I drive a mini-van, silver, ski rack atop, two kids in the seats, another ready to pop, from game to practice to lessons to gym, off to the mall to buy the latest whim. Things looked right – just so – fleecy jackets, a brand name you surely know, ugly boots and skinny jeans. Dad at home counting his triple digit beans. But each night I tossed and turned, every thought burned.
Conformity and consumption as a lifestyle just wasn’t good after a while…
Between naptime and school, after shopping and getting fuel, I find time to plant tulips and roses, holding the hoe like a yogi poses. As I dig I don’t wonder ‘why’. I simply feel time fly.
This is the space where I belong. Now for land I long.
It took time but at last husband agrees, time-in-town is past, out of this development we go, to a patch of earth with room to sow the seeds of contentment I have found and am ready to toss in the ground.
In July of 2007 we, my husband, myself, our children Sarah, Emma and William, a rabbit named CookieDough, four identical Barred Rock Chickens dubbed Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, and Beauty, and then there was Dory, a chocolate Labrador pup, and we can’t forget the cat, Jack; all moved from our nice house, but tiny lot in Gloucester, Massachusetts to Ipswich, Massachusetts. Almost four acres, an abundance of peonies, and one sad, sad house was now ours. This was the kind of house that makes relatives cringe, friends murmur amongst themselves, and divorce lawyers rub their hands with glee. It was a nightmare. The first year was spent replacing roofs, painting walls, insulating everything, and sanding floors. It was exhausting but the potential of all that dirt kept my ‘seeds of contentment’ alive.
Ready to germinate. Ready to grow. Things might have turned out differently if I had been able to start gardening the minute we moved, perhaps my ‘seeds of contentment’ wouldn’t have grown with the intensity they did. As it was what had been a simple dream became a complete change of lifestyle.
The renovation project seemed endless but when it was done, I would have my garden. In the meantime I dreamt of gardens, I browsed magazines and borrowed gardening books from the library. I sketched out where veggies should be, where berry bushes would line up. I also watched the growth of the existing plants carefully. Over time I realized that these perennials weren’t growing too well. I collected soil samples and shipped them off to UMASS Amherst for testing. The tests confirmed my growing suspicion that we had bought four acres of bad soil. Truly horrible soil. Maybe it wasn’t all bad but the soil nearest the house, the spots where I wanted my gardens were terrible.
Oh! The soil is like sand, damn-useless land.
Flowers and veggies try, then shrivel and die.
I work the garden, adding compost, things like toast,
eggshells, coffee grinds, old rinds.
I stopped at a farm across town, looking to buy mulch to throw down. That old farmer listened to me and said, “Owning a cow would fix your homestead! She would give you the fertilizer you need! It would be her you would feed!”
“What the hell!” I thought. “Why not?”
To buy a calf I went to Maine, where calf buying isn’t insane, as it is here North of Boston – around here, they don’t sell them too often. This farmer had to be ninety-two, when he saw me he didn’t know what to do. He looked at me, then at my van, exclaiming, “I don’t really understand!” But when I lifted the calf, he had to laugh.
“You’ll do – I guess! I just hope he doesn’t make a mess!”
At home we settled the little one into the shed, let’s call it a barn instead. He needed the company of another,
SO WE BOUGHT HIM A MOTHER!
Little did I know how milking out FIVE GALLONS A DAY would go!
My arms and hands hurt like you wouldn’t believe,
all I could do was breath, breath, breath.
Once I got past the pain, or because of the pain, I fell deeply, totally and completely in love with my cow. A lovely Jersey heifer named Shasta. I bought her from Appleton’s Farms, the oldest commercial farm in the country, a farm that just happened to be right down the road.
My sweet, sweet Shasta, oh! she fills the pasture!
I say I bought her for manure but of that I am not so sure.
Gardening brings me peace but milking this beast….
There are no words to explain how, how it is to be centered by a cow!
Being a soccer mom/farmer is like being pregnant. Once the news is out it’s as if an invitation to ask personal questions and offer enthused opinions has been extended. Basic social niceties are thrown out.
Frequently Asked Questions and Enthused, albeit unsolicited, Opinions
YOU!?? YOU’RE A FARMER?!
