Farm Blog

Observations, goings on, thoughts from one woman farmer...that's what you'll find here. Most of these posts were originally published in the Mohawk Valley Living Magazine. For more information, visit http://www.mohawkvalleyliving.com/.

Thankful, November 2017

What are you most thankful for? Is it a good job, your health, your family? Is it the kindness of strangers, the ability to help others, or life’s opportunities that make you grateful? This time of year, I’m always particularly thankful for the farmers that feed us and that our woodshed is fully stocked for the winter. But do you ever forget to be thankful for some things? I’m definitely guilty of this, especially when it comes to the really “big picture” stuff. I had the supreme pleasure of being reminded recently that I have so very much to be thankful for—that I’ve had some amazing people in my life (however briefly) that quite literally changed the way I think about the world.

You see, I was recently reunited with my host mother from 25 years ago. I had studied abroad in college, staying with a wonderful family in Costa Rica for 6 months while I attended the University of Costa Rica in San José. At the time, Felicia and Gerardo had four children of their own, ranging from 2 to 16 years old. Gerardo Sr. was a taxi driver with a great sense of humor. Gerardo Jr. was always helpful translating newspaper articles (and the occasional swear word when I needed one!) Milena, their oldest daughter, taught me dance steps at her big quinceañera (15th birthday party). Melissa, then 7, was always happy to help me understand the fast-paced “Sábado Gigante,” a famous long-running TV show that aired every Saturday evening. Even little Gustavo, at two years old, had a huge effect on me. I would go into the city every day, attend class or study at a café, and generally try to be a sponge, soaking up as much as I possibly could. Every day had its little “wins” when I would gain new vocabulary or insight. But little two-year-old Gustavo didn’t even have to try! I’d come home, excited to tell him what I learned that day, and he would have amassed 40 new words for my one or two. It was wonderful and frustrating, all at the same time.

Milena & Felicia at Milena's quinceanera.JPG

But it was Felicia, my host mom that had made the greatest impression upon me. She answered my every question and was the perfect, strong role model in this new, unknown Latin culture I had to navigate. She introduced me to new foods and flavors, converting a cautious eater into an adventurous one. And our coffees together, our walks through the neighborhood visiting family and neighbors, all helped to give me roots in that new environment. After all, any transplant needs care and attention to grow and thrive. By the end of my 6-month study, I was thinking and dreaming in Spanish, my brain having been “rewired” to adapt to my new home.

In the 25 years that followed my return to the US, I wrote a few letters to my host family, but never heard back from them. And I never went back to visit. In all the years since, I would think of them from time to time, but it wasn’t until we had an exchange student of our own from India two years ago (see my article in the Mohawk Valley Living February 2016 issue “Our Life Through a Very Different Lens”) that I really began to think about my experience all those years ago. It was then that remembered what an important role Felicia and her family had played…and how that experience in many ways has made me the person I am today.

I believe it was that experience of needing to be understood, of needing to understand others that makes me so enjoy writing this monthly column. Talking with customers at farmer’s markets and hearing their stories, and then having the opportunity to share mine, all feeds that need to communicate on a meaningful level. I figuratively—and literally during a few small earthquakes—felt the ground shift beneath my feet in Costa Rica as an exchange student, and that instilled in me a life-long mindset that seeks out challenges, rather than avoids them. And for all of that, I am supremely grateful.

By now, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with farming. I guess it’s mostly to illustrate that farmers often have surprising, varied backgrounds. While not all farmers get a college education, many do, and oftentimes in something other than agriculture. Many turn to farming as a second career; others seek nursing, teaching or other degrees as a way to add to the farm family income. Some are musicians, some are artists. Some are even philosophers. Farmers are about as unique group of people that you’ll ever meet. For me, having been a stranger in a strange land, I find the role of farmer in a world of non-farmers very familiar, and wonderfully challenging.

The reunion itself with Felicia almost didn’t happen. We had found each other on Facebook about a year ago, and it took me by surprise when she began posting photos of her trip to Virginia for a conference. Next came pictures from Washington DC. When she posted pictures of NYC, I was kicking myself for not reaching out, for not planning a trip to the city to see her. It was then that she posted she was on her way to Utica to visit a student from New Hartford she had hosted just last year. I cannot tell you how thrilled I was! I messaged her, told her we live just minutes outside of Utica, and that I would be at the Oneida County Farmer’s Market that Saturday if she was free? She messaged back that they were going to Niagara Falls. It didn’t look like we’d be able to meet up. Of course, I was disappointed. But at about 9:20, at the Utica train station, there she was! She carved a few minutes out of her schedule to see me and to meet my daughters. And I am thankful once again.

Windy Hill Goat Dairy, October 2017

I love goats. God help me, I just adore everything about them!

Our first goats were all “meat” breeds. Much like the Angus breed of cow that is popular for beef, we started out with goat breeds known for meat production, including Boer and Spanish. And although my husband and I didn’t grown up eating goat meat at home, we’ve since learned to appreciate how good it truly is. They rest of the world enjoys goat quite a lot—it is the #1 consumed red meat in virtually every other country in the world.

But when customers started asking about goat cheese…well, why not get into the cheese business? We bought a small herd of dairy goats and set about learning how to milk, balance proper nutrition, and make cheese. It quickly became abundantly apparent that we were good at only one thing: making cheese! The other part—raising babies on milk replacer while coaxing high quality milk from the mothers—was clearly not our forte. We set about looking for goat dairies willing to sell us their milk.

