Has It Been Eight Months Already?

Relaxing on the lawn at the end of a successful grazing season.
Ewes and ewe lambs relaxing on the lawn at the end of a successful grazing season.

Somehow we turned around and now it’s February, 2016.  For those keeping track (and wondering what the heck we’ve been doing), we’ve been busy. Seriously, it’s looked a lot like this (and no, this is not our farm).

Since last June we’ve written our business plan twice, had a farm under contract then terminated it, applied for a land trust farm opportunity, secured a whole host of support letters, did some leased-land grazing, were featured on Vermont Public Radio, sold lamb and barbecue, and waited.  In late January, we heard that the land trust option wasn’t going to work out and several new farm choices arrived within the week.

The experience of the last ten months (starting with the Slow Money event in April) has been revealing.  We both feel that the Universe is in our corner when it comes to bringing us what we want, and its been presenting us with real variety to evaluate.  Back in 2012 we looked at a place with a great house and little land; then we progressed to enough land with an unfinished house; a terrific barn and land with a workable house but an unworkable purchase price; and a delightful turn-key operation with a fantastic grazing system already in place.

Our son has rolled his eyes at us a bit (“another farm?“), but looking back I can say that I’m glad we’ve had these experiences.  We want a finished house.  We don’t require a fabulous barn or extensive infrastructure.  We want to live near town, but feel rural.  Deep down, I want to develop my own grazing system and document the transition from fallow land to productive land. It must be affordable. These experiences have separated out the chaff.

Earlier in the process, I admit that I fell in love a lot.  Some portion of love needs to be there in order to bring what you want to you, but I mean that I really fell in love.  One farm in particular was hard to walk away from; I think I’ll always have a little ache (maybe until that ache is filled with THE farm) for that one.  My brain and my heart have now merged into what I think of as a positive pragmatism.

Today, I feel like I’m progressing more on faith that it’s going to work out.  Despite the dramatic eye rolling, it feels like we get closer and closer.  People are in our corner rooting us on.  The support letters written last fall were humbling and bring me close to tears when I think about them (thank you again, dear supporters in Vermont agriculture).  This is a little less love and a lot more tingle.  It’s coming.  Maybe it’s here.  I hope so.

No matter where we are and what happens, the sheep are due to start lambing in April.  I’m looking forward to that, wherever we are.

–Jenn

 

 

 

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Sorting Beef

I arrived Friday morning a few minutes late.  I promised to be there at 7 am for the first deliveries, but I hit traffic and the trailers were lined up.  The first one had already been emptied and that beef producer was staying around to help unload some of the cattle coming behind.

An annual rite of spring, the spring beef sale was underway.  I look forward to it every year and mark the date on my calendar months ahead.  OK, maybe it’s not that exciting to people who work with beef cattle every day, but I don’t, and it’s been one of my greatest regular farm-related learning experiences in the past ten years.

2015-05-08 09.11.31
What breed am I? Great question.

The sale is nearly all volunteers, with a few paid Expo staff helping to set up and tear down the cattle chute, State animal health folks evaluating –um, animal health–  and a USDA grader deciding which animals would go to which pens.  We receive over 100 animals, usually from 20+ different farms.  Some are pure beef breeds like Angus or Hereford.  Some are dairy crosses like the group of Holstein-Park White cattle from this sale.  That group also had some Park White-Hereford crosses, and it was fun to guess which was which by their body types and their brown (vs. black) ears.  Others are completely mixed crosses and the game is to figure out what they actually are (breedwise).

I’ve learned a lot about handling cattle and recognizing their movements.  I can tell which ones get a wild eye and whether we should move them to an inner pen (harder to escape).  I’ve learned to watch their ears and listen to their breathing.  This is all similar to other livestock like sheep and horses, of course, but these are animals that I’ve only met five minutes ago.  And they are big. The key to keeping things calm is to anticipate their moods, because when an animal that big wants to go somewhere, they usually do.

Cattle pens.
Cattle pens.

