Thursday is $0.99 bread day at our local used bread store. I have dreams of baking a fresh loaf of sourdough lovingly on a regular basis but reality and I can't find the time. So, Thursday is convenient. Lily also loves to go, pick out a box of fruit snacks, and eat a pack on the way home. It is a thing that we do together and we both enjoy the time. Me because its an easy trip with a 2.5 year old, her because of the fruit snacks.
Today while I was buying bagels and she was picking out a box of "apple" (mixed fruit) fruit snacks, a random older patron started commenting on Lily's rubber mud boots. It started out innocently enough, "I really like your mud boots, I remember playing in those when I was a kid." Lily is now running full tilt towards me with an arm full of fruit snacks and this woman bearing down with a cart full of white bread and doughnuts. Then she starts, "You probably don't play in them the way we did, kids these days spend all their time on the computer." Lily is now wrapped around my leg, still clutching her fruit snacks. The woman continues, talking over/through/at Lily and I to the cashier. "Remember tiddlywinks and jacks? Kids don't even know what to do with them anymore, you set them in front of them and they're like whats that give me a phone!" I held my tongue while I paid for my bagels and Lily's fruit snacks and we got out of there.
Maybe it's the decline in the amount of sleep one gets, even with a pretty agreeable newborn, but I have been a little more irritable recently. Lily has to be constantly reminded to take those boots off when coming in the house because they're always full of mud or sheep, chicken, dog or deer poop. She might see a screen for 2-10 minutes spaced through the day when she is looking as pictures/videos we have taken, Sir David Attenborough's 2 minute planet earth video where he recites "what a wonderful world" that she occasionally watches while brushing her teeth, and a well placed Old McDonald music video. To be fair, Lily doesn't know what tiddlywinks or jacks are. Her favorite toys are pinecones and rocks. She collects baskets of pinecones on our walks "mama pine cones, papa pine cones, baby pine cones and big girl pine cones." There are rocks in the refrigerator right now. If she wants to look at pictures on my phone and I take it, she's fine - no meltdowns. If I want that basket worth of pinecones spread across the living room floor, its like a hostage negotiation.
Now I myself am an old man at heart who thinks the youths are trouble and have always stared grouchily at any vehicle traveling too quickly past my home. I think of myself as a sort of back to the lander type. In reality I am attached to my phone to a fault and reflexively check it even when it does not prompt me. I spend a big part of my day staring at a screen. A lot of that time is spent researching and learning about things like sheep, chickens, car repair, building plans and sheep - did I mention sheep? There is also some mindless and unproductive time spent as well. I was angry in the used bread store because that woman who was complaining about her perception of my child was more accurately describing the adults in that store than Lily.
Unfazed and unoffended by the whole event she initiated a conversation on the way home that went something like this:
"Papa, what kind of fruit snacks did I get?"
"No, Apple. Papa can you say apple?"
"Can you say fruit snacks?"
"Can you say apple fruit snacks?"
"Apple fruit snacks"
Giggles, "I love you papa"
"I love you too pumpkin"
I think I would like to be a little more like Lily, less screens, more nature, less irritable and, of course, a weekly dose of fruit snacks.
The first time I found myself on a sheep farm was in high school back in Virginia. My AP calculous teacher said they could use some help deworming if anyone was interested. Who could refuse? I was in, and showed up ready to wrangle some Suffolks. A few hours later, covered in the excrement of sheep that needed deworming, I think I knew deep down that one day I too would be a sheep farmer. I went back and worked on that farm for a few summers and it was one of the best jobs I think I have ever had.
I started doing research and field work in the summers while in college and got to that farm less and less. I moved to Vermont for grad school in the summer of 2012 and felt a need to find work on a farm. I went to a farmers market and started moving from booth to booth offering myself as a mercenary farm hand. I would do whatever work needed to be done for whoever would pay. I got a call from Jericho Settler's Farm that they were short handed the coming weekend. I showed up at 6am to collect hundreds of eggs from their solar chickens. The next job, to my surprise and delight, was getting some sheep into a trailer. We rode over to the field where the sheep were and, as chaos began to ensue, I made a few suggestions about where we should position ourselves to move them where we wanted them to go. This ultimately led to sheep in the right place and steady employment.
The second summer of grad school provided less time for farm employment. I had met Diantha and we were raising our own chickens and rabbits and planting our own garden at a cabin we rented on the Otter Creek. I remember that summer for the fresh eggs and sunshine. Diantha reminds me that the chickens got eaten, and it rained everyday single day until the lake was so high our cabin on the river became a cabin on an island. We had to drive through 1/4 mile of flooded road to get in and out until after 2 weeks the water was too deep. We had to evacuate to her parents' where the barn cat ate the male rabbit, which ended my breeding program.... I still remember it as a good summer.
