Life & Death on the Farm
After years spent in big cities, moving to a farm is a bit like having a baby: there really is no amount of preparation you can do to keep you from occasionally waking up and thinking, what on earth have we done? The list of necessary tools is endless, the options for care and feeding of the farm menagerie are mind-boggling, and the chore list definitely moves to a whole new level of urgency… if you didn’t dust the bookshelves in your city apartment, it’s possible only you and your partner/roommates would care. If you don’t remember to water the garden every day, you won’t have anything to eat AND you just wasted a couple hundred dollars on seed and compost. Let’s not even think about what happens if you don’t water the animals. Things on the chore list become a little more Life or Death on a farm.
We knew this when we moved to the farm last winter. We tried to prepare, as much as you can prepare to be completely overwhelmed. We had stocked up the reference library, bookmarked useful internet sites, and tapped experienced family members nearby. Moving onto the farm, we quickly began to pour our energy into the life of the farm. We enriched the soil, planted a garden, welcomed and made room for new animal species to share our space.
Over the first six months of the year, we slowly acquired 11 hens and a rooster, nine turkeys, two sheep and seven goats: we already had quite a menagerie when Colin came to join us on our small farm. We wanted to be able to breed our does in the fall, but the Saanan breed is uncommon in our area, and finding a ‘rental’ buck to do the job was unlikely. Colin came to us from a breeder a few hours away, and he came with great genetics but more importantly, he was a total sweetheart. He was our first big acquisition, and we were thrilled to have him join the farm.
Less than two weeks after Colin came to live with us, he came in one evening limping from what looked like a sprained ankle. We took him to the vet after ice and rest didn’t seem to improve the swelling, and he seemed to be doing well. Then, four days later, he went into shock and had to be put down. We were devastated. We missed him for a long time, walked gingerly around ‘his’ stall in the barn, avoided the area in the orchard where he was buried. We had planned a long relationship; we got less than a month together.
At the time, it felt like the kind of crisis that should make us reexamine the path we were on. Did we really want to continue to acquire the animals we planned to eventually populate the farm with, if we were risking having our hearts broken by unforeseen or uncontrollable events?
Shortly after we lost Colin, one of our turkeys showed up limping on an injured leg. When she didn’t improve with a little care over the next few days, it became clear that she was soon no longer going to be able to walk well enough to eat or drink. Since she was otherwise healthy, we decided the best approach would be to butcher her. The turkeys have always been ‘Thanksgiving Dinner’ – they are the only animals on the farm without names, because we knew all along that we planned to butcher them in November. Still, she was the first intentional death on our farm, and so shortly after losing Colin unexpectedly, I was amazed at the difference of emotions I experienced as I held her head for the axe, and plucked the feathers from the body to ready it for dinner.
In planning for the life of our farm, we originally failed to plan any infrastructure for deaths. This is the lesson we have learned; the necessity of making room for death next to life. The balancing act of managing the farm’s menagerie requires caring for your animals, even as you know tomorrow you may need to make the decision to let them go. The real test is waking up early the next morning, stumbling into your boots, and doing the morning chores with the same compassion you had yesterday.
How do you cope with life and death on your homestead?
Photo Credit: Megan Koster
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