Farm Days

The train back to Vienna is full – a group of Czech natives, I’m assuming based on the language, is at one end of the wagon playing cards, a couple of American girls are taking selfies of themselves and talking about fit bits, but all others are quiet, thank goodness, on their way somewhere. And I back to the farm. 

Anticipating the peace and the clean smell of land and grain, slightly odorous of manure, is now welcome for me after the metal rails and stone of Prague, the flood of vendors and cafes and restaurants vying for attention. Farm life is strenuous, tenuous, and yet productive and fulfilling, but despite the fast food that has been surrounding me here, I find myself wondering if any left overs from Birgit’s homemade tomato soup and morsels of stuffed zucchini are still in the fridge. 

We are just pulling out from a Czeck station called Pardubice, and so far I’ve lucked out and not had to move for someone’s inability for spontaneity with a seat reservation. A woman (girl? young lady?) is beside me, her head resting down on the tray, forearms for pillows. Maybe a bit too much absinthe during last night’s pub crawl. So I’ll take this opportunity and write about daily life on the farm, as it seems that beyond the little bit about this and that, I’m leaving out a full day. 

Mornings for me start at 6:30 to first feed the horses and chickens as part of my 4-5 hour work day before any other tasks they have for me. I can feed them any time between 6 and 10, so my deciding when to feed them depends on whether Charlie needs to start in the fields. Lately you may have been reading of the corn fields I’ve been walking through, but there is a lot more. So I like to get the feedings finished before breakfast, because once the family start coming down the stairs one at a time, things can get pretty hectic.

I enter the barn entrance from the back yard, opening huge, thick wooden doors with brass handles.

Inside, I locate the two buckets in which I fill about 6 cups of two different types of grain mixtures for the horses. Each horse gets its own bucket and they should be fed simultaneously, as the older and more dominant horse (Rufus) will steal all the food from the younger horse (Davie). While they are munching away, I walk to another barn /shelter where I lift a bail of hay from the stack and take it into the horse field, behind them, divide it in two, and fluff it out in different places so that they can munch on that later. If I wait until they are finished with the buckets, they start grabbing it while I’m walking, and I don’t want them to start fighting over some hay with me in the middle. Once the hay is placed, I walk to their water tank, and turn the handle on the tank to fill another large basin with water for the day.

Above: after a run with Birgit, Greta finds relief in the horses’ water basin.

Once the horses have been seen to, I walk down a ways to the chicken yard with two gallons of fresh water. Once there, I open the little door to the chicken coup to let them out of their hen house. They will come down the plank often one at a time, but some of them get antsy if a hen is taking too much time and start clucking and jumping to the ground around her.

There are currently ten hens and one rooster. Birgit gave me the low down on the whole egg laying process, and also why they will choose to sit on some eggs, letting them develop into chicks, and not sit on others, the ones we collect for cooking. If you’re interested, I will share the specifics later. Once the hen door is open, I open a container kept near the hen house and pull out a cob of dried corn. I take it to a bare spot under neath some trees and break the kernels off, scattering them around. The chickens love this, and often run to where I’m throwing; if they are late getting out of the hen house, they miss this treat. Once that has been done, I go back to the hen house, and open a different bucket, one with seed in it. I pour three scoops (2 cups per scoop) into their feeding tray which is underneath the hen house, in case it rains.

Then I take that same grain bucket and walk into a smaller cage inside the chicken yard. Inside this smaller cage are two young hens and six male chickens, which were born this spring. They use the branches of a small tree inside this pen to sleep on, the height instinctively telling them it will be safe from predators. They don’t get any corn, but they do get lots of grain feed that will fatten the males up for the fall and future meals. When they were chicks, they got a special chick food, so the different types of food for different purposes is the reason they animals are separated. After the feeding of both sets of chickens, I change their water which is held in a mini water tank contraption that holds about a gallon of water and releases its contents slowly into a trough that runs around its base. Every day I take a brush and brush away the scum or any algae that might form inside and outside this little water tank.

Charlie’s father lives next door and he is too old for any strenuous farm work, but he does still like to come around and help Charlie with this or that. He used to be a dairy farmer, and as such, could never leave the farm to “go on vacation.” As a result, he has never gone anywhere in his life, except maybe to Vienna, but I can’t think of what a farmer would need in Vienna. All suppliers and buyers are contacted and business is handled right in Senning. Crop farming gives farmers their winters free and possibilities for traveling and leaving the farm for extended periods. When Birgit and the children added two kittens to the mix of pets, it will fall on Charlie’s father to make sure the horses, the chickens, the dog, and now the two cats are fed if they go on a vacation. One of their favorite places is to their apartment in the mountains of Austria, where often Birgit’s extended family will join them, to ski.

