Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Before the Fear

Children Running Through

A year ago I had so much to do in a day or a week that I began to feel like an actress playing out the part that was my life. I would show up on time, take my stage directions, say my lines and leave the performance exhausted and drained. There was no place for ad-libbing. There was no time for randomly breaking out in song. There was not one tiny second in the day to call my own. There was the cooking, the dishes, the packing, the commuting, the shopping, the barn chores, the cleaning, my job tasks, getting the permits and licenses updated, the banking balanced, the right size shoes, access to proper clothing in season and on and on it went…

I don’t imagine my list varies greatly from that of other women.

This period was all a blur for me yet I do not think that I did anything different than I do today – I just seem to do it all differently. I run the same route these days excluding the addition of driving into the city to my job but somehow I am able to do it all with much more awareness. I hug my children and tell them I love them as I always have but both of us seem to hold on a little tighter, with a little more meaning and a desire to hold onto the moment rather than get to our next post.

The model that I once used to get through the day was one where I separated getting things done from time with my children. I always made sure that I was totally on when spending time with my kids. In addition, if possible, I would include them in my work. This would mean surrendering to the fact that things were going to take at least 3 times longer to accomplish. A lot of the time this was fine, in fact it was the desired way in the world. My children had the opportunity to learn how houses are made and where their food comes from. If I could let go of my goals and not concern myself with how much I got done, we would usually have a pretty good time. We might find ourselves jumping around on hay bales in the mow of the barn instead of crunching numbers for the budget but such is the real stuff of life.

Trouble came when the goals at hand were non-negotiable (which they often are) and had to get done in a certain time frame – also when there were just too many of them for any normal human to get through. The laundry needed to be done, an email needed to be sent, a meal made, rat traps placed, roads traveled... Finding the balance between appreciating my children in the moment and still covering off the business of the daily grind seems to be what this whole mothering thing is about. The very thing I want to befriend through writing.

Sanity arrived as I began to discover the possibility that the children could be in day care and I could get work done separately. The folks in my office cubicle probably really appreciated this. In fact, I’m sure it was key to keeping myself employed. Eventually I also figured out that I also did not have to have an infant on my hip while loading two by fours into a truck. I learned that climbing a ladder to put siding on the house was not a brilliant idea with a toddler running around below (the lure of that ladder was just too great – that is before you get to falling object safety issues). But there was no peace for me in gaining sanity by having to separate from my children on a regular basis.

My 4 year old daughter has become afraid of the chickens. She won’t set foot near the barn without me carrying her. I think it is related to one surprising her as it flew past her face one day. She will stand pretty close to a cow without getting nervous but the chickens around her just won’t do. My 2 year old son likes to go into the mow and never come down. I mean never. Of course not, why would you want to leave such a play haven? The cats that live up there make it even more impossible to leave. So filling a water trough would take around 15 minutes from boots to barn and back without kids. It can be a 2 hour affair if I bring the tots. And can I add extra time in order to work in the degree of tantrums that we may have all endured?

I don’t expect that any of these roadblocks to efficiency will ever change. But what can change is my frame of mind. I can remember that not everything is a race, especially not the act of watching your small children grow up. I can take everything in stride, do what I can and drop the rest.

I realize that I have been asking my children to run on a schedule the way I was as a crazy running around mother/worker/farmer person. My children. Children. Isn’t the very definition of being a child about taking the time to learn about the world and enjoy simple things?

I have finally come to a place where I feel it is no longer necessary to keep my children in regular day care hours. This means I am no longer afraid I will lose my sanity again with all that I must accomplish in a day. Next week I will be scaling back their hours and keeping them home with me more often. Since I left work they have pretty regularly attended 3 days a week. In those 3 days I did mostly barn, field or greenhouse work or caught up on house renovations (I don’t mean redecorating, but getting the thing built in the first place). Sometimes I would do deliveries to the city without the kids. With this decision comes a new faith that I will be able to still continue to get things done around the house and farm, but we will learn how to do these things together.

My children already understand what we do on this farm. I want more of that. A few weeks ago we had to convince Gabriel to drink his milk at day care. He stopped when he realized it was not Bonnie’s milk (our cow). I explained that some other very important cow had brought this milk to him and that he should be grateful for that milk as well. He began drinking it again.

I also think this new ability to work alongside each other is a function of their ages as well. We managed to begin our major addition when Jasmine was only 10 months old and Rob was off working many days in the week. At that age you can kind of schedule convenient naps while you make a trip to the hardware store, gain some hang out time in a stroller or let them crawl around the pile of nails and hammers while you finish the flooring. Something changes when they start to walk, yes?

I also believe that it is important that children learn that their parents are available for them but are not ready at every moment to be their every bit of entertainment, their servant, cook, bath or clothing maid.

Just to prove my point I have written this blog entry over the course of 5 hours. All the while my children have circled around me steadily singing loud, made-up songs, playing with the new train track that we built together over the holidays, eating our leftover turkey for lunch, helping me clear off the pond for skating, romping with the dogs, rushing to the potty… All the while our lives ticked along the way I think they should.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Serving the Ego?

When I was in university I wrote a paper about an experience I had with something or other. It was for a theatre class (before moving to sciences I began in an arts program focused on creative writing) and I got very artsy and surreal in my paper. I got a really good mark on it. For the second assignment, I took my newly formed cocky attitude and ventured deeper into exploration about my experience with something else of importance to me. The paper came back with a very low mark stating the whole thing was self-indulgent crap. I had a great respect for my teacher at the time and this was a tough hit. Here is when I learned the fine balance between reaching out to others with your writing and serving your big fat ego.

People close to me have dubbed me a navel-gazer and I expect they are probably right. I watch myself like a hawk, over-analyzing, comparing, verbalizing, and grading my performance. Some say I take myself too seriously, I try too hard, I am an over-achiever, obsessive-compulsive, too sensitive, yada, yada, yada. It has been crossing my mind lately that this blog is just a bunch of self-absorbed drivel. I have no idea what anyone would get out of it. I don’t even know what I get out of it.

All I know is that I wake up each day and the words take form and flight in my brain before I’ve even poured my morning coffee. I need to write them down to make sense of the world. I have always needed to write things down since I could hold a crayon and string letters together. It is an experiment to take the time to share my writings in this fashion. Maybe, just maybe, these are ideas worth exchanging.

I recently read that if one begins to find facebook unsatisfying (which was true for me), a healthy narcissist will start a blog. Funny thing is facebook afforded me a much wider community in this tight knit community that we have wandered into. I set up my first meeting with my Priest on facebook. I secured a local turkey for Christmas dinner on facebook. I organized the purchase of some rare breed poultry with a neighbour farmer on facebook. I found a dear friend from elementary school that I had not seen in 20 years but now see regularly. I owe facebook a lot. But as many will attest to, it can eat up more time than it should and become addictive. What begins as a light and lively daily reel soon turns to a searching need for interaction with anyone who will sign in.

To ensure that I would begin spending more productive time on my computer (related to my own goals anyway), I told facebook that I would be gearing down my use. I organized myself a big birthday party and invited all of my facebook friends. It was kind of a goodbye to something that had given me a lot of really great new, renewed and sustained connection with people past and present in my life. That’s when I ramped up my daily writings and sought something deeper through this blog. Something I hope will one day turn into regular conversations about all of the things that are important to me.

But now I am finding it all a little lonely. Some folks have let me know they are reading and the comments so far have been so worthwhile and interesting. But as Julie Powell of ‘Julie and Julia’ blogging fame once said: ‘Is there anyone out there?’

It can be isolating rattling things around this way. I pray that it is not my ego seeking validation when I say that I really hope you are out there, whoever you are. I really hope that this is worth your time. And even if you stay quiet, just know that I appreciate that you are there.

After a couple of kids and 4 decades of growth, my navel just ain’t that great to look at anymore. I’m needing this to be about you too.

Friday, December 24, 2010

My Writing Post

The Space Between

This is a blog about all the things I don’t know. This is the place to explore my own ignorance and try to fill in the spaces. I once heard a definition of hell as only that which keeps you from heaven. I really truly believe that we are the ones that get in the way of our own happiness. We are the ones that block ourselves from all the good in the world, from people we can connect with to do better.

As this is the day before my first Christmas as a Christian, I have had a thousand thoughts about what to write about this. All I can find is blank space. I know nothing about Jesus, it seems. I know all of these little historical tidbits told by a number of people but I just can’t get a sense of who he was, where he lived, how he spent his days.

