Archives for posts with tag: hired hands

So, Ya Takin’ Bob?

A.V. Walters

A Snaggle-toothed Bob

A Snaggle-toothed Bob

Among farmers, especially livestock farmers, I sometimes sense a certain… offhandedness—not quite callous, but a level of indifference, to the needs of animals that go beyond maintenance. I suppose one gets a thicker skin when you have to handle them all the time, in all kinds of circumstances—and they’re bound for the table, in any event. On our way out of Two Rock, I encountered this repeatedly in comments made about our move.

Granted, we were moving all the way across the country. And, that alone is an overwhelming enough undertaking. Still, repeatedly we fielded the question, “Ya takin’ Bob?”

Bob is what’s known as a barn cat, having been twice abandoned on our farm. Initially he was Don’s cat, but Don and his wife bought a house and moved into town. While residing here, they had acquired a little farm menagerie—two dogs and two cats. When they left, they picked one dog to take, and abandoned the rest. The other tenants absorbed Don’s leftovers. We shook our heads; even Elmer thought it wasn’t quite right. But, the critters all managed to find homes, of sorts, amongst the neighbors.

I’d have taken Bob in a heartbeat. After all, he had become Kilo’s best friend. My cat, Kilo (also a rescue cat), has a habit of finding feline playmates and inviting them in. I met Bob this way when I first moved to the farm—suddenly, I had two tabbies in my front yard, playing and hunting gophers, together. The two look alarmingly alike and, more than once, I’d opened the door for Kilo, only to find it was Bob I’d let in. Bob is a charming and social cat. He is sweet but dumb and, hey, good-natured and dumb isn’t so bad on a cat.

I was disappointed when another tenant beat me to the Bob adoption program. So, Bob moved to Stan’s, at the opposite end of the farm, and we saw less of him. For a while, we hosted Bella, Bob’s sister. She didn’t like Kilo, (or any other cat, for that matter) and took her leave to live with yet another tenant, so she could be an only-kitty. It was a matter of musical cats for a while. Then, Stan moved to another farm, taking Bob with him. I thought we’d seen the last of Bob.

Months later, Don alerted me to the fact that Bob was back on the farm! Don had seen Stan pull up in his truck and dump Bob at his old, former home. Elmer fleshed the story out more—he told me that Stan had called to see if he could return as a tenant. (When Stan’s new landlord learned he had a cat, he’d been given the option—leave or get rid of the cat.)  At the time, our farm had no housing available, so I guess the obvious solution was to abandon poor old Bob. (Personally, I think Stan’s landlord put the choice to the wrong critter.) The funny (not haha funny) part of this story was how incensed Don was about Stan’s treatment of Bob. Huh? If that ain’t the pot calling the kettle black.

Bob was traumatized by his sudden dislocation and disappeared for a few months. Then, one spring morning, a very skinny Bob was on the doorstep with Kilo. Bob had found a home. He’s been with us ever since. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised, or offended, when hearing that we were leaving, each of our neighbors asked that question, “So, ya takin’ Bob?”

Of course we’re taking Bob! One doesn’t just abandon a family member. And, maybe there’s the difference between farmer and non-farmer. We have pets. Farmers have animals.  And yes, I wish I could have taken the emus.

Bob, from a safe distance.

Bob, from a safe distance.

Egg-Napping—The Quest for Emu Survival

A.V. Walters

Emus have lived on this farm much longer than I have. I didn’t even know they were here until after I’d been here for about eighteen months. Then, I walked into an unusual scenario—After visiting my family for the holidays, my return was delayed by a Midwestern snowstorm. Because Elmer was watching my house, I gave him a call to let him know about the delay. He told me to drop by his place when I got home—the farm had Christmas surprises! Well, it certainly did—Elmer had a new puppy, he’d learned he was expecting another new grandbaby and, in a corner of his kitchen, was the strangest little bird—a baby emu.

