In the farming calendar, there will always be a few major chores which are approached with particular reluctance. For some, it may be rounding up fall slaughter stock, when a favourite steer hops onto the trailer for a final ride. Or it could be that first cut towards the commitment of haying–the hours of working under a hot sun, or under cloudy skies, the anxious hope that the weather will co-operate until the bales are safely stowed away.
For this beginning farmer, there are a few runners up in the Most Trying Task category. Clipping the wings of my entire laying flock comes to mind. The pastures of Horse Drawn Farms are peppered with trees that allow easy escape up and over the electric net to any bird with a sense of adventure, making it necessary to limit vertical advantage. The first few are easy–one just reaches into the mass of feathered bodies in the coop and grabs the first pair of available legs. Invert legs, find wings, snip off feathers, done. But as the number of legs decreases and the hens have room to run away from grasping fingers, it becomes progressively dirtier, dustier and dandruffier to catch the little devils. By the time the second-last hen has exploded up and over my head for the fourth time in a cloud of flapping feathers, pulverized bedding and scrabbling poopy feet, I usually regret that I began the whole operation. But this is not the worst chore on Horse Drawn Farms. Oh no. That dubious distinction belongs to the sheep barn.
A pleasantly innocuous place, the sheep barn. At least, most of the time. Most of the time, it has a mild, sheepy smell. The smell of lanolin and fresh straw. The straw is fresh everyday, layered over the old straw, building up the floor a bit at a time. It’s a method that works well with sheep as they pack it down into a straw mattress, and it makes preparing their night quarters laughably easy compared to, say, the horse stalls, which must be carefully cleared of all soiled bedding. The addition of fresh straw can continue for quite a time. As long as one can find other things to do with one’s evening hours – and what farmer doesn’t? – it’s easy to just keep layering. And layering. No matter that the sheep are now leaping up a foot or so onto the bedding, or that the hay bunker, bolted to the floor, is slowly disappearing. It’s clean, odorless and comfortable in there. So what if I have to duck to avoid hitting my head on the rafters?
It is usually around the time I can spot the ears of three foot high sheep protruding above the five foot high door that I realise the inevitable has come around once again. The bedding has become ridiculously high, and all those time-saving layers are about to get their revenge. Ushering the ewes off the edge of the straw precipice and back to solid ground outside the barn for the last time, I steel myself and head to the tool shed for the pitchfork and the muck cart. For unlike my more fortunate compatriots who would be able to complete the job in ten minutes with the bucket on their John Deere, this tractorless farmer is obliged to scrape out the sheep barn by hand. Scrape is perhaps not the appropriate term under these circumstances. The floor is so packed that it requires agonizing, vicious fork-jabs to even begin to loosen into manageable chunks. Chunks utterly sodden with urine and manure, disgorging a most remarkable stench, and weighing seventy-five pounds each. I can manage to lift three or four into the cart before its wheels begin to flatten in protest and I won’t be able to push the thing to the muck pile.
Three or four (or five or six) hours of hideous labour is not necessarily a bad thing, however. There is a rhythm to monotonous, difficult work that I believe has been largely forgotten by the mechanized farmer. There is a joy in movement, a delight in the heavy use of muscle and sinew that must be experienced to be believed. It is the kind of physical effort that, in the old days, was shared by family and community and brought people together under the common banner of food independence. Granted, no family usually appears at my sheep barn. Luckily, the work can also be a time for reflection and observation. If I had a tractor, for example, would I have noticed how the moment I turn the first piles of bedding back, honeybees immediately come to investigate the pungent scent? How they land and extract something or other from the urine-soaked straw? Would I appreciate how my hens carefully size up each cart-load that is dropped for their scratching and spreading services? How the entire flocks runs frantically to each new pile in case they miss any getaway grubs? And how often does one have the opportunity to bask in the relative quiet and simply listen to what’s happening on the farm? These small occurrences are the soul of the land, and I, for one, am glad to experience them. As for the reward of the scraped-down barn–that speaks for itself. A fresh, empty floor. A hay bunker once again apparent along the wall. Fresh straw for the sheep, and weeks and weeks of easy husbandry ahead.
Time will push on, I suppose. Soon I will once again be able to reach the rafters, or perhaps step out of the barn window with minimal effort. But by then the season will be changing and there’ll be new things to see and hear when the pitchfork makes its appearance. Unless anyone has a tractor to donate?