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Author: stephen

Mad Morag and the Perils of Livestock Auctions

Mad Morag and the Perils of Livestock Auctions

It’s been an awfully long time since I wrote. While I wish I could say I’d been doing something terribly exciting, like leading an expedition to chart a lost underground world inhabited by Flumps. Or perhaps had been kidnapped and forced to slowly eat my way through nine hundred pounds of cinder toffee in order to save the world from an alien race intent on crippling the planet with overwhelming dental costs. Unfortunately, no. I’ve just been really really busy and er, buying animals. We promised ourselves a quiet year. A year of consolidation.

Unfortunately, every person has a weakness. For some, it’s drink and drugs. Others get inappropriately turned on by cunningly designed food storage systems that lock together to form a network of frustrating strength and impenetrable complexity. Mine, it appears, is livestock auctions. Like a depressive manga artist with way too much red paint and sadly no more saki, I find it incredibly difficult to restrain myself.

It’s actually all Emma’s fault. Instinctively knowing I was at risk, I’d managed to keep away from auctions for over forty years. But despite agreeing to the “quiet year”, she just had to advance her Plan. I’ve told you all about her Dastardly Plans before and while I understand that many of you remain sceptical, as the months since then have slipped by, the shape of her dark intent has become ever clearer to me.

With a single-minded determination that even the Dark Lord Sauron would be forced to respect, her goal of assuming the position of Herd Master of the Upper Wold is now tantalizingly within reach. You may well ask, how can this have come to pass? Alas friends, she discovered and exploited my weakness. When exactly she learned of my secret, one can only speculate. But the plan she put into motion bore all the hallmarks of her subtle and devious mind and left me with no doubt that, like a faceless Pope On A Rope, I’ve been most cruelly used yet again.

It started innocuously enough with the casual mention of a poultry auction in a nearby village. That should have been enough to alert me that something more sinister was afoot. Twice more the auction was dropped into conversation and it hooked into my mind like a fetid seed finding fertile ground. Now, our Ladies That Lay are getting on a bit and some of them could definitely do with inclusion in the Fernwood Farm PRP (Permanent Retirement Plan). Added to that we now have a waiting list for eggs, so I foolishly agreed to go along, just to see if there was any bargain layers to be had. Unfortunately, like giving a seven year old a homemade longbow and a firm instruction to “go play”, I didn’t stop to ask: what’s the worst that could happen?

Never having been to a poultry auction before, we arrived way too early and wandered through row after row of birds in boxes. Pheasants, turkeys, quail, budgies and everything in between, I eagerly eyed them all up and judging it was the professional thing to do, I drew up a shortlist. Emma merely smiled and nodded, then thrust a wad of used banknotes into my hand. With hindsight, how could I not have seen what was to unfold? But by that time, I was already lost.

Foolishly I hadn’t checked to see where the birds on my list were coming from and by late morning when Emma left to take Huwyl to his drama class, we’d already bought what turned out to be a mongrel rooster and a mite-infested hen from Quebec. Next up were two Ameracauna hens, one of whom turned out to be a diseased cockerel, again from Quebec. Three weeks after buying him, he died in the night. But, still blissfully ignorant of that sad fate, I abandoned myself to the auction fever and returned in the afternoon to buy more.

Four bantams (small chickens, two of whom turned out to be cockerels), two black sexlinks and a suspiciously off-white leghorn later and I was done. Spent, in adrenalin and cash, Neirin and I returned with four unnecessary cockerels, two bantam hens that lay incredibly small eggs and five laying hens, only three of whom lay with regularity. By any standard measure, it was a bit of a disaster. But, Emma had achieved her subversive goal: I was hooked on auctions.

If only poultry was the limit of her ambition! A couple of weeks before she’d persuaded me to “just go visit” a farmer selling a Dexter cow. Dexters are originally an Irish miniature breed and the cow certainly was beautiful. She even had all her papers, kind of like a bovine version of Andrea Corr.  Unfortunately, just like Andrea Corr, she was way out of our price league. The owner wanted a hefty $2,000 for her and while I like pretty cows as much as any man who owns a pair of wellies, I balked at that price tag.

Not to be thwarted, Emma switched her attention to a registered Jersey cow instead. They’re a small breed from the channel island of Jersey that produce copious amounts of fat- and protein-rich milk and don’t come in Irish. Fortunately, they’re half the price of a Dexter probably because they don’t make great meat animals. Flushed with the relief of having “saved” a grand, I chose to forget we have no fenced pastures, no housing, no buried water pipes for winter or in fact infrastructure of any sort to accommodate a cow, let alone a pregnant one who would calve out in October. Simply put, I gave the missus the nod.

She got her first cow, whom we promptly named Wanda.

Alas! If only one pregnant cow named Wanda was the limit of her ambition! I should have realised that a single cow does not make a herd. With all the pieces in place, events were in motion that even Jack Bauer’s breathless antics couldn’t prevent. I’d broken my bovine-purchasing virginity so to speak and Emma had burst apart the restraints of my weakness. So, when she innocently left me all alone in Canada while visiting the UK and Nelson The Farming God called to ask if I wanted to go to a Farm Auction, how, exactly how, was I supposed to decline?

Off I trotted, or more accurately, off I climbed into his unfeasibly large truck and was driven to my impending doom. Now, I’m not sure whether Nelson has been corrupted by Emma and her Dark Plan. Certainly it was Nelson who suggested I might want to check out the cattle auction and maybe find myself a “nice small cow, something you can get started on”. Well, I thought to myself, if Nelson is recommending I go to the auction, it’s practically Farm Law.

