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Friday, October 31, 2008

Farmwife Fitness

You may have heard of first-year college students battling “the Freshman Fifteen”. Well, I’m currently dealing with “The Farmwife Fifteen”. I’m not one to fuss over my weight but when my normally loose clothing is tight enough to give me the appearance of a stuffed sausage, I’ve got to stop and take notice. I refuse to admit that my metabolism has taken that much of a turn since I hit 40 last spring. I could blame the extra weight on the fact that I’ve been pretty sedentary, sitting at a desk for 6 to 8 hours a day since my latest contract began in June. I could also say that my first summer season on the farm kept me too busy to exercise. But that doesn’t really make sense, does it? One would think that farm work would be a very good form of exercise. It certainly wears me out, to dig in the garden or pitch hay all afternoon. So how have I managed to pack on a pound a month since I became Mrs. Farmer Fisher last August? I’ll tell you how: this Farmwife has been having a bit too much of the good life!
When I’m stressed, I clean my house for hours on end. When I’m sad, I can’t eat or drink. When I’m happy, however, I loaf about, treat myself to comfort foods, and indulge in copious amounts of good red wine. Happiness is making me fat.
Oh yeah – and did I mention the Farmer is a really good cook? He goes by the “everything tastes better with butter” rule.
In an attempt to regain my pre-Farmwife figure, I joined the local gym. I think I have managed to attend one fitness class and to do two half-hour workouts since I joined a month ago. One day I squeezed in a workout after work and by the time I got home, the Farmer had just finished weeding the entire garden. I felt like a very bad Farmwife indeed. He didn’t complain about doing my chores while I was at the gym – I’m sure he’d like to have a wife who is in good shape. Maybe he is remembering last winter when I didn’t have the strength or endurance to pitch hay for more than a few minutes. And forget manure. That stuff is heavy. Whenever I try to lift a forkful of that, I end up sitting in it. Nice.
It has been said that one very good way to keep your love alive (not that I am worried about this after just one year of marriage!) is to try new things together. So, I put my need for exercise and my love of music together with a great idea for a “date night” and signed us up for ballroom dancing lessons. The Farmer wasn’t too crazy about my telling everyone the secret behind where we go on Thursday nights, but I let the cat out of the proverbial bag last week.
We were on our way home from lessons when we noticed flashing lights at the intersection of O’Neill and Patterson’s Corners Road. I couldn’t believe the police had set up a R.I.D.E. program in our neck of the woods. At 9pm on a Thursday in October. The constable stuck his head in the truck window: “Have you had anything to drink, folks?” and the cheeky spirit of my late father took me over, much to the chagrin of my beloved husband: “We just came from ballroom dancing lessons. Alcohol would make us miss a step.” My daughter let out a groan from the back seat.
The constable, equally cheeky in his own way, backed away from the truck and turned to his mates: “Hey. Come ‘ere. This poor guy just came from ballroom dancing lessons!” Then he stuck his head in the car again: “Just how long have you two been married, anyway?”
I beamed, and told him. To which the officer nodded knowingly, winked at my poor Farmer, gave the truck a pat and backed away, waving us on.
“Well. He thinks he’s pretty funny, doesn’t he?” I mumbled. The Farmer just let out a heavy sigh and said nothing.
Ballroom doesn’t look very difficult, but it is. We have to break for a drink of water halfway through the 90-minute class, as we never stop moving. Instructors Ron and Sharon Cook are very entertaining as they teach basic steps for the foxtrot, jive, waltz and cha-cha. (Don’t take this the wrong way, Ron, but we had quite a giggle last week when you were teaching us “Cuban hips”. Remember that character Martin Short used to play?)
We have been frustrated with the intricacies of some of the steps, but we are slowly gaining confidence, after a month of lessons. We might even set up a dance floor in the basement so we can practice (as if the kids didn’t already think we were weird).
So here is my new Farmwife Fitness plan: skip the butter (the Cook already put enough in the recipe), eat only salads and soups when we go out, do a little bit of physical work around the farm every day, dance as much as possible and get thyself to the gym before the office opens in the morning.
That plan should have me back to my normal shape by springtime.
The Farmer worked very hard on various projects this summer, including building another house. He’s quite pleased with how he has lost weight over the summer. He even had the audacity to report that someone recently called him “skinny”.
My husband hasn’t bothered to weigh himself (that’s just another thing men rarely have to worry about, along with wrinkles and grey hairs…) but suspects he has lost between 30 and 40 pounds.
Well, if he’s lost weight, I’m pretty sure I know where it is.


Another Memorable Thanksgiving

I read a church sign this week that said, “We don’t need more to be thankful. We just need to be more thankful.” How true.
The Farmer and I host dinner parties all the time. It’s our favourite thing to do on a Saturday evening. On Sundays, we have any available family members over for Sunday dinner. We usually seat 12 to 18 people.
On Thanksgiving, the number swells to 40.
It sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but it’s certainly worth it. The preparation begins the day before. We take all of the furniture out of the living room, standing couches on end and chairs on top of each other in the hall of the farmhouse. This is my third Thanksgiving with the Fisher family, and so far we have been very, very lucky with the weather. That’s a good thing, because we like to put all of the TV room furniture out on the back porch on Thanksgiving Day. It’s the perfect place for pre-dinner cocktails and apr├Ęs-dinner coffee, as we watch Donkey leading the sheep around the pasture.
We set up three long foldaway tables in the living room, and three in the TV room. 22 adults sit in the living room, and 18 “young folk”, aged 13 to 20-something, are seated in the TV room. We set the tables with three sets of china. I cut flowers from the garden: bright orange Chinese lanterns and red and yellow chrysanthemums that I planted after our wedding last August. There is symbolism in that bouquet. I had to live in Asia for a few years before I really knew where home was. It’s here. I found it. Back where I started.
I am so very thankful that life has led me to this place. I am thankful that we are healthy, and that we have enough. That’s all we need. Life on a farm is dramatic and calm, exciting and peaceful. We spend a lot of time fully engrossed in the weather. Making sure the animals are comfortable. And the hay is dry. Being outside this much forces you to appreciate the wonders of nature around you. The night sky this Thanksgiving was amazing, wasn’t it? A quilted cotton-cloudy sky surrounded a Harvest moon. It was incredibly beautiful.
Back to the dinner. We raised our own turkeys this year. Even the kids notice the difference in the taste with a farm-fresh turkey. The Farmer (who is also chief cook in all of our dinners) set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Sunday. I got up with him, the dutiful Farmwife. Half-asleep, he thought he would give instruction without speaking. I attempted to follow his telepathic direction, peeling and quartering Macintosh apples, measuring out raisins and chopping onions and dried apricots. The Farmer struggled to free the legs of the 35-lb turkey from its trusses. I suggested he rub the cavity of the bird with salt. He looked at me, saying nothing. I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know why. My mother does it.”
The Farmer held the heavy bird while I stuffed the cavity with the crouton-and-dried-fruit stuffing. I couldn’t help thinking, as we struggled with the awkward beast, of the movie where Mr. Bean gets the turkey stuck on his head as he looks for his lost watch. I decided to take my wedding rings off, just in case.
When we could cram no more stuffing in the bird, we tied its legs together with waxed string and heaved it into the special roasting pan from C.A. Paradis.
In order to fit this large bird in the oven, we take the top rack out and place the bottom one on the lowest ridge. We even had a few inches to spare. Next year, we’re doing a 40-pounder.
Here comes the Farmer’s secret to roast turkey perfection (don’t tell him I told you): the oven is turned up to 450 degrees for the first hour. This seals in the juices. The catch is, you have to be awake for that hour, unless you have a computerized stove that will reset the temperature after sixty minutes. We don’t.
So we sat up for an hour at 4 a.m., sipping herbal tea and discussing our teenagers. I was reminded of when I used to wake up at 4 a.m. to feed my newborn babies. Life goes so fast.
At 5, we turned the turkey down to 325 degrees and went back to bed.
Our first guests arrived at 11. Each guest brought a dish to add to the meal. A new addition to the feast this year, which brought back memories of Asia, were the dumplings prepared by nephew Bruce’s Chinese girlfriend, Jessica. We served appetizers on the porch and lent rubber boots to the people who wanted to go for a hike in the barnyard. Nephews and nieces from the city took their girlfriends and boyfriends out to meet the animals.
Donkey was in fine form, standing at the fence and hee-hawing at the humans, nodding his head up and down, begging for a snack. He was rewarded with an apple.
A little later, I took a bucket of sweet feed out to the cows. Donkey followed me. I gave him a garbage-can lid full of the candy, and he hoovered it up in a few seconds. Our eldest, Milena, tiptoed out to the barnyard in her short skirt and high-heeled boots. I pointed out the “landmines” that the sheep had strategically placed throughout the yard, but she didn’t seem to care. She was interested in Donkey, who was trying to reach his short snout down to the bottom of the long, narrow bucket.
He got the bucket stuck on his head. We laughed and took several photos. He dropped the bucket and looked at us. Cocking his ears, he summed up the loud reaction. And then he decided he would do it again. Milena put the bucket handle between his teeth, and he swung it back and forth. Again he was rewarded with a burst of laughter from his human audience. He liked the attention, so he did it a few more times. He nibbled on the boots of his hecklers. When we got bored and turned to walk back toward the house, Donkey snorted at us. He didn’t want the game to end.
The “kids” started a game of touch football, and Donkey moved toward the gate where he could comment on their skills with the occasional hee-haw. I wonder what he would have done if we had let him in to play. It was such a beautiful day.

