Little man’s milestone a Milk Maid’s journey, too

schoolmorningdriveway

Today is Little Man’s first day of school and, inside an incredibly still house, my mind spins.

The little boy who leapt onto the school bus without looking back this morning was born while Milk Maid Marian was in its infancy.

baby

The blog has tracked Alex’s life on the farm, from supervising operations through to being a hands-on member of the team with his own favourite jobs. He’s seen flood, fire, drought and snow in his five years. What adventures will the next five bring?

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Infectious farm life

gullynudge

I did not choose to become a farmer “for the lifestyle” because it’s harder than you’d think.

It certainly wasn’t for the money. My decision to buy out the farm was something I found hard to explain to my incredulous accountant even though it could not have been clearer to me. Maybe if I’d had The Wind in the Willows handy, I’d have shown him this:

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the river! And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in.
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

My childhood was filled feeding calves, riding ponies, priming pumps, dodging snakes and learning how to drive. That stuff, the snuffling of grazing cows and the wildness of the farm through its changing seasons got under my skin.

Today, my own children play with the calves. I do everything I can to tend their love for all things living and build their capability with all things mechanical.

mechaniclores

And they’re thriving. Not that every day is like a scene from the lid of a chocolate box. Farm life is great for kids in so many ways despite – or because of – the challenges it brings. Resilience, independence, self esteem and a work ethic flow from long days dealing with setbacks and simply doing what has to be done. No need for tough love to learn life’s lessons.

Even so, there’s a part of me that questions whether we’re doing the right thing, infecting our kids with farm life. Opportunities for young people are undoubtedly richer in well-resourced regional cities.

And what will life on the land be like for my grown-up little people in 20 years’ time if they, like Mole did, feel the tug of home’s invisible little hands? I don’t know for sure but I soothe my mother guilt by remembering that at least they have the chance to grow up slowly.

A better snake trap for the Drover’s Wife

The twist of a tail was all it took to drive me and the kids indoors. Normally, prematurely extracting them from the sandpit is a big job but even an ebullient two-year-old can sense the importance of a “Don’t panic but…” message from his mum.

A snake (most likely a copper-head or tiger) had appeared at the bottom of Alex’s favourite climbing tree, just inches from the verandah and the children and I sat frozen in silence, listening to it swish through the dry leaves. And I am not Henry Lawson’s gutsy Drover’s Wife, for I am yellow to the core.

The drover’s wife makes the children stand together near the dog-house while she watches for the snake. She gets two small dishes of milk and sets them down near the wall to tempt it to come out; but an hour goes by and it does not show itself.

Instead, I send the kids scurrying indoors while I deploy my secret weapon: the Snake Trap. Purchased a couple of summers ago after another close encounter of the scaly kind, the trap has been waiting for just this moment.

She brings the children in, and makes them get on this table. They are two boys and two girls – mere babies. She gives some supper, and then, before it gets dark, she goes into house, and snatches up some pillows and bedclothes – expecting to see or lay or hand on the snake any minute. She makes a bed on the kitchen table for the children, and sits down beside it to watch all night.

Like a large corflute pizza box, the Snake Trap has a little trap door that leads to an internal spiral wall, which guides the snake in pursuit of an imaginary rodent evidenced by a trail of scenting media (mice and rat detritis).

Inside the Snake Safe Snake Trap

Inside the Snake Safe Snake Trap

Check the trigger, the trap door and deploy.

She has an eye on the corner, and a green sapling club laid in readiness on the dresser by her side; also her sewing basket and a copy of the Young Ladies’ Journal. She has brought the dog into the room.

It’s sitting there now, nestled in the leaves by the sandpit.

Graeme, the man behind the Snake Trap, reckons I will be lucky to catch my snake. They’re generally just passing through, he says, and the idea of the Snake Trap is to set it up at the start of snake season to waylay any casual unwelcome visitors. But I’m watching that trap door and time spent in the sand pit is a little less carefree than it was.

It must be near daylight now. The room is very close and hot because of the fire. Alligator still watches the wall from time to time. Suddenly he becomes greatly interested; he draws himself a few inches nearer the partition, and a thrill runs though his body. The hair on the back of neck begins to bristle, and the battle-light is in his yellow eyes. She knows what this means, and lays her hand on the stick. The lower end of one of the partition slabs has a large crack on both sides. An evil pair of small, bright bead-like eyes glisten at one of these holes. The snake – a black one – comes slowly out, about a foot, and moves its head up and down. The dog lies still, and the woman sits as one fascinated. The snake comes out a foot further. She lifts her stick, and the reptile, as though suddenly aware of danger, sticks his head in through the crack on the other side of the slab, and hurries to get his tail round after him. Alligator springs, and his jaws come together with a snap. He misses, for his nose is large, and the snake’s body close down on the angle formed by the slabs and the floor. He snaps again as the tail comes round. He has the snake now, and tugs it out eighteen inches. Thud, thud. Alligator gives another pull and he has the snake out – a black brute, five feet long. The head rises to dart about, but the dog has the enemy close to the neck. He is a big, heavy dog, but quick as a terrier. He shakes the snake as though he felt the original curse in common with mankind. The eldest boy wakes up, seizes his stick, and tries to get out of bed, but his mother forces him back with a grip of iron. Thud, thud – the snake’s back is broken in several places. Thud, thud – it’s head is crushed, and Alligator’s nose skinned again.

