Tag Archives: Learning to Farm

Of ice and hens

A friend of mine from New Zealand asked me the other day why I stay here, when there are much easier places to farm–I’m beginning to wonder that myself! The night before last, it started snowing; it looked like Mother Nature was just brushing the dandruff out of her hair.  But by morning it had snowed about 18 inches–not that it isn’t picturesque, but it is a make-more-work-for-me-kinda-scene that I am growing tired of this year.

I blame the goats for my negative attitude towards the ice and snow; they hate the snow and that makes me not like it. They stand in their shelters and bleat and moan about it, like I’m somehow personally responsible for their  lack of comfort. It is quite hilarious to watch them run from their barn to their day-paddock; like cats treading through puddles, they lift their feet high trying  not to get them wet. It is the best darn high-stepping trot I’ve seen, and would make many a horse person envious. There is usually a puddle or two along the way and they all leap over it, one by one. I picture them jumping puddles like that at night when I can’t sleep. This is what happens when you don’t have sheep.

When I watch these domestic animals and know how relatively pampered they are, it makes me wonder how the wild goats survive these Canadian winters. Actually, each Canadian winter I survive makes me wonder how any wild creature survives out there without shelter, heat, and readily available food. This year’s cold stretch lasted longer than the previous years I’ve been here, and I noticed the other day the wild birds were eating snow–I guess their puddles and water sources were all iced up and they were desperate.

The chickens, on the other hand, are relatively stoic, and I appreciate them for it. They seem to come out of the barn in nearly all weather. The only time they didn’t make an appearance this winter was for the week of sheer blizzard conditions we had in December. Otherwise, they are out grubbing for a portion of their living. It is helpful that they are an energetic bunch because, even with their enthusiasm for self-sufficiency, I’ve had to buy a lot more feed than previous years, and the feed costs have risen. Consequently, the attempt to be profitable is ever-receding into the horizon. I have yet to do the books, but I’m not all that enthusiastic. We both suspect that the off-farm job is actually paying for the eggs I’m selling. I don’t need to do the books to know we are going through more feed than we are realizing in egg sale returns, so I’m putting the accounting off as long as I can.

I want to farm, but I’m still not sure how I can actually make it work. It is just not enough to have a cute place and funny animals; I need a wage like everybody else. The funny animals take time and effort, and I could justify having them as pets when I had a nice salary; I am having a more difficult time justifying them, along with the ducks, now that I don’t. Surprisingly, when I say that to people (who have nice salaried jobs), they are shocked. “Oh, you can’t get rid of your goats, they’re so cute!” is the most common response. Yes, they are cute. So are the ducks. But cute doesn’t pay my taxes, replace my roof, or replace my truck as it rusts away. When did our society come to expect farms to be cute, and farmers to not make money on their farm? When did we stop caring that, like any other service industry, if it is not supported and can’t make a profit, it won’t last? This principle is well understood for all sorts of business and services, and yet farms seem to be thought of as something that shouldn’t make money. It is as if we’ve all come to accept that it is logical that farmers should work off the farm to pay for their farm. What other business would this (ill-) logic apply to? Would you run a restaurant that way? How about a mechanic shop?

Thus far, neither my ducks nor my goats have had to work for their living. Now that I am trying to make the farm a going concern, I have to look around it and put everything through an income-generating test: does it, or can it, make money? In light of this, I’ve slaughtered most of the ducks and lost the last two females to foxes. I’m going to take the last drake to the game dinner and he won’t be wearing a bow-tie, but I haven’t told him yet. In addition, I have been toying with the idea of finding a buck for my does and putting them to work. I know they will not make money because I’m not allowed to sell the meat, but they will at least provide me with a return in meat and milk. The milk I can make into cheese and the meat I can eat. The fact is, my workload will not change much in order to realize some milk and meat returns for us, directly.

Thus far in my farming career, I have yet to witness the birth of anything that doesn’t hatch, but I am drawn to the idea of mammalian births. I have finally managed to find a willing buck, and now I just have to get emotionally prepared for the result: extra work and butchering the kids. While I love the idea of seeing my goats pregnant, giving birth and having some kids around, I know that ultimately I’ll have to eat them or sell them. Our place is too small to expand the herd and I can’t just keep adding glorified pets to the equation any more.

I’ve managed to evolve emotionally this year and hone my butchering skills to cope with chickens and turkeys. If I get the does pregnant, then I’ll have to fast track the emotional fortitude to do in a baby goat. Learning to hunt this year has helped with the idea. After all, a goat is just a small deer. Still, there is one thing to butchering a deer you didn’t know personally and another thing to do in one of ‘my babies’ (it doesn’t help that they are called ‘kids’!).  Honestly, I’m not sure I’m there yet. I guess if I get the girls pregnant, I’ll have a time limit for that trajectory!

I’d like to raise more chickens and turkeys than I do, and maybe get into rabbits and goats, and sell the meat. Sadly, with all the prohibitive regulations it is nearly impossible to start anything without having to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars (think meat slaughter, poultry slaughter). I’d like to run a goat dairy, but we have the predators to deal with, on top of the prohibitive aforementioned capital investment. In addition to all of this, I’m living in an area where there are few people, so I wonder if there will ever been enough demand to make a farm work here.

Finally, I am struggling with the idea of investing more money here when there is such a huge risk of having my stock devastated by a bear or cougar. Even the losses I have taken (some chickens and ducks) amount to what may have been my profit margin. In light of the above, I toggle between wanting to go out and get a decent paying job so I can go back to playing at farming (and just supplying our own needs), and continuing to work at something extremely under-valued, in the hopes it will amount to something, someday.

