Maybe it was the first time I had to wrap my tractor in electric blankets and down sleeping bags at 30 degrees below zero in the middle of a northern Maine snowstorm.
Perhaps it was when I wrangled a chicken so I could clip her nails, which had grown inches too long.
Then again, it could have been the first year I kept honeybees and snowshoed out to the hive every day that winter to feed them a special high-energy food and make sure the hive entrance was free of snow.
I guess it doesn’t matter if it was the tractor, the chicken or the bees. At some point it hit me exactly how much work goes into a non-working farm.
I grew up in a city, so for the longest time my notions of what farms were came from school field trips to working farms during which all the cool stuff — animals, tractors and tools — was kept at a safe distance from us. Visits to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry showed us a plastic cow with a transparent side “producing” milk, and we’d gawk at the taxidermy remains of a two-headed lamb. And, like so many children, I read “Charlotte’s Web.”
So, it’s understandable I grew up believing farms were mysterious places home to synthetic or mutant animals who talked to each other.
We won’t even begin to get into what happened to that belief after I read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
Then I moved to Maine and learned what a real farm — and real work — is.
Living in Aroostook County, I quickly became friends with folks who lived on working potato farms and got to see and experience firsthand the endless hours that go into planting, tending and finally harvesting a commercial potato crop year after year.
I honestly don’t know how they do it, and when Patrick and I moved on to the land that had two generations prior been his own family’s potato farm, we were both more than happy to change the status to non-working.
Even then, I honestly did not appreciate the amount of work that would entail.
Sure, there was the annual gathering of firewood or a weekend here and there spent brushing trails or clearing out downed trees.
But those were projects Patrick and I did together and always had an air of fun and adventure.
After his passing a decade ago, the reality began to settle in.
See, even on the “non working” Rusty Metal Farm there is always something to do.
Thus began my transformation into non-working farmer, which basically translates into unpaid farm hand.
Fallen trees blocking access roads on the farm don’t just disappear, so I learned how to operate the chainsaw and can say with a bit of pride, not only can I saw up and remove fallen trees, I can do so while keeping all of my own limbs intact.
It does help that I wear so much safety gear I look like I’m on my way to diffuse a bomb.
These same roads don’t keep themselves free of growing brush, so I learned how to attach the large mower’s — or “brush hog’s” – hydraulic lines and drive-shaft to the back of the tractor and operate it. And so what if it takes me longer to attach the mower than to do the actual brushing?
In the winter, the snow does not magically remove itself from the driveway. So I learned how to operate a commercial snowblower mounted to the back of the tractor.
I also learned that the diesel that powers the tractor will solidify into a jelly-like consistency when the temperatures fall below zero.
Of course, that’s the kind of lesson you learn as you go, which is why I was outside one night in the middle of a sub-zero storm wrapping that tractor in electric blankets, heating pads, down sleeping bags and every other blanket I could find in an attempt to warm the diesel fuel back up.
The Rusty Metal chickens — all 12 of them — are the closest thing I have to farm livestock and pretty much take care of themselves. I make sure they have food, water, shelter and several hours a day to free range around the yard and in return I get eggs.
The only real work comes in when I clean out their coop and replace old straw with new.
And on what I have come to call “chicken spa day.”
Some chickens, for whatever reason, can’t keep their toenails short and those nails will grow to crazy, curly lengths and must be trimmed.
Unfortunately, crazy curly nails don’t slow a chicken down, so after what can be an hour or so of me trying to catch the bird, there then follows a sort of wrestling-match-meets-pedicure session as I carefully clip each nail while avoiding cutting her toes or having my eyes gouged out.
By the time we are done there are almost as many feathers on me as there are on the unhurt but highly insulted chicken.
Non-working or not, there is not a field trip, museum display or book that could have prepared me for any of it.
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