Sorry I dropped off the radar for awhile……freezing beans, drying kale, canning beets, canning a ton of salmon, trying to get more wood split. It’s been brutally hot, I’m starting to power down and look forward to fall – and dare I say it – winter. The meat birds have another seven or eight weeks to go before they’re in the freezer, the pigs are headed off to the butcher end of September. The steer – not sure yet, but once the weather is cold enough to hang the carcass, his time with us is up. The lamb….well let’s face it….he was supposed to be in the freezer last fall, so I guess he’s really now a sheep 🙂 Every time his number comes up we find a reason to hang onto him – he’s a good companion animal….kept the steer company, then a few boy goats company…..just generally makes everybody feel at home and a little less lonely when they’re weaned. We actually call him the Geep. He’s one of those ‘hair’ sheep that you don’t have to shear – makes us think of a cross between a goat and a sheep – therefore – Geep. Sometime within the next couple of days we are having our pregnant Jersey heifer delivered – I’m assuming Bruce will want to save the Geep from walking the plank yet one more time, so he can keep her company for awhile in her new home.
So back to the never-ending story…….where were we? Ah yes, the AWOL pig – bear with me here.
At some point – a person has to sit down and figure out where to draw the line – where you stand on things – and if it’s worth fighting for.
I’ve always been a very black and white person – things are right, or they are wrong – I want to do things ‘this’ way, not ‘that’ way….. there is no in between. My efforts at trying to stick to the plan of homesteading the old way were being stymied at every turn – I now found myself having to seriously think about just how ‘black or white’ I could get away with being. Was it really fair to expect my daughter to deal without having a microwave – after all a small child needs to eat ‘now’ not when the cook stove gets going….. was it fair to expect everybody to deal with frozen clothes off the line instead of caving in and picking up a functioning dryer? I began to wonder if it was worth all the lost minutes of my life to run around flipping off light switches and lecturing on the waste of hydro. The thing is….in my head anyway, it was the POINT of the matter. I did not want hydro. It mattered little that hydro here is not that expensive, I simply didn’t want to rely on it to go down the road.
We looked at wind, we looked at solar, I found myself laying awake at night thinking ‘electricity comes from the ground and goes back to the ground’ and maybe Tesla was onto something. Truly, I can be fairly stubborn about things – there had to be a way. By now we had kerosene lamps – the non pressurized kind where you have to fiddle with the things until the mantle settles down – and never ever leave them unattended as the minute you turn your back they flare up and run away and burn down your house….and we had the good old fashioned wick style. It’s daffy really – whether you’re paying for hydro or paying for kerosene – you’re still paying. But again – it was the POINT.
It came to me one day, once I finally realized that unless I won the lottery there would be no wind turbine spinning in my yard and no solar panel following the sun, that really – what the whole issue boils down to – is not how much of a system do you need to produce the hydro you want to use, but rather how little can you use to start with. It’s all about what you can shut off. So I now found myself canning more food – stuff stores in jars forever, thereby eliminating at least one freezer. I still don’t own a dryer, and my electrical appliances are limited to a toaster, a coffee pot (though I use a percolator on the stove when I can), a food dehydrator which I run in the summer on occasion, an old food processor for when I make pesto or tomato sauce and when I can find one that still works, a wringer washer. Of course there’s the tv – that – we could do without, and my computer – which until a reliable internet service landed in our area, mostly gathered dust. That’s it. There are a few other things kicking around but I honestly can’t remember the last time I plugged them in. I keep the freezer packed full – usually I have it down to one only unless we process a beef, pig or chickens, and one is on the outside porch because come winter, you don’t have to have it plugged in.
The old gas wall furnace has long since been relegated to the scrap yard, and we had the gas meter removed because they charge you for the privilege of having the thing bolted to the wall of your house whether you use it or not. We heat and cook strictly with wood – this drives the fire insurance people absolutely bonkers (they want you to have some sort of back up heat system) and drives the price of fire insurance through the roof -really, am I’m winning the battle there? Of course along with the commitment to strictly rely on wood – comes the understanding that in the winter, there is absolutely no leaving the house unattended to travel anywhere at all aside from work – not unless you want to come home to burst plumbing and a frozen flood. There also comes the understanding, that there isn’t a single day to be had, where you don’t have to split wood, carry wood, clean up after the wood – the monthly cleaning of the chimney, the dumping of the ashes and so on.