How I caught my Thanksgiving Dinner

Turkeys are fascinating creatures. Throughout the summer, whenever we passed by the barn where the turkeys were being held, the slightest noise would set them off. One would start with a single “buck!” and the rest, by some sort of turkey telepathy, would all join in a chorus: “gobble gobble gobble gobble...” It was truly the weirdest thing. The turkeys held the interest of more than one visiting relative from the city.
The day eventually came when it was time to take the turkeys to Berube’s processing plant in Hallville. I was sound asleep one morning when I suddenly received a rude awakening by the alarm, just before sunup. My husband was already fully dressed, sitting at the end of the bed.
“Where ya goin’?” I asked the Farmer, thinking he was off to wait in the stone fencerow for that wiley coyote who prowled at sunrise.
Much to my surprise, my dear husband took one end of the warm comforter and yanked it off the bed. “Come on, it’s Turkey Day! How can you write about it if you don’t help out?”
I had to admit he had a point there. I shrugged my work clothes over my head and wandered out to the barn. It was the first time I had been up that early since lambing season. I had forgotten how incredible the sky was at dawn, and how sweet the air. Birds began to announce the coming day long before the sun poked its head over the horizon.
Once in the barn, I hauled myself over the half-wall and into the female turkey pen while my husband gave direction.
“Grab a tail. That will stop them. Then you can pick them up and put them in the cages. I’ll get the males.”
I grabbed at a tail. And ended up with a handful of tail feathers. The startled turkey moved out of my reach. I tried again, this time going for a gnarled turkey foot. My mind shifted back five years, to my first week in Taiwan. I had been wandering through the street market, when I smelled what I thought was french fries. Sure enough, the pretty young woman approaching me was carrying what looked like a small cardboard takeout carton of fries. But when she reached in, she pulled out a chicken claw and bit down on it. By the way the girl gnawed on the foot, I gathered they were somewhat chewy.
My husband’s voice brought me back to the present. The foot in my hand was attached to a frustrated thirty-pound turkey.
“Watch out for the wings.”
The hen began to beat me about the face and shoulders. I let go of the foot, brushed the feathers off my face and took a deep breath.
I was damned if I was going to be defeated by a stupid turkey.
Turning my face away, I swooped under the fattest one I could find, grabbed both feet and yanked her up into the air. She beat her wings a bit, so I brought her fat chest in between my knees and held her there for a moment, warm against my thighs. She quieted.
I flipped open the door to the cage with my foot and guided her in. I continued my winning method, and we filled the cages.
After half an hour of lifting twenty-five pound turkeys (and those were the runts), my arms were achin’ and my legs were shakin’.
The Farmer tied the cages onto a trailer behind the truck. The turkeys seemed fairly content, as they quietly discussed their possible destination. Paris? Mexico, perhaps? I smiled, wondering if my husband was planning to stop at Tim Horton’s on his way through town.
Yessir. Those farm-raised turkeys sure are fascinating. Not to mention, delicious.
The Accidental Farmwife would like to wish each and every one of her readers a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving weekend. May your blessings be abundant.

A Visit with The Farmer's Wife, Wyn Thompson

A few months ago, Darcy Thompson – who used to cut the hay on our farm - stopped me in the grocery store to tell me that he enjoyed my column. He said that it reminded him of his grandmother, Wyn Thompson’s column. “The Farmer’s Wife” ran in the Chesterville Record for years. Decades, even. I decided to take a drive out to Chesterville to get my hands on some of her inspired writings.
I fully expected to read about the daily details of life as a “real” farmwife, including taking the garden’s bounty and efficiently turning it into stews, jams, preserves and pies. I prepared myself to read about the hardship and gratefulness of a farmwife much heartier and knowledgeable than I. And I did read those things. But there was so much more.
Wyn Thompson was a writer. And she loved her life on the farm. She put her appreciation of the country life into beautiful words so that others could share in her joy.
Here is an excerpt from her column the first week of October, 1992:
“Then came October, full of merry glee. It is the eighth month of the old Roman year and the Slavs called it aptly ‘Yellow Month’, from the fading of the leaf.
A matchless October day – the best a weather system can offer. The early frosts are over, the fall heats are passed, and the day is like a full-blown mellow apple clinging to the bough. The day is retrospective, full of tender memories, and wonderful promise. As bewitching as a moonlit pumpkin patch is this month, with its full harvest of enjoyment.
I pot the geranium and coleus slips in the deceptive heat of the afternoon sun, and move the pots indoors. The family room resembles a tropical garden but it will be a treat for the eyes as the winds howl around and about Hill House.
As October’s end approaches, I’m ready not only to cocoon but to burrow – the new buzz words for staying close to home and hearth. Intrinsic in my genes I acknowledge, for when I’m alone I can be myself, no pretences.
I can smile if I wish, frown if I like, do as I please when the spirit moves me. I can tell the barn cats what’s on my mind when they come to call. I can tell Lady what I think of her (she also named her farm animals, I see).
Since the Farmer is at his work all day, I have blocks of solitude to enjoy, and enjoy them I do. It’s selfish no doubt, but not to worry, life is not long enough to do all you wish to get done. But, what a joy to be alive, regardless of all the horrors, how beautiful this world is! As I said, it’s Thanksgiving, a time to acknowledge it!
I went for a walk in the woods today and was reminded of Thoreau who said, ‘Nature is our widest home.’ He spoke so often of finding solace in Walden’s ancient oaks.
Stopped in to see Amanda en route and came home with hot peppers to make Salsa sauce – so good on cold meats and hamburgs. She had jars of it lined up on her counter cooling and she remarked as she bottled the last jar of how well Sam likes it.
‘In fact, he likes it so well he’d put it on his morning toast if I set the jar out,’ she laughed. ‘A little hot for me at that hour of the day,’ I replied.
She had also been busy cleaning up her garden, except for the turnips, potatoes and cabbage. ‘They stay out until Thanksgiving Monday and then they are stored in the root cellar and I’m thankful the season has gone full circle. When the last cabbage is laid on the shelf and I enter the kitchen, the roasting turkey smells really good. I’m ready for hearth fire, soup kettle, books, sewing, knitting, long walks, all the things I’ve had to forego during the planting, growing and harvesting time of the year.’
‘You’ve got it right there,’ I laughed, as I swung off home to make some Salsa.”

Wyn Thompson is no longer with us, but her words remain to remind us of the importance of moving slowly through this season, taking a deep breath of sweet Ontario air, and feeling grateful for all of our blessings.
In the South Gower cemetery, a stone bench bears the inscription “The Farmer” and, at his side forevermore, “The Farmer’s Wife”. There they can sit, with a good view of rolling farmland.
Thought for the week (borrowed from Wyn): He is only rich who owns the day. There is no king, rich man, fairy or demon who possesses such power as that…The days are made on a loom whereof the warp and woof are past and future time. – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dirty Cows

I’ve just found my new favourite TV show. “Dirty Cows” is the UK version of “The Bachelor”, wherein 10 babes from the city wander out to the country with their stiletto heels and manicures to try and win the heart of a handsome young farmer (and the key to his 1500-acre estate!).
The women are challenged to milk cows, muck out horse stalls, gut fish and complete other similarly disgusting tasks directly related to farm life. In addition to the fear factor of touching something that smells revolting, these women are also charged with the daily duties of a typical low-tech farmwife: cooking, cleaning, gardening and caring for the animals. They have to get up early in the morning, forego the makeup and get to work, without worrying about breaking a nail – or they won’t win the hand of the Farmer, one Alexy van Kimmenade.
Having lived with British people before, I am familiar with the affectionately derogatory term “cow” and its use as a popular way to address one’s female friends. This is not the worst that English and Australian folk call their mates, mind you, but I am bound too tightly by the community newspaper code of ethics to write the other terms here. British slang is one aspect of this show that makes it so fascinating to me, when and if I can make out the variety of English accents.
I find myself relating to these women, because I too was out of my comfort zone when I moved to my husband’s 200-acre sheep farm last year. In order to impress him of my natural farmwife abilities, I found myself scooping poop and cleaning up freshly born lambs right along side him. There are some things, however, I will not do. Thankfully, he doesn’t ask.
Our own set of dirty cows had an exciting weekend. When the Farmer noticed them out in the field, dancing with each other (they were taking turns dancing the lead, if you catch my drift), we decided it was indeed time to call 1-800-BULL.
Annie helped me to lure Betty and Ginger and their calves from the far corner of the pasture and into the barn, with a dish of sweet feed. The cows spent the rest of the morning happily resting, away from the sheep, locked in with fresh bales of hay.
At noon, the technician from Eastern Breeders arrived. Jim was patient while the Farmer and his two helpers – all 3 of us confessed rookies at the business of rodeo – ushered Betty and then Ginger into the chute. I am so happy that the “girls” were easy on us. They went right into the long, skinny pen, one right after the other. Betty was after the sweet feed. Ginger was after Betty. I held the cow candy under Betty’s nose, just out of range. She put her head through the gate to lick it, and I quickly squeezed the lock on her neck. She tried to wriggle free but when she couldn’t she just resigned herself to eating the feed, which was now within her reach. The Farmer slid a board in behind her so she couldn’t back up. Note to self: next time don’t reach in between the cow and the boards to give her a reassuring pat or you might end up with a broken arm. (I got away with a bruise).
I felt bad for Ginger, because she came in after Betty and she couldn’t reach the sweet feed . She was a pretty good patient, except for when she thought she might be able to escape the rubber gloves by burrowing under Betty. Her treatment complete, she was allowed to back up and out of the chute. Without any sweet feed.
Betty’s turn was next, and she pretty much kept eating throughout the procedure, except for one long, low moooooo….
Once released from the chute, the cows joined their calves and wandered out into the barnyard. Instead of going out to pasture, however, they wandered over to the fence to look at us. There was a bit of mooing back and forth. Annie gave them some more sweet feed. I guess if they were in the doctor’s office they would have been given a lollipop.
We decided to inseminate the cows with semen from “Ribeye”. He is known to produce calves that are small and easy to birth but they grow quickly.
Maybe I will go out to the pasture to show Betty and Ginger the catalog picture of their bull. Poor girls – they were gypped. They didn’t even get to meet him.


