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/.

Babies! January 2017

It is again “that time” of the year! Newborn lambs and goats are once more filling up our barn. Little ones are arriving every few hours or so; sometimes several moms are all giving birth at once. It is at times both stressful and chaotic, but the babies are so incredibly adorable it is hard not to be completely smitten by them. In my opinion, it is the most wonderful time of the year!

My job is fairly simple: Be there. Check on the moms. Assist when needed. Gently move babies and moms to a safe place so they can bond. Watch for problems. Feed and water moms. Keep notes. Tag ears. Repeat. And then pause to enjoy the sight of little ones leaping and frolicking, of moms cuddled in sleep with their babies. Maybe even pat myself on the back for a job well-done!

But my job wasn’t always so simple. Our first few years of kidding/lambing bordered on traumatic—not knowing when to intervene, how to ensure an appropriately balanced diet, how to identify the types of behaviors and body language that signal looming problems in both mothers and babies. This all lead to me feeling terribly discouraged those first few seasons.

For new goat and sheep owners, kidding and lambing time is the first true test of their mettle. Of course if they have lots of health problems and losses, it will limit their ability to be profitable. But few realize that this time can be physically, mentally and emotionally challenging… and bad experiences can irreversibly dishearten new farmers. Indeed, the success of those first few seasons often determines whether new farmers survive at all.

Starting out, I was no different than most new goat farmers. I had read lots of books and had assembled a “kit” of supplies those books suggested I might need: iodine, old towels, rags, disinfectant, thermometer, rubber gloves, sterile lubricant, penicillin, propylene glycol, colostrum, baby bottles and nipples, electrolytes, stomach tube, syringes, needles, castration bands, etc., etc., etc.! Having all these things on hand gave me a slight feeling of false confidence. But since I really wasn’t sure how (or when) to use half of them, having the kit around scared me more than anything! It was a constant reminder of how truly unprepared I was.

Then, in 2007, I had the extreme fortune to be included in a mentoring program sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension and partially funded by the Northeast SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education) Program. I was paired with Doug Bowne of Little Falls, a goat farmer who—at the time—had over 20 years of experience. We spent a few afternoons together, talking about herd management, tending to his animals, deliberating the setup of his barn. We even discussed those scary things I had included in my “kit”—and what to do with them if needed. As I headed into my own kidding season, we spent a little time chatting over the phone to ease my nerves.

As I look back on the whole experience, I realize the most valuable thing I got was confidence. I could hear Doug’s words of advice as I stood back and watched moms progress through the stages of labor. (It is amazing how the words “this is normal” can be so comforting!) I knew what a belly full of milk should feel like, what an arched back and shivering could mean. I was confident that the scary things weren’t the norm, but rather things I should be aware of and be able to address quickly should they arise.

And when it was time for me to pull a baby that was breach, I was physically prepared with my kit of goodies. But what got me through mentally were those talks with Doug: Gently reach in with your fingers slightly cupped, feel around and identify what exactly it is that you are feeling. Is it a front foot or a back? A nose or a tail? Is there one baby or are there two? Don’t be afraid to gently push the baby back if it is too far along the birth canal to be safely repositioned. Envision what you are feeling and work with the mother’s contractions. Being calm and confident is helpful for the mother and definitely will contribute to a better outcome. I pulled two babies that day, neither of which would have entered this world without my help…and Doug’s.

Of course, over the years I have learned even more about what can happen during kidding season. I’ve learned when I’ve exhausted my comfort zone and when it is time to call our very knowledgeable veterinarian. I’ve also learned, unfortunately, when nothing can be done.

More recently, I find myself chatting with folks that are thinking about getting a few goats or sheep. Just like me, they’ve been seduced by those adorable babies and are equally smitten. I shake my head and I laugh, and then I tell them kidding and lambing season is the most wonderful time of the year…eventually!

The Proof is in the Pudding, December 2016

Are you familiar with this saying? I guess it originally was “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” meaning you wouldn’t know whether food was cooked properly until you tried it. In fact, the origins of “the proof is in the pudding” date back to a 14th century proverb. “Pudding” was apparently quite a different substance then—and one didn’t know if it was rancid or delicious until you tried it. Hooray for modern cooking methods!

I use this phrase all the time, whether it’s to describe a new cheese we’re working on or when wondering whether a new breeding ram will be worth our investment. It’s my favorite shorthand way of saying I really won’t know whether my efforts have been successful until I reach the end…or at least until I’ve tried.

