It had occurred to us that there was a fairly large, fairly obvious question yet to be answered. How exactly were we going to transform ourselves from city caterpillars to country butterflies? What if we hated it? What if the sound of a rooster at 4:30 am caused such a fury that it resulted in its untimely death by shovel? How were we to gain valuable farm experience when our family migrated to the city with our grandparents? Let’s face it, farming skills just don’t come up in general conversation in downtown Toronto. Except perhaps, when it relates to the time-waster Farmville.
Where to begin? We were at the crossroads. Sure we had invested some time and financial resources but we had yet to prove to ourselves that we could actually shovel poo and kill our supper. We know this is a crazy idea and despite never growing crops other than a backyard garden, never dealing with animals other than the family dog, never living in a rural setting beyond the suburbs of a large city, somehow our decision has been the right one. And thanks to a newspaper article, those questions have answers and we got our country wings.
Several months ago, the Toronto Star published a story about an experience on a goat farm in Devon, UK. The reporter went to the farm and learned about feeding, milking of goats and making goat cheese. In return for her labour, she got her room and board. Sounded perfect. We went to the site workaway.com and signed up. It was quite amazing to see the number of countries involved and the number of opportunities. We sent out several requests and to be honest, got a number of rejections. It was a little ego bruising to get a few curt “not interested” responses however having spent time on dating websites, online rejection has a short shelf life. And like online dating, you learn fairly quickly where compatibility might be found.
We concentrated our efforts in Ireland. Our escape plan being if we hated it at least we could have a holiday and a bit of craic as they say. One farm stood out. It was a mother-daughter combo in county Mayo. The west coast of Ireland is spectacular and we crossed our fingers for an acceptance email. When we got one, we were really pleased and relieved.
Our flights were booked and our departure date arrived. It was a little daunting heading to a stranger’s home and wondering what might be expected of us…and no less so for the hosts. However, Mary and her daughter Anna turned out to be the perfect example of the perfect hosts. After driving from Dublin we were welcomed with warming cups of tea and conversation. We had told them about our Italian olive farm and how we wanted to learn about farm life. Its a bit hard to bring up “I want to learn how to kill and clean a chicken” without sounding like a satanic psychopath, which is why I love the Irish so much. They have a bit of mind-reading ability and after a few sips of tea, Mary in her charming accent suggested “now would you girls like to kill a chicken”… we knew we were at the right place. Mary was a natural teacher and her love of farming life was contagious and heart warming.
Their farm has a menagerie of animals including turkeys, chickens, guinea fowl, pigs, goats and horses and four lively and loveable dogs. Our first night we had an excellent meal and were told we would be feeding the animals the next morning. The farm moved at the pace of the sun. Early morning (later than we actually arrive at the office back in the city) we would gather in the kitchen for a quick supportive coffee or tea and toast if we liked. Then we were off to feed the animals. This took about an hour and afterwards we would have our proper breakfast. Wow! two breakfasts! Then after our second proper breakfast we were off to do more physical work at either cleaning out stalls or wood chipping or weeding.
There was another pair of sisters staying at the farm as luck would have it. They were a lovely pair of twins from Dresden who were far more experienced and at least twenty years younger, doing their gap year working on various farms and visiting various countries. With the extra hands, we could rotate our chores and we wouldn’t have to do any one thing too long. Mary made it quite clear we were not to strain ourselves and to say if we were too scared or too tired to tackle something. However, Anna was a cheerful director of operations and never once did we think we were asked of something beyond us.
