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/.

Nature's Lessons, June 2019

I love June and the beginning of the growing season. Sure, May has its tulips and daffodils, but the earth doesn’t really begin to warm up until now. In fact, my mother (and her mother and grandmothers before her) never planted her garden until Memorial Day.

Sadly, I gave up long ago on a nice, big garden. The weeding would be ignored until I couldn’t distinguish the rows of tomatoes from the hills of potatoes. Bugs, birds, and snails feasted because it was a battle I could not fight. I just couldn’t find the time! But our established beds of asparagus and rhubarb are amazing. I harvest way more than we can ever eat as a family, and give away handfuls of both so as to not waste good food.

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By the first week in June, we’ve taken the first cutting of hay off our fields. It’s a great feeling. After having fed out last year’s entire hay crop over the winter, we’re again in “banking mode”—tucking food away for later use.

The hay fields seem to look better every year. The growth is fuller and the roots are deeper, in large part because we keep chickens on generous swaths of the fields. We move them every few days throughout the summer—after they’ve devoured the grubs, scratched and aerated the soil, and spread their rich fertilizer.

We also rotate our goats and sheep through the hay fields between cuttings. They, too, spread a little fertilizer as they graze.

Maintaining a small farm such as ours, and watching the effects of our choices on the land over the course of many years, has me reflecting upon how much each of these systems depend on one another. The grass needs the chickens and goats, just as the chickens and goats need the grass.

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that we have Great Pyrenees guardian dogs that keep watch over our farm animals. They, too, have had an effect on the ecosystem that is our farm and surrounding hills. By keeping coyotes and foxes outside of our farm’s perimeter, we’ve had a resurgence of rabbits and chipmunks…animals we rarely saw when we first moved here almost 15 years ago. We also regularly hear (and sometimes see!) a variety of owls that are increasingly drawn to the larger population of rabbits. Who would have guessed that having guardian dogs would bring owls back to our farm?

In fact, all of the systems on our farm are related or dependent upon each other in some way. The asparagus gets nutrients from our chickens, the goats get healthy and plump on the rich grasses, the chipmunks spread seeds that help maintain a diversity of plant life and forages, and the owls help keep that population in check while also hunting mice and rats that would get into our feed stores.

It reminds me of the lessons they are learning in Yellowstone, where researchers and park rangers are just now seeing the long-term effects of reintroducing gray wolves to the park 25 years ago. By preying on elk and changing the elks’ browsing behaviors, there is less pressure on willow stands—which in turn, has supported resurgence in the beaver population. More beaver dams mean fewer seasonal runoffs, recharging of the water table, and more marsh habitat for fish, otters, waterfowl, amphibians, moose and more. Virtually every population has benefitted, from grizzly bears to golden eagles, due to the reintroduction of gray wolves in 1995.

Clearly, none of these changes occur overnight. And, in every ecosystem, there will be some “losers” as pressures shift. For example, the elk population in Yellowstone has been drastically reduced, perhaps to more sustainable numbers. And area ranchers are not fans of the wolves leaving the park and preying on local livestock. We experienced our own version of this several summers ago when a juvenile bald eagle took up residence on our farm and preyed on our chickens. Bald eagles far prefer to catch fish and small animals like turtles and snakes, and because of their size, require a large hunting area. Perhaps pressures on its natural food source (fish) and a general increase in the overall bald eagle population throughout the Mohawk Valley, our visitor was forced to do something it would not normally do—hunt chicken.

The natural world very much resembles a great spider’s web—complex and beautiful, changing and repairing itself over time, adapting in the breeze. The stronger and more complex the web, the more likely it can withstand a small catastrophe. The interdependence and complexity of the natural world may not be immediately evident to the naked eye, but it is there.

Of course I can’t help but apply nature’s lessons to the human world. For example, I’ve always prided myself on being a very independent individual. I wave off offers of help, even when I clearly need it. As a nation, we celebrate Independence Day and love stories of individuals “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps”. But there are days when I wish we were not so obsessed. The farmer needs consumers, as consumers need the farmer. The taxpayer needs police, firefighters, and roads; the employer needs well-educated and prepared hires; the local government has the capacity to encourage a wide variety of businesses large and small to flourish—and a diversity of businesses helps keep and attract younger job-seekers.