Readers may be surprised to hear that farmers are trying new things all the time. And why not? It’s a business after all, and adjusting your feed ration, trying a new mineral supplier, applying urea to your hayfields, or switching to a drought-tolerant seed are all small ways a farmer can tweak her business—hopefully for the better. But how will the farmer know whether these small (or large) changes have had a positive effect on the bottom line? The proof is in the pudding!

We tried lots of new things on our farm in 2016. For example, friends had been pushing us to try raising “heritage breed” meat chickens instead of the ubiquitous Cornish Cross. I’ve always loved a good experiment and thought it well worth our time and effort to see if a different breed would be better for our system. I certainly hoped for a hardier, more active animal with a more complex flavor—something our customers could really appreciate. In the end, they certainly were more active and were harder to catch on processing day. Unfortunately, they did not have a significantly different taste profile, grew more slowly, and had the same mortality rate. In other words, when the pudding was done, it didn’t seem worth the extra effort and higher cost…a shame, really. But this is knowledge I would not have if I had not tried!

We tried new sales outlets this year, buying a handful of retail display freezers to sell our gelato. We wanted to sell to more “mom and pop” type shops—exactly the kind of places that don’t have display freezers. Of course, the up-front cost of the freezers and branding were a small burden, but the machines gave us an instant outlet and made our customers happy. We discovered every one of these shops works differently, however, and establishing the parameters of the relationship from the very beginning is really important. In this case, the pudding was well worth the cost and the effort—I just need to outline a contract for next year’s pudding… I mean… freezers.

We also tried some really off-season breeding in our sheep program this year, hoping to keep the pipeline full for customers. Babies began arriving mid-November and I have already experienced a higher-than-average orphan rate, with mothers rejecting 25% of their offspring. My experiment in this case is not boding well, but the pudding isn’t done quite yet…we have a few months to go before we see this one to the end.

Finally, we are about to embark upon our largest pudding to date: a cheese plant expansion that will more than quintuple our capacity. We’ve done lots of legwork applying for grants, sketching out floor plans, pricing equipment, projecting cash flow, and conferring with consultants. We expect to break ground in spring, but it could be years before we know whether our efforts were worthwhile…a long time to wait for pudding!

So, what is the point of all this? Certainly, as a new-“ish” farmer, I have a lot to figure out. But more to the point, farming is a complex business with fresh challenges and unique problems almost on a daily basis. Finding the right solution or technology must help the farmer stay in business, allow for growth or transition, and hopefully improve quality of life. We don’t have staff dedicated to research and development, and we don’t have huge coffers of cash or investors waiting in line to throw money at our problems. We try, and then we try again; we try as many times as we able to make things work, to the best of our abilities. And because the challenges farmers face are so complex, we often don’t know until the pudding is done—‘til all the costs of seed, planting, fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, rent, insurance, harvest, hauling, and drying are stacked up against the price per bushel paid at the end of the season. It is then that we sit down to take a hard look at those numbers, and make informed decisions for next year.

Immigrants and Farmers, November 2016

Whatever your politics are, I’m guessing you’ll be glad when this election season is over. Even on the farm, we are not immune from the daily news reports. To be honest, I’m very much looking forward to getting back to some sense of normality!

Hmong tapestry depicting farming in the homeland

Hmong tapestry depicting farming in the homeland

Immigration and its effects on our economy and overall safety have gotten a lot of attention lately. I know it has been a hot topic of conversation, especially since the day my youngest daughter came home from school with a bombshell of a report. But more on that later…

The simple topic of immigration has gotten me thinking about the strong link between immigrants and farming. Without a doubt, modern agriculture relies heavily on migrant labor. If you’ve eaten today, chances are very good that food was picked by someone born outside the US. Many of our Mohawk Valley dairies, vegetable farms and orchards have highly valued employees from Mexico, Guatemala and beyond. They simply could not operate without them.

The land my family now farms was settled by immigrants over 150 years ago. The barns that keep our animals safe and the house in which we sleep were all built by immigrants. Our small hill, where a dozen small family farms once prospered, was settled by Russian, Polish, and Austrian immigrants in the early 1900s. Names like Salanco, Popka, Gallik, Chlus, Sokerka, Lyga and Keblish are still on mailboxes today. They settled in small communities, close to one another so they could support each other. They established a Russian Orthodox Church in town so they could worship together. They held neighborhood picnics in the orchard below our hay field between chores and milking.

My own family history is that of immigrant farmers. Hoffs, Muellers and Enderles emigrated from southern Germany and eventually established dairy farms in central Wisconsin. They did much the same as their Polish, Czech and Irish neighbors did—established small communities to support one another and keep old traditions alive.

They all came for lots of reasons, the greatest of which was to build a better life for their families and future generations. It wasn’t easy saying goodbye to all that they knew in their home countries—including traditions, friends, and their native language.

