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Month: January 2012

Dark Intentions and Highland Cows

Dark Intentions and Highland Cows

I have what you might call a stubborn and determined personality. I get hold of an idea and like to see it made real, whatever the challenges, objections, cries for mercy from small children or other obstacles in my way. Like the Terminator, it’s one of my strengths because I never give up, ever. But unfortunately, there can often be collateral damage.

As a young man, I was convinced I’d be a millionaire by now and live in a renovated brick loft apartment, drink expensive north african coffee, wear immaculately-pressed white shirts and have time to read the morning paper while laughing to myself at obscurely intellectual observations in the book review section. I was urbane and untouchable. In no place did children, their smells and suicidal chickens feature as part of the plan.

Surprisingly, I can’t even blame where it all went wrong on the French or Belgians. The culprit is much closer to home. It’s all Emma’s fault. No seriously, it is.

Now before you go getting all upset and leaping to her defence, hear me out. Like a female Blofeld with a penchant for evil cake baking and slightly more hair, Emma wove her dastardly plan from a tender young age. She has used her wiles to keep me, like a toddler with three Cream Eggs, two hands and only one small mouth, in a state of befuddled paralysis since we met. Off guard, I was helpless to resist her Machiavellian guidance away from my dreams of millionnaire-hood and New York exposed brickwork and into a dark world of avian hegemony and organic agriculture.

My evidence? She loves The Good Life which first aired on British TV in 1975. Basically that means from age 2 she began hatching her evil scheme and waited for me to fall into it. I can only speculate that it was because of a fascination with Penelope Keith, that her lifelong aim became the re-enactment of that subservice lifestyle. All she needed was a man who knew which was the business end of a shovel to initiate her plans and unwittingly unleash an irreversible and cascading counter-cultural effect that if left unchecked, will eventually engulf the western world and topple governments.

After a mere six years together, she casually said “let’s watch River Cottage, it looks cool” and promptly signed us up for an allotment knowing fine full well it would be me who got up close and personal with the mud. By playing on the only thing that trumps my stubbornness – an irresistibility for ever more difficult challenges – she knew I would be compelled to Go Big and buy a 100 acre farm. Now she has a hidden country retreat from which to scheme her next move.

You need more evidence? It was again Emma who said, “we’re having children, now.” Of course I realise now that she needs heirs to continue the legacy of her dark machinations. At the time there wasn’t much debate or planning and while I did what any bloke would do and say “fine, but we go to Greece and Nepal first for an extended vacation, oh and then we emmigrate to Canada”, I finally agreed to have one.

We’re now a happy family of four. The only reason we’re not ten strong and cosy in a Ford Transit van is because I went to visit Dr. No. while she was too tired to resist.

But her schemes haven’t ended people. Oh no. They’re only just beginning and I’m helpless to stop her. We’ve been discussing what do to now we have the farm. Hah! We?

After forcing myself to step back from grand plans for global agricultural domination in 12 months, on her urging I had swung the other way to adopt a more lassiez faire approach. A kind of Belgique nod to farm planning that says “I might get around to it, but then again, I may just eat croissant and laugh at you instead.”

But Emma wasn’t satisfied. Like the eternal trickster she is, she introduced the idea of goats. Just one or two, where’s the harm? True, they’re more boss-eyed than a Scotsman trying to knot a tie without sticking out his tongue and have about the same aesthetic appeal as a smacked arse, but goats produce good milk and don’t cost much. Who could argue against goats? Except she knew I don’t have much affection for them. Other than curry that smells of goat, you can’t really eat them and I’m old enough to know without a doubt that it would be me running after them in a Benny Hill stylee as they step daintily over our crappy fences and trip-trap down the lane into the neighbours cash crop fields.

So preoccupied was I about the impending Great Goat Chase that I didn’t understand what was happening when she slipped Dexter cattle into the conversation. Dexter’s are Irish and a fairly small breed, nothing scary there at all. We could eat the meat and get the milk too, not to mention butter and hard cheese. But then I fell into her trap and Went Big. Why stop at Dexters? If you’re going to talk cattle, then is there really any other choice than a Highland Cow?