So no furnace, no electric stove, no crock pot, no toaster oven. It’s a steep learning curve – relying on wood to cook with – this lever goes that way to make the oven come up, that lever goes this way to open the draft – making bread becomes a dance of turning loaves front to back, moving them up onto the rack or down to the bottom of the small oven, swapping them left to right – still, to me it’s worth it – and Bruce swears there is no better bread to be had….mind you that’s likely because I always bring him a huge slice of crust slathered with an artery clogging amount of butter as soon as the bread is out of the oven.
Still, we have not yet cut the cord to the hydro company – if we were on our own without livestock, we could probably pull it off. The thing about having livestock – is at some point you have to have hydro. Yes you can plod through the snow drifts in the winter with pails of water and chop the ice out of the buckets, but there are only so many hours in a day – heated water buckets are a godsend. Yes you can time your breeding program so all the little goats and pigs and such are born in the spring – but in our experience it seldom works out that way – we’ve hung more heat lamps than I can remember to keep piglets warm, baby goats from shivering, baby chicks from simply freezing to death on the floor. If your big old sow is in a raging heat and you’re tired of her chasing you around the pen because she doesn’t care who takes care of the job – you give up and send her in to meet the big old boar – with little concern for when the piglets will come, you’re just relieved that for the next few months she won’t be terrorizing you every three weeks or so.
So in the end, the hydro issue has become a grey area in my life – I’ll never stop working out how to ‘cut the cord’ as Bruce says, but at the same time – when I have chickens to pluck, that electric plucker makes it a job you can finish in a couple of days – instead of weeks. We actually can go without electricity in the house altogether for more than a few days – we have a lot of outages in the winter especially, and there have been times when we weren’t even aware it was out until someone noticed the fridge isn’t humming away. We just simply carry on – water can be boiled on the stove for a quick bath, food still gets cooked, the place stays warm. We did finally cave in and hook a generator up to the barn – a random series of outages one winter had us in a panic over three litters of piglets in the barn freezing – the generator is hooked up in such a fashion we can disconnect from the grid and simply run the barn hydro until we get power back on.
Water – or lack of it, remained an issue. Drilling a well is incredibly expensive, and our ever increasing herd of two legged and four legged livestock finally had us install another cistern in the barn – now the water guy could bring enough to fill both at once and the price wasn’t all that much more as he had it on the truck anyway. We still collected all the rain water we could, but now had a system of barrels that would siphon one to the next and so on as they got full – no more standing outside acting like a lightening rod for the free water.
The house itself, remained pretty much as it had since the closing in of the porch – excepting for a new roof – we had discovered after rolling new roofing over the porch to keep stepson dry, that the leak we’d always assumed was a lousy roofing job and lack of decent pitch on the porch itself, was in fact water running in from some mysterious fault in the old shingles on the house – it began running in between the house and the porch, then soaking the new insulation in the ceiling. For the first time since we’d moved in, I finally had to dig out a credit card – there was no waiting on a leaking roof, no paycheck big enough to cover the job. We ordered tin – dark green, thirteen feet six inches long, enough to do the entire house – as it was an odd length it had to be special ordered – a three week wait. A few days before it was to arrive I climbed up on the roof and with an eye to the sky for good weather, tore off the old shingles. The tin arrived on time – five and a half feet too short, and a hideous institutional green that left one feeling queasy just looking at it.
I tried not to lose my cool – I really really did – but I do not tolerate incompetence well. Knowing that terrorizing the delivery man wasn’t going to produce the proper order of tin, I walked away and let Bruce deal with making the call. A few weeks later, and thankfully still good weather, the second order arrived. Right length, still wrong color. I stared at the pile of tin in the driveway and looked up at the sky, looked up at my bare roof and really really made an effort to fall in love with the tacky fifties prison green, tried to imagine it on my roof – and sent it back. When the third delivery arrived three weeks later, I was at work. Bruce called…..’Tin’s here.’
‘Right length, still wrong color, but the ridge cap for the peak is the right color…… the manager’s on his way out here. Wanted to know if there was some way he could talk us into just taking the tin anyway – he’s tired of getting stuck with all this weird color of tin – they can’t send it back. I told him it was up to you. I also told him you drink whiskey.’
