Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Vacations with Animals

At a recent gathering of would-be sustainable farmers, someone lamented, "We want to have livestock, but we want to still be able to take vacations, too!"

Livestock IS a 365-day-a-year commitment. Yet, one can have days off and even weeks off IF enough forethought is given, and relationships with like-minded neighbors are built and carefully maintained.

I've had several invaluable mentors who helped me with all the crises that arose during my early years of shepherding. Lambing assistance, referrals to specialists, information on equipment, loans of supplies, commiserating over deaths...there's no substitute for friends who are in the same business. If you are considering having livestock, start cultivating such mentors as soon as possible. They are priceless. Then when you are experienced, share that expertise and assistance with others to keep the community growing.

Chief among my mentors is my neighbor, B. Without her I would not have sheep, I'm sure. Over the years we've traded chores many times. She visits family for a week every Christmas, and often in the summer as well. During those times, I drive the 4 miles to her farm twice a day to feed her horses, sheep, and poultry. It's just part of my yearly cycle...a part I enjoy. In turn, she gives me a week here, a weekend there to visit out-of-town friends and family or attend workshops. So we are both able to enjoy our families and other activities free from worry about our animals.

Even more valuable, though, is knowing that if anything happens to me there is someone out there who could step in at a moment's notice and see to the well-being of my livestock if I were incapacitated, and vice versa. In fact, one Sheep Shearing Day several years ago I fell ill with the flu during the event, and she and other friends just sent me to bed and carried on without me, doing my chores for a couple days until I was on my feet again. Her name is in my wallet in case of emergency.

Some of my regular out-of-town events require careful planning. Lambing is always scheduled with the state fiber arts conference in mind...I calculate breeding and lambing dates, and separate the ram from the ewes to allow for a two-week lamb-free window around the conference. This also keeps lambing from being an unsustainable marathon for me...I get a break in the middle. But it also means planning that trip more than 5 months in advance!

Preparing for a week or even a day out-of-town can take a lot of time and energy. All supplies must be on hand and organized and labeled. Containers must be labeled. Measurements must be defined. Hazards must be minimized. Instructions must be written down, and emergency contact information updated. All equipment must be in working order, with spares for anything that could possibly break. Routines must be as streamlined and simple as possible to avoid undue burden on the caretaker. In short, you have to fix all the inconveniences that you've been putting up with, or the caretaker won't be able to manage things while you're gone. The caretaker must be trained anew for each event, since routines invariably shift according to season and operational changes.

It sounds overwhelming...and it can be. But the real benefit of going through all this work to take a vacation isn't just the vacation. Since you had to get everything in order for the caretaker, it's in order when you get back. Over time, your whole operation becomes more organized and streamlined if you travel reasonably often (not too often, to avoid overwhelming your caretaker!) The important thing is to NOT leave all these preparations until the last them well ahead of time to avoid stress.

A surprise to me was realizing that the stereotype of farmers having "time off" in the winter was misleading. In fact, winter with livestock and a woodstove is demanding, and I'm pretty tied down. I've learned that my "free time" is late July and early August, when it's simply too hot to do anything anyway. The sheep are on pasture, watered with automatic waterers. The lambs are big and sturdy and grazing themselves; the ewes are at the end of lactation. No essential feeding of hay or grain, just checking the watering equipment twice a day, and checking mineral supply and fences daily. Farmer's Market slows down a bit during that time, and so I don't plan for huge crops during that time and it's ok to miss a market if necessary. Since I don't irrigate my vegetables, I don't need to worry about that while I'm gone.

So I've just about talked myself into scheduling another trip to Canada this summer...the $$$ being the main question...along with solving the dilemma of whether to re-visit the organic farm on the west coast, or attend Canadian Yearly Meeting on the east coast. Time travel? Cloning? I made such a wealth of friends during my sabbatical travels!


Catlady said...

Hey, don't forget about Central Canada.... :)

I know...I wish I could have made it down there this month for the fibre event you were telling me about. :(

There is always next year....


Natalya said...

Of course not! Central Canada could be on the way to or from Eastern or Western Canada....

Part of the intent is seeking weather and allergen conditions NOT resembling Kansas at that time of year. Winnipeg was really pretty OK last August, but I understood that to be not the standard weather (cool and rainy).