Once there was a way…

…to get back homeward.

But I’m afraid goats have become an irrevocable fact of life as long as I am farming. They arrived as a novelty and have somehow infiltrated into practically every aspect of my life. But I can justify keeping them…sort of.

We’re fast approaching our first year anniversary as goatherds (or as I like to call it, goatslaves) and have passed a lot of milestones: first kidding season, first vaccinations, first drenches for colic, first disbudding, first milking, first loss….We’ve learned to master goat cheese, goat soap and goat manure, the three byproducts from our dairy herd.

I have to regularly remind myself that the considerable investment in feed, infrastructure and veterinary bills will be paid out in rich compost for the market garden. As long as nobody forces me to sit down with a calculator I can continue to believe that.

Moving the steadily accumulating wealth of goat pebbles and bedding is the equivalent to the exercise classes I sign up for but never attend. There are savings to be had there.

Although it’s tempting to argue their worth based on practical considerations, I’d have to say their true value is entertainment.  I spend so much time watching goat antics that I’ve suspended the satellite subscription (which is kind of an argument for both practicality and entertainment). Goats are natural actors and rarely have trouble staying in character. They’re simply built to be hilarious/cute/obstinate/annoying/endearing.

Each has their own role. For instance Reeses Pieces (stage name Rhys or Coco) is by far the friendliest kid of the six offspring. Always the first to greet you, he loves to put his front hooves on you and nibble your collar or hair.  I often wear his hoof prints on the front of my shirt. He’ll occasionally stir my coffee with one of them. He’d make a great agent if we detoured him from his inevitable path towards buckhood.

Sierra Nevada prefers to play a supporting role. She is the barn daycare goat and doulah, who happily hangs with the kids when the moms are busy and accompanies her sister goats during their labour.

King, 170 pounds of shaggy, imposing-looking buck is the least aggressive of the lot with his understated little “meh” that barely registers on the bleating scale and the polite offering of his head over the paddock fence for rubbing. The only time he remotely resembles a leading man is during the rut, but to be honest, he’s mostly  ram without the ‘bunctious.

Cookies and Cream, an aging Nubian diva with a breathy moo she must have learned from a bovine pasture mate at some point,  is the self-appointed matriarch, always the first to the food and the loudest protester when the humans don’t keep to schedule. She has obviously had vocal training because she can project her  low voice from the stage (paddock) to the back of the hall (my bedroom) until she captures her audience (me, trudging down with grain).

Sunshine Girl, a nimble, good-time Toggenburg-Alpine, is the stunt goat. We’re almost certain she made her debut in the circus. She demonstrated early on that she is only behind bars because she so chooses. She easily leapt over the breeding stall gate  to escape the unwanted attentions of the suitor we chose for her and sprang back in with equal vigour when her preferred buck took up residence. She also catapulted onto the Christmas parade float as the fourth goat in the Three Billy Goats Gruff diorama and required some persuading to return among the goats who didn’t make the cut.

The remainder of the goats have walk-on roles in the daily soap opera that makes up the days of their lives. Aspiring starlet Peanut Butter (twin to Reese Pieces and the producer’s darling) delights in slipping her still slender form between the bars of the hay crib to dine at leisure from within and flaunt her privileged position by depositing goat raisins on everyone else’s dinner.

Cookie’s two-thirdlets (we lost a triplet) Marshmallow Creme and Chips Ahoy prefer cameo roles that showcase their sleek brown and white coats and exquisite Egyptian profiles. They’re often found posing with their heads tilted coyly, showing their long arched necks to advantage.

The baby Alpines, Capricorn and Capella are much too dignified to pose overtly, but excel at stealth photo bombing. They’re never detected until you upload the files. Various body parts litter the cutting room floor.

The remaining does watch from the sidelines away from the admiring crowds (unless the admiring crowds have carrots); Bubblegum Girl, Aurora Borealis and Eloquent Mist are backstage ingenues just waiting to be discovered.

No production is complete without the credits:

Cameron McGregor – Producer

Sheila Selby – Director

Joe Renaud – Key Grip

Angie Chaput – Script Editor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All is Calm, All is Bright

 

As soft the new lain snow beds down

And laden trees bend low to ground

The lowly beasts with muffled sound

Their comfort seek in safe surround.