They brought what they could with them, including their favorite foods. Having grown up in an area with German roots, I had never heard of “halupki,” “pierogi” or “blini.” I grew up with kuchen, strudel, sauerbraten, spaetzle, and loved anything ending in “wurst”…bratwurst, knockwurst, even liverwurst! When I think of the wonderful foods our Mohawk Valley is known for, each of them has their origins in ethnic cooking—dishes brought back (and sometimes reimagined) from the old world, be it Italy, Lebanon, or Vietnam.

Our farm’s first and most ardent supporters have been immigrants. Vera Keblish, a wonderful neighbor and daughter of immigrants, was our very first customer. She was the first to buy our eggs and it was her excitement over our meat chickens that inspired us to raise more. Vera, who sadly passed away a few years ago, was thrilled to recapture a piece of her childhood through our foods. Members of the Bosnian community in Utica have also been loyal customers. While most were not farmers back home, their tradition is to buy direct from the farmer. Several of these customers have told me they are uncomfortable buying meat in the grocery store: “Much better to see the animal first; to see how it was cared for, to see what it ate.” Buying directly from us, on the farm, has allowed them to hold on to a small but important connection to their homeland.

This pattern has been repeated over and over throughout our nation’s short history; the names, locations and dates change, but the story remains much the same. Latinos have a strong presence throughout the American Southwest, Swedes in Minnesota, and Cubans in Florida—making each of these areas unique in their foods and traditions.

Oftentimes it was great hardship that brought these immigrants to the US; think of Irish immigrants in the late 1800s escaping the potato famine. And of course there were hundreds of thousands brought here against their will as part of the slave trade. In the late 1970s, my home state of Wisconsin welcomed Hmong refugees chased out by war in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. These people were farmers, too. Not only did they suffer the casualties of war, they left behind all that they knew and then found themselves in a starkly different climate in which to farm. (Some tried raising fish in their bathtubs!) My husband’s family was one of many that opened up their farms so that these newcomers could hold onto some of their traditions and identity. The Jones farm outside of Oshkosh hosted pigeons and some of the strangest-looking vegetables any Midwesterner had ever seen! But it was an incredible opportunity for the young Jones boys to learn different approaches to farming, try new foods, and gain invaluable perspective on life’s much bigger picture.

Indeed, it is easy to forget our nation’s immigration story, especially if your ancestors came here multiple generations ago. But unless you’re a Native American, you, too are an immigrant. As the generations progress, we eventually forget many of the old-world traditions and lose the language. I know only a few words in German, my children know none. It is something I find simultaneously sad and a simple, inescapable fact of life: We all slowly but surely lose those wonderful pieces of our heritage…and forget our own immigrant roots.

So, back to the bombshell my 10-year-old daughter recently dropped on us. With wide eyes, she told us that one of her school friends announced that she “hated immigrants.” My children know I don’t care for the word “hate.” (If you don’t like mushrooms, fine, but don’t tell me you “hate” them.) It’s a strong word. So when I heard that sentiment come out of my youngest daughter’s mouth, my knees buckled. I felt a little sick to my stomach. “But… I’m an immigrant,” was the first thing I could think to say. “We are all immigrants.” This gave me the chance to talk with my daughter about her own heritage, about that of people all around us. We talked about empathy, about opportunity and hardship, about differences of opinion, about history and what it means to be an American. It was a conversation I never expected to have, but is so clearly needed.

Do Farmers Love Their Animals? October 2016

The two most common questions customers ask me are, “Are your animals happy?” and “Do you love your animals?” These two questions are so popular I get them almost on a daily basis. I think these questions are really interesting, especially if you step back for a moment and analyze them. Customers want to know that the eggs they are about to buy, the meat they are about to consume or the milk they are about to drink came from animals that were…well… happy and loved. It’s not a bad thing to want. More than ever it seems customers want to know that their food was raised in an ethical, sustainable, and yes, even loving environment. I have had many customers over the years swear they can “taste the happiness” in our products. Surely you could taste sadness…right???

Birthing Center at the New York State Fair

Birthing Center at the New York State Fair

Over the last 100 years, we’ve seen massive shifts in agriculture. One of the greatest shifts has been people leaving the farm for other employment. In the early part of the 20th century, over 30% of the population was involved in farming. Today, that figure is less than 2%. It stands to reason that the general public will know less and less about how their food is raised. But it is knowledge people still crave. To fill the gap, consumers ask questions. Unfortunately, the questions often oversimplify a complex topic, or sometimes miss the mark entirely.