The little guy was clearly sick. I asked Elmer where he’d got this little critter. He responded that he was a chick from the emus. Apparently, years earlier a friend had gone into (and quickly out of) the emu business, and he’d given Elmer some of the leftover emus. It turns out that ranchers here use them as guard animals for their sheep. It’s not so much that the emus like sheep, but that they really hate coyotes. So these emus have been living quietly across the road where most of the sheep are kept.

The emus on the farm have never bred successfully. Emus come from Australia, where the winter climate is more forgiving than in Two Rock. Their breeding cycle is triggered when the days start to shorten, and while that’s fine for Australia, here, our emus end up with vulnerable little (figure of speech) eggs and chicks at our coldest time of year. The chick in Elmer’s kitchen was the only survivor of the clutch–the rest all froze. So here was Elmer, in early January, with a living, but very sick little bird. I asked him what he was going to do with it.

“Hand raise it, I guess.”

“Yeah, what do you feed it?”

“Dunno, I’ve been giving it milk.”

Elmer, it’s a bird! Whatever made you think to give it milk?”

“Well, it’s a baby.”

And this from a chicken farmer! With that, I sat down in front of his computer and Googled “Baby emu feed.”

“Elmer, it says here to feed them kale and finely diced apples. And they need to be kept warm, really warm for a couple of weeks.” I was still busy peering at the screen when he handed me the box, emu baby and all.

“Here, you take him. You’re better at the computer research stuff.” (I should have seen the obvious connection, myself–computer research and raising baby emus.)

And so, I’ve been the Emu Lady ever since.

I set up at home with the first emu baby. He was pretty sick, and only lived a couple of days. But by then, I’d become the patron saint of baby emus. I did the research and we decided on a strategy of “emu assistance.” That is, trying to help the emus to raise their own.

One of our strategies was to delay breeding until later in the season, so that the babes would come at a warmer time. Unfortunately this required separating the randy couple. With sheep to move from pasture to pasture, farmhands (with good intentions) can’t seem to remember about the emus. The fence and gate protocols were a bit much–the process was like trying to chaperone teenagers. Let’s face it–emus may be dumb, but they’re faster than we are. Well, so much for that tactic.

It’s been three years now, with no luck. We’ve gone from no live young at all, to achieving success in viable chicks, only to have them succumb to coyotes, foxes, freezing cold, and just plain stupidity. (Like the emu baby who hatched and promptly hung himself on the fence of his enclosure that we put up to keep it safe! Who knew you had to baby-proof an emu pen?) So this season we had a new strategy. We were going to combine delayed breeding with a time-honored tradition—incubation. A friend of Elmer’s gave him emu incubating equipment. He’s all concerned that it’ll use too much power, but the tide is against him and we’ve fired up and tested the incubators.

So, earlier this month we decided to check on those wily birds, figuring it was about time to get them on opposite sides of the fence. Too late. When we walked up to the pasture we saw only one emu. Mrs. Emu. That’s a sure sign that Mr. Emu is off sitting on a clutch of eggs! (With emus, the male is the caretaker parent. The female is basically a nervy, promiscuous hussy.) Sure enough, we walked up the hill to the pond to find Mr. Emu happily sitting on his new clutch of nine eggs. (The photo was taken just before we grabbed the goods.) They were early this year. By weeks. Well, that’s when we knew it was time to fire up the incubator.

Today was the big day. After a series of delays—real teenagers, neck injuries, late tomato harvests and elections—we were finally ready. It was anticlimactic, really. Mr. Emu was his usual genial self. I plied him with apple treats and, while he was snacking, I reached under him and removed the eggs, one by one. Rick wrapped them in a Mylar space-blanket and towel, and we stole off with his family! When we left, he was oblivious to what had happened, and was still gobbling down the apples. (Did I mention that emus weren’t real bright?)

