As late-bloomers, my husband, Hank, and I seemed to be at least a decade or two behind our peers in starting many ventures, including marriage, having children and grandchildren, and starting to farm.
In our 40s, I listened more carefully to Hank’s stories about growing up on the farm and to his regrets that he hadn’t more seriously considered his dad’s offer to sell him the family farm. Hank and I decided farm life would be a good finishing school for our youngsters.
In the late 1980s, when our children were about eight, nine, and 10, we started checking realty bulletin boards. Over the next couple years, our hobby was looking at farms. Finally, in the fall of 1989 we found a fixer-upper, and we signed up for the work program.
After more serious renovations than we expected, we finally moved to the country in the spring of 1990. My husband was 53 years of age, and I was 47. Hank had farm-blood coursing through his veins, but the three kids and I were town-types. New surroundings and new experiences brought us closer to nature. Frog croaks and coyote calls kept us awake at night. Sparrow song awoke us at daybreak. Long days, short nights, financial concerns, and high aspirations kept our adrenaline flowing as we faced many firsts.
Mornings came early, and we definitely needed my full-time teaching salary and Hank’s part-time salary from hospital laundry. Hank’s experience in small business and a variety of jobs reassured me of our prospects. He was a Hank of all trades.
Although the farm was a small operation, we needed farm income to help pay the mortgage and prove our farm status. What could we do without major equipment
and without sinking deeply into debt? We would rent out the pasture and land. Livestock, we figured, would teach our teenagers about “life on the farm,” including responsibility. At the time, hogs, with a sideline of poultry and pets, seemed the way to go. Hank and the kids started building pigpens and houses. We were going for outdoor pigs.
Our first bred sow arrived that summer. Fondly named Miss Piggy, she was mature, mammoth, and good-natured. We didn’t know her exact due date, but her blimp shape said soon. Although the experienced Miss Piggy seemed to take things in stride, we were nervous. Aloud, Hank tried to recall what his dad used to do.
“Don’t look at me!” I said. “Remember our babies were adopted and I grew up in the city.”
Fortunately, our animal-loving friend, Betty, promised she’d come anytime if we needed her. We did. One hot August weekend in the midst of hosting a family reunion, Miss Piggy began her confinement.
As promised, Betty and her husband joined us at our unpretentious barn. Our daughter, Jenny, and her cousin organized a piglet pool with the extended family, based on the number of babies to be born. Buying in cost a quarter. Meanwhile, Hank and our pig experts were concerned the sow was overheated, so they cooled her down with wet towels. I kept what I thought was a safe distance back, but Hank spotted me, and hollered, “Hand me that bucket!” Quickly, I dumped the water out the door and, just as he commanded, handed him the pail. When will men learn to say what they mean?
Cooled down, Miss Piggy started puffing out piglets like peas from a shooter. Evidently, this sow knew her job. Beginning to relax, Hank hurried to invite our guests to tiptoe into the barn. Some were anxious to see the birth. Others continued their coffee and cookie break.
Two reluctant sisters-in-law took their cookies and sauntered toward the barn. The birthing stall looking like a war zone, so the gals took one peek and almost tossed their cookies.
Miss Piggy was oblivious to the fuss and continued doing what she did best. Jenny and Brandy, the entrepreneurs, curiously won the pot of $5.50 themselves, having guessed the unbelievable number of nineteen. Reunion activities resumed with “Viewing of Sow and Brood” added to the agenda.
CHRISTIE GIVES MOUTH-TO-PIG
After this memorable weekend, we continued our normal agricultural existence. Hank, Michael, Christie and Jenny built more pig shelters and pens, chased escapees, and fed and watered our growing swine population. I carried on with teaching, running the house, helping to fence, gardening, and canning.
The next pig to farrow was Ms. Shorty, a gilt and a novice like the rest of us. Ms. Shorty had neither the size nor resume of Miss Piggy. She was humble, or low-to-the-ground, and had missed prenatal classes. Thus, procedures were erratic. Three piglets came out stillborn. Push. Push. Nothing. She needed help.
Hank had “gone in after pigs” when he was a kid, but his adult hands were too big. Christie, our 12 year old, having read of this operation in Laura Ingalls Wilder books, was eager to try. We cleaned her arm, greased her, and sent her “fishing.” With difficulty, she pried out a good-sized piglet, already breathless and limp.
Christie asked, “Should I give it mouth-to-mouth?”
“It’s just a pig,” her father said. Seeing her disappointment, he added, “Well, it can’t do any harm!”
Christie wiped the piglet’s snout on the sleeve of her bloody shirt and performed resuscitation as she’d learned in swimming class. Success! That was what the baby needed. Hank still loves to tell the story of Christie’s pig resuscitation.
Years later, we can laugh about these stories and about waiting for a sow to deliver in the middle of a cold night. If birthing went well, we just watched. If the sow needed help, we were on-hand. When Hank was on duty, he would gently nudge the piglets with a broom toward the sow. Christie, our most devoted midwife, however, would dry off each new baby, give it a coochycoo, and tenderly place the babe at the mother’s bosom.
During our farm years, we learned about market fluctuation. Hog market down meant we had lots of wieners to sell. Hog market up, the opposite. We learned the gestation period for pigs is three months, three weeks, and three days. Delivery time is generally 3:00 a. m. when the mercury dips to -30C.
ESPESETHS’ BOOT CAMP
Ten years of farming for us was not a lucrative endeavour, but we’re thankful we had this opportunity. As a family, we had wonderful bonding episodes — like harvesting a huge garden, fencing, butchering chickens, and, of course, raising pigs.
Friends in town were amazed at what our kids could and would do. Parents wanted to send their offspring to Espeseths’ boot camp. One town mother complained, “I can’t get our kids to take out the garbage.”
Our teens did have farm benefits like skidoos and quads, which didn’t go unnoticed by their town-dwelling buddies. One of Michael’s friends quipped, “No wonder your dad buys you expensive toys. He works you like slaves!” Fortunately, our kids thought his comment was hilarious. The skidoo, in particular, was an old clunker with dog-chewed upholstery and barely enough power to get the Christmas tree home.
Possibly the best part of farm life — even above the landscape and skyscapes potential — was that our young people learned important work habits and the value of work. Along with gaining a sense of responsibility, our teens developed skills in problem solving, decision making, setting priorities, and working together.
I remember snack breaks on the front steps, before we built the deck. Hank and his three “slaves” would decide what project to tackle next and how they were going to do it. The kids’ suggestions were listened to, respected, and often implemented.
The joy of accomplishment and pride in a job well done were the whipped cream on the shortcake of life. I believe our teenagers benefited from doing work that mattered. Justifiably proud, they loved to show visitors the farm. We had re-shaped it from its run-down condition. Our children knew they were an integral part of the team that had made this happen.
In spite of hard work and financial concerns, we had good years in the country. We raised our kids where and how we wanted. Hank and I now live in town, but if we were 53 and 47 years old again and our kids were young, I’m sure we’d do it all over again.
Sharon Espeseth lives in Barrhead, Alta.