Hopeful gamblers

Gently easing my hand further inside the ewe’s uterus, I can feel a back leg – the hock. Closing my eyes I visual how the lamb’s leg is attached to its body and begin feeling for the other back leg. My fingers feel the second bony stick, I got it. I’m talking myself through it the entire time my fingers work my way down to the lambs’ hooves. With the pinky of my right hand, I hook the second back hoof against the first. Both back feet are between my fingers now. Another contraction from the ewe and she pushes. Trying not to be too much of a disturbance to her, I stay still. I don’t want to imagine what this would be like with a 1500 lb cow. It’s all surreal. Her contraction eases, and I’m able to pull the lambs two back hooves through her pelvic opening, it easily slides out of her. A slimy squoosh accompanies the little lamb onto the straw. Miss Priss nickers, turns around and instinctively begins licking the lamb. She’s such a good mum. Stepping back, I breathe again. There’s another lamb in there, but it’s birth should go smoothly. Ill stick around to wait, making sure it does go well. At most, I’ll give it a tug when it’s time, but I’d rather Miss Priss do the work. As I stand there with a sticky, shiny glove on my hand,  I’m glad this is only the second time I’ve had to do this in my 14 years of raising sheep.

 

Once the lambs were up and nursing, Quirks and Quarks came on. This flagship science radio program on CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation, our public radio) is a wealth of public cutting edge science. I love this program. Over the years its opened my eyes to both good, but recently, mostly bad events in the world. Q&Q has taught me that climate change is altering the ocean salinity (not good) that people (thought to possibly be researchers) introduced white nose syndrome into north American bat populations via contaminated clothing (they didn’t decontaminate the clothes and boots worn in a European cave before going into a north American bat cave) causing 6.7 million hibernating bats to die, and that prehistoric sabretooth cats cared for their injured pack mates. In today’s episode, I discover we need to find a way to feed a possible 10 billion people in the year 2050. Technology is part of that, but I believe land-based farming is going to be the backbone of food production for a long time yet. Even if we do have the technology to grow food in other ways, as a species, we crave working the land we came from.

I can’t say I ever thought I would be doing this as a child, but I did want to at least be on a farm. Growing up on farming tales from my family and the iconic James Herriot stories, I was enthralled with farming. So much so, that I had wanted to be a vet, caring for the animals. Like so many other children it was the love of animals, especially horses, that drove me. I thought having a horse farm would be the most amazing thing, but to farm livestock for food…that hadn’t crossed my mind. In my childhood visions, all the animals were pets, and any babies born also became pets. How my adult world has changed

 

What I have learned is that farming is far more than just a job. It’s a job, business, passion, craft, art, and vocation. I can think of few other areas of life that one is intrinsically tied to the welfare and success or failure of another living being or beings. Farming almost solely rests on the actions of nature. In addition to its beauty, nature is also to be feared, respected, but most of all in service to. Nature’s my boss.

 

No matter where in the world they farm, farmers can relate to each other, share their experiences, and relate to each other… with the assistance of language translation of course. Every farmer knows the fear of not having the rains come or having too much of it. The pain of losing livestock, land, or crops to floods, drought, disease, or the markets failing, causing financial ruin. No matter where on the globe farmers share that pain through personal experience.

 

Unfortunately, most of the western population is disconnected from the reality of farming. According to StatsCan, less than 2% of Canada’s population farms. There are many more who have large gardens, keep some livestock, in other words, have a hobby farm or homestead of some kind. That isn’t in the census data, but perhaps should be. Those who are doing more to feed themselves, family and friends from their own labour is the first step to learning more about not only our food system, but how nature works in general. Growing your own nutrition means you ARE nature. No longer are you visiting or observing it – you are going to eat it.

 

Our farming journey began as a homestead. The hard work and satisfaction of growing one’s own food is perhaps the most common response when a homesteader is asked why. Others include to be more independent, resilient, it tastes better, but no matter the why, there is always a sense of connection to the land where the food is grown upon. I remember the very first vegetables out of the garden, the first eggs laid on our little acre, and then the first chicken we ever slaughtered and ate. It was an incredibly scary, gross, satisfying, but ultimately humbling experience. We need more of these types of experiences in our western lives. It’s from these experiences that a new generation of farmers will be born. Farmers of the future are not all growing up in farm families, but often grew up in urban and suburban neighbourhoods. They are being introduced to farming through farmer’s markets, a CSA (community shared agriculture) food box, community gardens, school gardens, backyard chickens, and through volunteering on urban farms. Its these kinds of accessible experiences that plant that first seed of connection to the rest of nature. Even now, seeing the first sign of a seed transforming into a plant is akin to magic. No, it IS magic.

 

Being exposed to the dirt, manure, failure, and helplessness when farming is beneficial for everyone. It’s a cautionary tale that us humans aren’t in control.  Farming builds resilience and humility within one. Accepting that things die even when we do our best reminds us of those things don’t turn out just because we want them to. The transition from homesteading to farming magnifies this. What’s the difference? It’s not the amount of land or the amount of revenue generated. It’s about the NEED of the farmer. Whether it’s 1 acre or 1000: when the person tending that land needs it to survive, it’s farming. It’s where the shit hits the mat so to speak, and things become visceral. Hard decisions need to be made such as which lamb stays, which one goes to freezer camp. Both are essential, but in different ways – one will feed people, one will make more, hopefully more resilient lambs for the future. Each change in weather, animals’ behaviour, or insect that is seen could mean success or failure. Labour + nature =outcome. To do well, it all must work well. It would be nice if nature, the livestock, or seedlings knew that though. No matter how much pleading, yelling, screaming, or crying happens, the plant, animal, or grain is only going to grow so fast. It’s working on its own time and couldn’t care one jot about ours. I can speak from experience. Farmers worldwide can commiserate at how unpredictable and tenuous farming can be, but…

 

Farmers live for hope. It takes strength, year in and year out to plant or raise a new generation of life even in the face of incredible uncontrollable adversity. Farmers are hopeful gamblers. Their odds are generally terrible, but even though they could lose everything, we still try. Maybe farming is the embodiment of doing something for the journey instead of the outcome.

 

Nature that can kill us or provide us with more bounty than we know what to do. The nature that surrounds everything on the planet we live on from the ocean current to weather systems to the parasites that reside in the bloodstreams of other parasites. It doesn’t’ care about us, but we need to care deeply about it.  When farming, the outcome never certain as nature never gives up her hand. Nature is the house, and as they say, the house wins every time. For some reason, farmer’s keep coming back to play the game each year.

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