Homesteading Failures

Anyone who claims to succeed without some measure of homesteading failure first is either not trying very hard, or lying about it.

Farming, gardening, homesteading, or crofting—all have their times of failure.  Weather, bad advice, or disease can all play a part.  Hasty and ill-thought decisions are equally culpable.

We had settled on a beautiful little parcel of land with a house, a cabin, a sheep shed, and a barn.  It sat in the crook of the river, under the granite face of a mountain.  We were renting for the winter, deciding whether to buy in the spring.  Seven acres, waterfront, mountain view, wood heat with a fireplace.  It was isolated, often visited by deer and moose.  The neighbors were friendly, quiet, and helpful.

The owner was an elderly woman, a widow.  She had fond memories of raising her children on the little farm.  She hadn’t been able to keep up the property after her husband died, so she had moved into town and couldn’t decide whether to sell or rent.  We offered to rent while deciding whether we would buy, and to do some repairs, heat the house, and clean up the property in the meantime.  We put up fences, built stalls, and settled in over the winter, planning summer pasture and a market garden.

We asked our next nearest neighbor if he could show us the property lines.  He indicated the middle of the river, where an occasional island appeared, and that accounted for about half an acre.  Then he paced along the obvious lines between the buildings and pointed to a row of old fence posts.  Puzzled, we asked if that could really be seven acres.

“Oh, she doesn’t have seven acres,” he replied. “She sold the back five acres to some guy from out of the province, so he could get into his hunting camp.  She might have two and a half acres left.”

And half an acre of that was, at the moment, under ice.  We did NOT decide to buy the place.

Next, a friend cheerfully directed us to a property he was acquiring, and the seller was willing for us to move in while they finished negotiations.  The ninety acres—most of it in woods—held a small house, a barn, a decrepit greenhouse, and a (supposed) log cabin back in the forest.  Again we would exchange work for rent.  There was a wood-burning cookstove; there were blueberry barrens, raspberries, and blackberries; apple trees, and a garden space.  Plus, there was all the firewood we could drag home.

The previous owner, though, had gone through a long, angry feud with his neighbors and relatives, and in a fit of alcohol-fueled pique, had bulldozed his fields into massive earthwork barricades.  The topsoil had been scraped off and the garden plot was under three-foot-tall spring grass.  We hung fences, acquired more chickens, repaired the sheds and the porch, and dug the garden.  We looked for local work and were settling in, planning to restore the fields.  I wild-gathered herbs, picked berries, tended sheep and chickens.  The owner came by occasionally, fussing over the gone-wild lilies and roses.

The “log cabin” was a shed-like building that someone had attempted to skid from its wooded location, down a lumber road, and had jammed it between two roadside banks.  It was like the scene in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy’s farmhouse falls out of the sky.

We lost the best cat ever, Jacob, to a bobcat.

I developed an ear infection that sent me to the hospital in the early hours of the morning, put me on antibiotics for ten days, and knocked me clean out of action while I slept and suffered.

As summer progressed and autumn began to claim the green of the maples and birch, the proceedings to acquire the property by our friend collapsed in an ugly barrage of accusations, and we moved on, reeling up the fence, packing animals in the truck, and hauling our 20-foot trailer to a wildland property.  Water came from a spring, firewood was free, and we had ten acres to build on.  But autumn was torrential; the creeks rose, the swamp flooded, and my incipient ear infection became a pulmonary infection, which became pneumonia.  The damp conditions and inadequate heat in our tiny cabin made it impossible for me to recover.  We lived for several months on oatmeal, canned berries, applesauce, beans, potatoes, onions and venison.

The snow came early.

I am a fighter; I don’t give up.  I believe in prayer and determination, and soon we found an old farmhouse with an ancient Enterprise woodstove, a small barn, and open fields, an orchard, and woodsland.  It was a rambling, hundred-year-old house: creaky, drafty and peaceful.  Again, we went in as caretakers.  The owner couldn’t decide what she would do, but the house needed to be heated, the well kept running, and the driveways open.

It took months to clear out the huge, extended clan of mice.  They had colonized the woodshed, the toolshed, the porch, the pantry, the cellar, and the attics.  Birdseed had been spilled in the living room; it was a rodent’s buffet.  They had built cliff dwellings in the closet shelves.  Our Jack Russell terrier never got a good night’s sleep—she ran up and down stairs half the night, hunting the vermin.  The Australian shepherd would dig out the mouse nests, quickly dispatching the occupants.  We trapped the mice, blocked their holes with steel wool, and cleaned out a decade’s worth of old flour bags, cookie crumbs, and withered apples.  With superior weapons, we finally won the war.

We were just a few miles inland of the Northumberland Straits in southeastern Canada, and winter storms picked up both speed and moisture passing through the channel between the mainland and Prince Edward Island.  We were snowed in more than once.  While we were comfortably inside with the wood heat, the animals needed care and the dogs wanted out.  We opened the door to face a wall of snow that extended over the entry roof.  The poor little terrier did a double-take, then barked helplessly at the barrier.  The Aussie gave a dog shrug,  jumped at the bank of snow, and swam up and out.  We threw the terrier after her, and crawled out ourselves, skimming on our tummies to the barn.

