Down Home on the Farm (edited)


Down Home on the Farm

       Meg Miller


People interested in living an independent life but, who haven't got started, or  who don't know how to start, or who are dissatisfied with their present life style but don't know what alternatives  are open to them, may be interested to know how we went about making a start.

A shared involvement in craft was really our motivating force. Embroidery, a little pottery, dressmaking and finally spinning and weaving (all areas covered in a tertiary course) further crystallised my feeling for doing things with my hands for myself and friends. Leatherwork was David's thing, belts mostly, watch bands and an odd bag or two-and an interest that was able to exist on a commercial level. 

Despite the fact that we were living in the city at this time, we started our black sheep flock with a dozen carefully collected sheep agisted in the country. And then we moved to the country.

 Country life here we come-a small dry dusty town in central Victoria. Water? Collected off the roof—if it did rain. I missed the city at first- friends dropping in, films, the large range of shops, galleries and the library. This was the loss we felt the most. In fact many times in that first year we went down to the city solely to check things out in the library. 

We also slowly became aware of the country way of doing things, and letterwriting became the link to book shops, guilds, the Agriculture department, and membership in various craft and animal organisations became a necessity. Of course we had been getting the Weekly Times for some years. We also became aware that entertainment would have to be self-produced.

 David was quite busy involved in a tertiary agricultural course, looking after the sheep flock (numbers had doubled in a respectable time after the ram's arrival) and raising a group of poddy calves. What a din twenty-one hungry calves make especially in the town. We kept chooks, usually only half a dozen at a time, and were able to notice just what interesting personalities chooks have. Our toilet, in true country style, was placed a fast fifteen metres from the house and for a time became the permanent home of a certain chook and rooster. No mod cons here, the seat was made up of a series of boards that went from wall to wall, with a basic square plank lid right in the middle. Well, these two fowls repeatedly slept each side of the seat, with us frequently having to squeeze in between them. The hen always laid her eggs there. Khaki Campbell ducks were another part of the family and joyously we watched the sitting duck with mental images of a dozen fluffy ducklings. The hatching? One duckling, which quickly became spoilt and over indulged. We didn't keep them for long as the dry conditions were just not suited to them. 

It was about this time I started breadmaking with a wood stove. I felt almost obliged to make bread in it, and what a moody cranky apparatus it was. I gained a healthy respect for that stove. It too had its off days when it would sulk and smoulder. We started to grind our own flour then, and a wholemeal way of life started pasta, scones, all sorts of breads, biscuits and even crumpets.

By this time I was sewing all my own clothes and shirts for David and had knitted spun wool jumpers for both of us. Life took a different slant when Breck arrived. 'We're er going to get a dog.' In horror I pleaded, cajoled and snarled. 'No fear, it'll chase the cats, chooks, ducks, lambs and calves.' We had had two 'dogs' on trial several weeks before and they had chewed through leashes and then several of the ducks. 'Dogs?' They resembled more an underfed Shetland pony, those tall, coarse, grey Scottish Deerhounds. Well, he arrived shy, gentle but enormous. He licked lambs and cats alike and stole food and plates from the table. Eggs (still unbroken), butter, cheese, my diet biscuits all went. Being of a comfortable height to eat from the table he would nosey in and put all to the smell test. A cup here, a saucepan there, all were carefully removed and stored in his 'spot' together with every tin and empty milk container he could find around town. Small branches, pie bags, sheep's wool, all were duly collected I hardly need add he was a constant source of embarrassment. Now we wouldn't be without him, and in fact, have Shona, his sister, cross bred Biddy and Suzi and Wimpy. Wimpy red Kelpie, noisy, excitable hyperactive, opposite in every way to the hounds is such a worker with the sheep she put the farm bike out of business. 