First up were some pretty Charolais cows and their calves. If Dexters are the Andrea Corr of the cow world, the Charolais are Paris Hilton. As Nelson’s son informed me, they are pretty but leggy and not what I need. So, we waited for them to pass and then for some insanely large bulls to be sold. Next came a parade of cows of uncertain heritage and sizes. Gary dismissed most of them until his own cow came up for sale, at which point he vanished. Now given I know as much about cows as I do about Palaeolithic cave art (i.e. it’s pretty cool, but best not to touch), I was a little uncertain how to proceed. A couple of old dears were sat beside me and not wanting to be seen to be an utter farming novice in their venerable presence, I gave the auctioneer a nod to nice looking black one. The price quickly exceeded where I was comfortable and I dropped out. The same happened on the next and with no sign of support, I began to worry that all the cows would soon be sold and I’d have to return empty handed and dejected to Nelson.

Oh no, that would not do. So when a pretty little black angus cow came into the ring and the auctioneer said she was about 8 months pregnant and bred to a red angus, with Wayne-like determination I knew she would be mine. Oh yes, she would be mine. The bidding started at $600 and I let it climb to $700 before wading in. Soon it was just me and one other guy. We traded blows up to $975 and I thought I had her. He hesitated, paused, wondering if I had the bottle to go over the grand. Oh yes, mate, oh yes. I can and will.

Now, I can’t be sure, but on reflection I’m fairly certain he was the owner and was simply considering whether I was daft enough to pay over a grand as he bid me up. He must have seen the auction fever glazing my eyes because with a roguish smile he tipped a nod and the bidding was up to $1000. Bastardo. There I paused for three long seconds. The gavel was about to drop when I gave an imperceptible nod. It was all the auctioneer needed and she was mine at $1025.

Like Carl Lewis with a touch of Delhi Belly, I left the auction hall rather quickly when the realization hit that I’d just purchased a second cow. So much for a “quiet year”. Outside I met up with Gary and Nelson and was reassured that my purchase was a good one. Somewhat flush with victory, I informed Emma via Facebook which is the modern way to do it. After all, she left me all alone. What else could she expect would happen?

The cow was duly named Morag, because she’s an Angus and that was the best Scottish name we could come up with. Perhaps it all was Emma’s evil plan. Whatever the case, by the end of the year we’ll have 2 cows and hopefully at least 2 calves – the start of the Fernwood Herd, for certain.

Hasselhoff and the Chicken Conservatory

Hasselhoff and the Chicken Conservatory

It being New Years Eve today, naturally the missus and I decided to spend some quality time with the chickens. These ladies have been popping out eggs all year and with the weather turning Canadian-nasty over the last couple of weeks, they’ve been packed in tighter than Germans at a Hasslehoff concert.

We’ve been employing the deep litter technique for their bedding which sounds like Middlesbrough Council’s approach to inner-city street cleaning but is in fact a bona-fide approach for keeping the coop clean. It worked pretty well through the summer and autumn but unfortunately isn’t so great for the winter. Having the girls indoors every day means it all gets rather messy. Like with the Belgians, we tried to explain the concept of toilets, or even just using a single corner of the coop for their Number 1s and 2s. Alas, like the Belgians, they just don’t seem to be able to grasp it.

Suffice to say the resulting frozen mat isn’t something we want our chickens on and it had to come out. So, we spent the last three hours digging and cleaning the coop from top to bottom for the Ladies What Lay. When the fresh shavings were in and smelling better than a bottle of Kouros, we turned our attention to the issue of outside time. It’s no surprise that when the ambient temperature is -20 Celsius, snow is falling and the wind is blowing hard enough to scour the freckles off your face, the Ladies don’t want to be outside. However, if we’re to avoid the need to change their bedding every few days, the Ladies have to venture out.

The inspiration for a solution came yet again from our youth. Emma and I have been together for nearly 18 years and have been engaged for the last 13 of them. We did originally intend to actually get married, sort of. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a small affair quickly got out of hand and the prospect of hundreds of barely-recognisable relatives greedily munching and drinking away our life savings was more than we could bare. Instead, we spent our money on a conservatory for our home.

For those of you not familiar with a conservatory, it’s a glass box added to your house in which the British like to sit and complain about the heat in the summer and how they can no longer feel their testicles / toes / other extremity of your choice in the winter.


Ours was a bloody nice conservatory mind you. It had a knee-high wall, top-end uPVC windows and vertical blinds to conceal the view of our garden’s brick wall. Granted, like all conservatories it was colder in the winter months than a 5p Mr Freeze and we had to pay the bloody Duke of Northumberland a couple hundred quid for his permission to build it (when the revolution comes, I’m getting that back), but it was ours and we didn’t have to worry about the bar bill or who we had offended by not inviting them to the grand opening.

Little did we know at the time that a mere twelve years later we’d be hip-deep in snow and chicken shit building another conservatory out of 2x2x8 lumber and 6mil clear poly. Life, ha, it’s a laugh eh?

Anyway, we cantilevered out the 2x2s from the gable side of the coop, used concrete blocks to support the ends and draped over the poly to create a prism of power. I applied way too many staples because once you start with a staple gun it’s almost impossible to stop, so the result isn’t the most aesthetically stunning home improvement. However, I’m fairly confident that we just built the world’s first Chicken Conservatory. I like to imagine they’ll be organizing concerts or cocktail parties under the luxuriously protective 6mil poly, perhaps having a soiree or two and raising a glass of Chateau Neuf-du-Pape to the Big House. Or maybe, like the Brits, they’ll just sit around and complain about a loss of feeling in their toes and how they’d have preferred it to be a little bigger. Whatever my avian Ladies decide on, as long as they do their business outside I’m a happy farmer.

