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Thursday, October 8, 2015

It's Turkey time

I went out to the barn to take stock of the flock before writing this column. Actually a group of turkeys is called “a rafter”. So I went out to check out the rafter of fat, fluffy Thanksgiving dinners on legs. They stand about three feet tall now, and greet me as I enter the barn.
Our birds are comfortable and happy right until their last moments, which are humane and calm. We moved our birds to the abandoned horse stable this year, so that we could hear them and their communal gobbling from the house. The sheepdog is keeping a close eye on the comings and goings from the area and announcing the arrival of any intruders.
The turkeys are enjoying the added benefit of social activity in this new location. They can see out through the slats of the stall, to the barnyard on one side and the house yard on the other. When they hear the patio door slide open, they comment. When a car drives up the lane, they comment. It makes life far more interesting for them, I’m sure. The soundtrack of the farm has been turkey song all summer.
In another week we will have fresh turkeys for pickup for Thanksgiving dinner so if you need one, make sure you let us know. We only have a limited number.
The wild turkeys are plentiful this year. The designated female leads the kindergarten troupe in a zig-zag across the road and I have to follow their silly parade as I’m trying to get to work. We watch from the back porch as the males compete in their flamboyant tango moves, fanning out their tails and attempting to impress the women.
September 26th was opening day for the duck hunt and the Farmer launched his favourite time of year with his traditional hunting party gathering. The trucks started arriving at 4am and unloading their gear. The canoes were already down at the creek so they piled everything on the trailer behind the ATV and rode down under the last of the full moon. By ten they were exhausted and hungry so they came back up to the farm for a feast of last season’s wild game. Hunting season is the only time of year that the wine and beer are flowing before noon – because the hunters have already been up for eight hours and they are ready for a relaxing drink.
A dozen men fill the sun porch picnic table, their plates loaded with venison roast, goose bourguignon, wild turkey and lake trout. I quickly toss a salad and add it to the table with potatoes and carrots so it isn’t a total meat meal.
After brunch the hunters retire to the back deck for cigars and coffee and a nap in the sunshine. Some of them head home, while others prepare to head back out to the creek for the sunset hunt.
I imagine I would find it all a bit boring, sitting in the bush for hours, but to them it’s a form of meditation, I think. And they say they solve all the world’s problems out there, in their deep woods conversations.
I think out of half a dozen hunters they got one duck. It was turned over to the host/cook and will be served as an appetizer at Sunday dinner with a side of goat cheese and red pepper jelly.
The Farmer and I sat up to watch the super blood moon total eclipse thingy last Sunday night. He set up our lawnchairs on the front porch and covered them with sheepskins to make them extra cozy. I poured the whiskey nightcaps, turned off all the conflicting lights and we settled in under a blanket for the big moment. We got some visits from the barn cats who were out for their evening hunt. White cats glow in the dark. Finally the moon started to look like something was happening – the eclipsed part started to glow red and if you stared at it long enough it actually appeared to be spinning. Very cool. Then, it was over. For another 18 years, at least. And the Farmer was snoring beside me. I’m lucky the cat woke me up or we might have been there until sunrise.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

How to stay warm on a cool fall day.

