Monday, April 25, 2011

The Great Escape

Today's news of tunneling escapees from the prison in Kandahar came as no surprise.

After all, if our chickens can do it, why couldn't Afghanis?

Our birds got a life sentence recently when our neighbor lady Jean decided to put in flower beds to the rear of the house. Jean explained that she didn't want no stinking chickens digging up her new bulbs, and no, we couldn't fence the chickens out of the flower beds, because there were other plants here and there around the house she wanted to protect.

Actually, she wasn't quite that direct. Jean is very polite. But you get my drift here.

Our chickens would have to be fenced in, for the first time in their lives, instead of being fenced out of the two main Great Farm vegetable gardens: ours and the one belonging to our other neighbors, Jean's son Hamilton and his wife Andrea, and a few smaller ones around our house.

We maintain the fence around Ham and Andrea's garden because they're our birds. We also have a good fence around all our gardens. But, good fence or no, this scheme would no longer be good enough.

Jean's pronouncement came in the late fall, so I had some time.

So I dutifully stockpiled fence posts and concrete and wire, and, as soon as the ground began to thaw, dismantled quite a few other fences here and there, to recycle the components.

But progress wasn't fast enough. We had lingering snow. We had rain. We had no money for new fence, especially chicken wire. (We're spending it all on hay!) The birds were still free, spring was a-springing, and so Jean made a call.

The fence project would have to be accelerated.

So, Saturday morning, off to the farm store I went, list in hand. I chose to go to the Tractor Supply outlet in Bangor. I needed to get the snow tires changed over on the Ford wagon, and such things are generally easier done in Bangor, so I pulled the wheels and found the street tires and took those with me in the back of the pick-em up truck, dropping them off at the tire place along the way.

The choice of stores was my first mistake.

Tractor Supply is a national, for-profit hobby and horse farm chain, and they cater to the horse and pony, playing store-wide country-musak and displaying the check-shirt and blue jeans variant of American rural culture. Their clothing section is bigger than their hardware section.

This is not where we live. Waldo County is agriculturally diverse, home to the largest annual organic farm fair in New England and perhaps the largest in the entire USA. We also have a lot of 50 to 300-cow Maine dairy farms operating on the corn silage and hay rotation. There are vineyards, pasture poultry and pasture pork operations, llamas, dairy sheep, cheese-makers, a three-turbine farm wind farm, small scale ham smokers and even an organic compost operation that uses fish waste from the lobster fishery, but there aren't a lot of checked-shirted, barrel-racing, calf-roping country music fans.

So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when the teenage helper at Tractor Supply didn't know a t-post from a u-post; when there were no bundled u-posts for sale, only expensive singles; when the oats didn't come from Maine and cost 30 percent more than Maine-grown oats at our local feed store; when everything was 20 percent more; when there were only six rolls of chicken wire to choose from, and when there was only one-inch hole-wire and not two-inch.

It didn't improve my nagging feeling of being in some other state to discover the store manager had a marked southern accent. I may be biased and even perhaps prejudiced, but is it completely wrong of me to subconsciously prefer my Maine farm store staff to have native Maine accents? Especially when I'm being ripped off?

The final insult was paying $13.99 for a five-pound box of galvanized fence staples that cost $1.69/pound at our local hardware store or at the farmer's cooperative where we normally shop.

Although some feed prices were cheap, obviously that's the ploy: Bring them in with cheap 16-weight mixed feed and mark them up twenty percent on everything else.

So, if Tractor Supply market researchers are reading this webpage after routine googling, please note, not only do we not dress like that and listen to that stupid music here in mid-central Maine, we don't farm like that either.

After all this shopping and the afternoon rain, Saturday was wiped out. The fence job started on Sunday morning. I left the chickens in their coop while I put up the first sections, thinking I would need to watch carefully to see how they reacted.

Chickens, you see, are smart birds, particularly our chickens, and can often find their way out of a fenced area.

I started by reinforcing the sheep wire with chicken wire. I then strung a length of hot wire across the top of the sheep wire.

To round off the job, I added a length of sheep wire to essentially split the North Paddock in half.

(Making "West North Paddock" and "East North Paddock"? All paddocks need names.)

This sounds easy but was actually six hours of fairly painstaking work.

By the time I got all this done, and got started with what I was supposed to be doing, in the proper order of things absent the phone call from the neighbor, which would be to get ready for spring sheep grazing, I still wasn't feeling that confident.

Aimee and I had been catching and re-catching escapees all day long. This wasn't so bad by itself. It took me most of the day to get the chicken wire job done, so there were places to get out all along the line that hadn't been reinforced yet. But when the whole supposedly chicken-proof pen was complete, I admit, I was rather hoping to rest on my laurels.

But as I was loading the tools in the small trailer to start on the sheep job, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, one chicken, then a flurry of three chickens, somehow wiggling over the top of the gate.

Before I knew it, they were all out, and heading off for the far corners of the farm yard.

I gave up for now and instead did in two hours what I should have started with all along, and fenced the New Paddock and got the sheep on some grass. I raced through the job and will need to go back and upgrade some fence posts (as soon as I can get to a farm store that sell bundled u-posts!), but the sheep were so happy to eat green grass, even Jewel the ancient ewe-l was kicking up her hooves for joy like a spring lamb.

Despite having happy sheep, I was pretty grumpy, and the usual difficulty teaching the new lambs to move paddocks didn't help my mood much. The five o'clock and six o'clock hours both passed with me running around the North Paddock with the shepherd's crook, chasing errant lambs, while their trailer-trash mothers munched away oblivious in the New Paddock. I finally sank down to rest and eat dinner at 6.30 pm.

I was starving, having completely skipped lunch. I was also very sore and even a little sun-burned.

So much for my Easter holiday.

I can see we're going to have a long hot summer of trying to keep these damn chickens in. Obviously I'll need to start with a new type of gate.

If all else fails, we'll have to build a coop.

We'll call it Gitmo.

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