A Clean Kitchen is a Sign of a Boring Life

Our house is only ten years old but - hoo boy - you can accumulate a lot of dirt in a farmhouse in a decade.
When I was growing up, my sister and I helped out by vacuuming and dusting on the weekend. Mom cleaned the bathrooms. Once a season or so, the kitchen floor would get washed (she’s going to want to correct this and that’s her prerogative). Every spring, Mom would wash the windows thoroughly. I’m sure myriad other deep cleaning jobs were done, but I was (thankfully) not privy to most of them because I wasn’t home to see them being done. After all, I had a part-time job at Canadian Tire and a social life to keep up.
As a young mom raising a family in the suburbs of Ottawa in the ‘90s, I had a similar housecleaning routine: vacuum, spray, wipe, done. When I was particularly agitated about one thing or another, I would take on bigger cleaning jobs, like washing the floors and windows.
But now I live in a farmhouse. I fear it will never be truly clean.
We keep an old freezer full of various sizes of rubber boots on the back porch so that if anyone wants to venture into the pasture or the barn, they’re covered. The intention is that these boots are meant to remain outside. The boots inevitably find their way indoors, however, in the winter. I find them parked inside the patio door, just to the right of the TV. Thankfully, by that time of year, the snow usually keeps them pretty clean and the mud / manure is frozen too hard to stick.
Coveralls, barn jackets and splash pants (to be worn during the lambing season, for kneeling in all sorts of questionable material) have also been restricted to hooks inside the basement staircase. I continue to find them draped over the back of the couch in the TV room.
Every Sunday without fail, we host a family dinner with an average seating of a dozen people. Our floor needs to be washed, often. The Farmer, having developed his own method for cleaning his hardwood floors, is quite adamant that his way is best. Without going into detail, I will simply say that his way is the long way. The slow way. The labour-intensive way. I am always looking for shortcuts with my cleaning, as with my cooking. The sooner the job is done, the sooner I can get back to writing my story or visiting with my lambs. That doesn’t make me a bad farmwife, does it?
This summer, while my husband was toiling away in the barn building sheep chutes and cattle gates, I took on the daunting task of washing all the windows in the house.
I found what looked like a decade’s worth (but the Farmer assures me it is not) of ladybug shells, spider webs, fly corpses and these crazy little flies that my sister calls “no-see-‘ems” in the window tracks. If you’ve never lived on a farm, then you don’t know dirt. I vacuumed the crud out of the windows and sprayed the frames with boat cleaner.
I borrowed Mom’s pressure washer, and proceeded to spray down the windows. I got halfway through one window when the washer quit on me, never to spray again. Unwilling to give up due to technical difficulties, I hopped in the car and drove to the rental place.
Twenty minutes and twenty dollars later, I was back on the job.
That industrial washer was so strong it took the paint off the side of the doghouse. I was very happy with the end result.
The next morning, I went down to the kitchen and peered out my clear window. Over night, a zillion no-see-‘ems had gathered in my spotless windowsill. Heavy sigh. It’s no use. My windows will never be truly clean.
I have decided it’s the thought that counts. I tackle a small housecleaning job every day, and someone or something comes along and reverses my efforts. I wash the floor, the dog drools all over it. I vacuum the carpet, Annie comes running in with freshly cut grass sticking to her bare feet. My car would stay clean if I could somehow get to work without having to use our potholed, muddy road.
Honestly, my house was cleaner when I was single because I clean when I am stressed. Now that I am happily ensconced in my newlywed farmwife existence, the dust bunnies are softly settling in around me. Ah, life on the farm. I wouldn’t trade it for a spotless zen-urban condo.


While Donkey's Away, Coyote Will Play

Donkey was intrigued when the cows arrived last November. Finally, someone his own size with whom he could roam the pasture. The sheep were probably happy too, because Donkey had been bored before the cows arrived – bored and jealous. And the sheep were always ending up on the wrong end of Donkey’s bad moods.
Mating time for the sheep frustrates Donkey because he has no mate of his own. The first year we had him, he spent most of the sheep mating season following the ram around. Jealous of all the action the ram was getting, Donkey kept trying to remove Rambo’s halter with his teeth. Rambo looked pretty ruffled by the end of his work day, with tufts of wool hanging off him and his crayon halter askew.
The ewes didn’t have it any easier. Donkey would chase them around and nip at their ankles. One day I saw Donkey running up the field with a ewe hanging from his mouth by her hoof. When I yelled at him, he just dropped her as if she were a toy. She lay there for a moment, playing dead, but when she realized she could move she hopped up and took off, unharmed.
When Donkey’s second autumn on the farm came around, we decided to do something to curb his behaviour. My suggestion was that we get a girl Donkey – a Jenny – to occupy Donkey (and maybe to produce some cute little big-eared baby donkeys). Someone advised us that Donkey might then be a little too preoccupied to guard the sheep if he had a woman around.
Finally we decided to get Donkey “fixed”, with the hope that it will take some of the trouble out of him. That seemed to work for a little while, but soon he was back to his sheep-harassing tricks again.
This is Donkey’s third autumn on the Fisher Farm. This year, Rambo and Rambi are going about their mating work uninterrupted, as Donkey is nowhere near the sheep. In fact, Donkey is down in the far pasture, nibbling on wildflowers with Betty, Ginger and their calves. He prefers to be with the larger animals. Perhaps he thinks they are more like him. And the cows, in their arrogance, prefer to be separate from the sheep.
That is all well and good, now that the calves are no longer a novelty and Donkey has stopped chasing them over fences for fun. We are happy to see that Donkey has some new friends. He seems content.
However, we acquired Donkey because he protects the sheep just by being there. When he wandered away to watch our Thanksgiving guests playing football in the front field the first year, we had a wolf kill in the pasture. After that incident, Donkey has stayed with the sheep and we haven’t lost a single animal to a wolf. But this year, Old Wiley Coyote is very pleased to see the sheep grazing without their bully bodyguard.
Two weeks ago, we lost a sheep in the side pasture. Just a stone’s throw from the barnyard. Donkey had been in the back field, with the cows, at the time of the attack.
This past weekend, the Farmer woke up and looked out at the sheep. The flock was calmly grazing, but most of them were watching something in the fenceline, just a few feet away.
“Look at that coyote right there in the middle of the sheep!” the Farmer yelled. It seemed like only moments passed while he unlocked his bullet cabinet, loaded his gun and slinked out the back door. The coyote was still there. The sheep were still watching it, and chewing. The Farmer aimed, shot… and missed. It’s pretty hard to shoot a coyote through a sheep-screen. All that adrenalin pumping through the veins doesn’t help you hold a gun steady, either. Unsure of the direction of the shot, the coyote paused mid-flight to look around. A second shot just grazed his tail. He won’t be back for a while.
We know there is a den of wolves at the back of our property but this was likely the same one that ate from our sheep buffet a couple of weeks ago. It was easy pickin’ last time, and it tasted pretty good, so he came back for more.
The sheep are probably safe for another few weeks. In the meantime, we had better find a way to get Donkey back to where he belongs. With the sheep.

Pitiful Potatoes

The extremely weird summer that is drawing to an end, with its record-breaking rainfall and cooler temperatures, has had a definite effect on the farm.
Most of our twenty-five tomato plants, which we lovingly planted and mulched with sheep manure and straw at the end of May, were waterlogged and drowned before they had a chance to grow. Last September, we were harvesting bushels of tomatoes to make into sauce. This year, I’ve collected two small bowls.
The potato bugs were out in full force this year, like nothing the Farmer had ever seen before. As soon as a plant emerged from the ground, it was set upon by the striped beetles and razed.
We tried picking the bugs off one by one, and when that didn’t work we used insecticide powder. But it was too late. Without food from the sun, the potato seedlings beneath the soil mounds didn’t stand a chance. I have been harvesting potatoes the size of marbles, and just as hard. My green-thumbed Irish grandmother keeps coming out “to see the garden”. She must have been mortified on her last visit.
We have low-lying pastures, so our hay has been growing in a foot of water throughout most of the season. We couldn’t get a tractor back there for the first cut in June. The heavy equipment would have been bogged down in the wet. Now, as I see many farmers doing their second cut, we have finally dried out enough for our first.
The sheep have been plagued by mosquitoes all summer, as a result of the abundance of rain. But they must be enjoying the cooler temperatures, because they are already coming into season – about a month and a half early. Normally, the oppressive heat of August is more conducive to lazing around under a tree than mating. Our ram typically doesn’t get into the mood until closer to Thanksgiving – usually when we are attempting to entertain relatives from the city on the back porch after a big lunch.
This year, “Rambo” has an assistant. “Rambi”, our two-year-old male, has been following his mentor around the pasture. Rambo has a blue crayon strapped to his chest, which leaves a telltale mark on every ewe he mounts. We will have to get Rambi his own crayon marker so we will know who is working harder. When the ewes are in heat, they crowd around the ram and don’t let him lounge in the shade or graze in peace until they have been serviced. It’s a tough job that normally leaves the ram exhausted – and a couple of pounds lighter – by the time all the ewes have been mated. It’s a good thing Rambo has help this year. And a bit of healthy competition never hurt anyone. The rams seem to be past their head-butting stage, as if they realize they will have to work together to get this job done.
With all of this action happening before fall, we will have lambs arriving by New Year’s Eve. The lambs born in December will no doubt have a much better chance of survival than those born in the freezing nights of February. We also lost a few lambs last year when they gorged themselves on the new spring grass before their stomachs were mature enough to handle it. By the time this next group of newborns is released from the “maternity ward” to the outdoors, there will still be snow on the ground. Hopefully, this timing will allow their delicate digestive systems to mature before the new grass comes.
I have always been a very positive person, so I am usually able to see the bright side of everything. But why did we get so much rain this summer? Australia needs it a heck of a lot more than we do.
I know that many people were rained out of their ball games and ran out of their campgrounds by mudslides this summer. But when you live on a farm, you just have to trust and believe that everything happens for a reason. Even a rainy season.