The other day in the car ride home from a family Christmas gathering Rob, my husband got an earful about this. I told him I didn’t think I learned things the way other people did. I learned with my hands, with my heart, and with experience. Telling me a story is not enough to help me know it enough to live it.

As someone with a degree in biology, I had to take courses on Physics, Organic Chemistry and Calculus to round out this science degree. The rest of my course load all required memorizing facts, pictures and stories. I aced the ‘hard’ sciences which allowed me to work with the material, manipulate it, wrap it up for myself with a big, red bow. I nearly failed the stuff more related to the study of living things (memorizing latin names, classification systems, cellular structure and systems etc.). It wasn’t until I began to hold these living things in my hands, cut them apart and watch them behave that I could piece together what I wanted to know about them. Learning how to farm feels much the same. It is in the doing that we find out how it goes.

I expressed my frustration aloud about how there was no equation to help me make sense of God. All I had to work with was a string of facts and tidbits. Everything that I know to be true lives in the connective tissue in between the facts. Yet, for Jesus, I had not seen this or built this yet. My understanding of something lives in the blood that travels in the veins or arteries, the messages sent through hormones and neurons, everything between one island of concrete and another. I could not create a picture with these bits of knowledge that had been strewn together and navigated 2 thousand years to get here.

Before going to sleep I pulled my book from my nightstand and began reading. Within a couple of sentences, I glanced over to my bookshelf and saw the book ‘Jesus Means Life’ written by Harold and Patricia Wells. I had found it at a second hand bookshop (or it had found me) during the summer just before my baptism. I bought it in hopes that it would summarize what a day in the life of Jesus might have looked like.

I flipped it open. Instantly there came this sentence that I read aloud to Rob too tired to be freaked out but nevertheless amused.

“Jesus was a person and one does not learn about a person in the same way as one learns about things, a chemical or mathematical formula, a rock or a tree.” The book goes on to suggest that we approach Jesus, if we are Christians, “in trust that God will guide us in our search”.

I’ll say.

So perhaps God is the space between, the messenger and the sinew that holds it all together. We can’t see God just like you can’t see air, yet breathing is the most important thing you do in a day.

I’m going to spend the next couple of days embracing this new air. As a mother, I remember the miracles that were the birthdays of my children. And this story just gets so much better…

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Creating

Listening to the radio this morning I heard a discussion about how demographics are changing in the world, particularly Europe. The population numbers show that fewer ‘traditional’ Europeans are procreating while others are multiplying themselves at great rates. Some are blaming the lack of ‘white babies’ on feminism and all that comes along with it (gay rights, babies out of wedlock, lack of fertility due to women having children later in life due to careers). Basically, there are too many secular, decadent, feminist women in the West who are too self-absorbed to breed (a sarcastic quote from one of the interviewees, the author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, Kathryn Joyce).

As someone who is writing a blog about what it is like to be a career woman, while parenting and trying to be self-sufficient, I felt it was impossible not to comment on this. Also because I am now relying on my husband’s income and making an earnest foray into Christianity with the Anglican church I feel I need to stand up for the kind of folks out there like me who aren’t subservient doormats to their husbands and are not in the category of the ‘spiritually abused’.

First of all, Wow! I’ve never heard so many bombs going off in such a short time on the radio. It seems to me that even speaking about such population shifts opens the doors for racists, classists, subscribers to patriarchy, religious bigots and homophobic people to have themselves a field day! But maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe they are just numbers.

The origin of the Quiverfull movement and how feminism is being blamed for taking women from their godly roles in the home as bearers of children began in 1985 with Mary Pride’s book The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality.

This from Wikipedia:

In her book, Pride chronicled her journey away from what she labeled feminist and anti-natal ideas of happiness, within which she had lived as an activist before her conversion to conservative evangelical Christianity in 1977, toward her discovery of happiness surrounding what she said was the biblically mandated role of wives and mothers as bearers of children and workers in the home under the authority of a husband.

In addition, there is on organization called the World Congress of Families that "is a worldwide conservative-religious coalition that purports to stand up for the position of the traditional family, in a time of eroding family life and declining appreciation for families in general".

So just about everything I have written in this blog is in line with the idea that the physical and emotional well being of the family unit should be prioritized. I also speak of the importance of linking into a community that for us includes going to church. I knew when I was getting into these writings that I was going to bury myself so deep in the idea that “a woman’s place is in the home” that I might never get out.

Here is where I’m going to try to get out.

Firstly, in our particular household my husband became the chosen one for earning an income because his job held a lot more flexibility than mine did and was more compatible with the farm work. His off-farm work ramps up in the winter and winds down in the summer so that he can focus on vegetable production. My work demanded travel and hours that were not compatible with the tasks on the farm or spending adequate time with my children because of the commute. My husband and I never, ever for a second believed that he should earn the money because I was the one biologically suited to raising children. We happen to have this ‘natural’ family arrangement but it isn’t because I think it is the only way to make a family.

Secondly, I have friends of every colour, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, tax bracket, marital status and age group. When I say ‘friend’, I mean they are people that I spend time with regularly, respect, admire, learn from and/or share ideas with. I don’t rank any of us as better or worse. I don’t think it’s important to ensure that any of us would outlast the other.

Thirdly, last I checked the growing population issue in the world was associated with environmental concerns. There are an increasing number of people and soon there will not be enough resources to go around (especially the way us westerners like to use stuff). So now we are trying to make sure there are enough of our own kind to secure a place on this planet with insufficient resources? Oh dear. We’ve seen this kind of thing play out before and we all know this doesn’t end well.

My mind tends to wander far more towards wanting to produce and create for the folks around me in every way I can. This means making intelligent choices so that we can be sure there will be enough to go around for a good, long time to come. It also means making sure we’re not stealing from others in the world to make this work.

So far, in the short time that I have called myself a Christian, I have learned that the practice of this faith is associated with sharing your time, energy and spirit to help those in need and to build a stronger community.

I’ll dig in a whole lot deeper with creating more opportunities, skills, resources, art, music and food in hopes of making the world a better place…. but you won’t catch me having more babies anytime soon.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Ecologically Friendly Hausfrau

I do not know why I feel compelled to write about the importance of making ecologically friendly choices. What does any of this have to do with my long term career decisions or my roles in my family or on this farm? Am I not getting off track by continually hammering the different ways that I can tread more lightly on the planet?

Nowhere is it written that the role of a housewife is inextricably linked to choices that are beneficial to the environment. In fact, some might argue that increased income affords more flexibility to source local farmer’s market fare, environmentally safe cleaners, soaps and detergents and maybe even cloth diapers and a diaper service to go with them.

However, since I stopped leaving home to get to my place of work and gave up a second income to play with, I am finding the opposite is true. My new routine allows me to take the time to think about my decisions. I also now have time to learn new skills that allow me to be more self-sufficient on the home front. This has usually translated incidentally into saving money as well. Unspent money is better than an income, I have realized. And inevitably these choices end up having less impact on the environment.

Before now, life has been moving at a breakneck speed since we moved on to this farm. Much has been accomplished and much has been left unfinished in the wings. We bought a can of paint 7 years ago when we first moved here and I have just now finished painting the original living room with it. It never seemed to make it as a priority. Our new addition was built 4 years ago and until last month the drywall screws and seams were still showing, unpainted and bare. Some number of years ago the glass window in our barn broke onto the grass below (where no animals or children ever went) and I only recently found the time to clean up that glass.

Now I simply find there is more time to plan, organize and be thoughtful about my choices. In the past, I have accomplished things by looking like a chicken with her head cut off. I would not have known what I was doing any of it for. I would have forgotten to eat. I was frantic, thoughtless and, all about getting it all done so that I didn't drown in my to do list.

I recall actually using a joggers pace to get back and forth from the washroom at work and to and from my car in the mornings and evenings. I remember making lunch dates with friends and finally getting around to them without canceling months later. Piles of paper would accumulate on my desk, none of which were particularly organized and I just barely knew where everything was but could find what I needed when I needed it. I was constantly reacting to the demands of each minute trying not to fall behind.

Our water supply at home would run dry and rather than look for a long-term solution, we would just get through it by showering less and doing fewer loads of laundry. There was no time to think ahead or plan. No room in my head for presence of mind. People around me began to part the seas when they saw me coming. I was the wide-eyed doe in headlights headed for some task or three without knowing if it was the most important or urgent. I was just getting it all done.

