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Homesteading Tales from Rowangarth Farm

Looking Back, Moving Forward

But she had wings 

"When she transformed into a butterfly,
the caterpillars spoke not of her beauty, but of her weirdness.
They wanted her to change back into what she always had been.
But she had wings.”
~ The Poetry of Oneness

Homesteading Tales from Rowangarth Farm

A lot has changed since I last posted to this blog and yet much has stayed the same. The biggest difference, outwardly at least, is I'm now living this farm dream on my own. The other differences are more subtle, relating more to my personal evolution. In the six years I've lived here I've learned, seen, experienced so much and yet I'm humble enough to know there is a lifetime of new experiences and growth still ahead of me. And yet despite my emerging confidence and knowledge, there are still days when I'm left with more questions than answers.

Lately I've been thinking about what I'm doing here. Not in terms of my day-to-day functionality – I have a 'to-do' list two pages long. But the bigger picture? More existential stuff. The kind of thinking that happens when your world gets turned upside down and you're faced with the question, "Now what?"

I moved to the farm because I wanted to extricate myself from the dominant culture that is killing our planet and ourselves through reckless production and senseless consumption. To create space where I could live a life of meaning and connection. To take the path less chosen. Inspire others to do the same. I wanted to make a difference. To be able to look into the eyes of my kids and their kids (if that comes to pass) and say, "I tried."

But is that enough?

We live in a culture that craves quick fixes and easy solutions. To ask the big questions, make life-changing decisions, to fight against the overwhelming pressure to conform is exhausting. And at times terrifying.

It's easier not to recognize the gravity of our situation. The fact that much of our western civilization is built on a regime of unsustainable growth and appropriation of "others." And the very corporations and governments that perpetuate this madness offer top 10 lists and simple solutions to save the planet and preserve our comfortable existence. Absolve ourselves from personal responsibility. Keep up with the status quo. Defend our smartphones, SUVs and cruise ships to exotic locales.

As Derrick Jensen says, we've all been greenwashed:

"One way this culture gets people is with the delusion – 'If I just consume less and less, I won't be contributing to the death of this planet. If I wear out my recycled shoes and skip showers, then I won't be part of this destruction.' But the salmon don't care about your purity and your lifestyles choices, they care if there are dams and fish farms. … So when they tell you to take a shorter shower, it's prestidigitation. It's a magic trick – sleight of hand. They're trying to make you think, 'If I take a shorter shower I can make things OK.'"

It would be much easier to give up, sell out, move back. This piece of earth has provided me with a place to grow roots, but at times those roots feel like anchors. The work is relentless. There is always something that needs doing, fixing, tending. There are personal ramifications to this life. I lost a 20-year relationship, in part, over my beliefs, my differences. Divergent paths. There are times (most days) when I feel strong and powerful for choosing to stay, to keep fighting for this life, and there are other days when I feel utterly alone. Disconnected. And yet the idea of leaving is soul destroying.

The person I've become is inextricably woven into the fabric of this place. I no longer feel that the farm belongs to me, but I belong to the farm. It is my refuge and my prison. It has seeped into my very being. I am its caretaker and its mistress. There are times I yearn to escape this place and yet when I'm gone I realize how much I need it. I have purpose here.

But again I ask, is that enough? Or perhaps the true question is, am I doing enough?

I grow vegetables and plant trees and raise animals in a way that respects and celebrates their innate beingness. I do so to rage against the industrial machine that poisons our water, our earth, our air and our sense of humanity. But I do this work quietly. And because of that these actions can seem so inconsequential.

Am I, too, suffering from the delusional belief that this will make things OK?

My relationship to this place and my role in it is constantly shifting and evolving. I came here as a borderline militant vegan and now (though still vegetarian) I raise animals for meat. I ask so many questions, both practical and ethical, and offer so few answers. I read work that I wrote when I first moved here, and I blush at the naivieté. The rose-coloured glasses. But have I allowed wisdom and experience to become stand-ins for hunger and conviction, corralled possibility into something more safe and manageable?

