Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Home on the (free) range

Leaping Lamb Farm 9-06 (calves, produce, U-Latch display) 006
"Free-range" is obviously one of those old time traditions (way of life is probably a more accurate description here) that has become a modern marketing revelation in the grocery stores. These days we like to think whatever animal provided the free-range (eggs, milk, meat, ...) was able to freely go hither and yon- and that makes us feel good, or at least not so bad to be eating...whatever.

Having been on this farm now for three years, it is becoming obvious why animal husbandry took a dim view of wandering domesticates. Probably the wives and cooks were the first to cool to animals on the loose every time the chickens, the sheep, the goats, or the cows found their way into the vegetable garden. Flower gardens are a close second, as there is nothing like looking at a neatly planted row of stems, the flowering heads nibbled off before the deer ever had a chance.

Lest we think these animals know not what they do, I would say, "Think again!" because I am sure the sheep have been keeping a close eye on the garden gate and the chickens, for sure, can't wait until I turn over some new earth and plant something delicate and fragile.

I will readily admit I am not the best of gardeners, since my philosophy of doing something once and moving on to other tasks does not work well when it comes to young plants and weeds. Okay, I really don't like gardening that much. The smell of the earth is nice and the promise of flowers and veggies is a fruitful reward, but the sheep and chickens have pretty much ruined the excitement. It seems every time a bed begins to have potential to burst forth in flower, the chickens either scratch the living daylights out of it or the sheep figure out how to tramp through eating every last leaf.

The sheep barged into the garden this summer two days in a row - once while I had my back turned and the gate not securely fastened; the next day, with memories still fresh of delectable greens, they pushed hard enough the gate hinges ripped out of the old rotted post. First they hit the sunflowers and then the young leaves of the new grape vines we planted for a small vineyard. At least with sheep I can get the dogs to help me corral them and push them in a flock back out the gate, which I did with a big stick yanked out of a vegetable bed...and curses.

The horses were another matter. They didn't break down any gates to get into the garden. They waited for the sheep to do that. Trying to herd our three horses with dogs doesn't work. And, trying to herd three horses who think they should pretend they are wild, while running by (or through) rows of corn, jumping over (or stepping on) newly placed layers of weed cloth for the young grape vines, stopping to rip out whatever green plant they think they can grasp before I get to them with waving arms and shaking fists, well, it's not a pretty sight. The only solution is to lure one of them close enough I can wrap my fingers through a mane, try to reach the old baling twine hanging on the fence, fashion a halter of sorts, and cajole a resistant herd animal to the other side of the garden gate. Three times in all.

"Free range" is still the operative word on the farm this fall. Our locker lambs grow fat in the hay fields and the peacock is no longer chased from the vegetable garden since he finished off all our starts for late season lettuce. But, we became tired of the calls from the neighbors about our cows in their back yards, so they and their calves now reside in the gated barn field. And, our seven new lambs and their moms are secured in the chicken yard with the geese (the hens know how to escape during the day) because there is a coyote on the loose and it is our only area with woven wire fencing from top to bottom. It's a pastoral vision of sorts; however, it is only a matter of time before one or all of the animals are not exactly where I had intended. That's the "free" part of "free range" the grocery store doesn't tell anyone about.

(look closely at the photo - there are chickens hiding in the corn)

All rights reserved. Copyright Scottie Jones 2006

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