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Monday, April 14, 2014

Monsanto vs. Schmeiser: The Case of the Accidental Farmer

“Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” 
― Robert Louis Stevenson

My daughter bought me tickets to the theatre for my birthday. It was a busy week so I didn’t have time to sit down and research the play before the show date, but I had heard it was getting great reviews. “Seeds” is an original play by Annabel Soutar of Montreal. When we sat down at the NAC and I opened the program I was thrilled to see that Eric Peterson of “Corner Gas” was the lead. And as the play began, I realized I was familiar with the story.

“Seeds” was developed out of a series of interviews with key players in the Monsanto vs. Schmeiser drama. Soutar was fascinated with the story of the Saskatchewan canola farmer sued by the biotechnology giant Monsanto. The company claimed Schmeiser ‘stole’ their genetically modified seed, which is resistant to the pesticide “Roundup” and allows farmers to spray entire fields, killing all weeds and leaving healthy canola plants behind.  They said tests of his crop showed over 60% GM canola, so he likely purchased it from a licensed neighbour and cultivated it in his own fields illegally. Schmeiser claims that first crop in 1997 blew in off a passing truck and planted itself.

In 1998, realizing what he had, Schmeiser kept and replanted the super-seed. Monsanto claimed the old farmer had broken patent law. Schmeiser said his field was forever contaminated by the genetically modified seed, and he was just going about his business, exercising his rights as a farmer to replant his own seeds.

The play was built upon a series of interviews with key players in the courtroom and canola field drama. Eric Peterson does a fantastic job in the role of Schmeiser, the canola farmer and member of municipal council in the small town of Bruno, Saskatchewan.

The legal debate, of course, is about far more than the presence in Schmeiser’s fields of genetically-modified seeds containing a patented, pesticide-resistant gene. The case asks the question, where do you draw the line? If the gene is patented, fine, but it’s in the seed. And the seed produces a plant. And by the way, the seeds are pretty hardy and able to grow without a lot of human intervention. It’s quite plausible that they would take root and germinate on their own if spilled onto fertile ground.

Schmeiser stood up for the rights of farmers to cultivate their land and everything that grows on it. And with that course, he sparked the debate about genetically modified organism (GMO) food. Turns out it may not be all that good for us. That is a touchy subject, to be sure. If you ask a farmer who makes his livelihood on GM crops, he isn’t going to be very receptive to your opinion. But the point is technology can be dangerous if it is allowed to proceed without testing and preparation for “unintended consequences”.

Where do we draw the line between stronger, disease-resistant crops and our own health? What about the steroids and antibiotics that we put into feed for beef and chicken? They may help farmers to grow bigger, better animals but when we ingest the additives somewhere down the food chain, how do they affect us? Is our desire to scientifically alter our food so that it grows bigger, produces more and lasts longer, linked to the increasing prevalence of cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s and other health issues? I’m not saying it is. I’m just saying, to use an old farming term, it sounds to me like we’ve put the cart before the horse. Biotechnology is awesome. Scientists have made such advancements in food production that we may be able to one day eradicate world hunger. But at what cost? Is it too much to ask that our science must also be socially responsible?

As in the case of many documentary films and pieces of investigative journalism, “Seeds” asks the hard questions. Because we don’t want to become a victim of our own unintended consequences.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Somebody better call Noah.