Over the years, we’ve had the immense pleasure of working with a handful of goat dairies in the area. For some of them, making milk and selling it to processors is their sole business. For a few others, they are cheesemakers themselves.

Kay Barry and daughter Sadie.jpg

Windy Hill Goat Dairy in Cherry Valley is one of the best dairies we’ve ever worked with. Barry and Kay Gaughan, along with Barry’s parents Vicky and Chuck, milk approximately 150 goats. Besides selling milk to us and other processors, they make their own goat cheeses, yogurt, bottled milk (including chocolate!), soaps and lotions. You can find them at farmer’s markets in Clinton, Richfield Springs, Syracuse and Schenectady. The public can visit the farm to purchase products, too, but make an appointment first!

I sat down with Barry and Kay to ask them a few questions about their operation:

Q: Can you tell me a little about the history of your farm?

A: At Windy Hill Goat Dairy, we have had goats for ten years, making cheese for four. The farm has been in our family for 64 years. It was an operating cow dairy from 1954 until 1994, when the cows were sold. We wanted to take what was once a successful cow dairy and make it into a successful business again. The farm was too small to sustain the number of cows needed to be an economical choice. Goats seemed to be a viable option.

Q: Can you describe your operation and do you milk year-round?

A: We have a double-eight milking parlor. We milk Toggenburgs, Lamanchas, Saanens, Oberhaslis, and Alpines. We are pickier about milk production in our herd, rather than breed types.

Most goat dairies are seasonal, but consumers want fresh goat products year-round. We produced milk year-round for the first time in 2016. It is difficult to break goats from their natural breeding schedules. (Goats are “short-day” breeders, meaning their natural breeding cycle is triggered by the shorter days in fall.) The way we achieved milking year-round was by using different breeds of bucks to bring our does into heat. Also, we used artificial light to fool the goats so they didn’t know when the days were getting shorter.

In a typical year, we have 325-400 babies, depending on the number of twins and triplets we have.

Q: What are some of the best and worst things about what you do?

A: Farming with family is great; you get to work with your loved ones on a daily basis. Also, with our marketing we get to go out and see the public’s opinion of our products first-hand. On the other hand, we face many challenges with cash flow, especially at certain times of the year. It is hard to get a bank to lend you money with such fluctuation and uncertain markets. Another big challenge of all agriculture is you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Q: What does the future look like for Windy Hill Goat Dairy? And do you plan to continue to work with processors like Jones Family Farm?

A: Our hope is that we can continue to meet the demands for our products and the demands of the processors buying our milk. We will continue to look for ways to diversify our farm to make sure that our farm stays sustainable for future generations.

We like selling to fellow processors, as it helps diversify our operation. Other advantages are quicker turnaround on cash flow, and it frees us to accomplish other farm tasks. Of course, selling to other processing plants, we create our own competition. On the other hand, it’s our milk that’s making their products…so we are making money on our competition! We’ve made good friends along the way, and are all working together to make each of our farms and farming community more resilient.

I couldn’t agree more! Check out Windy Hill Goat Dairy and their products by finding them at your local farmer’s market or visit their Facebook page.

Windy Hill Goat Dairy
Barry & Kay Gaughan
504 North Road
Cherry Valley, NY
windyhilgd@hotmail.com

Toxic Plants, September 2017

I think people generally understand that there are lots of dangers on the farm. And it’s true. From large equipment, to half-buried rusty metal trash, to unpredictable animals, there’s really no end to the ways one can get hurt on a farm. Farm kids are taught at an early age how to give wide berth to moving equipment, to “connect eyes” with the tractor operator to make sure she sees you. Yet, accidents still happen. Farm safety is always my greatest concern, especially when we have visitors!

Margaret and our guardian dogs by a sea of burdock and poisonous parsnip.JPG

But I often forget about the toxic plants that surround us on the farm. Some pose considerable danger to humans and animals alike. It’s easy to forget because most of these plants have a specific season when they flourish, and some years are worse than others. They are not a constant danger. These toxic plants are more like an unpleasant relative that comes to visit a few weeks every year, so it’s best to learn how to avoid them altogether!

Poisonous parsnip looks a lot like dill’s wild cousin. Around 5 feet tall, it grows in ditches, along roadsides, and in farm pastures in June and July. Sap from the plant gets on your skin and makes it extremely sensitive to sunlight, giving you a terrible sunburn. One of our daughters is particularly susceptible; her skin will bubble much like a third-degree burn. Cow parsnip and giant hogweed are equally dangerous, causing the same symptoms. Farmers are careful to wear long pants, long sleeves, and other protective clothing when working on fencing, for example, to make sure they do not get burned if they accidently brush up against these plants.

Stinging nettle is found throughout our state, and grows 6-8 feet tall. Their sting can feel very much like a bee sting. The hollow hairs, when touched, will break off and actually inject a tiny dose of chemicals that cause pain, burning or itching. Folks braver than I will make tea from its leaves and claim that it is quite delicious!

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are not a particular trouble on our farm, as they all prefer wooded areas and wet soils. That’s not to say I haven’t come into contact with any of them. My husband and I cleaned out a small wooded area behind our previous home, where poison ivy had taken over. We sprayed it with an herbicide and raked it up after had shriveled and died. Guess what? The oils that cause the burning rash were still present. I learned that one the hard way…

There are even more plants that are toxic to animals. Plants like milkweed, pokeweed, even elderberry, are potentially lethal, but goats and sheep tend to pass over them in favor of other things in the pasture. But if it’s a younger or inexperienced animal, or if it is simply a little hungrier than usual, they may take a few bites of these plants. It usually results in an “upset tummy” and the animal is back to its old self within 48 hours…or not. It all depends on how much the animal eats.