And as for my writing: The world is such a messy, complex place and I abhor being yet another voice that offers simple solutions. And so I let my thoughts steep, like my daily pots of strong tea, waiting for some definitive answer that never comes. Too often I bite my tongue, swallow my words, leave things unsaid. Succumb to fear. Not fear of difference or stepping out from the crowd, but fear of being judged for being wrong. Or much worse, a hypocrite. There is still a large chasm between my intentions and my actions. Who am I to tell people to wake the fuck up, get over yourselves and do something real?

Then again, who am I not to be? I am a person who feels and experiences this life deeply. Passionately. I fall head over heels, lead with my heart first, then with my head. When I fall, I fall hard. Desperately so. But when I take risks and allow myself to let go of the fear and the conditioning and the criticism for being "too much" I can feel my wings stretching. Then I fly.

To read more, visit my blog, Rowangarth Farm.

Duck Hatching: Our Morning Surprise

A photo of FionaThe barn is usually a fairly noisy place first thing in the morning. The chickens are clucking, the rooster is crowing, the goats are bleating and the ducks are quacking. Well the Rouens are, at least. The Muscovies try hard but only manage a pitiful little squeak.

But on this day, I noticed another sound amongst the usual cacophony – a tiny "peep, peep, peep." I looked down into the duck pen and there she was – our very first hatchling!

The first duckling hatched

After screaming and scaring the hell out of the donkeys and horse (they're a little touchy before breakfast), I went tearing across the barnyard while shouting at the top of my lungs, "Go get the camera, there's a baby duck in the barn!" Once again, providing ample entertainment for our barnyard creatures.

We have two ducks sitting on eggs right now. One is in the feed area (she deserves her very own blog post), and the other is in the duck pen. Recently, I'd looked up the incubation period for ducks, and while baby chickens hatch in 21 days, Rouen ducks hatch in 28 days and Muscovies in 35 days.

As this is our first time hatching our own – in fact, we're not hatching anything ... we just allowed the ducks to go broody and let nature take its course – I wasn't sure what to expect. I'm horrible at marking dates, but I didn't think she'd been sitting on the eggs all that long. I didn't even know if they were fertile, though I must say that our drakes are quite insatiable when it comes to their attempts at procreation.

Obviously, the boys did their job and so did mama duck.

Mama duck and duckling

What I find amazing is that the duckling isn't even technically hers. Mama is a Muscovy while the duckling is a Rouen. Doesn't seem to matter though. Lovely, isn't it?

Mama duck and duckling beak to beak

By the time I finished taking a bazillion photos and finally got the rest of the barn crew fed, I realized it was 11:40 am. Because we weren't expecting babies yet, we had no duckling food on hand and the closest farm supply store – which is 30 minutes away – closed in 20 minutes. What's more, it wouldn't be open again until Monday (it was Saturday).

I quickly called the feed store, explained my predicament and pleaded for them to stay open another 15 minutes. After some hawing and humming, the disgruntled voice on the other end of the line agreed and 30 seconds later, the kids and I were in the truck and racing down the driveway.

It's a good thing too because when I got back with the duckling feed and put it and some fresh water into the pen, mama duck finally got off her nest and gave us a peak at the rest of her eggs.

Looks like duckling might have some siblings soon.

Another duckling hatching

In the meantime, I've told the kids that mama needs her rest. She's going to have her wings full with this lot.

Duckling crawling under ducks wing


Farm Ethics and Children

A photo of Fiona WagnerWe are now a two-ruminant family. Yep, we took the goat to the butcher a week after my last GRIT post (the first day the government meat inspector was in) and had the meat processed into 46 pounds of assorted goat cuts.

I felt some disappointment that things didn’t work out better with Oscar, but I must admit, I was relieved and satisfied we’d made the right choice. (Thanks to all you readers for your suggestions and comments – you were a great help!)

We told the kids right away that Oscar was no longer on the farm and they took it fairly well, considering the botched job I did of explaining it.