I’ve learned a lot about how to sort single cattle from pens and how to get groups to move.  I’ve gotten the chance to practice testing that balance point on the shoulder to make them change direction, without a cattle cane or a rattle or a prod.  They’ll go…no need to stress them…but sometimes that takes learning what will make them go, and each individual can be different.  I’ve also learned when to step up on the fence rail and just let them go where they’re going.

As we work, the safety and comfort of each animal (and person) is the top priority wherever possible.  For this day, it was crazy hot and we ended up dedicating a person with a hose to each aisle of pens, just filling water tubs.  We hosed down the outside of the cows to help them stay cooler.  We kept checking with each other to make sure the humans had water, too.

Hosing down the cattle to help them keep cool.
Hosing down the cattle to help them keep cool.

That said, sometimes a cow comes in wild. Maybe she wasn’t wild at home, but the combination of new, open space, new smells, trailer ride, different humans, or some variation, causes her to lose it.  Several years ago, we had a heifer whose eyes showed nothing but whites and we couldn’t get her to stay inside a pen.  She came off the truck like that (the owner swore she was quiet as a mouse at home) and we directed her into a pen with other cows to settle down.  She crawled under the metal pen (more than once), dragging a whole series of connected panels with her and upsetting nearby groups.  Sometimes there’s a point where they can’t be reasoned with.  Temple Grandin describes this state as panic, and is often caused by separation anxiety.  In the case of this heifer, we put her back on a trailer where she calmed down in the relative quiet and dark.  We had done nothing to [knowingly] contribute to that–it was just a perfect storm for her.

Mmm.  Cool, cool water.
Mmm. Cool, cool water.

On this morning, it didn’t take long; within about half an hour we’d handled the backed-up trailers.  Cattle in their farm groups were settling in to dedicated pens. The unloading crew chatted and waited for the next delivery.  We discussed the pros and cons of different breeds, feed choices, whether prices would be up or down this year.  We stopped to check out the handling chute and see whether they were ready for another bunch to weigh and tag.  A steer got himself turned around in the chute and they had to open the side door to let him out, but then the line moved along again.

No wildness this year, and that was just fine by us.  Looking forward to next spring already.

Jenn

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The Farm on the Hill

The time has come where Chris and I are moving forward on finding our new farm.  We aren’t sure how that’s going to end up, but it means that we are now actively looking.  The first one, naturally, was the farm  that initiated this major change in our lives starting two years ago.  It’s finally for sale (well, actually it’s not again, but that’s a different story) which meant that we had a chance to visit with the current owner, look through the house and walk the perimeter.

Hill farm
A little snapshot of a view similar to my great-grandparents’ hillside farm.

It got me thinking about the many hill farms in Central Vermont and what they’ve seen over seasons and years. Coincidentally, April is Poetry Month nationally, and statewide, and our little town does a whole month of poetry-related activities.  Last week was a Farmer Poetry Reading hosted by the Black Krim Tavern, a local restaurant run by farmers.  If you make it to Randolph, you must eat there.  I’m serious.  Last night, we ended with a public poetry reading at the Chandler Center for the Arts. I love my town.  At this time when we have the ability to resettle anywhere…I just want to stay here.

That said, here is one of my offerings, inspired by the wisdom and patience of farm(s) on the hill(s).

Jenn

The Farm on the Hill

Patiently it waits
Apple trees dying one by one
Dropping limbs to weather and neglect.
Stone monuments to the old timers
Persist through the bare Spring forest, their
Verdant green stones running in crooked vessels
Over the top to the Old Stage Road.
Just wakening, the hay fields are tired of brief visits to cut and bale and
Take away, leaving lichen and wild strawberry and smooth bedstraw.
Stripped to bare beam bones, its heart stands proud
Nestled down behind Mom-and-Pop maples
Letting the wind howl and sweep and
Sing to its lonely ache.
Enduringly it waits.

