Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas to all...

.. and to all, a good night!

Wishing everyone a happy, safe and simple holiday season.

An "egg"-cellent Christmas idea

I realize that with the virtual ink I've been giving our four-legged farm friends, I haven't written much about our hens. And that's a shame, because they're the only ones paying their way around here.

When we brought home our ladies in the fall, we expected they'd lay eggs until the weather turned cold and the days became shortened by an ever-growing darkness. Then production would taper off.

Well, we've experienced minus 25 degree Celsius weather and the darkest day of the year is behind us and our 10 girls are still producing between seven and nine eggs each day.

Don't get me wrong -- we love these eggs. We've been frying, scrambling, boiling, poaching and baking with them. We love their rich-tasting yolks and delicate whites. Quite simply, I can't ever see us going back to store-bought eggs again. But regardless of how many we consume, we just can't keep up with production.

I've put an online ad on Kijiji for farm fresh brown eggs for $3.00 a dozen ($3.50 delivered) but so far, no takers. I plan on selling eggs (and other items) at the farmer's market next spring, but in the meantime, I've got a fridge filled with eggs.

Here's what 62 eggs looks like.

Now double that. That's what I've got in my fridge right now.

While I'd joked about giving eggs as Christmas gifts, I decided that might not be such a bad idea.

So I got out some canning jars and my stainless steel pot and I got busy pickling eggs.

I took hard-boiled eggs....

plus sliced red onions, red peppers, green peppers and yellow peppers.....

and put them in canning jars filled with brine made with vinegar, salt, sugar and infused with cloves.

These are simple gifts but they're pretty, especially when I get around to tying the red rafia bows around the lids.

But I'm not giving these just to be practical or to help clean out my fridge. These eggs also represent our first step on our path towards a more sustainable life and that's something we'd like to share with the people we love.

In our student days, Lucas and I gave more homemade gifts than store-bought ones, mainly because we didn't have a lot of extra money. I always felt a bit badly, thinking that recipients of our gifts would think us cheap. As we got better jobs, we tried to give "better" presents and each December, we found ourselves stressed out by the whole Christmas shopping experience.

We did buy some gifts this year but we're moving back to homemade items, this time intentionally. In a world filled with consumerism and disposable must-have gadgets, I hope our gift recipients, the grown-ups at least, will understand that we're not giving homemade gifts just out of economy but also out of ecology.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter prep, homesteading-style: part two

As promised, here are some photos to accompany my Simpler Living column on "Preparing for winter: Homesteading-style".

This was the first sign that we should take our winter preparation kinda seriously. Our house inspector found not one, but two electrical panels in our kitchen. The second is, of course, for the generator. Right.

I'd done some research for an article on generators but it was different shopping for our own. We had to walk the fine line between buying something with sufficient capacity to cover our basic needs in a power outage (fridge, well pump, some lights... we can camp out in front of the wood stove, right?) and spending way too much money on a piece of machinery that sits and gathers dust. (Hopefully. Not likely.)

We settled-on a 5,500 watt gas-powered model. I would have preferred diesel, so we could eventually convert it to bio diesel, but we had a budget to stick to. And to be honest, this model was on sale. We haven't hooked it up yet (we just got the right cable for it yesterday) but we're planning on a test-run before the lights go out for real.

This is our external wood furnace that sits about 100 feet away from the house. It works by circulating heated water, via insulated underground pipes, to a water-to-air heat exchanger in our basement. The exchanger is in turn connected to a conventional forced-air furnace that is controlled by a regular thermostat.

Eventually, we hope to use solar to power the furnace (and everything else) but for now, it's an on-grid system.

This is a somewhat blurry peek into our wood shed. We had to buy wood this year, which was an unexpected expense, but as we moved in July, we didn't have enough time to gather enough from our property AND unpack, settle in and figure out what the hell we were doing.

It's a mix of hard and soft wood in various sizes. Everyone and their uncle had advice on what to use so like most things out here, we're figuring it out as we go. The pile goes back several rows so I'm hoping we'll have enough to last until spring. If not, our 71-acre property is half woodlot and there's enough dead-fall to keep us warm for years. It's just a matter of collecting, cutting and seasoning it. That's all.

