Upon entering any self-respecting hardware store, one should hear a welcoming and lighthearted jingle from the bell positioned above the door. This is exactly what occurs when we walk through the door of our own local store which, although just over a year old, has all the traits, leathery odors, and foot-weary floorboards of a much older establishment. However, I am becoming somewhat aware of another, less cheery noise, barely audible beneath the ringing of the bell which brightly announces our entrance: it’s an unexpressed, yet quite audible, groan.
The groan is not an expression of age from the ancient wood flooring, nor is it the bulk of the solid door straining on its equally ancient and bulky hinges as one would possibly expect upon entering such an establishment, it is a noise made by the staff, a noise made in contrast to their welcoming smiles, waves, and cheery passings of the time of day.
It took many times of walking through that door before I began to translate the smells and sounds which greet those that are fortunate enough to visit this place; this place of nuts and bolts; of wire, string and table cloths; this place which is so completely chocked full of light bulbs, shovels, duct tape, and tins of paint it only takes a brief trip down one of the aisles before you completely forget why you entered in the first place; the possibilities are, indeed, endless. However, most of these sounds and smells are familiar, but the groan, the groan is something other, something new to me, something that I am happy to say I have been ignorant of for most of my life.
Roughly translated into English, the groan can mean: “not them again”, or: “Here we go Bill, another line of stupid questions”, or even more blunt: “shit!”
I bring this up – as my first proper ramble of the New Year – not because I am personally incensed by its meaning upon my own arrival in the store, nor does it worry me that I spark this reaction from the sales folk, I bring it up because I imagine it happening in hardware stores, feed stores, veterinarians offices, rural post offices, livestock auctions, and village grocers the world over as more and more people like us join the “agrarian renaissance” and begin a life of farming or ranching. And with the increase in “Young”, “Beginning” or “New” farmers comes an almost immeasurable list of stupid questions, requests, and cries for help which would, in a “traditional” family farm have been passed down from generation to generation, probably with little more than a grunt and a nod. We, as beginning farmers, not having had at our fingertips the knowledge and expertise of our forebears to tap into like a clear flowing stream of instant understanding and skill, have to rely on those in the community who do have that resource, and whether they like it or not, no matter how dumb the question, it’s going to be, and needs to be, asked.
It’s not to be said that beginning farmers aren’t smart. In fact, as far as I can tell, a lot of us have spent time in universities (to what ends, I can’t say), others have been working for years in IT, or the finance sector, “dropping out” (or in) to lead a life of rural, sustainable, agricultural self-sufficiency. Others, myself included, spend time on farms – as apprentices or interns – with similar values and production goals as themselves, and leave that experience with a solid base from which to build their own farm business. All this, the degrees, the work experience, and the on-farm training, still do not equate to anything near the amount of knowledge required to run a successful farm.
And that is where the local vendors and service providers come in to play. And it is also why we continue to hear the resigned groan which almost always accompanies the cheery jingle of the store bell.
To give some examples of experiences we’ve had while trying to figure out the intricacies and finer points of farming life:
We have spent, on more than one occasion, at least an hour pacing the aisles of the hardware store with an ever-friendly and very patient member of staff, trying in vain to fit a length of tubing – be it hose, pipe, or copper – to a mysterious piece of plastic, just to get home and find we had taken the wrong piece of hose and must undergo the whole charade again. All this to make our own version of a particularly peculiar livestock watering device as we were unaware of the ingenious fellow who had already fabricated it somewhere on the other side of the country and sells them for $5 apiece in the chickens-r-us catalogue.
I also recall speaking with Alexis after what was supposed to be a brief farm visit from the vet, arranged to be an introductory meeting and quick flock-health checkup. He had been here for almost 3 hours. “Three Hours!” I seem to recall asking, “How much did that cost?” Lex replied that she couldn’t explain but that he only wanted to charge for a half hour visit. My only explanation for this is that she had asked him so many questions, and pestered him so much during his visit that he left in a cloud of dust, drooling and flapping like Siegfried Farnon being chased through the Yorkshire Dales by a wild bull.
And then, of course, there’s the incident with the escaped llama – about which you can read here – and our embarrassing first interactions with our neighbours as we chased her around their farm like, well, like a bunch of greenhorns chasing after a half-wild and short-necked llama. Just as an aside, it appears that Michelle O’llama has finally made her peace with the world and now spends her days roaming the property seeking out intruding Jack Russells and any tasty flakes of alfalfa that happen to have been left unattended in the wheelbarrow.