Welcome to another season of completely unpredictable weather in Eastern Ontario. I don’t know what you think about the Farmers’ Almanac – I can’t understand the darn thing in hard copy form: too many charts and numbers for me. I prefer words. But the online version is kind of cool, and the search function makes it a heck of a lot easier to find things. I did a search for “summer in Ontario 2014”. The Farmers’ Almanac gave me the whole year. 
Winter was supposed to be a bit warmer than normal. Not sure if I agree that it was. The coldest periods were to be early and mid-December, late January and late February. Well that kind of covers all bases, doesn’t it?
The almanac did predict higher than usual amounts of precipitation and we did get that.
So the almanac can be pretty spot-on. Is it kind of like a weather horoscope? Maybe. Take it or leave it, here’s what the almanac says we have coming up.
April and May will be slightly cooler than normal (Booo….). Snowfall will be above normal, despite below-normal precipitation. Now that I find confusing. Isn’t snowfall the same as precipitation? And WHY are we still speaking of snow in spring?? Anyway, I digress.
The almanac says summer will be warmer than normal, with the hottest temperatures in mid to late June, early to mid-July and early to mid-August. So basically all summer. It’s going to be a hot one. Rainfall will be normal.
Looking ahead to the fall, the almanac says September and October will be warmer than normal. Precipitation will also be above normal.
I’m just lookin’ around and all I see at the moment, as April settles in, is snow. I know in some areas like Toronto they have experienced some flash flooding already, but I’m thinking we might need to take some extra precautions when the big melt comes. Like build an ark or something.
I’m really hoping the County gets their road crews out to clear the road grates on time so we can have proper drainage. Because the melting snow pools at the corners and we don’t need people hydro-planing through our many roundabouts in Kemptville. 
At the farm, we already have our usual ice-puddle in the entrance to the cattle area. Every year it catches me by surprise and I slip and fall on it. Not this year. But it’s a little more noticeable this season, because it’s already a small pond.
On the mild days, snow slides off the barn roof and we quickly count calves and sheep to make sure no one is buried under the resulting drift. Soon all of that will melt and we will have to make sure the doghouses, lamp creep and hay feeders are high and dry.
The barnyard will become a mudfield for the next few months, until the summer sun finally dries it out. The mud will try to suck my rubber boots off my feet, pulling me off balance so I am in danger of falling and sitting in the sludge. It has happened more than once.
The animals pick out a path on the edges of the mud, and we often lay boards down for them to walk on so they don’t get stuck in the mire and the muck. There’s nothing sadder than a sheep who has lost her footing and fallen over. Imagine how hard it would be to get yourself back up if you were built like a barrel with pegs for legs. More than once I have had to run out and upright a toppled sheep. And then this weird thing occurs. It’s like the innards of the sheep have shifted, and she can’t walk straight for a while. You have to hold her still and steady until she is right again.
All that being said, I’m looking forward to the rainy season. I love all the four seasons, but the ultra-warm sunshine that will break through occasionally in spring just puts everyone in such a great mood.
We do have a lot of snow to melt, however, so if anyone has a direct line to Noah, dial him up. I’m just glad I bought myself a new pair of boots.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The mysterious cat named Smudge.

Anyone lose a cat? A few weeks ago we noticed a new cat in the barn. It was a full calico (orange, black and white in colouring), so not from our colony. We only have dilute calico (peach, grey and cream). No idea where the cat came from. She could have wandered over from someone’s house or she might have been dropped off by someone who didn’t want her anymore. I don’t like people who do that.
The cat picked its way over the frozen manure carefully, in obvious discomfort. It gave the impression that it was very disturbed by its feet getting dirty, squawking and complaining the whole way, as if it had never been out in a barn before. I called the cat over and got a few pets in, but the cat kept jumping just out of my reach so I couldn’t get a full cuddle. 
Another week and we got close enough to determine the cat was female. Every day we put a bowl of food out for her, and a bowl of water too because she didn’t seem to know how to access the water trough. Last week I was too busy with a new work schedule to get out to the barn. Finally on Friday I went out, and I made a new discovery. The cat is pregnant. 
She padded past me to get to the food bowl and I realized she was waddling to and fro, swaying side to side with a heavy load. Hmmm. This complicates things. I can’t just let a half-tame cat live in the barn and try to raise a litter safely. She is already slightly distressed by the dirt in the barn, the loud noises that the farm animals make, and the other barn cats who are pretty mean at times. I told the Farmer I want to bring her into the house. He rolled his eyes. 
A few years ago our cat colony had grown so that we had 40 kittens born at the same time. As the litters arrived, the ten mamas put all the cats into one pile and returned to the fur puddle in shifts to nurse them. Every day I tried to get my hands on the kittens to make them tame. And when they were old enough, I moved them into the house where I could wean them and put them on solid food. I adopted out 37 kittens. Three I never could catch, and those are the ones we have in the barn. 
One by one I caught the feral mamas in cages and brought them in to be spayed. Three years later and no kittens on the farm. Until now. 
My instinct is to bring this cat into the house, keep her in the spare room in the basement til she has her litter and weans them, then adopt out the kittens and get the mama spayed. 
My poor husband. He doesn’t like animals in the house. 
Several years ago Sheila, a feisty little kitten that I found abandoned in a food bin in the shed, followed me into the house and stayed. The Farmer saw the little flash of white in the basement one day and asked me, “since when do we have a house cat?” 
Then our neighbours moved out and abandoned their big male cat. He eventually decided he preferred our house to the barn as well. The Farmer saw the slightly bigger version of our white house cat one day and asked, “how many cats do we have now?” He isn’t easily duped. Some nights the two tabby cats from the barn like to come in and warm up, get some snacks, chase the other cats around the house. They stay for a night or two in extreme weather; then they dart outside to the barn again. The Farmer has stopped asking how many cats we have. 
And that’s a good thing, because in a few weeks the number is going to increase by about five. 
I’ve decided the new cat’s name is Smudge, for the mark above her mouth that looks like a smear of marmalade. 
Now I’ve got to go set up her maternity room. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Racing to save an Eastern Ontario agricultural landmark: Kemptville College

