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/.

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.

Evelyn at the head of the pack waiting to go to pasture_Margaret letting them out.jpg

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.

goat duty on a nice day.JPG

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.

coming back from early morning walk with Aimee.jpg

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!

peering in thru kitchen doors and steaming up the glass.JPG

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.

It's Raining Cats...and Cats! March 2018

A few weeks before Christmas, my husband was chatting in the yard with our neighbor when a flash of fur went streaking across the driveway and up a tree. Our dogs were hot on its tail, but the fur-ball made it to the safety of the tree in the nick of time. Curious, my husband went to investigate and found a barely 8-week-old kitten all puffed up, traumatized and spitting. He kissed and called to her and, to his surprise she jumped onto his shoulders and immediately began purring. The wisdom of what happened next is certainly up for debate: My dear husband brought the kitten to the house to show our two daughters. That kitten hasn’t left the house since!

the newest kitten.jpg

We learned later that evening that our other neighbor found a kitten as well. It seems that someone dropped their unwanted kittens in the country. I imagine they dropped them near a farm, because, as the old saying goes, what farm can’t use more cats?

This isn’t the first cat that has been “dropped off” at our farm. It has been a fairly regular occurrence, resulting in at least 15 additional cats over the years. I’ve heard the same from other farmers, too, and some even had a dog or two simply “appear.” According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), millions of pets are abandoned by their owners every year. And it would seem that some of these pet owners find it perfectly acceptable to drop their house-pets at a farm. As the unwitting and unwilling recipient of these animals, I find this practice completely unacceptable.

But cats are great for farms, aren’t they? Sure, rats and mice are found on probably every farm on earth. Keeping their population in check is both financially prudent and necessary for health and safety. But even on farms, where cats have a “job,” the farmer is responsible for these animals. For starters, cats need to be fed. Now, it may sound like feeding them would run counter to the idea that they’re supposed to be killing rodents. But quite the opposite is true. A cat given no food will conserve their energy, much like a lion on the savannah, and only hunt what it needs to survive. A cat given a regular diet of kibble will kill far more mice and rats simply for sport. Anyone that has ever seen a cat “play” with their prey has witnessed this. A well-fed cat is a much better hunter.

Secondly, farmers try their best to ensure all cats on premises are either spayed or neutered. As the person buying the kibble every week, I can assure you, I want to keep the mouths I feed to a minimum. But more importantly, I do not need nor want unchecked breeding and interbreeding. Cats can have litters of as many as 12 kittens, which are then old enough to breed in just under six months. You don’t have to be a math whiz to understand how quickly that can get out of hand! And old wives’ tale or not, I’ve heard on too many occasions about birth defects and health problems from interbreeding to want to tempt fate. I keep all cats on our farm fixed, which means additional out-of-pocket expenses.

Finally, a house pet that has been raised in the comforts of a warm, cozy home has little chance of survival on a farm. Quite a few of the cats that showed up on our doorstep over the years had clearly never lived a day in their lives out of doors, and desperately wanted to be in our house. A farm cat has a hard life. Outdoor cats have about half the life expectancy of an indoor cat, due to predators like foxes and coyotes, being struck by a vehicle on a busy road, or diseases like feline leukemia and AIDS. Dropping off your unwanted pet in the country is downright cruel.

So, on behalf of all farmers everywhere, please heed this public service announcement: DO NOT DROP YOUR UNWANTED PETS AT FARMS. According to the ASPCA, the number one reason for pet abandonment is financial insecurity. It’s expensive to keep a pet! But passing along an unwanted expense to farmers that are already having a hard time making ends meet is simply unforgivable. If you need to re-home your animal for any reason, please call one of our excellent area shelters. Depending on your reason for re-homing the animal, the shelter may be able to help you keep it. If you need help affording food, help with veterinary expenses, or assistance with behavioral issues—the shelters can be one of your best resources. And, in the words of the great Bob Barker, get your pets spayed and neutered!

The kitten that arrived in December has an appointment to get spayed. She has been wormed, flea treated and got her vaccinations. She eats like a horse. She’s also very sweet…I just wish the person who dropped her off had also dropped off a wad of cash or small savings account to cover the expenses! Better yet, I hope that person (and everyone reading this) will consider donating money, goods or time to any of our area’s fine animal shelters. They provide such an important service and can certainly use the help.

