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Thursday, September 29, 2011

The great and noble steed, Donkey.

Donkey, your grey is showing

“I wonder how old Donkey is?” the Farmer mused one morning. He bought Donkey in 2007, just before we were married and I came to live at the farm. We don’t really have any idea of the animal’s true age. He is starting to look a little greyer, if that is possible. And he has some white whiskers around the nose.
The Farmer first got Donkey after a round of coyote attacks took a number of his sheep. After Donkey arrived and began creating strategically placed piles of manure around the property, the coyotes stayed away. For the next couple of years we had very few coyote kills. Then, in 2009, the Farmer bought me two Belgian horses for Valentines Day. Donkey thought it was The Arrival of the Supermodels. Tall and blonde, with attitude to spare, they led Donkey around the pasture by the nose. Suddenly distracted by and preoccupied with the horses, Donkey wasn’t hanging around the sheep any longer. The coyotes started attacking again. We decided to put the horses in with the sheep, so that Donkey could at least be in the appropriate location for doing his job. That resulted in Donkey teaching the horses a new game, called “chase and bite sheep until they make a funny noise”. This earned Donkey a weighted halter so that he couldn’t run after the sheep. The sheep-terrorizing ended.
In March 2009, we lost Ashley. It was a very traumatic experience for all of us. We let Misty sniff Ashley’s body so that she would know she was gone, but still for days afterward the big blonde horse would thunder up and down the pasture, tossing her mane and whinnying for her sister. Ashley had been the older sister, and the leader of the two horses. She went into the stable first, and answered her master’s call first. Misty was always the follower. And now she had lost her leader. About a week after Ashley’s death, Misty looked around and there he was: Donkey. Just like that, she made the little mischief-making ragamuffin her leader.
When Donkey went to the barn, Misty went to the barn. When Donkey went out to the pasture, Misty followed. When Donkey broke through the gate to eat my flowers and visit the neighbours in the front yard, Misty followed. She wouldn’t enter the stable without Donkey entering first. Donkey accepted his newfound celebrity with some bewilderment. The first few times I fed him hay in the stable, I had to convince him he was allowed to eat it. As the horse’s companion, he earned a heightened status on the farm. I could hear Donkey from Shrek: “she thinks I’m a noble steed...”
Together they have spent the past year and a half eating, sleeping, wandering the fields and rolling in the dirt, together. I watch them communicate telepathically. I don’t know what Misty would do without Donkey. There is nothing sadder than a lonely horse.
“I think Donkey is getting old. I don’t know if he could fight a coyote if he came across one,” the Farmer said. The other day Donkey was just lying in the middle of the field, asleep. That’s not like him. He usually stands to sleep.
I went out and called Donkey over to the fence. I waved a big red apple over my head and eagle eye saw it. But he didn’t come running, or trotting, and he definitely didn’t kick his feet up behind him as he would have a year ago. He wandered over, veeeerrry slowly. I fed him the apple and then surprised him with a plum. I gave him a good scratch between his huge velvet ears. I told him he was a good, good boy. Misty walked up to see what we were up to. She isn’t a fan of apples but took a bite anyway, just to share.
The next day, I heard thunder and whinnying. Misty was running up and down the field. When I called her, she stopped and stared down the pasture. I immediately thought of Donkey. Had he been bitten by a coyote? Was he just lying out there somewhere, all alone? I pulled on my pink rubber boots and started trotting down the field, huge horse on my tail. A couple of times she ran past me, too close for comfort. “Jeez Misty, watch it!” I yelled. Then I realized she was trying to herd me in. Suddenly she turned and kicked up her heels—twice—as she ran toward the barn. I guess she had heard something.
Upon entering the barn, I realized with relief that Donkey was not hurt. He was just being his mischievous self. He had broken the board that bars him from entering the sheep room. As Misty and I walked in, he snorted at us from his privileged position, chewing on hay that he had stolen from the storage.
I called him over, smacked him on the butt, and replaced the board with a hammer and two seriously bent nails. Misty whinnied and gave Donkey a little nip on the shoulder.
I’m glad the old boy is ok. And I think Misty is too.