This is my favourite piece of "furniture" in our house. It's an old Elmira "Sweet Heart" wood stove. It's not original to the house (which is about 100-years-old) but it was installed by the former owners. There is nothing like cooking with or savouring the warmth of a wood stove. Simply delicious.

While there are ducts on the first floor of the house, which circulate heat from the external wood furnace, they are not connected to the second floor at all. There are only three small bedrooms and a two-piece bathroom upstairs (our "full" four-piece bathroom is on the main floor, off the kitchen -- makes for interesting visits with guests!) but it can get chilly up there.

And yet, it's amazing how efficiently this "peak-a-boo" flap above our fridge works to draw warm air from the wood stove up the stairs.

It's also amazing how handy this is for keeping an eye on the kids.

Finally, we knew once we moved to the country, our little hand-held snow shovel just wasn't going to cut it. Many farmers around here use their tractors to plough, but all we had was our little ATV. Despite its size, it's incredibly powerful (and maneuverable) and we haven't had to call in the army yet (yes, that's a jab at you Toronto folks out there!)

We use the same ATV for hauling wood out of the woods during the other three seasons and occasionally, for a little country entertainment.

Yes, that's Lucas pulling the kids behind the ATV in a snow scoop*. Good times... uh huh.

I recently read somewhere that winter in the city is to be endured while winter in the country is to be experienced. That really resonated with me, for some reason. Most years I've grumbled about the snow and the cold and the slush but this year, it's different.

Now that we've taken steps to protect our family from the storm, there are many times when I look out the window when it's snowing and actually smile. Yes, carrying buckets of water back and forth to the barn in a snowstorm has its own challenges and trying to keep the chickens' water defrosted can be tedious. And sure, I still worry about Lucas (and others) driving.

But in the end, it all comes down appreciating the little things -- a blazing full moon on a crisp winter night, walking through our woods when the trees are covered in a twinkling blanket of white magic, sipping hot chocolate after making snow angels with the kids or watching Gallagher roll in deep powder snow.

All treasured moments of sheer bliss, plain and simple. Little moments that have helped me rediscover the wonder and magic of the season.

So as long as we have a stocked pantry, a roaring fire and we don't have to drive anywhere, I say, "let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone!

* No children were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Random moments of happiness #4

Sam, at three months old

We're thinking of entering him in a Vincent Price look-alike contest.

But seriously, how many goats have such a distinguished-looking set of eyebrows and a matching"goat"-tee?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's super-goat, getting ready for take-off!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Simpler Living column, part two

The second installment of my Simpler Living column for Bankrate Canada went live this morning. It's about us getting ready for winter, homesteading-style.

Here's the intro:

"This is the first year that the sight of snowflakes made me nervous. While I've never been a "Yay, it's winter, bring on the cold!" kinda girl, I've got bigger worries than my usual end-of-the-season case of winter blues.

You see, this is our first winter on Rowangarth Farm, our modern-day homestead in eastern Ontario. And we're really not sure what to expect.

When my family and I moved here in July, in the midst of black fly season and heat waves, the thought of power outages and 6-foot snow drifts was far from our minds.

But we knew that long, hard winters were part of country life. When we had our house inspection, we discovered not one but two electrical panels in our kitchen: one for the main power and the second for the generator. Living 10 minutes north of a small town, essentially in the middle of nowhere, means that when a tree brings down a power line, we're on our own..."

To read more, follow this link here.

You can read my blog posting about the previous installment of Simpler Living here or read the actual article here.

One thing that I wasn't able to include in the article was photos, so I'll post some in the next day or two, to bring some of our farm's particulars to life.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Back in business... and a thank you

To all of you who have sent me emails or written comments after my last posting, I wanted to give a heart-felt 'thank you'. Your words of encouragement are truly humbling... and I appreciate them dearly.

And to just reassure everyone -- the latest antics at Rowangarth Farm did not cause me to pack my bags and head back to the city. I have, however, been hiding out for a while... in my fleece pyjamas under a warm blanket, snuggled up with some eucalyptus and lemon tea. Yep, I got sick. Big time.

I came down with a nasty chest infection that made my lungs feel like they were being sliced with razors every time I breathed, especially when I was outside in our minus 20 degree Celsius weather. I pulled muscles in my stomach that I didn't even know I had from all the coughing and my nose got miserably chapped from my constant wiping.