I didn’t drop too many balls during this period. But the anxiety that came along with keeping all of those balls in the air was too much for my sanity. Somewhere along the way, I lost one too many marbles off of my speeding train and there were not enough marbles left to slow the whole thing down. It felt like I was just barely surviving. I made an appointment with my doctor to ask the simple question: ‘is this just what it is like for a mother, a career woman, a farmer…?’ I can’t believe I needed someone else to answer this for me. I can’t believe this quality of life was acceptable. I’m going to let you figure out what she said.

These days the nutritional quality of what we take time to supply our fridge, cupboards and freezer from our land is the best you can get. There are no residual contaminants and we know all of the ingredients, where they came from and how far they traveled. I call this my preventative health insurance policy (that also takes into consideration the lack of antidepressants and anxiety medication I would likely be needing by now).

Now I don’t sit for 8 hours at a desk and drive for 2 more to get to and from work. Instead, I am physical all day long, moving from task to task mindfully and with more heart. The bonus of not driving to work every day is that I use a lot less fuel. I also get the added benefit of not driving a slippery highway in snowstorms watching other cars take the ditch (I call this life insurance).

In my new life, I throw away a lot fewer take-out containers. I bake more bread than I buy. I’m even pinching far more clothespins than I ever thought I could in a week. I go to church instead of out for an expensive brunch. I do barn chores and return with milk and eggs instead of driving to the store for my staples. I hit the movie theatres on the cheap days and bring my own healthier snacks.

I recently read the Girlfriend’s Guide to Getting Your Groove Back by Vicki Iovine. It is the fourth in a series after the Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy. All of her books let parents know they are normal for what they are going through. This one offers guidance on how to reconnect with yourself, friends, your husband etc. I love her wit and her willingness to state the scary stuff in a humourous way. It always makes me feel a little less crazy. What I did not agree with was that it was acceptable to continue letting our lifestyles (how we spend our money and time) derail us. The book seems to accept the reality that a mother will be disconnected and over-scheduled no matter what she does. And I don't agree.

We may not all have a choice to quit our jobs or drive to source our food. We may be battling illness or loneliness or a recent divorce. But we can control how we spend our time and money to a certain degree and put more efforts into the basic skills that are both better for our emotional and physical well being as well as the environment.

I like to imagine that I am writing the Girlfriend’s Guide to Homesteading. It is an account that is only my experience and that of the farmers, mothers, wives, friends and neighbours that I know. Not the ultimate truth by any stretch. This is only about what has worked for me. What I know for sure is that there are thousands of women like me scrambling around looking for a new solution to simplifying their lifestyle, improving their health, wasting less, contributing more…I see this everywhere I go. I may not have all of the answers, but hopefully I will touch on just one thing that makes sense to someone, somewhere.

If every woman was suddenly given extra time in her life to do with what she wished, simply to catch up (and pick up that broken glass!) or to rebuild what was deteriorating in her life, each of us would probably choose to do different things. I always thought for me it was a quiet, warm bath with a magazine. After the first one of those, I realized I needed much more. I have always valued treading lightly on this earth, and I will continue to do so. What is different now is that my lifestyle is no longer impeding my ability to make the choices I want to make.

I would argue that how we source our food stands to be the most important ecological act of our days. Mostly because of how often we must do it. For our health, for the environment, for our families and our communities, the least we can do is offer up presence of mind as we are making our food choices.

And that has everything to do with my career, my farm, my family and my food.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Meandering River

Planting a seed is a funny thing. There is a lot of faith attached to putting a tiny little dormant thing into a pot and expecting it to grow into something wonderous and fruitful.

This is a period of transition for me. I am on leave from my job, my children are finally able to walk without my assistance (even if they sometimes would rather not) and I have an opportunity to find out what I like to do best on the farm. As with all major change that I have known, there seems to be a time where it appears as though nothing is happening. You keep adding water and nutrients and sunlight and love and hoping that your efforts will amount to something. When growing vegetables, ordering seeds that have been tested for viability gives you a kind of guarantee for germination. But what about all the other seeds we plant in our lives - the ones that grow out of an idea or an inspiration?

With gardening, once you’ve seen a few rows or trays of seeds come to life, you start to know from experience that you will get some version of your desired outcome (give or take a few variables). But the kernels that you sow that make up who you are may not come with a guarantee that they will grow. It may not even be clear what they are going to turn into. Some inspirations arrive in the night while you are dreaming, while watching a film, talking with someone or reading a book. They probably don’t even show their entire selves to you right away. Yet you continue to cultivate, sow, tend and nurture in hopes that one day there will be something to harvest. What gives a person the courage to keep wandering around in the dark putting energy into something that can’t be seen?

For me, I know a seed is worth waiting for if the picture becomes clearer as time goes on. These are the run away ideas that gain momentum with each passing thought or action. Soon the people around me are joining the train and pushing the ideas forward too. I also get a little chill up my arms as though God is sending me a message telling me that I am on the right track and to keep putting one foot in front of the other in the direction that I am going.

But I can tell you, for someone who doesn’t prefer standing still, who gets ants in her pants at the tiniest thought that space won’t be filled with some kind of doing, this seed planting stuff can be a pain in my rear end. As I also possess zero ability to notice my accomplishments or forgive myself for things gone wrong, there is truly no way to gauge where I am on the spectrum of “good idea” and “you did it!”. It all seems a maze of unfinished business or things that I figure any idiot could accomplish if they set their minds to it. I probably should talk to someone about that but that's for another day.

I recall a walk some years ago along the Ottawa Rideau canal with a friend where I blurted out this idea I had for making goat cheese. My friend who had known me for many years had seen the fits and starts that were my life and was quick to point out that it would be difficult to milk a goat on the balcony of my bachelor apartment downtown. Right she was. Until this time, my life had been ever shifting, ever moving on and never landing. But there was something about this idea that felt like coming home. Like it was something I was meant to do.

Fast forward to the second date I had with my husband. We decided to go canoeing down some rapids in the spring on a river that I had only been on once before. The unpredictability of our outing was unusual for so early in a relationship, but there was something that seemed incredibly safe and comfortable about this man sitting beside me in the truck. While we were driving, I had a clear vision of 40 years into the future of the two of us driving along in a beat up old truck headed for a meandering river. The road opened up before us on that day, and without roadblocks or any doubt, we bought a farm together just a handful of months after.

Looking back now I think we were both stark raving mad. But there was that feeling that lets you know that the path forward is the best one to take. And you take it, hoping that you will find a way to live your truth, find your best voice and get up every day to nurture the fields of your life, even if you can’t see what you will reap from it.

Sure I got cows instead of goats but I did end up making cheese. That is all part of learning to navigate a meandering river. Take the turns as they come and have faith that what lies beyond the next bend will grow into something you could never have imagined.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

End of Season

I did the final vegetable delivery of squash today to the stores and restaurants in the city. The stockpiles of thousands of pounds of squash have finally diminished to a few small boxes in our summer kitchen. Most of these now will go to the cows as a treat.

The snow blew across the roads leaving little piles along the edge of the highway for the entire drive in to the city. We are one day shy of the day that snow tires are mandatory in my province, and this kind of driving makes me nervous of what the other guy thinks he can get away with. To boot, I had a coughing little toddler in the van with me constantly asking for his mitten to be adjusted or for me to change the CD or to explain again where we were going.

On this same day, I also happened to need to drop something off for someone at my office that I have not set foot in for months now. My son seemed keen to see the place that his Mommy had worked so I ventured there, parking in my old spot, heading up the same old elevator with the same faces all around me. Getting by the security guards was interesting in that they confiscated my pass when they noticed it was expired. I wanted to tell them that it was possible that my entire existence in this building had expired, but I did not. I handed over the card and proudly made my way into the building with a Visitor sticker on my jacket. Gabriel was quite thrilled as he got the same sticker as his Mom.

When I bumped into my Director, he asked when I was expected to return to work. "May", I told him. Over the din of a Christmas party that I coincidentally happened to be crashing, he leaned towards me and said "May or maybe?" "Good question", I told him. I didn't know yet.

And I really don't. As the season draws to a close and I find myself in this strange scenario of delivering seasonal local vegetables in a snow storm, I feel all of my choices coming under a microscope. What will I do now? What do I call myself? What will define my days and what can I do that I will be proud of?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions. Best I drive slowly through the little piles of snow accumulated on the roadsides. It could get slippery from here on in.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Resolving Not to Make Resolutions

I'm not a fan of New Year's resolutions. This is because they don't usually end up working out in the long term for me. Perhaps they are made in hopes that something external, like a date, will do all of the work. If change is going to become a lasting part of my true nature, then I feel it should be something I could begin on any day of the year. So I set my resolutions randomly and this seems to work really well for me.

