Farm Life (and Death)

Written by Lydia Benedict.

I had always dreamed of living in a big, white farmhouse with a veranda at the end of a long, tree-lined driveway. I pictured green meadows and rolling hills dotted with maples and oaks and perhaps an old red barn and a few farm animals. Perhaps that’s what attracted me to our home at the end of a half-mile dirt road—an ideal. Farm life is idyllic, or so it seems.

However, farm life is not for the faint-hearted. The work is dirty, back-breaking, exhausting, and never-ending. Kristin Kimball said it best in her book: The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love.

“‎A farm is a manipulative creature. There is no such thing as finished. Work comes in a stream and has no end. There are only the things that must be done now and things that can be done later. The threat the farm has got on you, the one that keeps you running from can until can't, is this: do it now, or some living thing will wilt or suffer or die. Its blackmail, really.”

Then there are the losses. Hard work doesn’t always guarantee success—at least not on a farm. Earlier this month, the fatality rate here at Rockspring Farm skyrocketed.

It started one Sunday morning when our favorite goat—Red—went missing. He looked dead when Jeff discovered him at the far end of the pasture. The goats on our land belong to our friends at another farm. I called immediately. They were headed to church, but one of them came and tended to the sick goat while dressed in his Sunday best. But it was no use. A few hours later, the goat died. I saw the final tremors that seem to mark the passing of life.

Red’s arrival at Rockspring Farm

As if to contrast Red’s death, that very evening a nest full of guinea eggs began to hatch. A guinea had been sitting on this nest hidden beneath my black-eyed Susans for a month. Despite heat or torrential downpours that bird only got off the nest long enough to eat and drink. The next morning, my children and I peeked at the little fluff-balls from a distance. We caught glimpses of a white keet, a gray keet, a brown one and lots of speckled brown and gold keets. There had to be at least a dozen.

By the following day, the babies were venturing out from beneath the flowers, staying close the father (believe it or not—it was a male that sat on that nest). There’s nothing like seeing a trail of baby keets following the big guineas. All the other guineas, were hanging out by the hatchlings. Finally, the sitting guinea joined back up with the rest of the guineas, and the keets stayed as close to the “parent” as their little legs would let them. The children and I could hardly concentrate on schoolwork when the work of nature was happening right outside our door.

From there, things went downhill. By the third day, we could tell that there were less keets. We found a couple dead keets scattered here and there. It was hard to get a good count, but the numbers were clearly going down. On the fourth morning, I got up early to check on them. I was disappointed and angry when all I found were two keets with the guineas. I searched the tall grass and brush where they had bedded down the night before. Nothing.

My 14-year-old son, Clancy joined the search. We heard the unmistakable chirp of a keet coming from a brush pile. I ran and put on overalls, boots, gloves, long-sleeved shirt and clippers. We carefully removed tree limbs and dried brush. I used the clippers to cut apart small limbs. In my rush, I pinched—more like crushed—the tip of my finger in the clippers’ crossbar. My nail immediately turned blue and the pain brought my work to a halt. I was sure I had some broken bones.

The clippers that crushed my fingertip

The keet never made another sound, but we went back to work anyway—despite the pain radiating through my fingertip. Then Clancy spotted it. He pried up a tree limb while I crawled under and gently picked up the keet. It was cold and weak. We rushed it to the barn and force fed it a water and vitamin mixture via an eye dropper. We put it on a bed of straw under a heat lamp in the brooder cage.

Then we went back to the hillside and the brush pile. We heard another peep. There was a second keet. This one was in better shape. Still we ran it to the brooder, gave it some liquids and placed it under the heat lamp. When we returned to the search area one last time, I dug further into the brush pile, pulling it apart. I had essentially moved almost the entire brush pile when we lifted a limb on the ground and stirred up a ground nest of yellow jackets. I didn’t realize it until I felt something biting my leg. Through a knee-hole, the yellow jackets had gotten under my pant leg and were biting my shin. After hours of searching, I was done.

That afternoon, both keets in the brooder cage looked very good. The next day, they were dead. Meanwhile, my daughters Clara Belle and Maggie helped me catch the last two keets and take them away from the adult guinea. We were pretty sure our track record of raising keets couldn’t be worse than the guineas. I watched these last two keets for a long time and never saw them eat or drink. All they did was run back and forth in the cage, chirping endlessly. Even the father guinea came to the barn and was trying to find them.

Guinea hens at Rockspring Farm (photographed by Clancy Benedict)

And then I made a decision. I took the two babies out of the cage and let them go. They immediately ran back to the same nearby guinea that had hatched them out. I knew they wouldn’t make it roaming around the farm. I had followed the flock all over our 20 acres and watched the guineas take those babies over terrain that was difficult for me—let alone a two-inch tall keet. But I also realized that once a keet has been “in the wild,” it had to remain there. If they were going to die in the brooder cage anyway, they may as well spend their remaining time freely.

During this same week, one of my son’s rabbits had babies (called kits): 12 to be exact. Tennyson quickly put together a shoe box full of straw for them. Newborn rabbits are only 2-3 inches long and they have no fur. They can scoot around a little, but their eyes aren’t even open yet. Without the care of the mother (humans are no substitute), kits will die. It’s not uncommon for a rabbit to lose their first litter. Sure enough all 12 kits died.

Two of the kits that died

In one week on our little farm, the death toll was at least 25: twelve baby rabbits, at least 12 baby guinea hens, and one goat. Despite our best efforts to save these animals, all I had to show for it was swollen bee stings on my leg and a painful blue fingernail that would certainly fall off.