Vibrantly the farm dances
Celebrating the cycles of life and season
Watching the tottering steps of new lambs
Feeling the warm gush of biology as each pass of cattle over the pasture brings
Clover and trefoil and dandelion and spiders and earthworms and
Dung beetles and rabbits and foxes and coyotes and boblinks.
Laughter rings along the jeep trail
Carrying vitality on four-footed backs, in the glint of a grey-blue eye,
A tiny hand, and size two Bogs.
Sparks start meals of meat and cheese and home-grown harvests.
Four generations stretch and grow a
Labyrinth garden in the old cellar hole,
Pear trees,
Raised beds,
A hammock hung between Mom and Pop,
Thanksgiving at the trestle table,
Cows and calves,
Goats and chickens,
Organic matter holding water for the
Fifth generation.
Purposefully it dances.
Vigilantly the farm watches
Fall seep over the familiar comfort of its curves.
With cold comes expiration like the
Quietus after sheep came and trees left, then
Sheep left and cows came.
Anxiously it watches.

Sagely, the farmer watches
Cold retreat like an exhausted soldier
Revealing green life and heat from bunched crowns.
Emerging re-costumed to take up this dance, a slow waltz
Not a fast jig to be danced and done.
A partnered pair unfolding together
Devoted to the promenade.
Gratified, the farm puffs out a dewy breath
And
capers on.

JJC 4/20/15

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Farm, Family and Faith

by Jenn

As described several weeks ago, waiting for lambs is hard. That’s not the only hard thing in farming (particularly livestock farming). Actually many things are hard. And worrisome. And stressful. And sometimes horrific. I’ll spare the details but the point is: farming is not all sunshine and lambs.

That’s why farmers must carry faith above all things. Faith (and by this I mean something you cultivate in your heart, not something you hear in a sermon) means that tomorrow the sun will come up again. It means that no matter how awful and scary life has been, or how lonely we feel, everything will be okay. It means that despite death, we will have life. Eventually, anyway.

Here’s a recent story of family and faith on our farm.

For several weeks in March we had a run of bad luck. I lost two yearling ewes to freak accidents. A round bale collapsed on one and a week later the other was found dead (no obvious reason why—the previous day she’d been fine). Between the long, looong winter and going down to find dead sheep in the pen, I was feeling pretty worn down.

Lucy on the left and 618 on the right. Co-parenting at its finest.
Lucy on the left and 618 on the right. Co-parenting at its finest.

Then Lucy had triplets. Beautiful, bouncing triplets. Lucy is an excellent mother and the lambs were strong. A friend had loaned me lamb sweaters (aren’t they awesome?), so despite the freezing temps alternating with rain and sleet (ewww), the lambs were able to keep warm and gain weight right away. Part of the reason that happened was thanks to the mothering nature of another ewe, 618, who was still pregnant with her own lambs. This happens sometimes; hormones take over and new moms/still-pregnant moms may fight over baby lambs. It’s happened before at our farm and it’s not a pretty sight.

In this case, Lucy and 618 actually co-parented. In the hours after the lambs arrived, 618 physically blocked other sheep from approaching Lucy and maintained a perimeter around the new family. When our dog Vaughan approached, 618 rushed at him. The best way I could
describe this relationship would be as if 618 were Grandma flying in from out of town to answer the door and phone, manage visitors, and make sure the new Mom got plenty of rest and fluids. In this case, Lucy wasn’t even 618’s daughter. Sometimes your family is the one you make.

At first when 618 began to let the lambs nurse as if they were her own, I wasn’t too concerned. I figured she would have her own lambs in a day or two and a natural separation would take place. In the mean time, the triplets would gain weight faster despite the four inches of snow(!) arriving in the night (did I mention ewww?).

Four long days passed. After the second day, I began to worry. Should I have kept them from nursing? I couldn’t separate them now—618’s milk had come in, and to separate them would likely mean she’d get mastitis (an udder infection, for you non-lactators). What would happen when her lambs were finally born—would she reject them? Would she injure the triplets? Would I end up with a pile of bottle lambs from the horrible crash-and-burn of my poor choices? Despite my usual habit of leaving the ewes to do their own jobs, I found myself visiting every few hours, and in the middle of the night, carrying a nagging, aching fear in my chest.

