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Early Morning Countryside

August 25, 2013

mist

Previous posts have highlighted the natural beauty of the Bruce Peninsula and the Niagara Escarpment that lie just a few a few kilometers north of the farm. However, the local rural countryside, though not perhaps as dramatic as the Peninsula, has its own subtle beauty.  This beauty is especially evident on an early morning August ride with a hint of fall in the air….

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The Sauble River, just upstream of the farm. Though muddy and slow-moving, it’s a healthy watercourse that supports a diverse wildlife population.

turtle

Example: a turtle forages for its breakfast under a clump of floating algae. This beast was nearly the size of a dinner plate – some research will be needed to see if its species can be determined.

road

Back in the 1800s, when England was granting farm acreages to settlers, most of southern Ontario was carved up into a vast geometric grid of land concessions. As this land opened up, hypothetical grid lines on a map became real access roads, still used today: dead straight and often (though not always) monotonous.

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Two horses trot towards me in their pasture, hoping perhaps for a treat. Biting flies have been fierce this year, hence the masks they both wear to protect their eyes (they can see through them). Horses are expensive. They’re “hay vacuums” as my friend says and their vet bills can be enormous. But despite this, the majority of farms seem to keep a few – apparently just for the love of them.

farm for sale

“Farm for Sale” signs are not an uncommon sight up here. The kids of most local farmers have no interest in taking on the family business. So when farmers retire, most properties go up for sale and their fates can vary . Many will be absorbed by existing cash crop operations to produce corn and soy (a.k.a. industrial agriculture). Others though may be bought (or rented) by a trickle of young people interested in small-scale farming, or by the growing Mennonite community.

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And speaking of corn and soy, a large field of each hugs a rise of land…

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… and a heron departing a roadside pond with its breakfast near these fields reminds me it’s time to return home for mine.

Catching Up

August 12, 2013
This year's garlic

This year’s garlic

Well, summer is almost over (someone had to say it) and here I am finally with the first post of the season.  A serious case of writer’s block was to blame combined with the kind of procrastination stress you suffer when you haven’t called up a friend in a long time (the longer you wait, the more awkward and difficult it gets).  But whatever, time to catch up!

The Garden

As gardeners everywhere will acknowledge, each year yields success, failure and surprise, which is part of what makes the process so enjoyable. On the success front, the garlic harvest has been wonderful. Planting the cloves last year where beans (nitrogen fixers) grew the previous season seems to have paid off. The bulbs are big, meaty and flavourful. Some of the healthiest specimens will be set aside to plant this fall for next year’s crop.

The big failure of the year was a preliminary attempt to grow hops, an aromatic vine-growing flower that is used as a flavouring and bittering agent in beer.  A friend who is a chemist by day and a home brewer by night suggested that hops would be good to grow.  We could use them to make a quality home brew of our own and there was the potential to sell them to local home brew stores and perhaps even micro-breweries.  Intrigued, I ordered a hop rhizome on-line back in May for an extortionate price and planted it along a fence line. Checking on it the next day,  I found that something had dug it up and enjoyed chewing it into a sodden mass. Not surprisingly, attempts at replanting it were not successful. However, we’ll be back for more next year though this time with some planting protection.

The surprise of the year was a sole black currant bush on the property which I’d given up for dead but offered up a scant cup of precious currants. There should be just enough of them to make one (very) small jar of jam – a treat to open one winter Sunday morning.

precious few...

precious few…

Bird Life

For the first time this year I stopped putting feed out for wild birds during the late spring and summer months. Knowing no one was going to go hungry with the abundance of natural food, I was curious to see how the absence of the feeder would affect the local population. And while one summer’s observation can’t be called statistically valid, it does seem there’s been a significant increase in the diversity of species around the farm this year. In the previous summer, we were inundated with a large flock of pretty, though aggressive goldfinches that appeared to intimidate more passive songbird species from appearing. However, birds I hadn’t seen here before, including Eastern Phoebes and Song Sparrows are now a common sight (or sound).

Another new avian visitor this year is the Catbird. Though not uncommon in this area, they have a reputation for being elusive and shy of people. However, the individual in this video has been practically haunting me over the past week when I sit outdoors or work in the garden!

Channelling Elvis through a Stray Hen

May 29, 2013

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One evening last week while I was planting potatoes behind the house, my cell phone rang. It was my neighbour Paul, who lives at the end of the laneway.

“One of your chickens is outside my front door,” he said, “I tried to catch her but she’s too quick.”

Two days earlier, I’d picked up six Rhode Island Red layers. Today was their first day out of the pen to free range and one of them was clearly the adventurous type. I hurried down to Paul’s place, but after five minutes of trying to corner her, we gave up and left her to her ramblings. It’s funny what a little experience brings. Last year with the first bunch of hens, I’d have been frantic if one of them had strayed off the property and would have spent the evening trying to capture her.  This year however, I was confident she could be left to figure it out  and head home when it began to grow dark (which she did).