So Very, Very, VERY Pregnant! February 2018

Thank goodness for the changing of the seasons. Every phase of the calendar gives me something to look forward to—a variation in pace, a “changing of the gears” that forces this farmer to completely and utterly shake up her routine to face a different set of challenges. It is one of the many things I love about being a farmer.

VERY pregnant goat.JPG

For me, this season—the season of love—is filled with very, very, VERY pregnant goats and sheep.

The change in the calendar is the result of planning done months ago. It was just a short five months back, in the waning days of late summer and crisp nights of early fall, that my does (female goats) and ewes (female sheep) were bred for winter babies. Decisions were made that are now coming to fruition.

Our animals are now all snug and comfortable in the barn for the winter. Because they are not out grazing the pastures as they would in summer, I have to attend to their every need. That means feeding and watering them, of course. It also means I spend much more quality, up-close-and-personal time with them.

There is a completely different vibe on the farm during these coldest of months. On summertime pastures, they avoid me, preferring to keep their heads down in the lush grasses. They are almost wild during grazing season and are far more apt to run away from me than towards me. But in the barn, I have to wade through the sea of bodies, sometimes scratching their ears as they jostle at the feeders. Although they have ample space in the barn, it’s a little like five people sharing a one-bedroom apartment: You can’t avoid one another! The wildest of them become quite docile in this environment, and I seem to make new friends or reacquaint myself with old pals in the cozy winter barn.

Babies will begin arriving any day. Until then, I make sure my very pregnant animals are waited on hand and hoof. Having had two children myself, I remember well what it’s like to be pregnant.

I didn’t care for the early months of morning sickness (which happened at all times of the day). I was jealous of the women who carried their unborn babies much like a perfect basketball, right in front. I, on the other hand, seemed to be pregnant all over, making me feel as large as a truck. I had the distinct sensation that my lungs and other vital organs were being pushed aside for the sake of a yet-to-be-seen unknown alien life form. All these sensations led to some very bizarre dreams. I once dreamt I gave birth to our cat, who then proceeded to clean himself, right in the delivery room! No matter how much I love my children, it’s safe to say I really didn’t enjoy pregnancy.

VERY pregnant Suzie.JPG

The odd thing was, my body seemed to like being pregnant. Perhaps it was because I kept active doing my regular farm chores. My blood pressure, sugar levels, heart rate and other measures checked at the OB’s office were always excellent. In some instances, they were better than my non-pregnant state. What the heck, biology?!?

But with both pregnancies, I thoroughly enjoyed the baby’s movements. The rolling, the stretching, yes, even the kicking were fun and exciting. Although my husband perhaps could feel the foot jutting out of my side, I felt these sensations were all for me.

So, how does a farmer tend to her pregnant animals? Perhaps regardless of species, pregnant females seem to enjoy back rubs, brushing and general pampering in their bulky, inelegant state. My goats and sheep are no different. They seem to welcome the attention I give them. Plus, regular handling gives me the crucial opportunity to check their body condition. “Body condition scoring,” or BCS, is an important tool for checking an animal’s health. Next time you take your cat or dog to the vet’s office, see if you can spot a chart illustrating five or so different body conditions ranging from “too thin” to “too fat.” Undernourished animals will have problems with fertility, ability to support a fetus, and decreased milk production. Too fat is no good either, causing another host of problems. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle.

BCS is important on an individual level, helping me identify an animal that may have a unique issue that needs attention. BCS is also important at the overall herd level, helping me identify general management issues that require adjusting. For example, if half or more of my animals are scoring lower than I would like, I may consider worm load to be a problem, or perhaps look at increasing the quality of their forage.

BCS cannot be done by simply looking at an animal. You have to get your hands on them. Ever since my sheep and goats entered their third trimester (and the cozy winter barn), I’ve been checking their body condition. I pay particular attention to the loin area, the breastbone, and the ribs, feeling for sufficient fat cover. While doing so, I get the occasional thrill of feeling a baby kick or jostle for room amongst its siblings in their increasingly cramped quarters. I’ll soon get to see them come into this world.

My role as midwife to about 80 pregnant goats and sheep is a welcome change of pace from the rest of the calendar year. In the next phase, I’ll be cuddling babies and to talking softly to new, nervous moms. As the babies find their legs, I will be treated to goat acrobatics and lamb races up and down the length of the barn. Another change in the calendar I will look forward to!

