City Slicker to Country Chick

I Should Have Seen It Coming ...

NinaReally, I should have. I take full responsibility; I have no excuse. 

It has been a quiet two weeks on the farm. THAT should have been my first clue!  Evenings have been clear with just a hint of the crisp fall nights that will soon be upon us. Mornings just cool enough to get lots of things done before it gets too warm. How did I not know that it was really a conspiracy? How did I miss the signs, the omens as clear as day? Perhaps, if I had been born and raised in the country, I would have caught on. Being city raised and a country transplant, I didn’t have idea one.  As it were, the signs zipped right past me like a wild pitch, high and outside and headed for the stands!! Runner on first!!!

In my very first blog I spoke of the things I had learned the hard way being new to farm living. Number ten was an especially trying venture when a bunch of tiny, hyperactive Guinea chicks made a break for it through a small opening left in the cardboard circle of their brooder. Long story short, they were all rounded up and have been a peaceful bunch ever since, doing the things that Guineas do … eating, sleeping, growing, making noise and pooping. I talk to them while I work around them. They tilt their little heads and look at me like they know what I am saying. “What should I write for my blog this week?” I ask them filling feeders with mash. I let their peaceful little demeanors fool me! They have lulled me into the false sense of security that I am actually in charge of the place … WRONG!!!

When things go wrong in the city, we call it Murphy’s Law … out here they must call it MacDonald’s Law, E-I-E-I-OH NO!!! I have my morning routine … get up, let the dogs out, feed the cats. Then I head out to let the Jersey Boyz out of their pen and open the sliding coop door so that the turkeys and chickens that are allowed to free range can get out. I always, ALWAYS close the sliding door after everyone is out.  I change the water and feed the chicks still in the brooder. There is one lone holdout still in the rafters, and he’s starting to tick me off. “You’re pressing your luck buddy … Thanksgiving is only two months away!” Even swinging a broom at him will not budge him from his roost. His feet must be nailed down, I think. The horses are getting impatient. Neighing and running back and forth along the electric fence line. OK, I leave the turkey. “I’ll be baack!” I say in my best Terminator imitation. Time to take care of the horses, Snow and Storm. Some grain, a couple of flakes of hay and a few scritches and the girls are content. Miss Mimi is making her “BOOF” noises non stop … time for her breakfast, too. The water troughs get a good scrubbing; hot weather really gunks them up. Fresh cool water fills them to the brim. The horses come by, sticking half of their faces in the water and splashing around. Mimi follows suit and heads into her pond/wallow. She starts blowing muddy bubbles, too. Within a couple of minutes she has her head resting on a mud pillow she has formed and is snoring away. Too funny!! How fulfilling it is to see them doing so well after being so abused before. It does my heart good.

Dog and Cat Family

My dog, Sadie, and her adopted family.

Time for my breakfast and coffee, I think, heading to the house. Do you have your detective hats on? Do you see the crucial step I have missed here? It will soon become glaringly obvious.

Breakfast dishes are being washed as I gaze out the window looking at the turkeys running around … turkeys, quick count, force of habit … five, everyone accounted for. LIGHT BULB! I forgot to close the coop door … darn it. Out I go … I head inside to make sure that all the feeders are still full. I figure one of the big chickens may have snuck in for a quick easy meal instead of hunting up it’s own breakfast. What the??? Something is very wrong … I seem to be a little short of bodies here … lots of bodies actually. Holy Moley … there is not a Guinea chick in sight … not a one out of 18! Rafters? Nope! Nesting boxes? Nope! Where could they be? They are younger than the chickens, surely they didn’t get over the 4 foot tall panel that makes up their brooder now, did they? Out the door, around the back of the garage and there they are, all 18 of them. They are scattered around the wood pile out back, some on top, some tucked into the openings, all hunting bugs … good Guineas. My crazy cat Bitsy was raised by a dog so she thinks she is a dog. She has tagged along and now the site of all these feathered escapees is more than her kitty curiosity can stand. Before I realize it, she sneaks in for a closer look. After having her butt kicked by both the roosters and turkeys, looking is all she wants to do. The Guineas do not know this … with a collective loud squawk, they EXPLODE from the wood pile and are coming … AT … MY … HEAD!!! What??? They can fly already??? WHAT? ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? It gets better … not only are they flying … they are heading for the forest that makes up the back of my property, to the tops of the trees no less. To add insult to injury a couple have aim that would rival a turkey’s … they manage to give new meaning to the phrase “POOP HAPPENS!” I do not for one single, solitary moment think this is an accident! I have visions of a Guinea Mafia meeting taking place in the quiet of the night after lights out …”Guido, can you fly yet?” “Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you … I’m lookin’ at you, ain’t I? Better get moving on that!” “Sammy, you got that stupid turkey on board. He is gonna stay in those rafters or he’s gonna have an accident! Never know when he might just meet a bobcat.” “No one tips their hand that we can fly. Keep your feet on the ground until I say or you’re gonna be wearing cement galoshes!”

