For the love of Farming

Ever since I can remember, I enjoyed growing things.  I had a coriander patch when I was about 8 years old. It did not produce much, but it did produce some coriander.  I think the idea of a seed turning into a plant always seemed like magic to me.  I would soak beans in water overnight to watch them germinate.  Then I would take them out of the water and dissect the bean to look at the germinating plant.  I was hooked, I guess.

By the time I was 13 years old, I had graduated to carrot, Sukuma Wiki (Kale) and parsley patches.  I had no idea what parsley was at the time. Coriander is more common in our recipe’s than parsley.  But I liked the way the leaves curled and the smell produced when you rubbed it.  I also had a rosemary plant.  Yes, one plant.

For whatever warped reason, when I went to high school, I did not take agriculture as a subject for my ‘O’ levels even though it was offered.  I stumbled into university and once again, I completely bypassed any course that was related to agriculture.

For a time in my adult years, this yearning for soil died down.  Then, I relocated to Lagos, Nigeria for work.  Something about that city’s humidity, constant rain and variety of produce woke my dormant interest in agriculture.  I knew then, farming was going to take up a lot more time in my life.

Time went by and I relocated to the Middle East.  I had been there for a while when I got tired of store-bought herbs, plus I needed to fill up my free time, especially during the Holy month of Ramadhan, with something.  Life during the hours of fasting comes to a standstill. When Ramadhan falls during the summer months of May to October, life truly comes to a standstill.  Average temperatures of 45 degrees celsius ensure that everyone goes into hiding from the heat, whether they are fasting or not. So, I hatched a brilliant plan.  At the time it seemed brilliant.  I was going to start a patio garden!  I lived in an apartment on the first floor of the building with a huge patio space.  This was genius!

I went off to the garden supplies store, bought potting soil, pots, seeds, everything.  I was in business.  I even ordered heirloom seeds online from garden centers in the UK.

I spent evenings and weekends getting that patio garden going.  In a few weeks, I had plants!  I had dill, basil, coriander, heirloom tomatoes, chives; the works!  That garden brought me so much joy.  I would dash home from work to see how much they had grown.  I had started the garden in spring when the temperatures were a lot cooler and amenable to plants. 

My colleagues enjoyed gifts of basil and coriander.  My house cleaner was overjoyed at the prospect of fresh dill for her kitchen.  I made basil pesto for my delicious pasta dishes. My otherwise empty weekends were now fully occupied with me doting over my edible container garden.

Slowly, the temperatures crept up to their summer highs. I had noticed the slow temperature rise because I was watering the plants more and more.  I never really gave it too much thought as the herbs were still blooming.

The harbinger of summer is usually a sandstorm.  One night, we had a sandstorm that darkened the night sky and dumped soil everywhere.  By midnight, it had died down.  When I woke up the next day, I went to check on my garden!  Everything had died.  Every single plant was dead.  The dill had upped the stakes and had turned to ash.

Then I thought long and hard.  Who plants a patio garden in the middle east and hopes to make sense of it?  The death of my garden was the beginning of my quest to return home and actually farm.  On land!

That patio garden taught me a lot.  Above all, it taught me to follow my dreams, using what I had, where I was.  The death of my patio garden confirmed to me that I was destined to farm.  So here I am.  Farming, still broke and quite content with life!  

Let’s get Technical

When I decided to get serious about farming, I wanted to do it organically and sustainably.  I must have forgotten I live in tropical Africa.  The bugs were relentless, the diseases were in plenty and I was fighting a losing battle.

If you were raised in Nairobi in the 1980’s and 1990’s, you will remember the annual Agricultural Society of Kenya (ASK) trade fair.  We called it “The Show”.  Farmers got to showcase their produce.  Any farming related company was found here exhibiting their wares.  The armed forces had marching bands every evening at 9.30 p.m.  They were so smart and crisp marching to the tune of the most popular songs of the time.  The Navy in their whites, the Army in their red uniform, the Air Force in their dazzling blues! It was beautiful. The tattoo was the last event of the day before they closed in readiness for the next day.   At a time when we did not go out much at night, the Show presented an opportunity for pomp and color, all permitted by our parents.