Speaking of rate of consumption, even plants like clover or alfalfa can kill a sheep and other ruminants if they gorge on it. This is a particular worry in the spring, as farmers begin to turn their animals out on pasture after a long winter feeding on hay. Gorging on lush pastures (especially those high in legumes like clover and alfalfa), will cause the rapid development of foam in the rumen of the sheep, or “frothy bloat.” Rapidly built-up gases cannot escape, and the ensuing bloated rumen puts so much pressure on the diaphragm that the animal suffocates. Frothy bloat is always fatal, unless drastic measures are quickly taken. In this case, it is not so much the plant that is toxic, but rather the abrupt change in diet that is deadly. Good management, such as filling the animals first with dry hay and gradually increasing their time in lush pastures, is the best approach.

When we first began to build our small goat herd, we researched everything we could about goats. It became clear that we had to establish good management practices and identify problem plants…and decide what to do about them. For example, we removed all black cherry (whose wilted leaves are deadly to goats), but in the case of milkweed, we determined that the risk was small and worth keeping the plants around for Monarch butterflies. It’s definitely worth the time to talk with your county’s cooperative extension office about toxic plants on your land, should you ever decide to get any farm animals.

All of that work, however, did not keep me from accidentally poisoning a donkey and two goats quite a few years ago. We had told our neighbor how much our goats love evergreens—especially Christmas trees. So, when he pulled three gnarled evergreen shrubs from the front of his house and offered them as a treat for our goats, I gladly picked them up. Less than 12 hours later, I found the donkey dead in the pasture and two beautiful goats completely unresponsive. What could have possibly happened? We wracked our brains. And then it hit us…the shrubs! They were Japanese Yews, a highly lethal plant. This was not a plant we had identified on our land as potentially dangerous, nor did I even know what a Japanese Yew was. In hindsight, I was extraordinarily lucky. We could have had 50+ dead animals on our hands that day. The rest of the goats must have known something was up!

Nostalgia is a Funny Thing, August 2017

I was driving through town with my 15-year-old daughter the other day when she pointed out a bumper sticker that read, “Hauling Ass & Sucking Gas.” If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting her, our daughter is an intelligent, sharp-witted young woman. If you HAVE had the pleasure of meeting her, you’d also know she prefers rather to-the-point commentary. “And I suppose they think that’s a good thing?” was her follow-up. I glanced at the vehicle with the bumper sticker in question. It was a 70’s era Ford F250, lovingly restored and painted a garish (although completely appropriate) burnt-umber orange that would have gone beautifully with the avocado-green kitchen appliances of my childhood. The driver looked like he might have been straight out of the 1970’s as well, with long hair and big, 70’s style glasses. He and his truck were a sight to behold. (It really was a great looking truck!)

Suzie doing chores.jpg

I laughed a little at the scene and my daughter’s comment. “Maybe he’s nostalgic for a by-gone era,” I guessed out loud. That’s when I looked closer at the driver. Was he about my age? Could he have lived through the 70’s or was he much younger and simply emulating an aesthetic? “Funny thing is, if he really did remember the 70’s, he’d also remember the energy crisis, the long lines at the gas pumps, and how all of America demanded fuel-efficient cars.” I said. “We went from a nation of gas-guzzlers to economy cars virtually overnight! If you lived through that…how could you forget it?

But nostalgia is funny that way. It’s where fantasy and memories collide. Nostalgia gives us warm, fuzzy feelings for when everything seemed easier and trouble-free. Pesky details are all but forgotten.

Born in 1970, I am indeed a child of the 70’s. In fact, I am an unapologetic lover of nearly all 70’s music. Whether I’m mowing the lawn or making gelato, my go-to music station is the BJ Thomas channel on Pandora. Filled with the Carpenters, John Denver, and Glen Campbell, listening takes me back to my carefree childhood home filled with music. My dad spent the latter part of the 60’s playing in blues bands in Memphis, and shared with me his love of Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave, and John Lee Hooker. My mother had a penchant for the folksy stuff, and we spent many hours listening to Harry Chapin, Jim Croce, Barry Manilow and Anne Murray. The lyrics of these songs are tattooed in the recesses of my brain. When I want to forget about the troubles of the world, I’ll flip to that channel and happily sing along…much to the horror of my children!

But as much as my inner 6-year-old likes to think of that era as happy and uncomplicated, I know it was not. I remember glancing at my mother as we watched the nightly news, tears welling up in her eyes as the names of soldiers lost in Vietnam scrolled by. Political and racial turmoil, economic crises, coups d’état, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks were all very real—and deserve to be remembered, lest they be repeated. In other words, nostalgia—without a reality check—can be dangerous.

Food and farming are not immune to nostalgia, either. But consumers and farmers are nostalgic for completely different things. Consumers long for a time when farming was simpler—before big machines, sprawling corporate farms and chemical sprays—when farmers in overalls coaxed vegetables from the earth like dirt whisperers.

But ask any farmer whether they’d go back 20, 30, or even 40 years, giving up their modern equipment or technology. GPS, seed improvements, and robotic milkers have made a world of difference in farmers’ lives. Farmers have breeding apps on their iPhones, satellite imagery on their computers, and smart tractors—all tools that help them use time and natural resources more efficiently. They’re grateful for the latest technological advances that allow them to get more done with less help, and reap more bushels per acre with fewer passes of the cultivator, less fuel for the tractor. No, farmers aren’t particularly nostalgic about the way they used to farm a generation ago.