Paul decided we needed a restorative after our efforts and invited me in for a drink which I was happy to agree to. Because we both work and Paul’s job involves shifts, we generally only see each other in passing – a wave, a quick remark about the weather. So this was a nice opportunity to sit down and have a bit of a real chat. And as well, I’d heard from another neighbour that Paul has a somewhat unusual hobby which I wanted to ask him about..

As it turned out, I didn’t have to bring up the topic. As soon as we were comfortably settled into chairs with glasses of wine, Paul asked, “so have you ever sung any Karaoke?”  I confessed I hadn’t though I had always wanted to get up enough nerve give it a try. “I’ve heard though, Paul that you’re really into it and even do shows.”

“Ah, you’ve been talking to John [another neighbour],” he laughed and motioned with his head to a large photo on top of the TV which I hadn’t noticed before. It was a full length of Elvis in his late Las Vegas period – white sequined suit and boots, jet black hair and enormous sideburns. “”That’s me at last summer’s festival,” he said,  “I’ve let my hair go back to gray since. I’m not sure whether to dye it this year or just wear a rug.”

So the rumour was true: my neighbour was an Elvis impersonator. I asked him how he’d got into it. “It all started five years ago when I sang Karaoke at a social night at a work conference I was attending:, he said. “I got hooked immediately, started practising in a serious way and specialized in Elvis whose music I love. And the impersonation thing just followed from that.”

Paul then took down a garment bag that was hanging in a corner of the room and unzipped it. Inside was the white sequined suit that appeared in the photo with the white boots neatly tucked into the bottom. For one awful moment I thought he was going to ask me to try it on.  But instead he said, “so enough of this – it’s time for you to give it a try!” He showed me into the next room where he had another huge TV and an enormous sound system plugged into it.

“So what do you want to sing?” he said, leafing through an album of CDs. I confess I was bit disappointed. Pauls’ tastes run toward the crooner style. In my Karaoke fantasy, I saw myself bringing the house down with something like David Bowie’s Heroes. But the selection here ranged from Tony Bennett to Frank Sinatra – not really my thing and very difficult to sing.

“I know,” he said, sensing, my unease, “how about a little Dean Martin? How about Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime? Why not, I thought. It’s pretty simple, can’t be more than two octaves, I should do a good job of it.

However, I didn’t. I couldn’t get the tempo down, or follow the lyrics on the prompter, or carry the tune. It was pathetic, though strangely fun at the same time. “You did very well,” said Paul kindly, “it’s not easy getting all the pieces to work together. I think I’ll do a Roy Orbison tune. It’s good to work with other artists so you don’t get stale.”

He then launched into Pretty Woman. Not a cheesy impersonation of Roy Orbison singing it, but his own interpretation of the song with slightly different phrasing and in his own deeply resonant voice. He was great.

As I was leaving to go be sure the stray hen had in fact made it home, Paul invited me to come see him perform at an upcoming Legion dance. John by the way will also be there – he runs the sound panel at most of Paul’s shows.

I will definitely go. If Paul sings Elvis the way he sings Roy, it will be wonderful.

Night Music

April 29, 2013

The warm weather has brought out the frogs in abundance! This video was recorded at midnight near the river’s edge. Two (maybe three?) different calls can be heard.  If you’re interested, try identifying them from the recordings posted on Ontario Frog Calls .

The Polish Soldier Tree

April 22, 2013

The search begins….

When Poland was invaded and occupied by Germany at the outset of World War II, the exiled Polish government established itself in England.  Part of this government’s activities during that period involved negotiating with Canada and the United States to recruit and train North American volunteers of Polish descent for the Polish armed forces.

The turmoil and tragedy of the war certainly affected this corner of the world. However, it seems unlikely that there would be a local connection to such negotiations. But there is, and the history of that connection is partially retained by an old, obscure  American Beech. Early this morning I combined a hike with a treasure hunt to search out that tree. It was beautiful morning for doing so; sunny with the temperature hovering at 0’C, but promising to reach 10’C by midday. The search began on a ridge trail winding through a stand of young hardwoods.

Heavy rains and a week of above freezing temperatures have removed the major snow cover. Last night however, an inch fell and the remains were still present in shaded nooks and crannies below and in the shadow of the ridge. In one such spot, the snow revealed two night-time  travellers, a Red Fox and a Snowshoe Hare, apparent companions in their wanderings (although more likely travelling at different times or perhaps fox in pursuit of hare..?)

Red Fox and Snowshoe Hare Prints

This portion of the trail remains shaded and chilly for a good kilometer as it hugs the base of the escarpment. The dolomite rock outcroppings here though are beautiful..

Rock outcrop

Dolostone

Just before the trail leaves the ridge and begins its descent, I come across a stream literally flowing out of the rocks! People often speak and write about the headwaters of a river, but I’ve never actually seen one before.

As the trail leaves the escarpment, the forest changes to a mix of hardwood and balsam, and the ground is saturated. According to the guidebook, the beech I’m looking for is hiding somewhere nearby. And truth to tell, in a forest less than 30 years old, a century old veteran of a previous growth is not  hard to find. There are a half dozen of these gnarled relics left here and the second one I check is it, the Polish Soldier Tree, as it’s known locally.

