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/.

Ice Cream College, January 2019

I don’t know about you, but I rarely follow through on my New Year’s resolutions. Whether it’s a promise to lose weight or to call my parents on a more regular basis, I always start out strong and with the best of intentions. But by late January or early February, I’m making excuses for not following through…and I’m always a little disappointed in myself!

Last year was the exception, as I resolved to further my education…to work on improving my knowledge and help our business at the same time.

I had had my eye on several ice cream-making courses offered either at Penn State or the University of Wisconsin-Madison for years. When the course at Madison opened up last winter, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. You see, these courses usually fill up the day they are posted. They’ve become famous for having students like Ben & Jerry and Jenni. (If you have to ask who these people are, you’re not eating enough ice cream!) The class itself was the last week of November into December. I got one of 10 coveted spots in the course.

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The class itself was fantastic. It was taught by the head of the food science dairy division, in the famous Babcock Hall on the Madison campus. Babcock Hall is where dairy students and staff bottle milk, make cheese, and freeze ice cream for on-campus use and donate to schools and fire stations for miles around. The Babcock Hall Dairy Store is a must-see destination for visitors to the area. Anyone who knows anything about dairy has heard of the famous Babcock Hall!

In between lectures on ice crystal formation, denatured proteins and homogenization, we spent time on the production floor, test kitchen, and laboratory. We’ve been making gelato at Jones Family Farm for just over five years now, so it was very helpful to me to understand many of the processes covered, such as pasteurization and terms like “hydrophilic.” I was particularly excited to spend time in the testing lab and got lots of questions answered—for every test we performed on expensive, university-owned equipment, I asked how I could perform the same test at my farm, using little more than a microwave. The lab teacher seemed to appreciate the challenge.

It was also very instructive to be in an environment both familiar and enlightening. Unlike my classmates, who had no experience making an ice cream base from scratch (mixing and pasteurizing raw milk + sugar + stabilizers + emulsifiers), or had never been in an inspected food production facility and therefore had a hard time with “standard operating procedures,” this was all very familiar territory for me. What was enlightening was what ice cream production looks like on a much larger scale.

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At our farm, we use what is called a “vat-pasteurizer” to make and pasteurize our gelato mix. After picking up raw milk direct from our neighbors’ farms, we make as much as 50 gallons at a time. The mix has to heat up from approximately 40° to 155° and hold for 30 minutes to properly destroy any pathogens. Including cooling time, this process can take the better part of a day. On the Madison campus, we used what is called an HTST (high temp/short time) pasteurizer. This beauty is continuous flow, processing hundreds of gallons at 175° for 30 seconds. The head of the department, having decades of experience at this larger scale, was full of questions about our on-farm processing, and seemed at least a little amused at our farm’s small set up.

When it was time to freeze the mix, we learned how to use a continuous freezer, also larger in scale than anything I had ever seen. At our farm, we use what is called a “batch freezer,” which freezes at most 3 gallons of mix at a time. The continuous freezer could pump through hundreds of gallons in an hour and had fancy bells and whistles that added variegates and inclusions at exactly the desired rates. Ice cream geek alert!

No ice cream course would be complete without lots of taste-testing, and this was no exception. What amazed me, however, was that I actually have a limit to how much ice cream I can eat! This was news to me, and is perhaps a newly discovered and disappointing character flaw. The point wasn’t to binge out on ice cream (although I have no problem with that!)—the point was to taste lots of different types of ice cream and to see if we could identify the different ingredients used. High fat certainly lends itself to a richer mouth feel, but can dull brighter flavors. A “graham cracker” taste is a signal of cooked cream and is not necessarily a bad thing. Corn syrup is instantly identifiable, as are non-nutritive sweeteners, while added powders like whey protein and maltodextrin leave an unmistakable coating on the tongue. Stretchy or gummy products had higher levels of stabilizers, which ran the gamut from carrageenan to guar to xanthan gum. And although our farm’s gelato makes minimal use of these ingredients (if at all), it was highly instructive to see how others use them.

After the class, I was able to spend the weekend with my parents and sisters, who all live an hour north of Madison. I brought them gallons of ice cream made during the class (it would all melt if I tried to bring it home!) and got to enjoy the feeling of actually following through on a New Year’s resolution. I have to admit, it felt (and tasted) really good!

An Evening with Cheesemakers and a Chef, December 2018

The word “community” can mean so many things. It can be a town, a feeling of kinship, or just the public at large. When I think of my community, there are actually many communities to which I belong: fellow farmers, my immediate neighborhood, and the Mohawk Valley, to name a few.

In the middle of November, I was lucky enough to experience a wonderfully warm and unique feeling of community. We held a fundraising event at our farm and called it “An Evening with Cheesemakers and a Chef”—all to benefit the Little Falls Cheese Festival. We invited fellow cheesemakers to share their beautiful and delicious cheeses, and to mingle with anyone willing to buy a ticket. The first part of the evening was a reception in our new cheese plant addition, complete with a talented jazz quartet accompaniment. We then moved inside our home for a sit-down dinner personally prepared by Tim Hardiman of Tailor and the Cook and his marvelous staff. Despite the snow and chilly temps, it was a truly magical evening!