There really isn’t much to shoveling shit. And despite the sound of it, it really didn’t smell, dare I say it…all that shitty. We were expecting a full nasal assault but actually it wasn’t that bad. I have smelt worse things on the streets in July than what was confronting me in the pig stall. We were to clean out the stall as the previous occupants were off to market the next day. We had never seen a live pig up close. Sure we have visited the “farm” exhibit at the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition) but the animals were generally behind thick glass – for their protection as well as ours. When we heard their morning squeals on the farm it was a serious ear bender. When they say pigs like their food, they really, really mean it. The pig stall was also a hell of a lot cleaner than I expected. Pigs eat in one place, sleep in another and never shit in their bedding. The stall floor was covered in saw dust and straw which compacted during their residency but the fun stuff was concentrated in two corners. We both have a new found respect for pigs. At dinner that night Mary and Anna invited us to accompany them to the abattoir the next day. They always accompany their animals to make sure they get a quick and respectful send off. I know that sounds a bit harsh but bacon and ham come from somewhere and we just spent the afternoon shoveling evidence of their origins.
The next day we went with Mary and Anna to the abattoir. Neither of us knew what to expect. For us, bacon came in packages and here we were at the start rather than the butcher’s counter. We were first in an expanding line of local farmers bringing their pigs “to market”. Before the animals took their final walk, they are labelled with something called a slapper. This proved to be a valuable lesson. A slapper is like a tattoo. It has sharp inked needles that make animals traceable to the farm. Each farmer has a unique number and must be accompanied with matching paperwork before anything can happen. Despite the violent description of the slapper, when Anna “slapped” the farm’s pigs they didn’t even flinch and merrily went on munching their breakfast. As we were waiting in line one of the other more burly of the farmers decided to slap his pigs in a low-sided, open trailer. This was a disaster waiting to happen. Pigs aren’t stupid and the force of the slapping lead to escaped pigs and general chaos for more than an hour. It took ten men running around waiving and generally looking like a clown act before the brilliance of producing a bucket of feed reared its head. Lesson learned. Slapping a pig so hard to prove before our very eyes that if you can’t be a good example, be a warning. Duly noted.
After our highly amusing trip to market and now fairly proficient skills with a pitch fork it was time to put our selves through another more daunting task… time to see if we could actually do the deed ourselves. Mary’s philosophy of animal raising is that animals need to be respected and never to have a harsh moment and deserve a quick and efficient journey to the table. Her method of getting a chicken “oven ready” so to speak was indeed quick and relatively bloodless. Chickens have a design flaw in the sense they have an extremely weak neck and they can be detached in seconds with the aid of a broom handle. I didn’t realise I had done my first act of butchery and neither did Steffanie, there was no dramatic sound or feeling of detachment of the head and Mary had to say “they are gone” for us to realise it was over. Literally seconds. Yes, there was flapping but it was not the actions of a living animal. Wow! We both did it! No tears, no running around carrying on(us not the chicken). To be honest it was so quick, we didn’t have time to flinch if we even felt the need to. That morning we woke city girls and went to bed farm girls.
Plucking the chicken went very quickly once Mary showed us the method. It happens as the bird is still warm and removing the feathers is easiest at this point. And our new grim fact: chickens eat the ends of freshly plucked feathers. That actually was more gross to witness than killing it. Once we had plucked the chicken we took our birds to a cold room to drain and cool down before we cleaned and prepped the bird for cooking. This was the final step. Sure we could do the deed but could we clean it the following morning without hysterics? Its a lot less messy when the internal organs are cool. For the sake of my more sensitive friends we were very successful and without the gory details- we took to it like water off a duck’s back… yeah, yeah bad joke but its hard to be amusing when you have your hand up a cold chicken’s ass.
In our week on the farm, we shoveled a mountain of shit, fed animals that previously were only known to us in clean, clear, boneless packages in the store to killing and cleaning them. If we deserve to get our farming wings, it must be for that at least. The entire week was a brilliant and lively affair. The other pair of sisters, Pammi and Franci, were excellent company and we were so glad to meet another set of like minded sisters.
It was a trans-formative vacation. No swim-up bar, no sleazy wait staff with ready made seduction lines, no thumping dance music, no feelings of insecurity in a bathing suit and no hang overs…it was rubber boots, a waterproof shell suit, no make up and no pressure. We left changed people and have memories of a life time and made great friends. If that doesn’t describe the perfect holiday – let me know.
Oh and the rooster survived. Doesn’t mean we didn’t think about it once or twice.