We were happy on the farm and there was a job in town to pay the bills.  We determined to make an offer in the spring.

We approached the owner’s son about the possibility.  He listened in puzzled patience, and then explained that Mom had sold the whole farm, kit and all, to the neighboring lumber mill.  She had a life interest in it, that was all.  The mill was not interested in selling a parcel with the house.  They had purchased it for the timber and the gravel pit, plus they needed the road frontage for access.

We decided that we would not again approach an elderly widow about buying her farm.

It is incredibly disappointing to have put huge efforts into restoring a property, making a garden, putting up fence, and rebuilding the barn, only to leave the results behind.  It is heartbreaking to say goodbye to the dreams and long discussions about the future.

We experienced many setbacks in homesteading.  Animals died: we lost six silkie chicks to a mysterious genetic malady; lambs were stillborn or died suddenly; I lost a purebred ewe to a contortion of the uterus while she was carrying twin lambs; my grandmother ewe died one cold winter night, peacefully asleep in a corner of the shed; I lost two yearlings to copper poisoning.

There was one especially bright moment in the dark of loss: my shearer deemed a young ewe pregnant one May afternoon.  I was unable to shear that spring, with a broken wrist in a cast that extended from the tip of my thumb to my elbow, courtesy of a disgruntled ram.  The shearer put the ewe up on her rump, took the shears across her belly, and exclaimed, “Hey! Did you know this girl is pregnant?”  I didn’t;  the rest of the ewes had delivered a month before.  “How far along do you think she is?” I asked.  He shook his head, “Any minute now!”

The next morning, I took the freshly-sheared sheep for a hike up the mountain road, through the village, about a mile and a half to the summer pasture.  Sheep in a flock travel at the speed of about a mile an hour, so we left very early, just after sunrise—which was at about 4 a.m. this far north.  It was a slow climb for all, but the flock was happy to see tender grass and new leaves on the bushes.  I left them grazing, with water and a secure fence.

That evening, friends stopped by for supper and to see the sheep.  We drove up to the mountain pasture, and as they admired the lambs, I did a head count; the young pregnant ewe was missing.  I spotted her deep in the pasture where she had a little, black smudge of a newborn lamb hidden under a bush.

Shetland ewes are good mothers, and she seemed to be paying close attention to her baby, so I left them in their spring bower and went back home.  The next morning, I awakened early to the rattle and tinkle of sleet on the metal roof.  I jumped out of bed, scrabbled into overalls, and got in the truck, driving as fast as I dared up the mountain to the summer pasture.

All of the sheep but one were in the shelter with their lambs.  The poor, forlorn new mama was bleating and pawing at an odd angle of the fence.  As I ran down the slippery slope to the shelter, I saw the new lamb lying motionless in a puddle on the wrong side of the fence.

Although I am petite and middle-aged, I jumped the four-foot fence without bothering to open the gate.  I climbed the other side and picked up the tiny black lamb, putting her under my rain jacket, and then sprinting for the truck, where I turned on the heater as high as it would go.  I pulled out little lamb and rested her on my lap under the heat.

She stopped breathing.

When I was a student minister, I had a teacher who had left the veterinary profession for the church.  One day he and I were discussing lambing.  “It’s not hard to give artificial respiration to a lamb,” he explained.  “Just put your mouth around its nose and mouth and blow in gently, like regular breathing.”

So that is what I did.  I had not contemplated whether I would find this disgusting or nauseating—you know, sheep nose dripping and all—but I did it, and within a few breaths, baby lamb was breathing on her own!  I drove home with the lamb on my lap, rushed her into the kitchen and into a sink of warm water.  When she began to kick and protest, I took her out and dried her with several fluffy towels.  I sat in front of the fireplace with lamb on my lap, giving her warmed milk replacer in a bottle.  Within a couple of hours, as the weather cleared, she was noisily and happily reunited with mama.

Later, one bottle-fed lamb managed to wipe out half the seedlings for the garden, having nipped into the sunporch that was serving as a makeshift greenhouse.  She was caught red-hoofed at it, too, with a parsley seedling dangling from her sweet little mouth.

One spring, my lambs escaped from the paddock and cropped all the flowers in the neighboring cemetery.  I spent several days driving around the parish, apologizing and paying for new petunias.

Eastern Canada is mercurial in her weather-moods: I lost my early garden to a late first-of-July frost one year; A thunderstorm took the seedlings another year, the day I had set them out to harden off; the same storm also took out the well pump, the telephone, and the internet.

Despite the many failures and disappointments, when one can settle in to the homestead, get things slowly in order, and fight year after year with the weeds, the rodents and the insects with some hope of winning, it is all worth it.  The disappointments fade; new ones will come along.  Good homesteaders and farmers keep journals and records: weather patterns; animals born, purchased and lost or sold; garden and crop production; wild animals spotted; problems faced and solved.  Learn from your mistakes; the reward for facing failure is knowledge and success.

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