So, as I write this, the whole group is still sitting in the trees. I don’t know how this is going to end. Will they make good on their escape and stay out or will they make their way back into the coop as night falls?? Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.

Like I said, I should have seen this coming!!!

Footnote:  The Great Guinea Getaway of Friday the 13th is over, for the most part. I rounded up four chicks later that evening before it got dark. The next morning there were eight more hiding in the leaves under my camper. They were making Guinea noises so I would notice them, loud enough for me to hear, but not loud enough for a predator to zero in on them. They looked pretty sorry and walked along with my prodding them from behind like they were heading to the gallows. No attempts at flying, no running, no squawking. They were pretty happy when they realized they were heading back to the brooder where there were full feeders and fresh water. I don’t hold out much hope for the rest of the escapees, but you never know … I’m betting they didn’t see it coming either!!

Are There Bugs in Arkansas? Part II

NinaOh naïve girl – I am walking in the tall grass, admiring the view and wearing flip flops and shorts. I know better than to head into the woods, poison ivy and such. But here in the field, surrounded by greenery, I am happy. I sit on a downed tree, stretching my legs to warm them to the sun. I think it is great, to commune with nature on such an up close and personal level.

Mother Nature, however, has a sick sense of humor. An hour later, I casually reach down to scratch an itch by my ankle; it is the beginning of the end. The itching is intense, maddening and growing. From my ankle, up my calf, over my knee, up my thigh and now … my butt, are you kidding me?!? I have long, natural nails, but they just aren’t enough to satisfy this maddening itch. I move to a handy hair brush, then two, using both hands trying to scratch everything at once. The more I scratch, though, the worse it gets. My skin is red and hot and if I thought it would help, I would peel it off. What is going on?? I put on my glasses, but I see nothing! I get a magnifying glass, and now I can see tiny, infinitesimal red dots … what the heck is this?  Poison ivy, poison oak, allergic reaction to something, what the heck?  “Chiggers” the druggist says. “Chiggers? Chiggers?” I repeat like some demented parrot. “What are chiggers and how do I stop this itching?” I am in public, so I cannot do what I would love to do right now … scratch … OOOHHH, I want to scratch my butt!!  I get an antihistamine, some cream to help with the itch and a lecture on what chiggers are and where they lurk. Lesson learned; never again, I tell myself.

Here’s what I learned: Chiggers are small, tiny mites that hang out in long grass, dead wood, leaves, etc. In other words, they are EVERYWHERE in the country. They love to attack soft, tender skin, ankles, behind knees, butts, but will also just go where ever they can gain access. Once they bite you, even killing them does not stop the itching. It is the enzyme in the saliva that makes you itch and that must wear off on its own. They are tiny enough to get through clothing with an open weave. If you are ever silly enough to sit on a downed tree, well, don’t say I didn’t try and warn you. 

So, yes again, Arkansas does have a number of irritating bugs. Bugs that bite, bugs that sting, bugs that dive bomb you with military precision, bugs that latch onto you in the most inaccessible places and dare you to try and remove them.  They are everywhere and there are legions of them. And in keeping with the natural, wholesome, pesticide-free attitude I have, I allow Mother Nature to help me keep the bug population here on the farm in check.

Lesson learned: The grass is cut regularly and short. The chickens and turkeys are allowed free range. They line up side by side and begin their back and forth march across the lawn first thing in the morning. Insects groggy from the cooler nights are easy pickings. They rarely stray from their place in line, unless someone finds an exceptionally large and juicy meal. Then the race is on as the original finder tries to get it eaten before the rest of the group muscles their way in. And soon to join the clean up squad, 19 Guinea hens … or the Guinea Gang as I like to call them. 

