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Friday, July 26, 2013

Eating us out of house and home

We have a horse who likes to eat wood. She nibbles on her stall. She eats the rungs off the ladder going up to the loft. She ate the bark off all the trees down the tractor lane and she chewed on the shelves of a cabinet in the barn until it fell apart. Now she’s started working on the beams. If we don’t find a solution soon, she’ll bring the hayloft down.

Most horses like to chew. Sometimes it means they are deficient in some mineral. Other times it is because they are bored.

When I posted my problem on Facebook, I got lots of advice from both horsey and non-horsey people. The most common solutions involved wiping down the wood areas with some sort of lemony soap, Absorbine Jr., chili sauce or hemlock solution. Anything bitter or nasty tasting, I guess. The Farmer has already tried spraying the area with his own icky concoction, and it worked to some extent. But now the biting seems to be getting worse.

Now that all of our girls have moved out and we are realigning our budgets, thinking of retirement and trying to eliminate debt, we have to take a serious look at the farm. On the farm, everything has a purpose. The barn cats are here because they (theoretically) keep the barn free of rodents of any kind. The pheasants, turkeys and chickens will be sold for meat. The male lambs are sold for meat and the females are kept to build up the herd. Same for the cows: the males go and the females stay. We keep the rams and bull(s) to impregnate the females of the species. The sheepdog guards the barn area and helps to herd the sheep. The house dog guards the house. The donkey guards the sheep and wards off coyotes. Have I missed anyone? Oh yeah. The horse. She is pretty much a glorified pet. Which is why the Farmer says she is the first to go.

At first I thought, ok, we had her for a few years but neither one of us is very comfortable around horses, we don’t know how to train her and without being able to trail ride or get her to pull anything, she doesn’t really have a purpose here. Maybe we should let her go to someone who knows what they are doing with horses, and will appreciate her strength, intelligence and beauty.

Halfway through that first night I woke up and thought, I can’t do it. I can’t sell my horse. What if something happens to her? What if she misses Donkey? Yes, she could end up somewhere really great with a lot of other horses and she could be really happy. But what if she isn’t?

I asked the Farmer how much it costs to keep Misty. He said, not counting the clumps of hay she tosses on the ground for a bed, she eats about 10 round bales or about $500 worth of hay per year. That’s when she isn’t on pasture. And her hoof trims and any other miscellaneous items don’t cost much either. I told him I can’t give her up. We bought her and her sister a few years ago, from an elderly farmer who couldn’t look after them anymore. We promised them a forever home. We lost her sister, in a freak situation where she got a fever in a wet week in March, and died within 15 minutes of being given a shot of antibiotic by the vet. Ashley could have been allergic to the penicillin, or she could have died from chewing something toxic. In any case, it was a real blow to all of us. Misty looked for her sister for days. Weeks, even. Finally she turned around and spotted Donkey. And named him her inseparable confidante. Her right-hand man. Her hero and her best friend.

I can’t sell Misty and separate her from Donkey. And so, we will just have to find somewhere else to cut corners. Like maybe the sheep. It could be time to cut down the herd and start concentrating on the cattle, which are considerably easier to raise.

But then Chicken Milkface comes to the fence and bawls at me. And I think, oh, this is going to be hard. I don’t want to say goodbye to my lamb either.


Pheasant stealer on the loose.

We keep losing pheasants. Now, pheasants are fussy little critters to begin with. When you get them, they are each about the size of a loonie. You put them in a coop full of hay and they immediately burrow underneath the bedding, where they are in danger of getting stepped on. So you make them a smaller, contained unit and as they grow you expand its borders. You also have to make sure to keep their coop draft-free. Hang blankets in the windows for the first few weeks to cover the cracks, at least until warmer spring weather arrives. After a couple of seasons raising pheasants, we have figured out how to keep them alive. For the most part.