I arrive home from work to find the manager of Home Depot standing in my driveway along with a pile of tin I didn’t want and a forty ounce bottle of Gibson’s finest – nervously shooting the breeze with Bruce, keeping his distance as I climbed out of the truck and walked over to the roofing and stared at it. I was tired. I was certain that at some point it was going to rain and there weren’t enough buckets in the world to catch the water that would be pouring into my house. For the life of me I couldn’t comprehend how it was they had managed to get the ridge cap the right color – but not the big sheets. I could imagine some idiot tin stamper at the factory looking over at his buddy ‘Duuudde….check this out – these people want two colors of tin on their roof….’
I gave it up.
‘If you can get us ridge cap that actually matches this crap – I’ll take it.’ I muttered rather nastily – walked over to the tailgate of his truck, plucked up the forty ounce bribe and walked past him into the house. Dark green, I thought – all I wanted was dark green tin – what was so freakin’ complicated about that? I wondered if the whiskey had come out of his pocket or petty cash.
We made it through another winter with more ease than we had the last. The water system didn’t freeze, the grey water cistern now had a heater in it, and Bruce made a sixteen hour round trip to buy an actual jacketed wood furnace that took thirty inch logs – actual logs! The best part – if you stacked them right before you went to work, you would come home to a nice warm house and a fire still burning. The not so best part – there was no running the cook stove and the furnace at the same time without the butter melting right off the tray and yours truly standing in a snowbank in shorts and a t-shirt trying to cool down. I solved most of the issue by simply raising the tin cover on the wood heater and cooking on the steel of the actual stove. If I needed to use the oven in the cook stove, Bruce was instructed to ‘let the damn furnace go out!’
Come spring, Bruce started to make noises about getting a couple of weaner pigs to raise up for the freezer. By now, stepson had decided, on a trip home over Christmas, that the comforts and convenience of his other home made his life a whole lot easier – and chose to stay put. Down one cavernous hollow legged mouth to feed, I wasn’t clear on why we needed two pigs….pointed out that we really had nowhere to house them….and then did what I’ve been doing for ten years to the poor man – took the idea, altered it into one of my own and ran with it.
‘Really, what we need is a pregnant sow.’
‘A pregnant sow? I don’t know anything about pregnant sows….or baby pigs….I know how to raise a weaner pig up to slaughter weight.’
‘But think of it – she’ll litter out, we’ll raise two for us and sell the rest….and then ours will technically be free!’
‘Free.’ The idea appealed to him. He spent some time thinking on it, I spent some time reassuring him that really, there wasn’t much to it, after all, when I was a kid, we had pigs on our farm – pregnant sows and all – and as luck would have it, there was a man down the road not too far, who had pregnant sows for sale.
I sent him off to have a look at them – not once did it dawn on me that maybe I should tag along – he returned with good news. He’d picked one out, she was indeed very pregnant and the sooner we could pay for her and pick her up the better. (Something learned in retrospect – never deal with a farmer who is in a hurry to get rid of livestock – I’m positive that man seen Bruce coming from a mile away.)
We proceeded to shuffle the goats to a new spot on the property (actually the wood shed) and turned their old quarters into a pig shed by installing a sturdy gate. Bruce had some concerns about how we would get her from the stock trailer to the shed, but after I explained they generally take the path of least resistance, we simply propped up a few pallets and sheets of plywood – making a ‘path’ of sorts from where he would park the trailer, through the space between a couple of other buildings and around the corner where I figured she’d simply waltz into her new home.
The dust had barely settled before Bruce headed off to collect momma pig with the neighbors borrowed trailer. My daughter, grandson and I waited for his return. And waited – and waited. I figured they might be having some trouble loading her, that, or Bruce had lost track of time, as men often do – and was standing around jawing with the previous owner. Finally – he returns and slowly backs the trailer down the drive and comes to a stop at our makeshift ‘pig run’ project. He gets out of the truck and slowly walks around to the back of the trailer – he does not look excited. He does not look happy. He is white as a ghost.
‘This isn’t going to work’ he motions to the plywood and pallet run. ‘I need a hammer and some nails and some stronger boards.’
Daughter plucks grandson off the ground and backs away from the trailer.
‘What for?’ I’m confused, I am not getting the sudden change in mood.
‘Well she’s a lot bigger than I remember – and she’s next to crazy. We just about couldn’t load her.’
‘Oh for crying out loud!’ I brush him off. ‘She’ll be fine, open the door.’
Truth be known, I had no idea whether she’d be fine or not, but I did know, we didn’t have any stronger boards, and we didn’t have all weekend to construct something out of logs, at some point, the neighbor would want his trailer back – and if nothing else, momma pig would need to be fed and watered and I wasn’t much interested in opening the door to the big horse trailer and pitching food in while she tried to escape.
