Tuesday, June 9, 2015

When Farming Feels like Failure

Last week we had an incredible week. Wing Night was one of our greatest successes to date- 100 orders sold within 2 hours, and great reviews. We had so much fun cooking the food we grow, and we can't wait to launch the next event. July 3rd will be a chicken bbq- details coming after we meet with the wonderful Danielle from the Old Station on Friday. The farmers markets were solid, a little slow, but still we came home feeling accomplished. We worked with a friend to acquire her used pick up, a payment plan and some trade for meat to cover the cost. The truck came none to soon, the van blew a tire on the dirt road, needs a new windshield and has a door tied shut with bailing twine. Typical farm tin can.

We pushed ourselves ragged last week, and it showed. We made progress. But a bad farm day here is sometimes, a really, really bad day. It makes it feel like everything you accomplished is completely undone.

Yesterday afternoon I was totally flattened. I'm sitting in the gator with my head buried in my forearm over the steering wheel. Drenched in sweat, so mad my frame is shaking. I straightened up, tilted my head to the sky and just stared. The dog jumped back in the seat next to me gave a genuine glance of concern, with reason.

I must have stayed there, statue like for 10 minutes. I counted down from a 100, took deep breaths, I just couldn't move. I was inches away from turning off the atv, going in the house to drown my sorrows in a beer and a mid-day shower. But giving up is never an option on a farm. You are the flywheel. If you're not spinning, nothing is moving.

During morning chores, Kim and I had come upon a gruesome site. The worst predator attack in our farm's history lay out before in the last meat bird pen. Nearly full grown chickens were scattered everywhere, missing crucial pieces and still warm. It was horrific. We think it was at least 30 of our beautiful, carefully tended stock. That's at least what we could count. Weeks of work, and lives we valued. Money lost. The cause- a problem with our electric fencing.

Not just that- but the animals must have sensed the electricity in the air with impending bad weather. Two rabbits had escaped the indoor and outdoor growing pens, and I could see that across the road, the goat herd and duck flock were both not even remotely in their appropriate locations. It took time, a patience, but after dealing with the gruesome predator attack, I did manage to get everyone straightened out, caught up (Swanson helped a little). The goat fence would need to be moved to fresh pasture and re-set to be effective.

That'd be enough for a day. But it was just morning chores. After coffee, I set out to go get the repair supplies for the chickens, and to buy feed. In my distraction, I forgot to throw a tarp in the truck, and so naturally, hit a downpour with 800 lbs of feed in the back of the pick up. I made a quick detour to buy one while I was headed to TSC for the electric fence supplies- and managed to get the feed covered before it was totally ruined. By the time I got back, the rain had stopped, which was good because we were expecting a delivery of 15 piglets, (4 for our friend Jenna). I got a business call from Kim about something that had to be dealt with immediately on the road back, so I had to drop everything and head into the farmhouse. An hour later, my business owner duties fulfilled, I looked at the time and rolled my eyes. I was two hours behind, and the piglets would have to go in the old pig pasture, instead of the new one- there was no time to set up in the far field. I grabbed spare cattle panels and set to creating a small pen within the pasture- we've found piglets get worked up with too much space during the first 24 hours on farm, we create a smaller 'safe space' and then let them out into the wider area after that.

As I was unloading feed, Jenna pulled up in her pick up, two border collies in tow. While Gibson and Swanson got reacquainted, I got to hold Friday- an 8 week old ball of gorgeous border collie baby. At one point, all three were running in a line, from oldest to youngest and it was painfully adorable. Soon enough, Bobby pulled up in his box truck with a load of piglets, slick with manure. Yep. Sounds about right. We caught up Jenna's 4 and then she graciously assisted me in putting mine into the small paddock. I hadn't even had a chance to lay bedding for them yet, in my rush. But there was plenty to explore, so I didn't think twice about leaving them while I said goodbyes.

Bobby was paid, Jenna was off, and I went down to the farmhouse for a cup of water, realizing lunch was out of the question. While I was eating a handful of potato chips, a car pulled up. I threw my boots back on and poked my head out the door. The neighbor stopped by to say he had just seen a large herd of piglets cross the road. Fuck. Shit. Damn. Whistling for the dog, I raced up to the barn, jumped back in the gator. Those of you who read this blog know this isn't the first time we've had rogue piglets. It won't be the last. Seems like every time we get a new batch, they act totally different then we expect and best laid plans are never good enough. This morning had scattered my best plans though, so the back up plan was not surprisingly a failure.

I raced around the fields, between the fence line, the dog, and jumping out of a barely stopped atv, I managed to get 8 of the 11 loaded into a dog crate I use to move poultry. The crate was then close to 200lbs though, so too heavy to lift. I ran into the barn, trying to figure out what to do next. We had a chicken grow out pen not occupied, and previously goat-kid tested, so that was the best option. I grabbed a shovel, and mucked it out, right into the center of the barn, I could clean that out later. Shoveling with the rage of a farmer chasing pigs, I grabbed a fresh bale of shavings- and it was pig ready. I individually carried 4 piglets to the pen, to lighten the crate. I restarted the gator, and moved it closer to the now half full crate. I could see the last 3 piglets still roaming freely. With a mighty lift, I picked up the crate and headed for the tailgate. Simultaneously, Swanson caught sight of the last 3 piglets, and made a mighty leap OUT of the ATV, knocking it into gear and sending it rolling backwards into a large hole I dug while repairing buried water lines.

