Tag Archives: farm life

My Life on the Farm

I recently returned from a five week stint as a farm hand. Located just outside of Dauphin, Manitoba, it’s one of those towns where everybody knows everybody. It’s also a farming community. The main purpose of my visit was to work on my uncle’s farm and maybe to learn about farming, which just so happens to be what my family has been doing for generations.

It was a pretty productive 5 weeks. My primary responsibilities included fixing equipment (in the industry, we call it “servicing”), driving tractors and grain trucks, spending lots of time by myself while the GPS and auto-steer drove the tractors, listening to country music, and trying not to kill myself with the ammonia. I succeeded in all of my tasks :D By the end of the month, however, I had also killed a chicken, driven a combine, hit two hay bales, burned a hay field and got screamed at by one of the neighbours, knocked over three fence posts (busted one), snapped a hitch on an ammonia rig, broke my glasses taking off an oxygen mask, and knocked over an augur.

The main “rig” I was in charge of was the cultivator, or deep-tiller, or fertilizin’ machine. This baby gave damn near broke my will to do farm work. It required much “servicing.” It was also with this machine that I learned what is considered “work.”

Cultivator Frame, Shanks and Openers
Cultivator Frame, Shanks and Openers

Let me explain.

“Servicing” (fixing stuff), not only requires checking the oil and filling up the tank, but requires you to check all the metal springs, shanks, and openers (the things that put the fertilizer into the ground). The openers are screwed onto the bottom tip of the shank. The openers typically didn’t give me any trouble. But those there shanks, fucking hell, did I ever develop a twitch when I heard the words, “Put on a lock washer.” Now, on a newer machine taken into a shop with two guys working with high impact drills, this would be no problem. But when you (and typically The Boss, my uncle in this case) need to crawl on the ground under the rig to check those shanks in the middle of an open field on a windy day with no power tools, those little rusted bolts become your enemy.

Now, for a bit of a digression.

For those of you who are waiting for me to answer the question, “How do farmers keep their fields so neat and their lines so straight?” Well, the farmers don’t. Unless you count buying a GPS navigation system and an auto-steer mechanism and installing it into the tractor. I’m not opposed to this idea. I’m very much for it. As a matter of fact, I kinda wonder why city buses, trains, and even cars don’t have these things attached to them. Those two items, GPS and auto-steer, are marvellous inventions.

GPS and Auto-Steer
GPS (top, behind the steering wheel) and an auto-steer (right) system.

But, to get to use them, guess what you have to do?

Check the shanks.

We figured the rig was roughly the same age as me, about 28, possibly less. We also figured that some of the nuts and bolts holding the shanks to the main frame were about that old, which means that they have never been replaced and are now rusted on. How can you tell when a nut is rusted on? Well, in addition to its rusty brown colour, it might be a little loose but you can’t tighten it or loosen it very easily. The fear being that if the shank is loose, the bolt will snap and you will lose the shank. Which, trying to find a rusty brown shank in a hay field is like… well, trying to find a rusty brown shank in a hay field.

Looking for a Shank
Let’s play a game. It’s called “Find the shank in the hay field”.

The solution, therefore, is to put something called a “lock washer” between the nut and frame and tighten it up again. So began my wonderful experience of developing my muscles, my uncle questioning my strength (“Sure, get the old guy to loosen it,” my response, “But, dearest uncle of mine, you’re more experienced” (re: have the necessary muscle)), and devising all sorts of four-, six-, eight- and multiple-syllabic word combinations none of which my mother, or aunt, would approve.

Only when all 40 of the shanks have been checked can you then climb into your nicely heated tractor cab, turn on the radio, let the GPS and auto-steer do their job while you enjoy your coffee and amazing lunch that your wonderfully thoughtful aunt prepared. But only if there aren’t any busted springs.

While cultivating some new skills with those shanks, I also learned a few important phrases. (The first two phrases were actually told to me by a friend who works in the film industry.) The first is “It’s my first day,” a wonderful phrase that let’s the other person know that you know that you’re a complete idiot and don’t know what you’re really doing or looking for. They forgive your dumbness, help you out, and then let you on your way. You can use this two or three times before people catch on. The next is “There’s no time. We’re losing light.” This phrase, taken from the film industry, couldn’t be more suited to farming. Though GPS and auto-steer make working a field easier, especially in the dark, it’s still better to get the work done during the daylight hours. Then you can go home and drink whiskey :D Third, spoken by my uncle, is “Don’t make work for Ernie.” This phrase was repeated to me many many MANY times after the Great Augur Incident.