So, the eggs are now safely stashed in the incubator—calibrated and set. (In the other photo, you can see some of them sitting in the rack.) We numbered and weighed them. (Weight is one method of observing chick progress—during the process they lose weight as they lose water mass.) They weighed in at 20 to 23 ounces, each. Emu eggs are big. We’ll have to do some guessing about the “due date” as those sneaky emus got ahead of us. The normal egg gestation is 53 days, but who knows when they got started. Taking their eggs will likely result in a second effort by the emus and, a second clutch of eggs. We’ll try to keep our eyes open, this time. If it’s late enough, we’ll let them try it on their own. Otherwise, they’ll be more eggs bound for the incubator. Sometime around Christmas we’ll know if we succeeded with any of the emu babies, on this first batch.

But then what will we do?

A.V. Walters


When I first moved to the farm I’d been in the city for 29 years. I was viewed with gentle humor as a kind of exotic transplant. You know, Big-City professional with a ‘tude. It took the garden as a way for me to earn my chops. In the meantime, I was an avid observer of the dynamics of this small farm. I have come to believe that everything in life is personal.

Shortly after I arrived, the farm took in thousands of “used” chickens. (“That’s right, folks, these babies have had only one owner and only laid on Sundays!”) Elmer had a chicken-farmer friend who was retiring. These days that usually means that a small farm is going out of production. The college-educated children of farmers have little interest in farming. More and more, farming is being relegated to agribusiness, by default.

So, the chickens were transferred to one of our empty chicken houses. More often than not, I don’t understand the movements of livestock around farms. Cows, sheep and chickens are on the move all the time around here and, aside from the obvious management of grass length, I understand little of it. But this chicken transfer was a simple move; as a recent transferee to the farm myself, I understood it very well. It was a busy day, trucks with trailers stuffed with chickens in cages, rolling up the lane for most of the day, then deadheading back down the road to the retiree’s farm, empty cages bouncing and clattering, to collect more chickens. As I’ve since learned is often the case with a big transfer, a number of chickens usually escape. It takes a few days to round them up and get them back into cages.

That same day I was having a water problem. I didn’t want to bother Elmer in the middle of so big an operation, so I laid low until after the trucks had made their last run. Things go from full speed to dead pretty quick on a farm. When the work is done, the day is pretty much done. By the time I went looking for Elmer, the place was deserted. I checked the house, several of the chicken barns, even Number Four—but no Elmer.

Finally, I peeked into the chicken barn where the new chickens should have been settling in. Hardly. Chickens don’t like changes to their habitat and the barn was a cacophony of poultry, with feathers flying as chickens reestablished the pecking-order in their new digs. The cages in the chicken house hang about hip-height, and another tier above that. Now, below that, scores of the escaped chickens were roaming the floor, clucking up at their caged compatriots. Some jumped, wings flapping, in vain attempts to get back into the cages! I stood in the opening of the barn’s rolling door, flummoxed. If ever I thought chickens were smart—this cured me of that notion. Other than the escapees, there was not a soul in sight. I watched those loose chickens in their desperate antics, crestfallen. It flew in the face of my own recent flight to the country. Those dumb chickens wanted back into their familiar confines! (And let me tell you, the familiar for an egg-producing chicken is not a pretty thing.) Still, there is that old saying, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” I recoiled from any message that might lurk there, for me.

Peering into the darkening expanse of feathers and dust, I yelled out, “Run Chickens! Now’s your chance, make a break for it while you can!” It fell on deaf ears. Mostly.

Out from behind a rack of tall cages, stepped Elmer, his eyebrows knitted quizzically. “What are you telling my chickens?” he laughed. I blushed, relieved that the cool, dark of the barn kept this secret. Elmer shook his head, still chuckling. I decided to pretend that the only words I spoke in that chicken barn were about my water problem. He nodded and said he’d get up to the tank-house to fix it.