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I loved this event. If I had to pinpoint what was so special, I would have to say that it was both the colliding of several distinct communities and the willingness of individuals from each of these communities to give of themselves and their talents. People that usually run in very different circles met for the very first time, created a unique experience and communed over something we all love—cheese!

This is, of course, very fitting as a fundraiser for the Little Falls Cheese Festival. Now entering its fifth year, the festival requires a whole community of volunteers, city officials, and small business owners to work together with imagination and energy. So many people with such different backgrounds coming together and giving of their talents can accomplish something truly great…and further enrich our sense of community.

Farm-to-table restaurants and small shop owners that promote our area’s foods and spirits have been hard at work promoting that sense of identity and cooperative spirit. “Local” may be the marketing term du jour, but it is so much more than that. Chefs like Tim Hardiman have chosen to embrace and elevate our community’s distinct character—an enormous gift to all of us that I hope will set the tone and foster community development for years to come. I certainly owe Tim and his staff a great debt of gratitude for making our fundraiser such a success.

For me, community can also include friends and loved ones no longer with us, but whose influence is still very much felt. My mother-in-law, Judy, was there in spirit the evening of our fundraiser. (She passed away 21 years ago this month, the result of a tragic car accident. It was just a few days before Christmas and she had been en route to the post office to mail gifts to far-flung friends and relatives.) Judy had been an artist and avid collector, gathering fun Mexican folk art, Currier and Ives prints, and antique furniture; half of which we inherited. We used her grandmother’s silver and china for the dinner service, set on the dining room table Judy lovingly refinished half a century ago. Judy would have been in her element that evening, enjoying the interesting guests and engaging every person in the room. For the years I knew her, she took every opportunity she had to personally connect on a meaningful level and to meet new individuals. Despite her interest in collecting objects, what she really treasured was people.

I’ll admit, farming 24/7 isn’t terribly conducive to treasuring people. Animal care is a higher priority most days. But my farm’s—and every farm’s—mission is to feed people. The cheesemakers that were able to join us that evening and freely give of their time and talents (and cheese!) all recognize that building on our community’s strength is in our best interest.

My wish for you this holiday season is that you give and receive the gift of community—gifts of kinship and warmth. Give of yourself and your time. Buy local foods, shop at mom & pop stores and craft fairs, and give gift certificates to locally owned restaurants. Remember your loved ones here and afar, and those that are no longer with us. Look for ways to build community at every opportunity. Maybe even consider volunteering your time and talents to put on a local cheese festival? (Wink, wink!) The benefits are too long to list!

My Thanksgiving Resolution, November 2018

There’s so much going on at the farm right now that I don’t know where to start! Our chicken processing and farmer’s markets are winding down, just as we ramp up for baby goats and lambs in a few weeks. Cheese production is at full-tilt. I volunteer a few spare hours every week on several committees. Our daughters are fully engaged in school, sports, and plays. And finally, we’re building an addition to our cheese plant, whose mounting debt and ballooning costs are stressful enough to wake me in the middle of the night. But I feel that is all a good story for another day.

There’s enough going on that it’s easy to get stressed and not focus on the positive. But it’s November, time to focus my energies on being thankful. This year, I feel it will take Herculean effort to not stress! I may just need to start a new tradition, a “Thanksgiving Resolution.”

It’s true, the addition to our cheese plant has been stressful and the few final stages (electric and heat) are going to cost 20-30% more than we budgeted a year ago due to tariffs and hurricanes. It’s like being close to finishing a marathon, but the final stretch is suddenly up a steep hill. If I force myself to see the positive, I’m thankful that we started our building over a year ago and can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m thankful that we applied for state and federal funding that made the whole project possible. And I’m thankful that once complete, it will have been worth the effort…right?

Photo credit: Anivile Daniel Photography

Photo credit: Anivile Daniel Photography

I’m also surprisingly stressed about my oldest daughter, Harper, who is a senior in high school this year. She’s a bright young lady with a sharp wit and wide-ranging interests. She’s a great kid with a world of opportunities in front of her. As a senior, she gets more mail than anyone I know: dozens of letters, cards, and full-color expensive brochures from colleges all over the US fill our mailbox every day. You can tell she likes the attention but is still super casual about it, letting the mail pile up until we scream that the dining room table is unusable. She clearly likes the idea of going to college. The effort and focus required of her to get in to college? Not so much.

But I get it. It’s so hard to know what “is the right decision.” Each school seems to offer something unique and exciting—how do you choose? Plus, it’s so hard to know whether something will be worth all the effort. College is so expensive, and we’ve all heard stories of students graduating with debilitating debt. Our farm is in deep debt now, and that stress is the last thing I would want for her. Certainly, college isn’t for everyone.