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The exiled Polish government succeeded in negotiating training and recruitment efforts in North America. In Canada, over 200 men were recruited and here’s the local connection: they received basic and mechanized infantry training at a camp that ran in Owen Sound from May 1941 to May 1942. This wood, or rather the one that existed before it but was logged after the war, formed part of their training ground. And this beech, part of that earlier forest, bears an inscription carved over 70 years ago by one of those soldiers. Though distorted by weathering and the expansion of the tree’s trunk, the words, “Polska” and the year “1942” can be seen clearly. The rest of the wording is less clear, but has been deciphered and translated to reveal the soldier’s name and the words, “Poland shall not perish” (the first words of the Polish national anthem).

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What became of this soldier? Did he fight overseas and did he survive and return to Canada? And if so, did he ever come back to this tree to look at the inscription and recall his time here?

High Water

March 18, 2013

The tug of war between spring and winter is in full swing here with alternating cold snaps and increasingly stronger periods of thaw. This normal seasonal transition is far preferred to last year’s bizarre March heat wave. Though enjoyable in a sit-outdoors-after-dinner way, it decimated the local apple crop (buds erupted in the heat and were killed by a later frost) and cut maple syrup production almost in half. Local syrup producers however report ideal conditions this year. Product is already available at roadside stands and local farmers’ markets (pancakes for breakfast this weekend!).

This year’s thaw has also been a lesson in rising rivers and high water. Last winter (the first for me), there was very little accumulated snow on the ground. As a result, spring melt water only encroached a few metres beyond the river’s normal banks. This year however, flooding was rapid and expansive. Returning home last week after only two day’s absence, I found the river nearly reaching up to the barn and the sump pump in the cellar of the house running overtime. The possibility of this happening wasn’t a surprise. Part of the pasture is situated on a flood plain (a fact in Ontario that must be disclosed when a property is offered for sale) and the previous owners had been very forthright and instructive about what can happen in a very wet spring. “The cellar will get damp but has never flooded – just be sure the sump pump works.”

The Sauble: three times its normal width last week and reaching for the barn

They also advised that the flooding is short-lived and this has certainly been true so far. In only a matter of days, the river pulled itself back to its near normal width, though the bank-side willows still have partially feet wet.

Water receding this week though the Willows are not quite high and dry

These spring flooding events seem to have good points and bad. On the one hand, inundation of the pasture near the barn will be a problem for livestock access. However on the other, I wonder if these floods, like the Nile, deposit fertile silts on the pasture that could increase its productivity – perhaps a flood plain vegetable garden is worth considering…

Plans, Preparations, Deliberations..

March 3, 2013
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Fish Hot Pepper seeds have been started

I’ve delayed this post in order for it not to be a general whinge about the weather, forced inactivity regarding farm work and the like. There’s still plenty of snow on the ground and the temperature is still well below zero (Celsius), but the days are now getting promisingly longer. And so, plans, preparations and deliberations for the spring have begun.

Hens

The sign outside the village feed store says they’re now taking orders for layer hens (another sign of spring!). On Monday, I’ll order a dozen. This is a big increase from last year’s four which will mean adding some additional nest boxes and perches in the hen house, and making sure it’s mink-proof this time around. Figuring that each hen will lay at least every other day means three to four dozen eggs per week can be expected. Hardly enough to grow rich from, but it will be satisfying to begin selling produce at the farm gate.

Starting Seed

The emphasis in the garden this year will be on crops sewn directly into it with a large area devoted to dried beans. These did so well last year and have been so great to have in the kitchen this winter. So last week, a mere dozen each of Black Krim Tomatoes and Fish Hot Peppers were started, although this should be more than enough – the Fish Hots typically yield 200 peppers per plant! Also under the grow lights are two plantings of Mesclun salad greens started in orange crates back in January. This was an experiment prompted by the ridiculous winter price of lettuce. Though I was also curious to see if they’d actually grow and whether this might lead to some sort of small-scale greenhouse operation next winter. They’ve done pretty well and will be part of tomorrow night’s dinner.

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Ready for the table

To Sheep or not to Sheep..?

I confess I’m wavering between bringing in sheep this spring or waiting another year. There’s still a lot of work to do (and expense to bear) to get the entire pasture fenced and the barn completely outfitted and winterized.

Or Perchance to Pig instead..?

But, an alternative and simpler livestock option is being considered – pigs!  The idea of raising pigs immediately brings to mind miserable, smelly animals enclosed in a muddy pen. However, pigs free-ranged on pasture are clean, happy and yield leaner, tastier pork. Last year, my friend’s daughter raised them as part of her market garden operation (we bought a quarter pig from her) with great success. We’re now thinking of sharing the purchase of four Berkshires, a flavourful, heritage breed. Two pigs won’t require the range of pasture that a small flock of sheep would, so fencing costs could be spread out over two seasons. Pigs are also ready for market in the fall meaning no over-wintering of livestock this season.

The  only real question is a remnant city-dweller one: Pigs are damn cute – how hard will it be to send them to the butcher in September?

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