I’d decided that I was going to be upfront and straight about it. No “Oscar has gone on holiday” nonsense. They were going to learn about life and death on the farm, and I was going to be the one to explain it.

I told them that we’d decided to get rid of Oscar (hereinafter referred to as, “the goat” – you’re right Amanda, it’s much easier when you don’t name the animal!) as it was no longer safe to keep him. We’d done the best we could but some animals are just mean.

They seemed to agree with that assessment. (I think the head-butting and the fact that I had to use a broom to fend him off whenever I entered his pen gave them a good understanding.)

Then they asked where he went.

I explained that we’d taken him to a local butcher to be processed or killed.

My four-year-old daughter Ella asked, “Why?” with tear-filled, big blue eyes that never fail to melt my heart. I should tell you that this is the same girl who cried when she ate the first egg from our new hens.

Ella eats her first egg

I gently explained that instead of selling him to someone else who might not be as accepting of his goat-like nonsense and ill-temper, we decided that it was more responsible for us to have him processed into meat.

My son Jack replied, “It’s sad the goat went mean and now we’re eating him.”

I paused, then explained that while it’s OK to feel sad about the goat, we can feel good about the life we gave him. I reminded them that the animals in the barn aren’t pets and eating them, mean or not, will become part of farm life.

“But we’re not going to eat the horse, right mum?” asked my son.

The horse Gall

“No, we won’t eat the horse,” I replied.

“Or the donkeys?” asked my son.

Cinder the donkey

“Or, the donkeys,” I replied.

“Or the Ellas?” asked my daughter. Ella is the name she gave to all 10 of our hens.

Ella and the chickens

“Well,” I said. “Eventually, we’ll eat the chickens once they are no longer producing eggs for us.”

So then my son said, in his infinite seven-year-old wisdom, “So you do your job, or you get eaten. Right, mum?”

“Yes, sort of,” I replied, rubbing my temples and thinking that maybe the “Oscar’s gone on holiday” explanation might have been better after all.

I told them that one of the benefits of raising our own animals to eat is that it puts good quality, tasty food on the table.

“Are you going to eat the goat, mum?” my son asked.

“Well, I’m not sure,” I replied, explaining that I first became a vegetarian because I was against animals being raised on factory farms.

“We’re not a factory farm, right mum?” my son asked.

“No,” I replied, explaining that factory farms are places where animals are raised in very poor conditions. While we offer a much different life for our animals, one where they’re happy and well cared for, it’s been so long since I’ve eaten meat I’m not sure if I want to.

“But mummy, you’ve got to try it,” said my daughter in earnest. “That’s the rule.”

By now, I was starting to get something of a headache, so I redirected the conversation towards the new chickens we’d be getting in the spring.

I asked the kids if they could help me raise some day-old chicks as well as a few ducks and maybe even a turkey.

“Babies,” squealed my daughter. “We can name them Rosie!”

“And when they don’t do their job, we’ll eat them,” said my son.

Yes, son, we will. But in the meantime, I’ve got to find some recipes for goat meat. Then I’ll decide whether I’ll be eating it too.

Read more about our early adventures in homesteading at Rowangarth Farm.

Goat Troubles

We’ve got goat troubles … and it’s the chickens’ fault. Maybe it’s a bit unfair to blame the chickens but if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here trying to figure out what to do with an ornery, head-butting pygmy goat named Oscar. So in my angst-ridden state I’m holding them responsible. Okay, partially responsible.

It all started back last October when we finally got around to cleaning years of previous owners’ junk out of the barn. We had a great set-up – a few goat pens, a large horse stall and two areas to keep poultry – but no livestock.

So like many new country folk, we decided to get us some chickens. Because it was fall already, it was too late to place a chick order so I went online to look for some laying hens.

Not long afterwards, I found a lady willing to sell us 10 mature barred rocks, Rhode Island reds and black rock hens.

barred rock, Rhode Island red and black rock hens

We brought them home and within days we were collecting tasty, rich and gorgeous eggs from our girls.

