As far back into childhood as I can remember, every morning and every evening I went to the barn to “do chores.” “Chores” on the farm then (and now) meant feeding the chickens and livestock, gathering the eggs, and milking the cows. This work must be done every day come hell or high water—- especially come hell or high water. I did chores even in seminary college— I much preferred being in the barn than in chapel. That’s how it finally dawned on me that the priestly life was not for me, so I can say with all honesty that doing chores guided me to my true place in life. I am still doing chores although I have bowed to age and given up everything except sheep and chickens.
In childhood, I didn’t always go to the barn happily, but now, except in the coldest weather, I still prefer my barn to any church or any public meetinghouse. Farm animals are so appreciative of getting fed and watered and when you get to know them well, they make good company. They are always glad to see me and do not try to tell me how to vote or pray. If you have only a few of each, they become your friends or at least your close acquaintances, each with his or her own personality. When I shell a little corn off the cob by hand to feed to the hens, one of them, always the same one, parks herself right between my feet to get the first kernels that fall. More than once I have stumbled on her. Our golden-feathered rooster is so utterly vainglorious that when I watch him strut about the barnyard, I can’t help but think of Donald Trump.
My sheep and chickens, not to mention the cats, have my work habits memorized and anticipate my every move. When I stomp up the steps to the hay loft the ewes all rush into the barn, stand by their ricks, almost always each in her chosen spot, and stare up at me, waiting for the hay to come plummeting down. If I start up the tractor, they rush out to the pasture because they know I will be hauling a bale out there to feed on top of the snow.
The two Plymouth Rock hens almost always roost side by side even though they grew up with absolutely no differentiation in handling or feeding from the Rhode Island Reds and Buff Orphingtons. One morning when I stepped into the chicken coop, the hens panicked, as if a raccoon had walked in among them. For awhile I could not understand why they were suddenly so flighty. Then it dawned on me. I was wearing quite a different hat and jacket than I usually have on.
When you have only a few animals, you don’t necessarily have to feed and water them twice a day. If you want to take a little trip, you can figure out ways to provide them with enough to last for that long. If you keep a calf with your milk cow, you don’t even have to milk every day either. As for feeding livestock, a pasture with a pond in it will keep them quite adequately for days at a time in warm weather But it is much better, even if you are going to be away for only a short weekend, to have a working arrangement with a neighbor to keep an eye on things while you are gone. Livestock seem to have an uncanny ability to know when you are away. That’s when they are likely to find a hole in the fence so they can take a little trip too. Fortunately, our son lives close by and he keeps an eye on things when we are away and vice versa.
The most important chore with chickens these days is making sure they are safely penned in their coop at night. Otherwise they are at the mercy of coyotes, foxes, minks, weasels, raccoons, opossums and skunks. When I was a child, there were not so many varmints to contend with because people during the Depression years hunted them for food and trapped them for pelts that might bring in a little precious cash. In those days the main worry was human chicken thieves, not wild ones.
Choring is more difficult in winter. I don’t have electricity or running water in my barn (on purpose— I don’t want to worry if I left a light on or the water running) so the chickens’ water freezes up at night sometimes. Water is of course just as important as food for your animals. For a waterer I use the bottom half of a plastic gallon milk bottle. I can just rap it over the chicken roost or whatever when the water freezes, and the ice shatters out without hurting the container. But it means carrying water from the house to the barn in the morning— easy enough to do with only a dozen hens. The sheep can get by eating snow for a few days (so can chickens actually, but eating snow should be only a temporary emergency source of water). Otherwise, I break a hole in the ice on the pond.
Many people are once again expressing interest in “going back to the land”, as we say rather euphemistically. (Why not forward to the land?) If you intend to keep animals you are making a commitment to a home-centered life. You have to take time for chore time. My sister, Jenny, says that to enjoy husbandry, one must have farmer genes. Not everyone does.
I have a hunch from my mail that many more people would enjoy husbandry however. On a soft early spring night, doing chores in the twilight, I throw hay down to the sheep and then sit up in the loft listening to them crunching away and making contented little snuffles of pleasure as they eat. Otherwise, all is quiet and utterly peaceful. I am aware that far away sirens are blaring, bombs are exploding, traffic is roaring, and people are screaming in fear and rage. I am so lucky, so happy to be where I am. I have to believe that millions of other people would also be happy to be where I am, if only they knew. If only they knew they could.
See also Gene’s First Spring Things
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Images credit: © Beatrice Killam | Dreamstime.com
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