Monday, January 12, 2009

Backwards Farming

Ginger's barn, pen and sun shade the first year the big blue stem appeared.

I began my "farming" backwards, sort of.... First, I found the house on six acres. I bought the place for the land and not the house. Now I jokingly tell people I "live in a van, down by the river". My little house is almost that humble, certainly nothing to brag about.

Next, I purchased an additional twenty acres east of the original six acres. It had been farmed and there were no fences. It took several seasons but eventually, I managed to buy the seed, rent the equipment, find someone with a tractor and the time to plant it all back to native grasses. There was a government program aimed at restoring prairie. I should have received a 70% return of all the costs. Due to weather delays and missed communications, the return was significantly less. No matter. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when at last the seed was in the ground.

I had plans to eventually get a horse, but I was far short of realizing that dream. It would take years for the prairie to grow back. But, there I was, minding my own business, at home on my humble little acreage of unborn prairie, when one winter morn, I got a call about a horse. I had no pasture, no fence, no barn and no business going to look at a horse. Foolishly, I went "just to see". She was a pretty little red Quarter Horse with one white foot. Childhood nostalgia overwhelmed me at first sight. The owner wanted room for a different horse and wanted a good home for this one. I should have known. I agreed to buy the filly Ginger if they would keep her until I got a barn and a pen.

After researching pole barn costs, and looking into other options, I found a local builder to build a small "barn". It consisted of a small storage area, two deep stalls open to the south - one for the horse and one for the hay. That builder directed me to a local guy selling fence panels for a round pen - panels I could actually afford. The barn would be built as soon as the builder could get to it. In the meantime, I could build a round pen and move the horse that spring. I bought a stack of lumber and two big sheets of plastic lattice and called my brother.

I set up the round pen, and my brother came up to help me build the sun shade. I had no idea of snow load or wind shear, so I did not attempt to build a real shelter, afraid it would fall on my new horse at the first puff of wind. The shade is still standing five years later, so we apparently managed that task well enough for two old bikers.

When the shiny new round pen, about 80 feet across, was up and the sunshade built, I brought home a 50 gallon water tank and a block of salt. For the life of me, I can not recall where I kept my first bales of hay but I think I stacked them in the back porch. Eventually, one fine March day, Ginger arrived. She was brave, only knowing she was at a new place without her stablemate, Mac. We led her into the pen and closed the gate, and she was home. By the end of April the new barn was built, and that is where Ginger lived, in her big round pen and barn until the prairie grew and was fenced in. The horse before the barn.

I also hoped to have chickens "some day". And that too became a case of the chicken before the pen. I had no chicken house, no chicken pen but that did not stop me from buying baby chicks last spring. While they were growing, I was busy building a coop. The pen entirely encases the chickens in double fencing - my effort to keep them safe from the local wildlife. It is an eyesore, but out of sight of both the public road and all neighbors. It is close enough to the house that I can watch over them, and so can the dog. Even though I have seen a bobcat, in broad daylight, within a stone's throw of the pen, so far the chicken flock remains alive and well. I know they are a huge temptation for every predator. Owls at night, hawks in the day. Coyotes, bobcats, raccoon, opossum and snakes would also like to eat my chickens. Poor peeps, they live in blissful ignorance.

Chicken coop and pen in the early stages.

I do not understand why I love those chickens. They are not good pets. They can not recall that I handled them gently every day since they were peeps. They do not return the affection in anyway. But, the variety of muttering and clucking as they are scratching and busy about their day is deeply comforting. The crowing of four roosters is a bit jarring and most definitely spoils the peace. But I like looking out and seeing them busy, scratching about, or perched on the chicken tree I built for them. I especially like to see the fluffy broad bodies of the cochins. They make me laugh with their matter-of-fact chicken society. If someone gets a peck for being too close to another who outranks him or her, there is an indignant squawk, but apparently no hard feelings.

What truly makes me laugh is the foot stomping, sideways River Dance the cochin roosters do. They hold their wings out and rapidly stamp their feet, moving sideways toward whichever chicken has breached the social decorum of the pen. There are three cochin roosters, and they do this little dance around one another and their other flock mates at feeding times, or any time there is a disturbance of the peace. They do not fight one another, just this little silly dance - like a boxer throwing empty punches for effect. They are truly brave little guys when they attack me, or more precisely, my red work coat, but when I chase them, they turn and run away as fast as their little feathered legs can carry them, their bottoms waddling like strange little troll beings, squawking in great alarm and panic. I believe this rapid retreat is where the insult "chicken" originated.

They are goofy and funny and can crane their necks and head in almost any direction. The funniest thing of all is how much they remind me of people, all craning their necks toward anything curious or out of the ordinary. They squabble and squawk over bits of food that are often not even edible, just a twig. Humans would do better if they could conduct their society more like chickens - taking no offense for being reminded of who is boss - standing your ground until it is clear a retreat is in your best interest - staying busy - early to bed and early to rise - and all roundly cheering in celebration whenever someone lays an egg.

I do not know what my next farm project will be. Chances are, I will not be prepared beforehand.


Farmer's Wife said...

:-) i love your entry... i, too, am doing "backwards farming" ;-) the term came to me this morning trying to encapsulate how i got into this farming adventure... and i wondered if the term was original so i googled it... your entry came first in the list... :-) good luck!

Jackie said...

Farmer's Wife - It's wonderful to hear from you. Thanks for taking the time to post.

Being first in a Google search is amazing!

I think most of us back into "farming", if we aren't already farming.

Best of luck to you as well.