To stay or not to stay?

About one month after I quit my job in Regina and two weeks after I arrived back home, my husband got notified his services were no longer needed where he worked. Needless to say, our stress level went up. We were lucky enough that he got offered a part-time job in the fall that quickly turned into full time work. However, the job is only a one year replacement position, so we are now faced with the potential of neither of us being gainfully employed after June 26th. Not a big deal for some, but when you live in a small, remote town where there are few, or no, job prospects, it is: we are once again faced with the dilemma of whether or not to start looking for work outside the valley.

Unfortunately, it is not just the lack of jobs that begs this question.

Yesterday, I went to talk with the neighbour who lost the three beautiful dogs to the cougar a couple of weeks ago (see Cougar capers begin again). Since this fatal attack, they too are contemplating whether to stay: “Leaving was never a topic for discussion before this.” To say the least, the loss of the dogs has put a bad taste in their mouths for the moment; he showed me where the dogs were killed, stashed and eaten–and also where the grizzly bears show up each year! He worries constantly about his animals (not to mention his children!); he told me of the myriad battles he had, last summer alone, with different wild predators trying to kill one form of livestock or other. “One night I had 5 grizzly bears in the yard…right over there.” He pointed to a fence-rail that bordered the chicken coop just 30 yards from his house. Frighteningly, this was not an uncommon theme last summer; there were several reports of 5-7 grizzlies in people’s yards at once, unwilling to move off even when shot at!

We talked about the lifestyle we were both committed to, and the pros and cons of achieving it here. Then we commiserated about the fact there is work here for only one of them, as a couple. He laughed as he told me he thought farming would save them money–it doesn’t. “It would be cheaper to go buy the stuff from the store–even the organic.” He tells me about making mozzarella cheese from the local milk that he bought, and realizing that after all that work, he could have bought a bigger block of organic mozza from the local store for the same price he paid for the milk! He has tried to make a living on the farm in a variety of ways but doesn’t see any way of making it. He even bought a saw-mill, but the price of lumber is now too cheap to make even that pay–and that’s when he has his own trees to fall!

Despite the fact he’s not ‘making a living’, he is doing amazing things on his farm. He’s raising lamb, chicken, and beef for his family, growing a vegetable garden and raising fruit trees. They buy in wheat and make their own bread. At one time they kept a dairy cow and made all sorts of milk products but when she died they didn’t bother to replace her–too much work for one man. Besides, they found another source they could access. They keep two llamas for the fibre and–he tells me, not inconsequentially–the poop! Apparently llama poop is like gold for the garden: you can put it straight on the veggies and it won’t burn them. As if that was not reason enough to recommend llamas, their poop comes weed-seed free!

On top of all that he’s doing on the farm, he managed to grow a decent crop of wheat in what is supposedly a very marginal area for wheat–something I’m quite envious of and interested in doing. I took over my two samples of wheat to compare. Beyond the ‘hard red wheat’ identification of the label on the original bag, he has no idea what kind he’s grown. It appears to be neither of the two kinds I had: the Marquis and Red Fife. I’m curious to know what kind of wheat it is, because it certainly did a lot better than my experimental plot of Marquis last year–and last summer was nothing to write home about. His wheat resembled the Red Fife most closely, but had a much deeper, richer color–it is very beautiful.

While I look out at his field of ‘wheat to be’ (this year he’s going to grow two green manure crops to enrich the soil and not plant wheat again until next year), I am envious of his space. It has always been my dream to grow a field of wheat. The way my place is laid out presently, there is no room for a field of dreams! Since we bought the place we have not taken down any of the trees in the front half of the property. We’ve worked within the space that was already cleared but have now utilized nearly every square inch. So something has to give. For one thing I want my own field of wheat, and another–the predators. I want to feel safer on my property. So we plan to clear some of the front half (about 1.5 acres) and fence it. I’m hoping it will push the predators further from the house, and encourage them to go around the property instead of through it as they do now.

I tell my neighbour about my plans to clear some trees, fence in more of my property, and generally limb up trees to provide better visibility. He nods and says he’s going to do more of that himself. He has two small children at home and no longer feels safe on his own land: “They can’t be outside without one of us.”  I ask if he’s going to get more dogs and he shakes his head. “I can’t justify the cost of getting more dogs to work like those ones did. I lost $4000 in dogs in three nights–actually much more than that, when you taken all their training into consideration.” We talk about the heartache of losing them and our love of living with dogs in general. They will get one family dog but it will come in at night, so it is safe. Sadly, this will leave his farm animals unprotected. Without saying this explicitly, he sighs as his eyes survey the paddocks with the various grazing animals, “If we have a year like last summer…”

He says he likes spending time in the wilderness, but in places where you don’t have to worry about bears and cougars; he laments the fact that he can’t take his children hiking here. As he says this he pauses to consider the towering mountains surrounding us and laughs, “Actually, we are probably safer out hiking in the mountains than we are standing right here on my land among my animals! There are probably various sets of eyes watching us right now.” I know he’s right. I’ve got those same eyes looking at my place. I’ve seen them reflect back at me when I shine my flashlight at night after the dog has alerted me to the direction of their presence.