I almost always get sick when I push myself too hard. It's just my body's way of forcing me to SLOW down! So I did, after a short-lived bout of feeling sorry for myself. I slept, I read and I didn't think (too much) about all the things I should be doing.

But today, I got back at it. I spent the better part of the day mucking out stalls (a lot of poop accumulates when you're not in the barn!) and getting myself reacquainted with everyone.

This is part of the L-shaped stall that the donkeys and horse use (we leave the north door open so they can come and go as they please.) The larger stall/part is in the rear and to the left, out of frame. It ain't fancy, but it's home!

As I'm writing this, my back hurts, I'm tired as all hell and I had another painful run-in with Oscar the Grouch. And yet, I had a great day. As overwhelmed as I feel sometimes, there's no way I'm giving this life up. When I stop worrying about the details, I realize I'm having way too much fun.

And besides, I'm just getting started.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Overwhelmed and underpaid

One of the things I've found with this homesteading life is that things don't always go the way you expect them. It's a good thing to be humbled by nature but it doesn't make the lesson any easier.

You see, I'm something of a recovering type-A personality, in that I like to be in control and have things go a certain way. But I also know that's unreasonable (and downright exhausting!) so I'm working at paring down my expectations and instead sitting back and accepting where life takes me. It's a recipe for simplicity and yet I'm finding nothing simple about it.

I knew there would be challenges raising animals here, especially those of the livestock variety (even though Oscar thinks he's a dog, he most certainly is not!) and no matter how many books I read, questions I ask and online forums I visit, the only way to learn is by doing.

I could have made the decision to start the doing after we'd been here for a while. To settle into to farm life first, to get through our first winter solo. But I didn't. Each one of these creatures came into our life for a reason and I made the decision to take them. (Whether it was the "right" is still up for debate.)

The learning started immediately. My first lesson in animal husbandry was that regardless of breed characteristics, each animal has its own unique and set personality. While humans tend to think they can bend nature to their will, to align with their expectations, it's just not the case. And I've got the bruises to prove it.

For example, the donkeys, who were "hired" to act as predator protection for our future herd of sheep and goats, like to terrorize the goat.

We got Oscar as a companion animal (because wethers are supposedly more docile than bucks), but he's taken to headbutting me* when he doesn't get what he wants (I think the donkeys are stressing him out.)

Gallagher came to live on our farm because he needed a forever home, we had an empty stall and I'd always dreamed of owning a horse. What's more, I find spending time with him as good as any therapy. Trouble is, he's fallen in love with Cinderella -- the donkey -- and throws a temper tantrum when he loses sight of her, especially when we put him in his stall. At the age of 18, you'd think he'd have a bit more sense. But he doesn't.

Then there's the aesthetics of the place. When we lived in the city, I used to be conscientious of what our house looked like, inside and out. Beds were always made, dishes clean, floors swept, everything in its place. But on a working farm, I've found I've just had to lower my expectations: there's just too much to do and simply not enough time to do it.

Take the barnyard, for example. The heavy snow is now thawing, and overnight everything has turned into a soggy, sloppy mess. No matter how much shoveling of poop and laying of straw I do, it's just not pretty. Let's just say our farm will never grace the cover of Harrowsmith Country Living.

Then there are the times when I find it hard to draw the line between being a responsible caretaker and being overwhelmed by barn chores. Regardless of how dead tired I am, how late I was up the night before or how much work I should be doing, there are creatures that depend on me to feed, water and keep them clean (that's in addition to my own two creatures who need me, but that's a whole other posting on "mummy guilt"!)

To be honest, I have really down moments when I think, "What the hell are we doing?", "We have no right to be here," "What do we know about anything?" and "I've gotten us in over our heads."
I can almost here people telling me, "I told you so" and "You rushed into things" and "Didn't you see this coming?" Perhaps.

But then I remind myself why we came here and what we're trying to get away from. Modern life is so often one of ease and convenience. Too tired to cook? Then pop a frozen dinner in the microwave. Preservatives and excess packaging, be damned!