WHY ON EARTH WOULD ANYBODY WANT TO BE A FARMER!?
HOW EVER DO YOU GO ON VACATION? YOUR POOR HUSBAND AND KIDS!
I SURE HOPE YOU MAKE SOME MONEY AT THIS!
HOW IN GOD’S NAME DO YOU MANAGE IT ALL? YOU’RE CRAZY!
YOU EAT THE ANIMALS YOU RAISE!? YOUR POOR POOR KIDS – THEY MUST HATE YOU! HOW CAN YOU DO THAT!? NEVER MIND! I DON’T WANT TO KNOW.
And just as I kept my civility when answering the baker who said “GOSH! Your butt isn’t too fat with this pregnancy,” then as he edged around to pat my tummy went on, “all your weight is in your belly, I’d say you are having a boy, what do you think?” I try to restrain my inclination to slap their hands away and say ‘leave me alone’! I try to answer these questions with honesty and humor, I am not sure how well I do. There are some easier, politer questions to answer:
Why is your farm called Penny Tree Farm?
How do you know what to do?
What do you do with all that milk?
Do you need a rooster to get eggs from your chickens?
What do your neighbors think?
Can I stop by and visit sometime?
You must do this because raw milk is so good for you?
YOU!?? YOU’RE A FARMER?!
The mind is a funny thing, if somebody says “lawyer” you might picture a suited man with a tie and a frown. Say farmer and the image of ‘farmer’ pops up. Overalls, a pitchfork, and chewing tobacco perhaps? We know these images aren’t accurate or fair but they are real to the viewer. And just as women can be lawyers, woman can be farmers. And who said farmer’s have to dress a certain way and not wear mascara?
A medical technician I recently encountered said, “It’s not just that you don’t look like a farmer, you also dress very nicely!”
A local farmer said, “You aren’t a farmer, you’re a homesteader!”
A horsewoman and good friend made the comment, “You dress nicer for your cow then I do going out to dinner!”
I’m never sure what to make of these comments. I love the looks of a classic old-fashion farmer. Who doesn’t? They’re strong, healthy, and have a certain openness to them you don’t find in many people. I just don’t happen to fit the typical farmer image. For starters, I am a woman. Maybe that’s why the ‘real’ farmer called me a homesteader? Or maybe I am a homesteader because I am small scale, not selling commercially. It seems to me that if you are milking a cow each morning and shoveling her barn out morning and night you can call yourself a farmer.
Do I dress up for my cow? Every cow I’ve owned is interested in what I wear. I no longer wear big earrings in the barn because my cows notice them and try to lick them. I’ve had hats pulled off my head; one cow wouldn’t leave my straw hat alone, she wasn’t happy until she had chewed it thoroughly. Dizzy, our mini-horse is enchanted with zippers, buckles, and snaps. You could say the animals appreciate fashion, but I actually don’t dress up for my cows, I dress up for me. Call me simple but I get a chuckle when I am out in the barn shoveling manure and wearing a pretty skirt. I smile when I am on my knees planting seeds, watching the sun glint off a wrist full of bracelets.
I’ll even admit to thoroughly enjoying moments at the yacht club when I am particularly well dressed and someone asks me what I do. The look that flits across their faces, followed by that hurried sip of wine makes my day.
I am sure there are days when my husband, a businessman to the core, and my three children wish I was a normal wife and typical soccer mom. I am sure my husband savors the weekends he doesn’t have to empty a trailer full of manure or help me deliver a pig to the butcher. Then again, there are the moments he thoroughly relishes his role. Like the time we went to New Hampshire to buy a cow and a young bull. On the way home we pulled over for gas, he pumped while I was checked on the cows. A fellow driver asked Eric if he had horses in the trailer. Eric patted the trailer affectionately and said, “Nope, got my cattle in there!” Not many businessmen have the chance to say that! And his pig castrating stories are surely legend at his alma mater. He’s repeatedly said that he’s never had such an easy way of escaping a boring dinner party as saying, “Well, we’ve got to get home, time to milk the cow!”
WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU WANT TO BE A FARMER?