An Outhouse in Winter, January 2018

This is going to sound completely crazy, but we don’t have an indoor bathroom. We have an outhouse…in winter…in Central New York.

To be clear, we usually have a bathroom—one bathroom—but that “one” bathroom has been torn out and is getting a complete remodel. We have zero bathrooms… and one outhouse.

On the one hand, this is fantastic news. Our old bathroom was put in during the early ‘70s and an update was long overdue. Add to that an impressive slant in the floor (we’d walk downhill to the shower!) and a very noticeable sponginess in the floorboards around the toilet; we’ve long worried about what we might find once the fixtures were torn out and the beams below exposed. “How long can we ignore this problem?” became less of a philosophical question and more a game of Russian roulette.

On the other hand, we now have a port-a-john parked outside in the snow.

“Frosty the Porta Potty” and I have actually gotten quite close over these last couple of weeks. After bundling up to go outside, he is the first to greet me every morning with his ice-cold seat. He’s also a little drafty. On a windy day, the vent pipe—which normally carries odors away—perfectly blasts cold air down into the tank and up to the vulnerable backside of the seat’s occupant. During a snowstorm, the icy bits cruelly pelt the outside of the plastic box. Dogs and cats alike have tried to peek in, even clawing at the door as if wanting to join me. (I can now identify each of our three dogs and 11 barn cats by their one peeping eyeball.) Visiting Frosty at night is perhaps my least favorite. Half-asleep and with headlamp on, I can see my breath and little else!

But it’s not all that bad, really. It’s a lot like winter camping, or at least what I imagine it’s like camping in winter. The kids, my husband and I have all managed to “shoulder through” this together. We’ve learned to strategize and coordinate trips into town, using our favorite public restrooms as a “treat.” We even rigged up a make-shift shower in one of our heated storage rooms in the barn. It’s a bit of a pain, so we’ve had only a couple “shower nights,” where everyone in the family takes turns under the hose/shower head and then makes the mad dash back to the house. I’m rather tickled that my children now know how quickly wet hair turns to icicles. I’m not sure how far this will carry them in life, but it certainly gives them stories to tell well into adulthood!

This experience has been also a fantastic, humbling reminder of what it was like for generations before us, and the many things we now take for granted. This 150-year-old farm probably had multiple outhouses over the years, perhaps not far from where “Frosty” now sits. And of course I have thought many times over the last couple weeks about local Amish families and what their lives must be like, day to day, year in and year out. It’s not for the faint of heart! I’ll be so very grateful when the bathroom is finished.

 Me, circa 1973, with my cat, Flower. She loved to sit on my head! You can see our outhouse in the background. On a small hog farm outside of Humphrey, Nebraska.

Me, circa 1973, with my cat, Flower. She loved to sit on my head! You can see our outhouse in the background. On a small hog farm outside of Humphrey, Nebraska.

There’s probably no perfect time of the year to tear out one’s only bathroom. But oftentimes on the farm, things get put off until absolutely necessary. In fact, we may intrinsically know that winter is coming, but that first snowstorm—that first arctic blast—is still a bit of surprise. While we try to get things buttoned up on time, there are so many little things around the farm that just didn’t get put away; I wonder where that bucket of tools went or where my daughter left that extension cord…somewhere under that blanket of white. Other things are just harder to contend with once they’re frozen: that clump of wet, junk hay that was dumped in the manure spreader; the exposed water line to the barn that was fixed but not re-insulated and boxed back in. And of course, my old fingers are not ready for the cold yet, either. I have yet to install replacement glass in the barn windows and I quietly curse the bale-grabber buried in snow that has to be cleaned before it will attach to the skid steer.

The farm and I may not be quite ready for winter or 2018. But, I have a new bathroom to look forward to—and that may be all I need!

Christmas Cookies, December 2017

My fondest childhood memories are of Grandma’s kitchen at Christmastime. My cousins and I would exhaust ourselves all day in the snow, finally clambering into the enclosed porch where we’d leave an explosion of winter gear. Red-cheeked, loud and hungry, we’d burst into her kitchen looking for something to eat. If she was busy cooking, with Mom and my aunts, we’d quickly get shooed away. But if the kitchen was empty, and the adults were off playing Schafkopf* and drinking Old Fashioneds in the dining room, we’d go directly for the cookie jars on the counter…

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My grandmother had no fewer than three cookie jars going at any given time, at all times of the year. I’m not kidding: She had cookies—lots of them—year-round. Come Christmastime, she went into hyper-drive-cookie-making mode and stocked the house with all kinds of cookies, bars, nuts, candies, even homemade caramels. It was truly a child’s paradise!

