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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Surrender to the Squirrels

I called Paulina on my way home from work to see if she needed anything in town. The connection was breaking up, but I could hear a bit of a ruckus on the other end of the line. “Ahh! There’s a sheep in the yard! There’s another one! Ohmigod there’s about twenty sheep on the wrong side of the fence, mom!”
I laughed and told her I would be home in ten minutes. I suggested she try to herd them back through the gate, which had obviously been pushed open. The last thing I heard before she hung up was an exasperated groan.
Five minutes later, as I was turning onto our road, my cell phone rang. I could barely make out her words through her laughter. “You aren’t going to believe this – one sheep was acting really weird, rubbing up against the wagon. When I got close, I saw she had a baby squirrel on her back! The little thing was hanging on for dear life. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen!”
We deduced that the squirrel had probably fallen out of its nest in the hayloft and landed on the back of the sheep.
When I arrived home, I followed Polly out to the pasture in search of the squirrelly sheep. Just then we noticed one of the barn cats playing with something.
“Whatcha got, kitty?” Polly approached the kitten, which was batting something about with its paws. “Ohh! It’s the squirrel!” The cat quickly disappeared with its prey.
Moments later, the sheepdog shuffled past, her broken chain dragging behind her. She hunkered down in the barn, watching the mother squirrel frantically racing around the rafters.
I quickly corralled the dog without getting bitten (a feat in itself) and reattached the chain to the shed. Passing through the shed on the way back, a nesting barn swallow swooped down so close to my head she parted my hair.
We decided to go and visit the horses. They were a bit jumpy, as the blackflies were bothering them. I got the citronella spray from the stable and attempted to douse Misty but she would have nothing to do with it. After a few squirts, I realized that it was the nozzle noise itself and not the actual spray that bothered her. I wet my hands and patted her neck and shoulders with the repellent. She seemed content. I tried squeezing the nozzle gently so that it wouldn’t make a noise. She stood stock still, obviously enjoying the cool spray on her sweaty hide.
Ashley was watching the proceedings from a safe distance. I spent the next five minutes repeatedly sidling up to her, spray bottle behind my back, only to have her sprint away as soon as I got within spraying distance. That horse is smarter than she looks. And scared of every little thing that makes a noise. Makes you believe in the mouse-and-elephant story. I found myself wondering how she would react to a passing baby squirrel. Just then the scratching of tiny claws on the barn’s tin roof answered my question. Ashley bolted and broke into a gallop to the far end of the field.
Suddenly we heard a loud baa-ing coming from the direction of the farmhouse. These sheep are not very stealthy.
The sheep were back in the yard again. Polly and I climbed the fence and took off across the barnyard toward the house. Donkey started to bray, trying to get our attention. He was standing beside a gaping hole where the fence had given way, unable to stop the steady stream of escaping sheep.
Once again we circled the marauding masses. Annie returned at that point, jumping out of her friend’s car and rushing to join us. Her comrade, obviously intimidated by the emergency at hand, quickly backed out of the driveway and took off. Wimp.
The two dozen sheep frantically munched on my sprouting daisies and bee balm as we approached from three sides. Their eyes darted from left to right, as they gulped the fresh greens without chewing. They had no other option. They had to rush back through the gate into the barnyard.
Locking the fence behind them, I turned and surveyed the wreckage. At least I hadn’t put my vegetable garden in yet.
“Hey Mom. What’s with the animals? They’re frickin’ goin’ crazy or something! It’s just like in Macbeth when the horses started eating each other because the course of history had been changed! (Polly has just discovered Shakespeare).
I explained to my accidental farm daughter that there was really nothing wrong with the animals. They were simply being animals. Opportunistic, instinctive, sneaky animals. No use getting upset with them; you’ll only stress yourself out.
As I struggled to repair the hole in the fence, I could hear one of the ewes bawling like mad in the barn. Walking over to peek in her window, I noticed two baby squirrels sitting on the sill. When they saw me approaching, they quickly disappeared through the window into the lambing pen.
The next time I went in to fill the milk bottles, I heard an unmistakable growling coming from under the hay feeder. So that’s why the sheep hadn’t been eating their hay! They were afraid of being bitten by the vicious baby squirrels.
When I mentioned the predicament to the Farmer, he said that if I didn’t want to see him “scream like a girl”, I should probably move my lambs over to the bigger pen at the opposite end of the barn.
And so we surrendered the lambing pen to the squirrel family. I hope it serves them well. And I hope they stop making the rest of the animals nuts.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The season of sly turkeys and frantic brides.