Take, for instance, the question “Are your animals happy?” No farmer would ever ask that of another farmer. If I asked my neighbor Bob if his cows were happy, he’d look at me like I’d flipped my lid. Are they happy? Bob does his best to make sure his girls are comfortable. Comfortable cows give more milk and have fewer health problems. He makes sure they are well-fed. Bob works with a nutritionist who tests his hay and other inputs, looks at his herd’s milk components, body condition, and stage of lactation and recommends a specific ration, depending on Bob’s goals. He makes sure they are healthy. Bob works closely with a veterinarian that visits the farm regularly. She does pregnancy checks, routine vaccinations, and helps assess overall herd health. On any given day, Bob will know if a cow is not feeling well if her ears droop a little or if she lingers at the back of the herd when she is normally the first at the feed trough. Finally, Bob makes sure his girls follow a routine. If he alters that routine too much, they may become belligerent and may even panic. Farmers take great care to make sure their animals remain calm, for everyone’s safety.

Bob and farmers like him everywhere are pretty in tune with their animals, and for good reason. It’s their business. Anyone that has worked in animal agriculture will tell you that if an animal is—for lack of a better word—“unhappy,” it will not perform well. Keeping their animals “happy” is in the farmer’s best interest. Unhappy cows give less milk, unhappy hens lay fewer eggs, unhappy pigs don’t make much bacon.

The tricky word here is “happy.” It’s a great marketing term, but falls short on actually delivering useful information.

“Do farmers love their animals?” is a far easier question to answer; although it is still not a question farmers ask each other. If I asked my girlfriend Angie if she loved her cows, she’d probably give me some smart answer like, “some more than others!” and then quickly add, “Of course I do! Why would you ask me that?!?” Working with animals, every day, 365 days a year, through summer heat and frigid winters, watching them closely for any early signs of a possible problem, caring for their every need over a lifetime, creates a bond like no other. Yes, animals have distinct personalities, and yes, every farmer has her favorites.

But it is a complicated relationship. Farming is first and foremost a business. Angie may love her cows and want to make them comfortable, but she doesn’t have them snoozing on Tempur-Pedic® mattresses. Bob watches for and tries to prevent any health problems, but sometimes a cow will have too many issues and fixing them would be financially prohibitive. Does he keep her or not? None of these decisions are easy. Indeed, it is a constant challenge for farmers to find the right balance between seeing to their animals’ needs and earning an income that will pay the bills.

My daughters and I recently attended the New York State Fair in Syracuse. (Perhaps you were there, too—they had over one million visitors!) One of the things I had to see was the Birthing Center, where six farms had lined up 36 of their cows scheduled to freshen (give birth) over the course of the entire 10 days of the fair. When we entered the arena, I was astounded. The place was full of people—standing room only!—and everyone was eager to see the birth of a calf. Large viewing screens gave those in the back a better view and the entire event was live-streaming on the web. The audience was invited to ask questions, which they did, and a veterinarian gladly answered all of them. The owner of the cow was on hand to speak, too, as were representatives from Cornell University and the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition, who sponsored the event. It was beyond cool! My eyes welled up with tears when I realized that all of this effort—representing a tremendous amount of work and coordination—was to let fairgoers know that farmers do, indeed love their animals. They also do everything in their power to make them happy, and that task is incredibly complex. I hope they got the message!

Predators Abound, September 2016

On our farm, we raise chickens, goats and sheep—all delicious creatures enjoyed by man and beast alike. Over the years, we’ve had to contend with coyotes, foxes, fishers, rats, crows, and hawks, all of them hungry and looking for an opportunity to feed. Of course, every chicken or lamb they take represents an economic loss, and sometimes an emotional toll. Stopping them is essential…and in some cases, frustratingly difficult. This is a never-ending job on just about every farm. Dairy and beef farmers certainly have known coyotes to take newborn calves. And although vegetable, fruit, and crop farmers may not call them “predators” per se, they too are always battling some form of bug, bird, fungus or rodent that seeks to consume their delicious product before they can harvest. Predators are one of the few constants a farmer can count on, year after year.

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Prevention is key when discouraging predation. In fact, we have two large guardian dogs exactly for this purpose. Canute and Lizzy mark their territory, patrol our land, and bark at anything unknown. As a result, they have created a “safety zone” that generally keeps coyotes and foxes at bay. They even keep the occasional sales person in their car!