This show, The Agricultural Society of Kenya “Show” was where I decided to go when I realized I needed concrete answers to my bug and disease problems.  My daughter had never attended this prestigious event.  She is a millennial.  Marching Bands and cows are not exactly her description of fun. I convinced her this was a brilliant experience and a right of passage.  Every self-respecting Nairobian must go to The Show at least once in their lifetime.

Sneakers, jeans, backpack, water, money!  We were off!  What a sham the show had become.  Over time, due to neglect and poor funding, it was nothing like I remembered.  I was utterly disappointed.  However, this time I had come here on a mission.  I took a left turn and we headed off to the agriculture side of the show.  We checked out the cows and goats, had a quick check in on the sheep, then went off to see the crops. 

And that was how I met Greenlife Crop Protection Africa, and got introduced to their products. These guys don’t know me from Adam, so this is not a paid advert.  I use their products. Their fertilizers and pesticides because they are polite to my soil and they work!

Prior to Greenlife, we used to make our own pesticides. If you boil neem, onion leaves, Mexican marigold and a little chili, you get a great pesticide.   Add some dishwashing soap, and you have a pesticide with a sticker.  A sticker basically allows the pesticide to stay longer on the leaf of your crops and therefore increase its efficacy. As we boiled this pot, it bubbled and hissed like a witch’s cauldron.  I’ve always wondered what the neighbors thought we were cooking.  You could smell that bubbling mix from quite a way off.

Basic farm hygiene will take care of a lot of your problems.  Much like covid I guess?  Wash your hands, sanitize your boots, keep your farm free of weeds, scout for pests and disease relentlessly and deal with them immediately.  If you have farm hands who smoke, keep them away from your tomatoes and capsicum plants to avoid spread of disease.  Goat, cow and chicken manure are your friends.

Healthy crops are less likely to get diseases.  Keep the bees close.  Not too close though.  In my neck of the woods, they are called African Killer bees for a reason.

Chili mixed with ash makes a great deterrent for the cutter worm.  This is one silly worm.  He/she cuts the tap root of your plants and that’s the end of the plant.  So, when transplanting from the nursery, we used the ash chili mix in the transplant hole, to give the cutter worm a mighty sneeze that kept him away from my vegetables. Fermented milk and water, of course with dishwashing soap as a sticker, sprayed on your vegetables will keep white flies at bay.  For a while.

These were organic solutions to my pest and disease problem, but they were not robust enough to keep the bugs at bay, and they were not going to work for the scale of farming I wanted to get into.  They were great for a kitchen garden but not a commercial sized farm.

Greenlife offered the sustainable solution I had been looking for.  Most important of all, Greenlife believes in educating the Farmer, so it’s not always about chemicals in the soil.  And they do the educating through the ubiquitous whatsapp group.  Kenya truly runs on whatsapp.  If you are a farmer, check out their products.

What have I learnt?  Pests and diseases can be controlled without industrial chemicals.  You need a very high level of vigilance though. Healthy crops are less likely to get disease infestation. Let that bottle of pesticide be your last resort. If you are running a kitchen garden, you really don’t need to reach for an industrial solution.  You do have other options.

What’s on the Farm?

Aside from the sheer love of it, I went into farming to make money.  As I said, not a red cent has shown up in my pocket to offset the enormous investment made so far. Then again, grit and tenacity dictate that one sticks it out a little longer before they throw in the towel!

My dream at the onset had been to have vegetables and fruits on the farm, and an apiary to cater for my love of honey, but also to have the bees pollinate the fruit trees.  I have not gotten round to the apiary yet though I think I should.

Much as life ends in a spectacular and disturbing fashion on a farm, there are times life springs with such energy and verve it leaves you filled with awe!

After the six chicks died, we hatched a total of 67 chicks.  All alive! I guess the human mothers were not so inept after all.

3 week old chicks. Hatched 35, all still alive
Day old chick

Max’s babies turned into adorable balls of floof! And they bark.  At the ripe old age of 6 weeks. We are now weaning them off their mother’s milk.  They got their first vaccination shots and hated it.  Who likes jabs anyway?