“He don’t know sheep s**t from shinola.” That expression has been around from the 1940’s but it is still used today. I know this because I heard variations of the saying a number of times at the meeting on Kemptville Campus on Saturday.
Alumni, farm families, local businesses, college staff and students are often passionate and outspoken about their love for the nearly 100-year-old agricultural school and the role it plays in the Eastern Ontario agri-food industry. Many feel that those in power at the University of Guelph are too far removed from the rural roots of Kemptville College to fully understand the impact of this decision. Nearly 400 people came to voice their opinions and to commiserate in their disappointment, but they also had some really good ideas. Now they just need some help implementing them. Enter the OFA.
The OFA summit agenda on March 15th was completely taken over by the topic of the closure of Kemptville and Alfred campuses of University of Guelph. Just three days had passed since the official announcement was made that the schools would not be accepting new students in the fall, and the classroom doors will close in May 2015. That announcement took many people by surprise, and they were still looking a little shell-shocked on Saturday.
Organizers managed to keep speakers on point and steered away from politics. Leeds Grenville MPP Steve Clark was on hand to repeat his request for a 2-year-moratorium on the closure decision, to buy the college more time to investigate other sustainable solutions. The Parliamentary Assistant to the Ministry of Agriculture was also in attendance, pointing out that “great strides have been taken since the announcement had been made,” at least in the case of Alfred Campus, which has had a partnership offering from Cite Collegiale.  
Kemptville College may eventually form a similar partnership with Algonquin or some other educational body. Step one is the formation of a group of stakeholders committed to finding solutions so that Kemptville College does not have to close its doors in 2015. OFA President Mark Wales said he wants to see new students coming in this fall, because “if we allow the lights to go out, it will be that much harder to get them back on.”
Kemptville College Foundation Mac Johnston is looking for committee members from all areas of business, fundraising, educational and research expertise. He also needs volunteers to step forward, to carry out the menial tasks that will have to be done in order to implement decisions as they are made. If you are interested in getting involved, contact
My two cents, if you want them, is that Kemptville College must remain open as an educational institution. However, I believe that change is a good thing, and the decision by Guelph to sever ties with Kemptville as a school is a sign to us that perhaps we never were accepted as a viable part of Guelph University. Funding comes from a number of sources for Kemptville Campus programs, but that funding is not sustainable. If they get an emergency cash infusion, we will just be in the same place in another few years.
It’s time to get back to basics. Before joining Guelph in 1997, Kemptville hosted a community agricultural college. Today we could definitely take advantage of the growing movement toward sustainable local food practices and provide both classroom and distance education courses on those subjects. Maybe we could be an Algonquin College South. The grounds provide ample space for practical hands-on education in organic gardening and sustainable farming while future food safety workers, manufacturers and cooks would be learning the other parts of the supply chain. Classes would be taught by people who are currently running businesses or working in the industry.
Farmers in Eastern Ontario want the opportunity for their children to learn the family business close to home. Let’s continue to provide that for them.
Kemptville Campus has a booming business right now in the skilled trades. That should be supported and allowed to thrive. KC also has a thriving International Business Development Centre. We can teach developing countries how to farm in a way that is sustainable and cost effective. We have so much to offer.
For me, Kemptville College is where my mother worked for 37 years and I climbed into trees and read a book while I waited for her to finish her day. It’s where I met my husband, the Farmer. He has taught there for 24 years. The thought of it closing just makes me cry. I can’t help thinking we live in a society where we throw things away when they aren’t working effectively, instead of coming up with solutions to help things evolve.
If you would like to be part of the discussion on the next incarnation of Kemptville College, contact Mac Johnston at the Kemptville College Foundation.

