In the spring of 2002 we were living in Ontario, managing a small hog farm. Reiley was just about to celebrate his first birthday and I had just completed the second year of training for my RN diploma. We were happy, the kids were doing well the only point of discontent was that we missed 'home'. (I have rarely met a Maritimer outside of the maritime who did not continue to refer the maritime as home.) As Gary was one of the best in Canada at what he did, we knew that there were very few farms east of Ontario that could afford to pay him what he was making at our current job, and more importantly for Gary, keep his interest long term.
Gary had become known as a fixer; someone who came into a farm that, for various reasons was in trouble. He had a skill set of knowledge, drive and work ethic that allowed him to problem solve, examine the operation and discover why it was no longer profitable. He would formulate the plan to bring the farm back to profitability and also had the work ethic to then set the plan in motion. Sometimes this took a few months sometimes a year or two. Once the farm was running along where Gary thought it should he would get bored. The challenge was gone, it would be time to move on. While this led to a bit of a nomadic lifestyle, it was interesting. While I knew much less about the business when I first met Gary, he taught me the basics and I became his sounding board. We discussed his 'projects' and by the time our daughter Bethany started school I understood the industry as well as Gary. The farm we were running in spring of 2002 had been a startup We had been hired by a businessman from Toronto in 1995 to start a hog farm just outside of Pickering Ontario. We had the farm up and running in that location. Due to urban sprawl, in 1998 we moved the farm to Little Britain, a small community between Port Perry and Lindsay.
By this time, the oldest four kids were all in school, and we had decided to stay where we were. The nature of the farm we were running was such that it kept Gary on his toes and held his interest. I had started training as an RN, something I had always wanted to do. Our favourite surprise ever, Reiley, was about to turn 1. We had a great co. unity of friends, things were looking settled. Then on Easter Sunday 2002 Gary had a call from a farm in New Brunswick; could he come for a job interview? It was our chance to come home.
We went for the interview, Gary then flew back to New Brunswick a couple of weeks later for a one week trial, he was offered the job. When he flew back home we talked it over, there were many disadvantages to the move. He would be taking a pay cut for the first little while, his salary was dependent upon performance bonuses, it would mean uprooting the kids and I would have to switch from an RN diploma program to a bachelors degree. None of this was insurmountable, We knew meeting the performance targets was possible, kids are resilient, and with a GPA of 3.95 I knew I could complete the degree program easily. All or this was no obstacle in the face of that magic word....'home'.
So, on Mother's day weekend 2002 we moved to New Brunswick. Everything progressed as planned for the first year. We settled in, Gary met the targets and in early spring of 2003 negotiated a new contract that with combined salary and benefits put his annual income just in the 6 figures bracket. I had taken the first year off from university to help the kids adjust, but had already been in contact with UNB and transferring my credits would be no problem. We were living the typical upper middle class lifestyle; car loans, gold card, soccer teams, music lessons, gymnastics and pizza night. We had some token nods to our roots, we kept a small vegetable garden, I made some preserves and knit some mittens and sweaters for the kids, but essentially we were fully integrated into the North American consumer lifestyle. Then suddenly, everything changed.
On June 19th 2003, just two days before his 36th birthday, while attempting to rescue several weaner pigs which had fallen through a hatch in the floor, Gary suffered a hydrogen sulfide knock down event. I entered the barn several minutes after he lost consciousness, his herdsman, the only other person in the barn, had attempted to remove him but she could not lift him from where he was. I placed the 911 call and kept them informed until the emergency responders arrived. Gary was removed from the manure storage area and was unresponsive but combative. He was rushed to the ER at the local hospital where he was assessed placed in a medically induced coma, intubated, catheterised, given detox kits for hydrogen sulfide, methane, and ammonia. He was stabilized with regard to cardiac function and transported with attending physician and RN accompanying, to the nearest trauma centre 30 miles away.
It has been just over 11 years since this occurred, and I still go into nurse brain when I have to recount that day. The ambulance arrived at the trauma centre shortly after I did as I was sent ahead to complete the paperwork. Gary was immediately admitted to the ICU. While his heart was strong, he remained in a medically induced coma, and would not be taken off the drugs until at least the next day. He was given another set of detox kits. I made the decision to go home to the kids and come back early in the morning. I spent the night trying to sleep but I just remember sitting beside the phone waiting for it to ring and planning Gary's funeral.
Well, I didn't need to worry about the funeral. Gary was released from the ICU
to my care three days later. He spent the next two and a half months recovering before he returned to work. By the end of September he was back to working full time. While he was good at hiding his symptoms from his employer I knew he wasn't right. He could hide the amount of pain he was in, but he couldn't hide his memory problems, his inability to concentrate and the reaction he was having to being in the barn environment every day.