We have somehow found ourselves among a great community of knowledgeable, patient, and generous people who are (almost) always available to answer our never-ending stream of questions and help us solve our problems and issues. And although the groan is still there when we enter the hardware store, the feed store, or the post office, as long as it remains to be accompanied by the jingle of the bell and the time of day, we will continue to ask the silly questions and tell our daft stories. Although we didn’t grow up with silver pitchforks in our mouths or intravenous tractor grease, we take what we have from our own experiences and education and make do as best we can, which is what farmers have been doing since the very first seeds were sown. I’m just glad that we, the Greenhorn Generation, have the benefit of hardware stores and of those that stock their shelves with all the random bits of plastic and nuggets of information that we need to do this that is our collective future, otherwise there may be far more escaped llamas romping the countryside and vast seas of unused and mysterious pieces of plastic filling barns the world over.
I did. Today.
I should have known this Sunday would be an interesting, and not altogether pleasant one. Usually Sundays start with a bit of Johnny Cash and some pancakes. The pancakes can be served on their own (straight-up with maple syrup), with fruit, or better yet, with bacon and eggs. And the JC? Well it can be older or newer depending on the day, or if I can’t make up my mind, I’ll sometimes just put on one of the many ‘Best of’s” that are around. I should have known that by setting out to move the sheep without either of those fundamental Sunday morning rituals, things were going to turn out bad.
And they did.
When we move the sheep we also have to move the llama, as her job is to be in the paddock with the sheep protecting them from whatever wild beasties that are around that might want a little sheep for dinner. Until last week we used to have to move the sheep, the llama, and the goat, Moby, but last week he fell off the train and was unceremoniously coerced, pushed, and pulled, back to his own pen, where he gets to spend the next few weeks. So without the goat to contend with we (stupidly) thought that today was going to go a little smoother; just twenty-four sheep, happy to get to fresh pasture, and one llama, happy to get, well anywhere other than where the sheep are. But, it appears our sheep guardian llama doesn’t particularly care for sheep, or anything else for that matter.
The strategy is to gather everyone up into a smallish pen using electrified netting, remove the semi-permanent fencing, and then set it all back up again in the new area of pasture before letting everyone back out again to munch their way through another area, thus allowing us a little control over what they eat, and them the freedom to graze the best stuff.
So, we had everyone in the pen, llama and all. They were hanging out, chewing stuff, drinking a little water, and generally having a good time; all except (yep, you guessed it, the first llama herself, Michelle O’llama). She had decided that the pen wasn’t quite big enough for her and all the scary sheep, so took it upon herself to jump the fence and run back to the safety of the orchard. Instead of getting myself all worried about a loose llama (which I’m prone to doing), I decided to continue with the sheep moving and then worry about Michelle. So, after a great deal of knot untangling and post readjusting, we had ourselves a new fence, suitable for (fingers crossed) holding the sheep for the next week or so. We let the sheep out into their nice new stand of starthistle, and went to have some well-needed breakfast, at about 1.30pm. On the way back to the trailer we checked on Michelle and ensured she was somewhere we could get to her easily and threw her some hay, to try and discourage further movement.
Well, when after a quick bite to eat, we got back to the spot where last we saw the llama, there was no llama. After a bit of a search, I spotted her in the furthest corner of the property, next to the road, looking for all the world like a kid playing hide-and-seek. We quickly made a plan; open a gate, shut in the horse, get some hay, drive her towards the open gate, close the gate. Easy, right? No.
Lex tried coercing her toward the open gate to the horse paddock with little luck. Michelle apparently has a sixth sense for knowing when it’s feeding time, and when it’s feeding time with extras. So we moved to phase two – push the llama (using low-stress animal handling techniques, of course) towards the open gate, and to safety. Well, that didn’t work either. I don’t know how many of you have ever herded a llama, but they don’t herd quite the same as say a flock of sheep, a herd of cattle, or even a gaggle of kittens, they do their OWN thing. They are quite adapt at going in the way you want them to until the very last-minute, at which time, they’ll do a 90, or 180 degree turn and sprint in the opposite direction. Michelle did exactly that. We had her pushed all the way to the corner of the fence. All we had to do was make sure she walked along the fence line until she found the open gate, at which point she would find herself suddenly free from harassment and with all the space and alfalfa she could possibly want. She chose to go and try to find her own alfalfa, the kind that is still in a field; our f@*#+^g neighbor’s field!