Most of the chickens were retrieved and repatriated over the next few days. All but one—a feisty little hen that eluded capture. Apparently, she’d taken heed of my message, made a run for it and wouldn’t let anyone near her. On a farm that houses tens of thousands of chickens, no one is going to waste a lot of time and effort pursuing just the one. Over the following weeks she grew fat and bold, feeding on spilled chickenfeed and bugs. Over time, her feathers filled out. She preened in the sun on the apron of the barn. We saw her frequently as she made her rounds. She became the talk of the farm, as one tenant after another alerted Elmer, or the farmhands, that there was a chicken on the loose. They’d nod, “Yup.” A loose chicken will usually fall prey to any number of hazards. There are dogs, foxes, hawks and coyotes around here, any one of which will gladly make a meal of a fugitive chicken. Still, she survived.

After about a month, this hen settled in the garden area around Elmer’s house. It became sport to spot and collect her eggs. Emboldened by freedom and the realization that no one was after her, she started hanging around the farm shop, especially when the farmhands took their breaks. They fed her treats from their lunches. They took a poll to name her. Some of the suggested names were getting crazy. Well, after debate, Elmer took the farm-owner’s prerogative and put his foot down on the matter. The chicken would be Henrietta.

I watched this unfold with some measure of mirth. Here this one chicken had, by force of stubborn personality, managed to elevate her status from escapee to pet. She made it personal. One of the farm hands brought her raw sunflower seeds. They argued such things at break-time like whether it would be okay to feed her popcorn—you know, because of the salt. They were teaching her to catch treats tossed in the air. The best of it was that everyone saw the humor (not to mention the irony) in it—a chicken farm with a pet chicken.

One day Henrietta mysteriously disappeared. Not a trace, no evidence of “foul” play. Folks would ask each other if they’d seen Henrietta.  Everyone kept an eye out. This really shouldn’t have been a surprise; we all knew the risks. But still, nary a feather to be found. And it did seem odd, since she generally stayed so close to where people were. As you would expect, her absence sounded louder than her presence ever had. Break-time talk lapsed back into the work at hand and any funny story of the day. (Farmers are such gossips!)

We have a guy on the farm, Bill, who works the chicken houses. He mostly keeps to himself and doesn’t come down and hang with the other hands at break-time. He’s developmentally disabled and is more comfortable taking his breaks in his quarters, or out wherever he’s working that day. He’s nice enough, but shy, and uncomfortable trying to keep up with the ribald conversations in and around the shop. Well, about a week after Henrietta’s disappearance Elmer mentioned it to Bill. He nodded, “That loose chicken? Yeah, I finally got her.”

“What? You caught her? What did you do with her?” Maybe Elmer’s tone was a little too strident. Bill, who thought he was just doing what he was supposed to, got defensive and flustered. “I put her back in the cages.” “Which cage?”

“I dunno—over in Number Six, somewhere.”

Elmer couldn’t exactly be angry. A farm hand had put a loose chicken into a chicken cage. It’s what’s supposed to happen. How was Bill to know that this was no ordinary chicken? It had never been explained to him that Henrietta was now a pet chicken. I know that Elmer spent some time looking, walking the aisles between the cages in Number Six. I think most of us did. You’d think she would have been easy to spot, but it’s difficult to tell one brown hen from all the other brown hens, in a barn with thousands of other chickens. Whatever it was that was special about her, she didn’t stand out when you were peering through the wire.

A. V. Walters

Better Living Through Chemistry

The other day I woke to the sound of gas-fired weed whackers. It was a relief. We’ve had strange weather this winter. No rain. We rely on seasonal rains to recharge the wells and this season has been dry. Here in Two Rock it’s green; we get a lot of fog coming in from the ocean. The fog (and in this year’s weather, frost) provides enough moisture to keep the ground green, especially in the low-lying areas where the fog settles. Looking across the landscape you can see the contours of where the fog flows by the trail of green it leaves on the hills. But that moisture doesn’t go deep. If you dig, it’s damp down only a few inches. It’s green, but it’s not growing and that makes the farmers nervous. I know on our farm they’re working to keep the sheep moving, rotating from field to field so the sheep don’t damage the grass down to the roots. Sheep can do that. Usually in the winter I have to mow my lawn every week—or at least every ten days. This season I think we’ve mowed only three times.

