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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Case of Unrequited Donkey Love

Poor Donkey. He is in love, with the two beautiful blondes from Belgium. He just stands there beside the fence all day long, gazing adoringly at our new horses. He must think they are the most gorgeous Amazon women he has ever seen. He just stands there staring and looking stunned; I almost hit him with the gate when we were leading the horses through the yard. But unfortunately for Donkey, the feeling isn’t mutual.
The first week the horses were at the farm, Donkey kept his distance. I think he was a bit intimidated by the girls’ size (and perhaps their beauty too).
The second week, Donkey was in their stable every chance he could get, sniffing at them through their fencing.
As we near the end of our third week as horse owners, Donkey has taken up the habit of loitering outside the stable doors and following the horses at close range as we lead them across the barnyard in the morning and at night. This can be quite distracting to the horses, as they are trying to pick their way over frozen tractor ruts and rocks while someone jangles his chains behind them.
Occasionally, he will have his equipment on display while he is lurking around near the horses. This does not have the effect that Donkey is hoping for. If he gets too close to Ashley, she will reel around and pretend to bite him. He’s lucky she hasn’t kicked at him yet. I would hate to see one of those dinner-plate hoofs flying in his direction.
Once safely separated by the locked gate, the girls sometimes come up to the fence and sniff Donkey as he watches from the other side. Then they snort at him, turn tail and run, tossing their manes in the air as if they are laughing at him. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy.
We are still leading Ashley & Misty across the barnyard every morning, and they are getting much better at stopping when we tell them to. I was told that a high-pitched voice (like the one I used with my children when they were small) is not comforting or motivating to a horse. They like a strong, deep voice from their trainer. So I am trying to say “WHOA” in a way that means business.
Terry Olmstead, who owns a set of attractive Canadiens on French Settlement Road, explained that we must try to be calm and confident around the horses. “We are the predators, because our eyes are in the front of our heads,” she explained. “If the predator is nervous, the horses think they should be nervous too.” Makes sense to me.
Lately we have been noticing that the horses are eating a lot more than they did the first week. I guess they were homesick the first few days, as I’m sure they miss their previous owner, Ron. Well, their appetites came back with a vengeance, so we are trying to get them to come into the barn to eat during the day. They have access to the rear hay storage, where we have also filled a tub with fresh water. They will go in there when we lead them, with a little coaxing, but they don’t go in on their own yet. I think the cats in the loft spook them a little.
At the end of the day, the horses are so anxious to get back into their tie stalls (where a pile of fresh hay and a bowl of corn mix is waiting) that they practically drag us on the end of their leads, all the way across the barnyard. In the morning, we have to wait until they are finished their breakfast or they don’t want to leave the stable.
We load the stall feeders up with hay before we go to bed each night, so that the horses are not quite so ravenous in the morning. Unfortunately, Misty likes her salad tossed. Literally. She throws it around so much; most of it ends up on the floor where she can’t reach it. We may have to put up a backstop net or something.
It feels as though spring will arrive on time this weekend. Soon the lambs, who have all but given up their milk bottles, will be out on the front field with the horses. I wonder what Ashley and Misty will think of all those fat, fluffy white things running and jumping around beside them. It should make for a nice photo.
I don’t think they will mind sharing their pasture with the other animals, as long as Donkey stays on his side of the fence.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ordinary Miracles like Sunday Dinner