Usually within half an hour I have the feedings of horses and chickens completed, and I go back to the house where I make my breakfast. Birgit and the children enjoy their summer hours; usually they start to come down stairs around 8:30, one by one. I make my instant espresso triple and then either a muesli I mix myself from their selection of cereal grains and seeds, or light rye bread and cheese. The family drinks apple, grape or cherry juice made from their own fruit that they either press themselves or have pressed.

Usually the night before I ask what they want me to do the following day, and it could be either the corn fields, Birgit’s garden, or collecting fruit. The fruit trees are in the chicken yard, and I have been back there on several occasions to pick cherries and apples on different days. From the apples, Birgit made an apple strudel one day, which was better than the one I had in Vienna, and I made a deep dish American apple pie, which turned out tasting like it should despite my converting grams to ounces.

Another day Birgit asked me to tie the tomatoes higher up onto the stakes, as their stalks were growing longer; I find such pleasure in working with plants and animals. They give me such peace and joy. Good news, though, the corn cobs are coming in two or three to a stalk, and the male flowers are dry and dying, so the walk-through season of removing female flowers is over!! It’s been fulfilling to see the fruits of one’s labor…

Towards 2 lunch is ready. Every day offers a new delight, something which is usually made from carbs (potato or flour dumplings, young potatoes, noodles or rice) and some kind of vegetable (zucchini, tomatoes, peas, carrots) into some kind of sauce that includes milk or cream, sour cream or topfen a type of light cream cheese. Usually Birgit has made soup before hand: zucchini soup, tomato soup.

Once I made chicken soup, and then a vegetable soup. Last week I pulled some carrots from the garden and boiled the carrots and the leaves for a delicious carrot soup. I also picked dandelion leaves one day because I had a craving for greens. They were excellent with a bit of olive oil and lemon as well. Lunch will last until 2:30 or 3. Generally Birgit and I will talk long after the children have run off. I will clean up, and then I will either take a bike ride around and between the fields of one town to another, play chess with Emmanuel, go downstairs to my room for some quiet time, or help out, doing this or that. There is a light supper of bread and vegan spreads, hams and cheeses around 7:30, but most I’ve found this is flexible and people come and go whenever they get hungry. 

At 8:30 or earlier, depending on when I want to get in my comfy clothes, I feed the horses one more time, going through the same process of grain, hay and water, and then wait until dusk to close the hen house door. Usually all the hens are in by that time.

About five days ago, Birgit, Charlie and Anika released 6 of the young hens from the interior cage to the exterior, ready to be joined with the older hens.  That next evening, all of them were perched on the cherry trees when the sun set, instead of following the others into the hen house. So Birgit and I had to catch them, and it is no easy feat. But the advantage, she explains, is that at night they are disoriented and sleepy, so you can creep up on them and quickly snatch them by cupping your palms around the front part of the wings. Of course, if they are perched too high, you need to wiggle the branches so that they will wake up and jump down, but we have often had to climb the tree just to get to them. 

Each night, we gear up with flashlight headbands and have to scan the trees for them, catch them one at a time, to make sure they are safely inside the hen house. Once they are caught, they wake up and cry bloody murder, flapping their wings away from the hold we may have on them. I always think this must cause them great stress. But too may weasels and foxes come around here and wreak havoc on their lives, so we’re actually saving their lives.

The other morning, As I came to feed and water them and open the hatch to see if any new eggs were laid, I noticed two young hands barely moving and one which was definitely dead. I texted Charlie right away, who was already in the field, and he was there in five minutes. His father was there as well, who happened to be picking some apples. It was very sad. By the time Charlie arrived, there were three dead hens. I was afraid it was due to the trauma of leaving one pen and into another, or of the stress caused by the late night captures, but they insisted it was a little parasite, harmless to humans but which sickens chickens, and sickens them fatally when they’re immune systems are young.

The hens that I just last night held and kept safe were now in a bucket in the barn. I left for Prague that afternoon, and I have a feeling they have since been plucked and frozen for a later date. I hope much later. 

Too Much Absinthe wakes up beside me, charges her phone, makes some seemingly important texts, and replaces her head. We near Vienna as the train slows, and I’m comforted by anticipating the familiar Bahnhof, the platforms, feeling competent with the arrival and departure boards. I find my way to platform for the Stockerau train, and then the bus to Senning.

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