Obviously, I looked a lot more confident than I felt – Bruce finally opened the door to the trailer and stood back. I heard a grunt. Then another. Then at last, out comes momma pigs’ enormous head. She swings it right, then left, her beady little eyes taking in the lot of us before she looks down to judge the distance to the ground. I school my expression to one of pleasant interest. ‘Just leave her be – she’ll make up her own mind when she wants to come out.’
The reality? I had never before seen such a large pig in my life – nor have I since. It took no time at all for me to realize we now owned a very pregnant sow that was probably on her last litter, maybe five years old, maybe six or seven, I had no idea. All of my preconceived notions of pig ownership, all of my childhood recall was of next to no use at the moment as I stood and waited to see what would happen next – with no idea whatsoever of what we would do should five hundred pounds of irritated, overheated, suspicious sow decide to go off like a renegade rocket. Oddly enough – she didn’t make a liar out of me after all – she simply dropped her enormous bulk down out of the trailer and efficiently marched her way through the maze of pallets and boards – paused in the pen for a quick bite of grass, then hopped up into the shed, Bruce right behind her to close the gate with a firm bang.
We all crowded up to the gate and studied her as she investigated her new surroundings, sampled some grain, tested the water, pushed around some sawdust. ‘When is she due?’ I finally thought to ask – all plans of having her in a nice farrowing crate to avoid the inevitable lay over on the piglets – going right out the window. A farrowing crate – should we build one to suit, would have taken up half the shed.
‘July or August.’
‘Huh?’ I was caught totally off guard – recalling my dad knowing the exact date our sows were due as he made sure to be present as they were bred. I felt a definite sense of alarm. ‘When did he put the boar in?’
After thinking on it a minute, Bruce came up with a three week window where the man had left the boar in with the sow. My stomach did a flip-flop, this was something I was totally unprepared for. I did not want to come home from work one random day to find a litter of piglets on the floor, half likely crushed by a tired and stupefied sow after a long labor in the heat. Doing my best to calculate, knowing that the sow wouldn’t have tolerated the boar for a whole three weeks if she hadn’t been in heat and serviced at the beginning of the time frame, I came up with a two day window where I figured she would likely litter out.
‘Well.’ I said with as much practicality as I could. ‘There’s no farrowing crate in the world big enough to hold her – you best be making friends with your new pig.’
‘And how do you suggest I do that?’ Bruce looked very very doubtful.
‘Eggs.’ I recalled as kids my brother and I swiping eggs from the hen house and getting the sows to do tricks for them. ‘That pig will follow you off a cliff for an egg.’
We named her Hammy – at the suggestion of Bruce’s daughter, who pointed out that we could then call the baby pigs ‘Hamlets’. Truthfully, Hammy turned out to be a reasonably mellow, easy going sow who liked scratches, loved eggs and veggies and fruit and as long as you didn’t startle her, moved around at the pace of a snail. I couldn’t blame her really, as her pregnancy progressed, her belly nearly touching the ground, her short legs looking like they’d barely hold her up another minute longer – I figured she was entitled to laze around all she liked. As the summer progressed and the temperature climbed we began to make a point of putting the hose nozzle on ‘mist’ and cooling her down at least twice a day – it seemed to calm her down some as she had taken to dumping her water bucket and laying on the wet floor to escape the heat. As her theoretical due date approached I began to worry that I had miscalculated – it seemed to me each time I stopped by the pen, that she couldn’t possibly get any larger and I spent many a visit watching her sleep, wondering if the pauses in her breathing and the heaving of her belly signaled imminent labor or not. There was the distinct feeling we had bitten off more than we could chew – having a sow bred to litter out in the heat of summer is an asinine idea to start with – as you are going to have to over-winter the litter to get them to slaughter weight. Fine idea if you have a heated indoor facility – not so much if they’re going to be outside burning off all of the calories you’re pouring down their throats, in an effort to stay warm. Still, there was no going back – I made sure we had iron on hand for the shots, clippers for the wolf teeth, lots of barn towels, kept her fed and watered and waited.
I was in the house one day, elbow deep in a weeks worth of bread dough, when the back door slammed open with a crash.
‘We have an awol pig!!! She’s running past the woodpile right now!!’ Bruce was gone before I could even respond.