Luna is still on the patio doing a good job of keeping those Apache helicopters away from me!  Perhaps one day I shall give her a medal of honor for her service to cowards like me. 

After the maize was eaten by the squirrel posse, we replanted maize on the same lot of land.  It has sprouted with so much vigor I am amazed.  My farm that looked like a golf course is now neat and clean with rows of beans and green grams standing at attention like little obedient soldiers.

Beans – Yellow Beans Variety
Green Grams
Sunflowers and Green Grams – with my proud farm manager in the background

The vegetables make my soul sing for joy!  Fat round cabbages surrounded by leafy Sukuma wiki and spinach.  Juicy tomatoes ripening on the vine.  Birds Eye chili that the birds are constantly keeping an eye on.  Waiting for them to ripen so they can eat them.  Onion plants untouched by thrips and already forming bulbs. 

Spraying Birds eye chili for healthy flowers

For the first time ever, we have mangoes on the farm.  I had planted some five or so trees to test the waters, and they have responded rather positively with the most delicious juicy mangoes I have ever tasted!

My first Mangoes

Of Course the usual shenanigans are still ongoing.  Nala (aka Houdini) recently recruited Max and they tried to escape.  They tunneled out of the first fence and found that I had double fenced the homestead.  They promptly tunneled right back.  My farm manager found them playing next to the two tunnels they had created, pretending this was just a game and not an escape attempt!  Tsk!

If I sound content and happy, it is because I am.  The sight of life returning with such vibrance is worth every cent I have not made out of this farm. I am learning that I enjoy peace, solitude and my own company.  I am learning to appreciate the little things in life. Being completely broke has done that to me. I am learning that a home cooked meal shared with family, friends and farm hands, can be as delicious as five-star dining, all because one is at peace.  I have learnt that I enjoy the feel of soil between my toes! I enjoy the smell of soil, especially when rubbed between my fingers.  Manicured of course!  I enjoy the soothing sound of the cows lowing as they come home from a day spent in the pasture, accompanied by the characteristic bleating of goats!  The sounds of birds singing lullabies to their little ones as they bed down in their nests at dusk!  They end the day with songs different from those they sing to welcome the day at dawn.

I have confirmed that I am wholly, truly and completely a farm girl!

P.S. reach out to nailsbynjeri on Instagram for the most glam nail do!

The Descendants

I have always had chicken on the farm.  When I decided to get serious about the farm, I inherited my mother’s chickens.  All ten of them.  They had been ten for roughly five years.  Farm hands can depopulate your farm quite efficiently if you are not watchful.

So, I took up the ten chickens and worked to get their numbers to respectable levels.  Soon enough, I did. Chickens multiply quite fast when properly managed.  Chicks hatch after roughly 21 days and your average hen should be able to sit on and hatch ten to fifteen eggs at a time.  I have had hens hatch up to nineteen chicks.  The numbers grew to roughly 50 chickens within four months.  I say roughly because I have always found chicken census to be a very tricky business.  Remember Road Runner from the cartoon series of the same name?  Now try counting 50 of her, while she is dead set on running away from you!

At the time, I had planted a crop of jalapeno chilies and green grams.  I had not fenced off the home compound so there was no clear demarcation between the farm and the home.  The chickens spent their days foraging and roaming free all day long.  We fed them thrice a day. 

One day, a clever rooster discovered the jalapeno.  Roosters by their very nature are polygamous.  This one had a wife and nine concubines!  In his bid to impress his harem, he flew over the fence to the jalapeno field.  If you spend enough time around farm animals, you get to understand them.  I could hear this guy clucking to his harem, and in my interpretation, it went like this (queue Barry White’s voice in your head)

Rooster: Hey Ladies! You know I promised to take care of y’all right?  Well guess what?  I planted me a field of jalapeno and green grams all for you!