Who are the metaphorical wolves and beavers in these scenarios? I don’t know; but if nature has taught me anything, we all need each other much more than we realize.

Career Day, May 2019

I was recently invited to speak at a Career Exploration Day event at West Canada Valley Junior High School. Seventh and eighth graders were able to meet an engineer, a photographer, a firefighter, and a farmer (me!)

My youngest daughter, Margaret, is in the 7th grade. Thinking about a future career is perhaps one of the farthest things from her mind. The choices ahead of her are virtually limitless, not to mention hard to predict. How do you prepare for a job that may not even exist today? But, I suppose it does make sense for kids of this age range to start thinking about what the future may hold. The classes they choose, the extracurricular activities they join, even the volunteer opportunities they take on in the next few years will—at least in part—help define their paths in life.

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To be honest, I had the hardest time organizing my thoughts for the presentation. What would the students want to know? They may want to hear about a “typical” day on the farm… but is there such a thing? They most likely would want to know how many hours I worked and whether the pay was good. (Oh, boy, they wouldn’t like my answer to that!)

I began to wonder if it was my job to “sell” the idea of a career in farming. I decided that certainly wasn’t the case. My job was simply to tell the kids what I like about my job, to be honest about its negative aspects, and perhaps entertain them with cute baby goat pictures along the way.

I began by telling the kids that I liked wearing lots of different hats. Being a farmer means having lots of different skills! I like being my own boss, I like working outside, and I like working with animals. I especially like working with my family and having my daughters intimately involved in the business. I also told them how much I like being a value-added farmer, selling directly to the consumer, getting immediate feedback and an occasional “thank-you.” (No matter what the job, it is always little things like thank-you’s that make all the difference.)

I finished by telling the kids that one of the things I liked most about farming was the fact that I was learning something new almost every day. As students in middle school, I was sure they didn’t appreciate how exciting learning new things can be for an adult, but I assured them it was really important.

Luckily, the kids were ready with questions, too. Many wanted to know what sort of an education they would need to become a farmer. I could reference some extraordinarily good programs at Cornell, Morrisville and Cobleskill. But did I go to school to become a farmer? No, my major was in Spanish.

Oops, I felt my presentation going off the rails! How could I be giving a presentation on a farming career when I didn’t even have the educational background? I found myself telling the students how important it was to keep their options open through education—my first piece of advice. Was I using my college degree on a daily basis? No, my first job out of college was as a translator. But that job led to another, and another, and another. Working for other people, in lots of different industries, eventually convinced me to strike out on my own and start a farm in Central New York. There was literally no way for me to have predicted what opportunities would present themselves along my path in life. Being intellectually curious and pursuing every topic that caught my interest—whether through formal learning or self-taught—has kept my options open.

And that lead to my second piece of advice for the kids: Embrace change. I’ve lost track of the number of jobs I’ve had over the last 30+ years. Some I left for a promotion, others because I saw no future there. But each change represented growth and an opportunity to learn. Changing jobs can be a little scary, but it can be exciting, too!

In fact, if these kids want to be farmers, they REALLY have to embrace change. I asked how many, by show of hands, lived on a farm or were related to a farmer. A few hands shot up. I then told the students that it wasn’t all that long ago that most of the hands in the classroom would have gone up. Now, it’s less than 2% of the population that grows food for the rest of us. While that only elicited one “wow” from the unimpressed teens, I hope it got the point across: We live in a rapidly changing world and even one of the seemingly most traditional career choices—farmer—is not immune. In many ways, farming today is very different than it was 50 years ago and it will look very different in the future.

Maybe that’s why I like being a farmer? From the daily routine, to the weather, to a future full of possibilities—farming is all about change…and learning to keep up with it!

