Friday, July 4, 2008

README before farming

I'm writing this for those readers who are settling in to enjoy their Independence Day holiday tomorrow, dreaming that someday they, too, might have their own little bit of a farm like mine. Dreaming of the simple life. The slower pace. The reduced stress. True independence.

Most of all, I'm writing for the dozens if not hundreds of single women (frequently with small children) that I've met who envision doing this ALONE, way out in the country "away from it all."

Forget it. Please. Quit while you're ahead, before you've sunk your life savings into it.

Farming is pretty much an all-or-nothing least an integrated farm like this one. Once you've got the system figured out and up and running (more or less), the seasons just roll around in orderly fashion (give or take a late hard freeze), the chore cycles ebb and flow predictably, one thing leads to another. Momentum keeps it going. It keeps YOU going. Most of the time.

But then HUMAN things come up. Like getting sick.

Wednesday I woke up feeling not very good. I'd eaten a light supper the previous night, so maybe I was just extra hungry? I cooked my usual breakfast. The toast tasted great, but somehow I just didn't feel like eating the eggs. Not very good at all.

I dragged through the morning, getting a few long-delayed tasks done like hitching up the scrap metal trailer and taking it to the recycler's a few blocks away. It's not entirely a bad thing to procrastinate on a few non-critical, unintellectual, fiscally rewarding tasks like that so that you have something useful to do on days when you are not feeling up to par. Most of the morning was spent trying to evaluate whether I felt good enough to drive a bus for 7 1/2 hours.

As I went through the morning, what little energy I'd awakened with waned. I decided to call in sick to work--something I really hated doing, because I think they think I'm yet another irresponsible driver taking an extra day off before the holiday. Trust me, I REALLY would rather have been at work!

Good call. About the time I'd have started driving, breakfast came up. And maybe part of dinner. The rest of the afternoon I drifted between sleeping and heading to the bathroom again.

At some point I remembered that the sheep needed to be moved to fresh pasture. Thankfully, two of my volunteers had planned to work here that evening. So I tried to give them instructions for where the sheep were (over on Chaney's pasture which is west of the shady area where the swing is, which is west of the little corner pasture....), where they needed to be (in the main pasture north of the willows but not through the central lane, through the 16' panel gate on the west end of the willows) and what adjustments needed to be made to the electric fence in order to contain them (go through the little panel gate to the left just after you go in the 16' panel gate, then follow the 4-wire fence back to the green-cote fence and hook it up to the green cote).
We got out the aerial photo of the farm and pointed. I repeated directions as clearly as possible with my foggy brain. They went trouping off into the wilderness.

If you DO try this at home, be sure everyone has cell phones. It's maybe a 5 minute walk from those pens to the house, including the time for opening and closing gates along the way. Not so far? Multiply that by several questions and clarifications in the course of the task...cell phones saved a lot of time and energy that day.

Several calls later, we all felt reasonably sure everything was as it should be. One of the volunteers graciously ran to the gas station 4 blocks away and brought back Gatorade...lots of Gatorade. By that point I was seriously concerned about ending up dehydrated from the afternoon's activities.

Today I'm feeling much better. Even so, it took the better part of the day to get around to dragging myself out to the pasture to check on the sheep and make sure they had enough grass for the night, and figure out their rotations for the next few days.

I rarely get sick like that. And as time goes by, the farm is better laid out and more organized for people to be able to help me. And I have more people available to help out. It is still a sobering experience. If I were sick for several days, how long could volunteers manage the rotational grazing and the web of electric fences? What if I get sick in late July, when nearly everyone is planning to be on vacation?

Speaking of vacations, that's another thing to think about before you commit to farming. Vacations are a LOT of work.

I was planning an overnight Independence Day visit to friends in Jamesport, MO, about 2 1/2 hours away. Even for less than 24 hours away, the arrangements get complex.

You who can just jump in your car and take off, appreciate it! First I arranged to borrow a car--the key to the whole trip, since I can't afford gas to drive the truck there, at 10 miles per gallon. When that was arranged, I called my friends to let them know I was coming. I called the Farmer's Market coordinator and let her know that I was taking the day off from market (a significant loss of income, but sometimes I just need a break since I'm doing market totally solo this year). I arranged for someone to come get the dogs and take them to a relatively fireworks-free location for the evening, since both dogs are terrified of fireworks. And I made arrangements with my evening chore person to handle chores a bit differently since the dogs would be leaving. I made plans to rotate the sheep right before I left, and to return from the trip with plenty of time to rotate them before heading off to drive the bus Sat. afternoon.

This evening the car-loaner called to let me know that it wasn't going to work for him to loan me the car, after all. Too late for me to try to borrow a different 6:30 on Thursday, probably everyone who was planning to take off for the weekend and leave their other car unused in the driveway, had already left.

So I had to un-arrange as many arrangements as I could. I'll still skip least that will be like a little mini-vacation, even if it's less than unpaid.

A farm is NOT a permanent vacation. When you need a break--and you WILL need a break-- who will cover for you? When you are sick or injured, who will care for the livestock and keep things going? A farm doesn't stop when you do. It is crucial to keep these things in mind before you even start. Maybe the best time to dream a farm is when you are flat on your back with the flu. In your delirious state, try motivating yourself to go out to break ice off a water tank in a blizzard...mend an electric fence in 99 degrees, 99% sheep out of the garden in a hailstorm...and there's always the classic call from the neighbor way down the street, "I think your goose is walking down my driveway."

A wise friend once said, "The real distance of a country house from town is 3 times the round-trip distance to the nearest hardware store...because that is how far you will have to drive every time you fix the plumbing." So true! Now I'll add to that--consider also the distance to the nearest purveyor of Gatorade. And the nearest troup of AWESOME, much-appreciated, essential volunteer chore-doers.

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