The never-boring Farmwife life

I was never so bored as when I lived in Taipei City, Taiwan. I’m one of those annoyingly optimistic morning people but I would wake up on a Saturday and think, ‘now what’?? Sure, I could go shopping or to the gym or the movies or an art show or a museum...but it was just observing. It wasn’t doing. It wasn’t living, as far as I was concerned. Now I live on a farm, and I enjoy every minute of my day because there is always something going on. Something real. Something fulfilling and exciting.
Many cityfolk imagine life on the farm to be uneventful and boring. This is not the case. Let me tell you about my week. First, I had to catch two of my barn cats and fast them overnight for their spay operation. I baited the cages and caught one relatively tame cat and one that was quite wild. All night long I could hear the wild cat, captive in the powder room. It repeatedly threw its body against the door in an attempt to get out. At one point I peeked in and it was scaling the side of the mirror. We were both up for most of the night. In the morning, I opened the door and it ran up my body, jumped over my head and scooted down the hall. I decided it was too stressful to deal with that cat, and I let it go.
The next day, I had to take our gentle-yet-dumb Gordon Setter and our extremely high-strung Border Collie to the municipal rabies clinic. I hung a sheet in the Explorer between the back seat and the cargo area so the two dogs couldn’t see each other. They could smell and hear each other of course, so that just drove them nuts. The anxiety had the fur flying and my car was covered in an inch of dog hair by the time we drove the 15 minutes to town. Once at the clinic, Andy Parent (animal control officer) came out and helped me to muzzle Chelsea so that the vet could give her the shot. I am still amazed that I accomplished this entire feat with no one being bitten and I didn’t have to drive with a wild dog on my head.
On Thursday night, we were informed that our bull was on its way home from the farm where it had been doing its summer breeding. When Dennis the drover backed the cattle truck up to the fence, the cows all started running toward the gate, bawling and mooing. They knew someone was either comin’ or goin’. Young Angus hopped out of the truck onto the ground and cautiously entered the barnyard. It took him about 5 minutes to realize he was home. The last time I saw him, he was standing in the middle of the pasture, surrounded by his four wives and four children.
Saturday, our middle daughter announced her engagement to her longtime beau. This is exciting news for everyone in our family, though we aren’t really surprised. And we went to my high school reunion Saturday evening. On Sunday, we were brought back down to Earth when the Farmer discovered that a coyote had killed another of our lambs.
Sunday afternoon I met many readers of this column at the Kemptville Farmers’ Market. Thanks for taking the time to stop by and say hello. It has been a good week. Full, and eventful, and worth waking up for. Every single morning.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Mocha's sweet tooth brings trouble

If one of our cows breaks out of the fenced pasture, the rest of the group start bawling and mooing until the escapee returns. We sleep with a fan on at the other side of the house, so we don’t hear much barnyard activity at night. Our neighbours, however, have a front row seat to the excitement. At 2 in the morning, the runaway cow was in their back yard.
All of the noise had Julie thinking that one of the cows was being attacked. The mooing and moaning continued intermittently throughout the wee hours of the morning, probably eliciting a stream of nightmares for our neighbours. Finally, at 7am, Julie called to tell me that one of our bulls was in her yard. I assured her that we didn’t have a bull on the farm right now so not to worry—and the one we had was a big pussycat anyway—but I would be right over.
The Farmer and I jumped into our farm gear and he headed out the driveway while I went through the barnyard to shut off the electric fence. Julie and the Farmer cornered the cow who turned out to be Mocha, our tame three-year-old. I grabbed a bucket of sweet feed, opened the gate and shook the grain, calling the cow’s name. Her head popped up from the long grass and she came bounding over the meadow like a pup. Soon she was back in the barnyard, happily snarfing down her reward. The Farmer just shook his head.
On my way back through the stable barn that acts as a gateway to the barnyard, I found a huge fresh cowplop. Mocha had obviously been trying to return to the barnyard on her own during the night. I argued in her defense that she wasn’t such a bad cow after all.
The Farmer grumbled that he would have to walk the perimeter of the cow pasture before work, to find the spot where Mocha broke through the electric fence. He found it, at the very back corner of the three fields that we have sectioned off for the cows. In an attempt to reach a fragrant apple tree heavy with fruit on the other side of the barrier, Mocha had crushed the fence against the live wire, thus rendering it ineffective. Then she had gingerly stepped over it and feasted on the apples. After her snack, she probably wasn’t sure how to re-enter the field so she had followed a path through the forest, up along the side of the pasture toward the road. There she had entered the neighbours’ property, probably sending all of their various exotic showdogs into a barking frenzy.
The Farmer did a quick repair of the fence, with the plan to return and fix it properly on the weekend.
The next day we got another call. Mocha was in the front field again, next to the neighbours’ house. She appeared to be eating something on the ground beside the silage bales. Apples. The perfume had attracted her to her new favourite treat.
“If this cow cannot stay inside an electric fence, we will have to sell her,” the Farmer warned. We both felt bad that the cow kept disturbing the neighbours. It’s a good thing that Julie still finds the farm animals “enchanting”, because she often discovers a wandering bovine, Donkey or turkey in her yard.
Mocha is my favourite cow. I hate to think of her going to market so soon. I had planned to keep her for years, allowing her to contribute to the propagation of our growing herd. “Maybe we just need to re-do the wire to move it farther away from the fence,” I suggested. “And the apples will all be gone soon anyway.” If we put up a bale of whiskey-scented silage in the cow’s feeder I’m sure Mocha will stay home.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Summer drifts out on the sunset