A Tale of Three Kitties

I was just starting dinner when I heard one of the cats growling outside. Thinking that it was Hitler (our mustached male) attacking one of his siblings again, I threw open the screen door and went stomping out to scare him off. The growling was coming from the grove of wildflowers beside the pool. I peeked over the side and discovered that it wasn’t a cat fighting or mating. It was a cat giving birth.
The mama, one of our kittens from the summer of ’07 (who had already given birth this spring) was making guttural noises to comfort her kittens as they were being born. She looked up at me in between licks as she washed her two babies clean.
Just then I heard a squeaking from the other side of the porch. In behind our freezer, I found another kitten. The mother must have started over there before she went off looking for a more comfortable birthing room. To make matters worse, the other two were now crying. The mother was nowhere to be found.
I allowed Paulina to don gardening gloves and move the lone kitten over to its siblings, where it could share body heat until the mother came back. If she came back.
The life of a barn cat is a mysterious one, to be sure. It is often born in hiding, making its existence known only when it is old enough to come to the back porch for the food that I put out to supplement its diet of field mice and barn pests. Many of the cats that frequent the porch eventually wander off to some unknown fate, or if they are male, they might go to another farm to stake out a new territory. We never see cats that have died. Normally, they are very discreet about their cycle of life.
The Farmer stepped up on the porch on his way back from the barn. He wanted to know what was going on, so I showed him the kittens.
“Now, we just have to let nature take its course,” he said. “The mother is probably just out looking for a new place to live. She’ll be back.”
But he looked doubtful.
Just before bed, I tiptoed out to check on the kittens again. It was dropping to 9 degrees and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t make it if their mother didn’t return. I didn’t want to take the kittens in the house, however, in case the mother did come back. When I peeked in on the sleeping kittens, I was surprised to see that someone had wrapped them in a soft pink rag. Especially since the girls were already gone to bed…
The next morning, the kittens were alive but squeaking with hunger. We warmed up some cream and fed it to them one by one with an eye-dropper. I was amazed at the strength of their will. They clutched at the dropper and opened their mouths, each one of them the size of a field mouse. I kept telling myself (and the girls, for Annie and Polly had joined me) that we could only do so much. If the mother, who had returned, didn’t claim them, they would likely still die.
The day was an especially warm one, and it gave the kittens new energy. When we returned to the farm at the end of the day, we found that the kittens had wandered out of the blanket that we had placed on the porch, and one of them had fallen into the dog’s yard on the other side. I wondered if she had been carried or if she had truly just wandered blindly off the edge into oblivion. I hadn’t thought they could walk yet. I guess I was wrong.
We tried offering the kittens to their mother, but she wasn’t interested except to lick the milk off their whiskers. We tucked them in to the blanket again, and hoped they would make it through another night.
On the third day, Paulina and I were feeding the kittens cream again when Annie informed us that “most cats are lactose intolerant”. She grabbed the mother by the scruff of the neck, and held her down while she placed one kitten at a time on her belly to nurse. The mother looked like she truly couldn’t believe what was happening to her. Annie cursed the mother for kicking, and continued with her monitoring of the forced feeding until each kitten had a belly full of mother’s milk. I told Annie that I didn’t think swearing at the mama cat was going to make her come to her senses.
About an hour later, the mother crept over to where the kittens were nestling on the porch and picked them up one by one to carry them off to a new hiding place.
This Tale of Three Kitties is not over yet, apparently.

Shepherding in the Season of Mud

Walk into the main room of our barn and you sink up to your ankles in muck. A quicksand mixture of manure and mud threatens to suck the Wellies off your feet if you aren’t careful. I don’t know if it is the incredible rainfall we have had this summer, or the addition of two rather large cows that has made the barn floor so unbelievably mucky, but it has never been this wet before. Personally, I’m looking at the cows…
The mud has turned the lambs’ wool brown and I can’t find the lamb with the black “sock” anymore. They all have black socks now. A friend visiting from the city was most disappointed the other day to see that none of our sheep are white. I had to show her photos to prove that they once were white as Simpson’s clouds.
When one of our girls was just a wee thing, she asked her Dad, “does the wool on the sheep shrink when it gets wet, just like my sweater did?” You would think it did, the way they tear off across the pasture, in search of shelter from the rain, as the first drops fall. They seem to have a baa-rometer that tells them when it’s time to head for the hay. (Sorry; that was a bad one).
The self-filling water trough is also in the barn. Surrounded by muck. It’s so pitiful, watching the lambs trying to pick their way through the slime for a sip of water.
The cows are so heavy; they sink in up to their armpits. For the most part, they have been putting off drinking water for as long as they can. They have become resourceful too, stealing the water from Chelsea the sheepdog’s bucket when she is dozing in the sand around the corner.
The Farmer took stock of the situation and decided that we will need another load of gravel outside the barn so he can get his tractor in to scoop out the poop. But in the meantime, the ground is too soft for the gravel truck after all that rain. We have to resort to temporary measures.
First, he set up two more self-watering troughs outside the barn. One of them is for Betty and Ginger (the cows), which have now been locked in the front field so that they don’t keep going in the mucky barn. They have access to shelter, where the turkey coop is located. They just have to put up with a bit of gobbling in stereo when the sun rises in the morning. They just “moo” back at the turkeys, as if they are telling them to shut up.
Last week, we realized it was time to give the sheep their needles again. The lady at Rooney’s said it has been a bad season for parasites, but our sheep haven’t had any, so we are crediting the monthly regime of Ivomec anti-worm medicine for that success.
As the barn is so disgustingly wet and gross, we decided to herd the sheep back into the place of their birth – the lambing pens. The Farmer just opened the door and in they went, followed by a curious Donkey who didn’t want to be left out of anything. He found himself locked in a pen with several ewes while we sorted and needled the rest of the sheep, one group at a time.
Donkey just stood there and sniffed the feeding troughs and the floor and tested the pen gate with his teeth. Pretended he meant to be locked in with the sheep. But after a few minutes, when he realized the sheep were being needled and released one by one to the pasture, he started to worry, I’m sure. He shifted his weight back and forth on his legs, snorted hay dust out of his nose, and cocked his ears several times. While he was doing this, I was manning the gate to his pen. I was using it as a barricade between the freshly stuck lambs that were fussing and loudly complaining about the sting of their injections, and the ewes on the other side. I kept opening and closing his gate to freedom, while he carefully inched closer to me. Finally he was just inside the gate, with his velvet nose on my hand. I took a moment to give him some attention, picking the cobwebs out of his eyelashes. Then the Farmer told me to stand back, and let him out. He did not go quietly out of that lambing pen. He skipped and kicked his feet up, bashing the wall of the pen and the door on his way out. What a fuss. He’s such a Drama King.
All of us on the farm are looking forward to the ground drying up so we can get some hay into the barn before winter.


Badly Behaved Beasts on the Farm

The girls and I pulled into the yard last week just in time to see Donkey leading several dozen sheep through the open shed door. We had just had a freak storm and the wind had blown the door off its latch, tempting the animals to venture through.
I don’t think the beasts had been in the yard more than a few minutes, however, because although my Brussels sprouts had taken a beating and my spinach was no longer in existence, the rest of the garden was pretty much untouched.
As Paulina, Annie and I scattered and took up posts around the munching herd, Donkey looked up from where he was sniffing a bunch of cosmos. I guess he knew he was in trouble, because he turned and kicked up his heels before leaping over the lawnmower and crashing his way back through the shed to the barnyard.
Polly surprised a bunch of sheep over by the tomatoes, and I blocked them from running down the drive. We opened the barnyard gate and a smart one went through. About a dozen sheep followed him, while the rest tried to go back the way they came, through the shed.
They crashed around in there between the tractor and the workbench for a few seconds, and then they discovered a stack of turkey feed bags. Just a few quick bites with those sharp sheep teeth, and the feed was spilling out on the garage floor. We rushed the sheep, forcing them to the back of the shed and out the door.
One ewe panicked, running back out into the garden.
“Oh no, you don’t!” Paulina cried, skipping over sheep landmines to cut her off on the other side of the swimming pool. She turned the sheep and led her back through the gate to the safety of the barnyard.
“That was exciting,” I smiled at the girls, who have surprisingly good shepherding instincts for city folk. I now have more manure on my lawn than in my garden.
Betty and Ginger, our two cows, must have been thinking the sheep were having all the fun, because the next morning they thought it was their turn.
The phone rang at six a.m. “Good morning, Mrs. Fisher,” my neighbour said. “Your cow is on my lawn. No, she’s fine. She’s just munching away.”
We have very understanding neighbours. Not only do they get unsolicited manure deposits and shrub trimming, but occasionally they get a Donkey peering through their kitchen window while they are trying to enjoy their morning coffee.
The cows have escaped before, when the fresh spring leaves were busting out on the trees just on the other side of the fenced barnyard. The Farmer took a roll of barbed wire and reinforced the fence then, and they have pretty much respected the barrier up until now. But now, apparently, Ginger and Betty are in heat. All’s fair in love and war. All bets are off. These are no longer good cows. They want a man, and they want him now. They’ve tried to tell us with their recent bawling and bellowing, but we haven’t delivered a bull to keep them company. So they have decided to go out and find one themselves.
Betty and the two calves were temporarily distracted by the shrubs on the neighbour’s lawn, but the older and wiser (and obviously more frustrated) Ginger was already across the road (much to a passing motorist’s surprise) and into the next field by the time we arrived in the yard. She was on her way to see the bulls on County Road 20, I think. She was heading in their direction, anyway. How she knows they are there, I have no idea. I suppose they’ve been bellowing messages back and forth.
My husband looked a little worried as he faced off with the cows. Betty and Ginger stared with glassy eyes past him and down the road.
“Come on, Diana, this is your thing,” the Farmer said, handing me a bucket of corn. My thing? I wondered if I could get back to the house before Betty bowled me over for my bucket. I trotted just ahead of the four cows (Ginger had decided to join us) and tried to lure them through the fence into the barnyard.
But just then I was spotted by the sheep. They saw me with corn bucket in hand, and the open gate into the yard. I got swarmed. One lamb put his sharp little hooves on my backside, and another nibbled at my pantleg. I was being mobbed by sheep, and the ones that weren’t attacking me were heading off toward the open gate. The cows looked decided there was too much competition for the corn, and started off toward the garden again. Ginger took a big bite out of my prized hosta.
Finally, I scattered the corn over the ground to distract the sheep and the men (two neighbours had joined my husband) managed to usher the cows through the gate. Safely locked in the barnyard, Ginger and Betty watched as the Farmer reinforced the gate with a bar and a chain. ”Moooooooo!” bellowed Betty, in defiance to her captors. I told her what a bad girl she was, and all four cows turned to look at me.
Then they turned around and walked the worn path along the fence, searching for another opening.
Hoo boy. This is going to be a challenge. And this happens for a couple of days every month? I think we need to dial 1-800-BULL. In a hurry.