But farmers are nostalgic—and rightly so—for better prices, or at least lower input costs. They’re nostalgic for a time when they were paid what their goods were worth. Farmers receive virtually the same prices today for their meat, milk, and vegetables that they received in the 1970s. They’re even nostalgic for a time when there simply were more farmers around. Farming is a lonely business anyway, but fewer and fewer people seem to be doing it…and finding help when you need it can be an exercise in futility.

Some farmers and food producers have bridged that gap by marketing the nostalgia consumers crave. (It’s all over the grocery store if you know how to look for it.) You could even say our farm does this to some extent. We are highly seasonal, extremely small scale, and we do all the work ourselves, including selling directly to the end consumer. Others farm with horses, or perhaps choose not to use genetically modified seeds and man-made chemical sprays. These are all choices individual farmers make based on their market (who they sell to) and whether or not these choices fit into their system and skill-set.

Now, time to listen to some Captain & Tennille and get some work done!

NEPPA Hatchery, July 2017

For the May issue of Mohawk Valley Living, I wrote about the many support businesses that farmers rely upon in their day-to-day operations. There are so many things farmers need…be it parts or seed, or custom work they hire someone else to do. The highly specialized nature of farming in our modern era means farmers simply can’t do everything—or at least it doesn’t always make economic sense to do so. For example, some friends of ours hire a third party to make all their hay for them; others we know don’t raise their own replacement heifers, preferring to buy young stock from trusted sources. In both of these examples, these activities—although extremely important to running the farm—are not “core activities.” In other words, the farmers in these cases have identified an area of their businesses that is best outsourced to either another farmer or specialized company, so they may concentrate on what they do best. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Jill and her chicks.JPG

We buy day-old chicks from a local hatchery, rather than raising our own. Our “core activity” is raising meat chickens to slaughter weight and then processing them on farm for sale to restaurants and individuals. This means our focus is on raising healthy chickens with steady growth, managing our processing schedule, adhering to high food-safety standards, and selling and distributing the end product. There is no room for managing what would amount to an entirely different business: that of hatching the chicks!

When our daughters were in Kindergarten classes at West Canada Valley, they incubated eggs as a class project. It was fun and educational, and no one was terribly disappointed when only a small percentage (read: none) actually produced a living, peeping chick. As it turns out, there is a great amount of care required to get those little buggers to develop! It takes 21 days for a fertilized egg to mature into a chick and hatch. Fertilized eggs need to be kept at a constant 99.5-101.5° F, and turned several times a day. Humidity should be 45-50%, increasing towards the hatch date. Finally, great care must be taken to ensure bacteria do not enter the pores of the shell to compromise the developing chick—so their environment must be kept sanitary and hands must be washed before handling the eggs. All of these factors are vital to achieving the highest hatch rate and healthiest chicks possible…rather important hurdles when one is hatching eggs for a living!

Enter our local hatchery, the Northeast Pastured Poultry Association (NEPPA). Ken and Jill Gies, the owners of NEPPA, have been supplying us with day-old chicks for about 10 years. Quite frankly, we could not do what we do without them!

The story of NEPPA started almost 20 years ago. A number of local chicken producers banded together in an effort to make the butchering process easier and more affordable by building a mobile processing unit. (Equipment and facilities can be fairly expensive, oftentimes too much for a small-scale grower.) The group also proved to be a knowledgeable source of chicken-raising advice. Eventually, the need for a local hatchery was identified as a critical barrier for local producers. As active members of NEPPA, Ken and Jill were asked to manage that hatchery, eventually becoming its proud owners. They have since grown it into an expanding business, shipping meat bird chicks, layer pullets, even turkey poults as far as 200 miles away—throughout the year. Ken and Jill keep a lot of us farmers very well stocked with healthy, hearty birds!

As an added benefit, NEPPA hatchery is close by on the outskirts of Fort Plain. The short drive means we are able to pick up our chicks the day they are hatched. Large or small, the vast majority of chicken producers in this country receive their day-old chicks via some form of shipment. It may sound crazy, but the tiny, peeping fluffballs are ideally suited for surviving 24 hours before needing food and water. Before hatching, the chick takes in the remainder of the yolk, providing it enough sustenance to survive for at least a day or so. But we like picking up at NEPPA for two reasons: First, our chicks won’t have to experience even the slight stresses of shipping. Secondly, we get to visit with Ken, Jill, and sometimes their grown children. All too often, business transactions are impersonal and we don’t get to know the people behind the goods and services they provide. Such a shame! We relish the opportunity to connect with the Gies family, and learn to appreciate the value of what they do.

Our business relies upon NEPPA for a steady supply of healthy animals, to be sure. But the amount and degree of detail that goes on behind the scenes—finding the best sources for eggs, identifying best genetics for raising pastured poultry in our area, and continually challenging themselves to provide the highest quality—all add up to one less BIG thing I don’t have to worry about!

Picking Rocks, June 2017

Have you ever picked rocks in a freshly tilled field? If you were lucky, it was a nice, warm day—but not too hot. There was a cool breeze to whisk away the sweat, but not so windy that the dust from the drying, exposed soil stuck to every damp surface of your body, going into your eyes, nose, and ears. You scanned the field looking for fist-size or better rocks that could damage the planter or cutter bar on the harvester. Maybe it was your first time picking rocks and you filled your t-shirt with them before dumping them in the bucket of the tractor—it’s certainly a lot quicker than running back and forth. At the end of the long day, bending and picking, hands black from the dirt, muscles sore from tossing heavy stones, you found you had completely ruined one of your favorite shirts!