I mean, they’re massive, have coats that Elton John would happily sell his mother for, eat anything that isn’t a rock (good for our scrubby bottom pastures) and don’t need much in the way of shelter or support (great since we don’t have any and can’t provide much). They yield low cholesterol meat, have rich milk and rather awesome horns. Not to mention my other golden rule which is, if you like it, get the mad one with extra hair and convenient handles that the kids can hang onto.

Emma agreed way too fast to be the result of anything other than her original evil plan. Only now have I realized that even a modest sized Highland Cow wouldn’t fit into a loft apartment. So I finally have to surrender my adolescent dreams and like Darth Vader (just in Wellington boots), embrace the dark chaos of The Good Life. In the end, that’s ok, if only I could work out how two tonnes of bull factors into her dark designs for global anarchy.

New World

New World

Friday was a pretty uninspiring day, despite the fact that Huwyl was on the mend the weather was a lovely combination of ice rain and snow.  Yum.  For anyone unfamiliar with the joys of ice rain it is rain that turns to ice on contact, making the world your skating rink.  Getting out to the chickens in the morning had a life-in-peril feeling as I slid around trying not to fall and break something on the concrete hard yet utterly slick earth beneath my feet.  It was a day for being by the fire for sure.

But then Saturday dawned and it was a world remade.  The trees had donned coats of diamonds, ice coating their branches and fluffy snow making the earth beneath shimmer.  For a short while in the morning the sun came out and set the diamond forests alight, glowing from within it seemed, magical and ephemeral.

By the time I had finished walking the dogs, breaking the quiet with our crashing feet crunching through layers of ice and powder snow, the sun had hidden himself again behind clouds that would remain for the day.  The shining cloaks were gone, tinkling to the ground as the day warmed and the wind moved the branches.

But in my mind’s eye it was all there, as bright and sharp as the cold wind rubbing at my red cheeks.  I felt that something had shifted in me, simply by witnessing this glorious beauty; this extravagance laid on, it seemed, just for me.  I felt sheer joy surrounded by sights so pure and fleeting.  It lifted my heart and warmed me, I was being rewarded without any idea of the good deed I had done.

It has stayed with me, the feeling of magic and marvel, when I think of those moments spent outside with my camera, dashing from this to that trying to capture what I saw.  The photographs do show some  but inside my own remembering there is so much more.  The feel of the wind, the warmth on my skin as the sun beat through my closed lids and, when I opened them, a world made new.  A world of crystal and light.  Shining.

The In Crowd

The In Crowd

 As astonishing as you might discover it to be, I’ve never really been cool. Not at school, not at University and not at work. Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments of reasonable chilliness such as being the poster boy for an anti-racism campaign at university and paragliding over the Himalayas, but if I’m being honest, they were just too little too late.

My uncool had already been too deeply ingrained by earlier lifestyle choices such as unselfconsciously donning silk shirts with garish indo-paisley patterns in public, wearing large brown Reactolite glasses even after I saw photo evidence of myself, generating treble-digit growth in Brylcream profits and using words like “donning” and “treble-digit” when talking to girls.

Of course I could fling blame around like a limp Belgian in a brothel, but really, I never did anything to help myself. I found it hard to get past being a “nice boy” and was disappointingly regarded as someone who got on well with parents until well into my 20s. I tried the Alternative Grunge look but was handicapped by a love of Scottish rock band Big Country and no matter what brand of hair dye I purchased, just couldn’t get the red colouring to take in my thick black locks. If I stood in a really strong light, one or two friends claimed to be able to see a definite purple tinge but I reckon they were just being generous and besides, they all had to squint which definitely isn’t cool.
Similarly, despite having a number of T-shirts emblazoned with Robert Smith’s mug shot, I wasn’t really gaunt or tormented enough to pull off the Goth look. I was too self-deprecating and had the aforementioned weakness for paisley that clearly ruled out becoming a sharp dressing wide boy. So, without a strong aesthetic claim to coolness, I wasn’t left with much else on which to build popularity. Until very recently my sense of humour played out mainly in my own head. What’s more, an unhealthy aptitude for working on spreadsheets and playing Elite on the BBC Microcomputer solidified my geek credentials. Inevitably, I gave up trying to be cool at a young age.