Here's 618 surrounded by four of the five lambs.
Here’s 618 surrounded by four of the five lambs.

On the morning of the fourth day, I went down to the pen at the crack of dawn. I found two huge lambs. One was the largest ever born to our farm. 618 knew exactly what she was doing. She had clearly bonded with both and the family unit was complete. She and Lucy were near each other, but 618 had everything handled. Amusingly enough, the triplets are still allowed to nurse from her when they can—they just have to wait until her two are done.

What does this all have to do with faith? Despite the weight in my chest, I have faith in my girls and that their knowledge about their births and family is greater than mine. I have faith that despite bumps in the road, things will turn out all right. I have faith that, even when we experience some death, life will still flourish. All I need to see is a pile of lambs napping in the sun to reinforce that.

Last fall, a certain high school director had faith in his actors and community to take on the Vermont premiere of the Broadway show Mary Poppins. He didn’t know how it would happen; he just knew that it would. The first sold-out shows in 20 years and more than $1,100 in bake sale income *alone* later, his faith was rewarded overwhelmingly. Sometimes, you gotta step off the cliff so you can fly.

Bert in the red sweater, Poppin on top of Lucy, and Mary looking into the camera.
Bert in the red sweater, Poppin on top of Lucy, and Mary looking into the camera.
Here are Mr. and Mrs. Banks, just a few minutes after being born.
Here are Mr. and Mrs. Banks, just a few minutes after being born.

Thank you, BC Rainville.
In your honor, please meet Mary, Bert, Poppin, Mr. Banks (Mister), and Mrs. Banks (Missus). We wish them many sunny days ahead. Depending on the day, some of them might even fly.

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Waiting is the Hardest Part

For four days, I’ve had this Tom Petty song stuck in my head. Four days ago, the calendar predicted the arrival of our first lambs. No appearance yet.

The calendar is a fickle, paper thing. We have lambing predictors based on various back dates of your choice. Since I did not use a ram harness this year (which identifies the presence of mating attempts using crayon or chalk), my best date was the day that Mal was introduced to his ladies.

Apparently Mal took a few days getting to know everyone first. Oh sure, he did his job (note: Exhibit A).

Exhibit A
Exhibit A

But he took his time, and now we are all waiting. I’m not the only one; the heavily pregnant ewes now trundle a few steps before resting, dawdle by the fence for me to spend minutes or hours scratching under their chins, and belligerently yell at me for appearing without a treat. In short, this is classic time spent with a late-stage pregnant woman except there are six of them and they don’t speak English.

Today, I was sure Martha Jones was very close to lambing (and she still is, as I write this). She spent the day in the back section of the pen. She didn’t eat a lot, but just chewed slowly. Her body has grown so large that the effort of getting up is clearly something she has to consider strongly before doing. She almost staggered from the momentum of reversing her belly’s gravitational pull. She stared pointedly at me, as if I could change this condition. Maybe she thinks I’m responsible.

Oh, Martha...
Oh, Martha…

This wait spawns dreams. I suspect the girls are dreaming of youthful summers in lighter bodies, galloping with their siblings in green pastures. I dream of what I’ll find when I walk down in the morning. Yesterday I put a harness on a yearling to keep everything in place (we’ll talk about that at a later date) and I woke up from a dream this morning that her lamb’s little hooves were tangled in the harness. Active imagination; everything was fine and just in place when I arrived.

Lambing is all about faith. Sure there’s planning and experience and knowledge, too, but the longer I farm the more I realize that it’s all just an act of faith. Soon there will be lambs (one way or another), and once it starts they’ll appear in a landslide. Last year I was literally in the middle of watching one ewe lamb while another dropped twins, and some neighbors stopped by with their kids. I think the understated term was, um, hopping. Most were healthy and most births were low-complication. I have faith that this year will be the same or even better.

For now, waiting is the hardest part…

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