Bernice Hoff was a stout, barely-five-foot-tall German Lutheran that loved to cook. (At least, that was what she did much of the time... I hope she loved it!) It ran in the family. Her mother, my great-grandma Mueller, was known far and wide simply as “Cookie Grandma.” Anyone visiting Cookie Grandma was sent home with a tin of assorted cookies to treasure and devour. Her daughter, Bernice, was born on their small dairy farm in central Wisconsin and grew up during the Great Depression. They had a large family, and Bernice went on to marry Lenard and have six children of their own. My husband’s grandmother whose family raised beef cattle in Minnesota also had a seemingly endless supply of cookies for the family, neighbors and farm hands. Cooking, canning, and baking to feed an army was simply second nature to all these farm women.

My grandmother’s cooking, although resplendent, sometimes bordered on the arterially hazardous: sunny-side-up eggs were cooked in bacon drippings and cream-top milk was never shaken before it was poured on morning cereal. Heavily buttered popcorn was served about an hour after dinner, followed by a large bowl of ice cream before going to bed. Red meats, most often in the form of a type of sausage, were served morning, noon and night. The menu changed after Grandpa’s open heart surgery in the mid-80s, but these are the memories of my childhood. Ah, those were the days!

Grandma made every cookie known to man. Gingerbread men, decorated adorably, were soft and delicious. Thumbprints were filled with her homemade jams, made from raspberries grown in her backyard that summer. Peanut butter kisses, lemon bars, multi-colored spritz, rum balls, ginger snaps, even simple sugar cookies were all made with tremendous care. To this day, some remain a mystery to me. Did she make the angel food candy from scratch? What did she call the wonderful pecan balls rolled in powdered sugar? I think I loved those the most.

Now that it’s my turn to cook and bake for the holidays, I find myself appreciating Grandma more than ever. How did she DO it? I find I hardly have the patience to make more than a batch or two. How could it be that she never ran out? I don’t have a “down cellar” where one would typically put ice cream buckets, coffee cans or Tupperware canisters full of cookies. And the kids don’t seem to eat sweets at the rate we once did. I suppose that is a good thing.

Instead of “baking up a storm,” perhaps the most important thing I can do for my children and loved ones this holiday is to pass on something meaningful. It can be small; it doesn’t have to be shiny or expensive. It can even be a simple act. But it should have meaning. Grandma’s cooking had meaning. It was important to her; she knew hard times and what it was like to scrimp and save. She wanted to see everyone full and happy!

I like to share recipes. I’ve always thought that recipes, especially the ones handed down from one generation to the next, told a story. And by following a recipe tested by time, we get to go through the same motions as those that came before us, savoring the same dishes they did. It’s faintly ritualistic, but I feel it connects me to my past.

For Mohawk Valley Living readers everywhere, I offer my favorite cookie recipe, passed down to me from my mother. Despite the unfortunate name, “ammonia cookies” are simply one of the best cookies you’ll ever have. It contains ammonium carbonate, a very old-fashioned leavening agent sometimes found in traditional German recipes. In years past, my mother was able to find this ingredient at the drug store, but now it’s found online as “baker’s ammonia.” The result is a delicate and delightful “poof” of sugar that will melt in your mouth. And because of their delicate nature, you cannot ship these cookies long distances. You’ll have to share them in person…the very best way to share Christmas cookies!

*An old German card game with the craziest, most complicated rules. The name translates to “sheep’s head.”

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Ammonia Cookies
½ C butter, softened
½ C vegetable oil
1 ½ C sugar
2 C flour
1 ½ tsp ammonium carbonate (be sure crystals are fine; crush if needed)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon or orange extract
pinch of salt

Mix all ingredients well. Roll small balls with your hands (should be smaller than a golf ball); dip in colored sugar before placing on cookie sheet. Bake at 325° for 12-14 minutes, or until cookie has puffed and edges are just barely starting to brown. Allow to cool slightly before moving to cooling rack. Makes 4-5 dozen. (NOTE: Do NOT open the oven door before baking time is up. You will get a hot blast of ammonia! Yuck!)

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.

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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.