Hens: Oh my! What a gentleman you are!  (Giggles and swooning)

Rooster: Well, come on over and taste the fruits of my labor! I am The Man around here after all

Hens: Yes darling.  We shall just sneak our way through the fence.  We’re too plump to fly elegantly like you did.  You’re so handsome when you fly! (More swooning)

Long and short of it?  My jalapenos were all eaten by the chickens.  Every last one of them.  The green grams too.  I remember traveling to the farm and I’d ask my farm hands what was happening and they’d insist it was the chickens.  I did not believe them until I caught the chickens breaking into the farm.  I promptly fenced the farm.

Every morning the chickens would wake up and stand at the fence, waiting for their brilliant rooster to call them over the fence for their feast.  He could not.  For one, there was a fence and secondly, we had made a fantastic stew of him. Very tasty! Manicured Farmer – one; Rooster – Nil.

Over time, the hens forgot about the bounty over the fence.  I would occasionally catch them staring longingly into the farm, wondering how they had lost out on that feast that they knew existed there.  As they matured, we sold them off, and kept their descendants.  Those are the chickens I now have.

Here’s the funny thing.  I catch them staring longingly at the farm through the fence.  It makes me think of how we humans stare longingly at the stars.  Almost as if we are searching for something we know is there but our collective memories fail to fully crystalize it.

Keep Going!

Did I tell you I am a fulltime employee? I am.  Which means all this happens during my time.  My free time.  If you have ever needed to focus, start a side business while employed.  You will soon realize how much time is wasted on social media, Netflix and useless chit chat.

At my place of employment, a wise person once talked about the illusion of risk.  That hit me.  What was I afraid of? Failure?  I had failed many times over and still, here I was. Wiser, smarter, more determined, and certainly, broke!  But every single time I restarted this farming venture, I was not doing so from ground zero. I was doing so from a point of strength.

My ability to relocate to the farm had been facilitated by the outbreak of COVID 19.  We all became remote workers which meant I could work from anywhere.  This time I was determined to give this venture one final push with everything I had.

What hadn’t I been through with this farm? I remember the time my borehole stopped functioning in the middle of the dry season, with the farm heaving full of vegetables.  That was the day I understood the true meaning of the phrase “cold sweat”.  I remember I had been in a meeting at work and I saw this incessant calling from my house help, who was at the time managing my farm, and I knew something was off.  I answered the call.  The borehole was not producing water and no one knew why.  It turned out to have been silt blocking the pump.  Disaster averted, but that cost me a pretty penny!

Prior to getting smart and installing a solar system to pump water, I had been reliant on electricity from the utility company.  The rural electrification program that had been launched had seen homes connected to the main grid, but the power supply was epileptic at best, with very dirty power flowing through.  It was one of those dirty power episodes that had blown my water pump the first time.  Yes, I say the first time because there was a second time.  This time, it was a power surge that blew the pump.  Remember, tropical Africa, semi-arid Kenya – you need a constant water supply or you are not doing any farming.  Every time my borehole stalled it meant all farming stalled.

I remember the time I woke to find my capsicum crop dead.  All of it.  What had happened? Frostbite.  You can’t make this stuff up even if you tried.  Frost bite in tropical Africa in semi-arid Kenya! Surely?  I remember the tomatoes that got bottom rot.  Why? It turns out they did not have enough calcium and they were receiving inconsistent water supply.  I remember the onion crop that was decimated by thrips.   Thrips sting by the way.  They are almost microscopic so you only know they are there from the symptoms on your onions and the burning sting on your hands.  So aside from killing your onion crop, they will sting you. Insult to injury!

I remember the red beetle attack on my crop of basil and arugula.  The red beetle looks pretty with a beautiful shade of red on its wings.  It is a complete disaster on the farm.  I remember my zucchini plants that turned into a putrid mess of bubbling decay because the same red beetle had decided to turn them into her nest and lay eggs in them.

Then there was the melon crop that aborted all the fruits.  Turns out the seed company had sold dodgy seed to the farmers.  Zero produce.  I told you, I can’t make this up even if I tried.

I remember waking one day to find my spinach plants producing more leaves than they should.  They looked like mutants.  And they were.  What was the issue? Nematodes.  If you ever uproot your carrots and find them looking like pitchforks, that’s the work of nematodes.  If your spinach plants have so many leaves they look like mutants, that’s nematodes.  I have no idea what a nematode looks like.  I just know the damage it’s capable of doing on your crops.