I also face legislative blocks. Small farms in British Columbia cannot make a living on the wholesale market. This is why exemption status for small farming is so important. If we want to have local foods from small, sustainable farms that treat their animals humanely, we need producer-processor rights so that we (small farmers) can legally do direct marketing, attain the sales value, and avoid sharing the profits with middle-men. There are many places in the world that still allow this, but we have recently outlawed this in British Columbia for the majority of farming products. That’s why there are days when I think I should go somewhere and get a wage, or find somewhere I can farm more easily… but then I look up at these glorious tree-clad mountains and granite crags, put on my gumboots, and happily trudge out to care for my charges.

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Filed under Chickens, Ducks, Eggs, Ethical farming, Goats, Learning to Farm, Sustainable Farming, Turkeys

None of my ducks in a row

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When we first acquired our land, several of our friends had strong opinions about what sorts of animals should populate our potential farm, peacocks being the first in a procession of not-so-practical-but-well-meaning-or-at-least-decorative suggestions.

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Not wanting to be divorced in the first year of owning my first farm, I held back at leaping to satisfy each and every interesting proposition. This was not easy. I have wanted to be a farmer forever, and getting started as soon as possible could lead me to consider the repercussions of peacocks only after I had them installed. The, ‘and then what’ was nearly a secondary consideration, but I knew that mustering up a reasonable amount of self-control and applying a certain critical sensibility to the developments would be paramount to staying married.

Much to my chagrin, it was soon apparent that I was not actually in control of who would make the decisions, nor what species would populate what would soon become known as Howling Duck Ranch. Some friends, undeterred by my non-committal, ‘I’ll have to think about it and consult the other-half’ response, took matters into their own hands.

That was how it came to pass that I arrived home from work one evening to find that I was now the unsuspecting owner of 6 Muscovy ducklings. They were nestled happily in a cardboard box in the garage, all set up for husbanding, replete with water, feed, heat-lamp and a ‘god-father’ beaming proudly as he handed them over to my care. I gazed over at the Other-half with a pleading, ‘Who am I to say no at this point?’ look.

Several weeks later, they were happily relocated from the garage to a dog house next to the pond. We let them out each morning and coaxed them in each night; it was an easy relationship since they loved their pond and also foraged far and wide for sustenance, eagerly supplementing the grain I supplied them with.

The ‘far and wide’ travels began innocently enough, staying within the boundaries of our yard. Soon however, these daily wanderings turned into mini-vacations all around the neighbourhood. Routinely after work I would press ‘play’ on the answering machine to find out where my ducks had been and what they had gotten up to during my absence.

After several days of irregular wanderings, the ducks settled on one particular neighbour’s place. He had a large field that the wild geese seemed to enjoy, and I guess my ducks took special note of this. Then my drake recalled the saying, “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.” Leading his harem to this field as part of their daily indulgence, he would watch while his gals gorged on seeds and greens. I thought it was charming, but my neighbour was not so amused.

For several days the answering machine would spurt forth the same abrupt message followed by an angry phone slamming back into its receiver: “Ah, yaaaa….it’s Krrrus…jor docks arrrrrrrr ovarrr hirrr agayyn!” Slam! I felt like the mother of a naughty child and suddenly realized how my mother always found out what I had gotten up to.

I began to dread the daily pressing of the play button. How was I going to manage my ‘docks’? I didn’t want to clip their wings. Flying was their only chance at avoiding the numerous predators in the valley, so fencing the yard to keep them in was a hopeless idea, but neither did I want to completely cage them.

Instead, I began dutiful daily rounds of running along behind them, clapping all the way, until we reached our property, and hoping they would grow out of this penchant for the neighbour’s field. Eventually, they did cooperate and began finding the few new available pastures: three other neighbouring fields, and the airport runway. Older and braver now (or more foolish), they took to flying off regularly to these fields hundreds of yards from home. The phone message “Your ducks are over here” began to take on not only new accents but also new challenges in getting them home. Our farmlet is surrounded by trees, as are the neighbouring fields, so the further afield they roamed, the more difficult the duck wrangling became.

At first they would venture only as far as the airport, four hundred meters away at the end of our country road. I would go out to the front gate, call, hear a response within seconds, followed by the stirring sight of six muscovy ducks flying towards me in tight formation along the lane at about twenty feet of elevation. With a wall of trees on each side, they looked like Han Solo’s wingmen preparing to attack the Death Star. As they began their descent, they would bank left just above my head, lower their landing gear and come to an inelegant stop somewhere in our yard.

These were my ‘duck whispering’ evenings.

But then came the moment in the middle of my chairing a community consultation meeting at the hospital. The receptionist politely informed me that I had an emergency phone call from the ambulance station just along the highway from my farm. Alarmed at the myriad horrific possibilities, I raced to the phone: “Your ducks are here,” said a paramedic. “Could you come and get them?”

“Actually I’m in a meeting,” I sighed with relief. “Could you possibly walk them home?”

Eventually I was reduced to the urban obligations of motherhood: every evening I did the equivalent of driving my Toyota Forerunner all over the valley calling out my children’s names until they appeared, climbed in the truck and got driven home. However, instead of scanning playgrounds and swing sets I was peering into ditches, sloughs and meadows; instead of calling out names I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, ‘Here duck-duck-duck!’ And as they emerged from the fields, I would pick each duck up, load them unceremoniously into the back of the truck and drive them home. Just like children, they would jockey and fight for the best seats: they preferred the backs of the seats where they would stare out the windows and flap their wings proudly as if in flight. As the truck accelerated, so did the flapping; then they’d flop back and forth with each gear change in a desperate attempt to maintain balance and retain their hard won position.

One evening a drake made a frenzied bid for the front seat, wings smothering my face as he pivoted on my shoulder and left his calling-card. I decided there and then that they would not turn me into a hockey mom, and laid down the law about winter ranging.

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Filed under Animal issues, Ducks, Funny stories