Self-Care and Chicken Soup, April 2019

Farming can be really stressful. The weather can refuse to cooperate, there may not be enough money to pay the bills, or a whole day can go wrong. On top of the stress, add the long hours and physical demands. Farmers deal with a lot on a daily basis.

Truth is, we all have stress in our lives and it is incredibly important that we take the time for self-care. For some, that might mean a vacation or a massage, or some “me time” in the bathtub with a good book. What do I do? I make chicken soup.

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Why chicken soup? Certainly, chicken soup has long been seen as a homemade cure-all for common wintertime ailments. Also, we raise chickens on our farm, so using one of our farm’s homegrown chickens makes the process of cooking and then partaking in the meal all the more meaningful. Finally, I use a recipe passed down to me from loved one, so the simple act of cooking a familiar dish, using the same preparation, is nice reminder of family rituals and traditions.

There are two ways to make stock, the base of your chicken soup. You can save up all the bones from a couple roasted chickens, tucking them away in your freezer until needed; OR, you can start with a whole chicken, which gives you a lot of meat for soup or other uses. Either way is fine.

I always throw two chicken feet into every pot of soup I make. The feet accomplish two wonderful things: First, chicken feet are an excellent source of collagen (and gelatin, which is the cooked form of collagen). The result is a richer, tastier broth. Gelatin has been linked to better joint health and improved digestion and its high levels of glycine make it good for calming anxiety and stress.

Second, having a couple of feet floating around in the pot keeps my family out of the kitchen. When they were little, my daughters would play with the feet, learning that the physiology of the tendons still worked when you squeezed the foot just right. But no longer; as teenagers, they have sworn off playing with chicken feet and are happy to steer clear of the kitchen while I am cooking. I value the few quiet moments I get!

Below are my own recipe for self-care chicken stock and perhaps my favorite soup recipe of all time, Mulligatawny Soup. Something about the apples and curry makes it a light and surprising treat for any time of the year. The recipe itself comes right out of my 1962 copy of “Joy of Cooking”, a gift from my mother-in-law before she passed away many years ago.

Chicken Stock

1 whole chicken, cut into pieces

2 chicken feet***

3 T cooking oil or butter

4 stalks celery, roughly chopped

4 carrots, roughly chopped

1-2 onions, roughly chopped

1-2 bay leaves

Herbs--fresh or dried, whatever strikes your fancy (I like rosemary, sage, thyme and parsley)

8-12 cups water

 

Brown chicken pieces (including feet, back and wing tips) in oil or butter in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium to medium-low heat. Do this in batches to make sure you get nice browning on the skin. Remove pieces as they are browned (but not cooked) and set aside, working through all your chicken. Once chicken is browned and removed from the pot, add vegetables and sauté until soft. Be careful to not let the browned bits on the bottom burn. Once your veggies are soft, add a little bit of water and start scraping up the brown bits. They should come loose nicely and will further flavor your broth. Add back the chicken pieces, your herbs and bay leaves and fill the pot with the remaining water. Bring to a simmer then turn down to low, skimming off the "foam" from time to time. If you feel you must cover the pot, leave the cover askew. I leave the cover off altogether. Simmer on low for 2-3 hours, until meat is falling of the bones. Remove pot from heat and let it cool completely. I usually put the pot in the fridge and do the rest the following day.

Remove cooked chicken pieces and pull meat off bones, shredding or chopping the meat as you go. Discard feet, skin, and bones. Whether you'll be using your stock for the Mulligatawny or saving it for another use, my preference is to strain the stock. And if you think your chicken was particularly fatty, you can put your stock into a fat separator and adjust the amount of fat to your taste.

Mulligatawny Soup

1 C onion, diced

2 carrots, diced

4 stalks celery, diced

1/2 C butter

3 T flour

4 tsp curry powder

8 C chicken stock from above

1/2 C tart apples, diced

1 C cooked white rice

1 C cooked chicken from above

2 tsp salt (or to taste)

1/2 tsp ground pepper

1/4 tsp thyme

1 C warmed cream or half & half

 

Sauté vegetables in butter until soft, but not browned. Add flour and curry powder. Stir and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add chicken stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients (except cream) and simmer another 15 minutes. Immediately before serving, stir in the cream. Or leave the cream out and pass at the table.

