So, we arrived at the farm in the late winter with a small flock of highly indignant hens and not much else in the way of livestock. The grass was tall and uneaten beneath that light February snow. We sent for catalogs and ordered a batch of Pilgrim geese to inhabit the pasture. They would arrive as 2 day old hatchlings, in a clever, ventilated box, by way of US Mail. And we bought a half dozen Indian Runner ducks at the feed store in Orient.
(Click the picture to make it bigger. ) Indian Runners are a delight. The breed name is not without meaning. Though they are flightless, they can cover an amazing amount of ground in their constant perambulations. They are terrific egg layers, though not such good setters. The hens “quack;” their men do not. And best of all, they eat slugs!
We also bought 10 packages of honeybees, which would each come with their own queen ready to start laying bee eggs as soon as we gave them homes. Pending their arrival, we set to work building and painting hive boxes. The bees were essential to our first year here. The previous owner had been lax in reporting farm income
to the County. Under the guidelines, a farm must report a certain minimum earning at least 3 in 5 years in order to remain a farm for taxing purposes. Our farm had had no income reported for the previous 4 years, which meant we were at the mercy of a generous-minded tax man (imagine that!) who extended our timeline by one year. The problem was, starting as we were in February, what kind of farm crop could we imagine that would mature in time to present us with income by the end of the year? The bees were the answer.
In town we had kept a pair of hives carefully sited behind the garden fence, and we bought off the anxious neighbors with calculated gifts of honey each summer. With confidence born of ignorance, I staved off our concerns about farm income with the
purchase of the 10 colonies of bees. We placed them on the remaining floor of a vanished barn. This was ideal from the standpoint of keeping brush away from the entrances, and gave us a fine spot on which to build a little shed for the equipment.
(Click the picture to make it bigger.) Here’s the bee shed in winter. The bees are all tucked in their beds just now, waiting for more suitable flying weather to come.
Our small-animal inventory was about to expand. One of the first lessons of country life is, when you have a farm, however small, people will give you animals. We had not been long on the acres when we had a call from Vern, a friend from Portland. Vern is a proponent of “edible landscaping.” He designs and plants gardens that can be eaten. Included in the management of such landscapes is small livestock that can be kept in backyards in city zones. Like we had done when we lived in town, he keeps rabbits in hutches at the back of the garden, chickens on roosts beside the vegetables, ducks in a pen with a plastic pond, and so on. Any breed that can be kept in small samples within reasonable suburban confines is likely to have made a sojourn in Vern’s backyard. The manures go to the gardens, the ducks eat the slugs, the hens provide breakfasts, the rabbits dinners, and so on. But occasionally Vern’s enthusiasm exceeds the City’s tolerance for animal density.
“I have 24 hours,” he said this time, “to clear out the animals. Or they’ll assess me $2,000 a day afterward.” I drove to his place after work that evening and parked my car along the curb next to his garden. My car, I should add, was a blue and white 1969 VW microbus. It is, in its way, the perfect vehicle for transporting an ark’s worth of livestock. We began catching animals and stowing them in feed sacks tied shut with string: 3 rabbit does and a buck, a beautiful pair of Toulouse geese, 8 Muscovy ducks whose wings are strong enough to put you down for a 10-count if they catch you upside the head, and a handful of mixed breed laying hens. Each sack contained an animal, and each animal was asserting itself in its own special way. By the time I pulled away from Vern’s place, the aroma inside the bus was heady. As he waved goodbye, Vern said, “You’re going to have to burn that car when you get home.” It wasn’t just the air. The conversation from the back of the bus was unique. The rabbits were thumping. The geese honked and argued with their feed sacks. The Muscovy ducks, who do not quack, nevertheless exhale and hiss in expression of their opinions. The hens were silent except when we rounded a bend that apparently concerned them enough to elicit a cluck or mutter, and the cluck or mutter would set the geese off again. Geese are especially regular in processing food from one end of the system to the other, and by the time I arrived in our own driveway, two of the feed sacks were walking around in the back of the bus on goose feet liberated from confinement by the moisture of their excretions.
Our little farm in the hills had suddenly become populated.
I wonder who’s in here?