We have chicken wire in the corners of the log-barn chicken coop, to keep the feathered creatures in and the furry creatures out. But somewhere on our farm, there is a little Houdini pheasant-stealer. We have no idea how he is getting in – or getting the pheasants out. He must be shimmying down a wire from the ceiling and then shimmying back up again, pheasants in hand and mouth. He leaves no trace. The numbers just keep dwindling. We started with about 50 chicks when we started in early spring, I think. Now we are down to just 7.

On occasion, we catch thieves in the act of stealing turkeys and chickens from the bigger pen, which is wide open to the rest of the barn. The selected snacks are found in the aisle, sometimes with marks on them, as someone removed them none-too-gently from the safety of their pens. These birds, though saved from death because they are just too awkward to carry, have to be quarantined from the other birds until their wounds heal, or they might get attacked and killed by their own kind, in a weird survival-of-the-fittest practice.

I don’t have much to do with the birds on our farm. I find them smelly, and the chickens like to peck my ankles. I don’t mind the turkeys – they are polite and quite sociable. I am sorry to hear the pheasants are disappearing but I am even less likely to head into their coop to check on them now, for fear of encountering a murder scene or some scary biting weasel-like creature.

The Farmer has seen skunks and raccoons in the barn in the past, but they are usually pretty easy to spot. Whoever has been stealing our pheasants is much more elusive. At first, the blame was being directed at my colony of barn cats. They get a big scoop of food to share each day and they certainly aren’t starving, but their food of choice is always fresh rodents around the farm. After all, that’s why we have barn cats. So that I don’t ever have to see a rat and the Farmer doesn’t have to come across one of those long slithery things that rhymes with ‘cake’.

I told the Farmer that my cats are not interested in chasing and killing his penned birds. They prefer a good chase on an equal playing field. It’s all about the hunt for them. Besides, if they had killed his birds, it is far more likely that the tiny little bird offerings would end up on my back porch, right beside my shoes, as trophies or offerings. I could tell the Farmer was considering this theory and coming to agreement with me. So if it wasn’t the barn cats, who was it?

Then one day the pheasant-stealer, like all criminals in the end, made a fatal mistake. He left a tiny tuft of black fur on some of the chicken wire. A-ha! It’s probably a skunk, albeit a scentless one. Usually we can track the comings and goings of skunks on the farm by following their distinctive perfume wafting through the air. This one seems to have learned to mask his odour somehow, at least while he is in the pheasant-stealing act.

And so my cats are off the hook. As I watch them wandering past the back porch on their way to the mouse-filled meadow, I mentally catalog their colours. Dilute calico orange, grey and white; grey tabby; brown tabby; white with grey spots. Not a black one in the bunch.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Accidental Sales Rep's Wife...?

 The Farmer has obtained his real estate license. This is a great achievement, after months of study, but it is more than that. It’s a new phase of life.

In the past seven years since I have been partnered with The Farmer, we have already experienced many phases of life. Most of the job-related ones have been mine, because as a writer, I have been rather transient. I came home from 3 years in Asia, lived at my parents’ house for a few months until my father started dropping hints that it was time for me and my brood to find a nest of our own. So we moved into a townhouse. Then it was one job after another until I finally found my niche at the radio station.

The Farmer and I didn’t live together until we were married, about fifteen months after our first date. That day, life changed forever, for the better of course. It was a bit of a shock, though, waking up in the farmhouse and realizing I was married not only to a college professor but a sheep farmer. I was a Farmwife. Manure would be involved in my regular routine.

Then the kids had to ‘find their corners’. A couple moved out, a couple moved in, and one visited often. The Farmer and I learned not to get too attached to the elusive creatures known as our daughters. Even those living with us were rarely home and when they were, they were happily ensconced in their rooms, listening to strange music. Just this past weekend the last of the five moved out. This time she took furniture so it’s probably going to last. All that is left is a crumpled collage of rockstar and superhero posters on the wall, and a closet full of discarded clothing that is going to make some new owner very happy.

