Rural life

A day in the life of a wannabe farmer

Recently, leaving the city for a more “sustainable” life on a hobby farm seems to be all the rage. Now, I love our life out here, but I thought I’d provide a little snapshot of life with animals. Both for those considering making the jump into the homesteading movement and for those who are more the armchair dreamer type. Because it is not for the faint of heart. Animals, like children, almost never behave according to plan.


A system that works for months will suddenly break down at the most inopportune moment. And so this particular snap shot begins as I’m driving my children to town for tumbling/dance camp. An event they have been out of their minds excited about for weeks.

And I don’t see the cow in the pasture. Or the little bull calf that is her constant shadow.

Now, there are plenty of places in the pasture she could be and I wouldn’t see her. The grass is just tall enough, she could even be out in the open and I might miss her just driving by, especially considering how high above the road our pasture is. This doubt of my own observations sustains me all the way to town, but there is no way that lingering question mark is going to leave me alone. So I instruct the girls what to do if I’m not back when I’m supposed to be and head home.

And as I pull in the drive, Candy pokes her head out of the pig barn to say hello. Not catastrophic. She is technically still in the pasture, just not the section she belongs in. So I get a bucket with a little bit of grain and open the gate to let them out of the barn and the pasture gate to let them in with the sheep.

They aren’t interested in the grain bucket. Not one little bit. They run to the big barn and make themselves cozey in the corner. Which really wouldn’t be that big of a deal either, but this section is overgrazed and I really just need them to go take their morning snooze in the shade provided in the outer pasture where they belong.

So I shake the bucket which alerts the sheep who come running. The ram unnerves me. He’s never done anything, but I don’t know what’s going through his head when he looks at me. He stands too close, rests his head against the side of my leg and . . . thinks. I’m not sure if he’s planning on killing me for the bucket or claiming me as one of his ewes. Or if he’s just a nice ram that isn’t at all like the ones I’ve read about and I really should put more trust in his history of never doing anything than all I’ve read about how dangerous a ram with no fear of humans can be. After all, he only acts this way when I’m holding a bucket.

I finally give up on enticing the cattle out of the barn and lock the door, hoping to keep them in until they’re hungry enough to follow me back to where they belong. And I dump the grain on the ground to be rid of my uncomfortably friendly ram who doesn’t pay me any more attention.

Except now I notice that while I had closed the gates behind me, I had failed to tie the gate to the pig barn shut. This isn’t a quick task. It involves lacing baling wire through the gate and around a post because the gate is really just a collectiong of things we found in the barn and tied to an old metal gate to keep the animals from getting out. I think I had more hoped the gilts would just not realize that all they needed to do was push to get out.

Normally, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal to have happen right there where I can see. Miss Tumble (the one who got out) is a friendly gilt and more than happy to go where I direct her, with or without a bucket. Except that this particular exit to the barn leads to the little “porch” I made for the boars to acclimate them to the electric fencing. And given the odd “songs” Miss Tumble and Mr. Freckles had been singing to one another the night before, I was a little concerned that Miss Tumble might be in heat.

And by “songs,” I mean deep throated growls. Roars, even. I went down in the middle of the night to collect some chickens I knew were out and thought there was a bear in the pig barn.

Perhaps it is relevant to also mention here that the chickens were out because the day before the gilts had knocked over my daughter’s poorly conceived fencing to steal chicken feed, allowing all of our most prized birds to escape. None were injured, but they all eluded capture until nightfall led them to roost. In the pig barn. With the roaring-bears-that-were-pigs. Where I collected them by the light of a cell phone and tried not to imagine all that crossed the boar’s mind when he trotted over to me.

I thought he might be on a murderous rampage. He just wanted scritches so I obliged and escaped before he changed his mind.

At any rate, the little gate that I had propped open to let the boys go in and out of their half of the barn was wide open and doesn’t close as easily as the main gate Miss Tumble wandered out of. So I threw a rabbit cage in front of it, hoping to thwart any attempts at blocking me from extracting the object of his affection.

With all the animals finally secured, I walked out to the far pasture to see how exactly Candy and her shadow had escaped.