Cooler weather makes the farm animals frisky

There are several simple things I wish I could do better. I wish I could drive a stick shift. I’m very proud of all my three daughters for learning how to do this. Maybe some day they will teach me. I wish I could wash floors and windows without leaving streaks. My husband is a master at the former, my mother the latter. I wish I could maintain attention span long enough to cook a meal without burning or over-boiling something. I get bored by cooking, and I lose confidence because it never turns out tasting the way I planned.
There are some things I have recently come to realize I am good at, however. After eight years on the farm I am getting really good at thinking like the animals. In the late summer, the apples on the trees just outside the barnyard are over-ripe. They get soft and heavy and fall from the trees, smashing into the ground and releasing a perfume that floats over the fence to reach the cows.
This is why I was not at all surprised to hear a cow during the middle of our movie the other night.
“What was that,” I shushed the Farmer. He seemed annoyed that I had stopped the movie we were watching, mid-scene.
“I swear I heard a cow.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s a science fiction movie. There are no cows on this planet.”
A few minutes later, another distinct “moo”. It seemed to be coming from directly outside the window I was sitting beside, as if a cow was on the front lawn, and had just recognized me through the glass. I got up and stepped out onto the back porch, just in time to see Big Betty skipping through the open gate onto the lawn.
Running back through the house to pause the movie yet again, I prodded the Farmer off the couch. “Cows on front lawn!”
He grumbled something about forgetting to shut the gate and said he would take the ATV down the lane to get them off the road.
I ran out the front door into the pitch black, just as the Farmer took off down the lane. A black mass burst out of the wildflower hedge, heading straight toward me.
“Watch out for the bull!” the Farmer called.
I hopped back up the steps into the house for a flashlight.
When I got back outside, the Farmer on his ATV was herding a steady stream of protesting cows off the road and up the driveway toward me. He hollered into the darkness, “turn your flashlight off and get outta the way!” I switched off my light and hid in the trees beside the lane. A wave of cattle stampeded by, just a few feet from my hiding place. The last one, a straggler, spotted me standing there. I guess cows can see in the dark. She padded over and sniffed at my leg. Then she jumped, startled, and took off after the others.
The beasts didn’t mess around the yard or trample my vegetable garden. I guess they knew the gig was up. Back in the barnyard, gate firmly locked behind them, the cows protested loudly. Mocha stood in front, the spokes-animal.
“I know it was you, Mocha,” I scolded.
She never could resist the smell of ripe apples. Thank goodness we don’t live closer to a busy road.
The sheepdog is barking a lot more at night, so there must be a lot of activity in the dark. I think she is worried about the turkeys in the stable, who are big enough to defend themselves now but starting to think about escape. We can hear their musical gobble-talk from the house. I think they are attracting wild turkeys with their song. The Farmer thinks I’m nuts but how else do you explain the return of the wild turkeys to the Fisher farm? The first year when we had a corn crib next door I counted forty wild turkeys strutting along the stone fence for breakfast each morning. When the corn crib came down their numbers dwindled and finally they disappeared from the property. Now, suddenly, they are back. I watch from the kitchen window as the males fan their tails and strut around the females in their seasonal dance. The babies sit and watch the display, amused.
The cooler temperatures are giving the animals new energy to get into mischief. If there is such a thing as spring fever, we must be heading into the fall friskies.

Cows don't mind the rain

I love the rain. Maybe because I was born in April. I never wake up to a rainy day and feel down. To me, a rainy day means snuggling indoors with a good book and a nice cup of coffee or glass of wine. It’s a day to get indoor work done without feeling guilty that you aren’t outside in the sun, because there is no sun. I usually spend it writing, reading, watching videos and doing yoga. Sometimes closets get organized, floors get scrubbed and the basement gets tidied up. The day is always well spent.
When I lived in Asia I loved being outdoors in the rain. It was warm and it seemed to clear the pollution from the air momentarily. It smelled sweet. The doorman of the hotel next to my apartment didn’t like seeing me outside in the rain, however. He used to chase me down the street with an umbrella, shouting that the acid rain would make me lose all my hair.
Cattle don’t mind the rain. They know when it’s coming, and they prepare for it. I remember as a kid when we rode past a field of cattle, we would count how many were lying down. If more than half the cows were lying down, it was going to rain. It’s as reliable a forecast as any other.
Last weekend when it rained I looked outside and saw my cows, most of them lying down, in the far pasture. “Look at your cows, lying in the water,” the Farmer commented. Some of the calves were lying flat out, legs outstretched. Sound asleep. I’m sure after weeks of stifling hot summer days with flies in your eyes and bugs biting you, it feels absolutely fantastic to have that cool rain washing your hide, doesn’t it Betty? She’s just lying there, legs tucked underneath her, chewing her cud and watching a team of wild turkeys skirting the edge of the field. I’m glad they have had more comfortable days recently because they have been doing a lot of complaining about the heat.
When you have cattle, one of your primary battles is a war against muck. You could lose a boot – or a small animal – in that stuff.
The Farmer can’t get his tractor in the barn to clear it out, so he has decided to lock the cows out of their favourite sleeping area until it dries up. I’m not sure what the plan is then. Maybe it will be easier to drive on and remove at that point.
Anyway, the day the iron gates went up across the inner sanctum, you knew it for miles away. The cows hovered outside, mooing and bawling in complaint.
They sought shade along the fenceline, in the trees and in the shade of the big scrap metal wagon. They pushed and shoved each other out of the way to get the prime spots. Then they took up residence in the other half of the barn, which is considerably less cool because it has an east-west location as opposed to the nice cross-breeze in the north-south wing. They are happy the heat has subsided now.
I watch as the ten calves file past me, en route to the salt lick. I can almost touch them across the fence but they stay just out of my reach. The little white-faced male who needed help when he was born is not so white-faced now, having been under his muddy mother’s udder for the season. Wow, that last sentence was a tongue twister or something.
I watch as the bull calf sidles up to the stable where the Farmer has left the radio on for the turkeys. It keeps them calm. I peek into the pen and there they are, each one a twenty-pound white feathered marshmallow, tucked into the hay. The calf appears to have his ear cocked, listening to the music.
Soon we will be saying goodbye to the turkeys and some of our calves, if not all of them. The price of beef is pretty high right now and we normally sell the males, at least. It’s a good thing they aren’t all that friendly because I have a bad habit of getting attached.
We have one bare tree and another wearing red so it will soon be time to collect a wheelbarrow of windfall from the apple tree. I will present it to the cattle as a special treat this weekend.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Of ghosts and happy memories at the end of summer vacation