Chelsea, The Crazy-Ass Sheepdog

Chelsea looks a bit like a possum when she smiles, which is often. She rarely stops moving, trotting in a circle at the end of her chain. Eyes on the sheep, ever watchful, she takes her job very seriously. When one of us enters the barnyard, her whole body swings with the wagging of her tail.
The white and brown border collie pup started out in the house, but her high-strung nerves soon made it obvious that she was not to be trusted around small children.
Her domain was established next to the sheep barn, on a very long chain. Her home is a cozy, waterproof barrel lined with hay. In the winter, she often sleeps outside, burrowed in the snow, nose tucked under tail. She seems happy there, high energy and spirited.
The sheep keep Chelsea entertained. She barks a greeting at them when they enter or leave the barn, as if she is counting them. A sharp, warning bark is heard when one of the sheep gets too close to her bowl of food. We push the food bowl deep into her house, because it always takes her hours to eat it.
Donkey bides his time, waiting until the heat of the day has encouraged Chelsea to settle down for a siesta in the cool shrubbery beside her house. Then he sticks his head deep into her barrel and lifts it high, shaking out the food bowl and all of its contents. He manages a few mouthfuls before the dog awakes and rushes at him, teeth bared and barking.
Whenever the Farmer needs to move the herd from one section of the farm to another, he brings Chelsea along on a short leash for assistance. She hunkers down low, like a lion hunting the Serengeti. “Easy, easy…” the Farmer coaches. Chelsea lunges forward suddenly, but softy, just a few inches. Fifty sheep form a wave that drifts in the opposite direction. The Farmer tugs the leash to the left. The collie shuffles sideways, still low on her haunches. The sheep move closer to the barn. They keep one eye on the dog, and mutter to each other. “What to do? What to do?” The light from the barn shines through the open door into the yard, a warm beacon of safety.
The sheep look at each other. The one at the front of the wave peeks into the barn, as a safety test. He looks back at the rest of the herd, weighing options…and takes a step into the barn. Half the herd follows him in.
At the back of the herd, the ram looks at Chelsea. He obstinately lowers his head. Chelsea lunges, nipping a woolly ankle. The ram jumps to the side, breaking away from the herd. Suddenly the herd parts like the red sea, and half of the sheep follow the ram out toward the open pasture.
“Heh – Heh!” the Farmer shouts the call, and Chelsea circles around to cut off the exit. The woolly white wave steers back toward the barn, and through the door. With all one hundred twenty-five sheep souls safe inside the barn, the door is closed and bolted.
“Atta girl, Chels,” the Farmer says, and pats her on the head. In response, she winds her little body around his feet and whimpers for more attention. He gives her a quick rub under the chin and tells her to behave.
The next day, our 16-year-old Annie goes out to feed the dog. Reaching deep into the barrel to pull out the food bowl, she turns to look Chelsea in the eye. The collie must have perceived the high voice and smile as a challenge, because in the next few seconds she covered the distance between herself and Annie without touching the ground.
Annie dropped the bowl and caught the flying dog by the throat in midair, ala one of Charlie’s Angels. Then she quickly stood up and staggered into the house on adrenalin legs, where I met her on the way to the bathroom. Her hair was a cloud of mud, hay and knots, standing about four inches above her head. Her teary eyes were wild and she was shaking.
“I’m NEVER going near that crazy-ass dog again!” She cried.
I gave her a hug and told her that the dog must have thought she was stealing the food. I told her that Chelsea is challenged when you get down low and look her in the eye.
“No, that dog is nuts. And she just hates me. I see the way she looks at me. I’m never going near her again.” And she never has. Annie has no fear of Donkey the bully, but when she enters the barnyard she always gives Chelsea a wide berth.
Chelsea hunkers down and wags her whole body as Grandma Fisher feeds her one homemade jam cookie after another. She keeps her eyes on Annie, and smiles.

Don't be a chicken...

Before bringing our fifty turkeys and fifty chicks home from Rooney’s in May, the Farmer carefully prepared the coop. He swept out the cobwebs, removed any dangerous objects from the floor, and built a little circular enclosure, about the size of a toddler’s swimming pool. He divided this structure in half with a long board, and placed food and water and a heat lamp in each section. Then he hung heavy blankets over the windows, to eliminate drafts. I had never seen him being so careful before. Just how delicate are these creatures, anyway?
When he brought the beasties home, he put the chicks on one side of the divider and the turkeys on the other. They immediately rushed the circle of heat created by the hanging red lamp, piling on top of each other. The birds on the bottom of the heap were smothering. The Farmer frowned. He raised the heat lamp a few inches, to increase the surface area of the heat circle. Suddenly everyone had room. He looked at me.
“We’re going to come in here every morning and every night to check on them, but make sure you don’t let in a draft. If they get chilled, they pile on each other and die.”
He told me we might lose half our chicks. I couldn’t believe how weak and wimpy they were.
This is really my first experience with poultry – unless, of course, you count Taiwan (and I don’t). Walking to the subway in Taipei every morning, I had to pass by a street vendor who took great delight in beheading a chicken just as I was walking past. I looked straight ahead, never gratifying her antics with my attention. I didn’t want to see if the chicken-with-its-head-cut-off stories were true. Those Taiwanese chickens always seemed to be monstrous, huge and fierce, in my memory: nothing like these wimpy chicks on our farm.
I must admit I wasn’t as interested in the baby chicks as I was in the baby lambs that I bottle-fed last February. They just don’t have the same endearing personalities. They’re soft, and fluffy, to be sure. But they are just too tiny and terrified to be cute. For the most part, I have let the Farmer look after the birds.
After a week or two, Farmer Fisher lifted the enclosure and set the chicks free to roam about the coop. Finally, he moved them to a room at the back of the barn that was open to outside for fresh air. They could escape fairly easily if they tried, but only the turkeys have been roosting on the wall and they don’t seem to have the motivation to flee. They are quite content at this resort, where food and water are provided daily.
We only lost four birds in the early coop stages, when they were clustering for warmth.
We lost one more during a group attack (don’t ask – it isn’t pretty).
The one chicken death that I found the most interesting was the one who died of a heart attack. My husband said he just went into the coop area, perhaps a bit too abruptly, and the movement startled the chicken so much that he had a heart attack and died.
This, to me, is ridiculous. But apparently it happens, a lot.
The chickens are nearly ten pounds each, and the time is approaching when they must meet their maker.
We carefully and quietly entered the coop the other night in order to spread fresh hay over the floor. As I hauled myself over the half-wall into the coop, the chickens skittered sideways en masse, muttering to themselves in a high-pitched, gurgling whine the whole time: “ohh….what’s she doing…..she’s coming closer….” And then every once in a while there would be an intermittent squawk from one who just couldn’t hold in the anxiety anymore. But none of them had heart attacks, thankfully. Not even when I accidentally dropped my pitchfork in their midst.
The Farmer has rented cages for transporting the chickens to the processing plant.
I can’t say I will be sad to see them go, but I can at least rest easy that they had a good life while they were on the Fisher Farm Chicken Resort.

Good afternoon, my name is Diana Fisher, and I’m a Floraholic

Floraholic. I think that is what you would call a person with my type of addiction. You see, when it comes to buying and planting flowers, I just don’t know when to quit.
Imagine my glee when the Farmer proposed. Not only was I getting a wonderful husband, but he came with 200 acres of potential flower gardens.
Now, the Farmer has always had a flower bed – one big raised perennial bed up against the front porch of the farmhouse. It’s lovely, with its hostas, flowering shrubs and lilies. It even features a little pond, much to the delight of the birds – and the barn cats.
But the dominant plant in this bed is something like a four-foot-tall dandelion. It’s invasive and rude: if you give it an inch, it’ll take the front yard. I have no idea what its proper name is, but most horticulturalists I know simply refer to it as the “outhouse flower”.
I became Mrs. Farmer Fisher at the end of August last year. As soon as the wedding was over, I dug a half-dozen holes in that perennial bed and plopped our wedding chrysanthemums into them. We moved our wedding arbor to the front flower bed and bought a climbing rose to wind over its length.
At the end of the growing season I lovingly put the perennials to bed with layers of straw that I stole from the sheep feeder. With visions of a colourful springtime to come, I went to Home Depot before the frost and bought packages of bulbs: lilies, alliums, tulips and iris. And daffodils. I bought three packages of thirty daffodils to scatter all over the bed and out into the lawn.
For nearly two hours I planted those bulbs. When spring came, I was disheartened to discover that my double-bearded red tulips, white iris and lilies were all miniatures. They were pretty, but less than six inches tall. I could barely see them amidst the mounds of wild violets in the perennial bed. Next fall I will read the packages more carefully.
And what of my 90 beautiful, naturalized daffodils, popping up all over the lawn, heralding the arrival of spring? Nada. Zip. Nothing. I have no idea what happened to them. Not a single daffodil came up.
I know it is customary to wait until the long weekend in May to plant annuals and vegetables in Eastern Ontario, but I couldn’t make it past Mother’s Day. I had received two black pedestal urns for the front porch and I could not wait to fill them. I went to Jonsson’s Independent and bought baskets of red, purple and white blooms.
A week later, a good friend gifted me with a couple of classic wooden 7-UP crates. They had “geranium planters” written all over them, so off to the nursery I went. Two hours and about $50 later, I had two each of peach and white geraniums, and a bunch of trailing purple verbena. Like I said – I have a problem.
As the month of May continued, I conceded that I had probably spent enough on the single-season annuals. Then I discovered that seed packages were available at convincingly low prices in nearly every grocery, hardware and dollar store that I entered. I bought seeds for cosmos, evening primrose, asters and giant red sunflowers. Visions of wildflower gardens filled my head and I planted them in every spare spot I could find amongst our perennials. When I ran out of garden room, I filled spare containers and placed them up the steps to the porch. I planted flower seeds along the end of the vegetable garden and dug a new bed in front of the shed.
Now, some of these seeds have matured into fluffy green plants, but only the cosmos have bloomed so far. I am optimistic that most of my plants will flower, but I have given up on the seeds that I bought from the sale bin because they were last year’s stock. When they failed to send anything green through the earth, I gave up and filled their allotted space with gladiolus bulbs.
I have come through my first growing season as a Farmwife with a much lighter wallet. Next year, I will follow the Farmer’s advice and plant only the occasional perennial to replace the ones that die out.
I will beg my gardening friends to share with me when they divide their perennials in the fall, and I will attend the plant sales put on by local horticultural groups. I will transplant wild lilies from the back meadow and try to ensure that I have something in bloom every month so that I don’t go into flower withdrawal.
I know – I still have a problem. But I’m working on it.