I am a graduate of the “School of Hard Knocks” when it comes to farming. If you are a farmer, this is not to discourage you.  It is to tell you that you went into farming because you can overcome adversity, because nothing gets you down and because you don’t need outside affirmation to succeed.  You went into farming because you are good at finding solutions.  You went into farming because you wanted an alternate lifestyle to the “normal”.  You have it within yourself to do this.  So go on, do it!

Marco? Polo

You know the game.  It’s best played in a pool where the “It” person is blindfolded and yells Marco and the rest of you yell Polo!  The idea is for the “It” person to find and tag one of the others using only sound.  Once you are tagged, you are the new “It” person.  I couldn’t swim (still can’t) so throughout my life, I have watched the game of Marco Polo from the safety of the poolside beds.

The game shares its name with the 13th-century Italian trader and explorer. There does not appear to be any real connection between the game and the explorer of the same name, although according to one whimsical explanation, “legend has it that the famed explorer didn’t really have a clue as to where he was going”, this being reflected in the “It” player’s behavior.

I am deathly afraid of moths!  Stick with me and this will all make sense, I hope!  I am terrified and irredeemably useless and hysterical in the presence of a moth.  I am not talking about those itsy-bitsy things that fly around the light at night.  I am talking about moths the size of Apache Helicopters, with a similar attitude to boot!  Those are the moths you encounter at the farm when the rainy season is in full swing.  I live in a state of constant fear during the wet season just in case I encounter said Apache Helicopters.  In an effort to help me make sense of this, my friend told me the fear of moths is called Lepidopterophobia! I still cannot pronounce the word!  To be clear, Lepidopterophobia refers to the fear of both butterflies and moths.  I have no problem with butterflies – it’s their nocturnal cousins I cannot abide by!

I have been scared of moths since I can remember.  My Mother tells me I would run screaming from the darn critters and lock myself in the bedroom sobbing uncontrollably.  This was at age 3.  I have no idea where this came from, but I have lived with it all my life.

On the farm house patio, lives one of my best friends.  We have never met.  Had we met, she would know she is my best friend.  She is a bat.  I assume she is a she.  I have no idea how one tells the gender of a bat.  I tolerate her because she eats moths.  How do I know this?  Because after some months of relentless terrorism by the Apache Helicopters, one day I went onto the patio in the morning and found moth wings.  Big ones.  I was a little puzzled as to why the moths had chosen to shed their wings.  And if this was a choice, how did they hope to get around going forward?

That evening, the penny finally dropped.  I heard the unmistakable clicking of the bat and I knew what was happening.  A highly adapted game of Marco Polo was playing out on the patio.  The bat went “Marco” and the hapless moth went “Polo” and promptly became dinner.  At least that’s how I explain it.  Unlike the clueless explorer Marco Polo though, the bat’s “Marco” has pinpoint accuracy as it uses echolocation.  The Apache Helicopter does not stand a chance!

That bat became my instant BFF. A friendship borne of desperation on my part and complete obliviousness to my existence on said bat’s part. I named her Luna.  How can one have a BFF who is nameless?

This relationship with Luna has left me with so many questions. Why doesn’t Luna eat moth wings? Are they nutritionally vacant? Or just impossible to fit into her mouth? What is the lifespan of a bat?  Is this game of Marco-Polo taught across generations?  How is that lesson taught? Will she have a good student to hand over her skills to?  Can I influence that handover process?  It is critical that Luna, and the generations to come after Luna continue to protect me from those moths!

This, That and The Other

I am guessing by now you are super curious about the chicks!  Those beautiful bundles of fluffy joy that were hatched in an incubator and were being hand raised by human mothers?  Well, here goes.

After roughly two weeks of being human mothered, fed, watered and generally doted over, we woke up one Monday morning, and one of the chicks looked ill.  He/she was feeding well but seemed to have lost the power to stand.  What was this?  We had taken all the precautions and vaccinated the chicks on time against Newcastle disease.  Surely this was not illness!  My farm manager and I had a long deliberation over this and decided this looked like a vitamin deficiency, so we quickly purchased vitamin supplements rich in calcium and fed this to all the chicks. 