I am writing this column on September 4th. This would be my father’s 74th birthday if we hadn’t lost him in January 2008. As I pore over old photos and memories rise to the surface, so do the tears. They come so easily, even after seven years! When we lost Dad, a friend who had lost her husband 3 years earlier said it wasn’t getting any easier for her. I remember thinking at the time, I hope the searing pain subsides a bit but I was also very afraid of the memory of my father becoming dull and fading away. I want to keep him with me, always. He was such a strong force in all of our lives and a part of me feels a little lost and confused without him here.
The memory, energy or spirit of Dad, whatever it is, has come back to me vividly since he passed. At first it was in dreams. Often I hear his voice in my head. Sometimes his cuss words or inappropriate sayings spill, unchecked, from my mouth. As I looked through photos today another incident came to mind where his presence felt very real.
In 2009, the Farmer and I were experiencing summer as recreational boat owners. The smell of the boat fuel, the water, the sun on skin - and watching my husband standing at the wheel with the wind in his hair just brought so many memories of Dad rushing back. I closed my eyes and stirred up the sight of him perched on the top of the Captain's chair, cigarette in hand. 
We went out on the Rideau Lakes, Dad's charts in hand. My father had marked his favourite swimming holes and places to stop for lunch, in his script, right on the map. His spirit was so strong with us that day. 
When we pulled in to the locks at the Narrows, I noticed an older man, tanned to leather-brown, wearing boat shoes, worn shorts and a gold chain. We met eyes and smiled as I excused myself to step past him on the dock. He perched on the edge of the picnic table. 
A few minutes later we were standing at the locks. The tanned man leaned over the locks as the boats slowly rose to the surface, chatting with the boaters, asking them about their boats and where they were from. 
It didn't register with me at first but when the man suddenly appeared at my side to casually comment on the weather, the memory of my father hit me like a wave. He WAS my father for a moment. I dissolved into a heap, unable to control my tears. I remember stepping back, away from the water's edge as my husband's arms enfolded me. I think the Farmer whispered an apology to the confused man. I don't remember much else about that day. I think I sheepishly smiled and waved at the man as we left in our boat but I can't be sure. On second glance, he didn't really look much like Dad after all. But there was just something about him. 
I like to think Dad was there that day to share the boating experience with me one more time. I have a photo of my Dad, not a very flattering one but he's in his favourite summer uniform: boat shoes and shorts, bare-chested and leather-tanned. Today on his birthday, I'm wearing his gold chain.
Dad so loved to be near the water. I’m not much of a water person; I feel much more at home on land. He used to tease me that I wasn’t a real Leeson because I get seasick on most boats. As summer wound down he would spend every available moment on the water.
Larry Leeson, the teacher, didn’t like a school year that began before September 4th. He preferred to enjoy his birthday out on the water for one last hurrah before it was back to the chalkboards and Bunsen burners of the science classroom. I think I remember at least one year where he just didn’t show up to work until his birthday had passed, even though Labour Day was long gone.

I don’t want to freak any of the young ones out who are currently attending classes on the site but as school ramps up for another year I am pretty sure the spirit of Larry Leeson is walking the halls of the old North Grenville District High School, along with a few of his closest friends. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