Hope you all have a wonderful 2013.

Big Jo And The Aisle of Doom

Big Jo And The Aisle of Doom

For the past month, I’ve been trying my best to get everything ready for winter. I’m not exactly sure what that really means in the country, but I’m pretty sure something important needs to be done. Back in the suburbs it was taking down the mosquito screens, tidying up the garden a bit and getting the furnace checked. Out here, I’ve got a gargantuan pile of uncut wood stacked accusingly beside the house which despite my fervent expectation, hasn’t been cut and split by ninjas in a surprise guerilla assault before dawn. It’s kind of important I get most of it done before the snow arrives since we’ve recently fitted a rather expensive Empyre Elite Wood Gasification Boiler to run all our heating and hot water. It ignites a jet of super heated smoke to 2000F and is in every possible way, one of the coolest pieces of kit we’ve bought. If you have a penis, you have to see this thing in action.

If that was all that was on my Prepare For Snowmageddon list it wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, I’ve got to grease my machines, top up oil, get the tractor repaired with a new alternator (Nelson The Farming Man to the rescue), bush hog the bottom field (not going to happen), paint almost every room in the house and perhaps, finally, begin fitting out my Brew House but only once I’ve fitted some shelves and worktops in the laundry room. Oh, and made some book shelves for the library.

But the most pressing task of all was to plough the field. This year we started from scratch and to not beat about the bush (sorry for the pun), it was a monumental pain in the arse trying to cut through years of accumulated weeds and trash. I chose Bonus Field for our vegetable plot (so named because we didn’t realise it was ours when we purchased the land) because it seemed to be the most “tame” of our fields. Unfortunately, the weeds weren’t ready to surrender. Stallone-style, if they were going down, it wasn’t without a fight and we grudgingly agreed to call it a score draw in September and say no more about it.

Next year I was determined would be different. Like the A-Team getting ready to tackle the bad guy, I would Be Prepared, even if that involved welding metal plates to a 1984 Dodge Caravan and scouting out the neighbour’s pastures for signs of a small town gangster hideout.

In particular, I really wanted to have the field ploughed and ideally seeded with a green cover crop. White clover sounds like the business and was my crop of choice, but first I had to tidy up the aftermath of my vegetables.

It shouldn’t have been a hard job. There’s maybe a half-acre to turn over and considering I have a 6′ heavy duty rotary tiller attached to George The Tractor, you wouldn’t have been beaten for expecting the task to be no more than an enjoyable afternoon’s work. Oh, how you’d be wrong.

It all started to go awry with the hay bale. We’d used hay in the summer to mulch between the 274 tomato plants and strike a devastating blow to the weeds in that zone. It worked like a charm but unfortunately, I wasn’t vigilant enough and the kids constructed a “ninja spider’s web to catch the coyotes and samurai” from sticks and baler twine. Of course I’d cleared it up and gathered the twine before setting out with the tiller, or at least that’s what I thought. The tiller found the hidden twine, span it around the shaft and tied everything up tighter than a Belgian’s money belt. I had my back turned to make the corner at the edge of the field and didn’t see what was happening until the smell of burning clutch and plumes of smoke illuminated me to the fact that I had in fact, just toasted my slip clutch. Bugger.

After giving it a chance to cool down and doing my best to unwind the twine, I tried again but the clutch wasn’t having any of it. One circuit later and it was smoking once more like a blues singer in Paris. Another cool down and on the third attempt the blades wouldn’t even spin when they hit the soil. I was pretty sure all that was required was a bit of tightening of the bolts on the clutch, but how tight should they be? The farmer answer is apparently, not clear. Tight enough to work, not too tight that the slip doesn’t slip. Really helpful.

Then when I tried to tighten the bolts, I discovered my 3/8″ socket spanner was bust. In fairness, it was a cheapo from Canadian Tire bought many years ago and by rights it should have crumbled to dust when used on anything except my son’s bike. But it meant a trip into Winchester to find a replacement. I discovered that Winchester Home Hardware actually doesn’t really do much in the way of hardware. Their tool section is even more pathetic than my own. So, I tried MDG which is apparently where the world’s tools all go to die. Staffed by lobotomized automatons all with suspiciously similar facial appearance and one-syllable names, I was astonished to find what I needed in a dusty cupboard at the back. To be honest, when I was being taken there, I did for a moment wonder if there was a white-coated outcast doctor waiting for me with a syringe and a smile and my fight or flee instinct was certainly aroused.

Instead, Bob From Aisle 4 guided me to the cupboard which was open.

“Huh, shouldn’t be open,” remarked Bob with a shrug before shuffling away.

“Shouldn’t be open,” echoed a leaden voice behind me and involuntarily hunching against the jab of a syringe any second, I came face to face with Big Jo From Aisle 12B. To say she was ugly would be an insult to all Belgians. In the words of Dylan Moran, she looked like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle. Big Jo eyed me suspiciously for a moment, weighing up whether the offense of Cupboard Opening Without The Proper Permit could be levelled on me and made to stick. As her remaining neurons feebly fired with the speed of continental drift, she must have come to the conclusion that it was best to just ignore the whole thing and shuffle on.

I found what I needed and tried not to flee in too undignified a manner. My walk to the cash machine probably resembled a 10 year old making for a monster water slide: an ungainly combination of walk-don’t-run-boy and the famous bottom-run (characteristic loping gait of miscreants everywhere, used exclusively for trying to escape parents wielding a slipper. There are no recorded instances of it being successful). I practically hurled my debit card at Amy The Cashier In Lane 3 and relaxed only when Winchester was dwindling in my rear view mirror.