I’m also stressed about whether she can get into a good school. She’s bright, yes, but when I consider her competition, I know it will be tough. Our small, rural schools do the best they can with the resources they have; I’m thankful our schools are as good as they are! But I know there are tens of thousands of kids coming from well-heeled (and well-funded) private and public school districts all over the country that have had exposure and opportunities unheard of in our area of Upstate New York. They will be her competition for college and beyond.

But if I focus my energies on being positive and on helping my daughter research her options, I can see a great deal of light at the end of this tunnel. The first bit of good news was when New York made public college free for all residents. It’s a real game-changer, especially for poor farming families that otherwise consider college out of reach. The even bigger realization was that many private colleges are “needs-blind”, meaning that if your student is accepted, the institution will figure out whatever it takes financially for them to attend—up to and including full tuition, room, and board. In fact, many private colleges boast lower student debt than their public counterparts. It’s another game-changer.

Finally, I’m learning that, although my daughter is from a small rural school, spending her days helping on the farm and at farmer’s markets, she is truly unique in an enormous pool of applicants. Has she gone to expensive summer camps to hone her sailing skills? No. Has she spent 17 years practicing violin five days a week? No. Has she travelled to foreign lands as a volunteer to distribute food and blankets? No, definitely not—and I’m genuinely sad that I couldn’t give her those opportunities. But she has helped birth and care for hundreds of baby animals, fed and comforted moms, operated heavy machinery (unsupervised), talked with literally thousands of strangers about her family farm, and developed a new business line that added significant revenue to our bottom line. And she still found time to be a voracious reader, a prolific artist, and a genuinely interesting person.

So, this is my Thanksgiving Resolution: I’m officially giving myself permission to stop stressing about Harper’s future and to be thankful for the wonderful person that she is*.

November is the perfect time to take stock of our lives and give thanks for all that we have. It’s easy to lose focus when times are stressful; I’m living proof of that. But when I do take stock, when I take that step back and consider it all, I’m grateful. I hope you are able to do the same, too!

 

*As a mom, I expect the first part of my resolution to last only so long. Ha!

The Joys of a Woodstove, October 2018

Maybe I’m worn out from what seemed to be the longest, hottest summer on record (or maybe I’m peri-menopausal?!?), but I’m really looking forward to fall temperatures this year. Who doesn’t love “shorts and sweatshirt” weather or pulling out your favorite flannel for those crisp evenings? Apples seem to taste better and pumpkins call to us from farm stands. Farmers prepare for the long winter as they maneuver their enormous combines into golden fields of corn for the harvest. Of course the trees put on a colorful show, their last hurrah before winter slumber. Thus, we enter into my absolute favorite time of the year: fall!

There’s a change in the air and I welcome it with open arms. I particularly love the first night we build a fire in our woodstove. The smell, the crackling, the wholesome warmth of the hearth all mark the changing of the seasons. Even the cats are able to sort out their differences long enough to bask in the warmth of the woodstove.

Who doesn’t like to lounge in front of the fire?

Who doesn’t like to lounge in front of the fire?

We heat our old 1860’s farmhouse with a woodstove in the living room. Armfuls of wood are carried into the house throughout the day, and the fire is fed as needed. Rooms farthest away from the woodstove are the coldest of course, and we all find ourselves grabbing a seat near the hot stove after chores. We have an oil burner in the basement that heats our water and acts as backup to the woodstove, but we have it set at a bracing 55°. It has to get pretty cold in the house before the furnace kicks in!

Having a woodstove has had some great advantages over the years. If we lose power during a winter storm, for example, we never lose heat and we have a ready cooktop to make simple dinners. The kids’ snow gear goes on a mitten tree—or draped over chairs—in front of the fire to dry after a long day of sledding. And more than a few chilled newborn lambs and kid goats have had a toasty front seat by the fire to warm up before going back to mom and the chilly barn.

It takes 20-24 face cord to heat our house over the course of the winter. If you want to visualize how much wood that is, picture two full dump truck loads! We get all of our wood delivered by a young man who is set up to efficiently cut and split wood. It’s fantastic! He pulls up with his dump truck and leaves an enormous pile of wood that we and the children stack in the woodshed for winter use. Once the wood is stacked, we call for the second load.

It wasn’t always this easy. Our first few years on the farm, we had whole logs delivered for my husband to cut and split by hand. His plan was always to spend a few hours every week throughout the summer, first with the chain saw, then with the pto-driven wood splitter, creating a stack of wood that would keep his family warm all winter long. That was the plan, anyway. Unfortunately, summer chores always took precedent and husband Peter would often find himself frantically splitting as the first snowflakes were starting to fly.

Something ultimately—and permanently—switched us from hand-splitting to ordering all of our wood seasoned and ready to burn. One beautiful fall day, just before Halloween, my husband was splitting large chunks of wood into smaller logs when the log slipped. The index finger on his right hand was very much in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was crushed in between the log and the dull splitting blade, cutting it in half lengthwise. How he didn’t pass out then and there, I’ll never know. But he quickly and conscientiously wrapped his hand in his t-shirt, turned off the splitter and the tractor, and sprinted to the house where I was fixing dinner for our 4-year-old and newborn daughters. As I called the neighbor for help, our 4-year-old helpfully skipped around the kitchen singing, “Yikes! Yikes! Yikes!”