Leapin' Lambs

Lambing season usually sneaks up and takes us by surprise every year. If the first ewe to go has been through it before, she is usually smart enough to find the deepest corner of the barn, out of the wind, in which to give birth. If it’s the first lambing season for the ewe, however, sometimes the birth catches her by surprise as well, and it happens out in the snow. This can have disastrous results if we don’t discover the lamb right away.
When we find the new family, we scoop up the lamb and walk backwards away from the ewe, into the barn’s lambing area. Hopefully the lamb is a bleater; the sound attracts the mama. Sometimes the ewe panics and goes running back to the site of the birth, looking for her lamb. She cries, drowning out the cries of her lamb, and runs in circles around the hay feeder and the barn yard, like a frantic idiot. If this happens you just have to wait until she calms down. Then you have to go back to the birthing site and start again. Scoop up the lamb and hold it just in front of mama’s nose so she can smell it. Back up. All the way into the barn.
It’s much easier if you guess by the bulging udder that the ewe is about to give birth. Then you can bring her into the lambing room, hopefully with some of her sister ewes, because no ewe likes to be alone. Plus, if there are more ewes in the lambing room, it will be warmer in there. Toasty, even. The lambing can then happen in the safe, warm and dry confines of the barn.
It takes a few days for all ewes to give birth (because it took the ram a few days to get through his dance card, 148 days ago). Then you have to ensure the ewe is giving milk, and the lambs know where to find it. Some of the lambs get confused, even with just one other ewe in the pen. So you have to make sure they know the sound and smell of their mother before you move them again.
Right in the middle of the barn is this long room I call the kindergarten. When the lambs and ewes have bonded, it is safe to move them into this area. They are almost a month old.
It’s a bit of a rodeo getting everyone into the kindergarten. The cows are first ushered out of the room in-between. They press their faces up to the gap in the wall in attempt to see what activity they are being left out of. They are pretty sure there is sweet, dry hay involved. They can smell it. They start to bawl.
The Farmer and I scoop up arms-full of lambs and start leading the ewes through the barn to the kindergarten. The ewes freak out for a few seconds at the kidnapping of the lambs and then they get distracted by the hay piled in the middle of the room and totally forget about the lambs. It takes us a few minutes to round everyone up and into the kindergarten.
We spend some time stretching tarp and fixing a gate across the doorway to the outdoor part of the pen. They can use that later when it gets warm outside and all the snow melts. We staple-gun feed bags across the gaps in the barn board, closing out the peeping eyes of the cows. All of this is done to the soundtrack of a dozen cows, a dozen ewes and a dozen lambs. It is a cacophony of noise. We watch as the lambs try one ewe and then another until they finally find the mother that belongs to them. The bawling slowly subsides. Soft knickering takes over. After a feed, the lambs start springing around the pen, taking long runs and jumping straight up into the air, twisting their bodies to the side and kicking. I’m going to miss this part.
Next week we will put sweet grain into the “creep” are of the barn that the lambs can wriggle into but he ewes cannot access. This will fatten them up.
In April, we will sell this last crop of lambs and their mothers. No word yet on whether we will be keeping Gracie as a lamb-dog. I’m sure it isn’t practical, but neither is our 1800-lb untrained Belgian horse, and we’re keeping her. I say Gracie stays. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

To all the little lambs: four legs or two.

I went out to the barn the other night and there was Gracie, my favourite sheep, in the midst of birthing. Her lamb’s head had been born, and she was sitting on it. She kept throwing her weight around in discomfort. Flopping from one side to another, I was afraid she would snap the little one’s neck. His head was already quite swollen. When I put a finger in his mouth, though, he sucked. The reflex was strong.
Gracie is quite tame. In fact she thinks she is a dog; not a sheep. She loves people, and she trusts us. I stroked her nose, told her I was going to help, and she baaa’ed in protest. Then very slowly, I helped the lamb bring one high-heeled shoe out alongside his neck. His tongue lolled out, and his eyes rolled back. He was exhausted. I slowly eased the shoulder out. I felt Gracie react to the change in pressure and she moaned, just as a human would. I stopped for a minute to let her catch her breath. Then, grasping the slick wet leg and wriggling fingers in to find the other foot, I pulled steady as hard as I could, careful not to dislocate the limb from the socket. There was no sliding; he was thick, sturdy and had to be pulled every inch of the way. When I finally lay the new lamb down beside his mother so she could lick him clean, he stretched out over half her length in size.
Twenty-five years ago this week I became a mother for the first time. I was an oblivious twenty-year-old, in big glasses and frizzy hair, reading fashion magazines and waiting for my IV oxytocin to kick in. I don’t go into labour: I have to be induced.
I got out of bed, paced up and down the hall, took a shower, did some squats, and waited. The woman in the next room started hollering and my doctor stuck his head in to ask her to please be quiet as she was “scaring the Hell out of the little one” (me). But she wasn’t. I was just excited. The pains started and I decided it just felt like a really hard workout at the gym. Over which I had absolutely no control.
Once things got rolling, it only took a short time for my daughter to be born. I had forgotten at home my “focal point” item to stare at during breathing exercises, so I fixated on a colourful juicebox of Hawaiian Punch instead. When the nurse tried to move it, I hissed. She put it back, where I could stare at it. And half a dozen pushes later, my baby was born. Just over 8 pounds, she had dark olive skin and hair and I thought she was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. She didn’t cry. She just opened her eyes wide, looked around the birthing room, and yawned. The doctor didn’t make it in time to deliver her; she was caught by the nurse who was on duty at the time at the Grace Hospital – who also happened to be a seasoned midwife from Scotland with over 200 births in her experience.
“Oh, this one’s an old soul,” she cooed. “Look at her. She has been here before.”
During feedings, the nurse wheeled a large metal cart with about four shelves of babies on it, down the hall, room to room where they were distributed to their mothers. I listened carefully as the cart came down the hall. Although the crying woke me it didn’t bother me – probably because my baby wasn’t crying. The nurse brought her in to me, laughing. The hot little loaf of bread – just a face emerging from a tightly wrapped blanket roll – had her eyes open wide and she was making fish “o’s” with her mouth. She knew exactly what was coming – milk – and she was probably wondering what all the other babies were screaming about.
That first time she looked at me and really saw me, she had a little smile in her eyes. I saw that little mischevious smile many times over the years, and love seeing it now, twenty-five years later.
Milena has grown into a confident, caring young woman, comfortable in her own skin. That’s all we can hope for in our little lambs, be they four-legged or two.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