It was a day with a long to do list, including a trip into Boston, so I didn’t let the pigs out to free range. Abba, a six week old American Guinea Hog, and Per, a red Tamworth piglet, love to run around the farm, finding worms, bits of corn, grass; all sorts of treats keep them close to the barn. Normally. With animals you can never tell. So I kept the pigs in. It was a gorgeous October day, I couldn’t blame them for acting like I had jailed them.
The cries and whimpers and grunts coming from their unopened pen – wow! We humans like to think we have ‘the’ handle on communication but I don’t know. These pigs know how to make their point without too many letters in their range.
Per has this persistent grunt. Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, then maybe an UH, UH, UH, UH thrown in, then uh, uh, uh.
Abba on the other hand has a full range. She has the ‘Uh’ of course, but she also has this cute squeak, Eeck, eeck, eeck, then she has this funny, plaintive warble, kind of ooo-ek-uh. How can twenty six letters work for me here? I’d need a recording to convey their true ability, which, by the way, I don’t think includes ‘oink’.
Since I didn’t let the piglets out I pulled two armfuls of grass, plantain and assorted weeds for them before I left. As always, Dory, my chocolate lab, was at my heels. I stood watching the pigs for a few minutes as they shushed their cries and began to eat the greens, roots first then the leaves. As I stood there I felt Dory lean against the back of my legs. I leaned into the pen, sun on my back, dog on my legs, storing up quietude before my venture into Boston. Then I noticed that Dory’s tail was wagging against the pig’s pen, a good distance down the pen. Hmm, that dog is a lot longer than I thought. This was a fleeting vague thought, I went back to my sunny, cedar-scented study of the pigs.
Dory’s tail thumped the pen again, and again I wondered. How the heck is her tail down there when she’s leaning on my legs? This time I looked around. Dory wasn’t leaning on me. My milk cow, Bonniebelle was. She had quietly come up behind me and rested her head on my legs, letting her black coat soak up the morning sun.
Who wouldn’t want to be a farmer?! How did I get this lucky? I am so, so lucky. Lucky to have a husband who is willing to support my farm, lucky to have enough land, to live in a community with a long agricultural history. Say nothing about the food! I love food, and food you grow yourself….it’s beyond description. Not long ago my husband was on a business trip in New York City. He called me saying he had eaten a ‘farm fresh’ breakfast that cost him $26.95 – and that the egg yolks were a pale yellow, not bright orange, that the cream in his coffee was disgusting, nothing like the heavy Jersey cream we’ve become addicted to. His conclusion, “people just don’t know what food is anymore!”
I have to agree, many don’t. A few years ago a little boy was over to play. He must have been six years old. We sat down for a lunch of leftovers. New potatoes and tender bits of beef. A little salad on the side. Everyone dug in except for our guest. He sat there studying his plate. Finally I asked, “What’s the matter, honey?” He turned the plate slightly, looking closer. “What is it?” I glanced at his plate to be sure I hadn’t accidentally given him odd. “Meat and potatoes.” I answered, feeling slightly puzzled. He turned the plate again then looked up at me, “Which is which?”
Which is which?!?!
Another young visitor was here at milking time. His mother had followed me to the barn to continue our conversation. She was sitting on a bale of hay while I milked. Her son appeared. He sounded slightly shocked as he asked, “What are you doing to that fella?!” Feeling a bit offended for Annabelle’s sake, I cooly stated, “This fella is actually a girl! I am milking her.” He turned alarmed eyes to his mom, “THAT is where milk comes from? That’s disgusting!”
I didn’t become a farmer to become a teacher, and I am not a teacher in any official capacity. But I have had the chance to teach a lot of people, particularly children, about food. Real food. It isn’t the reason I farm but it is a priceless perk.
There are reasons to farm that don’t apply to me. I don’t farm because I think the world is coming to an end soon. I’ve had folks who sit far on the left praise the ‘greenness’ of my lifestyle. They’re certain that with energy issues simmering away, ready to boil, or perhaps explode, I must have started up this farm to help save the world. I’ve also had amazingly conservative people nod sagely and say, “It’s a good thing you are doing, there is going to be a revolt, and when it comes you’ll have food. They might take your money but they can’t take your food.” I find these ‘they’ statements (who are they?) as overwhelming as the sense that I might have a mission statement to save resources on a grand scale. It’s all too much for me. On some level anyway.
