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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Farming is sexy. In every sense of the word.

A politician was lambasted last year for saying that the isotope crisis was “sexy”. A junk-picker on a reality show labeled a rusty old European clock “sexy”. And if you watch television, listen to the radio and read magazines, you might notice something else that is suddenly sexy: Farming.
In this usage, sexy means it’s a hot topic or commodity. People are talking about it. It’s getting attention.  Perhaps it’s our new sense of global awareness that is prompting us to look upon one of the most basic of occupations, providing food from the land, with a new kind of fondness.
We live in a land of abundance. We have the ability to produce enough wheat to feed the world. That is, if we don’t turn all of our farmland over to development. Farms are disappearing, as are farmers. Perhaps that rarity is making them sexier.
Of course, farming was always sexy, if we were paying attention. Yes, it involves a lot of dirt, sweat and manure, but it also involves a certain sensuality that is lost once we move away from the land.
Farmers are romantic. They rarely miss a sunrise or sunset. They depend on the weather for the success of their crops, so they pray for rain to quench the garden’s thirst, or they pray that the sun will hold out long enough for them to bring the hay in.
Farmers are sensitive. They watch their animals closely, watching for signs of poor health, injury, impending birth. They learn to communicate in simple, unspoken ways. The few words that they choose to speak are the ones that count.
Farmers are strong. Farmwork is physical, and it involves being outdoors a lot. As a result, Farmers tend to be fairly healthy, they sleep well at night and live long, fulfilling lives.
All of our diet-conscious advice these days is telling us to slow down and think about what we are putting into our mouths. What will it do for our bodies? Provide calcium, iron, vitamins? Where did it come from and how did it get to the store or market? Farming is the original link in the chain of our healthy lives. We should care about it. We shouldn’t let our children grow up to think their hamburgers and milk are magically created out of thin air in the grocery store.
We’ve all seen the billboards and bumper stickers: if you’ve eaten today, thank a Farmer. Well, where did you think it came from??
The next time you see a Farmer, take note of the callused hands that are strong enough to pull wires into fences, but gentle enough to birth baby animals. Notice the wrinkles around his eyes from squinting at the sun, the laugh lines around his mouth. Farmers have got to have a sense of humour. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps them going, I’m sure.
And if that ain’t sexy, well, I don’t know what is.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

It's beginning to feel a lot like springtime...

In what other country are there four distinct seasons to celebrate and complain about? I love living in Canada. Summer is gorgeous, of course, with its hedonistic heat and its moody storms. Autumn is my favourite season – many people find the waning of the summer sun depressing but I find the cooler weather invigorating and the refracted sunlight beautiful. I’ve seen over forty winters come and go, yet I still have my breath taken away by the beauty of the first fresh blanket of snow, every year. And now, enter Spring.
Did you know that green has a smell? The green of springtime certainly does. It’s the scent of new life pushing its way up through the melt, coaxed along by the warm rays of the sun. The tulips and daffodils in the farmhouse flowerbed are just starting to push spears up through the earth. The lilies will perk up next, then the allium, and finally the big hosta leaves will unfurl.
I get the urge to stir things up in springtime – to start a new exercise regime (I mucked out the horse stall and took the dog for a walk all in one afternoon!), cut my hair and try out a new recipe for salsa. This year I’m also looking for work, so there are lots of new beginnings.
The Spring Equinox arrived on Sunday, March 20th, at 11:23pm. So did the sign of Aries. Maybe that is why I feel so energized and renewed. My birthday calendar is about to flip over too. Our daylight hours and night time hours are about equal, and everyone seems to be in a better mood than they were a month ago. Spring fever is contagious.
I think the Farmer and I have conceded that Misty is not pregnant. Her summer fling with the Belgian stud, Prince, was just that. A fling. The Farmer measured her belly one day, and it had reduced in size the next week. Her belly isn’t growing – she just has an extra-fluffy coat of winter fur and she bloats when she eats a lot of grain. But she isn’t expecting.
We might send our horse to be trained, finally, so we can ride her. That’s what I would like to do, anyway. Otherwise she is just a big pet. Maybe we can get her to help pull some logs out of the bush too. She likes to have a purpose. 
The ewes have about a month to go before they begin giving birth. The sheep salon will be open for business shortly, so that we can get them all sheared before their due dates. We’re waiting as long as possible, because we will have to keep the ewes in the barn once they are shorn – otherwise they might catch a chill. When we (gently) tackle them for a shearing we will also give them each a shot of selenium to guard against white-muscle disease in their young. We are getting smart and learning from the previous year’s lessons.
I hope the Farmer agrees to let me try my hand at shearing. I will have to wear gloves because I am allergic to the lanolin in the wool, but I think I am strong enough to hold the sheep down. Anyway, you just have to cover the ewe’s head with your leg and she gives up the fight and plays dead.
It’s got to be easier than plucking a goose. And less smelly.