The actual exit point wasn’t that bad. I live in continual fear that Candy will cease to even pretend to fear the electric fence and that will be the end of containing her. But the top two lines had been dropped, probably for the short legs of small children who were retrieving a bucket. It was a small hop over and a short walk to the pig barn where they know there is grain available.

What was inside the pasture, however, was a far worse sight. Half a mile of fencing down and criss crossed across the pasture, like a glistening spider web of metal. Worried that the horses would get tangled in it, I shooed them over to the pasture section with the least damage and put up a line of fencing to keep them from walking through the tangled mess. The horses are good. I think they’d stay in a fence made of yarn as long as they were together.

I walked back to the barn and told Candy and Endeavor they were hamburger. Candy walked up to the barn door and stuck her head over the bar. I thumped her brisket.

“You know why this is your brisket? Because that’s what you make out of it. Slather it in BBQ sauce and it is far better than restringing fencing.”

She nuzzled me. I’m pretty sure she thinks the various cuts of meat I have taught her over the years are various pet names for how wonderful she is.

I looked at my phone. 9:45. I would be right on time to pick up my youngest daughter and take her over to her sister’s five day club.

Not even lunch time and I felt like I had already put in a full day’s work without actually accomplishing anything. And I still had a half mile of fencing to untangle and restring before I could begin the projects I had planned for the day.

So if you ever wonder what this whole sustainability-hobby-farm-thing is about, now you know. Working, re-working, planning, re-planning and always learning on the fly.

That and the soft brown eyes of an impish cow who rests her head on your shoulder while you threaten to turn her into hamburger because even she knows you don’t mean it.

And this. Because in the end, it really does all come back to your children.

haybale jumping

Of garbage and dreams

Sitting on the edge of my bed to put on my shoes, I grumble a bit in my spirit. I’m about to load the trunk of the minivan with a week’s worth of garbage. Smelly garbage because the mice have made a sudden, unwelcome return and there are a few mixed in with packaging and dirty diapers and junk mail. This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when we moved to the country, but we never thought to even inquire about trash service.

Who in the city really thinks about things like that? It never occurred to me that there might be places where the trash wasn’t picked up. The do-it-yourself country attitude already set our land on fire. Now it is filling my mini-van with garbage. For just $18.50 a month, we get to haul our own garbage into town to dump in the garbage man’s dumpsters.

What a deal. I never even knew how much I wanted a pick-up until now.

So I’m sitting on my bed, in no particular hurry to get my shoes on. It occurs to me that perhaps I should show a little more patience to the children in their dallying, for here I am. Dilly dallying. They’re all outside waiting on me.

I look out my window. At the green grass, the blue sky, the old barns and the farmland beyond. I smile. The view always does that for me. My husband and I are in agreement that someday, someday, when all the bills are paid, the improvements made, the projects finished, someday we’ll knock out this wall and make an enormous picture window.

And then, there’s my son. Just running. Running through knee deep grass, the wind in his face, joy beaming from his every move. Running, and jumping over stands of weeds. Running back to try it again. Running and prancing and shaking his head. Biting at an imaginary bit, he turns and runs and this time clears the weeds and trots around in a large, victorious circle.

It reminds me of when we first bought this property, but were still living at our old house.

“Mom, when we finally move, we probably aren’t going to be so interested in TV, anymore. There’s just too much to do.”

Indeed there is.

Funny how such small things can change your perspective and remind you of why you are where you are. I load the car with the garbage, make a face at the girls in the back seat as I ask if they want their windows open and call my young stallion to the car.

I leave feeling contentment and joy, even at the reality of driving my garbage in to town. It is such a small price to pay for a landscape on which to build our dreams.

Building memories down by the crick

While cutting potatoes for dinner, Mouse popped her head in through the kitchen door.

“Mom, we’re going down to the crick.”

“Have fun,” I replied with a smile.