I love what I do more than I love the political implications behind what I do. If I did barn chores in subzero weather for philosophical or political reasons I’d probably not do it too long. I hate to disparage anyone but I’ve noticed that the folks who’ve donned me with some blanket of political inspiration have very clean nails. No callouses even.
Don’t get me wrong I love the sense of self sufficiency we have achieved, and it makes my husband very happy when the trash barrel isn’t full on Wednesdays. I am as appreciative of the resource saving and the independence of farming as I am of the chance to educate children about food, those are wonderful perks to this job. But at the end of the day I farm because I am a farmer, I love the dirt under my nails, the gentle moos of my cow when she sees me, the midnight arrivals of slimy, yet sturdy calves. The condensed circle of life flowing through my backyard is an incredible machine.
HOWEVER DO YOU GO ON VACATION? YOUR POOR HUSBAND AND KIDS!
Within weeks of buying my first cow, the gods smiled on me and introduced a wonderful backup farmer, Kathleen. Her family owns a good size farm in California, and she is happy to have the chance to keep her skills fresh. She is comfortable with large animals, she can milk, she isn’t annoyed by me constantly checking in with her to ask about the animals. Once again all I can say is, I am very, very lucky.
I also have a vet who knows not only horses but cows; and fortunately he doesn’t seem to hold a grudge against me despite the fact my cow pushed him into the electric fence charge box, which shocked him badly, and then as his hand was in the cow’s mouth it shocked her, she, of course startled, slicing his hand with her very sharp teeth. Not only does he not hold a grudge he even smiled when I offered him the choice between a Hello Kitty bandaid and oops! another Hello Kitty bandaid. His practice is just a few miles down the road.
All this to say, I can leave my farm and feel confident my animals will be alive and well when I return. When I leave, I leave a note like this:
6 am and 6 pm or Bonniebelle bellows!!! (won’t kill her if you are off a bit though!!) Chores are basically the same morning and night except I don’t feed the chickens at night. And instead of putting Dizzy (the mini-horse) out after milking I bring her in and clip her up before milking. Otherwise she will try to steal milk from the bucket while you are milking -don’t ask – I have no idea why a full grown horse wants cow’s milk, but hey! why not! I am full grown and I want cow’s milk!
Since I am weaning Stormy, the calf, you will have to clip him up while you are milking. Clip him near her head so she can lick him but he can’t reach her udder. Keeps them both happy. Give him a bit of hay with a handful of grain on it to keep him busy until you are done.
Give Dizzy a flake of hay with a handful of grain on it, too.
Throw a handful of corn down for the little bantams so they won’t bother you while you are milking.
Put a flake of hay in the stanchion for Bonniebelle. Put two cups of grain and about four cups of chopped alfalfa into her bowl.
Now you can bring her over to milk her out.
Milk. Give half of the milk to Stormy. (Keep half for yourself or if you don’t want it you can leave it in fridge.)
Put half a bale of hay into Bonniebelle’s half of the field. Put Dizzy in her field, she is getting overweight so give her just a flake of hay. Clean the barn and water the cows and the horse. Then unclip Bonnie and put her back on her side of the barn.
***Bonniebelle was in heat today, what chaos trying to get her in to the field! I don’t want her bred by her calf so Stormy can have all of the barn. It won’t hurt him to be in there for the weekend. Bonniebelle can come and lay near him when she wants. Soon enough he’ll be on 19 acres with a whole herd of cows. In the meantime I don’t want to upset the neighbors with their bellowing for each other, as long as Bonniebelle can see him she’ll be okay. Though if she won’t let you milk nicely he can go back on her to nurse.
Rabbits: They need pellets and water and their pens scooped out as needed. Metal pail near barn door has their pellets. White pail near barn for their poop.
Chickens: I have chickens in three spots. They all need pellets and water. (I keep the free-ranging chickens’ water near the Feed Room, their pellets can just go on the barn floor – not more than handful. The bantams in the lean-to get feed and water as needed. The chickens and turkeys in the big coop need quite a bit of food– put some outside for the shunned buffs (poor things!), the others still won’t let them into coop while they are eating.)