 

And I my husbandry complete

A path do trace with eager feet

Toward the golden panes that greet

My weary bones with promise sweet

 

Of wood-stoked blaze and cushioned bed

Of damp wool-scent curled ‘round my head

As snow-soaked coat and hat quick shed

The cloak of lace upon them spread.

 

But though my body sore inclined

To seek out hearth and humankind

Does forge its way with intent blind

A silver web my feet entwines.

 

The moon, hung high, will have her way

Her spell, tight-bound, my progress stays

And stilled, I meet her kindly gaze

My soul awash with peace, with grace.

 

In the Company of Goats

It really doesn’t matter what kind of day you’ve had once you enter the goat barn. Gone the pressure to be somebody.

In the goat barn there are no bad hair days. You can wear the same overalls and mismatched rubber boots every day of the week and still be accepted.

In the goat barn, no-one expects witty repartee, a knowledge of current events,  or even that you remember their name. Just show up and you’re already a star.

Goats bust life back down to basics…food, water, shelter, companionship. The contented munching of hay, the nearly full-grown kids bulldozing under their mothers for milk snacks, the outstretched necks looking for a scratch, curious nibbles in my hair–these life-affirming goat barn reruns never get old.

The easily won trust and gratitude of a goat is a balm in a world where we too often have to prove ourselves.

When I leave the sanctuary of the goat barn, I am at one with myself and my world. In the goat barn I recapture my true essence.

Almost too big for snuggles

Almost too big for snuggles

Goat love

At one with the herd

From the ashes…

“Mom! Quick, call 911. The garage is on fire!”

An infinitesimal pause while the reality sinks in.

Then my feet burst into action even as my sluggish brain is still wrapping itself around the truth: This is happening to me. Me. My property and belongings. A woman of action, I’m completely paralyzed.

Realization dawns. Oh my god the goats are in the barn next to the garage!

Urgency quickly telescopes me back into the moment and my fingers dial 911 as I race outdoors simultaneously giving instructions to the operator and yelling for the rest of the household to free the goats from the barn.

Obscene black smoke smears the normally bucolic view of the square timber outbuildings. The scene is fit for the 11 o’clock news, not my own yard.

I bark out a final instruction at the 911 operator who is insisting that there is no such address and toss the phone, still live, to the nearest person before sprinting to the barn. The goats are milling  in the back stall, eluding all attempts to rescue them. The grip on my heart releases as I see a path forward.

“Pick up the babies and carry them out!” We scoop up the six kids, dump them outside the paddock, then bully a couple of adults to the gate. The balance is tipped, the need to be with the herd outweighs the fear of smoke. The rest follow.

Next the buck pen where the two males need no urging to flee.

The emergency response team has begun to arrive. I stand alone in the field,  surrounded by goats pressing against me. My legs are trembling and I reach out to touch them, seeking reassurance from their musky warmth.

The adrenaline drains and I realize I’m shivering, dressed an improbable combination of black camisole, shirred skirt and gum boots.

Household safe. Goats safe. Time to join the bystanders standing by helplessly as the fire fighters battle in force to subdue the flames. Hugs. Reassurances. A coat thoughtfully draped over my shoulders.

I later discover that what felt like half an hour was only ten minutes; that what felt like half an hour was actually three hours.

Ten minutes response time by the firefighters. Three hours on the scene to completely secure the building.

In the vulnerable aftermath I reflect deeply on the valuable treasures that survived the stench and the ashes of the destroyed garage. They aren’t covered by the insurance, but the fire has in fact increased their value…

A husband, who drove seven hours through the night to be by my side. Family, who dropped everything to come and stand by in solidarity. Friends,  who called, visited and launched hundreds of Facebook messages with heartfelt offers to provide whatever we might need. Strangers, who heard the news and reached out generously. And the volunteer firefighters, young and not so young, who train rigorously, who wear their pagers when on call, ready to interrupt weddings, funerals and family events to respond, and who race to the scene at the sound of a siren  even when they’re not on call.

Yes we’ll rebuild. Yes we’ll refill the garage with tools and gear. But they will never have the same value. And I’m good with that.