For nothing says “country” quite like a crick. As Fine Fishing notes in How to fish a crick,

First of all a creek has none of the raucous, vulgar, freewheeling character of a crick. If they were people, creeks would wear tuxedos and amuse themselves with the ballet, opera, and witty conversation; cricks would go around in their undershirts and amuse themselves with the Saturday night fights, taverns, and humorous belching. Creeks would perspire and cricks, sweat. Creeks would smoke pipes; cricks, chew and spit.

Cricks speak to me of swimming holes and fishing holes, tractor tires and sunken cars. They’re home to snappers and leeches and the odd catfish dragged ashore by an eight year old boy with a homemade fishing pole, standing ankle deep in the mud. They bring to mind memories of a childhood not my own, but experienced vicariously through my dad’s many stories growing up on a farm in northern Indiana.

For me, cricks are the stuff of childhood memories. And I’m not even sure my dad has ever used the word. I was raised speaking Standard English, though my linguistic heritage is riddled with words like “warsh” and “youse” that peg my family as northerners. I was always aware of cricks, but I’m not sure when or where I first heard the word actually used.

It is a backwoods sort of word, rural and “wrong.” As is often the case with those who use the vernacular, it’s adherents are stereotyped as uneducated, unrefined and uncouth. As the type that would enjoy a Saturday night fight and chewing tobacco. The educated rural folk are well aware of this. Thus they guard their language and are perfectly capable of saying “creek” when outsiders are about.

Unless they’ve invited your daughter down to the crick. But by then you are perhaps beginning to lose your outsider status.

A couple hours later, Hunter barked and I looked up to see a pickup driving slowly up the hill. I walked up the road to see my daughter and her new friend sitting on the tailgate, laughing and swinging their legs. They were covered in mud from head to toe. Mouse, we soon discovered, even had her first leech.

My daughter, I think, will have plenty of stories to tell.

A dirty little secret about rural life

The first weekend after we moved, we had fourteen people here helping us move and helping us with some necessary remodeling projects. Fourteen people, one toilet and a bucket to flush with so you know we were having loads of fun.

As you might imagine, fourteen people can go through a lot of garbage, even without remodeling and moving. We filled up two dumpsters and a bin that were left in the garage by the previous owners. “No matter,” I thought. I mean, all we needed to do was call and get the trash service started and it would all be taken away.

[Missing picture here]

Except those early days were pretty full and I didn’t really know who to call to make it all be taken away. I kept forgetting to try to figure out who to call. Then I discovered how few businesses bother with any sort of online presence in this county. Then our phone book finally came and I made a few calls.

And found out that the guy who does the trash service for this area doesn’t actually service this area.

This was a new thing for us. So new, we hadn’t even considered that there might not actually be trash service. I mean, who ever heard of that? My whole life, the garbage was something you bagged up, kept in the garage and took to the curb once a week. Sure, if you ever forgot to take it out one week, it got to be a bit of an inconvenience, but it was rarely something we thought much about.

But now, suddenly, we were going on nearly a month and inconvenient was hardly the word I’d use to describe the problem that was developing. In case you even want to imagine what I was beginning to feel like, Shel Silverstein actually put it rather well in verse.

…And so it piled up to the ceiling:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
Brown bananas and rotten peas,
Chunks of sour cottage cheese.
It filled the can, it covered the floor,
It cracked the windows and blocked the door… (Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, by Shel Silverstein)

Fortunately, it was all occurring in our dumpster on the back porch, but that wasn’t going to last forever. I began thinking about trash in a whole new way. Buy a pizza and you are left with a box, a cardboard circle and a piece of plastic. Buy apples and you are left with a plastic bag and plastic tie. Buy milk and you are left with a plastic jug. Eventually, the trash was going to find the rim of the dumpsters, even the new ones my husband added on, the lids weren’t going to snap closed and we were going to have a bit of a problem, one you don’t want to have when you are already on unsteady terms with the local wildlife.

The neighbor lady who buried her trash in the backyard where we used to live was starting to seem not quite so odd. It was, after all, becoming rather tempting.

To be continued….

Oh yes, stay tuned for the next exciting installment, In Which My Husband Tries to Burn Down the County.

And thankfully, that image is NOT from my backyard. It is a landfill in Australia, courtesy of Wikipedia.