8 years of life as a farmer's wife

To Farmer Fisher on our 8th Anniversary.
It’s been eight years since you and I exchanged vows under the arbour you built for us at the farm. It was blowing a gale that day, but the rain held off and we have wonderful photos taken by a great family friend to remember that August 25, 2007.
Dad made it to the wedding. He was told he might be in the hospital recovering from surgery but he was determined he wasn’t going to watch me marry you on video. He wanted to walk me down the aisle, and he did. He also danced with me, for half a song, before he had to pass me over to you so he could go home and take a nap. The excitement of the day, the heat and posing for photos tired him right out. I am so very grateful that he was able to share the day with us. We did not know at that point that his condition was terminal and that we would have him with us just five more months.
You have a very practical, simple view of life, and so you may not realize, my love, that you have done miraculous things. You are the glue that holds this family together, and it just comes naturally to you.
We hadn’t lived together before marriage, so you were taking many chances when you made a commitment to me and my three girls. You didn’t know how we would work out finances, or living with teenagers, or even who would make most of the meals. Funny how those things just worked themselves out (and I agree the fire department doesn’t have to visit as often if we let you do most of the cooking.)
Occasionally I am reminded that other couples argue about things. They are unfair to each other, jealous of each other. Unforgiving and resentful. It’s been eight years and we have never really had a fight. It’s not because we agree on everything – it’s because you are so fair. That is all. Everything you do has a reason behind it.
Your love is deliberate and obvious. You put us first, in everything.
You accepted my children as your own. They have never doubted your commitment to them and you have given them a safe place to call home.
Through your fabulous Sunday dinners you have opened our home to our extended family week after week. As these gatherings swelled beyond our dining room table, you calmly drew up plans for a three-season sun room and built it to accommodate the crowd.
You set the tone, and the unspoken rules. Everyone knows family dinner is about acceptance, respect and celebration of each and every member of this extended family, which sometimes includes special friends.
I often think, without this weekly reservation, our children, siblings, parents and friends would just go about their daily lives and we would lose track of each other. Without this family dinner that we have made important, we might see some of our loved ones only a few times a year.
Back to the love. Thank you for insisting on our time together each day but also insisting on our time to ourselves. I love our morning coffee and our weekday lunches but I also love that you can entertain yourself with your hunting and fishing and farming. That gives me the downtime I need too. Thank you for filling my tires, taking the squeak out of my truck, and hosing down the doghouse area without waiting for me to complain about it.
I appreciate your being so generous with your time, your money and the TV remote. Thank you giving me space when I’m moody, a shoulder to cry on when I am down, and a number one fan when I succeed.
I don’t think I’ve improved as a cook and I certainly don’t make any more money than I did when you met me. I hope you’re not disappointed.
 I look at photos and can’t believe that skinny little thing you married is me. You certainly know how to grow your investment. You can stop that any time now, by the way.
Here’s to all that lies ahead – blessings and loss. Together we’ll get through it all. Happy anniversary, handsome.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Misty in training for the International Plowing Match 2015

We sold our Belgian horse Misty last spring but we have been keeping up to date on all her activities. Her new owner, Roy Sherrer of Shermount Farms near Spencerville has trained her to pull. This is a true testament to the man’s ability as a horse trainer – and our lack of it.
When we got Misty and her sister Ashley back in February of 2009, they were pretty much ‘green’ – and so were their new owners. They were accustomed to being led out of their barn every morning and back into the barn every evening by a rope attached to their halters. We tried this. It only worked if the horse actually felt like moving.
I don’t know how many times I was late for work, and pulling with all my strength on the end of Misty’s lead, trying to make the big horse bend to my will. I would just hang there like a soap on a rope, until she finally decided to stroll out of the stable and into the barnyard, where she spent her day.
Part of the problem is that Ashley was the leader, Misty the follower. When we lost Ashley to some mysterious fever or allergy in 2010, her sister was left to figure things out on her own. Mostly she decided Donkey was her new leader. Chaos reigned.
Donkey would help break the horse and sheep out of the barnyard so they could go eat apples on the front lawn and wander down the road to freak out the neighbours.
I got him to follow me back to the barnyard with apples or sweetfeed in my hand, and the rest of the herd followed. Including Misty.
And so this is how things were on the farm, for the next five years. When Roy bought our big horse from us, we had high hopes that he would be able to train her to do actual horsey things. Follow instructions. Pull a wagon, even. We expected it would take a while, but we had faith that wonderful things were in her future.
Sure enough, within the first few weeks we received photos and a video of Misty pulling a wagon. I could not believe that was my stubborn, skittish horse, pulling with all her might, next to another beautiful blonde Belgian. I got choked up with motherly pride.
Roy said he put the harness and yoke on Misty, and she started a bit. She has never even had a saddle on her before. Well, maybe once. Her previous owner hitched her up to a wagon for a photo opportunity once. But never again.
Hitched for the first time, Misty likely was confused and a bit scared. But as soon as she realized she was not alone in her situation – another (more confident and experienced) horse was right beside her - I imagine she was comforted, and then probably a little excited. The conversation probably went a little like this.
“Hi. I’m Goldie. Who are you?”
“I’m Misty. What’s goin’ on?”
“We’re hitched. Have you never been hitched before? Oh great…”
“Oh…hitched. Ok. I think I’ve seen this before. We pull, right?”
“Yes, we pull. Just follow my lead and when you feel me pull, you pull as hard as you can. You look strong. You’ll be fine.”
Roy was surprised to hear Misty had never pulled before, because she was a natural. She stumbled a bit at first, unaccustomed to timing her steps to another horse. But, a born follower, she quickly caught on and began to pull her own weight, and then some.
He taught her to pull the stone boat – a heavy float laden with cement blocks. When she was fully trained, he sold her to someone in Quebec.
I’m trying not to think too much about that part, because it stresses me a bit to think she is no longer going to be close enough for me to visit. Not that I visited her in the past – I thought it would upset me too much.
We will see her again, however, if only one more time. I am very proud to announce that Misty and her teammate will be pulling at The 2015 International Plowing Match in Finch this September 22-26. I’ll be the one in the floppy hat in the front row, cheering her on. Likely with a few proud tears in my eyes.

Watch for “The Accidental Farmwife – Volume 1” coming to a bookstore near you in 2016.