We were away and the cats did play.

Most parents, upon their return from vacation, look for signs that the kids had a party. In our case, the party animals were the cats. Actual felines. We have two self-proclaimed housecats (we didn’t invite them; they just moved in) and two barn cats that are quite feral but reserve the right to come in and eat / sleep / poop in the nice litter box anytime they want.  If you suspect the barn cats have entered the house, you cannot close the door to the basement. Otherwise you will be cutting off their access to food, water and, more importantly, toilet facilities. Denying them this access can have disastrous results. My daughter and her husband were watching the house in our absence and I don’t expect them to go hunting for feral cats every time they want to leave so I told them to just leave the basement door open. So the cats had full run of the house. For a week.
When I returned, here is what I saw. A fine cloud of white fur had settled on every flat surface of the house, including the hardwood floor, kitchen table and countertops, couch cushions and throw pillows. The dog’s blanket, once blue and orange, was also coated in fluffy white, leading me to believe this was the bed of choice for the felines last week.
The bread bag featured small bite marks that had no doubt been made by sharp little cat teeth. The butter (left out on the counter for some reason) had paw marks, scratchy tongue tracks and cat hair in it. After throwing these things in the garbage I continued my inspection.
Having played surrogate mama to thirty-seven kittens several seasons ago, (when I was taming them for adoption) Sheila the diminutive housecat likes to continue in this role by carrying small kitten-sized toys around in her mouth.  She goes digging in the toy box downstairs and pulls out anything that is about the size of a small kitten. Then she tucks them in strange places around the house. It’s quite endearing, really. After our vacation, nearly every wrinkle in the dog bed contained a small plush toy. They were also deposited on stairs, behind the toilet, on kitchen chairs and there was even a small purple elephant in the bowl of water at the feeding station. I guess she thought it might be thirsty. She does this often. Then she drags the wet toy around the house, leaving puddles on the hardwood floor for me to slip in.
I also found puddles of water around each of the toilets – obviously another favourite place to play on a long winter afternoon.
I guess the red feathers that I bought at the Third World Bazaar look a little too much like a bird because they had been tackled, plucked and left to die on the floor. The bird-watching station on the windowsill next to the outdoor feeder was obviously a popular spot as my candles and other knick-knacks had been pushed aside to make room for someone who left large tufts of fur behind.
Probably the cats’ favourite spot to play in the house is the carpeted staircase. I think they imagine they are ancient warrior cats, defending the plateau of their people as they race up and down the steps, digging their claws into the rug as they go. After a week of this unsupervised play (I usually cut it off after round one as it can be quite destructive), the carpet now has some frayed, loose edges and there is white fur in the creases that even the vacuum cleaner cannot reach. Sigh.
Thank goodness I had the foresight to close all the bedroom doors before I left. I can just imagine what my bed would look like if the cat brigade had had their way with it.
The cats certainly appear to have had a good time with the house all to themselves for a week. But all good things come to an end and it is possible to have too much of a good thing. The moment I opened the sliding door to the back porch, out they all went. And I haven’t seen them since. I guess they have a slight case of kitty cabin fever.