The Farmer and I have five teenaged daughters between us. Now, that might sound like a lot. That might even be unfathomable or overwhelming to some. At our farm wedding, friends joked that we should probably just keep the rented porta-pottie, because the Farmer would likely never see the inside of his own bathroom again. But the keyword here is “teenaged”. At this phase of life, the girls don’t spend a whole lot of time hanging around the farm. They have school. And jobs. And oh yes, boys.
Sometimes three or four days will go by before we see our children. It’s a good thing we like spending time together, because it seems as though the nest is already empty, some days. On the miraculous occasion when all five girls are in the house at the same time, I can’t help myself – I run for the camera. It’s the only chance I have to grab a group photo. This phenomenon – like the aligning of the planets, only happens once in a very long while.
In today’s busy lifestyle, it can be quite a challenge to instill traditional family values. You can shout out a “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do” (that usually works to at least slow them down) as your kids are running out the door to one social event or another, but it can be difficult to pin them down for quality time at this age.
Occasionally, however, life will throw you a curve that stops you in your tracks. When my father found out that his cancer was terminal on September 11, 2007, we just wanted to freeze the calendar and never turn the page. It was during that time, when we wanted to find a way to celebrate life with Dad, that we drew upon one of the last vestiges of traditional family life: the Sunday dinner.
Mom, Dad, my sister Cathy and her partner Mark, my nephew Riley and as many of our five daughters as we could summon would gather at the farm for a casual-yet-celebratory meal each Sunday. After a few weeks, the Farmer’s wing of the family joined us, making the trip out from Ottawa. Soon we were feeding 15 to 20 people every week.
Some of the guests bring casseroles, salads, or fresh bread. Nearly everyone brings beer or wine, and the Farmer’s mother always brings dessert. This dessert is never store-bought; it is a homemade pie, squares, or cake that she made from scratch earlier that day. Her chocolate cake with cream cheese icing is so good; we had her make three for our wedding day.
I am not a big dessert eater, but I always have a sliver of whatever she brings, out of awe for her talent. I baked a cake once. Once. It was a sour cream chocolate cake with a layer of strawberry jam. My father’s favourite. I made it for my daughter Milena’s sixth birthday. It was so hard, it resembled a brick. Since that failure, I have decided to leave the dessert baking to the experts. And for that, I believe, my guests are truly grateful. I stick to what I’m good at: tossing a salad.
The Farmer, of course, is in charge of the meat. We have some farm-raised chickens and turkeys in the freezer – I am still waiting to see what he plans to do with the beast marked 39.8 lbs. He loves to make dried fruit stuffing for poultry – but he has also stuffed pork. His prime rib is first class, and if he can cook the meat on the bbq, he will. He particularly likes to use his specially adapted rotisserie.
We normally send an email on Thursday, and do follow-up calls on the Saturday if necessary, to determine how many people we will be feeding. We sit by the woodstove in winter, and on the back porch in nearly every other season, nibbling on appetizers, catching up on each other’s lives and waiting to see who else will show up. Occasionally we will be faced with a fishes-and-loaves situation. That’s where you have to streeeeeetch the meat to see how far you can make it go.
This past Sunday, we were expecting eight. Some people are away on vacation and others are sick at home with colds. When the phone rang and it was my longtime friends Janet and Roger Stark asking if they could drop by to meet the new horses, I invited them to stay for dinner and eight became ten. I never know if our college student daughter is going to make it, but she did, with her boyfriend. Then we were twelve. A few minutes later, another one of our other daughters arrived, friend in tow, and twelve became fourteen. I forgot to count my nephew (shame on me!) and our party rounded out at fifteen.
I didn’t think we had enough meat to go around, but I figured we could fill up on vegetables. After a glass of wine or two, good conversation and a few laughs, I figured no one would notice if there were no seconds on the roast beef and ribs.
As it turned out, we even had some left over for Cody the noble guard. And for about ten minutes at the end of the evening, when the last of the daughters came home, we had all five of our girls under one roof. Miracles do happen.
But some of them escaped before I could get my camera.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ashley & Misty's first week on Fisher farm