The next summer we got married and lived as nomads until we were able to move into our house in Maine where I started my PhD in wildlife ecology studying wood frog migration through developed areas. The field work was demanding and we were doing a ton of work on the house so no real farming got done. Those two summers were full of frogs. I stayed up all night tracking individual steps of frogs using florescent powder and a black light. I drove 4 hours north of Bangor, where I found myself trespassing waist deep in a bog with a metal net in a thunderstorm at 11pm chasing a single frog by its call thinking, "this is the most bizarre way I have ever risked my life." Then I attached thousands of dollars of radiotransmitters to frogs to track them throughout the summer. Two years into that program I had to reassess. I loved the work but our family had grown and I hadn't been on a farm in years. Looking to the future, I didn't like where I felt I was dragging Diantha and Lily and we decided something had to give.
Two years later we have started our own sheep farm. I am teaching, we have another baby, Lily is a budding shepherd, and life is good. I have been thinking a lot about how life circles back to what is good. I loved being on that sheep farm in Virginia, and now we have our own sheep farm. We love Vermont and being close to family, and now we are back in Vermont close to our families and growing our own. As I was sitting on the stone wall by our barn the other day watching the sheep, I heard the wood frogs start calling from our pond. I looked to the nearest forest. There are houses, roads, fields, and even a swimming pool between those frogs and their non-breeding habitat. It's a long way to those woods I thought, but studies have shown they'll make it....
I have been long anticipating a real shearing day. Last fall was just me, the sheep, some hand shears and a reasonable amount of swearing for a guy alone in a barn with five sheep. This spring we hired a shearer to come do the job properly. I had carefully designed the floor plan in the barn to suite this type of activity with doors and runs in all the right places. I hung extra lights, bought doughnuts, fretted that the sheep were too pregnant and then didn't sleep. I was ready. I decided when I woke up for the 10th time at 4:16 am that it was a sign the day should start. I spent some more time fretting that the ewes were too pregnant to be shorn, had some coffee and headed out to the barn to do chores.
The pigs have been bothering me. They were in box stalls in the barn and, being destructive animals, were doing their best to destroy those box stalls. Last week they took down their waterer and did their best to eat their tank heater and the extension cord, which, thankfully, wasn't plugged in. I decided with 2 hours to shearing that the pigs should go outside. They would bother us while Mary sheared and we need to turn up a garden plot so it needed to happen either way; not to mention I got up at 4:15 and needed something to do. I collected the fence I'd put up around the pond for the duck fiasco and set it up where we intend to put our garden this spring. I lead the hungry gilts (unbred female pigs) out with success, albeit with detours. Feeling confident in the pigs’ sensitivity to electricity, I did the rest of the morning chores.
I returned to the new paddock to find the gilts mounting each other. They must be in heat we decided, the shearer won't be here for 7 minutes, let’s put the boar in we decided. If you don't really enjoy three pigs why not try to make twelve more? With the help of our friend Hillary, and Diantha watching with baby Connor from the window, we led Rueben out of the barn to the paddock. Despite his girth and insistence on being out of his box stall he seemed less than interested in feed or leaving the barn once we opened his door. He wandered aimlessly around the driveway, which was an odd introduction to the shearer who drove in as we started to get Reuben pointed in the right direction. Mary Lake, our shearer, provided the last bit of coaxing the boar into the pen where he worked on the feed we had dumped as bait. I commented to her about how I wasn't sure I liked pigs. but when they were outside surrounded by a good electric fence they weren't so bad. "They're really sensitive to the electricity," I said parroting something someone had told me, and pretending I had any experience to back that statement up.
The time had come for shearing, this was why I had gotten up at 4:16 am without really sleeping, and was the exciting part of the day. I felt like a real sheep farmer. I was "legit". I lead the way into the barn looking for some sign that she was impressed with our set up. “She certainly isn't unimpressed” I thought to myself. We mounted a hook to hang her clippers, I set up the gates just so, I told her that they were all pregnant (which was blatantly obvious, especially to a woman who sheared 3000+ sheep last year while she herself was pregnant) and we ran the first ewe down the aisle to the shearing deck. It worked flawlessly and I thought to myself "Yep, you’re pretty slick, Farmer Jones".