Aaron Bouchard Little Falls NY.JPG

Then again, maybe you’ve never even heard of “picking rocks.”

Picking rocks is one of the basic truths of farm life. Every farmer has done it in their lifetime, almost regardless of where they farm in these United States. Some areas are much worse, of course, and some fields are a constant problem. But, why in the world do farmers pick rocks???

Every spring, farmers go to their fields to plant soybeans, corn, wheat, and everything else under the sun. The long-honored traditional method of opening up a field is to plow it, cutting through the soil and flipping large, relatively deep swaths to both break up (and kill) weeds and expose the soil underneath to the warm, Spring sun. Plowing aerates and loosens the soil, distributes organic matter and nutrients, and helps dry out the wet soil in preparation for planting. In working and disturbing the soil in this fashion, many rocks are brought to the surface…even if the field has been worked year after year, generation after generation. The rocks just keep on coming! Frost heaves them from the earth below, providing a constant “perennial garden” of rocks.

All of these rocks must either be hand-picked, removed mechanically, or rolled over with a cultipacker or heavy roller that pushes them back down into the soft earth—it all depends on what equipment or how many helpers the farmer has on hand, and what she plans on planting. Some farmers put a “rock rake” on their skid steer that makes picking rock much easier, scooping and sifting out the largest offenders. Large sod farms use specialized equipment to remove even the smallest stones—since they can’t have any at all!

Some of areas of the country are worse than others, based on the geology of the region. If you’ve ever been to New England, surely you noticed all the rock walls lining the countryside and small towns. It’s incredibly quaint, until you think about the generations of farmers that put them there year after year, farming the very rocky soils. Each one was placed by hand, having been dug up and moved from a field nearby. My home state of Wisconsin and neighboring Minnesota have areas with many, sometimes enormous rocks, due to the glaciers that scraped and dumped them eons ago. Talk about a battle that can never be won!

Since the late 1990s, “conservation tillage” has become a much more common practice in the US, versus the more intensive tilling described above. This is a broad category that generally means at least 30% crop residue is left in place, slowing soil erosion, preserving soil biodiversity and sequestering carbon. There are fewer passes with equipment using conservation tillage practices, saving on fuel and time, and reducing soil compaction. Terms like “no-till,” “low-till,” and “strip-till” all refer to ways that farmers can approach planting time while minimizing soil disturbance. Conservation tilling practices can delay spring planting, however, as the dark earth isn’t being exposed to the sun’s warming rays. As with all things agriculture, there is always a trade-off.

But frost still heaves rocks in these fields. Picking rock is indeed a fact of life on the farm, no matter how hard you try to avoid it!

My first experience picking rocks was when I was 6 years old. My father was the high school band director for the local school, and was always looking for fundraising opportunities. (Some things never change!) He volunteered his students—and his 6-year-old daughter!—to pick rocks at any farm willing to donate to whatever the cause de jour was…new uniforms, band trip, or music camp scholarships. As I recall, the kids were not amused and we soon turned our fundraising efforts elsewhere. My husband can tell you stories of his childhood, when his neighbor would put his tractor in 1st gear, tie the steering wheel in place, and hop out to pick rocks as the tractor inched along. Seems he invented the original driverless tractor over forty years ago!

Bring up the topic of rock-picking with just about any farmer and you’ll be genuinely entertained by their stories. In fact, in preparation for this article, I reached out to a “women in agriculture” group on Facebook and asked for their experiences. Was it different for them, depending on where they lived and what they grew? Women from all over the country, regardless of age and type of farm, had stories to tell of picking rocks: Women in their 80s fondly remembered helping grandparents clear a field; young women reported that their 3-year-olds especially loved to help. Others shared videos of equipment working or pictures of the rock gardens they had built around their homes, repurposing all that field stone. I was pleasantly surprised to find the topic so common—a love/hate relationship we all share.

So, for all those readers that never “picked rock” a day in your life, count your blessings! On the other hand, perhaps it is unfortunate that you have missed out on a virtual rite of passage, one of the most basic and ancient truths of farming.

A Farmer's Best Friend, May 2017

Farming, like most specialized industries, has a host of support businesses that make day-to-day operations possible. Restaurants, for example, have restaurant-supply stores for their silverware, dishes, ovens, and whisks; laundry services pick up and launder cloth napkins and tablecloths; and a wide variety of food and beverage distributors bring them fresh cilantro, frozen beef, soda, wines, and canned tomatoes. Trying to run a restaurant without these support businesses would be darn near impossible!

Dottie & Danny Perry

Farming is no different, of course. Depending on the type of farm, farmers may need a seed dealer, a custom crop planter, sprayer or harvester, a reliable parts store or equipment dealer, a mechanic, a soil/fertilizer consultant, a veterinarian, a nutritionist, an accountant, a breeder, and a feed supplier. When farms do well, these support businesses do well. When farms struggle, so do these guys. And trying to farm without them would tough…to say the least.

I am still fairly new to farming, so I had never considered how vital these support businesses were until the Cazenovia Equipment Company closed its Herkimer location a handful of years ago, followed by Springer’s closing its shop in St. Johnsville shortly thereafter. Whatever their reasons for closing, the farmers that once depended upon these equipment dealers for parts, service and specialized farm purchases found themselves up a proverbial creek. Yes, there are still a number of excellent equipment dealers around the Mohawk Valley, but remember that—even for farmers—time is money. If driving three hours round-trip to get a part for the baler ahead of an impending rain storm means not getting the hay crop in…well, you get the picture!