As a mother of two little kids, and as part of a family who likes to get themselves covered in muck, I do a load of laundry almost every day. Last week I made a commitment to only hang my clothes to dry and not use my clothes dryer. Before now, I have been a total cheater who came up with a hundred excuses every time I chucked my pile of clothes into the dryer and switched it on. My favourite reason was that I was too busy. I would even purposefully do laundry on rainy days so that the decision would be made for me. I bought a clothes hamper that I could carry with one hand in hopes that I could cart my newborn baby and the hamper down the stairs at the same time. None of this worked to inspire me to consistently leave the dryer off and get out the clothes pins.

Winter has now officially settled in around here and with it comes a wind that blows steadily across our fields strong enough to blow a child over. It will at least take our breath away and it just so happens that our clothes line is in the path of this heavy "breeze". The way the buildings are oriented, we have not found a better option. When I hang clothes out on the line, I either find them some distance away from where they started having released from their clothespins or they are wound so tightly around the clothesline and themselves that they are still soaking wet after days on the line.

We heat with an outdoor wood furnace that acts as a boiler to a radiator system in our home. It is not a dry heat but our newly built addition is one of those air tight, well-insulated homes without much draft. The result is a very hot bedroom in the night without much air if the window is not left open. Because of the nasty wind, we usually can only leave the windows open for short stretches or else it gets much too cold inside.

So I went in search of a humidifier. My search was unsuccessful on first try and it was my mother who suggested using an indoor clothes drying rack so that the clothes would add moisture to the air. Our washing machine happens to be upstairs where our bedrooms are.

There is no excuse for me not having made this commitment sooner as regardless of weather it is always an option to hang clothes on racks inside. It seems a little silly to have so much land, no bylaws to worry about and I still don't regularly take advantage of the outdoor air. It is better late than never I suppose.

I must tell you that hanging my clothes with clothespins, piece by piece, is a painful act for me. I don't like slow, quiet, non-intense tasks. They make me agitated and fidgety. I feel cornered and suffocated having to do them. I know this sounds extreme, but if I were you, I would much rather come upon me perched three stories up hanging off a ladder trying to get an uncooperative nail into some siding than when I'm hanging clothes.

The challenge of overcoming this annoyed state has become even more interesting to me than saving a few dollars, and the kilowatts of electricity (although these are extremely desirable outcomes). What lies on the other side of this resentment? Will I wake up one day and notice that I have actually come to depend on my 15 minutes every day of quiet time hanging clothes? I hope so.

Until then, I'll be the one sticking to my new resolution, hoping that it makes for lasting and real change in my own life. Perhaps I'll even make it to the New Year.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Liquid Gold

I suppose if I thought about it for a minute, I would have known that you cannot be in milk unless you can get your cow pregnant. I have learned that being a biologist should have you knowing about all living things including animal and human medicine, forestry, and not last or least, farming. I know this because I have heard the question ‘but aren’t a biologist?’ more times than I can count.

It is true I read some textbooks in university that at the time (and likely for only hours before and during exams), I did memorize some things. It is also true that I spent more than a decade writing technical scientific papers and soon communications or policy documents on wildlife topics but they usually were lacking broader context to put it mildly.

So, yes, I had to think a minute to realize that a cow would only be in milk as long as she has recently calved and her milk has been extracted daily either by her calf or a human or powered milking machine. I also learned a few more things about milking once I had nursed babies of my own but that tale is also for another day. Suffice it to say that I now know that the amount of milk you can expect from a cow is the amount you have demanded regularly for the period following the birth of her calf. What this means, is that every year, more or less, there is a new being in the world so that we can keep demanding milk from this cow.

The dairy industry usually only keeps a cow in production for a period of 2-3 years. A lactating cow is a pretty important thing to have. Most dairy farmers will also try to get as much milk from an animal as possible. This can look like around 30L of milk, per cow, per day (with twice or three times a day milkings).

When we bought our first Jersey cow, she had a 5 month old beef cross calf still drinking from her. This situation was perfect for us. I call this the lazy man’s dairy operation. Basically, we would take milk from the cow whenever we wanted by separating the calf from his mother and leave the other regular milkings to the calf. When it was time to send dear George into the freezer for beef, we began milking once a day and stock piling frozen milk or making yogurt or cheese with any extra.

We were warned by the real dairy farmers that the cow would surely dry up with a once-a-day milking schedule. What happened was that we got around 5 litres a day for a month or two until we decided to let her body (and us) rest a while. This was plenty for us.

When our Lady had a daughter, it was only natural that we wanted to keep her and raise her as as a milking cow. We only have room for 3 or 4 animals in our barn so we continually make careful decisions about who stays and who goes. I had a dream of alternating our milking cows. Each would give birth exactly when the other would need a rest. Once again, I learned something about one's ability to have complete control on a farm.

One fine Sunday in spring, we invited some friends from the city for our first lunch out on the lawn for the year. I called them in the morning to warn them that we would be still available for a visit, but we would have to run down and check on our cow that seemed to be in the beginnings of labour. It was the first baby born on the farm that was coming in the middle of the day. Usually we would meet the calves or foals in the morning after the mother was left to her privacy overnight.

Down I ran repeatedly to the bottom of our pasture some 500m away from our lunch table to find the mother lying on her side, looking strained and uncomfortable. From my experience giving birth, this state seemed about right to me. This was until I saw the afterbirth. I ran back to describe what I saw to Rob in detail to be sure that this was not the makings of a miscarriage or still birth. We were having barbequed George for lunch that day and for some reason my guests did not partake in their piece of meat. I’m not sure I did either.

What we managed to conclude is that the calf came in the night and the coyotes we kept seeing in our pastures had taken the calf away. Having accepted that we lost the calf, we now had to manage her mother who was now increasingly less able to move and her eyes were rolling back in her head. What she had was milk fever which is a condition that causes a kind of paralysis due to an electrolyte imbalance from the birthing process. Jersey cows, especially those that are well fed (read: on the heavy side), were also more prone to this.

We called every vet we knew of but there were none available. There was a serious shortage of large animal vets in our area, despite the number of farm animals needing attention. For this reason, people began to have what they needed on hand and learned the skills to deal with their own emergencies. We were lucky to find a dairy farmer down the road who not only had the needle and the calcium required to treat the cow, but knew how to administer the solution.

Within a few hours, our dear Lady was up and walking about as though nothing had happened. The solution acts as a system recharge enabling the muscles to work normally again. We were not going to lose the mother but we had clearly lost the calf.

The next morning I awoke and as was my habit, walked over to the window overlooking the pastures on my way to the washroom. One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three….four….five! At the time, we had another mother with a calf on her, as well as a second orphan calf who was drinking from this mother. Lady looked healthy as she was strolling around the the pasture. But right next to her was another small being nursing on her udder. “Five” I exclaimed. “Five what?” Rob asked. “Five cows!” Rob told me I must have counted wrong so I counted again. Five. (By the way, the biologically correct term for one’s male cattle is bull calf or steer depending on whether the dangly bits are still intact on the male – the cow is a female, the heifer is the female calf…)

Rob made his way out to the pasture and confirmed that not only did we gain a calf sometime in the night, it was a heifer calf which is always the best possible outcome for someone hoping to expand their herd and secretly hoping they won’t have to start thinking about eating this little long-eyelashed Disney character one day. Like a deer, Lady had obviously hidden her calf somewhere amazingly inconspicuous before falling ill. What was most shocking is that we had combed the entire pasture the day before and had not found a single sign.

Since this episode, we have bought a pregnant cow, sold a cow, lost a pregnant cow, gained a supposedly pregnant cow, gained another non-pregnant cow, managed to breed her and two years later finally ended up with milk again. It took this long to make the stars align where I could once again head out to the barn with my stainless steel bucket and a pail of hot water. Fortunately this timing was probably best in that we had our own baby to feed during this time and all sorts of other demands to attend to off the farm.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I went out to the barn to feed my furry friends and noticed that our bull calf was mounting our girl that we thought was bred two months prior. These activities are usually a sign that the rider or the ridee is ovulating. Given that the rider was a boy, my assumption was that my dear Bonnie was not in fact pregnant. This is not a fun realization for someone who takes great pleasure in getting milk from her own cow.

Just as I hopefully imagined that I wasn’t interpreting the scene correctly, my girl turned to me with the most loving liquid brown eyes and in very slow motion, lifted her 800 pound self up towards the sky preparing to mount…me! I calmly told her to get down, not realizing exactly what was happening, and she backed off before she was able to make herself, um, comfortable on my shoulders. Sure enough, when the local artificial insemination breeder came a while later, he confirmed that she was indeed in heat and bred her again.