Hockey Night in Kemptville

I didn’t raise any hockey players. My girls enjoy watching the game live with a bunch of friends, but none of them learned to play. My nephew, on the other hand, was probably handed a hockey stick and fitted for skates as soon as he could walk.
My sister invited us to attend one of Riley’s hockey games the other night. I felt a little out of place, and noticed one or two people (high school classmates) looking at me as if they were wondering what the heck I was doing there. They probably thought I was there to take photos for the newspaper.
The Farmer and I had thought ahead, bringing our fake-fur blanket to sit on in the stands. I remember going to hockey games with my Dad as a kid, freezing my bum to the seat. No real need for blankets here though – the stands in our new municipal centre arena are positively cozy, with heaters directed at the spectators.
As Riley’s team skated onto the ice, I couldn’t believe how big he was. I see him a few times a month when he joins us for Sunday dinner – and I buy him clothes – so I know he’s getting bigger but, really, this is ridiculous. I won’t go on and on or he will kill me. Just as he started doing his lunge stretches I swear I felt a presence settle in beside me. Dad was watching his grandson, and his favourite sport.
I was told not to yell, “Go, Panthers” because both teams on the ice had the same name. Riley is in Atom C3 so we tried to cheer “Let’s go C3, let’s go” but it didn’t have much of a ring to it.
I read somewhere that girls make really good hockey players – particularly goalies. I’m sure Hayley Wickenheiser (or is that Wickenhauser?) would concur. Aly Thibert and Mickayla Petersen are confident and quick on their skates and the puck rarely gets past them.
I felt a little foolish yelling out loud at the players at first, but once you get caught up in the game, it’s pretty hard to keep your mouth shut. By the end of it I was hoarse. But probably not as bad as the woman in front of me, who kept letting out this screaming squawk every time the play got exciting. She made me jump every time she did it.
I had to catch myself from giggling and pointing at some of the players – their parents were probably sitting beside us – but at age 9 and 10 the kids are various shapes and sizes. Some of them have a bit of growing to do in order to fill out their hockey jersey. But that doesn’t stop them from contributing to the play. They just have to move those legs a little faster.
I am not familiar with the rules of the game, nor can I follow it closely on the ice, so I won’t be giving a play-by-play of the action. Suffice it to say, we were all on the edge of our seats, from the puck drop through to the game-ending buzzer. Spurred on by the cheers of his proud parents in the crowd (I don’t know whether the players can hear their names from the ice but I’m sure that energy travels), Ryan Hess glided up and scored the winning goal in the last few minutes. Don’t ask me to remember the score. Like I said, I’m no sports commentator. Just a new fan of a game that reminds me so much of my Dad. I could hear him yelling his low, gravelly encouragement to the players, and one in particular: “Atta boy, Riley!”
Congratulations, all of you, and enjoy your March Break. I’ll be in the stands for the play offs!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Spring fever strikes the farm

One day it’s pouring down rain and then you wake up the next morning under a foot of snow. That’s March in Ontario. It still looks like winter out there, but those of us who were born and raised in this area can see, hear and smell the signs. Spring is coming.
I don’t normally suffer from SAD – Seasonal Adjustment Disorder – from lack of sunshine in the winter, but I must confess I do get a touch of spring fever every year. I feel an urge to stir things up. I want to cut my hair off. Go for a 5k run. Wash the ceilings. When I look back over my life, most of the big life-changing decisions I have made happened in March/April. Life is much more settled and content for me now, but I still feel like doing something dramatic when the snow starts to melt under the springtime sun.
The Farmer spends so much time outside, he never even gets the sniffles. I don’t think he gets SAD either. But he is displaying one symptom of spring fever already. “I should start shearing the sheep,” he announced the other day. What? You want to take the wool off my ewes? But here’s the thing. The Farmer can only shear 5 or 6 sheep at a time, before his back gives out on him. As he is a university professor, he only has time to do this on the weekend. It will probably take him six weeks to get all 45 ewes sheared. Lambs are due late April. So he probably should get started now. But it’s just too cold. If we had a bunch of bald sheep in the yard, you can be sure the temperature would drop to minus 30 one more time, just to spite us.
He will wait until it’s warmer. It’s just that he bought himself a brand new set of shears in December, and he’s dyin’ to use ‘em. I had better keep my thoughts of a new haircut to myself or I might wake up with a big surprise.
It will be nice to have the sheep sheared before they lamb this year. It makes it much easier for the Dorset lambs to find the milk on their woolly mothers. And it gives the ewes time to grow back some wool before mosquito season. I may have to learn how to shear a sheep myself, to give the Farmer a break. Maybe I’ll be good at it.
I’m going out to the barn now, to brush my horse and to put a stethoscope to her belly to see if she will be foaling in May. I really don’t know where to look for the heartbeat, but I have a friend on Facebook who tells me it can be done.
If she is pregnant, we will call the vet to get advice on supplements, etc. It’s amazing to think she might be 8 months’ pregnant and not showing any recognizable signs. But then, Big Betty never shows that she’s pregnant, and she has had some beautiful babies with no problems.
To me, it never really feels like the year has begun until Spring arrives. Hello 2011.