In which I beat off a coyote with a box of Rice Chex

It’s late at night and my husband calls to me from the front door.

They’re here.

Whose here?

The coyotes. Just on the other side of the garage.

I’m busy with the children and not that interested in hearing the coyotes yip and howl. I’ve heard it enough. I have my doubts about their proximity, knowing that they can sound an awful lot closer than they really are. But I am finally coaxed out the door.

Standing in the silence, I ask if he tried to scare the coyotes or just let them be.

Yeah, I banged on the garage and then one howled.

A chill ran up my spine. Because that sounded like a challenge. The yipping that is starting up on the other side of the tree line is one thing. The pack is assembling, quarreling, getting ready to hunt. The howling, however, is reserved for the alpha male asserting his ownership of the territory. The question is, who was the howl directed at? My husband? Our dogs? Or the pack?

One thing is for sure. They are close, and banging on the garage wasn’t doing much to scare them off. We retreat into the safety of the house until morning. An outing with the dog reveals just how close the coyote my husband heard came. A single coyote trotted up along the hedge that marks the edge of our property.

[Missing picture here]

At the road, it turned. It trotted up our drive. It walked in a circle near the garage. It started to head around the back of the garage before turning back toward the road and disappearing in the ditch on the other side.

A little too close for comfort. It isn’t our first encounter with this pack, but they gave us a month of peace. A month of not letting us know they were here, anyway. Now what did they want? Were they just passing through, or were they back, prepared for a fight? They are known to actively lure dogs away, back to the pack where they are disposed of. And the coyotes and I both know my dogs will give chase.

So again I’m uneasy. That we share this land with wild creatures does not scare me. That wild things lurk in the dark and watch me even while I am unaware of their presence makes me only a little nervous. But that we have a wild predator that seems so willing to allow itself to be seen, seems to challenge us even, that I find unnerving.

But you want to hear the part where I attack, don’t you? Trust me, that all is important to the story. The story just isn’t the same without the events leading up to it.

Because you see, this all happened on a Wednesday and Wednesday is AWANAs. On this particular Wednesday, we got home late because I had stopped at WalMart for some groceries. So we get home, I let Hunter out of the chicken coop, lock it up and get the kids and groceries in the house. Teeth brushed, pajamas on, children in bed. Catch up on some email, write a post, Twitter. By now, it’s getting very late, but I spy a bag of groceries on the kitchen floor.

Aye, that too yet. I begin to put them away, but it sure seems like less than it was in the store. Did I really spend so much on so few items? It’s one in the morning and I realize I never got the bags out of the back seat of the car.

I step out on the porch and the coyote chorus begins immediately. I hesitate. Not only are they close, but they started the moment I opened the door. I know they weren’t calling when I was in the house. They’re too close. Too loud. I would have heard it. Coincidence? Or were they “talking” to me? Or about me? Was I again flanked like my husband the night before?

Twenty steps to the car. I stop to look around. I’m surrounded mostly by open ground, but the other side of the car is in a dark shadow. I’m acutely aware of that fact as I open the car door and reach in to turn on the light. And in that moment, as I reach across the seat with my back turned to the darkness, I feel vulnerable. I can’t turn around fast enough.

But nothing is there. With the lights on, it is so much easier to tell myself I’m imagining things. That I imagined the rustle. That I’m imagining danger in the sudden silence of the coyote pack, so vociferous only moments before.

I reach back into the car, over the seat to get the bags. Again, I feel vulnerable. With my back to the darkness, the light does not help. Another shiver runs up my spine and I turn around.

But nothing is there. I grab the bags, close the door and turn toward the house.

A rustle. I. Did. Not. Imagine. That. My grip tightens on my bags as another rustle is accompanied by a tug at the bag in my right hand. My heart and time seem to stand still as I spin around, becoming suddenly aware that the only thing in the bag I’m about to swing is a box of Rice Chex.

Fortunately for me, that was enough. It only took one wallop with the cereal for that bush to think better of messing with me and release my groceries. But I ran in the house anyway, having had enough of the wild things for one night, bushes included.