And yet, this kind of work isn't convenient, it isn't glamorous and it's far from easy. Truth be told, it's exhausting. It's stressful feeling out of control and not knowing what we're doing 100% (or even 50%) of the time. But every day we're learning something new and each lesson, good or bad, is taking us one step closer to figuring out how to make this all work for us.

And every night, under a black sky filled with zillions of stars, I'm learning how to just look at our barn filled with so much life and living and think, "I wonder what tomorrow will bring?"

* Note to self: Goats are dehorned for a good reason.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Full house

I've been told it's poor blogging etiquette to apologize for not posting lately. Everyone gets busy but dedicated bloggers still find time to write. I agree, except that it's impossible to blog when I'm in the barn... and that's where I've been spending most of my time lately.

You see, we've got a full house here. In the past two months, we've gone from a family of four plus a dog and two cats to a family of four, a dog, two cats, 10 hens, two donkeys, three (yes three!) goats and a horse. No wonder I sleep so well at night!

Both the new goats and the horse deserve their very own blog entries -- a place to tell their story and explain how they fit into our homesteading life. But in the meantime, here's a few photos of our new arrivals.

This is Lucy, a three-year-old Pygmy goat, and her two-month-old baby, Sam. We "rescued" them from a farm last Thursday.

Lucy is an excellent mother, especially now that she's being fed properly. Sam is rambunctious and adorable and is teaching us lots about the ins and outs of raising babies.

Here's Oscar checking out his barn-mates. He seems pretty happy to have companions (he's less stressed than when he was on his own), even though they're still quarantined in the next pen. Lucy and Sam were not well taken care of by their previous owners, and I want to ensure they don't have any parasites or anything before being introduced to Oscar.

This is Gallagher (or 'Gall'), a 18-year-old 16-hand thoroughbred, who I adopted from the Whispering Hearts Horse Rescue in Hagersville, Ontario. After two false starts (we had trailer troubles the first time we tried to make the trip and got snowed-in the second try), we finally brought him home last Saturday (after an 11-hour road trip, no less.)

He's pretty skinny (even with his winter coat) and he needs to rebuild his muscle conditioning, but he's lovely, well mannered and a dream come true (Yes, I was one of those girls who wished for a pony every Christmas. It may have taken some time, but it was worth the wait.)

It's no surprise I've got my hands full here at Rowangarth Farm. But at least I'm not going at it alone.

This farm life does wonders for the family. Lucas and I have rediscovered how well we work together as a team and the experience has brought us even closer together. The kids are still enthusiastic about chipping in at the barn -- putting out hay, sweeping, collecting eggs, filling water buckets -- and just spending time with our four-legged extended family members.

So even though our days are long, I'd prefer to be tired from mucking out stalls than sitting in commuter traffic for hours or trolling the malls for the latest, greatest must-have.

But I promise, we're done for now. No more animals until spring -- unless anyone has a barn cat or two to spare.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Winter wonderland

This time leading up to December feels a lot different out here in the country.

We're so far removed from all the holiday craziness and commercial hype (it helps that we don't have a TV) that I'm quite calm about the fact Christmas is only 28 days away and I haven't started any shopping (or anything else) yet.

(We're trying to pare down our Christmas anyway, make it a simpler celebration focusing on family instead of stuff. I'll let you know how that works out.)

It's another reminder of how time just moves slower in the country. When you take a moment to breathe and really savour the space around you, it's inevitable that you find yourself more in tune with Nature.

When we walk outside it's totally quiet in the most wonderful way. There are no snowblowers buzzing at all hours of the day or big municipal trucks throwing salt all over our front yard. Cliched as it sounds, everything is blanketed in a wonderful layer of fluffy snow, like a layer of thick cotton insulation.

It'd be foolish to think that everyday will be idyllic like this and I know we've got a long, hard winter ahead of us. And I admit, that's got me a bit worried. I worry about the kids driving to school on the bus (even school buses slide, especially on these country backroads) and although Lucas drives a pick-up into town, I worry that he'll end up in a ditch somewhere. Or worse.

There's also all the uncertainties leading into our first winter at here Rowangarth Farm. I wonder, will we have enough wood to last the winter (we heat with an external wood furnace and an indoor kitchen woodstove) and enough hay to feed the animals (overnight, our happy grazers have become happy hay burners); will I find an affordable generator that will keep our well pump pumping and our refrigerator humming when that inevitable mid-winter power outage strikes; do we have enough food stockpiled; will we be able to plow ourselves out if a really bad storm hits?