We rushed to the Little Falls Emergency Room where he was quickly attended to. (It helped that he was covered in blood. Even the other patients in the waiting room stepped aside.) After pain killers and an x-ray, we learned that the first two bones of his finger were literally chopped in half. He would need to see an orthopedic surgeon the next day. After several small pins were placed in his index finger and a few months of painful recovery, my husband eventually regained use of that finger.

This whole episode was 12 years ago. We were so young! Thinking of it now, I’m so glad we don’t split our own wood anymore. It makes it so much easier to enjoy the woodstove!

Oh, What a View! September 2018

We have one of the best views in the entire Mohawk Valley from our farm. It’s the biggest reason we bought our farm in the first place. “Everything else can be fixed,” my husband said at the time.

Just north of Herkimer, our farm sits two-thirds of the way up one of the many rolling foothills of the Adirondacks. We face east toward the West Canada Creek and its lush valley, with views of hilltops and windmills as far north as the town of Ohio and as far south as Little Falls. Every 4th of July, we are treated to a panoramic view of fireworks put on by towns and individuals alike. When the crisp air of fall turns our gorgeous green valley into gold, orange, and crimson, the sight takes my breath away.

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I know the view from our farm is not particularly unique. I’ve seen similar spectacular views from country roads and fellow farmer’s porches. We live in a breathtakingly beautiful area! But the part I love most about our Mohawk Valley landscape—the part that makes me cherish our little corner of the world greater than any other—is that it is dotted by so many small farms.

From our farm, I can see across the valley to our “sister” farm. Generations ago, our farm and our “sister” farm were owned by siblings who built identical barns. Our good friends, the Lyon family, farm there now. We can see from our back door when Joe mows his first cutting of hay or when one of their sons breaks ground to plant corn. We can see the farm of our friends, the Bouchards, and could just make out their progress on the greenhouse they put up last spring. Former residents of our farm speak of days when they’d look across the valley on a dark, winter morning, when this barn and dozens others like it were lit up as farmers milked their cows at dawn. We farmers are often too busy to socialize, but we keep tabs on one another just the same!

There have been a handful of times when a great cloud of black smoke rose from the trees in our beautiful valley. Each time, we’d fret and check the news for any information, eventually learning of a devastating barn or house fire. Although they may be far away, these farms seem like neighbors to us and we worry about them as though they were right next door.

A super-thick fog rolled in the other morning, completely blocking my view of our precious valley. I could see only the tops of the windmills that snake up to Ohio, lights blinking red. I can’t begin to tell you how lonely I felt, not seeing our neighbors! That wall of fog cut us off from the rest of the world, insulating us from all sights and sounds. That is when I realized how very much I cherish our view.

These days, I worry how much our landscape has changed and will continue to change as small farms blink out of existence. The long-standing mantra of “get big or get out” has exacted its toll on agriculture across the nation, and has affected farmers all over the globe. It was the best advice—or so they thought—that bankers and land-grant universities could give, starting in the 1980s. But if we draw that mindsight out to its natural conclusion, we see what we are seeing today: 20,000-cow dairies and feedlots as far as the eye can see.

It’s hard to see such drastic changes happening here: that same beautiful landscape with its varied topography also make farming on a massive scale rather difficult. (Our own little farm is cut in half by a stream that changes course with the heaviest rains and has been known to wash away make-shift bridges!) But that doesn’t mean farmers in the Mohawk Valley are insulated from global pricing pressures. It means that in order to survive, farmers here need ingenuity, flexibility, and the willingness to venture into new areas…just to keep the farm.

That is why I was excited to attend a meeting put on by the Herkimer County Industrial Development Agency (IDA). An agency that has thus far focused on large projects that boast impressive numbers of new jobs created (e.g. Tractor Supply Company’s new distribution center in Frankfort), the Herkimer IDA has set its sights on helping the county’s largest industry: agriculture. With their expansive knowledge of funding opportunities, training programs and development, they stand ready to help farmers bridge whatever gaps they encounter as they diversify or shift gears. For example, the IDA is looking for dairy farmers interested in growing industrial hemp. With enough interest, perhaps a processor can be attracted to the area and specialized equipment can be purchased through a grant program.

CALLING ALL FARMERS: If you’re a farmer (especially dairy) or in an ag-related business in Herkimer County interested in alternative crops, aquaponics, high tunnels, a solar farm; if you need help finding, training and retaining good employees; if you think you’d like to explore opportunities in agri-tourism—you name it!—the Herkimer IDA would like to hear from you. Please contact John Piseck, Executive Director, at jpiseck@herkimercountyida.org or 315-866-3000. There’s never been a better time to start a conversation.

If this sounds like a blatant ad for Herkimer IDA, it is! I’m worried about my Mohawk Valley farming neighbors that are struggling. And, to put it bluntly, I’m selfish: I want to keep this beautiful view for generations to come. We all should.