We tried gardening, with a little help from Posy, our friend, but climatic conditions were against us. We did manage to grow silver beet, cabbages, peas and pumpkins. Others were put in, some didn't come up, and others grew but were stunted. We had to keep our bath and washing water and bucket it on to the garden. The garden also suffered from the goats who were forever getting in and cleaning things up. We couldn't really complain though as we were reaping the benefit milk. These two years were important for us and in them we saw the evolution of a different life style. At first it was unconscious, we did these things because we enjoyed the involvement and experience. Later, we realised what you did yourself was better made, stronger and a little more interesting than its shop counterpart. Or perhaps it had ingredients that didn't need to be vitamin enriched as the original vitamins were still intact. We also noticed ourselves becoming less and less wasteful. We were buying mainly basics that could be bought in large quantities—so package and carton waste was at a minimum. Food became simple and 'Whole' with much of it being provided by ourselves. With clothes we felt that when you slowly and patiently made something you just didn't feel like discarding it until it was in tatters. Previously clothes tended to be discarded without to, much feeling. We also realised that we no longer wanted to buy on sight—instead would rather wait and try to make it ourselves. We have an old farm house on an irrigation farm at present. There's plenty of water and we have the garden going with cabbages, cauliflowers, beans, silverbeet, onions, peas and potatoes. Gerry, who was with us for a few months, started the garden during the hot summer period. Al- though it's only a small effort so far, we have had juicy sweet corn, butter beans and silver beet. My father is a keen gardener and spoils us by sending boxes of fresh veges on the train.

 To help us in the garden we have the bees. We had three hives but they were amalgamated into one for the long winter months. Come summer time we will probably have six hives with a new young queen in each laying eggs to breed more bees. Our bees have kept us in honey this winter for porridge, bread, biscuits and in most instances when sugar would normally be used. Winter is always a good time for doing things inside . Lately we have been spinning for jumpers and socks, and a shawl that when finished will probably fit a giant. We've made candles, had to do a little leather work (dog collars, a bag and slippers) to replace worn out articles, a floor rug is underway, and macrame has appeared on walls and last week on a window. Clothes too have had to be replaced, but as yet we haven't the time to weave our own fabric. Lengthy discussions on what to put in the next issue of Grass Roots have welded these projects together. We have just built a yard for our ducks with a 200 litre pond for them to splash in. Bought to keep the snails and slugs down, they followed their noses and went to the dam AWOL. The chooks on the other hand have proved to be methodical workers and together with beer baits are keeping the snail population down. The chooks have also started laying again and any extra eggs are being preserved. For the past three weeks we've had the pleasant company of a jovial pair of kookaburras, and as I sit on the verandah, writing this article, I can't help but hear them cackling high up in a gum tree nearby. The cats, purring around my shins, probably feel the laugh is on them—the kookas are always out of reach. The kookaburras seemed to usher into our home a discussion that has been going on for some time. It evolves around 'freedom'. Are you free when you move into the country? Can you really be free in the city? What is freedom? Many people who have adopted a rural life style, who have 'got away from it all', will quickly and loudly explain that they've never been tied down so much before. They used to be able to pack up at 5 o'clock, but now they will often work from 8 o'clock in the morning to 6 o'clock at night, and still complain that there are not enough hours in the day. We often find ourselves starting off again after tea making frames for bee hives, or sewing, or simply continuing some craft work. The moment you become responsible for another life you're committed, and when we consider the number of animals we keep (probably no more than any other country person), we realise how heavily committed we have become. Not only do the animals need food and water, but the goat or cow must be milked twice a day (every day), and the chooks locked up at night. What if you don't keep animals? Plants are living things too. They often need water and shade and usually at certain times of the day. If you water young plants in the morning of a hot day then the water will heat up and burn the leaves.

Usually your garden isn't pest free, so if you want to eliminate the use of pesticides a pest extermination trip must be made each morning to remove the competition for your vegies. So, in its own way, living in the country is more structured than any other life style, and you can't opt out of the structure so easily. It's very difficult to sleep in when you know Annabel is outside waiting to be milked, and if you don't milk her she'll burst And if the chooks aren't locked up at night they will start to disappear with cold-blooded regularity. But a rural life style does have its freedom. You're not restricted to working so that someone else can make a profit from your labours. In fact profit often becomes of secondary importance. You're working because you enjoy it. You don't have to accept the quality of the food in the shops either, you can grow all your own food quite easily and be much healthier and happier as a result. Well that's a little bit of background to the 'hows' and 'whys'. It's a pretty busy life, but a basic, hard and healthy life style. We feel we've removed many of the unnecessary complications and gained a level of personal involvement that enriches some of the most mundane chores. You don't mind doing these things because you're in there, hands and feet, not outside it, not separated by layers of plastic, or automatic switched-on instant gratification.

This article was first published in Grass Roots,

edited by David and Meg Miller.

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