Wait for meeeee!

A Season Without Television

It all started with a simple voicemail: “Please call Bell ExpressVu in the next 24 hours for a very important message.” We didn’t have the time or inclination to return the call. The next week, we had a similar recording on our answering machine. Again, we ignored it. Finally, our cable bill arrived in the mail with an extra charge on it. We had been billed for a channel that we had not asked for. Apparently we were supposed to call the company at the beginning of the offer to tell them that we did not wish to have the channel added to our package.
The Farmer decided he just wasn’t going to pay that portion of the bill. He made a note on the invoice and sent it back, with his usual monthly payment. This went on for months. The unpaid, unasked-for portion of the bill slowly accumulated in the balance.
After a year, the phone messages started again. They were probably from the Accounts Receivable department but we will never know for sure because we didn’t return the calls.
Then, one day, Farmer Fisher sat down to watch his favourite Saturday morning television program, “Canada in the Rough”. Much to his surprise, all but one channel displayed the message: “this channel is only available with a paid subscription”. The Farmer put down his coffee cup with a smirk and said, “Well, honeybunch, it looks as though we’ve been cut off.”
Now, the Farmer doesn’t watch a great deal of television, but he is fond of hunting and fishing shows, the occasional documentary, war movies and just about anything on the Lonestar channel. I confess a minor addiction to all singing and dancing programs, but for the most part I sit in the living room just to be with my husband. I always have the laptop or some sort of reading material to fall back on if he’s watching another episode of “Bonanza”.
The girls, however, are a different story. When they found out that we had no television, they were incredulous.
“But you’re getting it back, right? You can’t expect us to go all summer without television!”
I took the bait. “You know, when I was growing up we only had two channels. It wasn’t a big deal. If there was nothing on, you read a book. In fact, during the summer months, my father believed you should be outside from breakfast until dinner. He unplugged the television and put it in the garage until September.” (I’ve repeated that last part to my kids so many times that I can’t even remember if it’s actually true…)
The girls rolled their eyes at me for the twentieth time that weekend (doesn’t that cause irreversible damage to the retina at some point?) and stomped off to their rooms where they quickly text-messaged their friends to spread the unbelievable news.
We probably will get our account settled and our television working again. It will likely take only a phone call to get things sorted out. But in the meantime, we are actually enjoying seeing the girls working on their scrapbooks, talking to each other, baking in the kitchen, reading and – yes, it’s true – playing with the kittens OUTSIDE. They don’t even spend much time on the Internet because, of course, we have dialup and that is too frustrating to bear for more than a couple of hours.
We might just leave things as they are for the rest of the summer. The Farmer and I are so busy in the gardens and the barn; we won’t notice the missing television.
And the nice folks at Bell ExpressVu didn’t cut us off cold turkey. They did leave us with one channel. Farmer Fisher can watch as much “Cosmo TV” as he wants. I think he is developing a deeper appreciation for “Sex and the City”.


A Baaaa'd Day in the Company of Many Sheep

I was raised in the country but I know nothing about farming. After several seasons of life’s twists and turns I returned to my hometown and married a sheep farmer. Overnight, I became The Accidental Farmwife.

Remember that Saturday a few weeks ago when the mercury hit 30 before noon? Well, that was the day when, just after his first cup of coffee, my new husband announced, “Come on, it’s the first of the month. Time to work the sheep.”
The Farmer “worked the sheep” the first weekend of every month. He gave each of the sheep their worm medicine, along with a quick head-to-hoof checkup to make sure there was no incidence of injury, infection or disease.
I like to be hands-on in my new role as farmwife. And that doesn’t mean hands on the rolling pin or the vacuum. I like to help out on the farm, feeding the animals, pitching hay and mending fences. It’s good, honest work. It’s cheaper than going to the gym for a workout, and just as effective. It can be very rewarding. It makes me feel alive.
So I picked up the canvas liquor bag filled with bottles of penicillin, 8-way vaccine and syringes, and followed the Farmer out to the barn.
There, standing just inside the door, were four creatures I had completely forgotten about. Our cows.
“Do they get a needle too?” I asked, eyeing the sweaty beasts.
“Yup. And they also need ear tags,” Farmer Fisher muttered, stopping just in front of the barn to sum up the situation. He had fenced the animals in, and steam was beginning to rise from the hay with the heat. I won’t say I was sweating like a pig because I think I was sweating more than a pig. I started squelching my way through the manure and mud on the way into the barn, careful not to lose a boot.
The only way out of the barn for about 100 sheep and 4 cows was through a rough chute that the Farmer had fashioned out of plywood, cedar rails and posts. Within seconds of opening the chute door, it filled with sheep. About twelve of them.
When the sheep realized that they had not passed through the barn door to freedom, they began to heave and lurch toward any breaks that they could find in the makeshift fencing. Two of our patients wriggled out under a fence rail. I lowered myself down into the chute to block the rest of the sheep from escaping.
Farmer Fisher began the vaccinations, grabbing the sheep one at a time by the scruff of their woolly necks. I moved the animals gently forward, pushing them into a tight bunch so that none of them could break free.
The sun was beating down on us, and those sheep were hot. My legs ached from bending and squatting, and my arms were fatigued from bracing myself against the straining sheep. My skin itched from the greasy lanolin. I sat back on a fence rail for a rest.
Seeing her opportunity and seizing the moment, a frantic ewe bolted in my direction. Realizing that I had left the escape hatch under the fence uncovered, I quickly squatted down and opened my arms wide to “catch” the leaping sheep. I caught her all right. Her high-heeled hoof caught me square in the chest, knocking the wind out of me. I sat down hard, in hot, steamy mud and manure. Squish.
After a few seconds I opened my eyes. Twelve sheep and a Farmer were looking at me. My husband asked if I was ok. I considered, for a moment, asking if I might be excused. I sat there, slowly regaining full consciousness, and marveled that my reality involved sitting in manure at the end of a sheep chute. I reminded myself that the stupid, panicky sheep looking at me wild-eyed were just a few months ago the cute little things that came to my call. Not anymore. Now they saw me as nothing but a barrier between them and freedom
My husband regained his focus, grabbing sheep, vaccinating them and shoving them through the end of the chute to freedom. The newly inoculated sheep twitched and squirmed as they wandered away, reacting to the sting of the medication. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and took a drink from my water bottle. A bruise was beginning to form on my chest where the frantic sheep had shoved me.
Finally, all 100 sheep had been treated.
We turned and looked at the cows.
The calves Tyson and Mocha wandered gullibly into the chute, led by the sound and smell of sweet feed that I poured into an upturned garbage can lid. The Farmer put one leg on each side of the chute and straddled, like a bucking bronco rider at the rodeo. Tyson took his shot like a man and strutted confidently out into the barnyard. Mocha was another story. She bucked, twisted and wriggled until she was bent in half and facing backwards. The Farmer gave her an injection, and then realized she also had a bit of congestion. With the other needle, he gave her a shot of penicillin.
While we were working the calves, their mothers were getting extremely agitated.
Betty tossed her head back and forth, mooing in protest. Ginger pushed against her prison bars until the top rail fell down.
“We’d better get those cows in here before they break out,” I suggested.
The Farmer looked nervous. And that is never a good thing. We opened the door to the chute and Ginger promptly took her place. I slid the barrier bar in behind her so she couldn’t back up. It didn’t take eight seconds to realize that the chute wasn’t going to hold Ginger for long.
The dosage on the wormer said that cows should receive 50 mls. That meant each cow had to be stuck with a needle 5 times. The Farmer scratched his head and asked me to read it again. He grabbed hold of Ginger’s slack skin around her neck and poked with the needle. It promptly broke in half.
That was the end of that. Apparently we can provide the same dosage of worming medicine in a mouth swab.
But first we need to buy a proper head chute, and we need to teach Ginger and Betty to open wide and say “aaahhh”.


Escaping to the Barn

When the Farmer and I combined herds (so to speak) last August, we ended up with five teenaged daughters altogether. Granted, they are rarely all in the same place at one time, but when two or more of them get together, it can get very loud.
“It’s okay; it’s all happy noise,” the Farmer says, as he pushes his chair away from the table after another Sunday dinner turned raucous giggle fest.
At times like these, I wish I were deaf in at least one ear.
The girls are expected to do the clean up after our family get-togethers, but the shenanigans continue. The sisters and stepsisters tease and taunt each other and they shriek with laughter. The volume level rises another few decibels. My cries for them to “take it down a notch!” are drowned in the cacophony of pots and pans clanking. I look for a place to hide. Then I realize that the Farmer is missing.
I peek into the living room, but his favourite spot on the couch is unoccupied. The bathrooms are empty, and no one is in the bedroom or the den. Suddenly, I hear a screen door sliding open. Aha. He is escaping to the barn.
Now, if we have company, the Farmer will lead everyone to the living room for after-dinner drinks while the girls clean up. Other times, he will suggest that I take a glass of wine and join him on the porch to watch the sunset, or we’ll hop on the ATV for a ride through the back pasture. But when he wants to be alone, he heads to the barn.
If I want to be alone, I lock myself in the larger of our two bathrooms. The washer and dryer are in there too, so I can do laundry, take a bath, and spend quite a bit of time sorting out my thoughts until I am ready to be social again. However, my peace rarely goes uninterrupted. Within minutes of closing and locking the door behind me, the inevitable knock will come.
“Ma? Mommy. Mom.”
Someone always comes up with an emergency that requires my immediate attention while I am trying to find some quiet time. It never fails. But the Farmer, on the other hand, is rarely followed out to the barn by one of our offspring. That would require donning a pair of manure-covered rubber boots, passing by the crazy sheepdog and facing off with Donkey. There are just too many obstacles and challenges. He’s got it made.
I don’t have the same reservations about following my husband to the barn. I like to spend time there myself, checking on the animals and lending him a hand with whatever he is doing. But when he wants me to join him, he usually tells me where he is going and what he is doing. When he just sneaks out the door quietly, that means “don’t follow”.
Why does this work so well for him? I suppose most men exhibit similar behaviours when they need to claim some solitude. According to Dr. John Gray, bestselling author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, when the man heads off to the garage, the workshop, the basement or the barn, he is often retreating to his “cave”. This is where all of his best thinking is done. While he is in the cave, he will likely take part in various mindless or mechanical activities such as tinkering with equipment, polishing his tools or finishing up some light handiwork. Most men will maintain a portion of their habitat that is decidedly female-unfriendly so that they are assured this necessary solitude.
During the time that the man is in the cave, however, Dr. Gray advises the woman not to ask him what he is doing in there, why he is in there, or when he will be coming out. The man must be left alone, undisturbed, until he decides he is ready to join the rest of his clan again.
Hogwash, I say, I’m pulling on my pink rubber boots, grabbing a couple of beers and heading out to the barn to pitch hay alongside him. Every cave-dweller needs a mate.