(Okay, the augur thing… basically, I was driving the tractor and needed to fuel it up. I didn’t have enough room to make the turn where I was so, thinking I was smart and a time saver, I decided I’d take the tractor (and cultivator and ammonia rig) into the field and make the turn there. Well, things didn’t go quite as planned as the cultivator didn’t clear the augur. Nope, it ran smack into it and knocked the whole thing over. Luckily the other farm hand, Rob, was there with the skid steer to help lift the augur from the cultivator and not hit the ammonia rig. If it had hit the ammonia rig, Rob tells me, there would’ve been ambulances, firetrucks, cops, and haz-mat suits all over the place, “just in case.” Oh, did I mentioned that The Boss was in Winnipeg that day and I had to call him the next day to tell him what happened? Thank you, Rob, I owe you.)

Old Tractor
Old tractor and an old farm game called “find the fallen augur.”

Towards the end of October, however, the weather turned for the worse. I truly got a feeling for being a farmer when the snow came, thus ending my work for the season. (Farmers, however, get to see the entire crop get washed away by torrential downpours and frost! Suddenly getting ripped off $30 at the Cambodian border or buying tea leaves for $25 doesn’t seem so bad!) If you’d like to see some more photos from my time on the farm, check out my Flickr page.

In my next post I’ll cover the few adventures I had while around Dauphin, Manitoba.

The Thanksgiving Day… Chicken?

I never thought that I’d kill a chicken. Sure, my Dad had talked about his days growing up on a farm: lopping the heads off and watching them run around the yard. These days, however, the chickens don’t run around because they’ll bruise their bodies! But kill a chicken I did, with an axe. It took two swings to get the head fully off. I even plucked it, cleaned it, and gutted it. The finished product looks exactly like the chicken you’d buy at your local supermarket.

After watching it done a couple of times, I give it a go. It’s gotta die anyway, right? With my cousin in disbelief that I want to actually perform this horrid act, she holds the camera while I prepare myself for the coming event (she’s a country girl and she thinks it’s great that a city boy has come up to experience farm life for a while). So there I go holding the head so the neck is outstretched. And up I raise the axe, and down I chop. Shit! The head’s not off! I need to make another quick cut! Finally the head’s on the ground and the body starting to shake and tremble.

Hang it up and let it bleed out, then dip it in boiling water a few times before plucking out all the feathers. The first part to plucking is getting all the big feathers out, removing the feathers from the wings and tail first because once cold they’re the hardest to get out. Next you singe the smaller feathers off of the chicken and go clean it up with water.

Gutting itself is a disgusting act, but it’s gotta be done. The first step is to loosen the neck guts, and this is where you get to see the first of two chicken stomachs. Apparently some of the chickens had found food that day because their throats were all full of grain. I can imagine the fatalist chicken who tells the others that it’s a good day when the farmer brings the food, because no one will die. They should worry when he doesn’t bring food! The other chickens, of course, berate and tease this poor chicken until the reckoning day arrives. But after the farmer is done, then the bullies, the cowards, and the doom-sayers all lie side-by-side. Makes you wonder if you should be a bully, the coward or stand aside. But I have digressed…

Next, you make three small cuts around the pooper, careful not to puncture the poop-holder or else it’ll just make a mess. And the stench that arises! It’s like sulphuric-whiskey flatulence! Gross. The third step requires you shoving your hand up the chicken’s rear-end and yanking out the gizzard, the guts (including gonads, which I’m told, if it bounces, it means they’re male chickens… only later did I find out the truth about that “tale.” How are we city boys to know?), the heart, lungs, liver, etc. After doing that, killing the chicken didn’t seem so bad any more!

Now you clean it up one more time, bag it and freeze it. That’s how you get your “grade A, organic, farm-fresh chicken”! (It’s at this point I really thought about all of those folks who like to say “know where your food comes from”, especially those organic folks. I’m all for organics, but if you really want to know where your food comes from, venture out 20-30 miles from your city and spend a day at a nearby farm. You’ll learn a lot more from that day than from reading labels or believing what the company says. Just consider how KFC gets their chickens or what McDonald’s chicken McNuggets are made of. I wonder about hot dogs…)

And guess what we cook up as a part of our dinner that night? Gizzards! “Fucking gross,” I say as I think this is some sort of European thing (my cousin’s fiance is European). But my cousin chimes in and says that she’s eaten them her entire life. I try it… and it’s not so bad. It tastes like liver but has the texture of cartilage. Fascinating.

So ends my day of killing, plucking, and gutting chickens. My cousin said I could take one home with me for my family. It’s the first time I’ve literally worked for my food.

For those of you who are interested, I’ve made a video. I don’t recommend it to those who are squeamish or animal activists. Though, you might like my coveralls.

***Update Feb 10, 2013: I’ve removed the video due to some folks not enjoying it too much. I may release it again in the future.