Pigs: There are two jars of milk clabbering on the kitchen counter – they can have roughly a quart at each feeding. Mix it with two cups of pig pellets, two cups of corn, and two cups of chopped alfalfa. They love weeds, so I pick an armful of plantain, and weedy grass from the pasture and give that to them. There are gloves in barn for this job. If you are moving fast and you can’t gather weeds you can throw a pumpkin in there and just stomp on it once or twice. That’ll keep them busy. As will an armful of hay. I give them the hay at night usually so they can nest in it and eat it. But maybe you want to weed them Saturday night and they’ll be fine Sunday morning with a pumpkin and some hay. Fill their water.
Cats: They are still getting their food in the garden shed in carport. Best done in the morning as a skunk was in there one recent night when I went in. Scared the heck out of me – okay I peed my pants – but he didn’t spray me!
Red flashlight in carport. Jars in pantry by fridge. Lids in second drawer near dishwasher. Call if you need us!
I SURE HOPE YOU MAKE SOME MONEY AT THIS!
Emma was home from school with a cold so she shepherded the piglets; Abba, a six-week old American Guinea Hog, and Per, a red Tamworth piglet, while I worked on widening the path to the backfield. I’ve been trying to get enough wreaths to sell at a local shop and at a Christmas Crafts Fair or two. I needed a nice swath clear of multi-flora roses before I can really get back into the grapevine-crowded field. Since I got whacked a few years back; taking a thorn deep between two knuckles, which sent a red line up my arm, which sent me to the ER where I totally pissed off a man with the flu who thought they triaged me incorrectly (I did look fine), then spending the afternoon in the hospital with IV antibiotics, and still having to take a good stretch of oral antibiotics, since all that – I am a little paranoid when it comes to multi-flora roses. Doesn’t help that while I was buying arm length rose-trimming gloves a nice lady stopped to tell me her husband had died – DIED! from a rose thorn infection.
I digress. I am supposed to be making wreaths as a money-making enterprise. To make the wreaths I need to cut grapevines. To cut grapevines I first need to cut the multi-flora roses.
This particular morning I didn’t feed the piglets before we went into the backfield. Call me manipulative but hungry animals are easily managed animals. The little dears were competing to see who could follow me best. We were quite the sight. Dory in the lead. Me, closely followed by the piglets, and Emma taking up the rear. Finally we got settled, me with my clippers, Emma sunning in a hideous white plastic Adirondack chair the previous owner had left behind and the piglets happily poking and rooting around – perfect!
Per has developed this know-it-all attitude. He is so proud of himself when I call for them and he comes in first. His legs and length are much longer than Abba’s so he is always in the lead – which he is sure makes him my new favorite. Abba just about kills herself running to keep up, poor thing is going to be fit! Good thing she is for breeding not eating.
I sprinkled bits of fine cracked corn here and there – they had good fun finding it and digging it up. Emma did a good job checking on them and calling them in if they ventured too far. Made it easy for me to work on the wreaths.
After a short while Emma needed a nap so she headed back to the house The pigs quickly decided to take advantage of being unattended and wandered off. I didn’t call them but stood watching the grass wave over their heads as they meandered through the meadow. They weren’t eating at all, just enjoying their freedom. When I called they squealed and came running. Worried about Emma, I collected the four wreaths completed and we headed back to the barn. I got them back into their pen with no problems, giving them a quart of clabber and a little grain.
That’s the long answer. The short answer is no. I don’t make any money. My first priority, my children. My second priority, happy and healthy animals. My next priority, to sneak as moments of joy as I can into the day.
But… no one wants to hear all that. So let me do a little accounting here instead. The first year I was a farmer I spent about $4000 to keep the property in compliance with Wetlands and Conservation Regulations. My first cow cost $1200. Her feed bill per year is about $3000. Shed/barn improvements, roofing, chicken coop rebuild, milking stanchion construction, all cost, another $500 to $1000. Fencing costs were close to $1000. And God only knows how many hours of hole digging I did. That first year was expensive, financially and physically. The second year wasn’t as bad. The third year – even better. I would estimate that by the fourth year I was breaking even.