The Hard Decisions, August 2018

Today is a sad day for me. It’s sad because I have to make some hard decisions…decisions I don’t want to make. I have to decide which of our goats and sheep should be culled from the herd.

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If you haven’t heard of the term, the word “cull” in agriculture means to remove or reject unwanted or unproductive animals or plants. It doesn’t sound very nice, but it’s necessary for many reasons. First and foremost, farming is a business. And like any business, farmers must pay attention to their bottom line. Older animals are often culled from the herd because they are not as productive as they once were, either not producing enough milk or not successfully rearing enough offspring to make them profitable. Secondly, removing a portion of the stock frees up resources like food and water for those that remain. If you have ever planted carrots, there’s a point at which you had to “thin” or cull out some of the sprouted plants so that the remainder will have room and a chance to grow to the proper size. Leaving all your sprouted seeds to compete for sun, space, and water gives you a bunch of really scrawny carrots!

But deciding who is worthy of staying and who is not “pulling their weight” is particularly hard for me. I allow little things like, “oh, but I like her spots!” or “she looks just like her grandmother” to cloud my judgement.

I’ve kept some favorites for far too long, telling myself that they deserved a good retirement. Evelyn was one such animal. One of the first goats on our farm, she was the first to give birth here. She and I learned together how to manage goat labor and delivery, how to tend to newborns and to sore teats. She was a fantastic mother and would coo a soft “dut-dut-dut” to her children—and to me when I called her name. I loved milking her; I would often place my ear on her side as I squeezed milk into the bucket, listening to the sounds emanating from her four stomachs. (It was like a symphony in there!) If she was agitated at milking time, I would sing “You Are My Sunshine” to her and we would slip into the rhythm of milking like old friends. Evelyn was able to retire here, and lived to a ripe old age until she passed away in her sleep this last spring. I still miss her very much.

Of course not all of our animals can hold such a unique place in my heart. That doesn’t make the culling decision any less heartbreaking, though. For example, one ewe on my list simply must be culled. Due to scar tissue in both sides of her udder, she cannot make any milk and therefore cannot rear any babies. That little fact had slipped my busy, scattered mind until she had twins this last week. By the time I had put two and two together, both babies had missed getting colostrum and were weak from starvation. Despite my best efforts, both quickly passed away. I can only blame myself for such sloppy animal husbandry. And it’s such a shame—this ewe produces big, beautiful babies and with her loving attention and protective nature, is one of the best mothers I’ve ever seen. She just can’t produce any milk. Maddening, isn’t it?

There are other reasons to cull, too. This long dry spell has meant a major delay in our second cutting of hay. Our hayfields are downright crispy! Farmers throughout the Mohawk Valley are sweating over whether they’ll have enough forage to feed their animals this winter…which may mean having to sell animals to either match hay stored away or to raise money to buy more feed. And then there’s the worst-case scenario that many dairy farmers especially have been facing during this long period of low milk prices: Having to sell animals just to pay their bills.

So, where do cull animals go? Ours most often go to an auction barn, where they are either bought for meat or by other farms looking for bargain breeding stock. Either way, I never know their fate and that makes me dislike the culling decision even more. If enough farmers cull aggressively in response to low milk prices or lack of feed, the market gets flooded and drives auction prices down. The ole’ rule of “supply and demand” never takes a vacation.

Unfortunately, the alternative—doing nothing—is not an option. If I don’t “thin” my carrots, I won’t get any good carrots. If I don’t manage my flock, I’m guaranteed to lose money. It is decisions like these that make me wonder whether I have the fortitude and self-discipline to be a good farmer.

Every once in a while, the best of both worlds come together and I can find a loving home for these animals. Sophia, an older goat that had given me many productive years, was appearing a little worn out and haggard (like me after a long day!) and I decided it best not to have her bred again. I ended up finding a wonderful home for her with a retired couple and one lonely little pony…it was a match made in heaven!

Goat Duty, July 2018

As is my habit, I’m late for my deadline once again. I’ve had an idea for my article rolling around my brain for several weeks now, but just haven’t had the time to put words to paper. So, I sit in the pasture, watching my goats (and getting pawed by my dogs, who apparently never get any attention) while I write for Mohawk Valley Living.

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I’m on “goat duty” for the hour—the perfect time to gather my thoughts. My eldest daughter, Harper, did the first shift, letting the animals out at 5pm. I relieved her at 6 and my youngest, Margaret, will take over at 7. My husband will take the final hour, until the goats are finally “put home” in their goat yard sometime after 9pm.

What is “goat duty,” you ask? It may sound odd in this day and age, but it’s classic, old-school shepherding. Before fences, shepherds would accompany their flocks wherever they went, staying with them day and night as they searched for fresh forage. Sometimes they moved them with purpose—to the mountain pastures in spring and back to the lush valleys in the fall. Other times they were simply there to protect them, “keeping watch over their flocks by night.”

