MANOTICK — Dairy-farmer-cum-comedian Paul Mussell has performed at many a cancer benefit over the years.
But Mussell and his family have been on the receiving end of some friendly help of their own this fall, as the funnyman faces down another personal brush with the disease.
For consecutive weekends in November, volunteer workers helped erect a new pole barn at the Mussell farm, to serve as the main livestock shelter for a new goat-dairying operation spearheaded by Paul and Grace Mussell’s 22-year-old son, Ryan.
A 2008 graduate of the agriculture program at Guelph University’s Kemptville Campus, the family since July has been milking 130 goats in a specialized parlour installed within the former Holstein tie-stall barn.
Between milkings, the goats were temporarily housed in an open-sided structure behind the barn to allow for the removal of manure and bedding with a front-end loader.
But when a blast of winter weather came early with the heavy snowstorm that blanketed the region Oct. 28, it precipitated a mini-crisis. The goats had to be moved into the old dairy barn, just off the parlour, where manure handling is a manual chore and where there isn’t enough space for the coming crop of spring kids.
The situation forced the Mussells to proceed just a little earlier than planned on the construction of permanent housing for the herd – right as Paul was grappling with the return of kidney cancer after six years of health.
Dozens of their friends — many of them fellow members of the Metropolitan Bible Church in Ottawa — picked up hammers and saws to make the project happen on the ensuing weekends. Their handiwork, a new 54-by-100 pole barn, is now largely complete.
The building lacks only a cement pad at this point. But Paul — who underwent successful surgery to remove a tumour occupying 20 per cent of his one remaining kidney Nov. 18 — says he’s confident things will be finished in time for the births that will double the herd size in March.
"We had 28 guys out two weekends ago, and they got the rafters up, and the strapping," recounted Mussell. "And last weekend we had 38 guys come out to put the tin and siding.
"It’s looking a lot like a barn," quipped the comedian, who said he’s "really doing great" after his latest operation.
"People have been so generous," he said, citing not only the volunteers who have helped with construction, but also a couple of women who have provided food for the crews — among them the proprietor of the Black Dog Restaurant in Manotick.
"We really feel blessed and carried by all these people," said Grace Mussell, commending local high school teacher and friend Mark Van Voelkingburg for "orchestrating" the barn-raising bee. "This past Saturday he had only 10 confirmations, but we ended up having 38 show up."
Her husband "is doing terrific," she said, adding that complying with doctor’s orders to not lift anything will be his main challenge for the next six weeks.
They’ve set Jan. 2, daughter Kristine’s 21st birthday, as the date for his return to physical labour, she said.
Among a handful of volunteer workers at the job site on a rainy Nov. 8 Saturday was fellow comedian Denis Grignon of Lindsay. The previous evening, both he and Paul took the stage at the Chimo Hotel in Ottawa, raising funds for the One Boy One Van Foundation, which assists the families of disabled children with the purchase of wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
Leading a tour of the on-farm facilities on the first day of the barn-raising, Ryan explained that he became interested in milking goats while attending the Kemptville Campus.
"We went on a field trip to a large farm in Lindsay, and that’s where I got interested," he said.
It was out of Lindsay that the Mussells purchased the mixed herd of Saanen, Alpin and Nubian goats. The deal included a parlour, which was adapted to the existing milkhouse equipment and two-inch pipeline in their barn — left over after the dispersal of the Mussell Holstein herd two years ago.
Paul, Ryan and his 16-year-old brother, Ben, handle the four-hours-a-day milking chores.
They’re affiliated with the Ontario Dairy Goat Producers’ Association, which picks up their milk weekly.
"There’s a great opportunity being so close to Ottawa," Paul explained. "There’s no other major goat dairy within the city."