Good Fences Make Good Cows

I moved to Taiwan in February of 2003. After just a few months, daytime temperatures were passing 30 degrees and I realized that summer had arrived. But what had happened to spring? We went straight from a damp, uncomfortable chill to a humid, oppressive heat. Perhaps the biggest thing I missed was the fresh smell that accompanies springtime in Canada. You know it: the smell of green busting out all over.
Well, now I live on a 200-acre farm and I can smell green (among other things) any time I want. I stand on my back porch at sunrise and just suck it in with a deep breath. It’s invigorating. Rejuvenating. Life-giving.
Unfortunately, I am not the only creature on the Fisher farm who loves the smell of all things green. Betty and Ginger, our cows, and their two wee calves, Tyson and Mocha, have been out on promenade every day, sniffing apple blossoms and nibbling new leaves along the fence line. Our recent attempts to contain the bovine brood to one field were dashed within hours of us raising the fence, as Ginger discovered that she was plenty heavy enough to just lean on the cedar rails and bust them all to pieces. The clacking of little calf hooves against wood could be heard over 50 acres away, notifying us at the farmhouse that our cows had escaped yet again to a greener pasture.
Perhaps they have been discussing the merits of marauding with Donkey, who has oft been found visiting the horses down the road on a dewy morning. Just last week, Farmer Fisher was heading off to work when he paused at the end of the lane to look both ways. He did a double-take as he noticed a familiar reddish-brown head bobbing beyond the lilacs on the other side of the road. There was Ginger, in the neighbour’s alfalfa. We are NOT going to be popular. She had already eaten her fill by the time the Farmer managed to shoo her back toward the barn. She stepped Ginger-ly over the fence she had broken on exit, and looked back over her shoulder with disdain at her captor as he repaired the damage.
Within minutes, she was out on another adventure, having broken an equally brittle fence down the field. This time, she had her best friend Betty and their two offspring in tow. The Farmer headed off to TSC to buy some barbed wire.
We had been warned last November when we bought the cows that they would be testing our fences at every opportunity. We raised and tightened the rails but cows aren’t really interested in breaking out of a resort where they are fed and watered daily. Unless, of course, there is a sweet-smelling crop growing on the other side of the fence. By the end of the summer, we’ll be surrounded by them. The scent of warm corn, beans and alfalfa will be impossible for our cattle to resist.
So, instead of settling in to watch the finals of American Idol, I wandered out to the back pasture to find my husband. He was up to his eyebrows in thorn bushes, trying to stretch a heavy coil of barbed wire along the cedar fence. I climbed in there and lent him a hand, and I only once hit myself in the head with a dead branch that was hanging low.
The cedar rails there in the shade of the trees are covered in a thick carpet of Kelly-green moss. It’s absolutely beautiful. The coyotes find it quite comfy, too, I guess, because their droppings are scattered all over the place. As we worked our way down the fence, we found remnants of barbed wire from decades past. In some places, the wire had been wound tightly around a young tree trunk that eventually grew and thickened around the wire, swallowing it whole.
Our farm, which is known as the original “Old MacDonald Farm”, was once a piggery, and more recently a nuttery (which, apparently, isn’t a real word but you get my drift). There was once a large variety of nut trees on the property, as evidenced by the shells strewn on the grown. Many of the trees were removed for some unknown reason, but a few unidentifiable species remain. Note to the reader: identification by licking the fruit of a nut tree is NOT recommended. The bitter sap oozing from said nut can put your tongue to sleep for hours, cause your throat to close up and send you running to dial the poison hot line.
Apparently, neither a pig farm nor a nut farm poses a need for strong fencing. We pretty much have to start from scratch. And I do mean scratch. By the end of this weekend, I expect to be covered in my very own kind of barbed wire tattoos.

Betty and baby Tyson

On Holiday...?

Just as I was filing my last column, Big Betty decided to follow Ginger’s lead and had a calf of her own. I guess she was pregnant after all, and not just extremely fat. She hadn’t grown much of an udder, so we weren’t convinced there was a baby in there. On Saturday morning, just as the men were coming in from their wild turkey hunt, Farmer Fisher noticed two feet sticking out of Betty’s behind. He gave them a light tug and swoosh! Out came a beautiful brown bull calf with a white face mask just like his mama’s. The Farmer christened him “Tyson”.
Tyson likes to lie about in the sunbeams all morning, like a lazy teenager. Betty is new at this motherhood thing herself, and still has enough of a sweet tooth to be lured away from her maternal duties by the call of the sweet feed hitting the feeder. It was funny to watch her raiding the lambs’ grain supply, then wandering off into the meadow, happy, satisfied, and calfless.
“Betty!” I hollered after her. “Aren’t you forgettin’ something?” She turned and looked at me. Then, as Farmer Fisher would say, that one neuron she has in her brain fired off and reminded her that she had left her precious newborn in the barn, untended. She picked up her hooves and literally galloped to the barn, stopping at the door. When she let out a low “mooooo”, her little one shook the sleep off, struggled to his feet and mooed after her, out to the meadow.
All of our lambs are in the pasture now. It was getting awfully warm and smelly in that lambing room and the layers of manure and uneaten hay had piled up about three feet so that the lambs could just step over the barriers of their pens and fall four feet onto the concrete floor below. Some of the four-week lambs look pretty tiny out in that big pasture, so I’m still planning to go out there with a milk bottle every evening, for the next little while. They are with their mothers until they are old enough to wean, but I still have some loyal customers who run across the field when they see me and my canvas liquor bag chock full o’ bottles.
Donkey is an ongoing problem, but without him we would definitely lose lambs to coyotes on the prowl. We often have visitors to the farm on the weekend, and when they walk past Donkey without so much as a “howdy-do”, he gets mighty jealous. Last weekend he decided to push on the door to the shed until it opened. Then he led all 35 of the ewes into our front yard. Some of them went straight for the long bales in the front field. Others went for the bright colours of the tulips in my front flower bed. They must have been out there for some time when I pointed them out to my husband.
“Um…are there supposed to be sheep in the front yard?” (I know, I’m brilliant sometimes.) The Farmer assured me that no, they were not supposed to be there, and went to get his trusty sheepdog, Chelsea.
Now, Chelsea is more than a bit nuts. All day long she runs in circles thinking, “herd the sheep, herd the sheep, herd the sheep…” When someone makes the mistake of walking too closely to her, they might get themselves herded, with a quick nip to the ankle. That doesn’t make her the most popular of the farm animals, but we surely are grateful for her assistance at times like these. I don’t know what we would have done without her. The farmer put her on her leash, led her out to where the sheep were calmly grazing on the front meadow, and let her work. Within minutes she had every one of them in a tight group, shuffling toward the barnyard gate.
Donkey was a different story. He evaded being led back to the barnyard until Farmer Fisher rounded the corner of the house with a big stick. Then he kicked up his heels and took off for the gate.
It would seem as though life on the farm is going to get much quieter over the next few months, now that the sheep are out of the barn. Whatever will I do to occupy myself in the evenings? That’s a joke, of course. We have pens to shovel out: I wish someone would invent some sort of hydraulic shovel so that my husband’s back will be saved some pain. I have a vegetable garden to plant, and flower beds to weed. We need to take the canoes down to the creek for a paddle down our shoreline to see how it fared during the flood, and we need to have another look at our fence line for gaping holes.
Soon there will be an acre of grass to cut at least once a week, and a pool to clean. We have to assess the seasonal damage on the barn roof, and make repairs. Next week, our baby chicks arrive so we’ve been cleaning out the chicken coop for them. And each month, we have to herd the sheep and cattle into the chute for their preventative medicines and checkups.
I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface here. I haven’t even mentioned the housework when you live with a bunch of teenaged girls. There’s always plenty to keep you busy and tire you out so you sleep well, on the farm. But according to the Farmer, we’re pretty much on holiday.

The Accidental Farmwife would like to thank those readers who took the time to write letters or to stop her in the post office with their comments about her stories. This column is a lot of fun to write, and I’m glad you enjoy reading it.

Ginger and her new baby, Mocha. April 08

And Mocha makes Three!