My husband had met many real-life shepherds as a child, when his family camped in the deserts of northern Mexico and his geologist father did research. They were miles away from the nearest town or houses and often never saw a soul for weeks. Yet, every once in a while, a cowboy would wander past camp with a “buenas tardes” and a group of 300 goats making their way through the scrub. He’d have nothing but a backpack flung over his shoulder and a staff for his day’s long journey.

In many cultures where shepherding is still practiced, it is often the children’s job. This makes sense; it is not a particularly difficult job. In fact, long stints can be very boring. Who hasn’t heard of the story “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”?  The lesson, of course, is to not tell lies. Those who tell lies, as the story goes, will not be believed in the future. But as I think about it now, as someone who has spent many hours shepherding her flock, it is also a story of how boredom can lead some to manufacture their own excitement. Despite being monotonous, the job can be very important and holds some valuable lessons for the young and impetuous.

Both my husband and I have a love/hate relationship with goat duty. (My daughters would describe it the same way, minus the “love” part.) The shepherd’s main job is to keep her animals out of trouble…out of the neighbor’s corn or azaleas, out of the woods, or off the road. She also must keep an eye out for predators, and for the youngest of the flock—to make sure they are keeping up. So, although the temptation may be to bring along an engrossing book or to scroll through an Instagram feed, it often doesn’t work that way.

In addition, the black flies (or “no-see-ums” as I’ve always called them) are maddening. Wearing a hat can help, but they seem dead-set on getting into your eyes and ears. Then there’s the heat and the summer sun, or worse…the rain. We are out in most kinds of weather, keeping an eye on our goats.

The beauty of goat duty is that it forces you to just sit. And walk…a lot. But it does compel you to be observant, to be present. Goat duty demands that we slow down. My husband and I are always working, never seeming to stop—a challenge most of us face in today’s fast-paced world. So we appreciate our forced sabbaticals. He with his gin and tonic, I with my camera, we both find our minds are replenished by an afternoon with the goats. I find there’s often a great deal of splendor in the everyday things…a dandelion, a puffy cloud against a brilliant blue sky…things I’d miss if I weren’t forced to stop and pay attention. My husband particularly likes being with the goats at the end of the day, as the neighbor dairy farms’ compressors are turned off, all engines shut down, and the quietness of dusk takes over. The owls begin to hoot to one another, a deer or two may timidly step out into the open, and the fireflies light up the tall grasses. It’s a great way to wind down at the end of a long, busy day.

We don’t currently have any fencing for our pastures. Every winter and spring, I make big plans and think how great it will be when we won’t have “goat duty” anymore. Someday we will have fences, but even then we’ll have to keep a watchful eye on the goats. They get out too easily; they are masters at escape. They are the Harry Houdinis of the animal world! As long as we have goats, I will never be completely free from goat duty. Perhaps that is a good thing.

A Lamb Named Kitten that Thinks He’s a Dog, June 2018

It happens every once in a blue moon. One of our farm animals develops a quirky personality so unique, so strange that all this farmer can do is scratch her head. We have such an animal right now. We have a lamb that thinks he is a dog.

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This strange tale begins innocently enough. Don’t most strange tales begin that way? It all started on an average, ordinary day in January when one of our older sheep had twins. It was a normal winter day. It wasn’t particularly cold; in fact, it was perfectly pleasant. After an uncomplicated and unassisted labor, the older ewe carefully tended to only one of her twins, distancing herself from the other. This elder sheep was wise—wise beyond her farmers’ simple grasp of animal husbandry. She knew something was odd about the OTHER one!

But in strolls the farmer, flummoxed and annoyed that the elder sheep has abandoned one of her newborns. After trying all the tricks up both her sleeves to get the mother to accept her baby, the farmer admits defeat and bottle feeds the abandoned lamb. Little did she know this lamb would prove to be a handful!

Newborn lambs are one of the cutest things in the known universe, and this one was no exception. He was as white as the snow. His pink nose and black-button eyes were framed by fluffy white cheeks and perfect-pink little ears. His wool was as soft as a feather. You’d swear he almost purred a little when getting his morning bottle, so I named him “Kitten.”

Kitten liked to be cuddled, and most of all, to be held. He was clearly sad when I would leave him alone with the other lambs, panicking just a little as his adoptive “mother” walked away. As he grew, the cuddling sessions and bottle feeding ended, but he never tired of getting “scritches”—on his cheeks, back, chest, and ears. He adored and craved attention.

Kitten soon learned he could escape his pen in the barn. This made sense at first. He could hear me coming with his bottle, and the sooner he got to me, the sooner he could eat!

But Kitten quickly learned that escaping had many more perks that suited him just fine. By escaping his pen (and the company of the other sheep), he could find any of us—my husband, my two daughters, or me—to get the attention he so craved. And best of all, he could join our guardian dogs sleeping in the front of the barn.

