Sunday, April 14, 2013

Some of Life on the Farm's Harder Lessons

The other morning, after a very long day and evening of reflecting, I sent out what has been the toughest note to my CSA members to date.  Granted, our CSA is primarily a veggie farm, you have seen the tag line; REAL, CLEAN, FRESH, LOCAL, FOOD! However, part of my goal here is to also be a fun, educational, interesting and sustainable small, urban farm, so I've got a handful of chickens running around laying eggs (hey, that's food.). The chickens were becoming prey though, so a thoughtful couple of members of my CSA sponsored some LGD's (livestock guard dogs). Then, a friend was fostering a pair of heritage sheep. I thought, cool! I don't have to milk them, or feed them (they eat grass and browse), they are pretty well self sufficient and the LGD's can look out for them which gives them something else to do; and we can shear them and enjoy their beauty. (That spoke to the sustainable, educational and interesting key words.)

So, last month my boyfriend, and partner in some of our farming endeavors, headed out to Glen Rose to adopt this momma and daughter pair of Icelandic sheep. I had put the question up to my CSA members, who overwhelmingly supported the idea and contributed to the purchase of the pair as well as the fencing that would be needed - Icelandic sheep are not that unlike goats you see. Escape artists.

After some grumbling and growling and pecking order establishment, the sheep won out "top dog" position in the little mini-pasture area where they were to live until the grass needed mowing elsewhere and more fencing was up. I listened to advice on some rotational grazing - get them to eat the grass down before letting them on to another area and let them graze the higher protein, mature parts, etc.  Well, in order to do this, I had to move some of the existing electrical fencing around that I used to keep the dogs away from the chickens. Yes, I know they're LGD's but they're still learning that chickens are livestock. Come on, most city officials don't even recognize them as livestock - give the dogs a break. At least they're learning.

The poultry netting worked fine with the dogs - a few zaps and they never messed with it again. The chickens seemed content with their large backyard of grass, bugs, dead tree wood, seeds and such, and rarely, if ever that I saw, ventured over it. And, at first, the sheep recognized it as a barrier as well. A safety net between them and these two rookie LGD's if nothing else.

However, apparently, more than one time, the fence didn't go "ZAP" when it should have or when Smoke nosed it anyway, and she got brave. I found her and her momma Butterscotch one afternoon on the same side as the dogs - they'd gotten underneath the netting. It wasn't that they didn't have plenty of tall grass where they were - they just wanted to go over "there".  I enlisted a new, freshly charged battery. Dogs got zapped. I got zapped. Zap was working. Or so I thought. The events that followed the next morning, led me to the letter from which the following excerpts are from. If it serves as a lesson for others in life, in fencing or just in general, it is an event not wasted.

Life on the farm, I am always learning, is about a lot of things. First and foremost, mostly, it is about life. The hatching of numerous chicks and ducklings, baby bunnies, even two foals born here on my farm are the warm fuzzy side of "life" on the farm I love to witness - along with the thousands of lives that come to be as I sow seeds that become the bounty on our tables. Abundant, beautiful and renewing of itself, life on the farm is my favorite part of farming.

In order for it to renew itself though, there must be the opposite of life; death. This is the part of "life on the farm" that I don't know any farmer really "gets used to" - much less a city girl who grew up raising animals as pets. And I certainly never really grasped the understanding of some of the untold gifts that animals bring us, because my food, much like most of yours I suspect, came from a grocery store as a kid. I don't know if I'll ever progress past this mindset, and so long as there are those who have the understanding and mindset, not to mention the skills, that I lack; I won't have to become a vegetarian.

However, I have seen a lot of death on this farm as well. The seasons bring sudden death to tender plants I've tirelessly nurtured for a long season; dogs, raccoons and skunks, snuff out lives of "prey" I call friends in a large swath leaving me with red eyes and a broken heart as I struggle to wrap my head around what seems a senseless part of nature. And, I've had to learn, yet still find it difficult to accept, that sometimes "these things happen", when an animal will find itself in a predicament that causes its own death. I've seen squirrels and chickens drown in water tanks, cats not come home at night falling prey to the inevitable bobcat or coyote in the "circle of life" of which we are all a part, and baby chicks getting their tender selves stuck in "chicken wire". It always seems there was something I could have done, should have known to do to prevent - but my farmer and rancher friends have always consoled and reminded me "these things happen". In the best of life's situations, death happens.