Lots of questions and only experience will give us the answers. But in the meantime, we're just enjoying the wonder and beauty of the season.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Random moments of happiness #3

(Click the photo to enlarge)

It's starting to look a lot like Christmas... or at the very least, it's starting to look like we'll need to actually put the snow blade on the ATV!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Goat + dog + donkeys = trouble

There's been a change of plans here at Rowangarth Farm, but we're learning that's just a part of farm life. While some of you may have been expecting Billy's homecoming story, I'm here to tell you about another homecoming: this one's about Oscar, a wether Pygmy goat.

When we finally decided to buy Billy from the lady with the chickens, we thought we'd get him a goat companion -- Oscar, a three-year-old wether (another successful Kijiji find.) A wether, or castrated male, could keep Billy company while he was off-limits to our future girl goats. Being a wether, he wouldn't share any of Billy's less appealing buck-like qualities either.

Right off the bat, I knew Oscar and I would get along. When I first walked over to the gate by his pen, he jumped up on a bale of hay, bleated a goat-like 'hello', waited patiently for a treat and then bowed his head for a behind-the-ears rub. He was like a big puppy. With horns.

The dog crate that I brought to transport him home was laughably small (I didn't factor in the horns... or the round belly -- it's true that pygmy goats resemble a beer keg with legs) so Oscar had the whole back of the pick-up cab to himself. He didn't seem to mind too much: he spent the hour-long drive home alternating between lying down and watching traffic out the back window.

We got home, unloaded him off the truck and after some creative coaxing (made easier by the removal of the donkeys and the dog who crowded at the gate, resembling a farm animal receiving line) we showed him to his new pen in the barn. He was pretty shook up but as soon as he found his manger full of hay, he made himself right at home.

Day one with the goat, and all is well. Then came day two.

On Tuesday morning, we considered introducing Oscar to the donkeys. Once we saw the look of sheer terror on the goat's face (mind you, it was a fleeting look of terror -- we got a better look at his back-end as he ran away) we decided to keep the two species separate for a while longer. The donkeys went into the back paddock on Sumac Hill and the goat had the run of the barnyard.

As I did my morning farm chores, Oscar was quite happy following me around, bleating loudly and rubbing up to me for head scratching (especially around his horns.) Whenever I left his side, he'd run after me, wagging his tail and ringing his bell. (Yes, the goat wears a cow bell). Just like a puppy, indeed.

Morning of day two with the goat, and all is well. Then we introduced the dog.

Henry is a herding dog in desperate need of a flock of sheep. So desperate, that he's decided to practice on the goat.

While Henry has developed a healthy respect for the donkeys, given that they're three times his size and they can hoof him in the chest and throw him six feet, it seems that Oscar, being of similar size and colouring, is fair game.

We first let Henry into the barn to meet Oscar when he was still in his pen. We thought a good solid four-foot wall between them would facilitate their introduction. They sniffed, they inspected and then Oscar ran away. Henry proceeded to bark at him. Not a good start.

So we shooed the dog out of the barn and let Oscar out of his pen. He came happily trotting out into the barnyard -- until he saw Henry. Being more of a domesticated goat than of the livestock variety, he bolted over to my side, looking for protection. Of course this put Henry's nose out of joint: Oscar was obviously getting too cosy for Henry's liking.

But Henry's a good-natured dog, so instead of growling and getting aggressive, he decided to play a game: let's herd the goat. The more Henry chased, herded and barked, the more Oscar head-butted, reared on his back legs and hid behind me.

At one point, the two of them were chasing each other in a circle with me planted in the middle. Thankfully, I avoided being impaled with a horn or being knocked down by a misguided dog.

We sent Henry back to the house, put Oscar back in his pen and let the donkeys back into the barnyard.

End of day two with the goat, and all is well. Kind of.

Day three arrived. Oscar seemed to have settled in nicely to barnyard life. The donkeys were happily ensconced in the back paddock and Henry was forced to keep a safe distance (most often, in the house.)