All seemed to be going well for about an hour.  And then the chicks died.  One after the other.  I could not believe what was happening.  In 4 hours, I had no chicks.  Zero. None of them survived.  Remember I told you about things dying in a spectacular and disturbing manner on a farm? I felt exhausted.  After all that hard work we were not going to get anything out of this litter? Are they even called a litter when they are chickens?

In hindsight, a few things went wrong.   Rule number one of all poultry farming is this – if any bird looks even vaguely sad, isolate it immediately.  Rule number two – have the vet on speed dial! We did none of those two things.  We had left the sick chick with the others and the infection had spread.  Lesson learnt.  Painful lesson.

This is a farm though.  Death comes with life.  Or maybe death comes to pave way for life.  A few days after I lost the chicks, the next brood hatched.  23 of them.  This time we had our eye on them.  If they even blinked wrong, we were there to isolate the sickly one.  I went about this duty like Secret Agent 007 trying to stop some truly evil villain.  This was how my farm manager and I caught on to one chick starting to look droopy.  Immediate isolation.  That one was dead within 2 hours of isolation.  The rest are still here.

Guess what else came to life?  My Rottweiler Max gave birth to 4 puppies! Happiness!  More on those little ones later.

During the dry season in September, we set about preparing the farm for planting.  And plant we did in eager anticipation of the seasonal rains scheduled for October.  We had maize, beans, green grams (lentils) and pigeon peas.  We had nurseries of cabbage, Sukuma Wiki (Kale), onions, coriander and bird’s eye chili.  We were busy!

The rains did not show up as scheduled.  Do they ever?  This is tropical Africa, semi-arid Kenya.  Things do not happen on schedule especially as it pertains to farming.  So, we resulted in irrigation for the vegetables and the nurseries.  Allow me to paint this picture for you.  It had not rained for close to 5 months.  Not a drop.  It was tinder dry which meant, if you were irrigating your farm, you were the only source of consistent water in a 50km radius.  All bugs, squirrels, birds and every conceivable living creature would be using your farm as a watering and feeding hole.  It’s a constant fight to keep the bugs at bay before they destroy the entire crop.

Eventually, the rains arrived. Torrential downpours that made you stand and stare in wonder.  Within a week, everything sprouted.  My seeds plus all the weeds that had been hibernating in the soil.  Do they hibernate?  My fields looked like a golf course.  All green!  90% weed!  And by the way, where was my maize crop?  Why was nothing germinating?  Here’s what I believe happens.  When maize seeds are drenched by water enough to start germinating, I believe they give off a scent.  The squirrels and birds can smell this scent of new life blooming.  They call their friends and they have an all-night party on my farm digging up all the maize kernels that are gearing up to sprout.  And they eat them.  End result?  Zero maize germination!  We had to re-plant the maize. 

At this point, I reminded my farm manager we had a working dog on the farm called Leo.  Leo is my late Spotty’s son.  Dumb as a rock, but a stealth hunter, especially when it comes to squirrels and birds.  Now my farm manager goes out with Leo at 5.30 a.m. and 5.30 p.m.  Leo’s job is to chase away every critter that could possibly try and feed on my germinating maize.

What have I learnt?  For sure, I continue to confirm my belief that farming requires an uncommon amount of grit and tenacity. Miraculously, I am still here.  I have not given up.  Tomorrow is a new day – and on a farm, there is no possibility of boredom!

Happy Holidays to you and your loved ones from me and my entire family!

Houdini!

Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz; (March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926) was a Hungarian-born American escape artist, illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his escape acts.

His first act attracted notice in Vaudeville in the United States and then as “Harry ‘Handcuff’ Houdini” on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police officers to keep him locked up. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can with water in it.

I think Houdini lives on my farm in the body of my precious German Shepherd – Rottweiler cross Nala, aka Princess!  She is tall, she has the most beautiful green eyes and tan coat.  She does not walk, she struts.  She runs with such elegance and grace you want to sit back and just watch her. And she is smart.  I mean razor sharp!

