We are still trying to wrap our heads around the Fall season that was 2019. The weather kept us guessing, and the season finale came in the form of a two-day blizzard that dropped about 2 feet of snow and blew huge drifts into our yard, mid-October. As if Mother Nature was saying: Here, just give up. But it isn’t that simple – there are jobs that need to be completed before Old Man Winter moves in, and we had already lost about 2-3 weeks in cold, rainy weather that didn’t allow us to keep plugging away at those necessary Fall tasks as we would have liked.
The honey season was largely a bust, with our second lower-production year in a row. The dry weather and ‘late’ start to the plants gave way to a trickling nectar supply come late Summer, the time when we depend on the bees to bring in the honey from perennial pasture and hayland flowers. By the time we were doused with inches of rain in September and October, it was too late. We only recently got the hives all back to our main farmyard, where they overwinter outdoors, wrapped up in insulated ‘jackets’ to protect them from moisture and winds. The honey we did get, however, was great and we do foresee likely having enough to supply our retailers through the coming year along with some direct sales to our customers.
This Fall, things started to break, all at the same time. I mean, things are sort of constantly on the edge of repair here on a farm where we are using old machinery and vehicles, homemade and used infrastructure and a lack of adequate daylight hours to adequately maintain all things during the busy season. Trucks, quads, things we depend on to do our work, demanded mechanical care and of course, money. Our main laptop is at the precipice of complete shutdown, and has an extremely excruciating habit of spontaneously restarting without warning…I am thinking that for the amount we rely on a computer to do our work, it’s time for investment into a new one. (This initially seems like a ridiculous thing to spend so much money on, but then I consider that any other ‘real’ job outside of farming would not tolerate a work tool that is so ineffective and inefficient. I could likely shave off one to two hours of lost time per week in having a working laptop.)
Our livestock guard dog, Bea, began making regular roaming trips from her sheep flock to our nearby town, where she discovered a new group of humans who liked to pet and feed her on demand. As a working dog, though she receives food and care here at home, we have tried to strictly maintain a policy of keeping her bond with the sheep she is guarding stronger than the bond with the humans in her life, to help prevent patterns like this from happening. For better or for worse, her disposition has always been to be very affectionate with people, and therefore when her roaming became a regular occurrence, we were concerned that her career as a Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) may be over. We are in a period of waiting to see what her best role or home will be, and hoping she can potentially mentor a successor pup without teaching it inappropriate things. We really love Bea, and will do whatever is the best for her but also for our farm. (If you hear of a farm or rural homestead that could use a friendly non-working yard dog, please let us know.)
In addition to this, our rural community and many nearby have experienced an irregular increase in theft crime, this Fall. What I now know to have been our incredible privilege of never locking our doors, vehicles or worrying about trespassers, is history now. Though it was an unnerving feeling to be vulnerable to strangers looking for ATVs, vehicles, guns, fuel and other valuable items they could steal, we saw our community members come together to help each other out with a nightly neighbourhood watch – part of the reason that we were seeing the crime was undoubtably due to the distance we are from RCMP detachments. Fear also inevitably creates anger, and sentiments of “otherness” that are problematic if confirmed and encouraged by peers and groups of people. We have had to get a lot ‘smarter’, and that is not all bad, though we see the effects of distrust when community members begin to tail each other’s unrecognized vehicles at night. It has been a strange and vulnerable time, when farmers who are already feeling the disappointment of a hard season are pushed further along towards a breaking point.
We are thinking of our farming friends and neighbours who have suffered much worse than we have, whether it’s grain farmers struggling to get their crop off the field (and then to dry it off once they do), livestock folks having run out of pasture by late Summer, or those that had to deal with not having power for a number of days (or weeks, in some cases). We feel fortunate to have been able to have been grazing our livestock without supplemental hay, and the cattle will likely be able to graze longer than ever, into December (the sheep only received supplemental hay this past week). I can see that part of this is due to Troy’s management of the pastures, that have consistently provided more to us each year. Winter feed is one of the largest costs in our grass-based livestock operation, and every day that the animals can be grazing rather than consuming valuable feed represents major savings. Plus, they prefer to graze over any other way of eating.
I think it is important to try to communicate, particularly to our friends and customers in the city, some of the challenges that are very real that can happen to those of us in rural communities. I’ve seen the spirits of my neighbours deflated over the past couple of months, as I work at my family’s ranch supply (my off-farm job). But alas, before you turn away in disgust with our sad sob-story, know that we also had some very positive things happen this Summer and Autumn!
When we are feeling down, we can always look forward to our monthly Farm-to-Eater deliveries to help us to feel re-energized and inspired. The support we have received from our customers this season has been better than ever, and we really want all of you who take the time to order from us and then come out to pick it up and have a chat with us, to know that this is so appreciated. We met some new customers this Fall at the Harvest Moon Festival farmer’s market in Clearwater, and continue to see new faces (along with the tried and true) each month in Winnipeg. We are so honoured to have more local rural friends and neighbours contact us to make orders, these ones make our hearts especially warm. The community-owned Clearwater Junction restaurant has featured Fresh Roots Farm grassfed beef as a special – check them out! We are proud of where we have come with the business over the past year, and where it can take us going forward. We really like that we’ll be expanding our subscription models, such as our Meat Share (grassfed beef and lamb) and eggs from hens raised on pasture. A raw honey subscription might also be in the works (here’s looking at you, crazy honey fiends)!