If successful, we will see her calf in mid-September. Bonnie is currently our only cow in milk and come January her calf will be leaving for the butcher. It’s always a sad time to see the mother parted from her baby, and to say goodbye, sorry and thank you to a living thing. The only saving grace is that it returns as the gift of food for our family. It will also mean the requirement to milk her regularly or decide to let her dry up and give up the resource. When we have had such trouble getting a pregnant cow to milk, it seems ludicrous to not appreciate what we have.

As cold as it can be in January, I am certain I will find myself out at the barn, perhaps before the light of day has arrived, milking Bonnie for everything she is worth. And to us she is worth nothing less than gold.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Getting Back to the Kitchen

There is a great deal of backlash on the recent ‘movement’ for women to learn how to bake, preserve, grow gardens, hang their clothes out to dry and home school their kids. Women everywhere are getting downright peeved that someone should rant on and on about their new found skills of homemaking. These Radical Homemakers are causing a ruckus for many reasons. Firstly, these skills have been around for centuries. Secondly, the whole thing stinks of martyrdom and superiority. Thirdly, it just makes people feel bad who do not have the will, time or energy to take these things on themselves.

I’m not going to get into details of the war between working-out-of-the-home versus working-at-home mothers now, but suffice to say that both have their reasons for doing what they do and they believe in their choices. However, these beliefs don’t take away the guilt and the defensiveness that come with these decisions.

There is a similar war going on as people decide which side of the fence they belong with respect to sourcing food. Each person takes a stance and believes their way is the only way. They silently hope everyone else will do what they are doing, if only for their own validation. Perhaps you believe that buying in season or being vegan, or eating strictly organic or only eating what you grow is the key to health and happiness for you and the environment.

We all have to make our own way in the world and do what works, this is true. But I stumble heavily on the the belief that earning a hefty income buys you the freedom to eat however you please without having to bother with peasant farmer skills or sourcing your food fairly and justly. I also think that even the Queen should not be entitled to a disproportionate amount of the earth’s resources by birthright. Though having access to quality-grown food affords one a diet quite fit for a queen.

In addition to natural resources, we also must make regular decisions about our money and our time. It is in making these choices that I (or anyone else) may find some flexibility. Not always how much money or how much time, but more where you spend your money or how you spend your time. Usually these things are in their own war against one another. For example, I once had a friend who loved to fix his own car but when he got a busy job in the high tech industry he had to begin paying someone to do this job for him and lost the time to do it himself.

Regardless of what you believe, you are likely defensive about your choices and find yourself arguing with someone or giving that three-sentence-too-long paragraph that ensures you are she who protests too much. Perhaps you are she who writes really long blog entries to try to figure it all out. The truth is that nobody knows yet what is going to work in the long term for feeding our planet in a healthy, viable way. All of this is just being worked out right now. We thought we had it all figured out when the industry learned to grow more food than the world population needed. The trick became to distribute the food evenly around the world and ensure the population did not increase too much. Oh, and the land could keep producing the same amount of food repeatedly.

Further, many folks do what they do because they do not have a choice. Single mothers, people who are unable to work, those that are excluded from a fair wage or their wage simply is not enough to cover costs are all forced into buying cheap food in whatever form it is available.

The irony is that many farms must be supported by a wage made outside the farm. In other words, women may be forced to work off-farm just to keep the farm going. There is a saying that a farmer feeds a hundred people while the wife feeds the farmer.

The reason that most of the farmers I know are not rolling in money is related to many things, none that have to do with laziness or a lack of business savvy. It is because the price that a farmer gets for beef has not changed in decades, or worse, it is lower due to the mad cow scare. It is because cash crops like soy and corn are difficult to grow at a profit unless they are heavily subsidized. The price of food is nowhere near where it should be for a farmer to earn a fair wage for his earnest work. The set of skills that farmers once had have been exchanged for a new set to keep up with the latest in agriculture. This usually equates to an enormous amount of debt for the farmer. Farmers are being asked to compete in a global market where wages and practices, subsidies and environmental codes are not standardized. Whoever can do it cheaper will win.

As agribusiness keeps its foothold, farmers, writers and consumers all frantically circle the possibilities for change. There are still those that stick their feet into the ground, believing the system works just fine as is. But there is a reason why parents are telling their children to leave farming and family farms are being sold off to join vast tracts of surrounding land while the house may at best be rented out. But nobody tells their children to do without food or wellness. Nobody would strive for a world where healthy soil and water and the associated relevant skills are so limited that we can no longer sustain our growing population.

While the number of small farms in Canada and the United States has decreased over the past 50 years, the number of farms solely operated by women is slowly going up. The women farmers I know are some of the hardest working people I have ever met. The hours they work, the number of jobs they tackle, the number of people they feed is almost impossible to fathom. How can one woman physically and emotionally do all of that by herself? I have a farmer friend who says she does the work of 3 men (with two farmers markets in a week, milking goats daily by hand, raising pork, using draft horses etc.). I think she is wrong – I think it is more like the work of 5 men.

Some believe there must be a man lurking in the wings. Yet one friend’s husband lovingly refers to himself as the ‘farmer’s wife’ as she remains the primary engine behind the farming operation. Other thoughts that go through my head assume they mustn’t have children or they must have financial support. They must have grown up on a farm and still have their family living with them. But no matter how you turn it around, I have come to be certain of one thing: these people work freaking hard! All of the ringing Blackberry’s on Sunday cannot hold a candle to the kind of work that gets done in a day, week or year on a farm.

Sure, they have often made the choice to do this work for a living. I would argue, however, that these people couldn’t do anything different if they tried. They have been called to do it and are a slave to this calling whether they feel like it or not. But what I also know for sure is that they did not wake up one day and sign up to be a martyr to their cause. They do not feel superior to anyone. They just do what they think is right and it just so happens that what feels right takes a massive amount of work, without rest, every single day, all year long. And sometimes it brings food to their tables.

I have decided to source most of my family's food from our land because it seems like it is the most important thing I could do right now, along with raising my children. It feels a lot like breathing which is not something I plan to give up any time soon. Every day from the moment the first baby spinach is ready to harvest until late December when I am roasting and freezing the last of the bruised squash, there is something to process or preserve. Two weeks ago I dried the last of the pumpkin seeds that provide us with a year’s supply that I grind into waffles or use in my homemade granola. Just when I think the bulk of the work is behind me for the year, there are multiple urgent piles of food waiting to be dealt with in the wings. I do not choose what I process. The food comes to me in buckets and I ensure it does not go to waste. Each year is different, forcing a different response to what needs to be done. Recipes are made from what is on hand instead of going to a store and buying a list of what is needed.

The seed catalogues have started to arrive in the mail, so that already we are looking ahead to the next growing season. Rob will spend the next few weeks with a highlighter and his laptop organizing what he will order in time for the first planting of onions and leeks in February. This is my first fall (apart from two maternity leaves) that I have not been commuting into the city for work and I somehow didn’t envision the ‘long winter’ being so very short! I also have to admit that I completely burned out by early August this year and will definitely have to learn to pace myself better next year. Or learn to just accept that an organic farmer will just have to buck up and work through the tired.

So if you are someone who doesn't get around to canning tomatoes every year, that is fine. Nobody is going to make you do it. Canning everything that you grow yourself may not be required of you anytime soon. Yet the way that tomatoes are grown and distributed around the world today just isn't going to keep working. Changes of some kind will have to be made in our own kitchens eventually. So can we please quit with the war and the judgments around who's doing it right and wrong? It took a long time to get us out of the kitchen. It's going to take an even longer time to get us back there. And when we go back, I think we have to do it with awareness, grace and style. This time with a little more voice over how things are managed.

And whatever you believe, please know that those folks out there that are working hard to find a better, more lasting way to provide food to our communities, they are hard-working folks. Not always for a cause, but instead because its the only path forward that they can see.

When women make it back safely to their kitchens, I will know we have found the 'right' way when it feels exactly like breathing.

Men At Work

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Open Window

For the first half of my life, God and I lived on either side of a window. We both knew the other was there. I watched from my side as other people interacted with this God but this was not my God. To be truthful, I wanted to open the window and see what was going on over there. Friend’s parents would invite me to church with them but I was never brave enough to go. I would watch in awe at weddings and funerals as parts of the services were so incredibly foreign and unfamiliar to me. Being a nature lover, I knew there was something pretty phenomenal at work out there, but I couldn't put a finger on it in any way.