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”  ~Albert Camus

The flowerbeds that I was stressing over a month ago are now bursting at the edgings with hosta and sedums, chrysanthemums and lavatera. Even the weeds look good. But then, is there such a thing as a weed? I think they’re all just wildflowers gone astray. Unsolicited sowings.
Now that autumn is almost here, I am going to take a brave shovel to my cramped perennials and split them. I’m going to move them around to give them more space, and then I’m going to dump heaps of composted sheep manure around each planting to keep the weeds down. That’s my plan. I love nothing more in the fall than to move plants and rocks around. It gives me a true sense of satisfaction. And those heavy wheelbarrow loads do wonders for the arm muscles.
For those of you who are mourning the end of summer, consider this. In September, you can actually get into the garden without fear of being carried off by a swarm of mosquitoes. The soft, refracted rays of the sun carry plenty of vitamin D with far less danger of sunburn or heat stroke. The evening breezes are much more conducive to a good night’s sleep. I love the fall.
Everyone seems to have more energy in autumn. Business picks up again, and it’s a new year for students at every level. Families are shape-shifting as little ones go to kindergarten for the first time and high school graduates head off into the real world to find their own way. It’s a season of change and new beginnings. In many ways it is even more invigorating than spring time.
For the farm animals, fall must be their favourite season. There are less bugs and the midday sun doesn’t send them running to the cool mud of the barn. The sheep and cattle wallow in the breeze, sometimes lying down to eat, Roman-style.
My holiday-bearded, sun-bronzed Farmer has morphed into a clean-cut university professor again and I am left to do the morning chores on my own, for the most part. After feeding my cats and checking on Rambo in his lock-up I love to wrap a blanket around my shoulders and sit on the back porch as I sip my green tea, watching the sheep on their diagonal path to pasture before I start my day at the computer.
The freezers are full of free-run chickens (email me if you want some!), and the turkeys (named Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving) are almost ready to head off “on holiday” themselves. Tomatoes litter the ground of our garden and we have potatoes, carrots, parsnips and beets to dry and put away for Sunday dinners to come.  The Farmer (Head Farm Chef) and I will fight over the tomatoes, as he wants them for spaghetti sauce and I want them for fresh salsa.
We are so busy this time of year; it makes me wonder what we do all winter. We will experience a momentary lull between Thanksgiving and Easter, when no lambs are born (well, there might be a couple) and the only real farming activity will be keeping feeders full of hay and water troughs free of ice. I’m looking forward to that quiet too, as I have a book to finish. 
Dad would have been 70 years old this weekend. That’s really hard to believe. He always used to say he wasn’t going back to teaching until his birthday had past. That worked out for him most years; not all. I’m sure he will be present in spirit as we roam the halls of our alma mater one last time at the North Grenville District High School reunion on September 17th. I’m looking forward to seeing many of you there.

Life is meant for living

The Farmer finished up his holidays by watering a stone. He was watering the stone to loosen it from the ground so that he could pick it out and move it from the front lawn. Problem is, the stone is like an iceberg. The part you can see is only a fraction of what lies beneath. That’s one of the things I love about my husband. He is curious, and he likes a challenge. At least he doesn’t get bored and start asking me to entertain him. Nope, he can entertain himself just fine.
I didn’t have such a great week. I decided to try one of those herbal detox pills that is supposed to help you lose a little bit of water weight, while cleansing your insides a bit at the same time. High school reunion coming up and all, you know. After just one dose, I began to question my judgment. Went to the computer and googled the thing. All the reviews were positive, but they did warn against side effects. After the second full day of suffering, feeling as though my insides were slowly being liquefied, I was feeling pretty sheepish for worrying about my weight enough to try something that was obviously unsafe. And then I spoke to someone else who said that my symptoms were very typical reactions to detoxification. So I wasn’t so dumb after all. But I decided the one dose was enough for me. I think I’ll stay toxic for now, until advised otherwise by a medical professional. Oh well. I shouldn’t be so hard on the old bod. At least she’s healthy.
Which is more than I can say for one of our old ewes. This girl is solid, but her girth can work against her. She toppled over on her back—and I don’t know which event happened first but at some point she was bitten on the face, probably by a coyote. The Farmer first noticed the turkey vultures circling overhead. That is never a good sign. He later found the ewe belly-up, spindly feet kicking the air, and had to slowly roll her back over and wait until her insides settled before he could lift her up onto the trailer and move her to a safe pen in the barn for recovery. I went to see her shortly afterwards. Her face and neck were swollen, her body was still slightly lopsided from the tumble, and she had a rather traumatized look in her eye. I can just imagine what was going through her head as she lay on her back, helpless, watching the vultures circling over her, waiting. Hopefully she couldn’t see or hear them. Now I go into the barn twice a day to feed her sweet grain while spraying her wounds with antiseptic. She will be ok.
Our little lamb is not ok. At three weeks of age, we have lost the little guy who went to cottage with us—the lamb who depended on me as his only source of food. I did the best I could to replace his mother and he appeared so strong—running over the field, scooting under the fence and up onto the back porch of the house, calling to me—but he didn’t make it. It’s been a rough week.
I only lost 3 pounds on that detox diet and I’m pretty sure the eating and drinking at our 4th Annual Fisher Farm Party will put that weight back on. But that’s okay. Life is meant for living.