I got Nala from my cousin.  She was a little beautiful needy pup who loved belly rubs and would whine if she did not get them.  She still does.  When I got her, I was sure she needed to head straight to the farm, and she did. Nala grew fast.  A rumbunctious energetic pup who continued to whine in the absence of belly rubs.  She joined the existing pack that consisted of my Jack Russel’s, the late Spotty, and her son Leo.

With time, I added Bitzen and Max to the pack.  My large dogs are all named after cartoon characters.  Bitzen from Shaun the Sheep, Max from Big Hero 6 and of course Nala from Lion King.

The pack was formed and the adventures were loading. At first, we let the dogs roam free without much mishap.  They’d escape to the dam for a mid-day swim on hot days, or strut along the river and chase weasels for hours on end. Sometimes the adventure just entailed chasing my poor chickens all day or chasing a rabbit into its rabbit hole then spending a whole day digging it out.  Other times, they would visit my neighbors, scare their dogs away then have a siesta under a tree and assert their command of the territory.  Then I got spooked. What if they left and hunted down a neighbor’s goat or sheep?  So I locked them up for a while as I planned to fence off the homestead.  Which I did.  Thoroughly! With barbed wire reinforced with chain link fencing, buried in cement.  I had such confidence in the fence I asked that the dogs be let lose to roam the homestead unhindered.

For a couple of nights, all was well.  Then they escaped! I could not believe what they had managed to do.  They chewed their way through the chain link and parted it just enough to escape.  In their absence I called the vet to ask if we can place location chips in my dogs.  I was worried sick. He laughed it off and told me they’d show up sooner than later.  They did.  They strolled back home three days later, haggard, tired and extremely thirsty, looking like teenagers back from a drug fueled ill advised three day party!   I got busy the next day reinforcing the fence and even had a second chain link layer installed.

Couple more nights? Escape! What happened? Same trick, different spot.  Ring leader? Nala! So I got the fence reinforced again.  This time, I was sure they would not escape.  It took roughly 7 days before Nala figured that the fence around the cattle kraal was not reinforced.  So, during the day, she spent time creating a lovely escape hatch.  Max and Bitzen let her do all the thinking and planning while they slept off their day.

And then, they escaped!  The farm manager had now learnt their behavior.  He had been watching them and knew something was up.  He was right!  He managed to get them back home before they had chased any dogs from their homesteads or chased any rabbits down their burrows.

That part of the fence was reinforced too and there was peace for a couple of weeks.  Until Nala figured out how to open a dead bolt!  Was it really a dog I had on my farm?  My dear Farm Manager caught her in the act of opening the deadbolt at one of the homestead gates to stage her net escape. Unbeloievable!

Now we live in a state of constant alert! My farm manager recently told me the dogs have the intellect of some humans.  He now speaks to them and begs them not to escape!  Lunacy? Maybe.  But I’ve been on a farm long enough to know that all creatures have personalities and when you speak, they do hear you.  Even though they may never talk back!

Meet The Earthworms

Truth be told, that sounds like a line from the movie Men in Black, but there is method to this madness.

Once I had relocated to the farm, I quickly realized I needed help managing the farm.  I had been toying with the idea of hiring a farm manager for a while.  I needed to get serious and do this professionally.

The farm manager was promptly hired and arrived on the first day of the month. It was time to churn out the ideas that would generate us the ever-elusive income and finally make this a profitable venture.  I wanted so many things out of this.  I wanted to farm organically; I wanted to farm for the export market; I wanted it done sustainably through the use of ethically formulated fungicides and pesticides. I wanted a farm that we could all be proud of.  I wanted a place my workers and I could call home.  I wanted customers who got healthier from consuming our produce.  I wanted a lot!

One of the first things the farm manager proposed was that we kick off a vermiculture enterprise. For a number of reasons. It would give us pure organic “worm juice” to use as fertilizer, and when the worms were done converting all the cow dung, goat droppings and and vegetable waste into “juice”, they would have created extremely nutritious worm casting for use on the farm. 

I had so many questions.  Do worms pee?  Where does the worm juice come from? What do they do with all that food they eat? How do they reproduce? But most importantly, where does one find earthworms that have been schooled in the art of creating worm juice?

