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

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…


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.”


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.

Milena & Felicia at Milena's quinceanera.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

Windy Hill Goat Dairy, October 2017

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

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

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

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

Kay Barry and daughter Sadie.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Windy Hill Goat Dairy
Barry & Kay Gaughan
504 North Road
Cherry Valley, NY

Toxic Plants, September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nostalgia is a Funny Thing, August 2017

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

Suzie doing chores.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEPPA Hatchery, July 2017

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

Jill and her chicks.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking Rocks, June 2017

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

Aaron Bouchard Little Falls NY.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Farmer's Best Friend, May 2017

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

Dottie & Danny Perry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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