Slowly over the years, my rejection of wanting to be cool seems to have helped me to regain some measure of it. It seems that if you’re not that bothered one way or the other, then that’s pretty cool. It’s the kind of logic that just batters my head which is why I thought I’d feel more at home with farming. After all, anyone who wears blue overalls, big wellies and keeps their hands warm inside a cow’s vagina on a chilly day can’t hope to be cool, can they? Surely they would welcome a man with aspirations for paisley-patterned headwear and the latest in neoprene wellies.

But surprisingly, it turns out that farmers have their own cool crowd and right now, I’m certainly not part of it. Earlier this week I finished day 2 of a Grow Your Farm Profits workshop. Now for us that isn’t particularly difficult since we don’t have any profits at all. When asked how I could improve my farm profitability by 25%, my answer was “sell something”. I think that set the tone for the workshop. It was further reinforced while doing the SWOT analysis of our operations when the facilitator asked for my weaknesses. In what should have been a line from the Blues Brothers, I replied “no skills, no experience, no crops and no business plan.” I kind of spoiled it by adding, “Oh, but I have a tractor and 6 chickens.”

Except that was a lie, because Drippy Bum the Chicken hopped off this mortal coil a few weeks ago, bored of waiting for me to do the deed and leaving behind a faint smell of failure. We’re now dangerously close to parity on the number of roosters to hens in our little flock. If we lose another laying hen, I’ll have to think about repainting the coop with a rainbow, adding some nice drapes to the windows and piping in Elton John’s greatest hits.

What was apparent from the course is that I’m an impostor. The Canadian government (and hence other farmers) don’t recognize me as a farmer until I generate $7,000 in revenue from farming. And until I’m one of them, I’m just not that agro-cool. They weren’t mean about it, but it was in the air that I’m still playing while the big boys do the serious work.

Haunted by my lack of cool as a youth, I was determined to become part of The In Crowd as quickly as possible. I’ve spent the last week working myself into a frenzy thinking about how we can productionize our farm, start a CSA, rear a dozen or so hogs, build facilities for 300 broiler chickens and 100 laying chickens, start making mead and bring a large greenhouse on stream while working full time and having little in the way of disposable cash.

The thing is, $7,000 isn’t a lot of money in the great scheme of things but earning it from farming when you have no skills, experience, crops or business plan is a tad challenging. It works out to be nearly 500 meat chickens or 20 acres of wheat, twenty or so pigs or twenty-five families signing up for a CSA. It represents a significant investment of time, which is probably why the government set it in place. After all, they wouldn’t want to encourage people to start a new farm, would they? Given the lack of programs about how to establish a new farm business, I had assumed the farming industry were trying to protect access to subsidies of such vast proportions they had previously only been given to the French. The handouts given to Canadian farmers couldn’t be made available to just anyone with a tractor and 6 (sorry, make that 5) chickens could they? Unfortunately, like so many things in life I discovered there was nothing for free and besides, what remained was only available to real farmers.

Then, like a smack in the face with a soggy bagel, Emma reminded me of what we’re trying to do. It isn’t to become a megafarm or global business empire. It was to have a few pigs, make some brain-destroyingly strong alcohol, subsidise our food with home-grown produce and try not to look like startled hobos. It was to unplug from the mainstream as much as possible. To put the metaphorical finger up to the norm and enthusiastically embrace being just a little bit weird. It wasn’t to be cool or intimate with cows on cold days. It was to do things our own way, with hopefully a bit of fun and style.

So, I’ve shelved the more ambitious plans that were brewing and decided to scale things back for 2012. Instead, this will be a year of consolidation and experimentation. A year in which we recharge and do things no one else would do. Perhaps, like in my youth, I’ll find that being a cool farmer isn’t that important after all and in doing so, find some cool anyway.