My dear farm manager had answers.  He had a number of a guy who knew a guy who farmed well-schooled worms that would meet all our needs.  So I was sent off to find said worm farmer, and purchase two kilograms of worms.  I found him and I did.  And then I carried the delicate package back to the farm is a well sealed bucket.  I spent the entire journey hoping I would not get pulled over by the police and asked to explain a bucket fill of cow dung and worms.

Once the vermiculture set up was done, the worms started producing juice. Oh joy! Now we had a source of highly nutritious organic fertilizer to use on our farm.  The initial quantities were small, but enough to service our vegetable nurseries.  We are now heading to doubling the quantity of worms and starting a second worm farm.

What have I learnt? There is peace and joy in dirt.  All nature has value – even the slimy worms. The chicks are still here, the chickens are getting bigger, the vegetables are “high” and happy on worm juice and yet another week has gone by without me shutting it all down!

Farewell!

Twelve years ago, I got a Jack Russel puppy from my neighbor, and named her Spotty.  She had a huge heart shaped spot on her side and was the size of a tea cup when I got her.  I did not think much of the adoption.  I had wanted a dog and I went out and got one.

Spotty grew up to be the most beautiful dog I had met.  She was clever too. Always up to some very sketchy errands.  My mother (who had never wanted a dog) would dance with her in the evenings.  Most times Spotty would be found on Mum’s lap, just sitting there while Mum read the newspaper and filled out the crossword puzzle.

One day, a male Japanese Spitz aptly named Danger moved into our neighborhood.  I assumed he was named Danger for his dark patch on one eye, just like the cartoon character, Danger Mouse! My neighbor was convinced he was named Danger because he was smooth with the lady dogs!  We had managed to keep Spotty puppy free for 6 years.  At this point though, I did want puppies – her puppies.  Danger must have heard my silent prayer because lo and behold, my Spotty, and 4 other neighborhood dogs were all pregnant at the same time.  19 puppies were fathered by Danger!  Four of them belonged to Spotty.  I guess my neighbor was right after all.

Spotty was an excellent mother.  Caring, loving, a disciplinarian.  At some point during this period, I once again went off to the farm and spent some 2 weeks there with Spotty and her puppies.  It was utter chaos.  The kind of chaos born of fun and laughter.  By the time I got back to the city with Spotty and her babies, I had had enough.  I let go of the 3 female puppies to great homes and kept the male.

Spotty became my best companion.  We went for walks! Long winding walks that invigorated her and left me at peace.  Whenever I travelled, Spotty would stage a protest and sit in my suitcase so I could not pack my clothes.  She understood my moods perfectly and knew when to ask for a walk and when to just lie next to me and do nothing.

Over time Spotty got old, and to give her a new lease of life, I relocated her to the farm, together with her son.  They had space to run, chase chickens and squirrels, plan escapades to the dam together with the larger breed farm dogs, herd goats, marvel at the cows and generally live an adventurous life.

One night, Spotty convinced the large dogs to stage a night escape and go on an adventure.  The following morning, the larger dogs returned without Spotty.  She was lost for three days.  I was beside myself with worry.  Finally, she was spotted by a good neighbor, and we went off to pick her from her hiding place.  Silly girl!

About a week ago, I went back to the farm to spend time transplanting the crops from the nurseries.  The day I arrived, Spotty was not her usual self.  She did not come to meet the car at the gate nor was she doing her usual prancing around trying to “tell” me how she had been.  She just seemed very withdrawn.  Initially I assumed she was mad at me because I had left her at the farm the last time I had been there.  I did not give it much more thought as the farm hands convinced me she was fine.

Sometime that night, my dear Spotty passed away!  I was beside myself with grief.  I was inconsolable. I could not believe she was gone. My walking buddy, my dancing dog, my companion, my friend!  We buried her under an Acacia tree on the farm.  The place she had spent so many happy days chasing squirrels and doing happy dog stuff.  My only consolation is that she lived a full and happy life, and her happiest days were spent on the farm! Farewell my dear Spotty! Dog heaven has gained a wonderful soul!