So yesterday, when I returned from fertilizing our crops out in Terrell, I came home to my latest lesson in "these things happen", when I found our newest beloved life here on the farm tangled up in fencing meant to keep her safe and grazing lush, tall grass in a responsible, rotational style. Butterscotch had tried, what most animals do from time to time, to get to the other side of that fence. She apparently was unable to do anything other than entangle herself, hopelessly. She was gone when I found her, what seemed like just a few hours after she lost her struggle. The dogs were calm, laying in the shade of their lean-to, and Smoke was not too far away, though on the wrong side of the fence as well, continuing on with what animals do in the face of death, what they seem to understand far better than I do - living.

To say that I was heartbroken would be an understatement. I felt responsible, guilty, ignorant. The latter is probably most accurate as I am an admitted rookie to all of this. Keeping sheep, horses, chickens and LGD's is not anywhere near the same thing as keeping a pet cat, (of which I've done for nearly 30 years and recently experienced a first in even doing that.) or inside (mostly) dogs. These are pets too in a sense, but yet they are FARM animals first and foremost. Something I'm slowly learning to distinguish is there is a difference. They are far more unpredictable, curious and prone to accidents than say, that cool fish that blows up its gills when seeing its own reflection in a mirror. Yeah, I had one of those, too. The worst experience as a kid with pets was my little brother's pet hamster - eating its young. That was pretty traumatic. Especially for a little kid. But we lived through that, too.

Something very important and refreshing (compared to the competitive, corporate dog-eat-dog world) that I've come to learn from many phone calls, emails and in-person conversations with my peers in small farming, is that you can always count on other small farmers for words of wisdom and support - no matter the situation. Someone else has already done, seen, undone, or forgotten that they have, anything that I have done or thought of doing. Farming is as old as dirt itself - I'm probably not going to make any new mistakes or discoveries - not new to anyone other than me, anyway. So in my peril of that early afternoon, I reached out to my peers who were, as always, ever supportive. Even farmers I've never met reached out in a caring, wise way. It got me through the day and helped craft that letter I knew I needed to write. The letter itself was a type of therapy for me. Explaining even to myself what needed to be learned.

Several farmers/ranchers have extended their loving, understanding and wise words and hugs to me both in person, via phone and emails as I reached out for answers and help in what felt like one of my darkest days here at the farm; certainly one of confusion, pain and frustration. I do know it's a part of farming, as they do, but it's not something I yet accept as part of my day with the same practicality as someone who grew up with these life experiences. It still takes me awhile to process these things.

In the minutes after I sent the letter, and in the days that followed when I saw members for our CSA pick up this weekend, I was again surrounded by support and caring words. My mom cried on the phone with me as I told her the news and my always there for me loving boyfriend dug a hole and lovingly sang a little song while we buried the magnificent creature. Some would scold me for this "waste", but I'm fine with it. I have yet to "process" any of my domesticated pets either. I don't see the two as much different, except we will have some wool products in the months to come, whereas I don't have any dog hair or cat hair blankets. I didn't bring them to this veggie farm as a food source. I had told my members that when they pledged support in acquiring them - I wasn't about to announce a special on lamb chops this week. That's just not who I am.

I'm pretty much ok now, although still sad of course, especially for the surviving daughter sheep who bleats more than usual, looking for her companion I suppose. She is getting on better with the LGD's now though, as if her momma may have been somewhat more leery of them than she. They snooze together under a tree and sniff at each other as (hopefully) only animals do. It helps some, too, when Smoke now trusts me to scratch behind her ears a bit - for about 3 seconds anyway. She herself got tangled up in the fencing the very next day, even though I'd removed all but the small circle of it around the chicken pen area. I saved her, thankfully, as I was home, and Molly, our more veteran LGD, alerted me as I almost passed by not noticing a problem. That afternoon I penned up the dogs, and took the rest of that netting down - not wanting to ever again have this happen. I am not sure if she'll ever respect this kind of fencing in the future, and I don't dare risk it unless I get some good advice on how to retrain her to it. Maybe a bigger charger, larger battery, something. I don't know - but I don't want my ignorance to hurt her, too. So for now, she grazes where she wants and me and my CSA are putting up metal fencing for the chickens.

So, as I have said to some, onward I must go - my farm will, with or without me. It gives us moments to pause and reflect, but not for long. Plants still need to be watered for the lack of rain; the living animals need attention of their own, and I have a wonderful, warm and supportive CSA family to grow a summer crop of vegetables for.

I once described farming as the most consuming, disappointing, educational, interesting, monotonous, satisfying, uplifting and worthwhile things I have done for a living.

And I can't think of anything else I'd really rather be doing.

Eat Your Food - Naturally!