Breaking even meaning my grocery bill has gone down enough to pay my barn bills. I also cancelled my gym membership, I can’t imagine a better work out than moving hay, shoveling, etc.. Milking alone has done amazing things to my arms. Here I go again! Talking about the intangibles not the numbers. The table below is a January Expense Statement. Don’t forget January is an expensive month – no grass for the cow, no free-ranging chickens, etc…
Calculating my grocery bill is another matter. In the summer, when fresh veggies abound, fruit is plentiful, and the cow is in milk, those months I can get by with a monthly trip to a big grocery store and weekly trips for luxury items like chocolate, wine, and beer. My average grocery bill had been around $300 to $400 a week. Now it is about half that.
Meat, good meat I should say, is really expensive. Raw milk has an amazing price tag, as does locally produced milk. Fortunately all those items are available in this area. I’ve seen locally grown eggs with a price tag of $7.00 for a dozen! One could clearly eat for less money than paying local food prices but the actual costs seem unclear, and the taste vastly inferior.
In my budget here we haven’t taken into account things like fertilizer. A bag of composted organic cow manure can cost the same as the dozen of eggs I mentioned above. $7.00 a bag, or more. Because of our Wetlands issues we have to remove the bulk of the manure produced by the animals from the property, though of course there is a pile in the manure shed big enough to fertilize my gardens on a regular basis.
That pile of manure reminds of another day when I decided to venture into the backfield to cut grapevines for my wreath-making, money-making enterprise. The morning started off beautifully. I’d finished the chores, the kids were in school, I had no errands to run. I decided to let Abba and Per tag along so I filled a five gallon bucket with a dish of corn, a hand saw, scissors, and the brush clippers.
The second the pigs’ pen was open they took off with squeals of delight and headed straight to the barn. Wrong direction. With a little coaxing, they followed me to the backfield. When I started making wreaths they wandered a bit. Pretty soon they found a nice spot to root around. I kept glancing at them to make sure they didn’t go far. They didn’t. Until I got busy untangling a particularly large mess of vines and dead branches. When I glanced up they were gone. I finished off a wreath and went looking for them.
My first thought was that they must have gone back to the barn. I walked back to the bottom of the pasture and stood. Called them, watched the barn area for quite awhile and decided to go back and look for them in the woods. Our property is only one hundred feet wide, so though we are almost four acres it doesn’t take many steps for one of our creatures to find a neighbor.
I walked back up the path to the backfield, stopping every few minutes to call and listen. No pigs. I walked back towards the pasture. Eyeing the ground. Wondering if I could track a pig. My dad is quite a hunter – surely I could track a domestic pig or two. The next muddy spot was riddled with footprints. Deer, mine, and the pigs. Tiny cloven hoofs, not too deep. Headed to the backfield. And headed back to the pasture. We hadn’t been out for a few days so they must have gone back to the field and barn.
I collected my tools, hat, and gloves, the two wreaths I had made and headed back to the barn. No pigs. Not in their pen. Not in the cows pen. Not in their favorite spot to till – the pile of poop in front of the barn. I called them again. This time Per answered.
From the manure shed on the other side of the barnyard. He ran to me, I knelt down to pet him, his grunts of delight got Abba’s attention and she came running to get her fair share of belly rubbing. After a few minutes they went back to their newly found treasure. Those darn pigs chose to leave a couple acres of nice dirt and grass and weeds for a pile o’poop! Brings to mind that old saying “Happy as a pig in shit!”
If I could figure out a way to efficiently compost and bag manure I might make some money. Perhaps I could use that old saying as a company name and sell the bags for $8 or even $9 a bag!
HOW DO YOU MANAGE IT ALL?
Probably the same way every dual-career family manages it all. Somedays, no problem, other days aren’t managed at all. They are survived.
At the moment our fifteen year old daughter, Sarah sails competitively, March to November, plays basketball in her off-season, and of course goes to school, out with friends and all that. Emma, our thirteen year old participates in a cycle of theater productions, belongs to a book club, a writing club, she takes voice lessons and dance lessons, and she plays softball in the spring. The youngest, William, is eight. He plays soccer in the fall and spring, sails in the summer, shoots basketballs in the winter, he is also in a book club, the church choir, and takes piano lessons. It’s a lot of balls to chase around.