With the acquisition of this new title of Real Estate Agent, The Farmer has reclaimed one of the girls’ bedrooms. He painted over the pink walls with a colour like sun-kissed sand, hung a few pictures and a map of property zones. He’s a large man so it took him a while to find the right desk but now it looks like it was made for that room. The window blind is always up and he has a view of the pasture. I must admit there is pretty good feng shuei going on in there.

It took us a few days to get the kinks out of the Internet at home, because The Farmer has considerably less patience than I do for slow, stalling and freezing wireless services. He seems to have mastered his very first smart phone in record time, and we tease him because now he is the one who keeps picking up his phone and looking at it when he’s supposed to be paying attention to something else. Like our youngest daughter’s graduation services. Or the Canada Day fireworks.

Facebook is a whole new world for him too. He had a personal profile on there before but rarely used it. Now he needs it for business purposes, so I will be introducing him to some of my 1000+ friends to get him started.

With his college retirement just a few years away, now is the time for him to slowly transition into real estate. He has taught business for over twenty years, and built four houses himself. When I was taking my real estate courses (I made it to part three and then gave up!) he was very interested. With a mind for math and marketing, the lessons were right up his alley.

Not much will change for us on the home front, except the occasional dinner time might be interrupted by a sales call or appointment.  I might have to pitch in to cook Sunday dinner sometime too. He will have to let me into his kitchen if he has to go and host an open house somewhere.

At the end of the day, the farm is always there. Season after season it brings new challenges and routines that mark the passage of time. It’s a relief to come home from a stressful day at work to walk among the animals and do something simple like pitching hay.

And I am still The Accidental Farmwife, because The Accidental Real Estate Agent’s Wife just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Welcome to "The Do Drop Inn"

I think there is something about living on a farm that makes you want to share it with other people. We have about 18 to 20 dinner guests at our extended table every Sunday afternoon, and they aren’t all family. Many of them are ‘honorary’ family members and friends. We feel very blessed to have them share a meal at the end of the week with us.

Occasionally we will also have unexpected visitors. These are a nice surprise. We have had one of my Taipei friends stay with us for a couple days on his way through Ontario a few summers back, and the photos he took of the animals and the farm that weekend are a beautiful reminder of his stay. The images show us the farm through a visitor’s eyes. Sometimes we forget that a tired ewe has peace in her eyes, and a weathered piece of barn board can be beautiful. Showing visitors around the farm forces us to slow down and have another look.

We have also had visiting hunters on our farm. Some of them are invited by The Farmer, because the outdoor experience is always more enjoyable when shared with someone who appreciates nature as much as you do. I get a little nervous when I see the Farmer’s white-collar troupe of hunters heading out to the bush (the scientist, the professor, the veterinarian and naturalist), but as long as they are all facing in different directions I guess no one is in real danger. Eddie the Englishman is the most impressive sight, with his formal hunting tweeds and antique gun.

I once invited some Cree hunters to our neck of the Eastern Ontario woods, because there was a shortage of geese in theirs. Imagine my surprise when six of them took me up on my offer, and a cavalcade of pick-up trucks loaded with coolers and hunting equipment showed up in our yard one night. Those hunters brought their wives, children and a couple of elders with them for the trip. The women plucked the geese and prepared meals for the men while the elders gave advice and told stories. I spent the weekend making beds, doing laundry and dishes. I missed out on most of the stories because I wasn’t in the goose-plucking shed, but I just couldn’t stand the smell of fresh goose.

Since that first contingent of 15, we had regular Cree visitors for several hunting seasons. I guess the word got out around the Northern Quebec communities when that first group came back with a truckload – about eighty – Canada Geese. They shared the meat with their family and friends and made plans to return to the bountiful region of Eastern Ontario. But when strange men I had never met or heard of kept showing up late at night, hungry and needing a bed for the night, I eventually had to put my foot down and say, ‘the Fisher Farm Inn is closed’. Instead I gave them the address of the McIntosh Inn in Morrisburg, where they could hunt along the St. Lawrence River in happiness.

