserves one. It’s plenty of work, training and cleaning up after this little creature but I realize he will only be little for so long. Thank goodness he sleeps a lot, because I am exhausted.


I guess this means we should listen to the cats

Our house was not completely flooded. We really have nothing to complain about, in comparison to the hundreds of people in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec who have lost everything in the rain and floods these past few weeks. But we did get some water in the basement.  It wouldn’t have had the chance to cause any damage, if we had only listened to the cats.
Sheila the housecat doesn’t really like people. She pretends to be friendly if she hears cellophane or senses that you may be eating cheese, but she doesn’t really want to be petted. She barely tolerates me. If Sheila’s food bowl is empty and I am busy making something in the kitchen, she winds herself around my legs and gives me a quick bite on the calf. She doesn’t have what you would call a nice disposition.
Still, Sheila has her good qualities. She played surrogate mom to all those kittens I nabbed from the barn and brought into the house to wean and adopt out. When their new families came to pick them up, she followed them to the door one by one and when they left she sat at my feet and complained.
Today, whenever we are sitting watching TV in the evenings she pulls one of her kitten-sized toys out of the basement and sings to it, loudly. This is quite regular behaviour for her, and it goes on for about five minutes. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention when it went on for more like half an hour one night last week. But I was watching the season finale of Outlander and didn’t want to be interrupted.
When I finally got up to see what the heck Sheila was hollering about, I found her sitting at the top of the basement stairs with about six toys around her. They appeared to be wet. I flicked the light on and peered down the stairs. Sure enough, the floor was covered in water. Ugh.
A quick investigation by the Farmer confirmed that the hose used to drain condensation from our furnace was blocking the sensor ball on the sump pump, so it wasn’t able to switch on when the water level got too high. Water had seeped out of the workshop area of the basement to soak the carpet in the next room. The parquet floor in the spare bedroom will likely have to be ripped out and replaced also.
I spent the next few days sopping up wet cat litter and carrying soggy boxes of baby clothes upstairs to be dried and repacked. I will be investing in some waterproof boxes for storage in the future. Maybe some that can float.
The cats’ litter and food had to be moved upstairs to the bathroom for a few days while the water dried up. That gave them free run of the house during the night, which they truly loved. I could hear them ripping up and down the stairs after each other when I was supposed to be asleep.
You would think we had learned our lesson, but, no. A few days later, it happened again. Sheila tried to tell me. I was sitting on the couch reading a book and she attempted, unsuccessfully, to launch herself up into my lap. She almost never does this, and hasn’t tried in years. I laughed when she misjudged the distance to the couch and fell over. Sheila walked away, dejected. She was back a few minutes later with a wet cat toy. That got my attention. The sump had failed again.
I suspect we will be checking that mechanism more often on rainy days, and perhaps investing in a battery-operated backup system. The Farmer is cutting the carpet up into manageable pieces that can be lifted up the basement stairs and out onto the back deck for disposal. It is a mess, and our basement smells a bit like a wet sock, but it’s nothing like what the owners of truly flooded homes are dealing with.
Last year the drought had us using up our hay months ahead of schedule, because nothing was growing in the pasture. This year we are starting the cattle on pasture early, because of the rain. You never know what you are going to get, but from now on I’m paying attention to the animals. They seem to know what’s up.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Here's to you, Mom

