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Wednesday, 01 June 2011 19:43

Life lessons learned in the barnyard

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Goats view a gate left open as a passageway to excitement. And it is exciting, too, for the goat keeper, when the entire herd escapes the barnyard. Lesson: When you open a closed gate, shut it behind you. This isn’t an original thought, but that doesn’t make the saying any less true.

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Honeybees are insects. They do not think or act like we do. But they seem to feel fear, or perhaps it’s anger. If you swat at them when they are buzzing around your head, they sting in response. Lesson: Don’t swat at honeybees, you’ll get stung. Retreat is the best course of action.

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Reading books about farming is fun and educational. But it doesn’t get the barnyard mucked, the animals fed or the garden weeded. Lesson: If you want time for lying in bed and reading, have fewer animals and buy your vegetables at the farmers market.

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Only a fool works honeybees without smoke. Honeybees know we are not their friends; we come to them as robbers and intruders. They defend themselves with righteous anger, even when we plan to bother them “only” for a few seconds. Lesson: Use a smoker.

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Only an even bigger fool works honeybees without the protection of a veil or other protective clothing. There is no such being as a “bee whisperer,” though I’ve met a few people new to beekeeping who seem to believe otherwise — for a while. Lesson: Learn from my sister; don’t work bees wearing flip-flops.

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Beware the middleman: If you want to support local farmers, buy directly from the farmer. Lesson: If you want to make money at farming, be the middleman — open a store selling the fruits of others’ labors.

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‘Good fences make good neighbors,’ might be true, but I’m terrible at building fences, and practice is not making perfect. Lesson: stock panels are the greatest invention of modern times. Yes, they are pricey, but what is lost in dollars is saved in time and frustration.

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Building barns and chicken houses and other structures is time consuming and expensive. Lesson: Bend stock panels in half-hoops between T-bars, then put tarps on top, and the result is fast, relatively inexpensive shelters for animals.

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If you do not have pastureland, do not buy animals such as sheep that rely on grass. Lesson One: Impulsive farming and homesteading decisions rarely work out very well. Lesson Two: Feeding sheep hay all summer is hideously expensive.

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Neglecting your honeybees is not organic, natural beekeeping, even if you aren’t using chemicals. It’s just bad husbandry. Lesson: At least be honest with yourself if you aren’t caring properly for your charges. Otherwise, learn and put into practice known, successful methods of natural, chemical-free beekeeping.

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Don’t adopt and bring home a kitten with the expectation it will grow up to only kill voles that are destroying the garden. Lesson: Cats kill whatever the hell they want to, including cute chipmunks, skinks and songbirds, which they dismember into bloody little pieces in the middle of the living-room carpet. And they view newly tilled gardens as convenient toilet areas.   

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Broody chickens don’t lay eggs, and they block the laying boxes so other hens can’t lay eggs. Lesson: Old wives tales often don’t work. Dunking hens in cold water doesn’t make them any less broody; it just leaves them — and you — wet and indignant.

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Using chemicals to kill mites that afflict honeybees does work, at least until the mites get resistant to the chemicals and your honeybees sicken from chemical “cures.” Lesson: Using an insecticide to destroy insects that are residing on insects is crazy; beekeepers themselves are more responsible for the honeybee disappearance than any mite, virus or mysterious plague.

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Letting all the female goats mate with the billy and have babies seems fun until the herd jumps from six to 15. Lesson: That’s way too many goats — don’t ever, ever do that again.

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Having dirt under one’s fingernails from farming doesn’t make a person inherently trustworthy. Lesson: Get to know the person you buy vegetables and other products from at the farmers market. Visit the farmer’s farm; ask about farming practices. If it doesn’t feel right, buy from someone else.

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Farming is physically hard; writing about farming or anything else is mentally hard. There’s nothing about farming, writing, or writing on farming that’s easy. Lesson: Too late now, but maybe you should have remained a classical musician. Oh, right, that was hard, too.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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