Eggs from laying chickens

(Editor Hank Will and fellow blogger Paul Gardener have both recently written about raising your own chickens here and here. If you’re still thinking about it, I suggest you get off the fence and contact your local hatchery!)

About a week later, the lady who sold us the chickens emailed me to ask I’d be interested in buying a six-month-old male pygmy goat. Although Billy was still intact (as in, a fully capable male goat) she said he was very friendly and not at all aggressive.

I admit it – I’ve always loved goats, especially the little ones. Yes, my only exposure to them before moving to the farm was in petting zoos (there’s my disclaimer, right there), but I’ve always loved their personality. But that’s not a good enough reason to buy one, I reasoned, as we are not ourselves a petting zoo. So I decided to do some research.

I discovered that although pygmy goats are only 16 to 23 inches tall at the withers and does weigh approximately 55 pounds, pygmies can produce as much as four pounds of milk a day (equal to half a gallon) or 600 to 700 pounds a year, quite enough for a homesteading family of four.

Since one of the reasons we moved to the farm was to become more self-reliant, raising goats seemed like a good way to ensure a steady supply of goat milk and cheese. While purebred dairy goats such as Nubians and Saanens produce a much greater quantity of milk (averaging 1600 pounds annually), they are larger, require more space and more feed. Plus, registered proven producers (milkers) would be significantly more expensive.

Because we had absolutely no experience raising goats, we decided to try the economy version first.

But the question remained, should we buy Billy? I know there’s a lot more to selecting an animal for breeding than upbringing – pedigree and conformation are key but again, we’re just getting started here. The sticking point was, did we really want a buck?

While intact male goats start out as lovely little creatures, they quickly mature into bucks with somewhat objectionable habits, smell being the least of them. I mean, once you learn that a buck likes to spray his own beard and forelegs with urine, you may think twice about owning one. I know I did.

Finally, we decided to go ahead with it. We’d buy Billy now and get a doe in the spring and we’d go through one breeding cycle and see how things went.

We weren’t able to get Billy right away so in the meantime, I found another pygmy goat for sale: this one a three-year-old wether, or a castrated male.

I thought that it would be a good idea to get a wether as a companion for Billy. Goats are herd creatures and don’t do great on their own and once Billy matured, he’d be off limits to our future girls.

So on a cold, sunny day in November, my daughter and I brought home Oscar.

Oscar the pigmy goat

I liked Oscar immediately. He was inquisitive and friendly and took to following me around the barnyard like a puppy. While it was endearing at the time, that was probably a sign of things to come. I hadn’t bought livestock – I’d brought home a pet and a pet isn’t what I bargained for.

A few days after arriving at the farm, we tried introducing Oscar to the donkeys (they came after the chickens.)

Cinder and Lee the guard donkeys

Already we’d heard the coyotes circling the farm and we wanted to have predator protection in place before adding anyone else to the barnyard. Let’s just say it didn’t go well.

Cinder, the older and more sensible of the two, didn’t much mind Oscar. Lee, the younger and more insecure donkey, laid into Oscar like a fury, sending him cart-wheeling across the barnyard. It was unexpected and truly dreadful. We put the donkeys in the back paddock and tended to Oscar’s bruised ego.

Worried about what we were getting into, we were relieved when the chicken lady decided to keep Billy. That was fine with us because breeding was farthest from our mind at that moment.

But then a few weeks later, along came Lucy and Sam.

Lucy and Sam the pigmy goats

We purchased Lucy, another three-year-old pygmy goat, and her two-month-old baby that we named Sam, from a less than scrupulous owner. The idea was that Oscar would now have a companion (he was starting to show signs of stress and anxiety that we assumed was because he was an only goat), and we could keep Sam intact and have our own buck.

While we hoped the addition of Lucy and Sam would reduce Oscar’s growing agitation, it seemed only to heighten it. Although we kept them in adjoining pens for the first few weeks (we’d now moved everyone into the barn, out of the harsh winter weather) he became even more aggressive, not less.