It doesn’t look like wild turkey will be on the Sunday dinner menu anytime soon. The Farmer and his hunting party gathered at the farm before dawn on opening day of the season. They sat quietly in their blinds for hours. The sun rose, some of them drifted off to sleep; none of them saw a turkey. They went back to the house to make a hearty breakfast.
Minutes later, when they were gathering on the back porch to enjoy their coffee in the early morning mist, they could make out the forms of three fat turkeys cutting a beeline across the pasture to the cornfield on the other side. It was as if the sly creatures waited until they could smell bacon frying before emerging from their hiding places. The men shook their heads, exasperated.
Just last week, the Farmer and one of his hunting buddies headed out to the field before sunrise. They perched themselves in blinds along the proven path of the turkey trot - and saw nothing. The Farmer gave up early, swearing to stick to dusk hunts in the future. It just wasn’t worth getting up early. His comrade-in-arms, Paul, decided to stick it out a bit longer. About 30 minutes after returning to the house, the Farmer grabbed his binoculars and trained them on the back field.
“I don’t friggin’ believe it,” he sputtered. “The turkeys are right behind Paul!”
Sure enough, a small convoy was making its way across the field, directly behind our friend. If only we could send a silent text message: “turn around Paul, slowly...”
The spring turkey season isn’t officially over yet, but the hunting party at the Fisher farm seems resigned to the fact that they have been outsmarted this year. Most of the brood have gone off to lay their eggs by now. The mating dance has come to an end. Game over.
Well, just as hunting season ends, the wedding season begins. Brides are being showered, plans are being made, invitations have been stamped and sent. We have two weddings to attend this summer: one family and one friend.
As I hear the women stressing over bridesmaid dresses and flowers, I am transported back just two short years, to the time when I was planning my own country wedding to the Farmer.
I remember the initial discussion. It went something like this:
Farmer: “Let’s just go somewhere warm and get hitched on a beach.”
Me: “We can’t do that; the kids will kill us.”
We checked out the price of renting various local venues, but none of them seemed “special” enough for the ceremony that would tie our two families together. It was our middle daughter, Anastasia, who one day piped up with, “why don’t you just get married on the farm?”
It really was the perfect idea. What better way to commemorate the occasion than with prayers and the best wishes of family and friends on our own property? Even the photos were taken here, by a close family friend. Every day we look out on the very spot where we said our vows.
If we thought that a simple garden wedding would be easier than decorating a vast banquet hall, however, we were wrong. It took us nearly a week to set up and another two days to tear down after the event. But the extra effort was definitely worth it.
With the farm wedding in mind, and because it was the second wedding for both of us, I thought a simple sundress in a pale colour would be appropriate. But my beloved had a difference of opinion: “you don’t skimp on the kitchen in the house,” he stated.
It took me a moment to realize that I was the kitchen in that statement. How romantic. So, we decided to dress in full bridal regalia, which really was the right decision.
The college catered our event, and I was reminded of wedding receptions that I had attended in Taiwan. There, the traditional wedding gift is a red envelope, or “hong-bao”, containing enough money to cover the cost of your wedding meal and a bit extra (approximately $40 per person).
At the Taiwanese wedding dinner, it is quite normal to see guests filling their pockets and handbags with tiny sandwiches, cookies and dinner rolls. After all, I guess, they paid for it.
I’m happy to say no one pilfered the extra buns at our wedding. We had enough left over for a midnight buffet and lunch the next day, for the many minions who slept on the couches, in the camper, in their parked vehicles and on the floor.
By the way – I still have the belly ring that someone left on the fish tank. If you decide you need it back, come to our next big party and ‘fess up.
To all of this year’s brides, I would like to pass on one of my favourite pieces of wedding advice: “Don’t stress. No matter what happens, at the end of the day you will be married. Just think of it as a great big party with a little bitty wedding in the middle!”

