The Beginning Farmer: Death on the Farm, Part Two

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Nyberg
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No farmer can rely on a static environment.  Farming’s very nature is change, the dynamics of the weather, the shift of the seasons, the tasks that diversify in the warm months and contract again as it grows cold.  But there are elements of farm life that remain, that are comfortable, familiar, perhaps for years.  And then, suddenly one day, they disappear, too.  And then the farm feels like it might never be the same again.

Our farm dog wasn’t much of a farm dog.   He was far more a farm-house dog,  a big softy that didn’t like to go out in the rain.  While sheep held a definite fascination for him, he never did quite figure out what to do when he came face to face with one, and generally stood stock still with only the high point of his tail whisking gently back and forth.  Impressive in stature and spirit, however, he made a point to personally welcome each customer of Horse Drawn Farms. Some, after seeing the gigantic form of a jet black Great Dane come charging down the driveway towards them at full tilt, never came back. Those that did came to enjoy that the huge head in their car window, the eager, laughing face and the deep bark  were as much as part of the visit as the very fine eggs they were there to procure.

The weather was vacillating from hail to sunshine the day it happened, the typical coastal spring.  Seedlings were nestled in the greenhouse, and the lambs quietly moved between grass and shelter while my mind rehearsed the upcoming mad dash of planting.  Rupert had been out  with me most of the day, his familiar black outline following me, now to the goat paddock, now to the horses where he waited for Cirrus’s grain to be set down. Cirrus, ever obliging, was the only horse who seemed not only to tolerate Rupert sharing his breakfast, but actually to welcome the companionship of a second head in his feed tub. (More than once, I watched the old boys, each with half of the same carrot in their mouths, politely demur as to its ownership with a definite clamping down of  teeth. Cirrus, with his advantageous incisors, usually won out.)  As the afternoon drew late, the motorcycle of my husband came up the drive signaling Rupert’s daily off-farm walk, and after some joyous greetings,  he and my husband set out together. 

A phone call interrupted dinner preparations.  Rupert, now soaked with a sudden violent hailstorm, was not well and needed to be picked up by car. Immediately I jumped in the truck and pulled out of the driveway to find my husband standing with him less than 100 meters away – they had not even been able to cover that small distance.  It did not bode well.  Once home, my husband and I thoroughly dried and warmed him, but it was clear he was feeling faint.  He teetered to his bed in the living room and collapsed, exhausted.  Later, standing up by his water dish, he vomited.  We were somewhat relieved – perhaps he had only picked up a bug. We made him comfortable and warm for the night, hoping for improvement by morning. It was clear within those few hours, however, that he was, in fact, gravely ill.  He gamely stood up at the sound of the feed buckets being filled for morning chores, but quickly lay down again, and  we decided then and there to carry him to the truck for a trip the emergency veterinary hospital.  A battery of ultrasound and blood tests confirmed: he was in heart failure. 

We euthanized him at home that evening, on his bed in the living room. He lay in state there the following day, a practice I had never understood until I felt the strange comfort that his still body provided.  I could pat his head, stroke the familiar ear, and yet look in his eyes and see that he was dead, that his spirit, our dog, our beloved friend and companion, wasn’t there any more. It was soothing, and final. Our grief spilling over, my husband and I wept helplessly together as we buried him near the kitchen window.

The change is keen, and lonely. So often does Horse Drawn Farms feel like a one-woman show as my husband drives out each morning to his own work, that the lack of companionship during my day is now dreadful.  I lost a friend, one who had been at my side – much MORE at my side, in fact – during my transformation from suburban nine-to-fiver into a farmer out in the fields all day.   But there is a realization in this new loneliness – that the business of any farm is not meant to be a solitary endeavour.  I realize how very much I looked forward to the animated bark from the driveway, because it meant visitors, chat, laughter, and most of all, excitement and enthusiasm about fresh, local food.  My dog lessened the solitude after the visitors went away, and his absence amplifies it.  I felt this reality still more strongly when I attended a farm lecture/concert in the city less than a week after his death.  Many people gathered, talked and sang about their adventures in discovering and growing food in their community, and their  enthusiasm was infectious.  At the lecture, I felt my own passion for the subject begin to rise once again.  At home again, alone the next morning with a shovel in my hand, it all seemed dreary, and pointless. 

What do I do with this revelation?  Do I contact a local school or gardening group? Do I advertise for a partner, or for volunteers?  The possibilities are there, and will need looking into if I am not to lose my way.   Thus is the struggle of one beginning farmer.