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?”
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.