And then there’s the cold. It’s been really cold here at night, for months now. Really cold for us is low thirties and high twenties. With nights like that the sheep need extra nourishment to keep warm. The days are lovely, with temperatures climbing sometimes well into the sixties. Even with those warm days though, the cold nights and low moisture keeps the plant growth rate down.

There’s a funny thing I learned about cows (and even some sheep) when I moved here. They sometimes suffer from a “the grass is greener on the other side” syndrome. Even if a cow is surrounded by lush pasture, it will lean out through a fence if there’s greenery on the other side. You need to keep grass at the edge of the fence-line short and groomed. If you don’t, the cows will cut their necks on the barb-wire fences trying to lean out for the grass on the outside of the fence. I live next to a dairy, so even though we don’t do cows here, we get to observe what is done in the world of cows. We share an access road and some fences.

A year ago last autumn, somebody decided not to mow (or more correctly, weed-whack) the fence lines along the dairy side of our single lane driveway. I guess someone figured it was faster and cheaper to spray with herbicides. They were certainly effective. Late that autumn they sprayed and everything green along the lane shriveled and died. Stripped of its protective vegetation, the shoulder of the lane soon began to crumble. The seasonal rains fell on that naked dirt and what little roots remained were not enough to hold the soil. Freed up from roots, the gophers made the little gully along the lane their alley and churned the soil mercilessly. More soil eroded into the gully and washed away with every rain. By mid-winter, our undermined road began to crumble at the edges.  To save the lane, they dug the gully deeper to funnel the water away. The gophers dug deeper, too.  The edge was hardpan, barren, clay; its organic matter had flushed away so no new grasses would grow there. Grasses have a fine and broad stabilizing root system. Weeds grew there though, but their long tap roots did little to hold our road edges.

Through our long dry summer the grasses did not return along the lane. A few weeds sprouted, but not many. Last fall they chopped down the weeds. The farmers had to dig another ditch, inboard fifteen feet or so from the fence, to divert the water away from the lane’s edge. The gully along the road edge was eroded and jagged. It could no longer carry excess water along the side of our lane, without causing further road damage. Like I said, it’s been a dry winter and so far the new diverter ditches have not been tested. Here and there, along the lane there are some patches of fog-fed green. We’re hoping they’ll spread, their roots working through the soil to rebuild that mat of living material that holds all that’s good in the soil.

So, in this case the annoying drone of weed-whackers is a relief. It means somebody’s learned a lesson and we won’t be spraying anytime soon. With any luck, the rains expected next week will be gentle and will nurture the right kind of growth to re-stabilize the soil and return our lane to its former secure state.

A. V. Walters

Rural Living

(from August 7, 2009)

Mostly I love living here. There are a few drawbacks. Occasionally, if the wind is wrong (and especially if its damp) the smell of cows from the dairy next door can be cloying. My dad says I’m being polite–it’s not the smell of cows, it’s the smell of cow shit. Those are days when you don’t hang the laundry out, because if you do, folks in town will sniff and then look at you funny when you visit. From my end of the farm, I never smell chickens. We have a running debate as to what smells worse, cows or chickens. Those of us near the cows, think cows; those of them near the chickens, think chickens. What can I say, it’s part of rural living. Did I mention the views are incredible?