Recently we had musical guests at the radio station who ended up being stranded for a few hours without their ride, in between appointments. When I noticed their eyes were at half mast I offered them the floor of the studio loft for a nap. An hour later it was time for lunch and they were still tired so I called the Farmer. He let me bring the whole band home to the farm for the afternoon, so they could rest up for their show at The Branch. I’m sure my daughter thinks I’m quite strange, bringing musicians home and putting them down for naps in the spare room. When they woke up three hours later they took a dip in the pool and enjoyed the sight and sounds of the sheep coming in from the pasture at the end of the day. I was proud to be able to share my little slice of paradise with these wandering minstrels. I believe one of them said he is writing a song about it.

I’m lucky the Farmer likes entertaining guests at the farm too. He especially loves to feed them. I think we have the same opinion; that things are much more enjoyable when you share them with others. That includes the beautiful, peaceful existence of life on the farm.


Nosey the cat.

The Farmwife herds a cat.

I was sitting at The Branch Restaurant the other night after work, having a rather high-brow conversation about the etymology of certain well-used phrases in common English. Sayings that we use while having no idea what they mean or where they came from. For example, “rule of thumb.” I was most shocked to discover that this saying, which we use as a sort of measurement of logic, comes from the rule that it was ok for a man to beat his wife with a stick if said stick was smaller than the width of his thumb.

When I taught English to business professionals in Asia, they wanted explanations for the slang that they saw in emails from their Western associates overseas. I had to look them up before explaining them, of course. We know how to use these sayings (in most cases), but we don’t always know what they mean. I had to explain a cash cow and putting the cart before the horse, as many of my ESL students were quite concerned that they didn’t own farm animals of any type, yet their business respondents kept referring to them.

George (at The Branch, the other night) explained that “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” refers to the practice of checking a horse’s teeth when you buy it. If the horse is a gift, don’t check the teeth. Much like assessing the value of a gift in front of the giver, that’s just rude. It’s a gift. Just take it, with gratitude.

George also explained the saying “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.” It has a rather bold connotation (especially when voiced by someone like my Dad) but what it really refers to is the ‘brass monkey’ that held the cannon balls on a war ship. When it was really cold, the balls would fall off the structure.

Today the Farmer and I discovered the true meaning of “it’s more difficult than herding cats”. Farm cats – the feral type – are so wild you never really know how they are going to react in any given situation. Sometimes I think even they don’t know how they will react. The barn cat who came in and pronounced herself a housecat, fondly known as Sheila, has been a very well behaved cat. I speak to her and she seems to understand. She even responds accordingly. She doesn’t like to be picked up but is fond of sitting right next to her humans and being petted. Sheila was probably the worst behaved cat of them all when sent to the vet to be fixed. Although she didn’t have to be caught in a live trap and caged for transport like the feral cats did, she was the only one of the bunch to twist around and bite the vet when she was trying to give her a shot.

So when the female barn cat known as Nosey showed up one day with a huge swelling on the side of her face, I was pretty worried. Outdoor cats get infections and swellings all the time because they get into tiffs with the other cats in their colony and take a scratch or two from a dirty claw. When the scratch is healing it itches and they scratch it again with their own dirty claw, leading to an infection and a swelling the size of a golf ball or worse.

I’ve seen this before, but it was on a cat who would actually let me touch and treat her wound. Nosey, although pleasant, meek and mild, will not allow anyone to touch her. I had to lock her in the basement, wait until the wound opened on its own, and then catch her in a fishing net to treat it. I held the net down and screamed for the Farmer. He helped me to hold her down and treat her. She got a head-to-toe once-over with antiseptic on her wound, an antibiotic and flea spray for good measure. She did protest once – first time I’ve ever heard her voice; I thought she was mute – and she did try to wriggle out of the net but she didn’t try to bite. Faced with this experience, Nosey showed she is all flight and no fight, for which I am truly grateful. Now she will stay in the basement with her food and water, sleeping in the living room of the dollhouse, until her wound is completely healed.

And for her good behaviour, she might get a few extra cat treats.

Enjoy Canada Day; hopefully it won’t be “raining cats and dogs” on July 1st.