Early Morning Rest

Early Morning Rest

Flies can be a real bother when you have livestock and lots of livestock poop. Horses and pigs leave attractive piles of odorous dung everywhere. How can grass produce that much poop? I would say it is scientifically impossible, but the proof litters my pasture.  The manure must be picked up or spread out so that it dries quickly and does not make a breeding hot spot for flies. And what an assortment of flies, horn flies, house flies, stable flies, deer flies, horse flies, oh, the list goes on and on.  Fly predators, available online, target the larvae of the fly. Turkeys and chickens are the greatest gift a farmer can have. When allowed to free range, they quickly learn the advantage of following the horses around. Within minutes of being “deposited,” most manure piles are quickly scratched into flat, well scattered, quickly drying bits. No poop piles means less flies. I am thrilled to death not to have to be dragging a dump cart and manure shovel around. Is it any wonder I give the birds some special treat daily? They earn every single piece of watermelon, every grape or strawberry, and whatever else I have to share. They take care of me, and I take care of them.

Turkeys and Chickens Feeding

Turkeys and Chickens Feeding

Honey bees, though, are great gentle friends, buzzing from flower to flower, rarely stinging unless provoked and providing an invaluable service to farmers. They pollinate our crops and flowers, and they provide us with the most delicious sweetener around. There are many people in my region of Arkansas that head for the farmers markets first thing in the spring to buy raw local honey. I have been told by some of the wise “ol timers” here that if you suffer from hay fever and other spring allergies, than locally produced raw honey is the ticket to relief. The bees make honey from the local flowering plants, and yes, that includes weed flowers. Taking a spoonful or two of honey daily allows your body to get small doses of the spores, allowing your body to build up immunity gradually. Kind of like the shots they give without the “Ouch!” Plus it tastes good.

On the other side of the fence is the nasty, however, is that bad tempered stinger known as the wasp or hornet. They come with a variety of names – paper wasp, hornet, yellow jacket, ground bees. These are all a type of bee and have very bad tempers. I think ground Bees or yellow jackets are the scariest. You can see the nests of the other wasps well enough to wait until the cool of evening or nightfall to spray them. You do not have that luxury with Yellow Jackets. They like to place their nests in abandoned mouse or mole tunnels. Hence the danger, you do not know they are they until it is too late. I am so proud of my new 25 HP, hydrostatic, automatic, 54” wide lawn tractor. When they get this big they are no longer called grass cutters.  I am getting more country by the day. So, in order to keep the Chiggers at bay, I cut the grass regularly and short. I am just tooling around the property on my cutter, minding my own business, when I get a sharp stabbing “thunk” to the side of my neck. I look around, thinking I have ricocheted  a rock off of a tree…but no trees nearby. A couple of feet later another whack, this one on the other side. What the…?? I stop the tractor but leave the blades of the mower running…big mistake. Now I am getting hit on the arms and legs and a second later I am surrounded by a cloud of yellow jackets…OUCH, OUCH, OUCH, OUCH and OUCH!!  I jump off of the tractor, thank heavens it has an auto shut off built into the seat, and high step it to the house. Did you know that Yellow Jackets do not give up the chase that easily? Determined little buggers. How I wish I had a video camera, with my arms flailing about, spinning and swatting, it must have been a sight.  I head into the house and jump into the shower clothes and all, turning both taps on full force. I gleefully stomp every wasp hitting the bottom of the tub with giddy pleasure, TAKE THAT, THAT and THAT!!! Down the drain they go. I did not get stung on the face….is that a wasp comment on my looks perhaps? My arms and legs have a few rapidly rising welts that throb. I head into the kitchen, take an onion, put it in a plastic bag and smash it to a pulp, which is then smeared onto the stings. OK, so even the dogs won’t come near me, but the pain is rapidly subsiding.  Come nightfall, armed with a flashlight and a bottle of wasp killer, I sneak out to my tractor. I always try to use natural alternatives, but this calls for chemical warfare. Weapons of mass Yellow Jacket destruction, full steam ahead. I do not even start up the tractor, I merely pull the lever to put it into neutral and push it off of the nest. I can see the hole clearly now.  I quickly pour the contents of the bottle into the nest and then, in a true biblical sense, roll the largest rock available to cover the entrance. I feel that my sense of justice has been served. Oh, I am all for live and let live, but not when it comes to these guys. I am not sorry, as a matter of fact, I feel pretty good, I am avenged!