thinking of summer...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Farmwife honeymoon at long last

The Farmer and I have finally had a honeymoon. We waited until the time was right, and that took 3 years! We are in between Christmas and lambing season, so we're safe. I left the girls in charge of the farm with a list of reminders: 1. Feed the barn cats more than they need. When they are full, another bunch will emerge from the rafters. 2. Cody and Chelsea need fresh water and food everyday. Remember that Chelsea bites females and Cody eats everything that you dont put out of his reach, including butter. 3. Check the cow and sheep feeders every day; when they are empty call the neighbour. He will refill them. Refill the water; they are big drinkers - especially the lactating mama cows. 4. Dont forget my New Years lambs in the barn. Dont overdo the sweetfeed in the creep though. They will eat til they are paralyzed. 5. Sheila the housecat will remind you she is in the basement. You will hear her singing when she hears your footsteps. She needs fresh water and food daily and lots of attention too. 6. If you have friends over, no smoking in the house or barn! We want them standing when we return. Have fun, be safe.

After arriving in Punta Cana, it took me a full day to stop worrying about the animals and children. The Farmer/Professor got into relaxation mode far quicker than I did. By the first afternoon, he had already totally forgotten his school schedule. He has to teach the day after we return, but he cant remember what. That first night, we were welcomed into the resort by a bunch of Guelph and Ottawa U students who decided to introduce us to the local shot, known as Mama Juana. Basically its cherry liquor and rum with tree bark floating in it. Scary. Tastes like cough syrup and packs a punch. I have no idea how I got to my room. The Farmer says he slung me over his shoulder but I suspect he is exaggerating. I do remember saying goodnight to the 3 flamingoes (and one duck) who live in the fountain pond outside our window before I went to bed. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we got into the beach relaxation mode, finishing the books we had started on the plane ride and working on our tans. I think its a form of meditation therapy. When our backs kinked up from doing nothing, we walked on the beach. When our tummies grumbled, we wandered over to one of the all-inclusive buffet restaurants to snack on fish, veggies, rice and fresh fruit. By Thursday we were beginning to feel we needed a bit of an adventure, so we signed up for a catamaran excursion to a national park, Saona Island. The 90-minute ride included free-flowing alcohol, but knowing my tendency toward motion sickness, I did not imbibe. I didnt feel like taking Caribbean line dancing lessons on the rolling deck either. I just sat and enjoyed the breezes while the tour guides took photos and film that they tried to sell to us later.

On the island, you walk along a white powder beach strewn with conch shells, urchins and coral. Lunch is a bbq buffet of grilled tuna, chicken, potato salad and fruit. As on the resort beach, vendors of art, jewellery and wood carvings keep trying to sell you stuff, until you learn not to make eye contact with them at all. It helps if you have a book handy to stick your nose in when they come by. The Farmer and I did buy a few pieces of the local Dominican Diamond (larimar - looks like turquoise), as well as a colourful painting of a market scene and a box of cigars. But we did our shopping at out-of-the-way places at the end of the beach and down the road from the resort where the salespeople are less pushy. Hopefully they realize they were being rewarded for that. "You're not going to change the world," the Farmer said. I had to remind him of this when later that day he gestured at yet another speedboat driver who was cutting through the snorkeling area with little regard for the swimmers he was scattering around him.