Sickly

Sickly

We have an officially poorly boy in the house, Huwyl has gone down with a fever and is currently curled up on the sofa watching Dennis the Menace with his brother.  We’ll be dosing up on Vitamin D, probiotics, echinacea and any green goodness I can hide in a smoothie.  I’ve noticed Huwyl has been a bit fraught this week, lots of emotional outbursts and now I can see why.  So for the next couple of days we are snuggling, drinking, eating and being peaceful as much as possible.  I’ll be back next week with updates on more of our adventures.

Stay well.

Contemplation

Contemplation

 

I find myself thinking a lot recently, looking inwards, retreating a little.  Perhaps it is the January urge to hibernate, to be tucked away in a little nook until spring comes calling.  My lack of energy is a bit seasonal and mostly health, the tiredness is part of this problem I’ve been fighting for what seems like a long time.  It’s tempting to ‘give in’, to slip into sleep and put the world on pause.  But.

That isn’t how it works is it?  I watched this video a couple of days ago and find myself coming back to it, wondering, what would it be to live a life of quiet contemplation?  Right now the idea of a silent nook, the indulgence of my own thoughts uninterrupted, is pleasing to me.  But.  How long would that last?  How long before I longed for the busy life I lead now, for the multitude of possibilities my life holds.   I’d miss the energy of my boys, the fluffy faces of dogs wanting a cuddle, the unexpected stories and thoughts that come at me at any given moment. But.

How pleasing to sit in solitude a little, the fire my company, the scene outside all I need to think about.  Time to wonder, worry, plan and ruminate.  Time to craft, create, grow and evolve my own self a little.  Breathing space.  But.

I’d probably just use the time to worry.  Worry about blood test results, about farming future plans about what to eat and what not to eat, what to do and what not to do.  I think the silence would become lonely pretty quickly.  But.

But.  I enjoy what I can get, this moment by the fire with the boys upstairs waiting not so patiently for quiet time to be up.  The thought of a visit to another farm on the weekend a pleasant buzz of excitement.  Plans with friends this week making me smile, knowing I get to spend time with great women who’s company lifts me up.  Knowing that tonight, when the boys go to bed, I will shower in a hot shower, pull on pj’s and tuck myself into my now serene bedroom and listen to the silence of the house.  Enjoying the peace of a day well lived, rest earned, the fact that it is short lived only reminding me to enjoy it while I can.  Soak it up ready for another day because it will bring highs and lows, joys and frustrations, mess and creativity.

It may not be serene or everyone’s idea of perfect but it is mine.  No buts.

Sights of Sunday

Sights of Sunday

The wind is biting this morning, the air frigid, but it’s worth getting outside to watch the dogs flying happily along as we walk the trails Stephen made around the fields.  The sunlight is hazy but the snow still shines, glittering pinpoints in the icy crust that covers everything now.   The dogs crunch through the crust, sending shards flying with their crashing paws, the sound of broken glass is everywhere as ice hits ice.  I think about the warm fire inside yet I linger to look for a few extra moments before the cold drives me in.

What are you looking at on this cold Sunday?

A Single Moment

A Single Moment

Joining Soulemama in this Friday ritual.  A single photo, a moment from the week that you want to remember.

When a pint of fruit and kale smoothie just isn’t enough.

Happy Friday!

Winter Chicken Care

Winter Chicken Care

There is a word that accurately describes life as we know it in a Canadian January.  Cold.  Very, very cold.  Temperatures are regularly down below the -25C mark and that wind chill really does make life interesting.  We are snuggly warm in our house enjoying passive solar gain and free heating on these cold but sunny days, but our chickens are not quite as cosy.

Despite having an insulated coop (using leftover insulation from the house build) it gets a bit parky out there for the old chooks.  So here are some of the things I’ve been doing to keep things comfortable for them and hopefully avoid a nasty case of frozen chicken one morning:

– Water.  This is number 1 priority and we are changing their water 2-3 times a day, removing the frozen and replacing with slightly warm which hopefully delays the freezing process.  If the weather is not too cold we go out and stir the water up but if it is, as it has been this last week, very cold I simply bring out another waterer and take the frozen one inside the house to defrost.  This process is crucial as the chickens will not eat if dehydrated, they also don’t like it when the water gets too cold.  We notice a big difference in the amount of food eaten when they have regular changes of water on cold days.