That is the thing about country living…everything comes full circle. Just watch out that it doesn’t come around so fast that it bites you in the butt, and leaves you itching for days. DARN CHIGGERS!!!

Future Bug Eaters

Future Bug Eaters

In case you missed Part I of Nina's story, just click here.

Are There Bugs in Arkansas?

Nina“Aren’t there a lot of bugs in Arkansas?” my soon to be ex-sister-in-law asked when she found out I was leaving city life and her brother behind. I had not really thought about it, but it didn’t seem like a few bugs would be a deal breaker, considering how much I loved Arkansas and country living. The human brain is a funny thing – selective memory is one of those that will produce “HA HA” moments if you don’t cry first.

I am traveling down Interstate 57 at 2 in the morning. My vehicle, a well used diesel Excursion, is towing a trailer crammed to the rafters with the remains of my life in Chicago. My dogs, Otis and Moose, are snoring away, awaking and showing a keen interest in our surroundings only when the smell of a flattened skunk wafts into the car. If it is true that a dog’s sense of smell is so much greater than ours, this obsession with the Eau de Cologne of Skunk confuses me. They seem to actually enjoy the smell, standing at attention, quivering noses pressed to the air vents or cracked open windows, sucking in as much of the acrid odor as they can. They give me that “you don’t know what you’re missing look” just before falling back to sleep.

I am out in the middle of nowhere; no city lights nearby to reflect off of the atmosphere. Now this is what being out in the country is about. There are thousands and thousands of stars visible. Bright white light on the horizon lets me know that a service station is open. I need a break, the dogs need a walk, and I can fill the tank, so up the off ramp I go. When I get to the top of the ramp, I have a perfect view of the surrounding countryside. There is nothing but miles and miles of cornfields, not a single house as far as the eye can see.

The building is painted bright white reflecting what must be a million watts of lighting over the pumps. And what is that crunching noise?? Do you know the part in all scary movies, just before the heroine opens the door to the basement or does something equally silly, where you are screaming, “NO, don’t do it!”?  In real life that doesn’t happen. You have no peanut gallery guessing your every move, no rewind button, no fast forward through the bad parts.  Keep this in mind as I continue, will you? Anyway, I step out into the night, stretch and take a deep breath of fresh, moist country air … and then I immediately start coughing my head off as I suck at least 100, no make that 200, maybe more, mosquitoes into my mouth, down my throat and most probably into my lungs. Years down the road, will science discover that inhaled mosquitoes are bad for you? Will their little mosquito carcasses, crammed into my lungs, haunt me when I reach 70 or hopefully 80 years old? I realize too late that this bright, shining oasis is calling every bug within a 10, maybe even a 20-mile radius. And not just mosquitoes; June bugs (that explains that crunch noise), moths as big as my hand, and heaven knows what else is out there! OK, bats, lots and lots of bats. The ground is also littered with hundreds of toads, also called to this high class, roadside buffet of insects. Watch where you step, I think to myself.

After paying and pumping, it is the dogs’ turn for a walk. The dogs, however, cannot be persuaded to leave the car, doing the best imitations of “deaf” dog I have ever witnessed. Although my interior light is woefully pale next to the pump lights, it is still bright enough for hundreds of bugs to charge into the truck.  I will be slapping and killing bugs for the next 100 miles.

So, yes, Arkansas has bugs. Mountains of bugs, rivers of bugs, oceans of bugs of every shape and color. They fly, they crawl, they creep, some are silent, most produce a cacophony of sounds. And as a city slicker looking to become a country chick, I have not met the most irritating one … yet.

Stayed tuned for part two!

10 Things I Learned About Country Living, The Hard Way

NinaLife is full of clichés! “Life turns on a dime” is one of them. It will always turn sharpest when you least expect it, and if you are not holding on tight, it is guaranteed you will end up in a pile of horse puckey! The good news is that soap and water will get things back to normal … or at least acceptable.