I find contemplating these sorts of realities depressing. This is my home, my dream-life and I don’t want to leave. But I do have do consider that there may be easier–and much safer–places to live. I have to consider whether or not this place will ever satisfy the farmer in me, or if I’ll have to keep relying on my husband to earn money that supplements the food I’m producing (with the losses from predation, this place has, thus far, been impossible to make pay for its running costs). Then there is the further investment of clearing land, fencing it off, and more housing to keep the animals safe. Another friend of mine was lamenting the fact she had to spend $1000 to build a chicken coop. I wish I had those kinds of cost worries! (A grizzly bear would smack that structure apart in one swipe.)

I wax and wane in enthusiasm for this place. Mostly, I love it. After all, it was my dream for over 15 years to live here.  I do wonder about whether or not to forget growing food for others and simply homestead, as my neighbour friend is. I am not sure I can let the desire to farm go, but as we both get older and the predator question becomes more and more ridiculous, I find myself rethinking the wisdom of staying. As my neighbour agreed, the most outspoken people on the predator question often have no clue about the realities of living with these creatures. They don’t grow their own food so they don’t address all the issues; instead, the wild animal issue has become largely sentimentalized.

As I bid my farewell, my neighbour leaves me to consider the question he and his family are pondering: “With all these wild animals right at our doorstep and the general population against our right to defend ourselves, is this any way to live?”

Post Script:

I am aware that there may be economic opportunities that I’m too blind to see. Thus, I am open to suggestions as to how I could make this work; ideas, suggestions welcomed.

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14 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Cougars, Learning to Farm, Locavore, Politicking with predators, Sustainable Farming

14 responses to “To stay or not to stay?

  1. It sounds like “place” is important enough to you to tough it out. Is there any way you can take on wwoof-ers? Maybe having free help to clear the land and build the fence and a larger human presence will all work to keep the grizzlies at bay.

    I admire the “right livelihood” of homesteading. Even if you can buy mozzarella for less money, homesteaders are keepers of important traditions and skills. It seems like a luxury to pursue small scale production, and it’s hard work, but so magical and meaningful!!

    Best wishes!

  2. It’s a tough choice. I think small farms will always find it difficult to pay their way, the ‘civilised’ world has got far to used to cheap food, paid for by the sweat of third-world labour. Governments are built on the fact that food is cheap and affordable for the masses therefore they won’t do anything to help.

    Add to that the credit crunch…. I have no outside income on my place here so buying in stuff, be it machinery, fencing etc is a juggling act and seriously eating into my capital so access to a job for at least one of you is important.

    I guess though that if you did leave you would need to grow something, I think that once you’ve provided for yourself and /or others it feeds the soul and becomes a part of you but then again I’m lucky I don’t have the dangerous predator problem. Wild boar are really the only risk and I’ve not actually seen one yet although I’ve seen the crop damage they inflict on various properties around here.

    Is there anywhere else that has similar look and feel to where you live but without the cougars and bears? I don’t have a feel for the size of where you are – moving from the UK to France was one big jump in the distance needed to travel before the landscape/animal population changed, I guess it’s another order of magnitude around you.

    Time to mull I think – I find that fate (being open to other opportunities) quite often kicks in as long as I don’t get to stressed and can let my mind wander about freely mulling over the problem.
    Wishing you all the best,
    Deborah

  3. I hope you have an easier time of things than your neighbour, clearing some of the trees sounds like an excellent idea, for both the empty (predator-free) space and the extra room for growing.

    Personally, my thing is about producing for my own table, with only the surplus being sold on. It’ll never make money, but it won’t lose me any money either. But it does mean that my OH has to work full time and it also means I’m working long hours with nothing to show for it, especially if my veggies fail or, as has happened this year, I don’t get any piglets. I’ve now got to buy in some weaners so we can have our meat, even though I’m paying the feed and bedding for animals who are giving nothing back.

    It’s not easy, our lifestyle, and yours certainly has added problems, but there are ways around it. I’m useless at coming up with new ideas. Is worm farming a big thing in Canada? Holidays for bloggers?!