Every time I see an ag-related support business shutter its doors, I’m sad of course for any employees that are let go and for the family that built the business from the beginning. But I also think about the very far-reaching and often unseen ramifications for the farmers that depend upon it for their own existence. When one of these support businesses closes its doors, continued survival for the farming community becomes all the more tenuous. If agriculture was a patient in the doctor’s office, the number and variety of support businesses would be one of the vital signs used to measure the health of agriculture. We farmers need these guys more than you know. You might just say they’re a farmer’s best friend!

Our farm’s success depends on quite a few people and their businesses. One of the businesses we depend upon the most is our feed dealer, Kast Hill Farm in Herkimer. Dottie and Danny Perry, owners of Kast Hill, have been supplying our feeds for at least ten years. We get all of our chicken feeds from them, including a chick starter ration for our meat birds and a lovely layer pellet for our egg-laying hens. The quality and freshness of the feeds at Kast Hill are second to none, and I know beyond a doubt that the quality of my family’s farm products is nearly 100% attributable to a consistent supply of this beautiful feed. (How do I know this? I’ve tried other feeds. In years past, often shortly after tax time, I would look at our books and try to find ways to either increase sales or decrease expenses. The less expensive feeds disappointed me every time. We’ve also experienced very different growing seasons—ranging from late spring starts to droughts to floods—and even experimented with different breeds and management techniques, all while keeping the feed source constant. Quality remained high, despite any changes we tried to make. The feed is our secret ingredient!)

Dottie and Danny always go above and beyond to make sure our feed needs are met. They know that we can’t ever run out. They also know that fresh feed has higher consumption and conversion rates (and less waste), so they never over-buy from their suppliers. The result is an open line of communication—Dottie calls me every time she is about to place an order, to see how much we’ll be needing over the course of the next few weeks. We text one another to coordinate pickups, and we know when either one of us will be out of town. I talk to Dottie more often than I call my own mother!

Over the course of a year, we will buy approximately 25-30 tons of feed from Kast Hill. If you’re not a farmer, that may sound like a lot. For most farmers, though, it’s not much at all. In other words, our little farm alone is not keeping Kast Hill in business. Quite the contrary, like all ag-support businesses, Dottie and Danny depend upon a healthy and vibrant farm community to keep their doors open. By extension and by virtue of our farm needing Dottie and Danny, my family farm needs a healthy and vibrant farm community around us so that we all can continue to stay in business. The same can be said for the custom crop guy, the mechanic, the fertilizer consultant, the nutritionist, the breeder, etc., etc. It may not be immediately apparent, but we all need each other much more than you can ever imagine.

We’ve developed a great working relationship with Dottie and Danny at Kast Hill over the years—not hard when you see someone every week, year-in and year-out. We are very fortunate farmers to have such a great support system—it makes everything we do possible!

Puppy Love, April 2017

There is no feeling in the world quite like it—that flurry of excitement and affection for all things small. If you are an animal person like me, you just have to hold one when you see baby kittens or roly-poly puppies. Your heart flutters a little bit at the sights and sounds of little peeping chicks at the hardware store. (I have literally thousands of baby chicks on my farm throughout the year, yet you’ll find me checking on the babies in their tanks at Tractor Supply each and every time!) I’d much rather visit the calves in their hutches than the dairy cows when I visit our neighbors’ dairy farms. And baby goats? Heart-melters if you ask me! Funnily enough, human babies are not my thing…but newborn critters get me every time, without fail.

Introducing the newest member of our farm family: Aimee!

Even if you aren’t an animal person, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase “puppy love.” Maybe—hopefully—you’ve even felt those early, delightful feelings of infatuation. It’s the “crush” that precedes real love; the stuff that makes our hearts skip a beat.

I am absolutely in puppy love right now. We recently purchased an 8-week-old Great Pyrenees puppy. Her name is Aimee and I love her to pieces! Aimee does all the things that adorable little puppies do, including chewing on everything she can get her jaws around and “kissing” your face if you let her. She is fluffy and adorable in every single way possible.

But, as young and cute and fluffy as she is today, Aimee will someday be an indispensable and significant part of our farm. Aimee is to be a working guardian dog. She has been bred to naturally bond with her home environment and her extended “family,” and her genetics will drive her to fend off anything that is foreign to that environment. That means she will guard our goats, sheep and chickens from predators. She will bark at anything she perceives to be a threat to her home. As the result of hundreds of years of breeding, she will instinctively “mark” her territory as her own, signaling to any newcomers that Aimee is in charge. I can’t teach her any of this; she is well-equipped for the job whether she knows it or not.

But there are many things I must teach her. At this stage, most puppies simply want to play, eat and sleep. One can’t expect much from an animal so young. In fact, I really can’t expect her to take her place as a guardian for at least another year or more. But there are behaviors I am already modelling for young Aimee. For example, although she sleeps in the barn at night, she is never alone in the goat and sheep pen. At this point, the much-larger moms are too defensive of their babies and do not trust the white fluff ball in their midst. They will butt her if she gets too close. Of course, I want Aimee to develop a healthy relationship with her flock, so whenever I have work to be done with the goats and sheep, I take Aimee with me. I show her how to give a wide berth to the larger animals. She is at my side when I bottle-feed hungry lambs and kid goats, which gives me the chance to correct her if she tries to play rough with the babies.