We went to see specialists, psychologist, neurologist. He had CT scans and EEG's. For a man who detests hospitals, and has always treated illness as something to be overcome by shear stubbornness, he endured this with little complaint. The verdict was always the same, something was going on but they didn't know what. There was nothing wrong anatomically, but his wiring had been disrupted. They could give him pain killers, which he didn't want, but other than that they offered little hope.
As I said he became adept at hiding symptoms. He increasingly began to rely on the boys to help him. When the boys had finished their schoolwork for the day they were allowed to go to the barn. Jason in particular loved being in the barn. He had celebrated his 9th birthday a month before the accident and he knew how to operate every system in that barn, and where each 'room' of pigs was in the growth cycle.
We continued this way for almost two years. Then early in 2005 Gary was given a promotion. Until; then he had been in charge of the 10,000 head feeder barn. Now he was being put in charge of the day to day operation of the entire farm. The commercial and purebred breeding program, the finishing operation
....everything. The irony was this is what he had been working for since he
graduated from N.S.A.C. in 1998. We talked it over, he wanted to try. At this
point he was still not telling me all the trouble he was having, I think that
with his short term memory issues even he didn't know how bad everything was.
The promotion involved a move to the "home farm" an hour away. We moved over in the summer. What we hadn't counted on was the change in environment.
While in his barn, Gary had come to rely on environment triggers to help him. Just his familiarity with the layout had given him cues on what had to be done and an order to his day. Now he had to learn 4 new barns, feeding systems tons of new paperwork and supervise five staff. he started to flail almost immediately. Still he maintained the facade. He had enough knowledge locked up in is head to keep it going. Again, the boys helped, I think I had the only 11 and 12 year old boys around that could breed pigs via A.I..
By Christmas 2005 I had face the fact that Gary was not going to be able to
continue, he was starting to face it too. For the first time in his life Gary
took vacation time. I began paying down debt like crazy and trying to put
together a plan for "after".
By March of 2006 it was over, the career Gary had worked so hard to build, the life we had imagined for our kids had just evaporated. Gary had gone through several phases of testing and was put on short term wage replacement through Workers comp. He underwent a grueling two day vocational assessment. Within weeks he was placed on long term disability by NB Workers Comp.
We had to move as our house had been included in Gary's salary package. We decided to come back to NS, specifically to the Valley to be close to my dad and we thought it would be an easier adjustment for the kids to remain in a predominately agricultural community.
Between May of 2006 and early 2010 things were not great. We managed to avoid bankruptcy, just By the time the dust had settled, and Workers Comp. had finished clawing back the CPP disability benefits our annual income was just over 33% of what it had been before the accident..
For a while I tried to protect Gary.by keeping him away from barns of any kind. Another result of the the injury is a sensitivity to many pollutants. Exhaust gasses, off gassing plastics, paints, varnishes synthetic fragrances of any kind will set him back. He can not go shopping. Fluorescent lights and off gassing fumes make him incredibly ill. Cleaning supplies, laundry detergents; you name it, he is incredibly sensitive to it. So, I reasoned that exposure to manure gas, the very thing had had first triggered this should be avoided at all costs.
This was not going to work. In my haste to protect him, I was trying to suppress who he, we were at heart. We are a farm family. We worked in agriculture because we love it, we love animals and taking care of them, we love the independence of growing our food and providing for ourselves.
This realization finally came to me in the spring of 2010, I went out and bought Gary a piglet. So began the homesteading journey that has brought us here. To these 20 acres, this blog and to sharing our knowledge and our journey with you.
I have shared this with you for one very simple reason; We could not be living this life homesteading unless we had learned to live without debt. Unfortunately the way we have learned to do that was a rather harsh life lesson. We often meet people who want to live this life style, but what we hear most often is, "we can't afford it". I am hear to tell you that you can live on a lot less than you think you can and be a lot happier than you are now. The only debt we carry is our mortgage, and our mortgage is less than many people spend on their monthly car payment. Everything we do here is done on a pay as you go basis.
I know this goes against everything advertisers, society and even
our government has told you, but debt, especially consumer debt, is
neither necessary nor acceptable. We have been sold a myth that taking on debt is normal, why wait for what you want? You can have it now! We can give you low interest, spread the payments out over five years, you can upgrade to leather, it's only an extra $30 a month! One of the most disturbing memories I have surrounding the 9-11 bombings is the image of George Bush telling a still
shocked and grieving continent to "go out and shop" ??? Seriously?
We have become a society whose economic stability is based on a premise of cheap disposable goods.
If you want to homestead and you don't think you can afford to join me tomorrow. I am going to share with you how we got out of debt, and a couple of different strategies that could help you get to this life quicker than you may have ever imagined. Have a great day everyone!