Things went rather quickly downhill after that. Having found his true friends in our guardian dogs, Kitten became one of the “pack.” He follows them down to the neighbors, to bark at the neighbor’s dogs. He follows them across the road and down the valley, to bark at the coyotes. He follows them into the garage, to sleep on their bed, and to eat their kibble. He even follows along when my youngest daughter goes on a hike, taking the dogs with her for hours-on-end, through the woods and fields surrounding our farm. My two guardian dogs—both all-white Great Pyrenees—and the white lamb even look like a pack. One day, the mailman pulled into the driveway to report that he thought he saw a sheep with our white dogs all the way up the road, looking like they were heading for the hills. But, he must have been seeing things…right?

Kitten has become such a fixture with our dogs that I think he has forgotten he is a sheep. He spends all day and all night with them. I’ve even caught him patrolling our fields with the dogs well after dark…when the rest of the herd is happily bed down in the barn for the night. He does everything the dogs do, including walking to the mailbox with me every afternoon and following me while I do chores. I am grateful that my dogs don’t chase cars!

Kitten knows no boundaries. He jumped into the car when I was loading one of my dogs for a trip to the veterinarian. With my arms full of groceries, he has (on more than one occasion) followed me right into the house. When we’re inside the house, he will paw at the door with his front right hoof—making a knocking sound. And if we ignore him, he finds a window through which he can watch us, steaming up the glass with his hot lamb breath!

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As Kitten continues to grow in stature and heft, we will have an “interesting” problem on our hands. You see, Kitten will someday be close to 200 pounds and 80+ pounds larger than my dogs. Will he become the Alpha of the pack? How will visitors to the farm react when they see a full-grown ram lounging on our porch or greeting them in the driveway? Because whether he thinks he’s a dog, a person, or a sheep, he still looks very much like a sheep!

A Parental "Challenge", May 2018

A few weeks ago, some very good friends of ours told me they had heard a “rumor” about our youngest daughter, Margaret. Their daughter and our Margaret are fast friends, and seem to do virtually everything together. So, when they said they had heard something about Margaret…I knew exactly who the source was. I was also prepared to hear something that didn’t surprise me.

Margaret even loves spiders!

Margaret even loves spiders!

The rumor did surprise me…so much so that I burst out laughing. Apparently, my youngest daughter was a vegetarian and I didn’t know it! I laughed it off, shaking my head at our girls and their wonderful imaginations.

A few nights later, I noticed Margaret taking only potatoes, onions and peppers during dinner, and skipping the kielbasa. “Are you… a vegetarian?” I asked, cautiously. She looked at me sheepishly, as if caught in a lie. “Yes?” was her response. She looked so apologetic; I immediately felt a pang of guilt. “That’s ok,” I told her. “You can be a vegetarian!”

I had so many questions. When did she decide this? What made her decide not to eat meat? Why didn’t she talk to her parents about it? Please understand; our Margaret had always been a voracious carnivore—more so than the rest of the family. After finishing her own, she would steal half-eaten chicken wings or legs from our dinner plates and clean them completely. If we had steaks or pork chops, she would always take the biggest piece. And she never shied away from gnawing on bone, fat, or rare-cooked meat. So, when this revelation came to light, it really was a 180° in her (albeit short) lifetime of behavior and tastes.

A caveat: I realize this is a sensitive subject. I personally know farmers that rail against “Meatless Mondays”. I’ve met vegans that believe animal agriculture is an abomination. I’m wading into turbulent waters here…but please bear with me.

As a farm kid, Margaret knows better than most where meat comes from. She has witnessed her parents processing chickens and the harvesting of goats and sheep. Maybe she couldn’t put the relationship between life and nourishment into words, per se, but she had always at least intrinsically understood where meat comes from. At the end of the day, the protein that we consume had to die. There’s really no two ways about it. And I think the vast majority of people that enjoy meat don’t want to think about it—at all. I understand.

Call it a phase or not, Margaret has always loved animals. She loves our sheep, our goats, our dogs, our cats, even our chickens. She loves the neighbors’ cows; she loves the other neighbor’s horses. She can be virtually inconsolable when one of our long-term residents dies of old age, which has certainly happened on occasion. Margaret would be happiest if our farm had all these animals as pets, and none of them ever died, or were sold, or were eaten…a child’s Shangri-La if there ever was one. The temptation for me to write off her 12-year-old feelings as naïve is strong, I admit.

However, I meant it when I told her it was ok to be vegetarian. Of course it is! She is old enough to make lots of choices for herself. As a parent, I’m here to help guide her, and to make sure she gets a balanced diet. But I want her to know that she is her own person, after all. I want her to grow to be an amazing, caring, thoughtful, and contributing adult. And part of that is discussing ALL of this—to better stand by our own choices, to better comprehend when others feel differently, and to somehow manage a civil conversation along the way.

This experience has reminded me of the first time I was pressed to defend my chosen profession by a vegetarian who felt I was very much in the wrong. Even talking about it in this fashion may make some people angry. But as a farmer, as someone who is driven to feed people, I feel these are choices every individual must make for themselves. I support you whether you are vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, carnivore, or omnivore. And I confess, it does seem odd that although I profess to love my animals (which I do), I can manage to eat them anyway. I think it is difficult for most people to wrap their brains around such a concept. And maybe I’m still working it out for myself.

