When the farmer's away, the marsupials will play...?

Posted on Wednesday, June 22, 2011 | By Nicole Easterday |
 One of the biggest dilemmas for an urban farmer is how to properly care for your garden and animals when the demands of an urban lifestyle inevitably present themselves.  I’ve heard more than a few farmers, urban and rural alike, lament that they couldn’t take a proper vacation because no one else could possibly figure out  how to coax their persnickety goat into being milked, water their plants properly, perfectly lock up their various strangely rigged animal enclosures and the list goes on. Part of if must come from our feeling that this monstrous responsibility of caring for plants and animals is our own self-imposed duty and no one else’s; and part of it could stem from the fact that we make the best of what we have and that isn’t always a perfect system.  For example, when someone comes over to take care of our ‘farm’ we have to explain that the drip irrigation only covers these plants and these others must be hand watered, the chicken coop door doesn’t close perfectly so we lean a big rock against the outside to keep predators out, the ducks like to go in about an hour after the chickens do and they must have food to eat the moment they come out in the morning or you (and the neighbors) will regret it.  This is all a lot to ask of someone who was hoping that house-sitting meant refreshing your parakeet’s water. All of the complication aside, we’ve miraculously found neighbors and family members who are open to going through the crazy motions to keep our wacky ‘farm’ going when then urban lifestyle calls.  Between our recent wedding, the Sunset Magazine Celebration Weekend Festival and our honeymoon, I find I’ve been explaining our complicated process ad nauseum to anyone who will volunteer to help out. First was the wedding.  Because we were married locally we were really only away for the wedding night.  No big deal right?  My mom was in town and was happy to stay at the house to make sure the dog was okay and to let all the animals out in the morning.  We arrived outside our house the morning after to fine the entire neighborhood reeking of burned rubber, a sure sign of a skunk in our midst.  It was with extreme dismay, however, that we realized the skunkiest part of our entire neighborhood was actually INSIDE our house!  The dog had been sprayed.  Several baths later he was just as skunky as before with a hint of green tea layered on top.  We stopped short at bathing him in tomato juice – anyone who’s canned 100 lbs of tomatoes doesn’t take out-of-season tomato products lightly – and resolved ourselves to living with a smelly little dog, newly christened “Skunkworks” (or “Doggy Le Pieu”).    I might add that was three weeks and five baths ago and he’s still a tad on the skunky side.  Next enter Sunset Magazine’s Celebration Weekend.  Because it was in Menlo Park, about 45 minutes away from us and because I’ve worked at events like this before and know how exhausting it can be to work a booth all day (especially the weekend after your wedding!), I had booked a hotel room for myself and my three trusty workers (including my new husband!) to stay Saturday night.  That meant there was yet another night for the farm to be cared for.  My amazing next-door neighbors said they’d be happy to care for the ducks and chickens while we were away and we dropped Skunkworks off at another friend’s house for safekeeping (I have to mention that friend tried fruitlessly to bathe him too!). We let the fowl out of their enclosures earlier in the morning than usual on Saturday and headed off to Menlo Park for the weekend with the neighbors in charge.  We returned on Sunday evening and closed them all up for the night.  Monday morning around 6am Jared let the chickens out through the back door of their coop, but didn’t collect the eggs, meaning he didn’t open the front door of the coop.  Around 10am I went out to collect the eggs and make sure their food and water was full.  I opened the large front door of the chicken coop to find what appeared to be an enormous ferret curled up sleeping between the water dish and the laying boxes!!  (Side note: It didn’t make me long to realize it was an opossum but since I grew up with ferrets, that’s where my brain went – it’s actually a little shocking how similar they look when they’re curled up. I ran into the house, shouting for Jared to come out and see it, sure the little critter would run away as soon as it realized I was encroaching on his newly found straw bed.  Jared, who was halfway through a beard trim on his day off, faithfully threw on a robe like a champ and ran out to see what the commotion was.  I slowly swung the coop door open to show off my find.  Curled up in the straw, my little marsupial cared much more about getting his beauty rest than seeing what I was all about.  He raised his head long enough to show me he had some rather pointy teeth and clearly looked like he hoped I’d just go away.  I did – long enough to run inside for the camera! Armed with my camera, I stood about 10 feet away and zoomed as closely as I could to get a good shot.  It didn’t seem clear enough so I slowly slunk closer and snapped some more shots.  My little friend barely seemed to notice, making me braver.  I moved closer and closer, snapping pictures until I was just a couple of feet away.  I did finally get more teeth baring but this opossum clearly wanted to be left alone much more than he wanted a run-in with me.  It was slowly dawning on me that this guy didn’t intend to go anywhere.  He’d found a nice warm bed with plenty of food and water nearby and was going to camp there until someone kicked him out.  As much as his little character was growing on me, I realized my first responsibility was to care for the domestic animals I had taken into my care – the chickens.  I assumed, and have since confirmed, that opossums are omnivores and wasn’t sure whether they would be a danger to the chicken or not.  This slow-moving sleepy head didn’t seem like much of a menace in the daytime but his teeth were roughly comparable to those of a dogs and I sure didn’t want to take any chances letting him get comfortable.  He had to be kicked out, but how? After a few failed attempts at startling him out of the coop, I ended up going through the opposite end of the coop and pushing a nest box toward him until, cowering, he fell backwards out the door.  I felt horrible, but it had to be done.  The little guy then just hovered near the door, not sure where to go.  Jared and I ended up corralling him behind a pile of stacked wood, where he seemed to feel much safer.  He ended up camping there for the rest of the day. The next day we were off on our honeymoon to leave the farm in yet another person’s care – Jared’s father.  A recovering farmer himself, he’s no stranger to the various and sundry needs of plants and animals.  That said, it would be dishonest of me to say we didn’t worry a tad.  With all the chores and rules, it would be very easy during the span of two weeks to forget to close up the birds one night, a guaranteed fatal error.  We were put at ease by the following email we received halfway through our trip:

"I hope Italy is as fun as it sounds and that you're having a fantastic time. Life here on the farm is good, the ducks are a bunch of absolute brawlers, they remind me of English football hooligans. The chickens on the other hand are very endearing and I'm growing to actually love them; they're quite affectionate, as you know."

 I couldn't have put it better myself.  Where the ducks are quacky and loud and easily spooked, the chickens are docile and more likely to sit near you and coo. All was well upon our return.  The garden was a monster, including such highlights as an eight-foot sunflower (Gigantus) and huge tomato plants.  There were some losses, naturally; the chickens learned to escape their run and feasted on all my cole crops.  I’m just not meant to grow broccoli as it turns out.  In fact, since we returned, Jared’s father has been talking about our ‘next’ house – something on good land with its own water source and an in-law unit, of course.  He returned to his own home reluctantly, but not until he has purchased a pair of finches at our local feed store.  I guess he was going to miss the responsibility.