It was at that very moment that a pig wandered into the barn. My next thought was, “get the gun, these pigs aren't comin' in without a fight”. Diantha saw the loose pigs and came running out with Connor in his backpack and Lily in her penguin jammies, alien boots, and barn coat. The four of us chased the first pig back into the pasture where the fence had been knocked over and somehow become disconnected (or never been reconnected after adding Reuben). Diantha thought a bit of milk would be good pig bait (they love their dairy) and I went looking for the other two. Our neighbor, a lovely older woman, came out to direct Diantha, Lily, and Connor down the hill where she had seen the other two run. I had tracked them through the carnage they created down a long steep bank to the river behind our house. Reuben, who is quite obese, was standing still breathing heavily, likely regretting it all. The other gilt was headed back up the bank. I followed her with my broom handle and bucket of grain, and somehow managed to get her back in the paddock with her sister before going back for Reuben. (All the while our friend Hillary and our shearer are cruising through the ewes and I am missing it). I found Reuben in the same place I had seen him before still breathing heavily. Armed with my broom stick and a bucket of grain I attempted to lead Reuben back up the hill. He wasn't moving. I gave him a few taps on the rump with the broom stick and he moved a bit until we got to the slope - then he parked it. I had to push. We got halfway up the slope and the incline got steeper and pushing ceased to be effective. I had to pull. I pulled Reuben the rest of the way up the slope. He was too exhausted to put up much of a fight or even really squeal. We crested the bank to see Diantha, Connor, and Lily running our way. Even on flat ground Reuben wouldn't walk on his own. We ended up dragging him in Lily's sled back to the paddock.
The gilts promptly began attacking him, chasing him around the paddock, and pushing him into the electric fence. Two months ago, when we first introduced Reuben to the gilts, they ate his ears and tail off, so the compatibility issues were still clearly there. I joined the gilts chasing Reuben down and we dragged him (in the sled) back to the barn where he now sits back in a box stall. The rest of shearing went well, the animals stayed in their places and 12 hours later we remembered to pick that gallon of milk up out of the field, the freezing rain had kept it fresh...
I made a fool hardy decision about a month ago to buy more ducklings. It was still very much winter in Vermont, Diantha was still very pregnant, and we had just about no infrastructure to support duckings - but I do like ducks. I bought ten, set up a kiddy pool full of shavings in the basement, and life was good.
Pekin ducks get big quickly, and they poop a lot. It only took a few weeks before the smell upstairs from the ducks downstairs became more than we were comfortable entertaining with. I built an insulated brooder in one of our outbuildings and moved the ducklings there, where we couldn't smell them from the dinner table, and life was good again.
Pekin ducks get bigger quickly and poop even more. The conditions within the brooder began to look like something out of a national geographic article on a temporary encampment. The poor ducklings were filthy, the air was stagnant, and I was feeling guilty. Ducks are meant to swim, thats what they do - you can tell by looking at their feet. After a week of feeling pretty guilty about these conditions, I decided to do something about it. There is a pond behind our house that is small enough to fence with a single 164' section of electronet fencing.
I spent the morning getting the fencing into the semi-frozen ground. Satisfied with the fence I went to find the old dog kennel we used as a roof for our last duck house. I could only find half of it and the search was on. After looking through the barn and out buildings I decided it must be in Diantha's parents barn and I was going to need to stop there to pick up the coop's base anyways. On my way there, headed up a steep hill, the truck began to protest the effort and ultimately slowed to less than a crawl. Being a man of science I decided turning around and heading back (with gravity) was the way to go. The broken gas gauge always reads empty, and I was sure there was gas. I didn't have my wallet so I decided to drive past the gas station and up Bonzai Bridge, the long, steep, curving bridge over the highway, just past the gas station on the way to our house. Halfway up and over the bridge the truck again protested. Being a man of science I decided turning around and heading back (with gravity) was the way to go. I managed to coast into the gas station and parked at the first pump. After negotiations with the clerk broke down, Diantha, Lily, and Connor came with a card to fill my very empty tank...
With my tank full I drove to Diantha's parents to get that dog crate only to discover it wasn't there. I found it later in an outbuilding on our farm. I brought the base of the coop back and got it set up in my new fenced pond enclosure. I loaded the ducks up in the kennel, put it in the wheelbarrow, and wheeled them over to the pond. The ducklings were uncertain when I let them out of the dog kennel. I herded them down to the water and watched them hesitantly enter the water. I expected jubilation, but I got a bunch of awkward ducks looking uncertain in the water. Then I watched as they tried and failed to get out on the other side. I moved around the bank and encouraged them to go back to the side they had entered on. They did, but struggled. One duckling appeared to be drowning and unable to swim. I found myself thinking, "am I going to have to jump into an icy pond to save a duckling?" I didn't, but I did get pretty wet hauling them out on the far bank. All 10 duckings who were initially terrified of me were so cold that they submitted to being put, unrestrained, back into the wheelbarrow. It must have been a sight to see as I raced back to their brooder and their heat lamp with 10 ducklings sitting in my wheelbarrow. I got an extra light, mucked the brooder, put down new shavings, and sat for an hour waiting for the birds to stop shaking, and for one of them to be able to stand back up. Eventually they all did, and are much cleaner after their escapade, but I think I will wait until they have a few more feathers and the water is just a bit warmer to try again.