Animal housing should always be built with prevention in mind. For example, we built all of our chick brooders to be rodent-proof. (A “brooder” is a fairly tight, warm, dry place for baby chicks to safely grow for a few weeks before they develop feathers and can regulate their own body temperature.) Or rather, we thought we had made them rodent-proof. I’ll never forget the morning I went to feed 300 new baby chicks. We had just picked them up the day before, and had placed them in the very same brooder we had used a thousand times. That morning, I removed the panels of the brooder to find not one single chick…they had all disappeared overnight! All 300 brand-new, day-old peeping fluff balls were nowhere to be seen. As a child of 70’s television, I looked around for a moment to see if I was on “Candid Camera,” as if someone was playing a massive joke on me. Unfortunately, it was no joke. I investigated further and found that some creature had gotten through a very small hole and had killed and stuffed all the baby chicks into the barn wall. Unbelievable! Not only was my predator hungry, he was planning for the future.

Once you have a predator problem on the farm, the next challenge is figuring out how to either outsmart or eradicate them to stop additional losses. After the baby chick episode, we reinforced the brooder and filled the hole. But knowing we had a voracious rat lurking around, I wanted him (or her) dead. (I felt a little like Al Capone in The Untouchables: “I want him dead! I want his family dead!”) My youngest daughter, Margaret—a lover of all small mammals and owner of two pet gerbils—campaigned hard for the rat, arguing he was “only doing what comes naturally.” My daughter’s pleas notwithstanding, I placed enough rat poison in the wall to kill our unwanted guest and perhaps several generations of his extended family. But I was careful to ensure our barn cats couldn’t gain access to the poison and ultimately was aware that there may be unintended consequences to using the poison: A cat or other carnivore (hawk or owl) might consume a poisoned rat, becoming an unintended victim. My inner-Capone was at peace as long as that rat was dead!

This last month, we had our most impressive predator yet: a juvenile bald eagle! “Bert,” as we liked to call him, was HUGE—3 feet tall with an enormous wing span. Bert learned that he could sit on a perch overlooking our pastured meat birds and have his fill… morning, noon and night. (Our chickens are not caged or under permanent cover; they are free to wander around a nice grassy, fenced-in area.) Bert simply swooped down to grab his lunch and proceeded to eat it on our neighbor’s rooftop. In fact, our neighbor Joanne called to report that she had seen Bert with a chicken foot in his mouth and that he had left a pile of feathers on her roof!

As cool as Bert was, and as much as I loved seeing him every day, we couldn’t continue to lose chickens. But since he is protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, I knew eradicating him was not an option. Even if he weren’t protected, I doubt I could kill such a magnificent creature. But maybe I could outsmart a bald eagle? I called the New York State DEC to ask for their advice. The first half of the conversation was spent establishing that it was indeed an eagle taking my chickens. Apparently, my situation was quite unusual. Bald eagles prefer fish!

The DEC agent had the following advice: Make it hard for him to feed. Make the penned area smaller. If you can’t build a structure to go over the chickens, make a visual barrier. Bald eagles are opportunistic feeders, with juveniles being quite transient. If he can’t feed, he’ll move on.

So, I took the agent’s advice and adjusted the size of my pen. I purchased flagging tape and zig-zagged it across the top of the enclosure. All the adjustments made it difficult to do morning and evening chores, but if it saved our chickens, it would be well worth the effort.

The very next day, in the early morning fog, I saw that Bert had brought two friends (Ernie and Big Bird?), but there were no signs of a feeding. The flagging tape had them stumped! We saw Bert only one more time after that and he has since stopped coming by altogether. I’m at once both thrilled and saddened at our success. Bert was super cool!

Before I became a farmer, I never had considered the challenges that predators present, nor fully appreciated how cunning these creatures are…and then how adaptable the farmer has to be to preserve her investment and livelihood. There are eight established bald eagle nests known to be in the Mohawk Valley region and I am so happy they are here. And I’m very happy to know what to do if I get another visit from Bert!

A Neighborhood Cheese Fest, August 2016

Last month, on July 9th, the City of Little Falls hosted a wonderful, charming cheese festival. Our farm had a booth and my whole family (husband Peter, daughters Harper and Margaret), my niece Lexi, and our neighbor’s daughter Kayla, all pitched in for the day. It was exhausting and exciting to talk to so many people about one of my favorite subjects—cheese—and to have them sample virtually every type we make. Clearly, the crowds were drawn for the day because they love cheese, too!

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Long known for their Garlic and Herb Festival (15th year), where festival-goers are encouraged to “eat, stink and be merry” and their almost-week-long Canal Days celebration (now in its 29th year), Little Falls is accustomed to hosting this type of event. The brain child of two non-native Little Falls residents, Alice and Tom Laurenson, the cheese festival required a whole community of volunteers, city officials (including the Mayor and Chief of Police), small business owners, and other non-profit organizations to work together with imagination, passion and a deep well of energy. Congratulations, Little Falls, you have an amazing new event to boast about and should be extremely proud of your citizens and your city!