Kids in the Stall

Kids in the stall

Triple Trouble

Beware of networking! I’m still coming to terms with the fact that a couple of tentative inquiries into acquiring a milking goat or two somehow escalated into me keeping a dairy herd of eight goats, including three pregnant does who’ve increased the numbers by another seven. I kid you not!

I’ll spare you the details…suffice it to say that someone had eight goats needing a home, and I apparently had a home needing eight goats!

There is a notable discrepancy between goat fantasizing and actual goatkeeping. While still in the grip of some Alpine-meadow-induced trance, I envisioned a quaint herd that would greet me every morning with goatly decorum and follow me devotedly to a designated grazing spot where I would sit on a rock (preferably Alpine) and sip my morning Swiss chocolate while they obligingly mowed my lawn. What I got was an unmannerly herd of caprine gangstas that crash gates, mob me when I carry in the grain and bleat deprecating commentaries when some imaginary contaminant fouls their drinking water.

After couple of days of crushed toes, one bloody nose (mine, not the goat’s), and multiple gate upgrades my head was out of the thin Alpine air and my trampled feet were firmly back on the ground. We hammered out a cross-species entente: they would train me in the ways of the goat and I would become their willing servant.

If I had secretly entertained thoughts about backing out on the deal, Cookies and Cream, a brown and white Nubian, vetoed that option by presenting me with  three little doelings the morning after she arrived. ‘Here’ she said, ‘I can’t possibly feed three kids. Check the undercarriage…only two nozzles. Why don’t you supplement them with a bottle, bond irrevocably with them,  and  then we’ll revisit your idea of returning us.’  After that bit of staged coersion, I succumbed. Now every farm chore includes a detour to the barn to “check on” the kids. Two sets of twins followed, providing further distraction, since kid cavorting trumps weeding every time!

We now have a workable routine: I let them out to graze in the morning and sprint after them through raspberry canes and logging stumps with my coffee sloshing down the front of me. After the mosquitoes have extracted a pint of blood, or  a half an hour (whichever comes first), I slink stealthily back to the paddock, locking the gate quietly behind me to shut the goats out. I then set out the grain and open the gate, simultaneously leaping backwards as they stampede in and take up positions at the trough.

Next I dump out three buckets of perfectly good water, refill them and leave the herd to make beds from all the clean hay in the feed crib so they can  bask in the sun.

At this point they agree that I can begin my day of gardening (this IS still an organic market garden after all) and that they’ll call me if they need me.

So far it’s working.

How it all began…

WELLSPRING GARDENS…EAT FRESH, LIVE WELL

It all began with a search for community. What exactly does community mean? I’m pretty sure each one of you would have a different answer. The Collins dictionary defines community as a group of people having cultural, religious, ethnic, or other characteristics in common. While that’s true, I prefer to define community in terms of how it feels from the inside looking out…a place where you have a sense of belonging and acceptance, a sense of fellowship, a sense of shared purpose. Community is a place where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

My journey began when I returned home after living seven years in Québec City. While I was there I learned a new language and culture, taught English to  business clientele, earned a translation degree and saw my youngest two leave the nest to go off to Montréal and college. When the opportunity came to return to the Ottawa Valley, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. I’d be able to translate out of a home office, I’d be closer to my two older children, my grandchildren and my Dad, my husband Joe wouldn’t be heading out to parts unknown on a plane every second week, we could build our dream home on that 100 acres we had kept…it all seemed good.

It became clear soon after moving back that the life I had left seven years earlier didn’t fit any more. It was like trying on last year’s bathing suit. Sure I could squeeze into it, but it was snug in spots and I had to keep tugging it into place! I’d apparently grown. I’d discovered a love for teaching and developed a taste for entrepreneurship. Four years of university while raising two boys and holding down a part-time job had trained me to channel my energies and hone my multitasking skills. Seven years of new horizons and challenges had stirred up a restlessness that was demanding an outlet. In other words, it was time to shop for a new bathing suit!