The Happy Wanderer

I was on Facebook a few weeks ago, catching up with old friends, many of whom I met and are still in Taiwan. I noted that my friend Doug had come home to Canada for a prolonged stay, and would be passing through the area on his way home to Sarnia. So I invited him to stay awhile.
Doug has travelled to many exotic and remote places, and he has made himself comfortable in very modest surroundings. He is the epitome of the Happy Wanderer, an anomaly at our age. To each his own. If he wants to live among the Ethiopians for a year, he can (and has). If he wants to live in a rooftop apartment in Taipei, he will (and does). Not everyone longs to be completed with a spouse, family and permanent resident status. I think that after getting to know me in Taiwan, Doug was a bit intrigued with my Happy Farmwife existence. And after staying for a few weeks on the farm of another friend in Quebec, he had been bitten by the bug. He was looking forward to playing farmer for a few days more.
Our schedule was a bit harried, as I was planning to leave on a business trip in two days. But I thought we would at least have time to sit and talk with Doug in the evenings, so that the Farmer would get to hear some stories about Taiwan, and we would learn more about Doug’s other travelling experiences.
I was wrong. From the time we picked Doug up at the train station in Brockville on Sunday to the time he left Tuesday morning, the farm was a whirlwind of activity.
Our regular Sunday dinner, which normally hosts 10 to 15 people, ballooned to a buffet for 22. Doug wouldn’t have got a word in edgewise if he had used a crowbar.
After dinner, while we were saying goodnight to the horses and topping up the lambs, I found another newborn wandering around the barn. I had to identify the mother (thankfully, she was willing to own up to her maternity) and lure her into a pen where she could (hopefully) nurse her baby in seclusion.
Doug stepped up to help, supervising the new lamb until she was successfully suckling on her mother. Miracles do happen. Normally these yearling ewes don’t have enough milk and we have to supplement their feedings with bottles.
The next day, I had to go to work to prepare for my business trip. I had production meetings and research meetings and errands to run. When I returned home in the afternoon, I had just a few minutes before it was time to change into a dress and slap some makeup on for a wine and cheese event at the college. Oops – I forgot I had to put the horses in, and couldn’t very well do it in a sundress, could I? The Farmer had to get some practice doing it himself.
Finally, it was Tuesday morning and time to drive Doug to the Ottawa train station. We had barely had time to talk in passing!
“Honestly – life isn’t usually this busy at the farm. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. We normally have plenty of time to sit and relax, or take long walks and talk. You just picked the wrong two days!”
I wondered what Doug had done to occupy himself during the day while the Farmer and I were at work.
After he left, I found the answer. Our visitor, who is also a gifted photographer, took approximately 345 photos in and around the barnyard. He created a gallery of equipment and buildings, landscapes and animals. Betty, Ginger, Mocha, Ashley, Donkey, Cody and Misty each got their close-up. I noticed, however, that Chelsea the warped sheepdog was not among the models profiled. Probably a good idea. She had been suspicious of the newcomer since he first set foot on her side of the shed.
It was enlightening, looking at the farm through the eyes of an outsider. With the camera, Doug made a round bale look artistic. The grey barn board and red Adirondack chairs are beautiful. The dog looks elegant, the cat comical. And the frame-by-frame (or should I say blow-by-blow) photo montage of the calf sneezing is hysterical.
So, I guess in the end Doug got what he came for. He was able to play farmer for a few days. He filled up the horses’ water and pitched hay for the lambs. He connected with the animals and documented the experience on film for his collection.
He didn’t get much time to talk to me, his old friend, but that’s ok. We can talk anytime. There’s always Facebook.


Beezus and Ramona

Rats. Darn it. Curses. Against my better judgment, I have done it again. I have named a farm animal. This is not a good thing, because eventually the farm animal will either die or be sent to market and my heart will be broken – again.
Naming the creature in some way acknowledges that it has a spirit and a personality – and you can’t help but be endeared to it.
I felt it was safe to name Betty and Ginger, the cows, because they are really our pets, the foundation of our fledgling herd, and they will likely be around for the next ten years or so. Unfortunately they will occasionally give birth to bull calves, and I will have to say goodbye, as I did with young Tyson.
I prefer baby girls. Those I get to keep for awhile.
Anyhow, last Wednesday, I came home from the new job in the city and wandered into the barn. There was the Farmer, cleaning up after assisting a ewe lamb in a multiple birth.
“You have twins,” he said, but I could only see one.
“The other one is around here somewhere. It couldn’t have got very far.”
Oh but it could. I saw sunlight beaming through a gap in the back door, and suspected that if I were a newborn lamb, I would probably want to investigate. I peeked out the door. Sure enough, there was the new lamb, still covered in birth mess, poking about in the horses’ hay. Our two Belgian mares had just discovered her.
“That would make a good shot,” the Farmer reported, after seeing the massive horse sniffing at the tiny lamb. I ran back to the house to fetch my camera.
The horses were used to dogs bounding around under foot, and they had become accustomed to stealth-like sheep, sneaking in to steal their hay. But I was worried that they might feel threatened by this wobbly-legged character, as it likely smelled funny and they had never seen a newborn lamb before.
I snapped a few quick shots and scooped up the lamb from under Ashley’s huge snout. The horse followed close behind me, putting her nose over my shoulder and sniffing at the bundle in my arms.
The Farmer corralled the new mother and her twins in one of the vacant lambing pens. The ewe was little more than a lamb herself, and didn’t have much of an udder from which to feed her rambunctious babies. We fed the twins powdered colostrum every four hours for the first twenty-four hours, and despite their size, they managed to drink the full recommended amount from the baby bottle.
But I realized, as I held them and watched them feed, this wouldn’t work. I was working fulltime and, despite being given the flexibility to work from home once or twice a week, I wouldn’t be around to give feedings every 3 or 4 hours. Lambing season, for the most part, was over. There were no other lactating moms to foster these two. And to top it off, both the Farmer and I had business trips coming up. We had a dilemma.
Then I had an epiphany. I would train these two alert, aggressive lambs to self-feed. I strapped a bottle into a brace and hung it on the side of the pen. Because the lambs had imprinted on me a bit, I let my shirtsleeve hang over the bottle, and placed my finger beside the nipple. Within a few moments, the first lamb found the milk. She drank over 100 mls and wandered away with a full tummy to have a nap.
The second lamb took a bit more coaxing, but eventually she too found the bottle and had a feed.
The next day I went out to the barn to check on my lambs. They were full-bellied and happy, climbing on top of their mother and bouncing off of her. Suddenly the names of two of my favourite characters from a childhood book came to mind: Beezus and Ramona. I have not verified their sex or named them individually. To maintain my emotional distance, they have been named collectively. I refilled the self-feeding bottles and went back to the house, quite pleased with myself.
Now the lambs are on the self-feeders, with refills every twelve hours. It looks like we have a success! I’m quite proud of myself. Well chuffed, as my British friends would say. Maybe next year I will find a way to train all of the new lambs to self feed. Then I won’t have to be up in the middle of the night, warming baby bottles. Of course, they all need a cuddle once in a while. It’s good for the soul.