While Leeroy spent a better part of the morning watching Oscar over the gate, Cinder seemed pretty blase about the prospect of another barnyard companion.

Oscar didn't shake uncontrollably anymore when he saw the donkeys (in fact, he poked his nose through the gate to see them), so we thought, maybe it was time to bring them all together.

Cinder happily inspected the new addition, in a 'let-me-sniff-you-you're-cute-stay-away-from-my-hay' kinda way.

Leeroy, on the other hand, put on a dominant male, 'I'm-the-boss-let-me-squish-you-like-a-bug' attitude.

In retrospect, we're wondering if it was a wise idea to introduce Leeroy to anybody while Cinder is in heat (that's our explanation, at least, for the two of them doing the double-decker-donkey-salsa across the back paddock all morning.)

Cinder tried to intervene in Leeroy's nonsense -- but he was on a mission: To see how far he could punt the goat off his forehead. He chased him down, bit him on the rump and sent him cartwheeling across the barnyard.

I screamed an obscenity (or two), ran to the barn door and gave Oscar his escape route back to the safety of his pen while Lucas acted as a human barricade. A quick once-over revealed no injuries, save for a bruised ego and a big scare, which was somewhat assuaged by a handful of cracked corn.

My heart raced, my stomach turned and I thought, "What the hell have I gotten us into now?" One of the donkeys that we got for predator protection is beating up the first member of our future goat herd. This can't be good.

When I went outside to berate Leeroy, he was calmly standing in the barnyard, like nothing happened. He nuzzled up for an ear and face rub, a privilege that only I have earned, so far. I draped my arm over his pudgy neck and he relaxed into me, as if to reassure me that he wasn't really nasty.

I had to remind myself that he wasn't used to small animals, particularly ones with horns, and he'd spent years being bullied by a dominant horse at his old farm. At that moment, Lee redeemed himself -- in my eyes, at least.

I'm still optimistic that one day, the donkeys will keep an eye on the other barnyard animals. It just may take a while to convince Oscar of the same.

UPDATE: Turns out that Billy's family has decided to keep him so they can breed him in the spring. That's OK. I think we've got our hands full with the chickens, donkeys, the dog and the goat. And we still have to bring home our rescue horse this weekend. But that's a whole other story.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Random moments of happiness #2

This is Sissy and Sunny, our supposed barn cats in training. I think they're far too happy being house cats to ever set foot in a barn, let alone live in one! Sissy is pretty good at chasing bugs (she's just far too proper to eat one) and Sunny just hangs out with Henry and plays Indy 500 raceway throughout our house at 3:00 a.m. Not a bad life, indeed.

P.S. I'll get back to my regular posting this week as I've got lots of sharing to do -- stories of escaping donkeys (actually, two stories, two escapes), my weekend visit to Whispering Hearts Horse Rescue in Hagersville, Ontario (big story to share there.. about 16 hands high, I'd say) and the pygmies (yes, as in pygmy goat plural) are hopefully coming home tomorrow afternoon. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hot off the (virtual) presses!

While I may be new to blogging, I'm not new to writing as I've been freelancing for the last seven years. One of the publications I regularly write for is Bankrate Canada, where I have a really great editor who gives me lots of leeway to write about topics that might not otherwise be found in a business-oriented publication.

Some of my green writing credits include: Getting your lawn off drugs (an article on organic lawn care), How's the air in there? (all about indoor air quality assessments), The trouble with tech trash (aka the trouble with e-waste) and Green cleaning made easy.

(Mind you, I've also written some neat articles on non-eco subjects like, How not to buy a former meth lab and What to do when things go bump in the night (in case you're worried your house might be haunted.))

I've written more than sixty Bankrate articles over the years but the one published today is the one I hold closest to my heart: It's my first of a new monthly column on Simpler Living.

Here's the intro:
"I'm not sure when I truly appreciated the significance of our move to the country. It could have been when the moving truck drove away and we found ourselves alone, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by acres of woodland, hay fields and a trillion crickets. Or perhaps it was when we harvested our first egg from our new brood of hens. Then again, maybe it was the arrival of the donkeys. Yep, it must have been the donkeys..."

To read more, follow this link here.

It may not be Shakespeare but it's our story. It tells a bit about how we found our farm and why we're here.