Lex had pushed her all the way to the corner, at which point she did her best David ‘Campo’ Campese impersonation and goose-stepped past me, did a complete 180, and raced back past Alexis leaving us standing in the field looking like the English back line after just being blitzed by a barn-storming Jonah Lomu (Google it).
It was at that point that the Cavalry arrived; our friend Quinn, who’s currently camping in the orchard, and his buddy Chris, fresh off the mountain after a weekend climbing in the Sierra Nevada, turned up thinking they were going to go floating down Cache Creek and have a nice leisurely Sunday afternoon bbq only to find they were going to get a crash-course in llama wrangling.
While I was getting those guys up to speed on the strategy – get da bloody llama in da bloody pen – Michelle had skipped another fence and was making her way through the neighbor’s alfalfa field with Lex in hot pursuit. The problem with this new scenario was threefold; we have never met the neighbors, there are strict laws and attitudes towards trespassing in this county, and the neighbor’s alfalfa field has little fencing between the llama and either the busy Hwy 16 or 30’000 acres of wilderness – somehow we now had to catch the llama before she either got hit by a truckload of drunk creek floaters (not a pretty sight), or disappeared forever into the Cache Creek Wilderness.
I drove up to the neighbor’s yard to let them know that it was us who were running around all over their property and if they had somewhere that we could herd (a’hem) our llama into so we could load her into the trailer. They opened up a pen for us and told us which gates to open or close and then (I suspect) went back inside to watch the show unfolding in their very own front yard. After several shouted directions we eventually got the llama moving in the right direction. Moving slowly, at walking pace, towards the holding pen. That is until she decided that the way she actually wanted to go was the completely opposite direction. So it was the old goose-step, a shimmy-shammy, and all four of us were left either laying face-down in a waterlogged alfalfa field, or scratching our heads and picking out llama-induced wedges.
We then went to plan C, or is it D? Anyllama, we now had a very hot, nervous, and frustrated llama and three hot, anxious and frustrated people all heading back towards a busy Hwy 16. Quinn and I took off in the truck to head her off and Chris and Lex brought up the rear. We soon had her surrounded, again.
It was at this point that Michelle started making a brand new noise. It was a kind of screaming bark; Imagine a barn-owl and a jack Russell, high-pitched and weird.
Having now got her surrounded; Quinn and I blocking her escape and impending doom on the Highway, Chris stopping her from going back to the neighbor’s yard and further embarrassment (for all concerned), and Lex getting some capture device rigged up, we had to make our move. She broke left, towards Quinn. Quinn threw himself at her head and wrapped his arms around her long (yet short for a llama) neck and I dove at her back legs and managed to hold on long enough for her to collapse onto her front legs under the (not altogether insignificant) weight of Quinn. Holding onto a llama by its back legs while it proceeds to relieve itself all over you is not the most pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon but I was also somewhat relieved to have her under some measure of control. Chris and Lex soon got her down on her side, I tied her back legs together, and all suddenly became calm. We had her.
That is except for the ant’s nest we had unknowingly landed in. All five of lying there, getting slowly eaten alive by about a million bitey little ants. We soon had her moved and heaved into the back of the ZZ truck. Driving the 100 feet down the road to our gate I half expected to get a ticket for driving down the road with three people and a llama riding unsecured in the bed of the truck. We didn’t and are now able to sit and write this less that three hours after the event while Michelle sleeps off what will surely be a three-day hangover in a secure stall in the barn.
If only we had gotten a guardian donkey!
Please follow the link to read the inaugural ‘The lark’, the ‘ewesletter of Skyelark Ranch. Also attached is a printable order form and details of our 2011 pastured chickens.
Please excuse the clumsiness of this first installement, our website will be up and running shortly, which will provide all the information you could possibly want (and more) on us, our farm, and our livestock.
Thankyou for your time and interest in Skyelark Ranch pastured meats.
As a very frail-sounding Johnny Cash sings “I’ll meet you further on, up the road” like he really means it, I’m tucking in to the other necessity of our Sunday morning spiritual, bacon and eggs. The door to the trailer is wide open even though there is a thick layer of frost covering the orchard outside and the coffee in my ‘Black Bear Diner’ mug is already close to freezing. Just then Lex stumbled through from the cabin in her dressing-gown after at least four calls of “breakfast’s ready” and asks exactly why the door has to be open when it is, quite obviously, fucking cold! “Look” I reply, taking another mouthful of heart attack, and nod out the door.