Despite the challenging weather, we have been able to knock most of the necessary winter-prep jobs off of our list. One exciting one for me was the moving of our chicken coop, to a better location in our farmyard. Form, function and efficiency are all things that we are learning make a great deal of difference to the chores that make up our daily lives, and we sometimes need to try and improve these systems, when we can make the time for it. We also were very lucky to be able to host a group of Architecture students from the University of Manitoba (pictured above), who came to our farm for 4 days in October to lend us a hand and discuss how our lives and work are different, and how they collide. It is very cool to see academics from outside the sphere of agriculture step outside of the ivory tower and take interest in food production, listen to our story, and take that back with them to inform their work and studies. Likewise, we learned a lot from them, and were happy to have their ideas about design as feedback for our farm.
We have such great supports around us, it’s really incredible. We are thankful to have child care 3 x a week, and Troy and I take turns with a lot of the domestic and child care duties the rest of the time. The shorter days and hours of daylight necessitate us not pushing ourselves quite as hard as we do in Spring and Summer, and our bodies will thank us for this. Still, there is always countless hours in administrative or marketing work that can be done indoors, and so more of our energy can go towards this.
As for the livestock and bees, all seem overall quite healthy, and for that we are super thankful. We ourselves are all fairly healthy as well – our son Sydney has somehow avoided any major sickness thus far – and Troy has had much better health this year, than last (when he endured a major surgery). We’re both really tired, exhausted from a long stretch of working without a lot of rest, but we know we have a special time of rest quickly approaching…
That brings us to our Fall Finale – HOLIDAY! We often try to do a short little holiday after the busy season ends, usually a modest couple of days somewhere in Manitoba, but this year we have a 2-week holiday to Mexico planned. Invited by some friends who each have one baby, this will be our first time traveling as parents, and our first time flying internationally together in 6 years. I admit that I do have guilt about flying off on a plane to a faraway beach – it feels like it does not fit within our goals of trying to lower our carbon footprint, and that it is too frivolous or luxurious an act for people with environmentally-focused goals. All the same, I’m choosing to enjoy the experience, and also believe that we do deserve the chance to be far away from the incessant work that is our farm, in order to recharge our bodies and minds for when we return. We are planning on eating all of the fresh seafood (and tacos, obviously), soaking up the sun (we haven’t seen it here in months) and having a great time as a family, with some great friends. We will not be responding to messages during this time (the end of November) so please have patience with us, as we will try our best to catch up with all correspondence from customers once we return.
Of course, I have to mention Sydney, who has become quite a chatterbox in the past few months! We don’t always understand everything he says, but it’s the effort that counts. He still likes driving his tractors around, has a few stuffed animals that have become fast companions (ugh, my heart) and wants to be ‘helping’ with almost anything we do, inside or outside of the house. We are seeing signs of his “two-ness”, which is really interesting and only slightly challenging, so far. Ramped up emotions, developing his interests and dislikes, and of course, declaring his independence. It’s all part of the ride and we love it and can’t wait to do lots of activities with him this Winter, when he can be more active and engaged than the last.
Oh, and as for books we’ve been enjoying, I’m still working through “Nourishment” by Fred Provenza (really good) though one of the most impacting books I’ve read (listened to, by audiobook, technically) is “On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal” by Naomi Klein. I have enjoyed all of her books, and this one spoke to my need to learn more about the climate crisis, while not pushing me into deep despair; it contains some hope and provides suggestions for ways that we can act, and more importantly, pressure those with political and economic influence to take action. Troy has been delving into “Grassfed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef“ by Julius Ruechel which is, well, what it says it is, but quite thorough and helpful. I also recently enjoyed Kristin Kimball’s newest memoir called “Good Husbandry”, which follows her adventures in developing and running a viable whole-diet CSA-based farm in New York state. It’s an especially great read for farmers who are struggling with the challenges of how to run a working farm business, while being a parent and trying to maintain interpersonal dynamics with a partner and farm workers all at the same time. It doesn’t over-romanticize farming, and it would be a great read for anyone who is simply intrigued with the incredibly beautiful and terrible things that this livelihood can provide. Kristin’s “Farm Notes” online remind me how important it is to write and record, in an honest but artful way, this way of life. Another great blog is written by our farming friend Teri Jenkins from Brown Sugar Produce, a family that does a great job at making time and efforts to enjoy their work but also taking time from it. I think I need some new fiction in my life, so if any of you have suggestions, please let me know.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, and please let us know if you have feedback or questions about the things you’ve read. We are really looking forward to having a break, and enjoying a Winter season of deliveries, farmer meetings and conferences, family adventures, cups of tea (and beers) with friends. We hope you can all find a way to take care of yourself, especially going into the Holiday season, which can take its toll on many.