So to recap- we have lost 30 chickens. There are piglets running free- 4 in a crate, 3 being run down by a border collie failing to heed "stay" or "no" or "no chasing" or "come", and 4 in a cleaned out chicken pen. The gator is in a hole. The goats still haven't gotten their fence mended, nor the chicken pen with the predator attack, chores are not done. The goat kids on bottles are now screaming as only goats can, because I'm late with lunch. And, I've had nothing but a handful of potato chips since breakfast at 7:30 am (it's close to 2:30 at this point). 

This is where the staring at the sky moment happened. I sat in the gator, where it is in the photo.This is when farming felt like failure. Basically, my whole day was chasing livestock, a symptom of the first season on a new farm, running the place day to day alone, and just bad luck. The farm isn't as clean as I like it at the moment, which makes me anxious. There was still feed to unload. My body was tired and I should have eaten a snack, since I'm notoriously hangry. This was a moment when I couldn't see it was worth it. It didn't feel worth it. It felt like absolute madness and total failure. 

I went and grabbed the keys to the pick up, and towed the gator out. I finally loaded the crate, got the 4 piglets safe and then spent 40 minutes catching the last 3. Somehow, in the midst of this, I also found out we had a tornado watch, and texted Josh to come out and help. He wasn't home, but as soon as he was he came out to join me, as I was driving the gator with a screaming piglet in one hand, the last one to be caught. 

We set to work on getting the animals fed, and fixing the chicken fence. I bought a new electric fencing box, not trusting just one to run both the dairy herd and the chicken pastures. Better safe then another massacre. The last task was to move the goat herd in the lower pasture to new grass. They would continue to act like jerks until we moved them to fresh grass, and are still using the rotational grazing netting- as we haven't even begun permanent fencing down there. It was starting to mist, but moving the fencing takes less than 15 minutes, usually. 

Swanson, after a day of rough commands, a less than stellar leader, and being overexcited at new pigs- was unprepared to do a task he does with ease every other day of the week. We moved the goat shelter, it slides on skids, we set up the fence in fresh grass. And then we tried to round up the herd of goats and flock of lambs. With a mighty failure, Swanson chased just the sheep up the hill from the far side of the pasture- right into the road. Blatantly ignoring my commands. Perfect. Flying at full speed in the gator, I raced to get the sheep out of the road, and back down the field. Dog back into the seat beside me, and moving the sheep using machine instead of fur- the sheep moved back down the 10 acres past the duck pond. Always enthusiastic, Swanson decided my methods were insufficient, and jumped out of the gator and herded the sheep back up to the road. Roaring, I basically grabbed him up off the ground and set him into the atv with the mightiest "STAY" I could carry and drove back up, again, to rescue my now really, really confused sheep with a shamed collie in the passenger seat. In the glove box was a goat lead, which once the sheep were safe from the road I spun it in the air, kind of like a lasso. This made me look and sound bigger, which finally moved the flock back to the goats, and into the pen. At this point, the rain picked up and Josh and I finally rode back to the farm, animals contained, and drenched. Swanson had already headed for the dry shed. Jerk. 

There was no predator in the trap I set out last night this morning by the last chicken pen. But there were no more missing chickens either, and the fence is testing hot. We may not know for a few days what the predator is, the rains keeps everyone in shelter. The piglets are enjoying the barn, where they will stay until I get their set up in the proper pasture finished. No compromising. 

There's a lot at play as to why yesterday was a bad day, not the least of which is the fact that Swanson and I have quite a bit of work to do. We're learning, and awkward, and sometimes training looks a whole lot like making a mess. At the end of the day, the farm is still not picked up, but the animals are safe and fed. And there is beer. I'm still keyed up from the antics though, and cautiously looking at how to make sure less of these days happen. But one thing is certain, these days have happened on every farm I've ever worked. Farming sometimes is failure. And when it's failure- it's mighty failure, the kind that really shakes you, making you question your sanity. 

Actually, scratch that. We've got to be crazy to farm. There is little to no other explanation. But we do grow damn good food. And someday, the fencing will be more reliable. In the meantime, I'm going to do a better job of at least making sure I eat lunch. I'm going to work the dog with better training. I'm going to keep going. It's only failure if it's the last act. 


  1. Over here from Jenna. Sounds like a tough day. Keep at it, you seem to have the true heart.

  2. Keep your chin up...it gets better.

  3. Wow - what a nightmare of a day! I was reading thinking surely nothing else can go wrong, then about 10 more things did. Congrats for not giving up and getting through it, think I would have been crying in frustration, and stamping around, instead of trying to calm down, and fix things. I hope you fit in some unwind time in your hammock to regroup, before heading back out there.

    Guessing Swanson is a new doggy addition to the farm, as I've been seeing mentions of him occasionally lately, any chance of a picture? Sounds like he is desperate to help, and just got overwhelmed with everything that was going on, new piglets and 2 new doggy friends!

    Is there room to stick a box of granola bars, or nuts in the glove box of the gator - emergency rations to help with 'hangry' when there isn't time for a proper meal? Also wondering if you could have a volunteer work day, maybe some of your CSA members would be interested to come along and help with projects related to the food you're growing for them, focus more pairs of hands on a big project you're struggling to find time to work on, fencing, weeding, mucking out - if it isn't a nightmare scenario insurance wise etc to have other people on the farm.

    Hope to be reading about a great day soon, to balance out this one! Hannah

  4. These things happens in life but most important thing is recover from those failures. So be strong and work hard, i know your are working hard but still something is missing. This year our Massey Ferguson Tractor Spare Parts sales went down 40 to 50 percent at that point i though that we are missing something, so we start searching our mistakes or marketing tactics.