Right now the almond trees are just beginning to blossom, the red-tailed hawks and white-tailed kites are starting their pre-nesting courtship displays, and the sun is being unseasonally shiny. Yesterday we moved the trailer from where we had originally set up camp to a spot deeper into the orchard and away from the hustle and bustle of Hwy 16. So as we move around this morning our view is slightly different from yesterday’s as we now face north up the valley instead of west towards the blue ridge. Also, the stream of what I can only imagine as being Sunday morning church traffic is slighty quiter now, leaving us with only the sounds of the bees tending the newly blossomed almond trees and the distant screech of an occasional red-tail.
Since moving out here, just over two weeks ago, I’ve had various conversations with people who can’t seem to understand why we would want to move out so far from town. Just yesterday we were at the recycling centre and I was chatting with an Irish guy (proper Irish, with the diddly-dee and all) about the rugby, and I mentioned that we lived in the Capay Valley. He looked as if I just told him we lived in Timbuktu. It’s only half an hour outside Woodland (about 5 more minutes commute than from Davis) but it is apparently a whole other world away from the tract housing estates and shopping centres of Woodland. I had a similar conversation with a lady at work last week. She sympathetically asked me why we had moved out here, as if I’d just given both legs away to science and not even been offered a bus ticket home.
Given all these shocked reactions to our recent relocation and future ventures in agriculture it only recently occured to me that it might be slightly out of the ordinary, and only a little bit crazy. To add to this, our endevours somehow warranted a story in a fairly well-circulated agriculture newspaper, which points at the fact that even within the ag community we are something of a novelty, in that we are young and apparently foolish enough to take this on of our own free will.
Before we found this place and were scouring the countryside for possible matches for our business goals and living requirements, it never once occured to me that we were members of a very exclusive club, that we might, in fact, be the only (almost) newly-weds out there looking to live in the middle of nowhere and not in a single-family lego house in somewhere called Oak Lake Willow Forest Vista Acres. I was convinced that if we didn’t move fast all the good places with all the good soil and all the water would be gone, snapped up by other farmers eager to jump on the sustainable and local food bandwagon. It is only now that we are secure in our lease, and with our trailer in place, that the reactions of others have allowed me to see that we are very much in the minority and there is no race for the rural life, no sprint for a piece of the farming pie. The farming community is getting physically older and is growing steadily further from the concious of those in our cities and towns making it a more abstract and distant concept than ever before. It’s no wonder then that when we mention our plans to even our ‘progressive’ friends they return our looks of excitement with those of amazement and even disbelief.
More fool them. As we sit at the table with our door open to the elements, eating breakfast and listening to Johnny Cash and the sounds of a Sunday morning almond orchard, the question isn’t “why are we doing this?” it’s “why wouldn’t we do this?”
One of the first things that crossed my mind when we finally signed the lease and our dreams of becoming real-live farmers suddenly became a startling reality was “shit! We don’t have a truck”. And as everyone knows, any self-respecting farmer needs a truck. You just can’t be considered a farmer if you don’t have one, and we would be guffawed out of every feed and tack store in the county if we consistently turned up in our little red Toyota Echo (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Following a few days of persistent and tough negotiating, the case for the truck was won, and Lex was suitably convinced. I quickly set to work scouring Craigslist and the local rag for anything that resembled our desired vehicle. I talked with sellers on the phone, sent umpteen emails, and discussed our needs with several friends including the ever-helpful, mechanical wizard, Mr. Wookey. It was decided that we were looking too small; apparently when you’re in the market for a truck, you have to aim big, aim safe, and aim damn-right tough. So we upped the stakes, halted the search for piddly little pretend trucks and concentrated our efforts on finding a truck worthy of towing some seriously heavy shit.
It was under these super-charged conditions that I happened upon the ad for the ‘Orland Public Auto Auction’. The ad featured a vehicle that turned out to be their poster-child for the event; a 2001 Ford F-150, 4 wheel-drive with camper shell, and only about a 1/2 million miles, it was perfect. It would meet our needs with its ability to tow some really heavy shit, and had the bonus features that I had almost convinced lex that we needed. The date was set, my mind was made up; we would go to the auction and buy that truck.
