I was a farming virgin when we bought our 5 acres in 2009. Luckily, we eased ourselves into it, with chickens, then progressed to sheep and eventually to alpacas. Even so, you have no choice but to dive right in, a sentiment I am sure all farmers share – you do what you have to do because it’s part of being a responsible farmer. It’s rather like becoming a parent; no matter how proper and together you may have been before you had kids, you become a parent and suddenly you find yourself doing things like wiping little noses with your sleeve when you couldn’t find the kleenex box. I look back with wonder at the things I have dealt with. And I am eternally grateful for every second.
Chickens. A good training ground. Lovely to be around on a beautiful warm spring day, the constant clucking all around as you work the soil to prepare the garden. Watch for chicks swarming around your feet when mama hen warns of a hawk. You can’t help but giggle at the hens hitching a ride on every shovelful of dirt you try to move, nibbling up the exposed earthworms them. Eventually, you find yourself picking worms out of the dirt, just to watch the race to snatch them up.
The face of a visiting child who has worked up the courage to reach under a nesting hen for the first time to retrieve a warm egg or two.
Sheep. (“Martha and the Muffins” because they really all did look alike.) In the spring, you watch over the ewes with amazement as they lamb and maybe you bottle feed a neglected lamb or two. You let the chickens turn the soil then you plant & fertilize your garden with a sheep manure tea. You shear the sheep and let the chickens weed between the rows in the garden. In late summer/fall, after the amazingly prolific crop of peas, fava beans, swiss chard, potatoes, paddy pans, corn, carrots, tomatoes and pumpkins are harvested, you feed most of the plants back to the happy sheep. You slaughter some of the sheep. You spend the winter processing wool, cooking lamb chops and fresh eggs and freshly frozen organic garden veggies. (I once included something from the farm every single day from early May to the end of October.)
Before we slaughtered our first sheep, I’d never even filleted a fish. I owe a debt of gratitude to my wonderful Croatian neighbour Petar, who taught me that being a responsible farmer included caring enough for your animals to be involved right up to the end.
And then came the alpacas. 3 juveniles and 2 pregnant females (or so we thought). Turned out Harlequin had a retained corpus luteum, so it was Shade who gave birth to the first cria (baby alpaca) on the farm. We bred 4 more females the following year and had 4 healthy cria, although not without some excitement. Velvet refused to allow Jitterbug to nurse, so I had to bottle feed her for the first 3 months. (Picture me traipsing out to the barn at 3 am in my housecoat and boots. In the dark. By myself.) Cowgirl Blues took her first few breaths and then stopped breathing, so I had to give her mouth-to-nose to bring her back to life. In the field. By myself. Harlequin’s labour was not progressing, so had to help pull the cria out. In the field. By myself. These are the things you do.
I have learned to shear alpacas, out of necessity. I trim toenails, give injections and halter train regularly. I once assisted in the birth of a cria who presented upside down, head first, no feet. I had to push the cria back into the uterus, turn it around, find the feet and pull them out along with the head so that the dam could proceed with a normal birth. At one point, my friend asked me “How do you know how to do this?” I answered, “I don’t, but we do what needs doing.”
And then there is the other side. Cowgirl Blues was just over 1 year old when she died in my arms, riddled with tumours we had no idea were there. Shade passed away in the night after choking on pellets fed to her in a bowl, (a common practice amongst camelid farmers but one I will never use or recommend again). I remember once having a good cry after finding an egg bound hen dead in her nest. It is an inevitable part of farm-life, the dying. Never easy. But we do what needs doing. And I am eternally grateful for every second.