Fortunately, the trauma of my MDG experience was worth it. The spanner did the job perfectly and with newly tightened slip clutch, I was able to complete another pass on Bonus Field. It’s not as neat as I’d like, but compared to where we were last year, it’s a million percent better. One job down, a lot left to do. Here’s hoping for Christmas Chainsaw Ninjas…

Filthy Lucre and the Lost Art of Chicken Herding

Filthy Lucre and the Lost Art of Chicken Herding

For as long as I can remember, I’ve liked money. To be more specific, I’ve liked being given money. Now of course, everyone likes being handed cash. Unless you’re Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions, there aren’t many people who would say “oh no, I’ve actually been trying to get rid of a stack of fifties for bloody days. Can’t seem to give it away, mate. Pray keep your money, for I need it not.”


Unfortunately, I’ve done some fairly embarrassing things to get my hands on money. At the tender age of 15, an application for a shelf-stacking job at Iceland Frozen Foods was rejected for my being under age. Apparently they had a policy of not employing child labour (novel, but it was the 80s). Not to be thwarted, at the more mature age of 17 I was employed by a nightclub to collect glasses in my hometown of Middlesbrough. No one explained to me, a slender and naive young lad with nice legs and clad only in a pair of tight fitting black shorts, a skin-tight Bacardi t-shirt and a bow-tie, of the dangers inherent in bending over to collect glasses from tables surrounded by drunken middle-aged women who really should have known better. But, I endured because of an unquenchable thirst for the filthy lucre. Even though my arse still involuntarily clenches when I hear a drunken female cackle and screech right behind me and I was paid beneath minimum wage, at least it was in cash.

At 19 I was employed by Swervey Mervey, the landlord of the Stainton Inn pub who was less careful with his hands than a newly formed cadre of Dramatic Arts undergrads with a Twister board, a bottle of baby oil and way too much home-brewed sherry. Mervyn was particularly swervy when a few of the better-looking barmaids were on duty but thankfully never required me to don the Bacardi t-shirt or be swerved. And as with the nightclub owner, his redeeming characteristic was a habit of paying in cash, no questions asked. He even put it in a tidy brown envelope. In an electronic age when I rarely even see my wages anymore, being handed an envelope with the reassuring pad of rolled-up promisory notes is very special my friends.

So, I think you can agree that my passion for being given money transcends temporary discomfort, which is why it’s baffling to many people that I chose to start a hobby farm. I mean, there aren’t many organic farmers driving Mercs and quaffing 20 year old single malts while they count the stacks of cash they’ve just made from selling pasture-raised chicken. Of course I might be wrong. I have an Aston Martin DB1390 convertible tractor after all and I worked out how to get it into fourth gear this summer.

Alas though, after experimenting for the past year, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is money in farming but unfortunately all of it is pouring outwards. So far we must have dropped about $20,000 into farm infrastructure, machinery and livestock…and we still don’t have a barn or fenced pastures. As the missus likes to remark, that’s an awful lot of trips to the farmers market.

ImageBut today we actually made some cash and it was a triumphant moment. Our chicken flock has grown significantly from last year when we had a meagre four birds, one of whom was Custard the Cockerel who limped whenever anyone was watching. The flock peaked in the summer at around 60 and if you count the meat birds, was closer to 120. Sure, we made some money selling those broilers and our pigs, but in all honesty that cash had all already been spent on purchasing them, building their housing, fences, feed and herbal medicine not to mention the astronomical butchery fees. But I digress. Today we made some real cash by selling our surplus laying birds and “downsizing” for the winter.

We got most of the girls we sold for free in the spring from a neighbour who was going on an extended vacation and had planned to slaughter them all. We also offloaded ten of the disappointing Barred Plymouth Rocks we raised from day-old chicks (I should have realised that nothing good ever came out of Plymouth…perhaps there is some truth after all to the rumours that it was originally settled by wandering French garlic farmers in 1973 only to be targeted by an influx of out-of-work itinerant Belgians in the great circus performer migration of the early 80s).

Our new cockerel wasn’t too pleased with these outbound transitions. I think he was ok with the first batch of 5 Rocks leaving just over a week ago. After all, he still had over 50 girls to pleasure. But when I used my secret powers of chicken herding and Jedi mind control to separate 10 of the reds into a holding pen, things went downhill fast. I think he was partial to a bit of the older red sexlink because after they went and I’d claimed another five Rocks this afternoon, he looked ready for murder. When I took a further 3 reds this evening, clearly enough was fucking enough and he did the side shuffle thing at me. I swear could see him calculating the trajectory for a raptor strike at my face. If I hear a tapping at the window tonight with the muffled words “knock knock, motherfucker”, for sure I’m not opening the door to see who it is.

But even should he somehow manage to beak his way past the guard dogs and slumbering children without alerting anyone to his presence, I’m sure after a cup of tea and the chance to calm down I’m hoping he’ll accept that a big stack of cash buys a lot of pellets and a fresh batch of nubile young reds when the spring finally arrives.

It’s just such a travesty that my novice blunder with the tractor, a meteorite and the bush hog last week, plus our UV water purification bulb expiring yesterday, has wiped out what profit we made. But then, he doesn’t need to know that. For now at least, I have a stack of cash to keep us happy.

Bringing Home The Bacon

Bringing Home The Bacon

Historically September is a month in which you can be assured of several of life’s certainties. There’s the drop in temperatures and the first misty mornings; an increase in commuter traffic which accompanies the new school year. Jumpers and coats get dug out from the back of the closet where inexplicably they managed to mate and produce random unpaired gloves. And of course there’s the inevitable disappointment of being a Boro fan which kicks in after a brief few weeks of hope.