When my kids get older, I'll show them this article and others like it, as well as the stories and pictures I post to this blog. Writing helps me remember where we came from and where we're going. It even helps me make sense of it all, especially on the days I feel in over my head. I just hope that reading these stories will one day do the same for them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

From puppies to pygmies

Just over a year ago, we were faced with a big family decision: should we, or should we not, get a dog.

We'd been thinking about it for some time but then one day, on an unexpected drop-in at the pet store with my kids, I saw him: a six-week-old red Australian Shepherd with the most soulful blue eyes I'd ever seen. He was the runt and I thought he was gorgeous. I fell for him instantly (and I'm not usually the kind of person to go all weak in the knees over a puppy. Really, I'm not!)

Now I'd never even considered buying a dog from a pet store -- I'd heard too many horror stories about puppy mills and I knew there were many rescue dogs waiting to be adopted -- but when I asked the store owner where the pups came from, she explained she was brokering them for a breeder and this was the last batch. That was good enough for me. A pet store was no place for an Australian Shepherd, I reasoned, and he became the rescue pup I'd always wanted. And I knew just the perfect place for him.

I didn't walk out with him right then and there. A good heaping of common sense (coupled with a hefty price tag) persuaded me to go home and talk it over with my, often more sensible, other half. We had lots to figure out -- was he the 'right' breed, would he be good with the kids, would we be able to afford it, could we provide him with a good life?

We did our research, made our decision and today, we're not only the owner of the above-mentioned puppy (who has a wonderful life here at the farm, thank you very much... except when he's gallivanting after wild turkeys), but two kittens, 10 chickens and a couple of donkeys. (Seems kinda silly now that we were so stressed out over a dog.)

So what does this walk down memory lane have to do with our farm? Well, we're once again faced with an equally perplexing decision over a prospective four-legged addition to our family.

I'm talking about Billy: a six-month old Pygmy goat.

The lady who sold us the chickens emailed me because she's selling her Pygmy goat and she wondered if I'd be interested. She started out with three Pygmy goats -- two females and a male (Billy) as her intention was to breed them. But then she traded the two girls for a pony (that's just how things work out here in the country), effectively firing Billy from his job as a fully-fledged, unaltered boy goat.

Intact males like Billy have a reputation for being aggressive and stinky, especially during breeding season. But apparently, there are exceptions and so far, Billy is neither of these things.

He loves hanging out with the chicken lady's donkey, pony, geese and ducks. He plays with her children, comes running when you call his name and his favourite snacks are apples and sumac, both of which we have in abundance.

But a goat?

Pygmy goats, being one of two breeds of miniature goats (the other is a Nigerian Dwarf), require less space, less food and have smaller housing needs than their full-sized cousins. We thought that if we found ourselves a girl Pygmy goat (a doe), we could make more Pygmy goats and eventually (we're finally getting to the homesteading part here), our own goats milk and cheese.

Minis produce about 600 pounds (or 300 quarts) of sweet-tasting milk a year, about one-third the amount you'd get from a full-sized dairy goat (but enough for homesteaders like us, just trying to figure out this whole farming thing.) While a Pygmy is stockier than a Dwarf, a true dairy breed, they produce about the same amount of milk, so I'm told.

By starting off with Pygmies, we thought we could get some experience before trying to raise a full-sized, more demanding, possibly registered (and therefore pricier) dairy breed. It's kind of like buying a starter home and then buying your way up in size. OK, I did say kind of.

I admit it: I love the idea of mini goats scampering around the barnyard under the watchful eye of the two donkeys. Their presence might even increase our credibility with the neighbours who, upon asking us why we had donkeys ("For small-flock predator protection," we replied) looked on in amusement at our otherwise empty barnyard.

It's easy to get caught up in dreams about the pitter-patter of little hooves, but additional animals mean more money and more daily farm chores. We're not running a petting zoo here and if we got Billy, we'd be taking our first step towards breeding and all its associated responsibilities.

So once again, we're faced with a decision: will we or won't we. And again, we've got lots to figure out -- are we getting in over our heads, is this just a case of farm fever brought on by cute miniature animals, what if Billy gets smelly and/or aggressive, what do we know about raising goats, let alone breeding them or even milking one?