A sunny, windy day in October was one of those ‘no problems’ days. I took William to the Topsfield Fair to meet up with his best buddy. From 3:30 ’til 5:30 they tilt-a-whirled and roller-coasted. At 6:00 p.m. Bonniebelle, my milk cow, needed to be milked. We left the fair, came home, sat at the table to eat dinner as a family (I had prepped everything earlier in the day), then I milked the cow while everyone else cleaned up.
Two points I can’t resist making. I HAD to be home, this meant we might as well eat dinner at home. Family-time and healthy-food time. Second point – I HAD to milk the cow, this meant everyone else HAD to clean up the kitchen. Un-entitlement time for the kids. Then we went to the fair as a family.
In many ways this farm centers our family, it certainly helps keep our life and priorities in balance. Soccer and sailing and dance are all great, but when lined up next to farming they show themselves to be luxury items, not essentials.
The mix of modern life and old-fashion farm life can be fun. The other day I sent Sarah a text from the soccer field “can you water the pigs? it’s awfully hot out and I won’t be home for an hour.” I love getting texts from her when she is out on the ocean, “can you make sure the rabbits are in before it rains, I see big black clouds out here?”
And then, the just surviving days. October 25th marked the beginning of several surviving days. The twenty-fifth was a gorgeous, cool, crisp, fall day. I was moving fast to make it to my daughter’s middle school play on time. To save time I rolled two steps into one, I usually put hay in the field, then put the cow and the horse out. Instead I let the cow loose, the horse loose, and walked with them carrying the hay. Nice green hay. The always-hungry critters began to pull tufts of the nice green hay from my arms, dropping bits into the muddy run in front of the barn. I put my long legs into motion, running ahead, moving fast in the dark. At the time I didn’t see what I slipped on, but I slipped. And fell. Hard. I heard a pop. Felt a pop. I scurried on my hands and knees out of the way of the cow and the horse, “Shit, oh shit! I broke my ankle!”.
Sure enough, I broke my fibula on a cow flap.
Not just any ole fibula either, my driving fibula! Every soccer mom’s nightmare,
I called my backup farmer from the emergency room and left a message, “Kathleen, I slipped on a cow flap, broke my leg, any chance you can cover the barn for me in the morning?”
She was over bright and early the next morning, Sarah, an experienced milker, went out to help her. All went well. That evening it was a different story. My darling Bonniebelle decided she didn’t want somebody else milking her. She put a nice bruise on Sarah’s thigh. So Kathleen took over, Bonniebelle kicked her off the stool and pummeled her with hooves. Somehow they managed to finish the milking. Somehow they worked up the courage to tackle the next morning’s milking. This time Bonnie was good and truly pissed. She was having none of it.
So I went down to the barn and milked. Less than two days after breaking my leg. Because….. I am stupid perhaps but the cow HAS to be milked. Come hell or high water or cow-flapped fibulas, she has to be milked.
The next eight weeks were a bit hellish. We survived.
The worst day was less than a week into my recovery. It was a warm November day. In a farmer’s life, warm means flies, and flies mean switching tails, and switching tails hurt. I’ve tried tying up Bonnie’s tail in the past, this just makes her really mad, she stomps and moves around – A LOT. Fly bites hurt and the tail is a very effective tool against them. I can’t blame her.
Thursday night the milking went okay, I took some hard whacks to the head but oh well. We made it through that. My husband had work issues and was in a bad mood. We made it through that. That night I didn’t sleep well, the cast was loose and uncomfortable, my leg throbbed, my shoulders and neck were in knots from crutching around, from the weird milking position, from the weird sleeping position. I made it through that. At breakfast Dory Dog leaned on my bad leg and hurt it. I wanted to cry, but I hadn’t cried once during this whole saga and I wasn’t about to start crying six days into it. My upbringing had never suggested that one should cry over ‘spilt milk’, the mantras in my family were: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves; No Pain, No Gain; You Gotta Be Mentally Fit To Be Physically Fit, You Gotta Be Physically Fit To Be Mentally Fit; MIND OVER MATTER ; What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger; etc- all those wonderful New England/Yankee ways to the tenth degree. I was not going to start crying now.
