Chasing the Ghost of Richard Griebel: reflections by Derek Leahy, Redtail Farms Apprentice

Posted by Dana Penrice on December 12, 2017

On the first week of my farm apprenticeship I was already cursing my farm mentor’s dead father.

Why? Page wire. My nemesis. Sort of.

At the beginning of April, that time of year in Alberta when Old Man Winter cannot make up his mind if he is ready to pack it in or not, I began a seven-month apprenticeship at Redtail Farms in Castor, Alberta. The first thing my mentors—third generation farmers Ian Griebel and Dana Blume—had me do was dismantle a few miles of fencing. The fencing had been put up presumably by their predecessor Richard Griebel, Ian’s father, who sadly passed away three or four years ago.

There was something very Mr. Miyagi/Kid Karate-esque (circa 1984) about the task.  You know, real “wax on, wax off” kind of stuff. It took days to repeatedly pull hundreds of fencing staples and roll up line upon line of barbed wire, high tensile wire and page wire. I am not sure if I developed any martial arts skills in the process, but hell can I take down a fence quickly now!

Initially, I was flying through the little deconstruction project, rolling up big bundles of fencing and wire like massive snowballs for a snowman. Then I hit a snag. Richard or his wife Kathy or a former hired hand had lashed the tensile wire to the top of the page wire with a bit of wire every ten feet or so. Why he, she or they chose to do this I am not sure (even Ian was scratching his head), but the annoying part was that the small bit of wire was twisted on so tightly I couldn’t get a pair of tin snips between the tensile and page wire to cut it. Instead, I spent a lot of time mucking around with my fingers and pliers trying to untwist the small strands of wire.

Looking back it is laughable how much those little bits of wire annoyed me. You’d think I’d be more angry about how I shredded all my work gloves rolling up the barbed wire or that re-coiling tensile wire is like dealing with a really pissed off slinky. But no, I chose to let those little stubborn ‘twist ties’ push me over the edge. And I cursed the name of Richard Griebel for it. I still don’t know if he was the culprit.

If there is a lesson to be learned here for any present and future apprentices it is you are going to hit unexpected snags during your apprenticeships. They may be as trivial as a bit of wire or as concerning as frying a solar water pump while trying to splice wires (man, was I relieved when it turned out to only be a blown fuse!). On top of that, you are going to spend a good chunk of your apprenticeship working alone. With a lot of those snags you are going to have to figure out a solution for yourself because almost all mentors, almost farmers are crazy busy trying to eek out a living. But don’t worry if you are really stuck your mentor is usually a phone call away.

Photo by Renee Leahy
Photo by Renee Leahy of Derek (left) and mentor Ian Griebel (right)

Anyway, for the rest of my apprenticeship, it seemed Richard’s ghost was never far away. A lot of the work I/we did at Redtail this summer was a continuation of Richard and Kathy’s lifelong pursuit of striving to be caretakers of the land. Thanks to them and their successors taking the time to teach me, I now feel pretty confident in intensive grazing cattle and rotating pigs from pasture to pasture. And man oh man have I become an expert in untangling things! I’ll get to that in a second.

So in a way Richard was there at every Young Agrarians field day (one of the best parts of the apprenticeship in my opinion) in the host farmers who had once called him a friend, mentor or both. Richard was there when we planted cattails, willows and poplars around dugouts for wildlife habitat. He was there and probably laughing his ass off the many times I made a tangled mess out the temporary electric wire while reeling it in.

And Richard was definitely there when I fenced off a section of forest for bush farrowing, which was about twenty feet from where his ashes lay. I am happy to say that Richard was not rooted out of the grave by the pigs.

I never met the man and I have only heard a bunch of amusing stories about him. I have met his children, his wife and his grandchildren, some of whom it breaks my heart to say he never got the opportunity to meet himself. All of them (including their large extended family in Castor) welcomed me warmly even though they didn’t know a thing about me.  I’ve spent the better part of my life drifting in and out of people’s lives and I’ve come to recognize it is not easy having a complete stranger in your personal space on a daily basis. They have my respect for overcoming this and for a great deal more as well.