On the morning of the auction, we drove up to Orland with an hour or so to spare so as to spend a bit of time ogling the vehicles, and making sure the truck started, went ‘vroom’ when we asked it, and didn’t fart too much black smoke out its rear end. Of course we had some help in our testing of these all-important mechanical thingy-ma-bobs; Mr. Wookey had also made the trip out to Orland before even the first sparrow had farted, to ogle some vehicles himself, being the rev-head that he truly is. Before the auction started we had made our budget cut-off decision and looked at some other trucks all of which didn’t measure up to the Ford F-150 with the shiny bits. There were a couple of really old, farty, black smoke belching, type trucks that we snobbishly dismissed, a freezer van that Mr. Wookey was especially excited about, and a 1985 Chevy pickup that we all agreed would make a fairly decent farm truck, and backup if our sweet bidding skills were outmatched and we didn’t, in fact, win the Ford F-150 with all the shiny bits.
Throughout all the pre-auction banter, I was becoming more and more nervous, there were a lot of people there, and surely most of them would have seen that truck and how could they not all be wanting to buy it? The answer is simple; only about 1/3 of the people there were actually looking to buy a vehicle, the rest were there on their Sunday family outing. As the auctioneer was introducing his assistants and explaining the rules of the auction the place was steadily filling with what can only be described as “an interesting assortment of people”. It appears that the spectacle of a public car auction is enough to draw out every Tweaker, Bogan, Rev-head, Boy-racer, Gang-banger, Ned, and meth-addict from San Fransisco north to the Oregon border, and bring their entire families too – apparently the hot-dogs and bovril are too good to miss.
So, we’re there, sitting on what is known as ‘the bleachers’, surrounded by the residents of such beauty spots as Clear Lake, Oroville, and Cohasset , watching the auctioneer’s two sons as they strutted around handing out candy canes to toothless patrons and generally entertaining the crowd. The anticipation of the first sale was building to a rumbled peak, and it was with a rumble that the sale began – the rumble of a semi-operational Volvo station-wagon, limping into the auction house.
The bidding started slowly as the auctioneer was trying to milk every last dollar out of the bidders, but soon quickened up to a more lively pace and by the time the F-150 with all the shiny bits came in, the auctioneer was talking faster than the announcer at the Melbourne Cup, and I was anxious. It was over in a flash. The bidding started at around $1500 and before I knew it I was bidding at $3250 and Lex was elbowing me in the ribs yelling “Stop!” So I duly stopped, and the guy I was bidding against won himself a beautiful gold Ford F-150 with so many shiny bits he’s going to need some new sunnies. We went into the auction with a budget of $3000, and during the frantic bidding process I made the decision to go up to $3500, but I hadn’t communicated that fact so Lex was panicking that I might just keep going and end up having to do a runner out the back, forfeiting our $20 bidders deposit and leaving behind all hope of ever owning the F150 with all its shiny bells and even shinier whistles.
After another hour or so sitting on the bleachers watching cars come and go, including Mr. Wookey’s freezer van which he also lost, and taking in all the unusual and downright perplexing, sights of the day (the girl in front with the G-string up to her armpits who insisted on feeding her baby cheese from an aerosol can drew particular attention, and not least for the G-string incident), in came the 1985 Chevy 3/4 tonne pickup. Now this is a truck that has absolutely no shiny bits whatsoever, in fact it’s so un-shiny that the auctioneer started the bidding somewhere close to free. The win was easy, a couple of half-arsed bids from semi-interested rev-heads, one or two grunted increases by some suspicious-looking beardy-wierdies (myself included) and it was mine – I was the proud owner of a decidedly un-shiny 1985 Chevy 3/4 tonne pickup. Sweet!
After the rapture had subsided and the (exhaust) dust had settled, the truth hit, and it hit me like a 3/4 tonne Chevy truck. Transactions complete, bits of paper exchanged and I suddenly found myself racing down Interstate 5 at somewhere between 50 and 70 miles per hour in a truck I knew absolutely nothing about; I didn’t even know if the brakes worked, if it was prone to sudden explosions, or if I could get anything other than deceptive Christian rock on the radio. Yep, it made it that far……..far enough for me to have at least those three minor concerns manifest themselves in my pearly white knuckles and the tips of my Hell-singed ears – but not much further.