She lifts the mangled reptile on the point of her stick, carries it to the fire, and throws it in; then piles on the wood and watches the snake burn. The boy and the dog watch too. She lays her hand on the dog’s head, and all the fierce, angry light dies out of his yellow eyes. The younger children are quieted, and presently go to sleep. The dirty-legged boy stands for a moment in his shirt, watching the fire. Presently he looks up at her, sees the tears in her eyes, and, throwing his arms around her neck exclaims:

“Mother, I won’t never go drovin’ blarst me if I do!”

And she hugs him to her worn-out breast and kisses him; and they sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over bush.

SnakePit

Instilling a love of nature the Brave New World way

When Alex found this gorgeous green grocer cicada, he was a little wary. But, of course, cicadas don’t bite – they’re sap suckers – so I encouraged our little people to have a really good look at the marvellous creature.

CicadaZoeGrinLoRes

Once Alex saw Big Sister having fun with the green grocer, he was more inclined to get into the act, beginning with a cautious stalking session.

CicadaStalking

Then, with some trepidation, he let it creep slowly across his fingers and was actually starting to enjoy the encounter when the impossible happened: the wretched winged wolf BIT him.

CicadaDrill

Alex’s hands shook and tears began to well but the green grocer clung on with all six hooks and the proboscis too! We finally flicked it off a little less carefully, I must admit, than I’d like.  Twenty minutes later, Little Man was off for his afternoon nap, only to wake with a “Cada hurting me, Mama!” nightmare.

So much for instilling a love of nature. More like a Brave New World conditioning session.

PS: If you were under the illusion that cicadas won’t hurt you, watch the reaction of this grown-up:

Work life balance on farm and a good dose of mother guilt

The slow burn of mother guilt catches me unawares sometimes but on other occasions, it’s as sharp as a knife. Or more accurately, as shrill as a tired toddler’s screech.

Just In Time (JIT) fencing

Just In Time (JIT) fencing

When a knock on the door from a concerned motorist signals a heifer and bull trotting down the road, which in turn reveals that a mob of skittish kangaroos have rendered your fence as floppy as a spoonful of fettuccine, a farmer has little choice but to report to the scene, sirens wailing. If the farmer is also the mother of a toddler, the ramifications can be far more serious: Nap Time Deferral (NTD).

Strapped to the Bobcat seat, my Little Man finds it hard to understand why Mama is singing lullabies as she fumbles with the fence strainer when she should be singing them at the bedside.

"Home, peese"

“Home, peese”

“Sorry, Little Man, I promise I’ll be as quick as I can, I just have to get this done…”

I know Mother Guilt is not limited to farming or, indeed, mothers. On Twitter’s AgChatOz forum the other day, fellow dairy farmers told of their dismay.

MotherGuilt

And, then, Shelby posted a link to this:

Cat’s in the Cradle always “gets me”, too. It’s times like these that I wonder if I am doing the right thing. My children see more of me going about daily life than they would if I was an office worker but, with farm returns so low, it seems we spend most of our time working and less of their time playing.

With the heifer paddock hastily patched up, Zoe, Alex and I returned last weekend to do the major works. As I wrestled with wire and strainers, they gambolled about the picturesque hidden paddock. Flanked by forest, they were out of the chilly wind, away from roads and so carelessly happy. I smiled as their little heads bobbed across the pastures and my spirits soared as their laughter echoed around the trees.

A gambol cures a dose of mother guilt

A gambol cures a dose of mother guilt

I was cured. Well, almost. What mother would stand back and film this?

My paddock handbag

Look into a woman’s handbag and you see deep into her soul. Tucked into its folds, you’ll find clues about what makes her feel secure, competent and even sexy. Oh, and boring stuff like grocery lists.

That’s how I like to think of my paddock handbag. Escaped heifers, broken fence, tired kids on board? No problem – with my paddock handbag, I’m Superwoman. Compartment A (the glovebox) is kitted out with wipes, toys, snacks and drinks. Compartment B has just about every tool to deal with almost every agrarian contingency.