– Heat Lamp.  As well as giving enough extra light to keep the hens laying it helps take the edge off in the coop, especially in the early hours of the morning.  I wouldn’t call it snug, but it’s better than nothing.

– Sunlight.  We have the coop facing South West so on cold but sunny days we keep the door open for them for a bit of solar gain.  The door stops the wind from bothering them while allowing the sunshine to warm and cheer them.  They have access to outside space but it is covered in snow so they choose not to come out of the coop.

– Greens and Veg.  Through the summer and autumn the chickens were totally free range, so had all the greens and bugs they could forage.  Right now there are no natural sources so we are giving them extra scraps of greens (they love cabbage and steamed broccoli) and I am making them special chicken smoothies when they seem to need a pick-me-up.  I used the recipe found here but I didn’t put it in the water, I just put the pulp in their food tray and they loved it.  It is also a great way to get their herbal wormer into them too.

– Extra Bedding.  We use the deep litter method so we just add extra shavings as needed.  I read recently that adding more bedding helps to build up warmth in the coop, a bit like under floor heating!  We are also adding a couple of straw bales to block out drafts and for nesting material if they want it.

– Swift Egg Collection.  This isn’t for the chicken’s benefit but it is really important in the winter time if you want to benefit from the eggs your chickens lay.  Did you know eggs can freeze?  I had never thought about it until this winter, but they can and do.  When they do the shell cracks risking the loss of the egg.  I am trying to make sure I get out to the chickens early enough to get the eggs before freezing, but if I don’t I wash the cracked egg and put it in a bowl to be used that day.

– Frostbite Treatment.  This is something I need to look into as our roosters both has frostbite on their combs.  I think some vaseline or other protective layer would help them, I just need to hunt around and see what I can find.  So far the girls are ok but as they say a pinch of prevention is worth an ounce of cure.

Do you have any top chicken winterising tips?  I’d love to hear them if you do!

Work Ethic

Work Ethic

Who says kids these days don’t work hard?

As the snow came down my intrepid boys headed out to the green garage to collect wood.  It was a surprise for their Mummy, of course a surprise is more fun if you are watching the whole time!  They loaded the sled together then Huwyl pulled it to the house, it probably weighed about as much as he did.  Then they loaded it all into the wood box, their faces so proud of their achievement.

Around here collecting sleds of wood counts for physical education, with the added benefit of keeping the house warm on a cold snowy day.  Now that’s what I call life skills!

Zen and the Art of Snow Clearing

Zen and the Art of Snow Clearing

I love my tractor. Not in a creepy grease nipple, if I’m smiling don’t leave me alone with heavy machinery kind of way. Just honest, wholesome bloke love for his tractor. But, I’ve been having one or two technical challenges of late with George.

As you probably know, we live in Canada and it usually snows a bit in winter over here. When we bought George in spring, I remember thinking about how great it’s going to be to use it to clear my farm of mountains of snow. I pictured one man against the elements, battling a path to civilization with scant regard for personal safety. I wanted beep-beep-beep reverse sounds and lights so powerful the older neighbours would think their time was up. I’d imagined a cape made out of grizzly bear skin that billowed like vintage Angel and perhaps some of those flappy eared hats with fur on the inside because at the end of the day, laughing in the face of danger is fine provided your ears don’t get chilly.

Of course I didn’t tell anyone because then it’s just a bit embarrassing but the compulsion to mount my tractor and clear the driveway has become a bit of a private obsession. Unfortunately, as the weeks of December rolled by without any sign of Snowmageddon 2011, I must admit to feeling rather cheated. I mean, what’s the bloody point of -20 degree temperatures if you can’t be a snow-ploughing Adonis?

You see, for the last six years I’ve had to make do with a crappy plastic snow shovel and even that got broken on the bottom a couple of years ago rendering it about as useful as a paper cup in an avalanche. Even Huwyl’s sand pit toys had more raw snow-shifting power than my shovel.