I’ve often said that farming consists of long long days of hard work and drudgery interspersed by occasional and unexpected moments of sheer panic – this was one of those moments. I allowed myself a brief moment to consider the consequences of an over heated terrified pregnant pig running amok, and instructed my daughter to grab a dozen eggs, have Bruce grab a bucket of grain, then snatched up my grandson and marched out the door in time to see Hammy round the log pile at an unbelievable speed at an alarming list of about twenty degrees. Her short little legs carried her straight down the driveway, her bulk heaving and hoeing in every which direction until with an enormous SPLOOSH! she charged into the swamp out past the pig shed.
Parking my grandson in a safe spot with instructions to ‘stay put!’, I hauled on my rubber boots and made my way to the stagnant bog. Hammy, in absolute glory – was now plowing her head under the water and steam-boating around, blowing bubbles and lifting huge clods of muck from the bottom to fling them about – back and forth from one end to the other – dropping her bulk to commando along the muddy bottom, squeaking and grunting her pleasure at finally being able to cool off. Bruce stood on the opposite side with a bucket of grain, daughter stood on the near side with a dozen eggs as I assessed the situation and tried to come up with a way to convince a very pregnant and now very happy sow that it was in her best interests to exit the swamp and return to her shed.
We tried coaxing, cajoling, waving eggs about, shaking the grain bucket – no luck. Nothing to be done for it but go in after her. I figured the water was deeper than my boots were tall, and I was right. Giving up on the idea of staying dry I simply sloshed and slopped my way over to Hammy, carton of eggs in hand and set about distracting her from her mission. I managed to feed her one, then another, slowly leading her in the right direction until at last she spied Bruce and the grain bucket. Still, she was reluctant to leave her haven of mud and water – I finally made my way around to her rear and with a series of alternating taps on each half of her behemoth behind and the odd nudge with my knee she gave up the game and headed for the grain. Once on dry land she simply followed Bruce back to the shed – apparently none the worse for wear.
If I recall, we had been letting her out into the small pen adjoining the shed – seems to me she simply decided to walk right through the fence – an easy feat for a tank like Hammy.
I wasn’t far off in my estimation of her due date, of course it was the hottest weekend of the year, I checked on her in the morning to see her laying flat out in the cool clay just outside of her gate and decided we would take a quick run into town for groceries. On our return, as I was packing the food into the house, Bruce came running from the shed.
‘Three so far – she’s in the shed laying by the door!’
Being an older pig, I figured things would proceed at a reasonably quick pace, and although the minutes between piglets seemed long, she did just fine. Some four hours later, we had a litter of fourteen – fourteen! They all seemed healthy, all had figured out where the chow line was and all we had left to do for the moment was make sure she didn’t lay down and flatten any of them. After some urging on our part to ‘get up’, Hammy rolled to her feet, drank down half her water – then as we held our breath – slowly backed her rear into a corner of the shed, slowly dropped her front end to the floor, and giving the piglets plenty of time to get out of the way – finally settled her rear to the floor as well before squirming over onto her side to nurse. Were very relieved – and quite excited at the prospect of having at least twelve to sell once they reached slaughter weight.
I myself, was happy that finally – we actually had livestock on the farm – producing livestock, money making livestock, and up and coming food in our freezer that we had raised ourselves. Next up – meat birds. We had begun construction on the barn, placing it between the pig shed and the layer shed – post and beam this time, Bruce had always wanted to build something with post and beam. I had visions of dozens of roasters pecking their way to seven or eight pounds in twelve weeks – visions of people lining up to buy our grain fed chicken. Without realizing it, I had drifted onto the farming train, instead of the homesteading train but at the time it mattered little. I wanted progress, we were making progress.
At some point, daughter and her hubby made their peace and decided to get back to the business of getting along and raising their son together. Once again Bruce and I were left to ourselves – it was an odd thing to get used to – the place seemed overly quiet and suddenly I found myself with actual extra time on my hands. Less cooking, less bread making, less grocery shopping, less laundry. Bruce, used to having small fry follow him about like a shadow, found himself missing the constant chatter. Of course we got over it, there was no shortage of construction to finish before winter, no shortage of buckets of water and grain to pack out to the ever growing litter of pigs. Ever the optimists, we figured we had things under control. Our firewood was split and stacked, our goats were all pregnant, the layers were supplying us with lots of eggs and we had taken deposits on some of the pigs. Mother Nature could throw whatever kind of winter she wanted at us – we were more than ready.
Stay tuned……next up? The North Wall – who forgot to attach it to the house?