TailgateTools Ready for surgery

Toolbox top A good girl scout is always prepared…

The big guns

And if all else fails, the big guns

I guard my paddock handbag with my life. Yes, the fellas are allowed to borrow select items from time to time but must promise to return said item on pain of death. Call me a drama queen with control issues? Maybe so, but I dare you to return toddler on the verge of a meltdown to within cooee of home “just to grab another set of pliers” and then whisk him away again. It had better be an exciting agrarian emergency with helicopters (aka “copot”), trains and whooshing irrigators aplenty or we’ve already lost the battle.

On second thoughts, maybe I’ll get a padlock fitted to that paddock handbag.

Who or what makes a farmer?

Yesterday, while rounding up the cows, Zoe announced: “When I grow up, I want to be a farmer and have two children.”.

“True? How come?”

“So I can be like you, Mama.”

It gets into the blood of farm kids early. Much earlier, I suspect, than the children of, say, accountants or writers. At six, our little girl knows when a paddock is ready to graze and has that sixth sense for when a cow seems not her normal self. Because she’s already a farmer.

Since I don’t have religious faith, I don’t believe any of this is God’s doing. Take a look at this ad, which just made its debut during the Superbowl.

This evangelical message has got farmers around the world twittering with delight. It’s nice to get a pat on the back once in a while. But I have a confession: it simultaneously makes me proud and embarrassed.

Why must we farmers talk so much about how hard we work? Yes, it is a farming fact of life but, no, it does not make us saints or martyrs. We do it because we want to.

And when I asked Zoe what she thought would be great about being just like me, it came down to this: “I can have fun with the cows every day!”. Perfect!

Tragic irony

I cannot imagine finding a child killed on the farm yet this is perhaps Australia’s most dangerous backyard. One of the things we do to keep Zoe and Alex safe is to keep them off quad bikes.

According to Safety Around Farms:

“ATVs are the most common cause of death for children 5-14 yrs on farms. Between 2001-2004, 12 children died on ATV’s in Australia and many more were hospitalised with serious injuries, 50% of these children were visitors to farms. (National Farm Injury Data Centre, 2007)”

That’s why I have a Bobcat UTV. Problem is, it’s only a two-seater and Alex is getting to the stage where he likes to stand in his child carrier and give me loving kisses on the face while I am driving. Hardly ideal.

I’m in the process of upgrading to a three-seater so little man can be strapped in more safely beside me rather than on me. Among the options is the Polaris Ranger Diesel and here’s the promo for it:

Buy this big machine to keep your kids safe and we’ll give you a small machine to keep your kids #%@

Do you see the irony of it? I rang Polaris HQ to see if I could get more family-friendly Ranger accessories – like a roof and windscreen – instead of the dangerous machine for little children. No, certainly not.

I asked the marketing manager a raft of quite pointed questions about the safety of the little machine. He couldn’t answer them. It seems certain he hadn’t read this from the Canadian Paediatric Society:

“While industry guidelines suggest that children under 16 years of age should only operate youthsized models, these vehicles are still heavy and can travel at significant speeds. Also, a higher centre of gravity contributes to instability, making ATVs prone to flips or rollovers.”

“Currently,there is little evidence to suggest that smaller youth models are safer when used by children. US CPSC injury data from 2001 showed that the risk of injury per number of driving hours for an operator under the age of 16 is reduced by only 18% when driving a youth-model ATV with an engine size of 200 cc.

“In addition, the level of risk for a child or adolescent operating a youth-model ATV is still almost twice as high as for an adult on a larger machine; the risk of injury to a youth using a smaller machine is also five times higher than the risk to an adult on a machine of the same size.”

In other words, don’t think your child is safe on a quad bike of any size.

The Polaris kids’ quad may be free but it could be Aussie kids who pay the ultimate price for this corporation’s cynical grab for market share.

Just getting some extra cred

Remember Zoe and Pearlie Girlie?

Zoe and Pearlie Girlie back in November

Zoe and Pearlie Girlie back in November

Well, since I wrote about the tender relationship between young farmer and young cow, Pearlie Girlie decided to make a grab for power and began to scare me – taking a few aggressive strides towards Zoe and wagging her head. We’ve been making sure Zoe stays well clear of the little cow but, today, Zoe reclaimed her rightful position as boss.

Zoe is boss once more

Zoe is boss once more

I’m a rotten driver and it all started here

Alex driving the Bobcat

What's the holdup? Where did that idiot learn how to drive?

My late father used to tell anyone who would listen that “Marian’s a terrible driver, you know. Once, she would have driven us both into the river if I hadn’t snatched the wheel just in time.”. It was okay if I was there to defend my reputation.

You see, I was two years old at the time, propped up on phone books with a peg on the accelerator, while dad threw hay off the back of the ute. It was my job to steer the ute in serpentines and, according to legend, I had let him down with almost tragic consequences.

Although she is the ripe old age of five, Zoe does not drive and I’m not sure Alex has the right temperament just yet.