Correcting her at this stage is easy enough—I simply have to mimic an Alpha dog. I will firmly but gently push her down with my hand and maybe even roll her, telling her sternly “leave it.” The same goes for feeding time. As far as she is concerned, I am the Alpha and can touch her food. She can depend on me to feed her and she should never be food-defensive. So far, she seems to understand.

I am also already teaching her that there is serious work to be done on the farm. Every day, I take her on my round of stock chores. She gladly follows right at my heels and I praise her for it. There is no playing during chores; we get things done efficiently and straight away. It is only after our rounds are done that we can take a break for play time—it is a nice reward for both of us!

There are other things that I simply have to control, so that nature can take its course. By keeping Aimee in the barn, near the animals she is meant to guard, I am helping her create a bond with them. Bonding with my husband, our daughters and me is fine, but bonding with the sheep and goats is far more important and must come first. She is not to come into the house or to “hang out” anywhere else. Aimee is the fourth guardian puppy we have had on our farm over the years, and this rule has always been the hardest to keep.

As much as I love baby puppies, I have an even greater love for the adult working dog. That is why I find the phrase “puppy love” so apt: while it signifies the beginnings of a relationship, it also hints at the grander, more rewarding stages to come. It is the first step in what I hope to be a long partnership that will include lots of learning and maturing—for both the dog owner and dog. And as much as I am in “puppy love” with Aimee right now, I will love her even more as she matures into a working, contributing member of the farm.

Financing the Farm, March 2017

When we bought our farm almost 14 years ago, both my husband and I had “real” jobs. By “real,” I mean the jobs produced actual paychecks, with W-2s and all the usual reporting and withholdings. It was in that first year on the farm that we applied for a revolving line of credit, based on the equity we had in the house and the income from our “real” jobs. No problem, said the bank. We could use it for home improvement projects, farm equipment, fencing—you name it, we had a nice cushion to spend from, and could pay it down as we were able. Over the ten years we had that line of credit, we maxed it out at least a few times, always diligently paying it down in between expenses with our farm’s cash flow. It worked out great and we never missed a payment.

We file a Schedule F when we do our taxes

The line of credit was limited to ten years, however, and eventually ended. When we went to our bank to apply for a new loan, we were told we would not qualify. Our “real” jobs were a distant memory, along with any classic sense of “proof of income.” It was then that we realized farm income and assets are treated very differently by different types of lending institutions. The bank that had served us so well all those years didn’t know what to do with a Schedule F (the form farmers use for filing their federal income taxes) or how to assess the value of the usual agricultural assets—equipment, animals, and land.

Granted, a home equity line of credit was a nice way to finance our early years on the farm. But what we needed was an actual business loan from a lender experienced with agriculture—someone comfortable and set up to deal with the very risky business of farming. Who knew?

Financing the farm can be tricky. Land, buildings, equipment, animals, seed…they all cost a lot of money! But as the old saying goes, “you’ve got to spend money to make money.” The farmer can’t harvest a crop without first buying the seed. The seed then has to be planted, the ground broken, fertilized, weeded (all requiring specialized equipment or hiring someone with the proper equipment)…and the paycheck will not come until the crop is harvested and sold. In order to bridge that timespan, the farmer must either rely upon her savings or borrow money. She also must weigh current commodity prices against all these expenses (including interest on any loans) PLUS the likelihood of the unknown: Drought, flooding, hail, pest damage, even the very real chance that prices for her crop will plummet before harvest. If you didn’t think farmers needed math or algebra to do their job, think again!

Ultimately, we were able to get a few types of financing that have helped us tremendously. We have a revolving line of credit and two short-term equipment loans—one for a baler and mower, the other for a piece of cheese making equipment. We also were awarded two grants, one from USDA Rural Development and the other from New York State. Both require we that we have “skin in the game,” meaning we put in our fair share (one-third to one-half of the value of the grants).

A Novel Approach

We have also happily stumbled upon a rather novel approach to financing our farm: Community-Supported Agriculture (“CSA”). CSAs operate on the premise that consumers “buy in” to a local farm, pitching in to pay the expenses of running the farm and then, in return, receiving a portion of its bounty throughout the harvest. The model has been used in the US since at least the mid-1980s, but has certainly not gotten the same level of attention as farmers’ markets. There are literally dozens of farms in and around the Mohawk Valley that offer “shares” in their CSAs, with hundreds of customers receiving boxes full of veggies, fruits, eggs, meats, cheeses, even gelato on a weekly basis throughout the summer.

The average window for signing up for a CSA is December to April. This is a key period for many farmers, especially in the cold Northeast: These are typically low cash flow months. Our farm income (our only income) is fairly seasonal, while expenses are something we get to enjoy year-round. The CSA model helps us take some of the "high season" cash in-flows and stacks them in the spring when we are spending the most getting ready for the coming summer. In the past, we had to fall back on our farm's line of credit to get us through the lean times. Thanks to our CSA customers, we can keep that line of credit available for capital improvements or emergencies. By not using our line of credit to finance survival, we are able to leverage it for expansion or increasing our efficiency.

The CSA approach also has the added benefit of creating a much closer relationship between consumer and farmer. Some CSA farms encourage their members to help on the farm as they are able—picking peas or thinning carrots—creating great learning opportunities for young and old. Other farms share recipes or newsletters, keeping their customers up to date on all the goings-on at “their farm.” Of course, this model has its limitations. Dairy farmers, for example, cannot sell directly to the public unless they are licensed to so—an involved and oftentimes expensive process. It’s too bad, really. Farmers take such great pride in feeding thousands of people they’ll never meet!