***Where can you get chicken feet? Check out any one of the many chicken vendors at the local farmer’s markets and ask!

Barn Fire! March 2019

On Sunday, January 6, at about 2:45 in the afternoon, I got a disturbing text from a friend. “We just saw something about a fire in your barn. Please let us know what we can do to help!” The words on my phone sent a chill down my spine. Our barn wasn’t on fire…was it? I actually looked out our dining room window at it to make sure. No, our barn wasn’t on fire, but whose?

It was Terry and Debbie Jones’ barn in Trenton. They lost 200 dairy cows and so much more. That day, Mr. and Mrs. Jones lived through one of a farmer’s worst nightmares.

I haven’t written about barn fires in this column mostly because I try to write about what I know, and thank heavens I haven’t lived through such tragedy. And I have to admit, I’m afraid to write about them. I feel a little like my grandmother who would whisper the word “cancer” if speaking of a recently diagnosed friend or relative. Don’t say it out loud. It’s just that terrible.

Barn fires are completely devastating. They wipe out generations of work. They erase blood, sweat and tears…and sometimes dreams. They are merciless and cold in their utter destruction. The clean-up borders on soul crushing; the smell and the smoldering hot spots linger in the air for what seems like an eternity. I know this much without having lost a barn; I can’t imagine living through it.

Our neighbor, Steve, and his family lost their barn to a fire back in 1968. He has a good memory in general, but the details he remembers about that night are forever etched in his brain. It was September, and the cows were all out on pasture. Only a few heifer calves were in the barn for the night. A banging noise roused his father from a sound sleep in his bed, and when he sat up, he could see light coming from the hay mow. He knew in an instant the barn was on fire. The fire trucks came straightaway, but nothing could be done to save the structure. Instead, the firefighters concentrated their efforts on saving the newly built milk house.

As the family stood and watched, with neighbors gathering for support, a terrifying moment came when the cows that had been on pasture came running for the barn. They had heard the commotion, smelled the smoke, saw the confusing flashes of light and were frightened. They wanted to be home! Family and friends rushed to cut them off, averting a yet greater tragedy.

Thankfully, the family was able to rebuild. They put up a larger barn and were able to be extra thoughtful on how they laid things out. And fortunately, no one was hurt. Steve and his family still farm there today.

When I was in middle school, the barn of one of my classmates burned down. It was the early ‘80s and dairy was in a free-fall. People came from miles around to see it; the road was just one long line of cars. That family lost every one of their cows; the panicked animals refused to leave the barn and posed a terrible danger to the rescuers trying to help them. My classmate’s family eventually rebuilt, but not to milk cows. They decided to raise horses instead.

Every time I hear of a barn fire, I want to know exactly how it started. Maybe I’m ticking items off a mental checklist in an attempt to ensure we’re doing everything “right”. Of course, fires can start from any number of sources. A big culprit is damp hay, grain or shavings. When hay is baled too wet (above 20-25% moisture content), it begins to mold. Since hay has such great insulating properties, the building chemical reactions can create real heat. The hot pockets eventually reach air and get fuel from the oxygen, creating a very dangerous fire. Faulty wiring* or an electrical short in a tractor parked in the barn can arc or smolder, and create a flame. A carelessly tossed cigarette butt and heat lamps are infamous for starting fires, as is a rare lightning strike. Animals are infrequently the cause, despite the false narrative that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the Great Chicago Fire. (Interestingly enough, that was a tall tale easily spread far and wide due to anti-immigrant sentiment against the Irish.)