Besides talking about and eating cheese all day, I also loved seeing so many people that I know, but simply don’t get to see very often. It reminded me of other long-standing events like the Remsen Barn Fest, where the community is drawn together to socialize, see old friends and reconnect. While the original intent of the Little Falls Cheese Festival was to highlight our area’s unique and important place in dairy history and its many talented local cheesemakers, the organizers accomplished so much more than that: they gave the city, its residents and festival attendees a sense of community…a sense of cohesion and belonging that is all-too-rare these days. It may sound silly, but we all experienced a collective “kumbaya” moment over a shared obsession (cheese) and I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t a healthier, stronger community as a result.

The JFF team at the Little Falls Cheese Fest!

The JFF team at the Little Falls Cheese Fest!

Perhaps I felt these warm, community feelings because I don’t get out very much. It is certainly true that farmers have always been occupationally and geographically isolated but have long known the importance of reconnecting…despite how challenging it can be. Barn dances, ice cream socials and community picnics were a quaint concept, but they also helped hold the fabric of the community together. I’ve been told on many occasions that our own farm was once the site of a wild leek festival, held every spring when the wooded hillsides filled with the little onion-y bulbs. At first I thought people were sharing these memories to entice us to bring back the tradition, but now I realize the memories are so precious, they simply had to share them.

Today, farmers still find opportunities to socialize and reconnect. If the local equipment dealer is holding an open house complete with chicken barbeque or hot dogs, you can bet they’ll get a good crowd. I love going to county fair tractor pulls when I have the chance…not because I grew up doing it, but because I can sit next to my neighbor and cheer on her husband, son and daughter who are all competing. Farmers love going to regional farm shows to see the latest technology and the opportunity to catch up on gossip is an added bonus. Auctions, too, aren’t necessarily only for those looking to bid on used equipment; it’s a time to see what the neighbors have been up to and hear about their kids and grandkids.

Being able to reconnect with fellow farmers at events like these mean we all get the chance to seek a sympathetic ear when we need it and to provide empathy when we’re all navigating similar challenges. It could be advice from a seasoned farmer that helps the younger generation manage tough times or simply the knowledge that “you’re not alone” that can make all the difference.

Of course, the flavor and identity of communities change over time, too, making the act of reconnecting even more important. Rural farming communities are certainly not immune: Farms change hands and new owners take over, or city folk move into the country. When we moved to this area, our small neighborhood farming community held a “hill party” so everyone could meet, chat and socialize. I can’t think of a better way to welcome a new family! It was a recognition that the neighborhood was changing, but that we, as a community, still have much in common. Plus, it’s a lot harder to get angry at your neighbor for spreading manure on a Sunday when you just spent an afternoon playing horseshoes together!

With recent events and a presidential election seemingly always forefront in our minds, it is often easier to identify our differences rather than all the things we have in common. But honestly, the opposite is true. We have far more in common –and I don’t care where you’re from—than what separates us. That is why I suggest that this month we all go to a community festival, a county fair, fundraiser barbeque, or ice cream social. Reconnect with your neighbors, whether it’s for the first time or perhaps you’ve known them your whole life. Talk with them; ask them about their kids and their grandkids. What are their hopes and fears? I’ll bet it’s the same sorts of things that have been weighing on your own mind. And as long as we all don’t go overboard with our passion for fair food, we’ll all feel much better the next day!

I Don't Have Time for This, July 2016

If I’ve noticed one thing about my fellow farmers, it’s that farmers do not take good care of themselves. That sounds kind of harsh, but let me explain. While farmers give all of their love and attention to their crops, to their animals, to producing food for the rest of us, they pay little attention to their own well-being. During the busy times of the year, they eat terribly and on the run. They ignore nagging health problems. They will often forego important visits to the doctor and will even treat a wide range of injuries at home with whatever tools they have on hand. (I’m not kidding about this…think stitches, antibiotics and tooth extraction. Yikes!) Farmers will even sacrifice their own safety for the sake of their farm.

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A large part of this common “self-neglect” is due to the very nature of farming: Farming never stops. There is always something that must be done, something that requires care and attention. A visit to the doctor takes time away from this endless list. Putting that work off today just makes tomorrow all the more difficult.

Plus, farmers are exceedingly self-reliant. Farmers spend many hours—often working alone—forced to change gears quickly as situations warrant and to come up with solutions on the fly. There’s no one to call when a calf needs pulling at 2am. You do it yourself. The neighbor is busy getting his own hay in before the rain, so you have to fix your own bailer…and fast! You either have the right parts, or you improvise. As a result, farmers quickly assess their own health situations and will discount pain and safety if it hasn’t stopped them in their tracks.