  4. Gone are the days when we can truly homestead! We do need a certain amount of money these days: to pay taxes, car insurance, medical and vet bills, and so on ad nauseam. Like my neighbour, I am trying to build something that generates an income in case something happens to the ‘other half’. It is all fine and dandy so long as he has a job and is well; but what if? While I wouldn’t starve, I would soon get kicked off my land for not paying taxes!
    Woofers need a place to live and that would be a huge investment. We have been pondering that for a while (and the idea of a B & B) but the change in the economy added to the major capital expense make me wonder if it wouldn’t be better to start again in a more ‘civilized’ part of the country–if not New Zealand! There are places in NZ that have the feel of this place but without the predators. Ironically the predators where part of the reason I wanted to come back home from NZ! I guess it’s the old ‘careful what you wish for’ biting me on the butt.
    Someone else recently suggested trying to ‘monetize’ my blog. I really am not sure I can even get my head around what that means or how it would work, but I might look into it. I do find the idea of moving terribly difficult to contemplate, but unfortunately the economic realities are forcing this issue; we can’t both be unemployed. Ugh.

    • Tim

      I wouldn’t worry to much about what the general public thinks, you have a right to defend your property and livestock. You are the only one that can decide what to do, just follow your heart and it will work out.

  5. Well, you know I would love you to come to Vancouver island. And you know it’s great here (but not cheap). There IS farmland. There IS ‘civilization’.

    Good luck with your decision – I know it’s a very difficult one to say the least. xox

  6. Elizabeth M

    I know this doesn’t help emotionally with the loss of your neighbors dogs, but has he tried to get money from his homeowners insurance? If the dogs were working dogs sometimes they are covered, like farm equipment? Just a thought. My cousin lives on a ranch in N. Nevada and loses cats and dogs to bobcats & cougars all the time also. They have to watch the little grandsons every minute.

  7. Could you possibly combine forces with your neighbour and others in the area and start selling items as a small co-operative there is a lot of that done in the UK.

    Also combine on a freelance basis acreage and share jobs. That would free one from each family to look for work but allow more animal/land care as 2 people (or more depending how many family’s joined in) would be doing it not one pre/ home, if that makes sense?

    What about offering camping holidays on the property. People would supply their own tents and ablutions being spade sort. (go dig a hole) You would need extra lights up for security but it may help keep animals away. And means no real major capital outlay.

    To moneytize you put up ads and then whenever someone clicks you get a set amount, some l think base it on items bought others on clicks.

    I was wondering if there was anything in the pet side market could help. Quite a few items keep cats away and may well work on the big cats and maybe on other animals?
    There is scatter granules and other items like sonic cat repellents (some work on cats and dogs and foxes).

    I do not agree with sonics in home settings in the UK as gardens are so small neighbours pets are affected even if their cats or dogs go nowhere near. However maybe for you? Just do a google for sonic cat repellents or cat and dog repellents.

  8. LittleFfarm Dairy

    Crikey HDR,

    what a worry…! We so admire your immense fortitude in farming under the circumstances you do; however I can sympathise with how you’re feeling at present. And the fact that it’s not in the deep midwinter but just when you should be really enjoying your wonderful homestead, is so very sad. However I can appreciate your concern over the OH’s job (as you know we were in the same position last year, & it was frankly sickening) – so let’s just hope you get the relief that they offer him something more permanent.

    Under the circumstances though, I’m sure neither of you would relish the prospect of him being employed further afield & having to commute – (especially as there are the added dangers where you are) although, as you say, you’re so remote; so even that prospect is I imagine, s bleak.

    And it’s so sad to hear that your neighbour is contemplating leaving BC as well; I’m sure those smug, self-centred urbanites would say “quite right too, you’re intruding on those cute little bears’ & cougars’ habitat”….until you guys are pushed out; the wildlife pushes ever further in; & one day Mr/s Smug Urbanite finds a bear knocking on the door (OK, ripping it offits hinges) at 3am….!

    But on a more melancholy note, whilst it’s sad, I fully sympathise with your neighbour’s concern – not least for the children. Isn’t it ironic, that you live somewhere you assume children can be brought up away from the dangers (some would say madness) of city living, only to find that you still can’t let them play outside unattended.

    The land clearance scheme sounds like a great idea, especially as it gives you even more room to farm & increase your farm’s productivity. Is there a gap in the market for a particular product there, which you could fill? However I’m sure you’ve already researched that path, inside-out; & knowing your resourcefulness would be well on the way to market with it by now! Although…you mentioned a book – how about writing fiction? We all love to read your posts & you write so evocatively & beautifully, I’m sure either some historical fiction based on a character living in a place like Clarence’s hut in the woods, or even something modern based on a person like yourself, would prove a real hit. That way you could enjoy the best of both worlds – even if it is under the eyes of the cougar.

    Or perhaps a radical move is what’s needed? There’s certainly a sense of unease to some of your posts; & I suspect that’s not going to change until the law does & you can shoot the marauding wildlife which continually threatens you & your farm (which doesn’t sound like it’ll be any time soon).