In my twenties and early thirties, I did what everyone around me was doing and took up things like meditation and yoga, went on silent retreats and read all about Buddhism. I longed to trek the Himalayas to find myself in a little shack nestled in those mountains. Instead I traveled to Africa to scout out places that I could work with gorillas and chimpanzees but that’s another story. Nature and animals were my religion. Being around living, breathing beasts was always what made me feel connected to the world and brought me home to myself. It didn’t take long before I realized that I could surround myself with furry things on the same continent as my extended family.

So when I purchased a farm that was quietly nestled between two hillsides, not in view of any neighbours and surrounded myself with creatures, I was certain that I was creating my own little Godly universe. It was a world that I thought I could completely control. My very own center for spirituality away from all things unpredictable, including humans.

It did not take me long to learn two very important things: no man can live as an island (especially not a farmer or a parent), and there is no God without community. For someone who figures she had all the answers by age 2 (and never really grew out of that), I was shocked to find out how wrong I was. I was going to need to connect with the human types of living, breathing beings in order to find true peace. Go figure.

Before you go wondering how all of this silent business was going to go down while living with a husband and children, I thought I had that covered too. I happened to have married a fellow who enjoys his solitude for the large majority of his day. I could not have imagined what bringing children into the world would be like. I suppose I thought they would be like an appendage that I could trek around with me everywhere I went. One without will or needs or a voice or an agenda. I was also terribly wrong there. I got away with hiking around our land with my newborn strapped underneath my winter coat. That lasted about five minutes.

Talking about how integrating children into daily farm work is another post for another day. For now I will just say that my silent, controlled world does not exist. But truthfully, I think it has turned out so much better.

Another thing that I have gained in our new surroundings is a community with a selection of churches. One brave day we extended ourselves into this world. Now, many Sundays we pile our tidy children into the van and head towards the village to attend Sunday school or a service. We have even become part of a church discussion group which we quite look forward to every week. One morning my 2 year old son piped up ‘Yay, church!’ as we drove into the parking lot and my jaw dropped in surprise. I honestly would never have imagined hearing those words out of the mouth of my babes. Mostly because I never thought I would have brought them to church. I had never gone as a child, teenager or adult and I never would have thought there was a reason to start. My husband had grown up as a somewhat regular church goer but was not so very attached to the idea either.

For me, there was something about being responsible for these little human beings that made me feel like I had to expose them to choices. I had to open that window for them, let them feel the fresh air, smell the smells, taste the bread. I didn’t want them to feel like an outsider to God as I had. Many people have regaled me with tales of how organized religion was shoved down their throats in their childhoods. I am grateful for these stories as they explain why there is so much resistance out there around religion.

Aside from reading some excellent books on Christianity, I have only been a tourist until now. My slate was clean, my curiosity was deep, and my need to feel connected to something larger was unrelenting. Up the road was a church filled with people who opened their arms despite my ignorance. It may not have been the denomination that my groovy Buddhist friends would sign up with, or that Hollywood would wear a little red bracelet for but it is the one that found me, next to my home. I do grapple with the role that religion plays in wars today and have no idea where or how I am to take responsibility for these things as a Christian, but that is also likely for another day. Until I have a negative experience personally, it will be difficult to turn away from our new found community.

In this new arena, I fear that I am asking stupid questions all of the time. Most of the time I don’t talk about what I’m thinking. All I know is that for some reason I find myself welling up with emotion at almost every church service. Even when I am wrestling with a squirming, squawking child the power of what is going on surges through me. The energy is undeniable, forcing me through that window. I have decided not to name it yet, but I am certain it has everything to do with the people lining the pews around me. At a minimum, we are all just there, hoping that we are right about the fact that we belong to something Great.

A year ago I would have turned to a new page if I was reading a blog and someone decided to post about God midway through an academic discussion about food systems and feminism. I would have had assumptions about who that person was. In the spirit of ignoring labels, I would like to experience what it is like to actually live in an agricultural community with devoted Christians without preconceived ideas of what this looks like. In fact, I have joined in wholeheartedly for the ride.

I would only hope that for anyone else out there that would like to know what lies on the other side of that window, be it for leaving the city to live on a farm, or leaving behind a secular life to follow an organized religion, perhaps I can be a tiny inspiration to you. This may be the seed that helps you know what lies ahead. This may be one plank on the bridge to get you to the other side.

So far anyway, I’m going to keep the window open and let the breeze come in a little while yet.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Humouring the Hunter/Gatherer

Let’s face it. There is something evolutionarily compelling about shopping for a bargain or a pair of pants that fit great, or some other trinket that we haven’t yet realized that we need. Some folks hate to shop. I am not one of those folks. I don’t care for really posh, expensive stores because the things in there usually seem excessive to me. However, where there is a possibility of a deal, my hound’s nose kicks in and I am off for the hunt.

At one time or another I seem to have silently challenged myself to find the best price, for the highest quality thing in the least amount of time. There is even an efficiency factor attached to my compulsive shopping, for crying out loud! I also despise packaging and waste so I usually find myself buying things second hand to give someone’s rejects another life while temporarily saving them from a landfill. This also helps avoid the transport and packaging associated with buying new (and hopefully some of the chemicals that off-gas from new clothing today).

I should clarify, however, that I do not seek the lowest price for my food. I will pay the most money possible if I have to and I will search far and wide if I can put a face to the product I am buying (the producer’s face that is!) and know the quality of what I am getting can't be beat. I do also try to minimize packaging and make sure everything goes to use.

Shannon Hayes and her Radical Homemakers would likely not appreciate this comparison but I’m going to venture to say that harvesting food from the land is a lot like shopping. The hunt for food and the quest to turn it into something useful is every bit as satisfying as the search for a bag full of goodies in the mall. The difference is that the food preparation option supports health for one’s family and hopefully the environment while the shopping option may be questionable in these regards.

Radical Homemakers are self-identified people that abhor consumerism and attempt to live their lives heavy on the currency of skills and resources, rather than money and stuff. It is so very true that we have lost a number of the skills that our grandparents possessed. We have come to rely on machines operated by electricity or fossil fuels and don’t quite know how to function without them anymore. It is also pretty standard to let someone else grow or raise your food. We’ve even gone so far as to allow most of our foods to be prepared for us. Many people I have come across don’t even know where to start to re-learn the skills of growing, hunting, preparing and/or preserving food. This is even true for some farmers that I know, including ourselves.

In addition, we have come to expect our food to cost very little and take no time to prepare. Just when it seems things couldn’t get easier, processed foods become even more handy or novel. We also don’t want to spend much of our pay cheque on our grocery bill. The percentage of income spent on food is around 10% in Canada which is a lot lower than what can be found in other countries (Italy is 23%; India is 53%) and about half of what it was 50 years ago. We are insulted when a food item costs as much as a tank of gas (even if it is a block of cheese that might last a few weeks).

I have witnessed first hand how appalled someone can get when a farmer wants $7 for a 7 pound pumpkin when the Giant Store up the way is selling them for $2. I have learned some things about getting that 7 pound organic pumpkin (or non-organic) to market. The ordering of seeds, the planting of seeds, the replanting of seeds when a chipmunk carries away all 2000 seeds, the transplanting, watering, fertility management, harvesting, storing at the right temperature, washing, weighing, pricing research, handling, transporting, signage and on and on it goes. I guess that any one of our squash or pumpkins is handled at least 5 times each before they become available to a consumer. There is also a percentage of loss either left in the field due to animal or frost damage or from handling or storage mishaps. The 7 pound pumpkin will also likely make you 7 pumpkin pies. Maybe some pumpkin seed snacks too. But where is the deal in this? How can this be an efficient way to spend your money when you can get it for so cheap elsewhere? $7 folks. That is what this farmer makes, before expenses, to bring you this pumpkin. Think about whether you would go through that effort for $7.

It also always amazes me how many people are willing to barter for their food from a farmer (who likely is living on an income below the poverty line) yet pay their lawyers and car mechanics without batting an eyelash. I’m sorry to say that many folks visit the farm (or even the market) in hopes of getting free food or at least a bargain on food. To be clear, there is no better feeling than to offer up our bounty to our dear friends or those in need and this we do by trying to donate at least 10% of what we grow to food banks etc. Turned around the other way, however, if I go to my doctor friend's house for dinner I certainly would not expect medical advice from her for free. It all lies in how little we have come to value food and the production of it.