All I can say is this: I am PART of the food chain, not apart from it. I am animal, and will return to the earth someday to be consumed by worms. My German genes and my 47-year-old habits make me crave certain sources of protein. However, I’m also willing to eat more rice and beans; I can trade eggs, dairy and nuts for some of that meat. They’re all raised by farmers! And as someone who has never seen our Earth’s resources as boundless, I imagine there may eventually come a day that our growing world population causes a major shift in food production. If that is the case, our diets will evolve…which is actually nothing new at all if you think about it!

New Life, April 2018

March was pretty rough on the farm. Maybe it was the two Nor’easters (they didn’t help!) or maybe it was the unwelcome cold and snow after a very warm and spring-like February (yes, it was that too.) I’m looking forward to April more than usual, with its new life and much-needed energy.

Me, fitting snugly into the milk box, circa 1973.

Me, fitting snugly into the milk box, circa 1973.

The most obvious signs of new life are the newborn lambs and kid goats bouncing around the barn. They leap and twist in circles around their worrisome mothers, who scold and call to them. Sometimes the babies heed their mothers’ calls; but most often, they do not. Life is too much fun—and the bounding and rebounding are too exhilarating. We also picked up our first baby chicks for the season. The soft, peeping balls of fluff seem so fragile and new…I usually can’t sleep the first night they’re in the brooder for fear that something terrible will happen to them. They hardly seem like they’d amount to anything really, except that in a short six weeks they’ll be ready for processing and our farm will again be in full swing.

Our vegetable and flower farming friends have seeds started in their greenhouses, with tiny tendrils of life poking through the dark soil. The warmth and smell of new life in a greenhouse is one of the most intoxicating smells around!

Longer days and red-wing blackbirds are Mother Nature’s own harbingers of spring. Soon, the pussy willows will bud out and daffodils will peak through the soil. The landscape will shift from white and grey to a bright and beautiful green. When winter overstays her welcome, it’s these thoughts of new life that give me encouragement and hope for the future.

But what happens when spring never comes? Most people are quite unaware that the dairy industry is in desperate need of new life. It has been an especially long and cold winter for dairy farmers—three long years, to be exact—since they’ve seen fair prices for their milk. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad.

Like any business, farmers are accustomed to some ebb and flow in the market. When the milk check doesn’t cover the cost of production, farmers can access credit or sell off cows to make ends meet…but only for so long. Borrowing money is expensive and, seeing the writing on the wall, banks are cutting many farmers off. Selling cows is the equivalent of selling your future. In other words, farmers can tread water only for so long. Heading into a fourth year of a down market, I’ve heard several analysts predict that we’ll lose one-third of our dairy farms over the next 12 months. Go ahead and read that last sentence again; it’s really that serious.

You see, there is an overabundance of milk on the market and consumer demand is not what it used to be. It is a buyers’ market, where processors can (and have been) dropping smaller farms in favor of larger operations. The latest is a cooperative of 26 farms in Pennsylvania whose contract with Dean Foods was cancelled: 90 days’ notice and no one else to take your milk. What would you do? Industry experts do not predict any positive change for the coming year, either, saying prices are expected to plunge further. In fact, one cooperative gained national attention recently when it included suicide prevention information and hotline numbers in their monthly milk check to farmers.

Many of my readers already know that I was born and raised in Wisconsin. Generations of my family milked cows their entire lives. Dairy has been a staple in my life for a long, long time. In fact, I have a faint memory of the milkman delivering to our house until the mid-70s. To hear my mother tell it, you’d think that all I lived on as a child was grilled cheese sandwiches. Today, my family consumes a wide variety of dairy products on a daily basis. We all drink whole milk. We’re ice cream, half-and-half, and butter addicts. My teenager wolfs down the cottage cheese, and no meal seems complete without sour cream. There’s no such thing as too much cheese on a pizza! You like cream cheese with your bagel? To me, the bagel is merely the vehicle. And while my husband and I do not operate a dairy farm, we buy goat, cow, and sheep milk from area farmers to make cheeses and gelato. It’s fair to say that dairy is very important to me and my family, on many levels.

Dairy is important to our area, too. Agriculture has historically been a major driver of the Central New York economy, with dairy being the largest portion of that activity. What unforeseen, far-reaching consequences will we all feel if many more dairies have to shutter their doors?

Farmers are accustomed to coaxing new life from the tender and fragile, but first they need a glimmer of hope. Help is desperately needed at both the State and Federal levels. As consumers, we can all buy more milk, more cheese, more yogurt, and more ice cream. Buy local if you can or ask your grocer to find a local producer. Check to see where your dairy is coming from by going to www.whereismymilkfrom.com.

New life, as it turns out, is not only good for the farm, but absolutely necessary for its longevity. I am hopeful that some positive changes will be the result of these hard years. New life comes not just in the form of babies, buds and springtime, but also with new ideas, new approaches, and the hope of the next generation.