We had a big surprise when we got home from work the other day. Farmer Fisher couldn’t see Ginger out in the field with big Betty, so he went looking for her. He found her in the barn, standing protectively beside her new baby calf. After we had worried for weeks about how to prepare ourselves for the wonderment of calf birthing, she just pulled it off by herself. Annie named the new brown calf “Mocha”.
The Farmer penned cow and calf into the portion of the barn that they had chosen, and gave Ginger an extra portion of sweet feed.
Betty was not impressed. She was standing beside the hay feeder outside, looking lost and lonely. She couldn’t figure out why her friend wasn’t joining her on her late afternoon jaunt to the back of the pasture. Finally I lured her into the barn with some sweet feed, offered on an upturned garbage can lid.
“Look, Betty! Ginger has a surprise…” I stepped away so that Betty could see into Ginger’s pen. But she wasn’t looking at the new calf. All she could see was that Ginger had a fresh pile of new hay and a huge pile of sweetfeed. She didn’t seem interested in the new addition at all, and wandered back out of the barn for the night. If cows can sulk, I swear that’s what she was doing.
The next morning, I went to the barn to find that Ginger had busted out of her makeshift pen and was trying to get her calf to follow. Donkey saw that the pen gate was open and took the opportunity to venture in for any leftover sweetfeed or hay. He noticed the calf then, and wandered closer for a sniff.
That ticked Ginger off. For the first time since she had arrived last November, I heard my cow utter a low “moo”. Donkey backed away from the calf and out of the pen. I tried to close the gate after the cow, but she managed to wiggle past me. All of those warnings about getting between a cow and her calf passed through my mind, and I hopped over the fence into the next pen.
Within minutes, the two cows were headed down the field at a clip, with the one-day-old calf trotting along between them. Farmer Fisher came out of the house and stood on the porch, with his hands on his hips.
“Now that’s not exactly what I wanted, is it?” he muttered. We had planned to keep the calf in the barn with her mama for the first few days, so that we could get a good look at it (at this point we didn’t even know for sure if it was male or female) and so that it would be safe from hungry coyotes. But there they were, on Day 2, running out toward the second pasture.
I worried about the calf all day while I was at work. When we got home, the Farmer and I hopped on the ATV and took off down the field, in the direction of Betty and Ginger. “She’ll hide that calf in a thicket and leave it there for the day,” the Farmer said.
After circling the cows once, we went back into the first field and spotted Mocha. She was deep inside the thorn bushes, curled up in a chocolate-coloured ball beside the stone fence. She opened her eyes and blinked at us. I wanted her to come out and get something to drink. She must have been hot and dry, lying in that sun all day. We called her, but she wouldn’t move. She just stared at the two crazy humans who were trying to lure her out of the bush with clucking noises and whistles.
Farmer Fisher eventually had to crawl into the razor bush to guide her out. My husband will have to wear long sleeves for the next week or so. He looks as though he was in a scratching fight with a wildcat, and lost.
We stood there for a moment and watched as the young calf searched for a teat under her mother’s chin. I began to question the information I had read on the Internet about cows being intelligent.
The cows watched closely as we built a temporary fence to keep them in the first pasture. They may not be happy about having their wandering restricted, but at least they will be safe from Wile E. Coyote.
We were sitting on the back porch, enjoying the sunset when suddenly the three cows went rippin’ down the field, with Donkey in hot pursuit. He gnashed his teeth against the side of the calf and when Ginger tried to head-butt him, he chased her over the fence.
Apparently Donkey is somewhat jealous of our new addition and the attention that she receives. It would seem that the coyote is the least of our worries at the moment.
Farmer Fisher lured the cows with sweet feed, and penned them into the barnyard with the newly weaned lambs.
I can’t help feeling that we are restricting the cows from going to their favourite grazing grounds. Donkey wins the pasture, out of sheer nastiness. And the worst part of the situation is that he will likely get bored without the cows around, and take to biting the sheep again, for fun. The saga continues.
Last week, Farmer Fisher sheared the ewes and separated them from the lambs, a fact of which I’m sure our neighbours are keenly aware. The first two nights, the lambs cried for their mothers until they were tired and hoarse. The ewes wandered around on the other side of the barn, peeking through holes in the barnboard and answering their babies’ calls. They looked so sad, with their shaggy new haircuts. By the third night, the lambs had all found their water supply and comfortable beds in the hay. Now when I bring them bottles, they just chew holes in the nipples and baaaaa at me. They don’t need me anymore.
My job as wet nurse to 70 lambs is nearly done, for this year. As I look out at the fat leaping bundles of wool, I think I’ve done a pretty good job for my first season as a Farmwife.


On the necessity of stubbornness

I have learned that, in addition to an unsinkable sense of optimism, one must also possess the stubbornness of a ram in order to be a sheep farmer. Luckily, I was born under the sign of the ram, I am a stubborn Aries, and I truly believe that because of that predestination, I am going to get the hang of this sheep farming thing yet.
When we had multiple lambs born to one mother, several times over, I asked the Farmer if we could feed baby bottles to supplement the mothers’ supply of milk. He said I could and so I have been in that barn every night with a canvas bag from the liquor store loaded with warm formula in lamb-feeding bottles. The lambs know me so well now, they swarm me and nibble at my boots or my hair or my knuckles – whatever they can reach – until I hand over the milk. I would like to think that I had something to do with so many of our lambs thriving this year. I’m quite proud of our little herd.
I realize that stubbornness and optimism must be balanced, however, with rational common sense. Lambs, if they survive gestation and birth, come into the world hoping that their mother has enough milk, that she accepts her obligation to feed them, and that conditions are favourable (i.e. not minus-30 in the barn). Even if warm and well-fed, the lambs might contract one of myriad diseases that sheep carry around with them, or they might just be born with a genetic “will to die” as a result of a lack of vitality passed on from their mother. Sometimes, no amount of bottle feeding will help, and you lose one. But occasionally, the extra effort put into caring for a weak one pays off.
Last week, I noticed that one of our newborns (probably about a month old) was walking in a rather stiff-legged fashion. The lamb looked alert and well-fed, and he didn’t have the wrinkled skin of dehydration or the hunched-over stance of starvation. He just walked like Charlie Chaplin.
The next day, he could hardly move at all. On the third day, he could no longer stand. His little legs would just collapse beneath him. Realizing that he couldn’t catch up to his mother to nurse, I tried to feed him a bottle. He couldn’t swallow, and choked on the milk. I must have had a rather distressed look on my face, as I rubbed his little back while he coughed. The Farmer had an idea. “We can feed him with a tube. Then he will either get better, or he won’t.” But at least he will have a full tummy, I thought. Stiff legs are a symptom of more than one disease known to lambs. In some cases, it’s caused by an overfeeding of grain, or bacteria growth in the intestines. This little piggy must have had more than his fair share at the feed trough.
We gave him about 75 mls of milk replacer once a day through a tube that he swallowed. It didn’t seem to be very much, but it was all he could handle in the time that we had to feed him. This routine carried on over the weekend. The Farmer gave him a shot of penicillin, and we hoped for the best.
On my 40th birthday (this was a big week for me), I went out to the barn to find the paralyzed lamb. Normally he is just a few feet from where I had placed him, having dragged himself over to a fresh patch of nibbling hay. But on this night, he wasn’t where I had left him. He was on the other side of the 20-foot “kindergarten” pen, looking at me and blinking. And he was standing up.
“Oh! My lamb is getting better!” I squealed. The Farmer came over to take a closer look. I tried to give him a bottle, but he choked on the milk. We fed him with a tube again, and I put him on the barn floor to see what would happen. Stiffly but surely, he walked away in search of his mother. I think he’s going to be okay.
That was a good birthday present. Almost as good as the diamond earrings that I got from Farmer Fisher. I’m going to be one well-dressed farmwife.The Accidental Farmwife doesn’t really know what she’s talking about, so if you would like to fill her in on some of the facts of farming, feel free to send her an email at:

Easter on the Farm 2008

Did you eat lamb at Easter? We didn’t. We finished up what was left in the freezer before Christmas, I think. We never have any new lambs big enough to eat by Easter – and our lambs are especially small this year as the holiday was so early. In order to have lambs ready for the dinner plate by Easter, we would have to convince our rams to end their summer vacations early and set to work about mid-August. And it’s pretty difficult to convince lambs to do anything in the heat – even that.
We heard that someone down the road managed to convince their rams to work in August, however. I wonder what their secret is. Perhaps they provide an air-conditioned space for the conjugal visits.
Most of our lambs are sold through the sale barn to Muslims planning their menus for Eid al Fitr - the grand feast at the end of their Ramadan month of fasting – or Aid al-Adha, the Islamic festival that falls in November - December.
Speaking of feasts, we had a grand one ourselves this year. We justify the excess by blessing the hands that made it (my husband is a skilled and imaginative cook – thank the Lord, because I am NOT), and making sure that none of it goes to waste. We have a “starving college student”, several extended family members and one or two hard-working farm dogs who are always happy to take leftovers.
I am not a true farmwife in the traditional sense. I can cook, and I do cook, but I don’t enjoy cooking. I have no patience for reading recipes, measuring ingredients, and standing over the stove, stirring a pot. I like dishes that take five minutes to throw together, and cook themselves. My slow cooker is my favourite piece of kitchen equipment. I can’t even wait for a cheese sandwich to grill before I’m wandering off to look out a window or check my emails. The sound of the smoke alarm means “Dinner’s Ready!” when I’m cooking.
Therefore, if there are any pies cooling on my windowsill, they came from a box. Or my husband baked them.
I wish I could cook. I certainly like to eat. But, truth be told, if I liked to cook, it might lead to disharmony in the Fisher household. If I wanted access to the oven, I would have to venture over to the inside of the kitchen island. And everyone knows that is Farmer Fisher’s space. I wander over there every once in a while to see (taste) what he’s cooking, but I don’t wear out my welcome. I know a good situation when I see it. He likes to cook and I like to eat. It’s all good.
We do eat lamb from time to time, along with our own chickens, ducks and turkeys, when we have them. Before meeting my husband, the only lamb I had had was at a Greek restaurant or in Australia. I find that many people don’t really know how to cook lamb, so they steer clear of it. Lamb also seems to be an acquired taste, and some find it a bit strong.
Thankfully, we don’t have to process our own lambs, so other than seeing them off to the sale barn, where they are auctioned, I don’t have to make the connection between the cuddly wee things springing around the barn and the lambchop on my plate.
Of course, I haven’t had lamb for a few months now, so I can’t say I will feel the same way about it the next time it’s on the menu.
For now, the only lambs I want to see are the ones that come at me four at a time when I climb into their pens with baby bottles for the evening feed. They nibble on my hair (perhaps they are trying to tell me something – it’s becoming rather straw-like?), climb on my back and suckle on my fingers, competing for the milk in the bottle. I have already named one Buddy (a mistake, for sure, the Farmer says…) and distinguish between the rest of them by their black or pink noses and black or white feet.
Many of them recognize me and welcome my presence. I wonder if they will remember me when they are released to the barnyard. Will they still come to my call? We can keep the females for years – some of ours are ten years old. The males will be sold at auction, however, so I am trying not to get too attached to them. Unfortunately, they seem to be the friendlier of the sexes.
I wish Buddy wasn’t so darned cute.