What we have forgotten it seems is that food is one of the most important things in our lives. Without it we don’t survive. If we are blessed it is not only abundant in our lives, it passes through our hands frequently. I would even argue that our bodies (and the earth) depend on a healthy version of it: nutrient-rich, recognizable by the body as food. There was a study done where one group of rats was fed processed, cold cereal and the other was fed cardboard. Guess which rats lived longer? Basically, the rat’s bodies recognized the cardboard to be more like food than the cereal. How many things like this are we paying top dollar for in the grocery store that don't even register as food by a mammalian body? Note also that the cost of that box of cereal is also not questioned like the cost of produce at a farmer's market might be.

I also believe that it is important that our food is grown in a manner that is environmentally sustainable. If we do not take care of our air, water and soils, we diminish our ability to take care of ourselves in the future.

The thing that is still impossible to accept no matter how much Michael Pollan you read is that every single thing that we eat has an external cost that is paid by someone either in another place or in a later time. We cannot afford to keep gouging our futures and the land in far away places with the food choices that we make. Nor can our health or health systems sustain what lies ahead if we don’t turn a corner and seek foods that have been grown, handled and prepared in a manner that maximizes the food value within.

This ‘we’ by the way is me. Yes, me, the organic farmer that manages to supply more than half of our family’s total food from our land in addition to supporting the business of getting organic vegetables to local consumers. No matter how far I go to make the best possible food available to us, I am not even close to a sustainable model that would save the world. Not even close to where I need to be, in my belief. And that is before you ask what my clothes drying or driving habits are. This is just about food choices for now. So if you thought you saw a soap box in the above paragraphs, I’m afraid it is only a mirror. I am acutely aware that I am in a position to learn a new way of being in the world. Maybe even to teach it, if only by example.

For the past 7 years I have truly believed we were an arm's reach away from operating a food utopia of our own creation on our farm. But when I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture of food in our cupboards I realized that I have been blissfully ignorant. I am talking about the pasta, the flours, the dairy that I don't make, the baking supplies, the canned tropical fruits...

Realizing how much change is required to make food available to all of the people on our planet in a sustainable manner can be depressing. It may also require heavy denial. Or it may send you gallivanting about doing every little thing you can think of to make a difference. Likely your awareness will make you do all of the above.

Here I see a new challenge before me! A new deal to seek out. A test of my best efficiency. How much food can I grow, in how little time with how little output, all the while maximizing the number of people who are fed and minimizing the hidden environmental costs?

How can I make different choices in my own home that contribute to a better future for food consumption in my country? A little less fast food, fewer take-out containers, less processed, pre-packaged or pre-prepared foods, fewer things out of season or things that never grow in my climate (eg. bananas, avocados, pineapple), more label reading, less high fructose corn syrup, fewer empty calories, fewer foods entirely enticing because of their packaging or my childhood want for them.

I want to frequent fewer restaurants that pass food out through a window and more restaurants that make things from scratch on site from ingredients purchased locally whenever possible. I want to take more care to buy only organically produced foods or foods where I can find out about growing methods. I need to also ask questions about which certifications mean what and not make assumptions about anything just because it is common or trendy (ie. blue menu, for example is a salt mecca in my opinion). I need to be less gullible about food marketing messages, and be aware that some labels and logos may well be a big business' way of cashing in on food trends.

So I beg you now to take that shopping instinct and put it into a garden or some kind of food production, preparation or preservation. No matter how little land you have, you would be amazed what can grow in small spaces. Even if you can’t grow cucumbers, you can get them from a reliable source and make your own relishes. You will not be sorry. It is impossible to measure the satisfaction gained by your work. Get some chickens. Get a pig. Fight the bylaws if you need to. Borrow some guy's land that he doesn’t use. Grow in pots, on roofs, in containers of all kinds. Do what you have to do to stake a claim to the part of you that already knows in its bones what it is like to have direct access to phenomenal food.

This, my friend, is the deal of a lifetime.

Friday, December 3, 2010

So Much More in this Provincial Life

Lady Gaga graces us with the deep philosophical lyrics in her song ‘The Fame’ that she is 'obsessively opposed to the typical'. The song is all about the great things that fame brings: liquor, nice cars, nice clothes, money, parties etc. etc. In this list, there is nothing (in the way that they are represented here) that I have found in my experience to make me happy. I would guess that these things don’t actually make anyone truly happy (and lord knows, we've all tried) but we all still believe just one more will likely be the ticket to final contentment. There is that saying that you can never get enough of the things that you don’t want. How tempting it is to pursue the same thing repeatedly hoping it will give us long term happiness even though it has failed the previous six thousand times. This has also been noted as the definition of crazy: to repeat the same action over and over expecting a different result.

Belle from the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast sings much about wanting more than her provincial life. She wakes up each day to the same people, asking her the same questions, offering the same books and baking the same bread. She wants excitement. She longs for adventure in far away places. Yes, I know this is a fairy tale (one that I really enjoy watching!) but everywhere I turn my daughter at the age of 4 is being bombarded by these images of what she should strive for: physical beauty including all of its adornments and fashions, a prince to make her life meaningful and complete, and not one more minute of her boring rural town.

As my family navigates our new life with a meager income (not too little, yet not overflowing) I am finding more and more ways to make us happy without spending oodles of money. But I find myself asking: does the fact that I am trying to live off of less and be more content with what I have in front of me make me boring and typical? Does living a repetitive life mean that nothing exciting happens in my day? My experience so far has been exactly the opposite. There is never a dull day around here.

I also feel very atypical when I am out in a crowd. It is more common in our culture to buy milk in the store than it is to milk a cow, no? It is more common to know not where our food comes from than to actually have a name, a tactile memory or a date attached to its origin. It is more common to buy packaged plastic things from stores that have been made in far away places than to build a gift for someone with your own two hands. It is more common to seek solace in a vice, than to reach out to your community for support when you need it.

Somewhere along the way I also bought into the path of seeking monetary success and recognition as an effective way to avoid a mundane life. I did not grow up in a small town but I am certain that I managed to get just as bored just as quickly as any kid who looked in the wrong places for fulfillment. I beg to look again at these 'mundane' lives that come with living in a small community. Is there family living nearby ready for a quick Sunday dinner or a romp with the kids? Did folks thrive in a solid community either through their church, their schools, their regular card games? Did a mass of people gather around to assist those in their times of loss or need? Casseroles delivered to front doors for every birth, death or hard time?

The richness that follows knowing your neighbours in a provincial town is unmatched by the relationships that I have known in other places. This is not say that I did not depend greatly on others in my city lives. I needed the people I knew in different ways - for companionship, business networking and emotional support - but it seems that having money naturally forces us into autonomy. We build complete gyms in our homes, set up wide screen theatres and own media libraries, and there are computers with internet that connect us to the outside world so that we can work, shop and entertain ourselves without even getting dressed. We manage to dig up some kind of spirituality with a yoga mat and a self-help library but still find the connections to something larger a little weak.

Imagine if you actually needed your neighbour to survive? They held a piece of the puzzle that stood between you and shelter, food, or health care? I recall one evening that a neighbour came to save one of our draft horses that got colic. He had some medicine on hand that prevented her from dying when no vet could be reached. Another neighbour treated a dairy cow with electrolytes after she fell with milk fever after calving and saved her life. We have another neighbour who cuts our firewood for us. Another who bales our hay. The list goes on and on but the interdependence that we have come to rely on in our small town is not something I have ever experienced before. There is no way to place a value on these connections.

What if actually needing people for our essentials is one of the keys to being human? Without knowing this true need, the connection becomes whimsical? The trust and lasting nature of the relationship is worn too easily?

So for these reasons, I strive for a typical life. I suppose I actually am seeking a repetitive life. I long for a regular day in and day out that looks the same as the day before with the same faces, the same store-fronts, the same church, the same bread baking.

I am obsessively seeking it actually.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How to Know When Enough is Enough

I've always been someone who gets the job done. I wouldn't say I am a perfectionist, nor can I say that I work carefully or in a thoughtful manner. I am the coarse labour. The one who comes up with an absurd idea and slams through the better part of the job in a matter of hours or days once the inspiration strikes. It is almost
painful, and very unnatural for me to slow down, think quietly, measure more than once (if at all!), and finally get to doing. I do and then correct, at best.

I have a scary number of half-finished tasks going on around me. Some from many years ago. I expect I will get back to them all one day. I always seem to. I expect it looks downright crazy for anyone who comes into my home and sees stacks of unfinished (often major) projects on the go. I think I was blessed (or cursed?) with an inability to know what is impossible. I don't see limitations very easily. I can also usually get a pretty realistic handle on how long something will take. I rarely procrastinate (except when I need to do something that involves stillness or quiet). I like to just get 'er done. You'd think this would be a good trait in a mother or a farmer, right?