    I wish you luck, matie; I really do. I only hope something turns up soon which puts a more positive note on life in BC for you. I’ll have to start doing the lottery so that if I win I can send half to you so that you guys can live a life of leisurely luxury in BC with bear-proof fencing or buy yourself a darn great ranch somewhere else & enjoy your farming!! 😉

    • Thanks for the thought…Love the lottery idea! I’ve often said that if I won I would buy a farm somewhere and spend the rest of my life losing money farming. There really are days when I think longingly about going back to New Zealand where farming is still valued and there are no predators to worry about (ok, there are weasels, stoats, rats etc but after wolves, foxes, cougars, and two kinds of bears I could welcome the odd problem ferret!). Heck, if you win the lottery, why not buy me a place near you so I can be your best ice cream customer? Or I could make the cheese so you can concentrate on the ice cream…ah, the possibilities when you have real money eh?
      Yep, commuting is not really an option. We are nearly 500 kms from the nearest town. It is a blessing and a curse as I’m sure you can imagine.
      I am hoping the writing will take off. I’ve sent a query letter to a BC publisher about my book, and begun submitting some stories where I’ve seen a call for submission.
      In the meantime, I’m starting to clear the ‘front fourty’ and putting my faith in the universe that it will come through for us!

      • LittleFfarm Dairy

        Good on you, Matie –

        I’m going out tomorrow to buy us that lottery ticket…! 🙂

        Having you as my best ice cream customer wouldn’t work out I’m afraid because I’d never ask you to pay for it – just a shame our forthcoming Mail Order service doesn’t stretch that far – but the cheesemaking idea sounds great.

        And if the ‘proverbial’ really was to hit the fan we have a whopping great caravan you can use for as long as you want on the other side of the orchard (plus room for Fatty-Fat & co!) in case you really do fancy finding something over here in wild n’ woolly Wales.

        Not that the mountains are quite so tall, nor is it quite so wild….although there is the Terrible Legend of the Mad Red Cow of the Cwm…..OK; not quite so bad as bears, wolves, cougars – I’ll go & buy that lottery ticket….!

        Good luck with the ‘Front Fourty’, hopefully further clearance will make a world of difference. Thought Vetnurse came up with some great ideas (& what about your Maple Syrup??), especially the security lights. But would they deter predators, though? We have PIRs on the Lower Yard for kidding emergencies so that if I catch a problem on the CCTV or Baby Monitor, all I have to do is don wellies & sprint.

        Nowadays the foxes don’t seem to care; & saunter across the farmyard until they encounter the fearsome Moriarty, who sends them scarpering with their tails between their legs. All that happens now is that every time the lights trip (several times per night) I wake up, as it’s profoundly dark here, at night – although at least I suppose you could see what you’re up against & get in a better-aimed shot (from your peashooter of course 😉 ) rather than further expensive investment in a decent nightsight.

        Lion poo is supposed to be a fantastic deterrent & is available even here in quiet old Blighty. Perhaps it might work for you…? Although looking at the size of that cougar’s claw, oooerr….

        Meanwhile I’ll ship over the Red Cow as soon as I can track her down & tranquilise her – should do the trick.

        Keeping my fingers crossed that something wonderful turns up for you – ASAP.

  9. EJ

    What are you good at? What unique skills do you have? What is your community lacking & willing/able to pay for? Anything lacking you could go to school/apprentice to learn?

    For example: I am a grower but we don’t have enough arable land to make a living growing in fields. So we have greenhouses. Now the trick is to fill them with profitable crops for as much of the year as possible. And sell our product…

    Wwoofers don’t make a profitable farm – be wary of depending on cheap/free labor. I likewise don’t believe in B&B or tourism in general with state of the economy and gas prices.

    See here for making money on your blog: http://www.boingboing.net/2009/04/30/clay-shirky-debunks.html

    • Good suggestions, thanks! What do you grow in your greenhouses? I know one gal here who has been running a nursery has taken up a bunch of the nursery plant area and converted it to tomatoes–kinda says there’s likely a bit of a market there. But, she’s got a heated commercial greenhouse (I don’t). I too am wary of the ‘tourism’ road. Many people have suggested it to me but the huge outlay for capital cost coupled with the downturn in the economy says that’s not the time to do it now (not to mention, there already are many B&Bs here). Of course, we’ve got the farm thing going on and no one else has that so we’d have a niche market on the agritourism but I’m not sure Bella Coola would attract that kind of folk–more the hunting, shooting, fishing, hiking and mountain biking crew. I’ll go check out the web page you’ve put the link to.

  10. EJ

    We grow veggie seedlings.
    But the real question is what are YOU good at?
    I have lived in semi-rural and rural areas for most of my adult life. I find you have to flexible and able to juggle several jobs (seasonally or weekly) and not say no opportunity when it comes around even if it wasn’t what you planned. Pretty much any job is a job and I’ve taken several (bad) jobs just for the opportunity to stay where I was or to further a long term goal.

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