Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Animal Farm

Light has a way of transfixing me. Especially that soft morning or evening light, when it is spilling onto the floor through a bathroom or bedroom window. Many times the sight of it filtered through lace curtains has stopped me dead in my tracks for moments on end absolutely still, enjoying the sight of it, purely for its own sake. I’ll usually come to in a few moments wondering how and why on earth I was caught in such an “unproductive” stupor, but go on to the day’s tasks with a kind of twinkling contentment at having been somewhere marvelous.
Working with animals often has that same effect. There are millions of good practical reasons to farm with animals. On-farm generated fertility. Better management of the farm’s whole eco-system. A safe source for meat, dairy, and eggs for your family and shareholders. Closer connection to the needs of the land, the pasture, the woodlands, the fields. A more human pace. But these pragmatic concerns are all beautifully buttered with the solid gold fact that it’s just plain good for its own sake, working with animals. There is a contentment and partnership akin to a choreographed pas de deux that is present between farmer and livestock. By choreographed I mean worked at order. And the reward is very often just as much in the work as in the final performance.
The goats, sheep, horses, chickens, rabbits, hogs, cats, and baby chicks on this farm day in day out require of us to continually fine tune our efforts here for their sakes, and the sake of the land they are here to help us cultivate. Very often they push us to our physical limits, and in so doing, reveal our true capacities to ourselves. Recently, faced with the daunting task of moving hundreds of hay bales from one end of the barn to another to make room for a winter nights/kidding quarters we were erecting for the very pregnant mama dairy does, I could feel my body rebel with ferocious sloth, brought on by one to many planning sessions and one too many Christmas cookies sitting by a cozy fire. But there is never any question when it comes to our livestock’s needs. If they need it we make it happen. Pure and simple. “She’s not heavy, she’s my goat” and many other variations, often apply.
It is rare, but sometimes the demands of our animals make for sticky situations. Two weeks ago we were all 4 flat out with stomach flu. At the same time. Dragging a bale of hay or carrying buckets of water out to the pasture with a stomach out to sea is miserable stuff. You feel all the helpless puny-ness of the human condition, without the epic poet present to immortalize your noble struggles. But most dangerously, it meant we weren’t able to work the horses for a little over a week. It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again. Your team is only as good as you work you do with them. The more you work them, the better they get. The more you work them the better you get. Or to quote the Small Farmer’s journal: “The more I work the horses the less I know and the easier it gets.” Ray Drongesen 1974
So, needless to say, the first time we hitched up after our “sick leave” the girls were a bit…rusty. They were also a bit…juiced. Their supply of grass hay had run out and the day before we were forced to feed them some of the alfalfa mixed bales that we keep for the goats. These two factors alone would have been enough to make for a bumpy ride, but add to them a bus coming out of the neighbor’s driveway as a sudden greeting is shouted, and we had a full-blown runaway on our hands. Not two nights before I had read Shane Stephen Leslie’s harrowing account of a near-death runaway on his farm, in which a woman’s two ankles were broken in multiple places after the team plowed into her pulling their stone sled behind them. After reading it we had counted ourselves fortunate to have such a steady pair in Maj and Marta, and with considerable diligence to have made such a seamless transition from teamless to working safely with our fjords with very few mishaps. As I watched as they suddenly shot forward toward the fence line I marveled at the strange combination of control and chaos. It seemed as though Shane, riding the sled with a lowered stance like a snowboarder calmly going about the most insane ride of his life, was simply waiting for the right moment to definitively stop them…they careened to the right, veering along the fence line and just as they came up to the driveway Shane leapt off and leaned back with his whole body and calmly said “WOA” and they stopped on a dime. They had bolted for a good 60 feet. Riotous, kicking, racing, runaway. And just like that it was over.
I ran over to where they stood panting “that….that was a runaway! That was a runaway!” The power of it, the unexpectedness of it, the helplessness I felt as it happened, the danger of it slowing seeping into me as I said it. Shane nodded. “I prepare for one every time I take the reins into my hands” he said soberly.
Maj and Marta, the sheep, the goats, the hens, the hogs, they are not slaves on this farm. They fulfill a vital role in the responsible stewardship of these 25 gorgeous acres. They do this by being the ruminants, omnivores, herbivores they are. As often as we harness their individual excellences we serve them as well…and part of the partnership that occurs between the farmer and his team is acknowledging that they are also unique beings, capable of independent action. Given regular care, work, and feed cooperation is to be expected…but it is acknowledged that the very powers that give us bounty can often bring with them risk as well.
That is in a nutshell what farming is. Perhaps that’s why Wendell Berry commenting on the Agrarian mind says it is one which "begins with the love of fields and... leads him ultimately to gratitude to God." The amount of risk the farmer juggles is massive when it comes to livestock, birthing, weather, and infestations, it throws him upon the breaker of a hope that there is something, after all, eternally constant in and out of this Universe. There is so much at stake, and so much to go amiss, many times there is only a thin thread of trust in God to keep him sane. This is why community supported agriculture is a thing of pure beauty. It breaks down the wall between farmers and families, a wall which insulates and anesthetizes people from the hard and soft realities of agriculture, the strains and blisses of a responsible food system, a wall which also alienates the farmer from the needed support of his surrounding community. For some people, it is a richer experience to put a face to their food, to know their farmer. As farmers, for us it works the same way. I cannot tell you how much of a difference it makes to be growing not Sun Gold tomatoes, Antohi Romanian Peppers, and Walla Walla sweet onions…but to be growing salsa for Greg and Jen, stir-fry for the Johnson family, pasta sauce for the Bices. For us, that has made the difference between a daily obligation to pay the rent and working till the sun goes down and seeding flats in the kitchen at night with a smile on our faces and deep satisfaction beneath our hearts. Seems the best things in life…are just putting in the work.


  1. Oh boy, I am suffering from "to many planning sessions", too - especially since those usually seem to involve cookies or cakes or pie to go with the coffee ;) But gosh, your last statement about the best things in life are putting in the work is so true and so important in this day and age of shortcuts, shortcuts, shortcuts ;(

    Did you spin the yarn in the photo? It looks great!

  2. Hi Cary,

    I passed on your husband's comment about it's not if but when with a runaway to Shane...thanks for the moral boost!
    I did spin the yarn in the photo, thanks to a kind friend's tutoring! The darker one is my first, the lighter one our second. It is so delicious to finally put the fleeces in my basement to good use! I am amazed at how non-monotonous it is! The whole process really delighted and surprised me- who normally have very short supply of patience!

  3. Thank God for Shane's snowboarder legs and concentrated preparation. These are not easy posts for a mother to read...but I read to the end.

    I heard a story on the radio this morning about an Iowa farmer buying a $50K seeder that he uses for 6 weeks a year. It is air conditioned, has all the musical bells and whistles to avoid boredom, even a GPS (can you really lose your way on those acres of corn and soybeans?). And I thought, based on my periodic visits to you, I'm glad I've had a chance to know and experience what real farming is. mim

  4. Hi Shane and Chiara, It is so wonderful for me to see how well the goaties are doing! we just started kidding here, one little girl so far. I feel really blessed when I see how "my" girls are being a part of your beautiful farm. I farm vicariously thru you, and enjoy every picture and post.

  5. What a beautiful post, and a real inspiration for me and my husband, a couple of apartment dwellers who dream of having a small family farm someday. And your yarn is lovely! I love spinning and agree about it being anything but monotonous. Did you use a wheel or spindle? I've only used a hand spindle and Navajo spindle but would love to use a wheel someday. Anyway, thank you for your blog and God bless you. Wish we could join your CSA but we're a ways away...