I haven’t been able to get the barn fire in Trenton off my mind, in part because we share the same last name. I’ve had at least half a dozen people ask me if that was our barn in the news. But more importantly, the Joneses lived through one of a farmer’s worst nightmares. Every farmer I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks admitted to thinking about the Joneses, how they’re doing, and how their hearts go out to the family. The story has a surprise happy ending, though: the Trenton Joneses had applied—and were accepted!—to become part of the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust, a trust that provides money for the farm while keeping the land in agriculture for perpetuity. My hope and prayer is that they enjoy success as farmers once again, with no more nightmares!

*Farmers: NYCAMH, the same people that will help you get a roll-bar for your tractor, can help you upgrade unsafe electric in your barn. Call them today and ask about the Jim May Safety Fund: 800-343-7527.

Love and Heartbreak, February 2019

We recently said goodbye to not one, but two of our farm dogs. First, Woody, our faithful Australian Shepherd, passed away peacefully of old age. And barely two short weeks later, Lizzy, our 4-year-old Great Pyrenees, had to be euthanized after being diagnosed with bone cancer. Losing just one was hard enough, but one right after the other? It was almost too much to bear.

As a farmer, I’ve said goodbye to many animals over the years. Whether we’ve lost a young goat to listeria (an unplanned, unfortunate event that we try hard to avoid at all costs) or processed 1,000 chickens for the freezer (for our business and for our own consumption), I’ve witnessed death many times. I wouldn’t say I’m numb to it, but death is as familiar to me as a full moon on a cold, clear winter night.

I know that sounds terribly morbid, but please understand: I’m also extraordinarily privileged to have been present for hundreds, if not thousands of births. It is the ebb and flow of the farm, the never-ending cycle of life and death: Two sides of the same coin.

Losing these two dogs was particularly difficult. Most people feel their dogs are part of the family, and I am no exception. Our working farm dogs had important roles to play, and farming without them will be a little more difficult, and a lot less fun.

We got Woody as a puppy. From day one, it was clear that his purpose in life was to please his humans. Woody went with me everywhere on the farm. He was at my side from sun-up to sundown, and was visibly disappointed when I would get in the truck and not invite him for a ride. Woody spent hours with me as shepherd, moving the animals when I asked for his help. At night, he even slept on the floor by my side of the bed, never wanting to be far from me. It all started to change this past fall, when Woody couldn’t climb the stairs to the bedrooms, and when he was just too tired to herd goats. We knew his time would come, so we kept him comfortable and every day made sure he knew he was loved.

Lizzy was an affable, happy-go-lucky dog. She, too, was a puppy when we got her, but she had little interest in pleasing her humans. She sought only affection and food, and a sunny spot in the pasture where she could warm her belly in the sun. She barked at coyotes when they howled in the valley, but she didn’t notice when a bald eagle decided to snack on our free-range chickens. (I guess she just didn’t look up?) She had a slight limp from tearing her ACL the year prior, so we didn’t notice when she stopped putting weight on that one leg altogether. It was the morning that my husband spotted the swelling that we called our vet to make a diagnosis. It is hard to hear the word cancer, especially in an animal so young, but large breed dogs like her are particularly prone. Knowing this didn’t make saying goodbye any easier; her life seemed cut way too short.

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But weren’t there options? Could we have amputated that leg, put her through chemotherapy? Surely, something could have been done? This is where I’m very grateful for the professionalism and knowledge of our doctors at Herkimer Veterinary Associates. They knew that a very costly surgery would at best buy her six months and that, although she was extremely good at hiding it, Lizzy was in a good deal of pain that would only worsen. Loving her meant letting her go.

As sad as these recent events were, they’ve been a good reminder of how important love is in our lives. And that with love sometimes comes heartbreak: Two sides of the same coin…one does not exist without the other. We loved these dogs as if they were members of the family. We loved on them every day, and they returned that love at every turn. I’m so sad to say goodbye, but how lucky I am to have had these wonderful animals in my life!

Luckily—if you nurture it—love is an infinite resource. We have one farm dog now (Aimee), who is doing the job of three. She is also getting ALL of our love. We are spoiling her and playing with her every day. And at just two years old, we will treasure every moment we have with her…however long that may be.

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.