This year there are some new events to add to the list. The first is my vegetable harvest. Now, I’m not one to blow my own trumpet. As Bill Hicks observed, there’s at least one vertebrae in the way for a start. I have to say though…my veg is bloody amazing. Most of you won’t have experienced them, since I’m tighter than a gnat’s chuff when it comes to sharing but believe me when I say that if you’d tasted them, you’d die happier than a Belgian with a British passport. The stuff you buy in the shops is the equivalent of a droning French poem about French poetry in comparison to the Shakespearean sonnet that is my potatoes, carrots, parsnips and assorted legumes.

This year we used no fertiliser or pesticides and just experimented to see what would grow. Granted, like back in ’90 when my brother successfully cultivated a number of marijuana plants on his bedroom window having persuaded our mother they were a variety of rare fern, it turned out to be a particularly good year for the weeds. However, we also managed to get 2.5 bushels of potatoes, roughly 300 onions, beans, turnips, parsnips, carrots, mesclun leaves, more Romaine lettuce than a gypsy with five hands could steal, spinach, swiss chard, bok choi, cabbage, curly leaf kale, broccoli, melons (OK, they were tiny small but yeah baby! melons! Try growing those in the north-east of England), courgettes, acorn squash, enough tomatoes to bury a small Italian village and a few beetroot that the rather snobbish mice in my fields discussed but finally ruled as unfit for rodent consumption by five votes to three.

In the interest of full disclosure, my peas and garlic were an abject failure and I lost most of the strawberries, gooseberries and rhubarb to the weeds, but I’m confident that the soft fruits at least can be saved now that the tangle of grass, spikeys and big sprawly things are in retreat. My mate Shawn The Hunter has left his bush whacker complete with its optional 10-inch steel blade and it’s the Chuck Norris of weed control machines. I can’t wait to have a go and hope to not amputate my foot in the process which would be unfortunate to say the least.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Emma process those tomatoes. She started the month happier than a school girl in Team Edward but as the weeks have gone by and the volume of untouched tomatoes continues to grow, I’m sensing a certain air of “ask me about those tomatoes mother fucker and you’ll be plucking them from a special place about five seconds later”. Given I’m quite protective of my special places, I’ve decided to not press the subject of the half-dozen bins of ripening tomatoes in the garage, or mention the other four or five sackfuls still on the vine. It’s a self-defence mechanism most married men are born with.

The second event that I’m adding to the September List is livestock processing. When I worked at Accenture there was a phrase used after each performance review of being “counselled out”. What it basically meant was the person had been judged to have reached the end of their useful life and was deemed not good enough to progress further with us beautiful people. Those counselled out were ejected faster than a lightweight Belgian in a bar crawl and we all tried to not speak about them thereafter. It turns out that “livestock processing” is basically the same thing except it’s a good deal messier and you can’t re-apply a year later.

Our four Long Black pigs and almost 60 chickens were taken to slaughter and “processed”. Despite our neighbour Nelson The Farmer offering to take the pigs when he did his, I chose to do the job myself. These were our first meat animals and it felt shabby and disrespectful to let anyone else complete what we had started especially since I’d decided the day they were to die. So, we borrowed a trailer from Big George, which was about as road-worthy as my Expandable, Foldable, Portable Dog Basket but did the job and didn’t cost us the $2,500 a new one would have required. In the dark at 5AM, I caught and loaded up the birds into chicken crates which was no mean feat since each bird weighed around 8lbs live and there were eight in each crate. Running against the clock, I only just managed to get them all loaded up in time to set off at 6:30AM. We used a local poultry abattoir called Berube Poultry in South Mountain, ON, that I’d highly recommend. They were friendly, no nonsense and the birds were done within minutes of arriving.

I’d expected the pigs to be a nightmare. I loved having those pigs and while I didn’t make the mistake of regarding them as pets, it was still hard to order their deaths. It helped that we’d pre-sold at least two of them and I crave proper English back bacon. The Gods of Small Agriculture were certainly smiling on me because I’d expected to have a real struggle getting all four into the trailer but instead three went in willingly for a bucket of feed and the fourth followed after a gentle nudge with my knee. Unfortunately the abattoir I took the pigs to wasn’t as good as the poultry one. It’s currently being sold and the man running the place didn’t share my desire to treat the animals with utmost respect. He didn’t butcher them the way I asked, kept the offal despite my instructions and also charged me 60c per lb to butcher despite his price list showing 50c per lb. When I called to complain I got a grudging acknowledgement that he owed us the offal and a lot of attitude from him. Given the escalating price of feed and unexpected butchery costs meant the pigs came close to costing us money, it was such a disappointing way to end what should have been a hugely rewarding experience, especially since the pigs turned out to be much bigger than we’d expected and there was more meat to go around. Needless to say, I’ll be taking Nelson’s advice and travelling the extra distance to try out his butcher next year.

Despite those final problems, in addition to the vegetables we now have two freezers full of chicken and pork not to mention the barrel of honey and unending supply of eggs. There is cured back bacon in the fridge and we bought ourselves a meat slicer to cut the perfect rasher. If the vegetables taste divine, then the meat we’ve produced is out of this world. The chicken has flavour and substance, the pork is rich, dark and fatty. In the next couple of weeks Shawn The Hunter and myself are going to have a crack at building a smokehouse to cold-smoke the hams and bacon and I’ll bring up the subject to more processing with Emma and try to make some sausage. September was a crazy busy month, but it’s been worth it to to see the culmination of the effort we’ve put in. We’ll be celebrating with some close friends on 5th November, it’s just a shame I couldn’t get a batch of beer brewed in time. But then again, I need to leave at least one big project for next year.