Then the aggression turned on us. All my sources say that wethers were supposed to be docile and friendly but whenever we went into Oscar’s pen to collect his water bowl, he’d growl, head-butt and even once tried to down me. It left me with a nasty bruise and a growing worry that something was wrong. But what should we do about it?

The vet told us to take him to the sales barn. My dad offered to eat him. I even tried to sell him privately. But none of these options seemed to assuage my guilt that we’d failed. If only we’d done something more or differently, if only we weren’t so inexperienced, he wouldn’t have turned on us. (Looking back, he did seem pretty high-strung and codependent for a goat, right from the very beginning.)

So here I am today, learning my first lesson in animal husbandry – what to do with an animal you no longer want. I’m finding it a hard decision to make (now’s probably a good time to disclose that I’m a vegetarian – I’m something of an oddity around here), but it’s the first of many if we decide to continue raising goats or any animal.

If 50 percent of goats born are male, our options are: castrate every one of them and open a petting zoo (not an option), sell them privately (which may be harder to do with animals that are neither registered nor proven), butcher them or sell them to a sale barn (where someone else in turn will probably butcher them.)

It’s not like I didn’t know we’d have to dispose of excess animals even before we got into this goat business. I’m all about paying your own way around here and if you’re not contributing then you’re taking away from making this farm sustainable. I’ve even said it myself that once our chickens are done laying, they’re headed for the soup pot.

It’s just there’s this disconnect: the self-reliant side of me that knows full well that livestock are not pets (repeat after me: livestock are not pets) and that I can’t keep every single one of them; and the other side of me that has a soft-spot for four-legged creatures.

Pygmy goat

Maybe it’s time to get out of goats, but the barn would sure be empty without them. We’d miss out on our own milk and cheese too. Seems like a pretty high price to pay for my squeamishness.

So if anyone has any perspective or advice to share with this greenhorn, I’d love to hear it. Should I stick to growing vegetables or does culling animals, even the cute furry ones, get easier?

Read more about our early adventures in homesteading at Rowangarth Farm.

In the Beginning

I’m trying to figure out when it hit me that by golly, we were country folk. Was it the very first day on the farm when we found ourselves alone, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by acres of woods, hay fields and a trillion crickets? Or perhaps it was upon tasting that first egg from our new brood of hens. Then again, maybe it was the arrival of the donkeys… or the goats… or the horse.

Yep, I’m thinking it was then.

Lee (short for Leeroy), one of two guard donkeys in-training.

For years my husband and I yearned to kiss the city life goodbye and move to greener pastures. We'd spend hours talking about living in the country and the ways we'd simplify our lives: we’d raise animals, grow food and reduce our dependency on cheap oil.

As we both worked from home – me as a freelance writer and my husband as an IT consultant – we were free to live almost anywhere, or so we hoped.

Then we found it: our 71-acres of rural happiness.

Rowangarth Farm

When we told people we were moving four hours east to a little village in the country, most asked about our farming experience.

None, we replied. "You're brave," said some. "Are you nuts?" the rest asked.

Perhaps. But we also knew we'd regret it if we didn't try. We decided to dive into country living head first and learn to swim along the way.

Henry, our desperate-for-a-sheep-to-herd farm dog

So, last summer we said goodbye to our 150-year-old semi-detached home in the burbs and traded our minivan for a pick-up truck.

There are times that I think we’re in over our heads. Like when we’re faced with an ornery head-butting goat, when our wood is disappearing faster than expected and the forecast says, “long cold snap ahead” or when our bank account is as low as our wood pile.

Oscar, our cranky head-butting wether goat

Yet I already know how a mid-morning walk through our woods soothes the soul, how incredible a home-grown tomato tastes and that nothing could replace the looks of sheer joy on my kids' faces as they explore the four corners of our farm.

I’m the first to admit we've still got a lot to learn. But already things that were once extraordinary -- felling trees, collecting eggs, tending a woodstove -- are now part of our ordinary. We've fallen into a comfortable routine of rural existence. As busy and full as this life is, it's the only one that makes sense to us now.

Read more about our early adventures in homesteading at Rowangarth Farm.

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