For example, I just recently put a pitchfork tine into the top of my foot. It did not go in very far and I’m fine now. But my first reaction wasn’t to seek medical attention. My first reaction, quite honestly, was “I don’t have time for this.” I texted my girlfriend Angie, a dairy farmer and nurse, and asked her if I could wait to get a tetanus shot until after the long weekend. It was the Friday evening before Memorial Day and I honestly couldn’t think of when I had had my last tetanus shot, but also had no idea when I’d have time to see the doctor or when she’d have office hours. It would be fine, right? Thankfully, Angie told me I had no choice but to go to the emergency room.

Another dairy farmer friend told me about her husband trying to move a bull in the barn. The animal “nudged” him, throwing him against an upright support and putting an impressive gash in his scalp. Despite the copious amounts of blood (if you know anything about head wounds, you know they bleed quite a bit), he went on to his next task: round bales that had to get under cover. In his defense, he texted the neighbor and asked her to keep an eye on him as he ran back and forth on the tractor… “just in case”. By the time his wife got home, she found him barely able to see from all the blood. It was only then that they went to the emergency room, where the staff there proceeded to scold him for not coming in much sooner!

Farmers also take risks that most sane people simply would not take. For example, just about every farmer has been caught in a thunderstorm while out in the field, either working on fence or moving animals. And despite having heard the same advice we all know very well, “if you can hear thunder, you should seek shelter,” farmers keep working “just ten more minutes” in an attempt to get the job done. Both my husband and I, and many farmers I know, have been out in a thunderstorm with flashes of lightning all around. With each advancing crash, we look at each other and comment, “Wow, that was close!” until at last we realize we are being really, really stupid. And for what? Some fence issue that will still be there tomorrow, or chickens on pasture whose lives and welfare are nowhere near the equivalent to our own. But farming and caring for these creatures and the land are so all-encompassing and constant, that it’s easy to forget and lose perspective.

Another case in point: A few years ago, I was rounding up my goats that had gone into the woods behind my neighbor’s house. It was either our woods or state land (I’m not sure where the boundary lies), but we were uncomfortably close to our neighbor’s backyard and I was trying to “shoo” them back down to our pasture. That was when I heard the first gun shot. Ever since our goats consumed half of his garden a couple years ago, our neighbor has rightfully hated our goats. He could have very well been target practicing in his own backyard, but I couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see me. The first thought that flashed through my brain was that he was shooting blindly into the woods to scare or possibly injure my goats. Instead of turning and running the other direction, I ran towards the sound of gun fire. I became blind with rage, thinking that my children could be in the woods; that anyone could be there and possibly in the line of fire. With each shot fired (there were three or four), I was screaming at the top of my lungs that I was back there and that he should stop shooting. I look back on that day now and think how truly stupid my actions were. What has farming done to me?

So, my sincerest wishes to all farmers out there: Please, take care of yourself. For the sake of your family, for the sake of your farm, slow down and make smart decisions. Yes, accidents happen. But one thing’s for sure: You don’t have time for injuries or worse. Your farm needs you, and so do we!

Say Cheese! June, 2016

You’ve got to love June! Flowers are blooming, song birds have returned, and blue skies mean summer vacation is just around the corner. June is also National Dairy Month, when we are all reminded to thank our dairy farmers and take advantage of the numerous benefits of drinking milk and eating cheese. The USDA’s dietary guidelines recommend consuming three servings of dairy every day. Dairy offers nine essential nutrients including calcium, vitamin D and potassium, all vital to the well-being of both children and adults. Dairy also plays a key role in preventing heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis.

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National Dairy Month is also a great time to celebrate our area’s rich dairy heritage. The nation’s very first cheese factory was built in Rome by Jesse Williams in 1851. A dairy farmer himself, Jesse had been making cheese from his own milk and decided to expand, purchasing the milk from his son and other area farmers. In his first year, he was able to make five times the amount of cheese made on a typical farmstead at that time. Fellow dairymen came flocking to see how he did it. Within 15 years, there were over 500 similar cheese factories throughout New York State!

Little Falls can boast of its rich dairy and cheese heritage, too, thanks in no small part to the Burrell family. In the beginning of the 1800’s, the Burrell family operated like many area farmers—milking their cows and making farmstead cheeses. Harry Burrell (father to the famous D.H. Burrell) decided to consolidate his cheese and butter with fellow area farmers and ship it to New York City to be sold. His son D.H. Burrell made a name for himself by either inventing or perfecting many of the systems and machines used in dairy production, including the first centrifugal cream separator, pasteurizers, butter churns, coolers, cheese presses, milking machines, and silos.