Wonderful neighbors can help, but some lessons of country living must be learned the hard way. Here are just a few I have learned in less than a year:

1. Do not back into an electric fence while working on the siding of a garage. The resulting "ZAP" to the backside will propel you head first into the solid wall with amazing force. They do not call it seeing stars for nothing.   

2. Speaking of electric fences, are you aware the human body is a perfect conductor of electricity? DO NOT lean over the electric fence to try and feed your horse a piece of apple. When you connect with the fence, just as she is taking the apple from your hand, she gets a jolt too. The end result: a 16-hand-high mare that runs like crazy when she sees an apple.  

 3. Broody hens are well known, but cannot hold a candle to a broody 18-pound hen turkey. My suggestion, unless you feel like facing a right down angry 23-pound tom to boot: Let her be.

Blue Slate Tom Turkey
Blue Slate tom turkey

4. It really doesn't matter how many nice roosting areas you put up in the coop; most turkeys will head to the rafters, where they are free to deposit copious amounts of fertilizer the length of your barn, usually on the seat of your riding mower with uncanny aim.

5. When purchasing chicks marked as “pullets” from a local feed store, be prepared for the fact that the chicken sexer may have had an off day or need glasses. 12 Black Jersey Giant pullets turned into 12 crowing roosters, making sleep after 5 am a distant memory. By the way, as long as there is daylight, roosters crow, loudly. I now dream of fried chicken and tell myself: Come fall, I will have a freezer full of chicken and sleep past 5 am!

6. Pot bellied pigs are stubborn. If they feel entitled to some back scratching and you feel you do not have the time to accommodate them, they are perfectly capable of grabbing onto the hem of your jeans and dragging you across the pen, usually through their wallow, to make their point!

Miss Mimi a rescued pot bellied pig

7. As eager as you are for that first ripe tomato, or perfectly formed ear of corn from your garden, there are less patient diners equally as eager and happy to avail themselves under cover of darkness to the buffet.  

8. Nothing, I repeat, nothing on the farm will grow faster than a weed, especially if it is in a flower bed or garden. Use mulch, often and thickly, otherwise you risk never seeing your flowers again.

9. You are not the only one with a garden. No one else around wants any more zucchini, tomatoes or cucumbers. Learn to can your own produce. Learn the proper way to freeze the excess, and no, you just can’t throw those extra beans in the freezer without blanching them first – at least not if you expect them to be edible. How bad is it if even the pig won’t touch it?

10. Last but not least, nothing on the farm is as stupid as they would like you to believe. They are just waiting for your ignorance to surface so they can reap the rewards. A perfect example: I am putting 19, one-day-old Guinea hens into a brooder, and unbeknownst to me, I have left a tiny gap open in the cardboard surrounding them. Before I can fix it, 19 extremely small, unbelievably fast, little chicks with hypersensitive prey avoidance skills are loose in the barn. When threatened in the wild, they freeze stiff and don’t make a sound. My barn is 60’ x 30’ with many, as yet unexplored, mountains of barn stuff left to me by the former owner. There are four differently colored groups of chicks. The white ones were pretty easy; the brown striped ones with white wings, not too bad. The grey striped ones – OK, this is getting to be work. The brown, tan and black striped ones – heaven help me, I have been looking for the last two of this motley crew for the better part of an hour. I am covered in dirt, cobwebs and since it is 90 degrees outside, I smell like a goat. I know they are huddled together under some mountain of junk, laughing their little Guinea butts off at me. To abandon the search would be signing their death warrant. In desperation, I bring my 8-pound Mini Daschund to the barn. In short order she flushes out five mice, a rat snake and one ticked off mama rat. I am calling this one; I cannot find them anywhere. I go to get my straw cowboy hat, taken off while I was hanging upside down looking for the kiddies. Lo and behold, there, snuggled together on the brim, two baby Guinea hens, fast asleep and using each other as a pillow. If I wasn’t so hot, dehydrated and smelly, I might have laughed. Into the now securely reinforced brooder they go.

I love farm living!

Next lesson: A city slicker learns about ticks, chiggers and how to make wasps really angry!!

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