Being a mom is one of the best jobs on Earth. It’s very rewarding. It’s also completely thankless sometimes, if that makes any sense. Mom doesn’t usually get a thank you when she wakes up in the middle of the night to change diapers and provide food for her new babe. She will likely get more complaints and protests than gratitude when she makes healthy snacks and lunches for her child. And she probably won’t get many thanks when she drags that kid out of bed for school, church or hockey practice early in the morning, even though they know it is for their own good. But she will keep on doing all of those things, because she is a mom.
It often isn’t until we are moms ourselves, or we lose our moms, that we realize how much they did for us. Probably the best gift you can give your mom (I’m speaking from my own perspective as the mom of 3, step-mom of 2 and grandma of 1) is your time and attention. She doesn’t need you to buy into the commercialism of the event and spend a lot of money on a gift – but if you want to, that’s perfectly fine. What Mom really wants, I’m guessing, is to hear your voice on the phone, see you on Skype or Facetime, or spend time with you on Mother’s Day. We don’t all have those perfect movie script mother-child relationships, so if you can’t imagine sitting across from your Mom for an entire lunch date, why don’t you ask what she wants to do. Maybe it’s going to a movie together, and sharing a laugh. Or go through old photo albums together, tidying up her storage room at the same time. Don’t forget the wine. Your Mom might want to go somewhere with you, or she might just want you to tell her all about what you have been up to lately. Detail by detail. You can sacrifice the time. Think of all she has done for you.
If you don’t have a mom figure in your life, there might be another woman you can honour on Mother’s Day. Maybe a favourite teacher or coach, who was your confidante during difficult times while you were growing up. Or maybe there is a mom in your life who is missing her own children and would love to spend some time with you on Mother’s Day. If you’ve lost your Mom, maybe you can honour her memory by pulling her old recipe box out of storage and making some of her favourite dishes.
Looking for a last-minute gift idea for the mom who has everything? Here are some of my favourites. 1. Book a photo session together. I did this one year and it was quite an experience. The photo shoot itself was moving, because you don’t usually spend that much time hanging on to this person you call Mom. Spending an hour in each other’s embrace, laughing and goofing off for the camera is a memory you will treasure forever. With the photos to match.
2. Buy tickets for an upcoming concert and plan to go together. Make sure it’s music that Mom likes. If she isn’t into loud noises, consider a play or a comedy show. It will give you another experience to share and look forward to.
3. Plan a day trip together. Go for a drive, do some window shopping and include some destinations from your past, with at least one stop for food. Stir up some memories and take the time to chat about the good old days.
4.  Book a spa day together, if you’re into that sort of thing. This can be a mani-pedi and hair experience at a salon, or a massage and soak at the hot springs. The idea is to have some laughs and spend time together with no cell phone distractions.
5. Make a photo book. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend with Mom on Mother’s Day but you want her to know how much you appreciate her, scan or take photos of old photos, and download recent ones onto a USB stick or your phone. Then head to a photo kiosk and print a hard-covered photo book. You can even add text if you want to. It’s a thoughtful gift and doesn’t have to cost much.
Happy Mother’s Day. Enjoy every moment.

The evolution of a hobby farm

The face of a farm is ever-changing. When I first moved onto the farm, the pasture was dotted with fluffy white sheep as far as the eye could see. The Farmer started with a dozen or so sheep in 1998 when he built the farmhouse to accompany his newly purchased 200 acres and barn. Every year he sold the male lambs after weaning and let the females stay to keep the ram busy and build up the herd. Before long, he had a herd of 200 sheep. The farm was quite well suited to sheep farming, but it didn’t start out that way.
A long while ago, The Fisher Farm was a mink farm. Then it was a piggery for years. The feeders and pens were built low to the ground to accommodate the pigs, so the Farmer didn’t have to renovate much to host his sheep. Cattle are another story. We added two Hereford cows to our menagerie in 2008, and slowly started building that herd so we could move out of sheep farming. Sheep are hard on your back. You are in a constant bent-over state, trimming their hooves, shearing them, administering their monthly shots and pulling them out of whatever mess they have managed to entangle themselves in. I also found sheep farming extremely hard on my heart. With lambing season happening at the tail end of winter, a freezing cold barn often meant a high lamb mortality rate. Sheep are also adept at contracting all varieties of disease, named in the most obvious of ways: Stiff Leg Disease; Hard Bag; Foot Rot; Sore Mouth; Bent Leg; Frothy Bloat; and even Fuzzy Lamb Syndrome. Sheep farming was never a very good money maker for us. We did it because we enjoyed it, and as the Farmer says, it kept him busy.
Cattle farming was, for the most part, a much simpler venture. The cows often give birth without any human intervention or help. We have had at least one problem calf each year that requires bottle feeding or other assistance at the start. But other than the first week or so where we have to keep Mom and Babe inside the pen (which used to house sheep and is constantly getting destroyed by cows), cattle farming has been pretty easy.
The cattle test our fences for us every year. If there is a weak section of fence, they will find it. Then we get a call from a neighbour about cows in the road, or in their backyard. That’s how the Farmer knows it is time to reinforce the electric wiring.
Cattle farming has been fairly profitable for us over the past few years, but last year’s drought was a real lesson in what can happen when your meadows don’t replenish themselves. We had to dip into our winter hay storage to feed our herd during the summer. This was expensive. When we factored in how much we were getting for each calf sent to market, we realized they weren’t exactly paying their room and board. It may be time for another step in the evolution of the Fisher Farm.
“I think I’m slowing down a bit,” said the Farmer as we sipped our drinks during the first afternoon patio-sit of the season. “I hate to think of not being the Farmer anymore though…” and by that I knew he was referring to his farming-as-a-hobby to keep him from getting bored in his semi-retirement. How a real estate agent who is building a log cabin and maintaining his own property has time to get bored is beyond me. But I know farming is important to him as it keeps him healthy. With animals depending on you making a trip to the barn each morning and night, you are getting out of the house in all kinds of weather. I really think this is why he is never sick – because he spends so much time out of doors. Then there is the shoveling of their manure and pitching their hay. You save money on a gym membership.
We can rent out the rest of our pasture fields for cash crops, but it would be nice to find something else to occupy the barns, and keep the Farmer busy. I’m thinking about all that woodworking equipment he has in the shed. I know several people who would really appreciate some handmade wood furniture, including yours truly.