I sat down to milk at 5:45 a.m. Sarah, was tending to the pigs and the chickens as quickly as she could. She had to shower and get to school. I settled in to wash Bonnie’s udder and WHACK! Her tail, not the nice fluffy end of it – the bone of it, hit me in the forehead. I cussed under my breath. Then KA-WHACK! that Gosh-Darn-Dang tailbone hit the end of my nose.
I burst into tears.
And sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. Poor Sarah. She knelt and hugged me. Mothered her mother. Petted my hair, told me it was all going to be okay. Petted my hair some more. I had myself a good old fashion cry. Then I milked my cow. I angled my head into Bonnie’s body so the tail-whacks missed me or hit the back of my head. By the end of the milking I was leaning heavily on Bonnie and she was leaning heavily on me. When I finished I slowly pulled away so she wouldn’t fall over. Ahhh…
It never ceases to amaze me how my cow makes me the best version of me. When I left the barn that morning I left it with a new sense of power and hope. I left it feeling like I had won, I had been pushed hard, I had cried hard, but I had done the job I meant to do, and I had done it well.
YOU EAT THE ANIMALS YOU RAISE???????????
Keeping, killing, and eating animals is complicated.
It’s messy. Just as people imagine a very clear picture of a lawyer or a farmer they have a very clear image of meat. Clear plastic wrap, bright red beef with a few white lines threading through it, a bright blue or yellow styrofoam tray underneath. This meat might be in their own refrigerator or in a long row of freezers at the local grocery store.
They do not want to imagine an actual animal. If they’ve seen a movie like Food, Inc.. they might picture a long low barn stuffed to the brim with chickens or pigs. That in fact is an easier picture for people for some to absorb than the picture of someone caring for, even loving an animal, then eating that animal.
I don’t enjoy the butchering process. I grieve the deaths of the animals I have raised, yet I thoroughly enjoy their meat. And truthfully, some animals are easier to part with than others. Once a bull becomes strong and aggressive it isn’t too hard to send him off to the butcher. The last bull I had, Auker, named after one of my Dad’s drinking buddies, didn’t become aggressive. He became a fence buster. Bulls really need to have a pasture full of cows to keep themselves amused. They have a lot of …well, let’s call it energy. At first it was just a water bucket issue. He pushed that bucket all over the field. Even out of the field. We gave him worn out soccer balls, he’d push them around a bit but preferred the water buckets. I guess he realized that if the bucket could be pushed through the fence he could push his way through the fence.
One night I went out and realized he wasn’t in the barn. Or in the pasture. I called, “Auker!” and heard him answer from a distance. An off-the-property distance. I called, “Auker!” Again he answered. He was on the neighbor’s property. He had broken through my four foot wood and wire fence, topped with electric fencing and gone into her yard. There he had managed to walk over her three foot mesh fence, a rather wimpy fence she uses to contain her very small dog. Auker had walked over that fence, it had sprung back up and he was stuck! Why he decided to not wreck her fence I’ll never know but fortunately he didn’t. Had he wandered few more feet he would have been in the road. A black bull on a busy road at night is no laughing matter. Chasing a bull is no laughing matter either. I am here to tell the story, so I survived his retrieval, but things could have been different, in a bad way.
At that point I couldn’t wait to have him butchered. My initial plan had been to keep him long enough to breed Bonniebelle. A more knowledgable farmer than myself had studied Auker’s whosy-whats-its and declared, “Those balls, hang nice and low, he’ll throw you a heifer for sure!” I wanted a heifer, for sure; but I didn’t want any one hurt either so off he went. To the butcher.
Other animals; rabbits and pigs for example, or – oh my god – my retired milk cows, those decisions I agonize over, I cry over, I write long essays about the pros and cons of eating meat, and still? There are no good answers. If I didn’t have a family to feed, if I lived in a warm climate where one might raise enough vegetables and fruits to live on, if, if if! If all that then I might not kill and eat my animals. As it is my family has chosen to raise animals as humanely as possible, to love them, and to eat them.
When non-farmer folks ask that ‘you eat your animals’ question that ask it as if a crime were being committed. As if perhaps I was a step or two away from being a cannibal. This is a question which gives me nightmares. And I don’t mean that figuratively. It truly gives me nightmares. More on this another time!