Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Life on the Farm - Part 4

Planting Vegetables

Before 1960, our farms had only one access to the main road.  This little road passed through a pig farm belonging to our stock feed supplier.  It was a huge place. They kept half a dozen dogs running loose around the place.  It was always a frightening experience trying to get pass the place without disturbing those canines.  Their barks were worse than their bites, or so we thought until, one day, I got a taste of one of their bites.  I was running after my mother.  She was learning how to ride a bicycle.  A few of the animals came after me and one of them sank his teeth into my calf.  Luckily, my mother’s shouts managed to get them away or I would have suffered a fate worse than just a few fang marks on my legs.

Further on down the road, there was a wooden bridge across a stream larger than the one that ran behind our pig sties.  Crossing this bridge and another 100 meters of earth road would take us to a tarred road, called Vale of Tempe (now renamed Lembah Permai).

There was another route to get to the main road, but there was no bridge here.  We had to wade across the stream.  This was where our smaller stream joined the larger stream.  The shallow area happened to be the widest part, about 6 meters across, and the water during good weather, was about knee deep for adults.  For me, every time after I crossed that place I had to remove my pants and wring out the water.  During the monsoon rains it would be suicidal to try to cross the stream. 

Nearby, one of our neighbors used a spade to scoop sand and throw it up the bank creating sand pyramids.  He probably sold the sand to construction companies.  He also created a pool which was quite deep.  Ma and I used this spot to wash our mosquito nettings once a year during spring cleaning.  My brothers and I went swimming here once.  When we got home, Pa was waiting for us with a cane.   He whacked my 2 elder brothers mercilessly.  I watched in fear and horror but stood by waiting to be caned as well.  But I wasn’t.  My mother later told me according to a fortune-teller I was not supposed to go swimming before I reached 18 years old.  As if it was an unspoken promise, father took us all to the beach and let us learn how to swim after my eighteenth birthday. 

In 1959, a rich man came to our area and started a granite quarry at the foot of the hill behind our farms.  The quarry interfered with our water supply and from then on we were always having problems trying to get enough water for our farm use.  This “Towkay” widened up the small roads so that his tractors could get to the quarry.  He also built a concrete bridge across the big stream.  During rainy weather, the roads became rivers of mud and usually his trucks or car would get stuck and he would get his workers to push to get them going again.  From the time the quarry started operation, we never had a quiet day except Chinese New Year and some weekends when the quarry stopped work.  In the beginning, we could not get used to the blasts of the dynamites they let off during rock blasting operations.

Although we were not considered poor we were always in debt to the stock-feed supplier.  Each time we sell off 1 lot of pigs, we managed to pay off a portion of the debt.  But in a matter of a few days or weeks, we were back to the old score.  Once, father bought a new motorcycle.   The supplier came and gave my father a hard time.  Even though he was a distant relative, a cousin of my uncle who married my father’s younger sister, it did not make any difference.   We never got free of that debt until we finally gave up pig farming after my eldest brother got married, started a family and moved out of the farm.

While we were growing up and more of us could handle more work, father started to plan a vegetable farm.  Tapioca plots soon gave way to sweet potatoes and vegetables.  For water, we depended on the drains that flowed from the foothills.  One of these flowed through the neighboring farm before it reached our ponds.  During dry season we had to keep going to the source of the supply to make sure the water continue to flow into our drain.  Sometimes we had to do that at night when nobody else needed water.  If didn’t do that, our ponds would not have enough to water our vegetables the next day.  The worst part was vegetables grew best during the dry seasons.  Yet, for more work, we didn't get more gains because vegetables usually became too cheap then.

To water the plants, we used large watering cans carried on two ends of a pole balanced on the shoulders.  It was tricky at first but when we got used to it we could also switch from right shoulder to left and vice-versa, in order to water the plants on the either side of the beds.  Each can contained about 25 liters of water which would be about 50 kilograms total in weight.  Except for mother, none of our girls had to do this job.  To scoop up the water from the pool we had to get in the pool with both cans carried the usual way.  In some places we cut steps into a coconut trunk and stick one end into the bottom of the pool and lean the trunk against the side.  Getting out of the pool on the narrow steps with the loaded cans took considerable skill.

Vegetable seeds were sown separately on a nursery bed.  When they were about 4 – 5 inches high, the seedlings had to be transplanted.  Pa or I prepared the beds making sure they were properly leveled, while my two younger sisters did the transplanting.  They probably had the fastest fingers this side of the hills.  They could finish transplanting a 3 X 40 feet bed in half an hour!  After this I had to cover the newly planted seedlings with coconut leaves.  3 days later the coconut leaves were removed and I would cut furrows with a small rake in between the seedlings and put some organic manure (translation: chicken dung) in them. 

The chicken dung was from the various locations and accumulated in the dump and left to ferment and dry.  There were always millions of maggots crawling around.  The maggots were actually helping to loosen up the dung.  When you stir up the dung the smell could be horrible.  Usually it would be steaming hot as well.  If you were having a cold it could help to clear up your stuffed nose pretty quickly.  I think it would also be good for those who fainted.  It should wake them up in no time.  Well, living so close to these smells sort of immunized us.  It was only usually visitors who noticed that living on a farm wasn't as idyllic as some people try to make it out to be.  Some people like me.

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