But this farming life is all about uncertainties, isn't it. There are no absolutes to the weather or growing things or tending animals. Keeping dairy goats has always been part of our homestead plan: the opportunity just presented itself sooner, and perhaps smaller, than we originally expected.

We've done our research and asked intelligent questions. And we've clearly made good decisions before. So, maybe it's time to get my nose out of the books and into the barnyard, whether it's stinky or not.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fowl play on the farm

I always thought a dog was supposed to be man's best friend but it seems here at Rowangarth Farm, a rafter of roaming wild turkeys has us beat.

Henry is an one-year-old Australian Shepherd who has an innate need to herd things. He's tried herding the kids, the cats, the donkeys and other visiting canines. He chases squirrels on our walks, with the intent of herding them I joke, but he always comes back empty-pawed but no less discouraged.

So earlier today, when about 20 wild turkeys came gobbling out of the pine grove between the ponds, it came as no surprise that his herding instinct kicked into overdrive. He took off like a rocket across the field but we eventually called him back with a couple of dog treats and our sing-songy, "Here puppy puppy, come here boy, that's a goooood boy, Henry" punctuated by under-our-breath curses that would have made a sailor blush.

Thinking the excitement was over, and that one of us had an eye on the dog, I went back inside the house while Lucas went into the barn.

I'd barely sat down at my desk when Lucas came running in. "Henry's gone," he said. "He took off over the ridge after those turkeys."

We knew that dogs and rural living isn't without risk: he could run off and get lost, get hit by a car or shot by a hunter. We've even contemplated invisible fencing. But ever since moving here, Henry's always seemed to have a reasonable head on his shoulders and I chalked it up to that expensive puppy school training paying off.

Then those wild turkeys changed everything.

I bolted outside like a crazed madwoman, calling his name. Henry's always come back, I reasoned. He's just just on his way back from the woods. But this time, there was nothing. No thrashing around. No galloping paws. Just complete silence (well, except for my hollering.)

I ran down our gravel road hoping to catch a glimpse of him (or the marauding turkeys) on the main road. Thankfully, none of our neighbours drove by as I'm sure it would have cemented our assumed reputation as the silly city-folk. He was nowhere to be seen.

So what's a near-hysterical girl to do when faced with a pet crisis? Jump on an ATV and go careering around our property, screeching his name. There was some method to my madness as I thought I'd either, a.) find him and entice him to drop the turkey-chasing and run after me or b.) scare off all the local wildlife so any nearby hunters wouldn't have anything to aim at (I was terrified they'd mistakenly shoot Henry.)

Again, returning to the house empty-handed, I was faced with the thought of life without my trail companion, child minder, donkey herder and foot warmer.

Granted Henry may not always be the most agreeable dog. Since moving to the farm, he's taken up a number of less than desirable hobbies, such as rolling in donkey poop, wading in ponds and bogs and digging in the compost pile, among other places.

But he's also our constant companion, a gentle clown with our kids, mother hen to our kittens, amusement to our donkeys and from his nighttime post in the hallway, he keeps an eye on all of us as we sleep .

Thankfully, I didn't have to contemplate life without a dog for long. As Lucas pulled up in the pick-up truck (he had a little more sense than I did and decided to go search for him along the road) he pointed to our lane way. There was Henry: coated in mud up to his belly wearing a look on his face that was part intoxication, part confusion. He was obviously tired, panting heavily and limping slightly. But he'd come home.

"Stupid dog," I said between sobs, taking his head in my hands and squeezing.

After a quick cleansing swim in the pond (something of an oxymoron, I know) and some treats in our front hall, he seemed no worse for wear.

I, however, learned a few valuable lessons. Firstly, maybe it's time to look into that invisible fencing. Secondly, given a choice between Milk Bones and wild turkeys, the Milk Bones don't stand a chance.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, maybe Henry needs an on-farm job after all. Given the choice between watching his own flock of sheep* or chasing turkeys, I'm hoping the woollies will win every time.

* Disclaimer: Yes I know and totally respect/understand that herding sheep is an art and that dogs must be trained for years before becoming skillful herders. I also know that I can't expect an untrained Aussie to be a particularly effective sheep herder. Henry doesn't know that though.

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