Not all journeys have obvious signposts. Mine felt more like trying to get from point A to point B in a room full of bumper cars.  It began when we discovered that our 100 acres, the site of our future dream home, had somehow been severed without a righ-of-way. The only solution, after a year of negotiating with the township and parleying with neighbours, turned out to be buying back the very farmhouse and property we had severed and sold 12 years previously. Call it fate if you will, or maybe it was simply a case of making lemonade with the lemons life had handed me, but that’s when the idea for Wellspring Gardens was born. Although I didn’t know it then, it was the first step on the path that would lead me to the community I was searching for.

I began by talking up the idea with friends and family. Their enthusiasm and support encouraged me to go for it. I soon developed a core of loyal veggie customers. This was followed by a couple of years of trial and error (mostly errors) while I played with the idea of becoming a full-time gardener. As it turns out, tractors and implements do not a farmer make. Armed with this disheartening knowledge I took a huge leap of faith and signed up as an intern at The Rainbow Heritage Garden in Cobden, ON. My internship there brought me in contact with a new generation of farmers and farming models, agricultural communities and resources as well as the current food movements (locavores, 100-mile diet). After six months of full-out gardening and marketing at the Lansdowne and Carp markets on weekends, I was more convinced than ever that this was the right decision for me.

The eureka moment came when I sat down to map out a mission statement and five-year business plan. Here was a framework that provided for all of the things I had been missing from my urban experience: contact with people from other places and cultures; an educational component (interns, schools); working with the public (markets); entrepreneurship (growing the business); and a creative outlet (giving something truly my own to the local residents).

Somewhere along the way, I found my community. It includes people of all ages and from all walks of life. Some are old friends and some are new. But we’re all joined by our passion for good food, land stewardship and supporting local endeavours. It is a place of acceptance and belonging, a place of fellowship, a place of shared purpose. My journey is over and I’m finally home.

Contentment

Contentment

The Boys are Back in Town

This is our third year keeping laying hens. Every year we select a different breed to add to our stock, partly because it’s fun to diversify, but also because it helps us to distinguish the new hens from the old. The original idea was that when it came time to cull the flock, we’d be able to easily identify the old girls. So far it’s year three, no-one has been culled, and we might as well get used to the fact that they never will be!

What started out as a purely production flock has become an unruly mob of 70 some feathered dames that rule the barn, the yard, the garden, the greenhouse, the veranda and my husband’s garage when he forgets to close the door. They appear to make decisions by majority vote. Why else would I all of a sudden find a series of  floor nests crafted handily from straw and filled to overflowing with eggs when only a couple of days ago the nesting boxes I provided were doing the job just fine. They also plan mass “anointing” parties, choosing some hapless piece of equipment left carelessly in the open and encasing it in cement-like guano practically overnight.

By and large they’re a peaceful population comprised of several smaller cliques that band together during the day and roost beak by jowl at night. Of course there is the occasional squabble when some young upstart challenges the established pecking order, but normally these are pretty zen hens.

Last summer we disrupted the convent by introducing roosters. It was never our intention, but vegetarian friends who breed and raise novelty birds for their own laying flock found themselves with a few too many roosters for their hen quota. It was understood that as meat-eaters, we would probably dispatch them and add them to the pot, but we decided to observe them for a few days to see which rooster might prove worthy of our harem.

One Wellsummer, three Ameracaunas and a cross-bred mutt rooster called Falcor all got trounced in turn by the indignant  and unwilling brides-to-be. Pandemonium ensued and the whole operation started to resemble some twisted version of “The Bachelor.” The boys preened and strutted, every once in a while gathering enough nerve to sidle up to a likely conquest, only to be driven back into the bushes until they worked up the nerve for another foray.

Integration began to seem unlikely, but a week passed and a clear leader emerged from the huddle of disenfranchised Romeos. Falcor, the smallest, least flamboyant rooster, called up some dominant gene from the depths of his murky lineage and began a dating schedule that would have killed a lesser bird. Eventually the remaining bachelors gained favour with the girls, but were granted only the occasional clandestine rendezvous when Falcor was otherwise engaged.

In the end, we kept them all, deciding that their hilarious antics more than compensated for the extra grain. Although, at 3 a.m. when the one demented Ameracauna  begins another day of incessant crowing, coq au vin recipes start floating through my head.

Intern Julian a rare capture with Falcor

Intern Julia in a rare capture with Falcor

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.