Sunday, 21 June 2015

Law of the farm number 3: “You can’t become a shepherd by reading about sheep”

Perhaps a real adventure is one where you really don't know where you are going to end up. I can see now that our adventure of perusing the farm Goedmoedsfontein has been just such an adventure. I am still not completely sure where the adventure is going to lead, but for better or worse we have caught the train and we are headed out of the station.

In March 2013 we secured and option to purchase this beautiful 10 hectares. It has spring, a stream and a dam. It has some forest, some grassland and some marsh. It is just the right distance from town, in the country, but still allowing our kids to go to school in the city. Just close enough for people to be able to drive out to the farm and buy their weekly supplies of eggs, chicken, boerewors and other fresh produce we dream of marketing from the little shop (or a ruin of a shop that we intend to renovate back to a shop) that is on the farm.
We managed to sell some property to raise the cash that helped us secure the difference between what the bank would loan us and what the sellers wanted. The funny thing is that I didn't feel so much that the "train had left the station" when the sellers accepted our offer, or when the bank approved the finance or even when I paid the deposit to the conveyancers. In fact, I only felt it on the weekend we brought nine of or our cattle to the newly purchased farm from where we were keeping them in Tsitsikama (a hundred and fifty kilometres away to the west)
I had worked hard the week before to create fenced pasture for them. It measures about 40 by 60 metres. The pasture is good. I rigged up a water supply from a rainwater tank which I haphazardly installed to catch some runoff from the roof of the cottage. We loaded these cattle up on a hired trailer on the Saturday afternoon and drove them to the farm. It was the first time had loaded cattle or pulled them on a trailer. It was quite scary. Number one it’s a heavy load and you can’t go very fast and number two these guys kept jumping around causing the trailer to sway uncontrollably. It was not fun.
After this exhausting journey we got the trailer as close as we could to the new paddock (but this was still the other side of the stream). We let them off the trailer and they scattered in all directions. If  my son, Litha was not here I don’t know what I would have done. But we eventually got them herded together and moving slowly in the direction of the paddock into which we managed to secure them. I was exhausted by the time I got home and a bit shaken by the experience. The next morning, Sunday, Litha and I drove to the farm. All nine seemed quite restful. Some were mooing for their mothers (even though they were quite a bit over 12 months old they had not been weaned at Tsitsikama) All seemed fine, but when I came back on Sunday afternoon, I found the whole herd out. I was alone. I ran round like crazy at first trying to direct them back, but they were determined to get away from the paddock. I called my neighbour, Richard. Luckily he was in he and a friend came to help. We got them in and I spent the rest of the evening trying to make the fences more secure. But the more I tried the more I could see that two black cattle were absolutely determined to escape they pushed at the fences and then over they went. By this time it was about 8 pm. I called Litha and Hlubi. I stayed by the fence that had just been jumped to be sure the others would not also come out. They did not and eventually the you and the family arrived and herd to two black cattle back from the tar road where they had got to so that I could get them back in the paddock.

With family back home preparing for the first day of school the next day, I sat in the dark at the farm watching the fence, stepping up every few minutes to beat a cow back from the fence it was trying to trample. It was a losing battle. By about 10 pm as the rain was starting to come down, the two belligerent black cattle again jumped the fence. I had no choice but to let them go. I was hopeless to try no again to find them in the dark and what's more the remaining seven cattle seemed reasonably complacent and not intent on leaving the paddock any time soon. I went home, defeated and depleted, to sleep. In the 20 minute ride back home I could not shake the stress. I was upset. I was rattled and I was exhausted. I did not sleep well. My mind was racing, fearing the sort, fearing the whole herd was now dispersed all over the neighbouring farmlands. But I knew there was nothing that I could do till the morning.

I left home at 5:30 am. I found a job seeker next to the road near the farm before 6 am (I could not believe my luck that there would be someone there that early - his name was Marius) Marius and I found the two black cattle heading toward us on the side of the road. They were reasonably easy to herd back and seemed quite relaxed and content to be re-united with the group they had abandoned the night before. I was relieved that the others had not also jumped the fence. Marius worked the whole day with Boyce to get the fences as strong as we could get them. I had to go in to the office for some crucial meetings. By the time I got back to the farm in the afternoon the cattle were all still in, but the two black cattle were mooing loudly again and looking agitated. As sure as anything right in front of my eyes the two black cattle jumped the fence again.
Richard from next door gain came to my rescue, suggesting that we separate the two black cattle out. He arranged for them to be located on his neighbours land were 2.4m high electric fence contained them that night. I kept the remaining seven on my side that night and set up the portable electric fence for the first time. When I went the next morning to drop Marius, they were happily inside the paddock. As I write this now at home 20 km away from the farm, I am feeling less anxious about the cattle on the farm. I don’t feel anxious about them at all. A year has passed since I brought the cattle to Pebblespring, but I look back and see how bringing them there definitely jolted me into a place in which I was uncomfortable. This was not theoretical any more. I was not a spectator to the spectacle.
I had read a lot about cattle. I had quite liked Joel Salatin’s book “Salad Bar Beef”, I had tried to wade through Alan Savoury’s “Holistic Management”. I had even ventured beyond the printed page and run some cattle down in Tsitsikama by proxy, with other people doing the dirty work. But reality of this experience was large and in my face. It threatened my resolve, it got me thinking an doubting in a way that no book could do, because at the end of the day there is no way we can ignore Law of the farm number 3 “You can’t become a shepherd by reading about sheep”
But you know that I do not want to talk to you about sheep. You know that I am trying to point out how you and I can benefit significantly from getting out hands dirty with real experience, real risk and real discomfort. Of course we must read, of course we must research, this is what distinguishes us for the other species, the ability to learn from each other and from generations that have passed. But there has been no generation like this one, so completely obsessed with media, so completely obsessed with reading writing, watching and listening. So much time spent spectating and only perhaps commenting, when we feel energised and confident, on the spectacle. We have become consumers of other people experiences and other people’s lives.
What do I say to all of this? Just don’t fall into the trap. Rather do something, take action, physical action. Run a race. Play and match. Climb a mountain, chop down a tree, plant a tree. Sure, talk about it if you have done it. Write about it if you have done it. Post videos on Youtube if you have done it.
But first do something!

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