I also have periodic, regular bouts of extreme fallow-ness as well. I don't do anything but the daily upkeep during these times. Fallow usually refers to a field left unseeded or untended. It can be a time for the field to replenish nutrients, although it is more likely just a field that is left to go wild or that is not being cared for. I like to view my fallow times as times to regenerate and recharge. As the decades have passed, I have become more and more comfortable with allowing these spaces to appear in between my hurried bouts of heavy work. I have come to see that if I don't take these quiet times, I burn out in a hurry and end up needing even more recovery time than I otherwise would have. The trouble with caring for living things is that the jobs are relentless and usually non-negotiable. Things need to get done. So for this reason it has been a struggle to find balance between the endless things needing to get done and the need to slow down once in a while.

This is a time when everyone and their dogs are thinking up some new way to write a tale of an extraordinary year. I am insatiable when it comes to these stories. I try to read them all. The man who didn't use toilet paper for a year. The couple who tried eating only food from around their home. The man who lived literally by the bible for a year. The woman who left her job as a lawyer and sought happiness through a series of projects. There was also that one who traveled the world and ate, prayed and loved her way out of a depression. They all left me wondering what I will do with my own extraordinary year.

I once saw a sign in a doctor's office that said to only seek health in ways that you intend to follow for the rest of your life. What I love about this is that it makes us responsible for our choices in the long term. Health and well-being is not a trend, or about following the latest fad or book. Nor is it a year-long experiment. We will need a lifetime to get this right. So I have come to realize that my particular accomplishment during my year away from work may well be to be quiet and let life find me for a change. There are living things circling all around demanding my immediate attention and if I slow down, take a breath and put one foot in front of the other, I can attend to their urgent needs without leaving myself behind. And feel very satisfied while doing it.

In this sense, the farm has become a sort of meditation maze. I can't extend myself in high gear because the number of tasks around me are unlimited. I think that university and the kind of employment I was doing always had a beginning, middle and end. A goal would be set and at the end of some time period there would be the satisfaction when the project was completed. Yet, high gear is not something anyone should be expected to maintain or sustain.

I have even found that setting goals can be a futile endeavour around here. Any agenda is surely going to be side-swiped by the reality of the elements be they the moon, or my 2 year old's mood of the day. I have come to be okay with this. I feel blessed with it actually. It takes me out of that state of just 'gettin 'er done' and into a more peaceful place of letting things be. My hands are moving, my heart is observing, and my head is left out of the equation altogether. I trust in each moment that I will find the best thing to do with my time, and I do it.

Farming and parenting have one huge thing in common. There is no end to the work. Everywhere I look, there is more to do, more guilt to be found, more improvements needed (usually more in the parent than the children), more unfinished business, more things needing food or water. I could race around in a frenzy day after day waiting for that feeling of completion or satisfaction to arrive. Instead, there is only the subtle, hanging belief that I am part of something bigger than me. That I have contributed to something important with my day and I will get up and do it again the next day. The result is something that is alive and a work in progress. The progress report is measured only in health and happiness.

And this is something that I intend to keep up for a lifetime.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Deconstructing Labels: Not a Feminist, Not a Farmer

I want to be clear from the start that I actually do not fancy myself a feminist. I was raised with a generation of women who were told they could do anything and that they deserved the same opportunity and pay as men for their undertakings. I take equality for men and women completely for granted. Does this make me someone who fights for women's rights? No, it doesn't. I just wake up and do what women in my culture do and I'm blessed to have the freedoms I do in the country I live in. I wish I fought more for the rights of women in the world. But that is another story...

In an attempt to find myself in the roles and labels created for women today, I played around with titles for this blog that would most reflect my values. Much to my own shock and delight, I found myself relating to these slightly controversial and archaic terms. Many folks seem to see a 'farmer's wife' as someone who has multiple kids swinging off her apron strings while she slaves over the stove all day. In between washing her laundry in the sink on a washboard and getting water in buckets from the well outside she is darning 18 pairs of socks. She makes soap and bread and pickles and jams and lines her cupboards with hundreds of labeled jars every year in preparation for the winter ahead. She is possibly subservient. She makes no decisions around the business of the farm and she likely won't inherit any land should something happen to her husband or father. Further, she does not get credit for any of the work she does even outside of the household chores, though she is the sole caretaker of all 'small' livestock jobs, including milking the cows. This is just considered the women's work. Nothing to note there. These are not the farmer's wives I know.

"Farmer’s wife" is actually a redundant term. Chances are if you live on a farm and are married to someone who lives there with you, you have contributed greatly to the functioning of this farm. Sometimes just supporting a farmer by placing home-cooked meals in front of him/her is plenty. Sometimes running after his children, clothing and feeding them is enough as well. But likely there is even more involvement than that.

So far, I hope you are asking yourself what kind of turkey writes a blog about everything they don't think they are.

Well let's go farther. If I am not a farmer's wife, would I consider myself a farmer? Although I spend countless hours in every week producing food for my family from our farm for the meal of the day as well as the winter ahead, I do not distribute food to my community. I am not a provider of food outside of my own four walls. My husband does this and I often contribute to his endeavours. We also go as a family to the farmer's market on Saturdays in the city and I often do the mid-week deliveries to stores and restaurants. While I do a good enough job with the harvesting and packing, and I'm fairly efficient and quick, I do not feel my spirit soaring while growing vegetables the way I think my husband does. If it isn't a moving, breathing mammal type thing I'm working with, it likely doesn't get me jumping up and down with glee.

I happen to be married to a farmer, this is true. Yet I purchased half of the farm and used the income from my stable government job to leverage getting the loan to buy it in the first place. The irony is thick here. These days one can't purchase land without a stable income or a load of cash. Hmmmm. But this is every much my piece of land as it is my husband's. We both had equally compelling reasons to want to live here, exactly here. Some reasons the same, some very different. Now, my husband produces vegetables for probably 75-100 families in a season. We also raise our own beef, dairy cows, meat birds, laying hens and pigs, usually just enough for ourselves. At a minimum then, I am certainly not just a farmer’s wife.

I have earned a university degree in science and hold a job in my field that can make plenty of money for me and my family and provide all kinds of job satisfaction if I let it. I work with other mothers that are all inspiring, intelligent women my age who find creative ways to do the balancing act of working outside of the home while still being hands-on mothers.

In addition to this employment, I enjoy canning and preserving, drying foods and baking my own bread and pies. I make sausages and cheese, pasta, pizza dough and cinnamon rolls from scratch. I love working with real food. Yet, a typical farmer's wife does more than just food stuff, right? I am not a quilter, a weaver or a sewer. I do not make soap. I do not have my children home with me every day as I have sought out day care for the days when I am doing things incompatible with little people. Perhaps I stand as a good model of a 'farmer's wife'. Perhaps not.

I drive the tractor from time to time, I carry bales of hay or bags of feed or crates of vegetables about, I milk the cows, I feed the animals, I help seed, plant, harvest, wash, weigh, pack or process most vegetables that we grow in a season. I am also almost solely responsible for the repair and finishing of our home, including our new 1000 square foot addition. When the hammer and nails come out, it is usually me who is doing these jobs. I am grateful to not have a controlling husband looking over my shoulder while I figure out how to do these things and I enjoy the work very much. So perhaps I am crossing the line into traditional male roles sometimes. Perhaps not.

I also insist on being involved in all decisions made with the operation of our farm. I want to be a supportive partner to my farmer husband but I do not wish to be defined entirely in terms of another. I want to earn an income only if it makes sense for the efficient and loving operation of our household. I want to have access to child care on days that I have dangerous manual work in the fields or on the house. I also choose to have child care on days that I wish to have space to be creative or do some thinking, number crunching or writing. I want to have dinner made for me on the rare occasion. I do not want to be entirely responsible for all laundry, house-cleaning or child matters. I want to be a free-standing, self-sufficient, capable human being. I suppose then I am a 'feminist' under the definition of some.

In conclusion, any woman (or man) who manages to sustain the (difficult, unpredictable, heartbreaking yet rewarding) life of a farmer and a parent can call themselves anything they please. I’m not going to second guess any of these labels no matter what they do or believe in. I hope you can afford me the same luxury.

For now, you can call me the Feminist Farmer's Wife. I haven't yet discovered what this means for me. Will you join me as I do?