Oooh, wild horses I wanna be like you

Throwing caution to the wind, I'll run free too
- Natasha Beddingfield

I woke up on the frosty morning of Saturday, February 28, with an unmistakeable feeling of excitement in my chest. After a few foggy seconds, I remembered what I had to be excited about. It was Horse Day.
Deb Williams – the very person who taught me to ride about thirty (cough) years ago – was to meet us at Ron Cooke’s farm at 10 am. She would be trailering our horses for us. The Farmer and I hurried through breakfast and sheep-feeding chores and took one last look at the empty stable before hopping into the truck.
For the past two weeks, since we met and bought the two Belgian mares, we had been reading up on the care and feeding of heavy horses on the Internet and in the handbook that Jack Little, another local Belgian owner, had lent us.
The Farmer read the book, drew diagrams, and spent several evenings fashioning the left side of our smaller barn into a couple of large tie stalls. He covered the gravel floor with sturdy wood, and built each horse a feeding station similar to the ones they had grown up with. We ordered a ton of corn and barley, covered the new wood floor with straw, and sought advice from other heavy horse owners.
As we pulled up to Ron’s place, we noticed that he had company. Ken Acton, another area horseman, was on hand to help with the big move. I had only found out the day before (Ron had no doubt told me earlier but for one reason or another it hadn’t sunk in) that Ashley and Misty had never been trailered before. I was relieved to see that we had plenty of experienced assistants at the ready.
I went into the barn and saw that Ashley and Misty were in their stalls, munching on hay. I spent a few minutes talking to them and feeding them handfuls of sweetfeed. I told them that they would have to say goodbye to their friend and caregiver Ron, but that the Farmer and I were going to do our very best to make them happy. I told them all about the farm, the sheep, the cows, and Donkey. The chewed and stared at me, as if they were listening. I noticed that when one of them stops chewing to listen to something, the other one stops too. When one starts again, the other follows.
As the truck and horse trailer rattled into the driveway, the girls cocked their ears. And turned their heads in the direction of the open door. And began to whinny.
“They know that sound,” Ron explained. “It either means a horse is comin’ or a horse is leavin’.”
Ashley, the older and calmer of the two horses, was the first to be led onto the trailer. She went willingly, but froze in her tracks when her first dinner-plate of a hoof hit the ramp.
“Yes, that makes a noise, doesn’t it?” Debbie worked her magic with the huge horse, leading her up and into the trailer and tying her to the rail.
Misty whinnied and craned her neck to see where her sister was going. Her eyes were a bit wild. She was anxious to get into the trailer too, but once aboard she insisted on being in Ashley’s spot. One week later as I write this, we have come to know that “musical stalls” is one of Misty’s favourite games.
As Ron loaded some hay onto the back of our truck, Ken wandered over to Farmer Fisher. He mentioned that he had driven past the farm recently, and noticed the silage in white wrap on the front field. “You know you can’t feed that to the horses, right?”
Oh my. Come to think of it, I did recall hearing that silage was toxic to horses. But I had since forgotten that important fact. Thank God we had been reminded. I wondered if I was far too ignorant to successfully care for these noble beasts. What other life-threatening things was I unaware of?
We feed the fragrant (smells like a combination of whisky and marijuana), fermented silage to the cows, Donkey and sheep. The animals will practically knock the Farmer off his tractor to get at it when he’s delivering a bale. The feeders are located just south of the new stable doors. So we have to lead the horses across the icy barnyard to the front field each morning and back to the stable every night.
Ashley and Misty are not used to being led either. Especially not by people who are as green as the Farmer and his Farmwife. It was on these initial walks that the true personalities of our new horses emerged.
On the first day, I slid right under Ashley and whacked my knee on the ice. I froze, afraid to turn and see where the big horse’s hooves were.
“Can you get up?” the Farmer queried. “She’s trying not to step on you.”
I shook off the adrenalin and grabbed hold of the lead again. With a horse that big, I have to reach my arm out as far as possible and push her away from me while leading or I end up underneath her.
A few moments later she trod right on my foot. And stopped.
“Ashley.” I pushed my rump into her side. “You’re on my foot.”
She did a little quick-step and I realized she hadn’t put her full weight on me.
These horses seem to know that they need to exercise caution and a little extra patience with their new humans. Once set loose in the field, they canter across the snow, tossing their blonde manes and snorting. I think this means they are happy with their new digs.
Donkey is quite curious, wandering into the stable to sniff at the girls in their stalls and to steal their hay when we leave a door open. He would follow them into their front pasture if we let him. But he has to stay with the sheep and do security. I reminded him the other day of his responsibilities but most nights when I return from work I find him standing at the fence with the calf, nose-to-nose with one of the horses on the other side.
The Farmer seems to be well pleased with our new charges. On the first night, I was returning from town when I heard a strange noise and noticed a light in the stable. I poked my head in to investigate and there was the Farmer, in his pajamas and parka, glass of wine in hand, talking (or was he singing?) to the horses. They seemed to be quite captivated by him.
“Oh. You interrupted me. I was just talking to my girls,” he smiled.
Yes, I think we’re going to get along just fine.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Literary Follies Monologue

First of all, thank you to everyone who attended this year’s Literary Follies at Leslie Hall last Sunday. It was an entertaining afternoon with an eclectic bunch of musical and literary misfits, myself included. I had to rush out after my monologue, as our new horses were in need of some attention. And just in case you were unable to attend, here is what I said.