I’ve had to tolerate the smug nods from the guys next door as they emerge half-an-hour after me, fire up their snowblowers and casually refill my driveway with wind-whipped snow while I’m taking a breather and wondering if this is what a cardiac feels like.

On many occasions I’ve smiled back, clutching my chest and unable to move without wheezing and all the while indulging my imagination, fervently hoping for a bizarre belt-drive incident that ended up with them being fed to their own Yardworks 2000 as I look helplessly on. You might be thinking “Steady on Stephen, that’s a tad harsh” but anyone that’s cleared a driveway of several inches of heavy snow would agree it’s absolutely fair.

All of that trauma was settled when I bought George. Weighing in at several tonnes, my need for bigger and better had been firmly satisfied over their puny machines. Driving it over to Barrhaven to show them posed a challenge, but regardless of whether I worked that out or not, there was just no way I was being humiliated this year.

At least that’s what I thought.

Being a man, I naturally assume that I can do most things without much in the way of planning, forethought or in fact, skill and experience. After all, how hard could clearing a bit of snow be when you’re armed with George The Invincible? So when the first proper snow fell today, I fired up the block heater and waited. As night fell, the snow and ice rain came down harder and the temperature dropped. Perfect conditions for a heroic struggle. I settled the youngest into bed with an improv version of The Gruffalo in which the mouse didn’t make it past the “you’ll taste good in a slice of bread” line, thereby eliminating half the book, skipped dinner and by 8:30PM was outside.

Now, in full disclosure, I’d had a previous attempt which hadn’t gone so well. I’d found that without proper insulated footwear, I lost all sensation in my toes which somewhat hampered my ability to control the pedals on mighty George. So this time I was better prepared and wore my heavy boots.

Unfortunately, I forgot about suitable leg attire and after an hour sat on a tractor in blowing snow and ice rain wearing jeans and boxer shorts, it’s hard to move your frozen legs when they’re pinned to the floor by steel-capped heavy winter boots. Again, that leads to a certain amount of hampering in the old tractor driving department. Sigh.

But that was the least of my worries. George has lights. Being an engineer, I checked when we bought him. They’re square and white and look rather boxy in a retro 70’s kind of way. Unfortunately, full beam is less UFO spotlight and more Austin Allegro dim. Making matters worse, when I lifted the front loader into optimum snow-clearing position, it blocked what little light they provided, plunging me into sudden darkness. That’s a little scary when you’re on a tractor plunging through the snow and can’t feel your legs.

But that still wasn’t the biggest problem I faced. As it turns out and against all the evidence, I don’t in fact know what I’m doing when it comes to using heavy equipment to clear snow. It took a few tries, but I think I managed to scrape the fresh snowfall into all the hollows in my driveway, cleverly concealing the ditches and turning what was merely an inconvenient 1″ of snowy lane into a death trap of hidden dells and cunningly concealed potholes.

What remained after my snow grooming debacle was Japanese garden-esque. Seriously, you could have put an ice-bonzai on it and scattered a few pebbles and been hip-deep in parka-clad Geisha. Some guys probably train for years to level snow like that. If I’d deliberately tried to achieve it, then I’d probably still be out there. You might be thinking “well, that sounds ok” or “at least it’s level”. That indeed would be fine if in fact I’d actually cleared any of the snow. My drive is 150 feet long and at least 10 feet wide. At an inch deep, I should have been left with a pile of snow several feet high. My boys should have been cheering my snow-slide building prowess.

But, after an hour or so of fumbling in the dark, I unpeeled my frozen legs from the cold plastic tractor seat and stumbled around for a closer look. My pile was more like a speed hump than a mountain. It’s a baby slope for sledges, provided it’s only used by baby hedgehogs. Even then, the hedgehogs would probably get bored after a few times and leave in search of something more challenging.

So, depressed and humiliated once again, I put George away and surrendering to the inevitable, returned to my old green snow shovel.

The moral of the story? Wear thermals, remember that daytime is your friend and if all else fails, buy a better shovel.