Ten For That, You Must Be Mad!

Ten For That, You Must Be Mad!

It’s a deal, it’s a steal…it’s the Sale of the fucking Century! A whole side of pork for how much? That’s bloody amazing, I’d like to buy ten. No, shit, make it a round twenty and I’ll throw a party in your name.

That’s pretty much the reaction I want when offering our pork, chicken, eggs and honey for sale. And if you’re lucky enough to be invited to buy some, then I expect you to be forever grateful to be included in such a privileged and happy few. So quit your whinging and pay up.

At least that’s what I feel like saying when I’m thrust into the role of salesman. You see I’m not a natural salesman. In fact, you could go so far as to say I’m an anti-geezer. I don’t so much wheel and deal, as shuffle uncomfortably and undersell myself rather than risk the embarrassment of asking you for money. That manifests itself in ways that make it damn hard to corner the market in organic farm produce. You see, when I know that my product is so far superior to anything else it’s practically Aryan, I can’t help but form the unreasonable opinion that I shouldn’t have to sell it at all. Customers should be beating a path to my door, thrusting handfuls of cash and images of their grubby children under my nose while begging me to sell them pork to feed to their malnourished little Jasper who would otherwise have to subsist on Pop Tarts and Cheez Whizz.

Of course it’s all subconscious avoidance of having to sell. It’s kind of ironic since in my day job I’m in charge of global sales and marketing for a software company. Our software products are bloody amazing too and should sell themselves as well, but at least at work I’ve overcome my reluctance to sell, sell, sell and have got to grips with it. So why can’t I get into the swing of hawking our wares for our delicious, wholesome farm produce?

The hard truth is I have the overpowering, deeply ingrained image of a salesman as some kind of sleazy Swiss Charlie, happy to take your last dollar and underpants with a smile and no remorse for leaving you stood butt naked and penniless with nothing to cover your tonker except a poorly manufactured set of decorative plates and a Certificate of Authenticity that, on closer examination, appears to have been printed earlier that day on a dot-matrix printer circa 1982.

Needless to say, I’m not enthusiastic about either becoming that sleaze, or having other people perceive me like that. So, as I’m sure all you psychologists can see, my avoidance stems from a deep seated need to be socially accepted and held in esteem. Shit, blog writing really is therapeutic. Unfortunately, that little revelation probably cost me a lie down on a cool leather sofa and the opportunity to drop into conversation that “I’ll have to talk to my therapist about that”, but on the plus side it might have saved me a hefty stack of cash and a punch in the face.

So, what I’ve decided to do to overcome this particular barrier is to channel the power of Monty Python. Like Harry the beard seller in The Life Of Brian, I’m going to introduce some humour into my selling. No, no, no. Ten? You’re supposed to argue. “Ten for that, you must be mad!”

I’ll be bigging up our pork, waxing lyrical about our honey (bad pun, sorry), giving it large for our monster chickens. And if you’re not sure or try to haggle without a sense of humour, then be prepared for an unexpected gourd and a fake beard made of goat hair. Whatever happens, you’ll be left with something better than a hand-painted plate.

The Queen Is Dead

The Queen Is Dead

If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that I’m an aspiring bee-keeper. Back in the spring we took possession of two hives of fantastic bees, lovingly fed them sugar syrup, assembled and painted bright new hives and generally gave them a bloody marvellous home. Then something sinister happened: one of my beautiful hives transformed into the Mean Machine. I’m not talking about Burt Reynolds in tight pants, but an aggressive Beta Colony of agro bees intent on stinging any poor fool who tries to approach them.

Like any mean bully, they were never the strongest. Thinking perhaps that the bees were trying to compensate for their physical weakness, I made a bid to boost their strength before the season got too late and swapped out a frame of fresh brood from Alpha and put it into Beta to give them a kick. I got stung several times in the process and on reflection have to admin that doing it in sweltering 40C heat wasn’t my smartest idea. However, there was no doubt in my mind – Beta bees were in fact, transforming from those initial happy-go-lucky fun-time bees into Belligerent Geordie Bees.

I checked them a week ago and had barely cracked open the hive lid when I was viciously attacked and stung again. If anything, the bees were meaner than ever. Like Darth Vader in a TIE fighter, I couldn’t shake those buggers off. My Beta Colony bees simply would not leave me alone until they had stung and reduced me to a hopping, flapping, panicky shambles.

Now, the shame of failure is a bitter draught to drink and I’ll freely admit that I’m not a man who likes to savour the dregs from that cup. So, after my neighbour (who keeps bees too) suggested that their behaviour is typical of a Queen-less hive, I called up Brent (the Bee Guy) and got him to come and inspect them. After all, while my queen was cheaper than a night out with Liz, she still cost me the tidy side of $250 and if she was a dud, I wanted a new one.

I was grimly pleased to discover that the Bee Guy got stung several times in short order too and after muttering to himself “They are unusually aggressive” he scuttled away to put on a full suit. Meanwhile, the Geordies had stung my son on the leg and he howled like only a seven year old can. You’d have thought that would distract the bees from stinging me, but no. They nailed my back a couple of times for good measure so that under the pretence of needing to check on my son, I too was sent gambolling for the relative safety of my garage to put on a heavy rain coat.

By the time I had got back to the hive, the Bee Guy had found the queen and committed regicide by squashing her. He said it was for the best. He said it was the only way to change their behaviour. He said there was no other option. Personally, I think he might have tried counselling first. He also declared that my innocent queen was most likely a slut with a fancy for a bit of rough. Having found the equivalent of a drunken Jimmy Nail on her maiden flight, she had ruthlessly shagged him until he died and was now popping out angry Geordie Jimmy Bees in the thousands.