Sometimes, the people around the farm are amazingly clueless. Like earlier today when the feed truck leaving the dairy snagged the phone line and dragged it the better part of the half mile long driveway, popping it off the poles in line like tearing a perforated form. I guess he didn’t notice that he had the 20th century dragging along behind him. More curious still were the reactions of the farm hands who witnessed the event. They laughed their asses off, but it never occurred to them to call it in to The Phone Company. Despite the knowledge of what happened, nobody did, until I did it, many hours later (cause the phones were just too damn quiet so I checked, sure enough no dial tone. Which is how I found out about all this in the first place.) By then it was too late to get the service restored today. Actually, they say it could be up to a week–it’s a big repair and it affects only the residents of two farms. We’re not high on their priority list. I complained about it all and Elmer responded, “Yup, they’ll do that.”  Apparently, the hands did tell Elmer, but he didn’t call it in either because he’s at the County Fair in Santa Rosa. Today’s the day his grandsons show their cows and sheep. We all have our priorities. It’s why I’ve been elected (in a manner of speaking) to call PG& E when the power goes out after a tree limb falls or a power pole wanders out onto the road and gets hit. The others don’t seem to think it’s their job. I breathe deep and try to remember the view. I’m going out to get some blackberries. I might just as well. Jam and tart will go nicely with telephone silence.

A. V. Walters

Good Enough

Our farm foreman is a hard-working man. I admire that, but I know from my own life that there has to be more. Sometimes I think there’s a bitter edge to his efforts. He is not a stupid man, but he sometimes takes obvious pride in backwards ways. When I first moved in, Elmer instructed him to seal the new tile floor in my kitchen. To me, work is work but I guess Don thought sealing the grout on a new tile floor was not proper ‘farm’ work. He grumbled.

He also wore his grubby farm boots while doing the job. And he applied sealer over his own footprints—making them a semi-permanent part of my interior. I left it the way it was for over a year—contemplating the meaning of footprint décor. Elmer saw it and shook his head. Guests noted it. Finally I took some ammonia and Elmer’s floor-scrubbing machine and stripped and resealed the floor. So, it’s not lost on me that with Don, you need to be careful what you ask for—you might just get it. It seems Don thinks that people spend too much time on unnecessary, “fancy” extras (like sealing grout.) If you were to send him to pick up materials to do finish carpentry, he’d come back with a pile of 2x4s.

Still, if there’s a problem, this guy is there. When the water went out last week and one problem cascaded into another, Elmer and Don were out there up to their ankles in it. And he knows the rhythms of the farm and the season. Regardless of what project is cooking, Don knows as well as Elmer what needs to be done generally—that we need to be cognizant of the danger of frost till mid-May, even when they can plant earlier in town, a scant 10 miles away; and that you need to check the fences in the slow times, early in the winter, before the lambs find the little gaps. (I’ve spent some time chasing escaped lambs and sheep—the fence checking is a really good idea.) You don’t always find that level of conscientiousness in hired hands.

I mentioned that to Elmer and he nodded. He and Don are friends since their teen years when they sheared sheep together. “Yup, Don is a straight shooter, alright and a damn good farmer.” Then, it was as though a cloud passed over his face, and he looked away.

“Elmer? You okay?”

“Yeah,” He shrugged

I didn’t understand what had just happened, and, in my usual way, I couldn’t help but press further, “Well, Elmer, I figure you’re a damn good farmer, too.”

He paused, looked down and then at me, “Well, I used to be.”

I nodded, “Well, you are getting on now, I guess you get to relax some.”

“It’s not that,” he continued, “I was a good farmer and took care of business. It was always something, you know—fences, chickens, minding the sheep. Then my wife got sick.” He shook his head, “I was waiting for her to get better. There were treatments and some adjustments in our lives. I didn’t know what was really going on. I should have been there but there was always something on the farm. By the time I understood how serious it was I’d lost a lot of time, you know, with her.”

I didn’t know how to respond. He had tears in his eyes.

“When she died I was a real mess. All I could think was that there she’d been, sick and sometimes alone—and I’d been off somewhere, tending to the farm. I lost that time. I’ve still got my girls and grandkids. I have friends. Hell, I’ve lived on this farm my whole life, I know everybody around here and that’s what’s important. I realized it after she died and I decided to change what comes first. It’s my kids and grandkids. And it’s people. From then on I was proud to be a good-enough farmer.” He nodded and looked up at me, “You have a good day now.” And he was on his way, down the drive.