On our way back to the resort from Saona, we stopped on a sandbar in the middle of the ocean, where the Caribbean and Atlantic seas meet. There we could walk around in 2 feet of glass-clear water, looking for starfish. Our guide swam behind the boat and produced two big red ones. I suspect they were plants, and I am not convinced they were alive, but they were heavy and still had all their teeth. In fact, they are covered in them, which makes them difficult to hold.

Back at the resort, we went to see the nightly entertainment, which involved some sort of crowd-interactive dance and a lot of showgirls and acrobats. I love the way everyone is so happy to be doing their jobs here - they sing from morning to night, smile Ola at you when they pass you on the walk. It reminded me of Taiwan, the way the servers seemed to be so happy and without complaint. That and the poor sewer system that makes it against regulation to flush toilet paper. Both Taiwan and the Dominican need to invest in some quality plumbing.

On Friday, we braved the cave, which is a discotheque called Imagine. It looks like a castle from the road but that is just the entrance to an actual nightclub built into a cave. Men dressed as tribal warriors stand like statues on pedestals, guarding the door. Later those same warriors joined us and several hundred college kids on the various dance floors within the cave. Showgirls in jewelled bikinis danced on platforms between the stalactites. International club music changed to techno beats after a while and the thickening crowd made it difficult to breathe. I only lasted two hours, Im ashamed to report. The Farmer and I had to take a taxi home, unable to last to the 4am shuttle back to the resort.

On Saturday, the Farmer had his dream trip out to the deep sea for some fishing. Unfortunately, within twenty minutes of boarding the boat, his Farmwife was hanging over the edge of the boat. There I remained for two hours. But I did see a whale, through teary eyes. That was cool.

It is now our last night and I know its time to go home because my worry brain has returned. I forgot to tell the girls not to give the horse too much grain. And I hope I have given them enough time to clean up after any partying they did in our absence, and that the barn is still standing. I apologize for the absence of apostrophes; this was written on a keyboard sticking with sunscreen in the resort Internet cafe.

Mastitis is not for chickens.

One of the ewes who lambed at New Year’s has mastitis. I found her one morning, in the back corner of the barn, her lamb at her side. Everyone else was outside at the feeder. She didn’t want to eat. I went and got the Farmer. He flipped her over, and revealed an udder that was swollen as hard as a bowling ball. No wonder she had no appetite. The lamb looked at me and baa’ed.

“No milk either, huh?”

I picked up the lamb and the ewe followed easily, with the shepherd’s crook around her neck. We put them in a warm lambing pen, juiced the ewe with Penicillin and fed the lamb a bottle of milk replacer, much against his will.

The two were sniffing at the sweetfeed and hay when we left them.

The next morning, the ewe hadn’t eaten so she got another shot of medicine and the lamb got another bottle. When I went in the barn that evening, the ewe greeted me. She was up, moving around, eating and drinking. I saw the lamb nurse. Everyone seems to be on the road to recovery. The ewe looked me right in the eye and baa’ed as she chewed her cud.

“I know. Hurts like hell, doesn’t it?”

I remember standing in a hot shower as a young mom, crying as my baby nursed. Those were my dairy days. I know what mastitis feels like.

A few nights later the other New Year’s lamb came running into the barn, baa’ing his fool head off. He looked around, searching the faces of the ewes around him. He couldn’t find his mother. I helped him look but I couldn’t find the ugly lamb squasher either. I caught the lamb and tried to feed him some of the bottle but he would have none of it. I told the Farmer.

“I’ll catch him and put him in with the other lamb. I’ll build them a creep. It’s time they were weaned anyway. They’re at six weeks.”

He put a gate up on blocks in the middle of the lambing pen up, and only the lambs could get under it. They feasted on sweet feed all day, until a bunch of ewes busted in the door and the little lamb escaped.

This time he found his mother, but it was still time to wean him so I tackled him and picked him up. It was like picking up a pot-bellied pig. He was hea-vy. That sweet feed had really fattened him up. Back to the barn.

As I was doing my sheep tackling and transporting, I had some unsolicited assistance. Donkey and Misty were hot on my trail. I could feel the big Belgian’s breath on my neck. The horse reached around and put her heavy nose on the lamb in my arms. She seemed to be trying to push the bawling lamb out of my arms.

“No!” I shouted at her, and she stopped. Misty snorted before tossing her mane as if to say, “I don’t care.” I watched as the horse and donkey backed away. Misty was looking quite portly, but that could just be her winter coat. I’m not convinced she looks eight months pregnant. I guess we’ll find out eventually. But for now, we have a stethoscope that we borrowed from the family nurse, and we’re going to see what if we can google “how to find a foal heartbeat.”