And so my queen is dead. Perhaps like Morrissey, the Beta Colony will stage a comeback and make bad but harmless music without the angst or edge of yesterday. Or perhaps it’s best that she’s gone to bee Nirvana and doomed the hive to destruction. Only time will tell.

To make amends for whacking my $250 avian royal, the Bee Guy came and delivered a new queen the day after and, now that her pheromones are recognised and accepted by the hive, is due back tomorrow to release her. Personally, if she is in fact surrounded by bewildered Geordie Jimmy Bees all the new queen needed to do was take off her stripey top and make inappropriate gestures with a bottle of Hooch toward the biggest drone to gain complete acceptance. Unfortunately, the Bee Guy is Canadian and of course couldn’t have known the mating ritual of the Common Geordie and so we had to wait the few days for time to do what alcopops could have hastened.

Hopefully the new queen is demure and likes her drones more like Commander Data than Jimmy Nail. Either way, I’m taking their honey next month however many stings it costs me.

Night Sounds and Belgian Brood

Night Sounds and Belgian Brood

All you north american readers probably won’t believe this, but the night sounds of crickets, frogs and neekerbreekers, night birds and other buzzy insects isn’t one you hear at night in England. It just way too damp and besides, the countryside and its creatures have long since learnt to hush up or risk being shot by a nobleman or built on.

Consequently, the deafening noise of Canada at night constantly takes me by surprise. At best as a kid I used to listen to the sound of a timid snowy owl who perched unobtrusively every now and then in the small copse of trees beside our house and the occasional drunk staggering home from the pub along the back path and singing the trombone part of “Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag” to anyone unfortunate enough to encounter him. In comparison, Canada’s night-time chorus is much more relaxing.

Of course, not all flying, buzzing, chirping creatures are to be embraced and I’m not just referring to mosquitos. Sure, they will plunge a hypodermic needle into your flesh at the slightest opportunity and happily drink your blood, but at best they’re annoying. I’m not even talking about Deer Flies who never give up until they manage to tear off a chunk of said flesh and take it home for a snack. No, what I’m referring to are Rogue Bees and Wasps.

Back in May I was deeply in love with my bees. It was a honeymoon period, pun fully intended. I’d never been stung, thought I could handle everything easy. I had the knack, I was The Hive Master. But having fed them sugar water for a month, then lovingly tended their needs for another couple of months, I am forced to conclude that not all bees are made equal. My first hive, let’s call it Alpha Hive, is thriving. The bees are multiplying and off doing bee things like making me lots of honey. Great.

However, the second hive, Beta Colony, has a weakness at its core. If bees had a nationality, I’d suspect they were Belgian: lazy, slow to reproduce (which rules out the French) and unexpectedly belligerent. Beta Colony bees just don’t seem to be in the programme of making me honey. So, in desperation I called The Bee Guy and was advised to give Beta a little kick. Not literally, since that would be rather stupid. Instead, he suggested I take a frame of strong brood from Alpha and swap it out for a weak frame from Beta. That sounded like good, logical advice and so that evening, I resolved to implement it.

Unfortunately for me, that evening temperatures were touching 36 degrees C, with the humidex taking it well over 40. The bees weren’t in a co-operative mood and were spreading out on the outside of their hives to cool down, but being The Hive Master, I decided to press on. So, I cracked open Alpha Hive and worked on the supers for 10 mins which stirred them up into a frenzy quite nicely. Then I stole a heavy rack of brood and using my Bee Brush, proceeded to sweep the bees from it. Now, with hindsight that wasn’t very clever. The bees, understandably, were hot, disturbed and didn’t take too kindly to a gigantic brush smacking them on the head. However, having gotten that far, I really had to continue.

Most of the bees from Alpha were now airborne and making a noise not unlike a B52 bomber. Bravely I opened the Belgian Beta Hive who, up to this point, had also been cooling themselves outside their hive, drinking little cappuccinos and exclaiming smugly that they would never put up with such disgraceful, rough treatment from an Englishman.

At that point many an experienced beekeeper would no doubt have sealed up the hives and gone home for a cup of ice tea. Not me, oh no. From the depths of my childhood the phrase “don’t start what you can’t finish, Thompson” rang through my mind, bolstering my resolve. So, despite there being now two competing and angry hives (many of whom were airborne) to contend with, I took my Bee Brush and swept the Beta Hive brood frame clean of bees. That’s where it all went wrong.

See the Belgians, it would appear, really don’t take kindly to being smacked with a brush. Dropping their cappuccinos, they rose in fury and three of them, let’s call them Pierre, Jacques and Alein, found their way into my T-Shirt sleeve. In defiance of the established Belgian rules of self-preservation and cowardice, each proceeded to sting me near my armpit.

Three things went through my mind almost instantaneously.

  1. “Fuck…fuck…fuck, that hurts! Ow, ow, ow, you Belgian bastards, ow, fuck.”
  2. I can’t drop the frame! Must smite these bastards. Aargh! Indecision.
  3. You’re now going to go into anaphylactic shock and die, stupid

Fortunately, I was able to place the frame carefully on the ground, smite the unfortunate bees who’d probably just realised that in stinging me their arse had just been ripped out and then run in circles like a demented stork flapping at the many hundreds of Belgian bees who, inspired by the selfless bravery of Pierre, Jacques and Alein were trying to penetrate my shroud and finish the job.

It wasn’t my finest hour.