“Good afternoon, my name is Diana Fisher. As many of you are readers of my column, I thought you might like to know how I came to be the Accidental Farmwife. The story behind the story, so to speak. I was born and raised in Kemptville, and although my family lived in the country, just down the road from a farm, I knew NOTHING about farming. In fact, for the longest time, I thought that 4-H was a dance class, because the only boys in school who knew how to dance – Jim Wiggins and Don Hess – said they got their moves from 4-H.

I ran off and got married at the tender (translation: “stupid”) age of 19, and spent my 20s as a stay-at-home mom with one and then two and then three daughters, in the suburbs. When that marriage ended in 2000, I first moved back home to Kemptville, and then after a few years I up and ran away again – this time to Asia.

Many people say to me, “that must have been an experience.” An experience it was, like no other. For a variety of reasons, some less obvious than others, it was a very difficult experience. But it’s always a good thing, I think, to take yourself completely out of your comfort zone, and to attempt to live in a foreign culture. You learn a lot about other people, but most of all you learn about yourself.

After three years of living in a place where loud music is believed to scare away evil spirits, I longed for the quiet of a country road. After eating strange foods that I could not identify, I craved a fresh garden salad. And after dreaming of the smell of my daughters’ freshly-washed hair and waking up to realize they were still on the other side of the ocean, I decided it was time to come home.

In Taiwan, few people I met would engage me in conversation. That might challenge their English and cause them to “lose face”, which is a very bad thing in their culture. My Chinese is terrible – basically I have restaurant and taxi Mandarin. So I was in my own little world, with my earphones on, with very little public interaction. After that rather insular existence, I found it quite difficult to come out of my shell when I returned to Canada. People had been following my column from Asia so they were coming up to me, looking me in the eye and asking me personal questions. I was experiencing a bit of reverse culture shock. I spent most days walking up and down Beach Road outside my parents’ house, fretting about what to do with my life.

About two months after my repatriation, when a family acquaintance asked me out on a date, I burst into tears. (He will tell you I answered his proposition with a direct “NO”. That’s how he remembers it.)

Anyway, I quickly came to my senses and called that lovely man back. He gave me exactly ten minutes to get ready for our first lunch date – which went very well, by the way.

Just over one year later, we were married. The wedding took place on our 200-acre farm just outside Oxford Mills. It was a perfect day, and the beginning of another wonderful adventure. I settled into life on the farm, and got to know the animals a bit better. As I watched them, I found their personalities beginning to emerge. Now, as a child, I thought it was normal to “talk” for the animals. My parents always did it. (“the dog says he wants to go out”, etc.) Soon I found myself reporting to my husband, “the sheep don’t like Donkey. He’s a bully.” The animals became characters to me. (at this point in the monologue I add my plaid shirt, rubber boots and cowgirl hat to my ensemble, and I am joined onstage by one of my lambs who is looking for his bottle. I continue talking as I feed the lamb)

I had been looking for a new idea for a column. So, a few months later, in October 2007, “The Accidental Farmwife” was born and I found my true calling. The farming life is far more interesting to me than life in a big city, and it’s nice to have a purpose. I like that the farm needs me.

Every day I wake up on the farm and wonder, “what will happen next?” There is never a dull moment. Every week, the animals give me something to write about. And if I can’t think of something, it’s probably because I haven’t been paying attention. If the animals aren’t up to anything, I often write about the other characters around the farm, including Farmer Fisher. Now, keep in mind, the Farmer would like to remain anonymous so if you know who he is, play along or I won’t be allowed to write about him anymore…

I am always pleased to meet people who say they enjoy reading the column, because I love writing it. And it’s getting quite a following. Just the other day I was telling Donkey that I think it’s time we pitched the column to CBC as a radio show. To which he responded, ‘yeah, and then you write a book and Hollywood calls and buys the movie rights and Demi Moore will play the Farmwife, George Clooney will play the Farmer, and the role of Donkey will be played by…himself.’

Thanks for listening – and reading – and enjoy the rest of your day!”