Thursday, May 7, 2009

In Which Ginger Nearly Becomes a Beef-Kabob

It has been a long winter that seemed even longer because our hay was so terrible. Every day now, the sheep and cows go out on the pasture and greedily mow down any fresh new blades of grass that emerge from the hardened soil.
The horses have much fussier stomachs, and their respiratory systems cannot handle the dust and mold on last year’s rainy season hay, so we feed them from the prized storage of two-year-old hay at the back of the barn.
The sheep and cows know about this hay: they can smell its greenness through the barn walls. When the Farmer opens the doors to that storage, he has a very limited amount of undisturbed time before he has to deal with marauding farm animals rushing between him and the bales.
Last week, our pregnant cow Ginger decided she couldn’t stand it anymore; she had to satisfy her craving for the forbidden hay. As soon as the Farmer moved the tractor out of her way, she seized her opportunity and waddled into the small storage room. When the tractor returned a few minutes later, Ginger knew the gig was up and she would have to get out of the way. The massive cow pulled a quick deke to the left, fooling the Farmer. He quickly steered over to the right, just as Ginger changed direction.
The cow was pinned to the wall on the end of the tractor fork.
“I feel awful,” the Farmer emailed me later that morning. “I accidentally speared Ginger with the tractor.”
I could barely concentrate on work for the rest of the day. The Farmer assured me that he hadn’t punctured the pregnant cow’s belly: he had only grazed it. But she was hurt, and in a bit of shock.
I left work a few minutes early and came home to find the wounded mother-to-be standing in a far corner of the barnyard by herself. Never one to welcome human touch, she took a few steps farther into the corner when I approached her.
“Ginger-cow, poor girl. Let me see your tummy,” I coaxed her. She stood still and let me move in closer. She stared at me as I bent over and examined the coin-sized patch of ruffled hair on her side.
I brought her one of her favourite treats: a bucket of molasses laced sweet feed. She just sniffed at it and turned her nose away.
I stared at her bulging belly and willed the calf inside her to start moving. I thought I saw a slight ripple of movement under her thick flesh, but I couldn’t be sure.
It didn’t take long for one of the sheep to smell the sweet feed. Soon there were about forty ewes swarming the bucket under Ginger’s nose.
The cow looked at me as if to say, “Thanks. Now I have to go and find another quiet corner. Can’t you just leave me be?” Her chocolate-brown eyes, always full of expression, looked weary and sad. She chewed her cud and turned to leave.
I went back to the house then, but returned to check on her later in the evening. After we put the horses in for the night, I saw that Ginger was standing beside the hay wagon, nibbling on silage and commiserating with Betty. I decided that if she was eating, she must be feeling better.
I stared at her belly again and suddenly I saw something move, forming a definite right angle protruding from the side of her bulk. Thank goodness. The calf was still active.
According to the farm journal, Betty and Ginger have another couple of months to wait until they are mothers again.
For the remainder of their gestation, we will have to ensure that the girls do not find themselves in any more tight places. They don’t seem to realize just how wide they have grown.
They were bred artificially last September with a specimen from a black Angus named “Ribeye”. He is reported to produce easy-birthing calves that grow quickly.
We are hoping that they are black and shiny. And I’m secretly hoping that they are both girls, so that we don’t have to say goodbye to them anytime soon.