However, I did return and swap the frames. Then moving with haste, I closed up the hives and shuffled home clutching my arm and muttering furiously about the Belgians. Emma administered some medicine and reassured me that I wasn’t about to keel over in a systemic shock and suffer a full neural shutdown. Relieved, I allowed her to pamper me for the rest of the evening and comment on how brave I’d been which wasn’t a bad result.

I managed to put all thoughts of stings from my mind for a few days. Then Nelson, The (New) Man, came and mowed our fields for hay and baled it into shining round bales. In working one of the last fields, he claimed to have run over a bees nest and wanted to show me it. Obviously I wondered if he’d stumbled into the reason Beta Hive wasn’t as strong as it should have been. If Beta had swarmed in the spring, that would explain why they were weak and not making much honey.

Again, my eagerness got me into trouble. Peering over the nest to identify if they were my missing bees, first with confusion, then with horror, I realised it was a wasp’s nest. And they were starting to fly out. Obviously tipped off by the filthy Belgians, I recoiled but it was too late. Like Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star, one or two had made it into my T-Shirt and let rip against my nipple.

Of course Nelson thought that my stork impression was hilarious and after admonishing me not to set fire to all our fields in a frenzy of blazing retribution, recommended gasoline poured onto the nest to kill them all.

So in the course of one week, I’ve gone from no stings whatsoever to three on the arm and two on the nipple. It’s been a bad week and while I have to give the Belgians another chance, the wasps weren’t so lucky. If only I’d been able to drop a match after pouring the equivalent of Kuwait’s weekly petroleum output onto the filthy nest…still, at the end of the week I have over 100 bales of hay, at least one functional bee hive and a new nipple. It could have been a lot worse.

Dig For Victory

Dig For Victory

In the annals of history, there have been many famous battles, many celebrated victors. Few indeed were as grimly fought as on the fields of Fernwood Farm, nor their heroes so unsung. On this weekend beneath a slate grey sky, one man stood alone and said “No! You Shall Not Grow!” to the rising tide of weeds. One man saved the strawberry plants and rescued the onions from the inexorable onslaught of untamed wilderness. One man stepped forward to answer the cries of the smothered peas and wielding nothing but a 29cc mini-cultivator, turned the battle by force of his will.

I might be many things, but a weed isn’t one of them. I am that one man.


Battles, Beetles and the Stones

Battles, Beetles and the Stones

June has been rather frantic. As well as stressing about my fantastic hives of bees, my weekends and evenings have been all about the veg. When I planted a 180′ row of potatoes with my Dad back in May, I wasn’t really thinking ahead. For example, I wasn’t thinking about how each row has two sides, so that would be 360′ of potato row to hill up. Twice. Nor did I consider that come the fall, I’ll have 180′ of potatoes to dig up again. That’s assuming of course that the Colorado Potato Beetle doesn’t eat them all between now and then.


They are new little buggers to me (sorry for the bad pun) because in the UK we don’t really get them. It’s probably something to do with it being way too wet and them not being very good at swimming. I’m amazed that in the first year of growing potatoes, on land that hasn’t been farmed for 15 – 20 years, they just happened to be wandering past my field. I’m even more amazed that there isn’t a filthy chemical to kill them but like Keith Richards, apparently these bugs have developed immunity to practically every drug invented and are but a whisker away from immortality.

Never one to complain, at first I was just crushing the beetles and eggs as I found them, laughing like some demented god of beetle death. Unfortunately, according to a co-worker, even after a good squashing the eggs will often hatch and wreak a terrible revenge. Seriously, these bugs are like miniature tanks. Of course he could have been winding me up, but why take the chance?

While I’m not aiming for organic certification anytime soon, I am trying to adopt reasonably organic practices. So despite what the beetle can do to a crop, I didn’t want to napalm them with pesticides in the hope of beating the bugs into a retreat. Instead, that means literally bending over and giving it to them. Tonight I’ve inspected 180′ of potato rows to painstakingly pick the beetles off the leaves and strip any I found with eggs laid on them. And I have to do it each week. Twice. Until July.

So instead of Lord of Squashy Death, tonight I transformed into the Merciless Lord of Hellfire. I filled the bottom of a big yoghurt pot with petrol then put every beetle and eggy leaf I could find into it. Having filled my pot, I poured it all out onto a log, doused it with yet more petrol and set the mother alight. Sure, I lost part of my eyebrows and singed my beard but unless I’m massively mistaking them for rare dragon eggs ala Game of Thrones, those little buggers ain’t gonna hatch after being cremated. For now, my potatoes are safe.

Unfortunately, I wish I could say the same for everything else; the thistles, vines and grasses are choking the life out of all my other crops. The peas are losing the battle against the bindweed and my strawberries are wholly submerged beneath a canopy of meadow grass. And the less said about the carrots and rhubarb the better.

However, I’ve invested in more mechanised mayhem to tackle the problem properly this coming weekend by treating myself to a 29cc Troy-Bilt mini-cultivator. That beauty is going to eat up those weeds like they are apple pie and I’ll be able to sit back to revel in my absolute victory with a cuppa and a fat cigar, admiring the beauty of my finely tended half-acre veg garden while the kids play nicely with each other. Or at least I’m hoping it’ll be something like that. Given my unfortunate history with garden power tools, I might take off a toe or two, shout a lot, destroy the parsnips and bok choi and end up settling for a score draw if only the boys would give me 5 minutes peace.

One thing’s for certain: this summer equinox weekend will witness the crescendo of my battle against the weeds and bugs and I’ll be victorious, or otherwise my next blog post will proclaim my shameful defeat and you may all call me Weedy Stephen.