Saturday, June 29, 2019

A New Epoch for Farmers

If I lived in town, I don't think I would be as affected by climate change as I am currently.  Of course, I would still feel badly when I read about places being devastated by hurricanes, floods, or wildfires. But, in  terms of how climate change would affect me, personally, if I lived in town...?  I don't think it would be such an inconvenience.

If I lived in town--in a house, say, just three miles away from here--I wouldn't mind consecutive days of rain and storms, the unseasonably cool month of June, the heat and humidity rising on the cusp of July.

I would dress in layers, or not go out at all.  I would stay in my house, which would have central air.   I would revert to my indoor life: read books, practice piano, blog sometimes, and watch way too much television.

But, I don't live in town.  I live three miles outside of town, on a plot of land people refer to around somewhat disparagingly as a hobby-farm or a farm-ette.

I am reminded of our lesser status as a farm-ette every time I go to pay for my items at Blain's Farm and Fleet, and the cashier asks me (never unkindly) if it's farm-exempt, a tax break bestowed upon non-diminutive farms.

What makes a farm a farm is not a matter of acreage.  I know of one farm smaller than ours that is farm-exempt.   He grows stuff and sells it at a farmer's market. You have to make around $6,000 a year in farm-produced income to qualify for the exemption.

That's a lot of onions!

We don't remotely qualify for the exemption.  We're absolute hobbyists.  We have a lovely vegetable garden, raspberry bushes and strawberries, but they only get as far as our own kitchen table--or possibly a neighbor's.

And if it all gets eaten by unsavory bugs, well, that just means less salad for us.

We have two horses and a very small pony, who contribute great quantities of fertilizer to the compost, who delight and entertain us when they're not being naughty, and who otherwise offer no promise of gainful employment.

These are not lesson horses. They're not used to spending hours in all weather, under saddle.  They've acclimated to the point where they expect a certain modicum of comfort at all times.  They're not sheep (who don't know enough to step into the shade, and frequently die of heatstroke for that reason).  They're not Englishmen.  You won't find them outside at noon; you'll find them comfortably ensconced in the barn, vying for position in front of a very large fan.

Ours is an intimate farmala, utterly lacking in purpose.

And yet, you would not believe the sheer physical effort and time it takes to keep this yacht-ling afloat.

I now wend back to Climate Change, which is my topic, and the title of this new epoch.

Did I tell you how it went with the Polar Vortex?  (It's my year of transition; I forget things.)

If I lived in town, it would have been a cozy respite from the usual running around, getting errands done.  I would avoid going outside, of course, during the Polar Vortex, if I lived in town, except for the chance to throw boiling water into the air and videotape it.

But, here on the farmala, we have animals who live outside.  (I choose "who" over "that" deliberately; these are my people, these creatures of habit.)  When indoors, one must think of them and wonder, constantly, how they are doing, out there, outside, in the barn.

What is their threshold, beyond which blood grows sluggish and cold?

On the Wisconsin Horse Network Facebook page, women like me sought advice and reassurance from one another by the hundreds in comments beneath fretful questions that seemed to give voice to a collective consciousness racked with anxiety:

How are you keeping your horse warm?

Are you putting blankets on your horses?

Should I bring them in or leave them out?

Should I make a warm mash?

A bucket of tea?

What on earth can I do to sleep at night during this fucking cold-snap?

Somehow, the stentorian voices of experience rose above the din of frightened dilettantes like me, with a confidence that can only come from many, many years of experience and the hard lessons that time teaches.

As spoiled as they may be, there is a wildness in horses, something prepared to meet Nature head on, when called upon.

In the barn, out of the barn; in the end, it doesn't matter.

Here's what it boils down to:

Give them constant access to hay.

Make sure they have access to water, or offer them water several times a day, not too cold.

Put a blanket on old horses, or any horse recently brought up north from someplace else warm.

This turned out to be sage advice, but I went outside every few hours throughout the Polar Vortex, around the clock, to check the water and hay, and make sure that no one was shivering.

I put a blanket on the 23-year old, and, I swear to God, I could see the worry in his expression lift off his beautiful face, as exhalations billowed like cigarette smoke on the air.

I don't think any of the horses slept for days.  It was just continual eating, feeding the furnace-like bellies, keeping themselves warm, staying alive.

Not long after the Polar Vortex loosened its grasp, there came the freezing rain, falling in torrents.  It filled up fields meant for crops.  By spring, some of those fields had been transformed into new wetlands, and taken over by ducks, cranes, swans, and gray herons....

But in winter, when the ground was frozen, the water, which ran in two rivers along either side of the aisle of my old dairy-barn, via culverts meant to divert bovine effluvia, left my Shetland pony's teacup feet more or less dry, as he stood there alone in the center aisle, marooned, as it were, on an island.

I would come out to the barn every couple of hours to rake up the debris, the hay and muck that halted the water's progress, now lapping at the heels of my pony.

I'd move a bale of hay out of the way, so it wouldn't be spoiled.

I'd use the push broom to direct the water's flow, from the north door through the barn and out the south door.

I filled hay bags and tied them up, out of the water's way.

Two horses stood in their stalls, several inches above the water passing beneath their stall door.  They would eat and do all of their business there, perhaps recalling winters past--cold, but dry, and antediluvian.

There was a brief respite last month in June, between days of rain and mud, when it was cool and green and freshly alive...Before the bugs arrived.

And now, my days are punctuated by the careful purging of swarms of gnats that threaten to colonize the hides of my horses.

They appear in stall windows, suddenly, and by the thousands, thriving in a climate of stormy nights and steamy days.

I spray the windows with permethrin.  I powder the windows with garlic.  I strip out all of the shavings, and spread out lime and more chemicals and more garlic.

I have three atomizers in front of me filled with a new recipe for bug-repellant: four types of essential oils in an admixture of mouthwash and water.  I also have a big bottle permethrin.

It's all the same:  Good for five minutes.  Like shooting zombies with a BB gun.

This is my life, now.  I'm not saying I love it. I think about insecticide more than I care to admit.  I attach fly masks to the horses' heads, but they shake them off, and I think maybe I should give them all another bath, but then they'll go roll in the dirt, right after.  And maybe there's something to that. I don't know.

I think, if I lived in town, the Polar Vortex, the freezing rain, the unbidden ponds, the layer upon layers of ice in the pastures (covered, as an adaptation, with manure and shavings to improve the footing, so long-limbed creatures who live outside won't slip and break a leg or neck); the more rain in late spring; the more rain in summer; the lost fields; the fields too soft to seed, too soft to harvest; the high price of hay; the gnats that needle and swarm...

These are the dog-eared days of Chapter One of Climate Change: A New Epoch.

If I lived in town, just three miles away...if I didn't have these three noble beasts to care for...if I didn't have feeling for their concerns...if I did not have to go outside to care for them in all weather...I think  this whole Climate Change thing, would not be such a nuisance.