What's in a Silo? February 2017

Our 3 silos: One Harvestore; 2 concrete stave

I pause to shake my hands and get the blood flowing again. My palms are sweaty and my legs feel a little rubbery. On top of that, my heart is pounding because I climbed the first 40 feet of our Harvestore fairly quickly—and maybe a little too confidently. I still had 20 more feet to climb! As I pause to catch my breath and look down, I foolishly let myself think of what would happen if I misjudged reaching for the next rung on the ladder. “You’re not afraid of heights,” I remind myself, “you’re just out of shape!”

Perhaps you’ve had this same experience climbing a 60’, 80’ or even 100’ silo. But unless you’ve spent some time on a farm, you may not know much about these strange structures. Sure, everyone’s pretty familiar with the image—the tall, cylindrical building is a pretty classic piece of the iconic farm setting. But what are they for?

The concept of the silo as a place to store bulk materials dates back to the 8th century BC. On the farm, silos hold grains or fermented feeds.  There are actually three main types of silos used in modern agriculture. First and most recognizable is the classic tower made of steel, concrete, or even wood. We have three of this type on our farm, one blue Harvestore and two concrete stave silos.

Second is the bunker or “bunk” silo, a wide trench or bay with three (usually) concrete walls. The farmer fills the bunk with fresh forage and packs it down with tractors or skid steers and then covers it with plastic, oftentimes weighing the plastic down with old tires. If you’ve seen this and wondered what the farmer was doing with all those used tires, now you know!

The last type is a bag silo, which is a large, long plastic bag that accomplishes the same thing its vertical cousin the tower silo does—except horizontally. This type is a relatively new and inexpensive option.

Like so many things on the farm, silos have the potential to be quite dangerous. This is especially true during filling, emptying and repair or demolition. Filling a tower silo requires a PTO-driven loader or blower to carry the harvested crop from the ground level to the very stop of the structure. Any time there is a tremendous amount of activity—large trucks filled with grain or fresh forage coming and going plus whirring drive shafts—there is ample opportunity for an accident. Filling a bunk silo, too, can be dangerous. With each new load, the farmer must pack it down by driving over it with heavy machinery. The loose material can give way or simply be uneven enough for the machinery to roll, taking the farmer along for a potentially deadly ride.

To feed their animals from a tower-type silo, farmers originally had to climb to the top of the silo with a pitchfork and toss the feed down. Later, machines were introduced that would “ride” on top of the feed, blowing it down to a feed cart below. The big blue Harvestor’s unloader is a powerful motor-driven chain that sweeps feed from the bottom of the silo. Of course, chains and motors can break and things can get gummed up. Our own Harvestor’s metal floor had once pulled up after getting caught on the sweeper arm. Fixing it meant someone had to crawl into a 3-foot high cave-like gap under hundreds of tons of feed to make the repair before it would work again. I literally could not watch. In fact, I might have hidden in the house until it was all over.

Older tower silos, especially the ones made of concrete, can become unstable over time or are simply in the way of an expansion. In order to take one down, the farmer will first cut away the steel hoops keeping tension on the lower level. He will then hit the side of the silo with a sledgehammer, slowly breaking out a large section near the base on one side (the side where he wants the silo to fall). There are plenty of videos of this procedure online and I highly recommend watching one or two. But hold onto your stomach, it is extremely dangerous and hard to watch!

A Different Type of Silo
Well before I knew anything about silos in agriculture, I understood a very different definition of the word from my experience in the corporate world. Silo mentality or “silo thinking” is a term used to describe people in an organization or business that are strictly divided along department lines. People in these types of organizations are insulated and isolated from one another. They may be very good and focused on what they do within their department, but are incapable of looking outward and seeing themselves as a part of a much larger entity. The result is an “us-versus-them” mentality that has the potential to hold the business back in a variety of ways. The best, most nimble and forward-thinking organizations work very hard to ensure that “silo thinking” never takes root.

I found myself doing my own bit of silo thinking a few years ago. As part of our local food movement, I have made many friends with the same passion of helping local agriculture to thrive. However, it was when the conversations turned to what was wrong with the rest of agriculture that I started to wonder if I was in a silo. When others in the local or organic food movement would use terms like factory or industrial farms, or compared seed improvements to Satan himself, I had to step back and reassess my position on these issues. Who did they mean when they said factory farm? Is it possible they were misinformed about the safety of GMOs? How “big” is “too big”? My list of questions went on and on. I only knew that the conventional farmers I know and love are good stewards of the land and their animals…and did not deserve to have their hard work and experience dismissed out of hand quite so easily. The push-back I heard from “big ag” against farm-to-table type farmers has been equally dismissive and, at times, inaccurate.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of silo thinking going on in agriculture today—local, organic, conventional—each one fairly isolated from the other. The root causes of this rift are many, but one good example is the documentary “Food, Inc.”, an inspiration to young newcomers to try novel approaches (a genuinely good thing), while causing tremendous dismay amongst other farmers and scientists by sharing a great deal of misinformation (definitely a bad thing.) The resulting “us versus them” mentality could be holding us all back from finding the best answers to feeding a growing planet.

So, how did I get out of that “silo”? I made an effort to talk to all sorts of types of farmers, to read industry publications representing all corners of agriculture, and began following respected science-based organizations like The Genetic Literacy Project. As it turns out, it’s complicated; but I’m now more optimistic than ever about the future of farming. There are challenges, yes, but nothing thoughtful planning and cooperation can’t overcome.

In other words, silos are great for storing feed… but that’s about it!