But do you know why June is National Dairy Month? June was first made “National Milk Month” back in 1937 to promote drinking milk and thus stimulate demand during peak production. The goal was “sales, not surplus,” meaning dairy farmers were producing more milk than was being consumed. As sweet as the tradition is, and as much as I love dedicating a whole month to thanking dairy farmers for all that they do, it seems rather antiquated.

For after nearly 80 years, dairy farmers still experience times of surplus milk and low prices. In fact, for the last 12+ months, prices have not covered the costs of making milk. When prices are this low for this long, every dairy farmer is putting off bills as long as they are able: skipping payments to the feed dealer, the minerals guy, the fuel provider. Furthermore, dairy has one of the highest debt loads of all the agricultural businesses. When you consider that 98% of dairy farms are family-owned and operated, you can begin to appreciate the stress these families are experiencing. Every farm wife I know that manages the checkbook has had little to smile about in a long, long time.

My limited experience in dairy was truly humbling. On our farm, we milked for a very brief time and were able to make only a meager amount of cheese. We quickly realized our strengths and our weaknesses—and making milk was certainly the latter. We were thrilled to find dairy farmers that not only make beautiful milk, but were willing to work with us. Because our cheese and gelato business is entirely dependent upon these farmers’ continued success, we pay whatever price they set for their milk, based on their costs and needs as a business.

Because of this experience, and because we know and love so many dairy farming friends, I’ve long admired the “Fair Trade” label you often see on chocolates or coffee. As a farmer, I appreciate the recognition that the woman growing coffee or the man cultivating cacao needs to make a living, that their ability to feed and clothe their children while feeding others is a basic right that processors, retailers, distributors and consumers can all support.

I often find myself wishing dairy farmers could get a similarly recognized “fair trade milk”—a price not based on government formulas and the turbulence of the commodity market, but on the quality of their product and the need to make a basic living. I actually contacted Fair Trade and proposed the idea that processors could sign up for a program that set a minimum, fair price for quality milk in exchange for using the logo. I thought surely it would be a game-changer for dairy farmers.

Sadly, Fair Trade told me there are simply not interested at this time.

So, what can we do? We can thank dairy farmers by eating more cheese, drinking more milk, enjoying another scoop of ice cream. We can call our state representatives and ask them for a better system. We can ask dairy processors if they are paying their farmers a fair price. (While I think it is admirable that Chobani recently awarded its employees ownership in the company via stock, I would love to see the company pay farmers a price for their milk that reflected cost of production. It would be an industry-rattling move.)

The challenges our dairy farmers face are complex, but there are small ways we can help them every day. I invite you to join the Mohawk Valley community in thanking farmers, consuming more cheese and celebrating our area’s rich history by attending the Little Falls Cheese Festival on Saturday, July 9th from 10am to 5pm. The festival takes place on Main Street in Little Falls and features over 20 artisan cheesemakers from the area, along with other gourmet food producers. We (Jones Family Farm) will be there with a variety of cheeses, gelato and sorbetto.

You’ll be able to meet farmers like the Atwells of Grassy Cow Dairy in Remsen or the Gaughan family of Windy Hill Goat Dairy in Cherry Valley that make cheeses with milk from their own animals. These farmers are carrying on a very long tradition of farmstead cheese production. You’ll also be able to meet cheesemakers like Cooperstown Cheese Co. and Three Village Cheese Co. that buy their milk direct from the farmer, much like Jesse Williams did in 1851. These makers, too, carry on a long tradition of working closely and directly with the dairy farmer. It will be a great day for celebrating and enjoying one of the Mohawk Valley’s greatest gifts: dairy. And you’ll get to eat lots and lots of cheese!

 

For more information: littlefallscheesefestival.com or find them on Facebook.

Mother and Farmer, May 2016

I was a mother before I was a farmer. I had my first child just over 14 years ago, a few years before we moved to our farm. I was working in an office setting, on the 25th floor of a Boston-based financial firm. After having our first daughter, Harper, I enjoyed my six weeks maternity leave. I did what so many first-time moms do…try to get used to the idea of being someone’s mother! Well, that and attempt to figure out why the baby was so fussy… and why wouldn’t she sleep… or when would I lose the pregnancy weight… and why is it that liquid poo shoots up the back, rather than staying in the diaper??? Having my first child was indeed an earth-shattering event.

Margaret shows off her farm-girl muscles!

Margaret shows off her farm-girl muscles!

When my leave was over, I very begrudgingly went back to work. I loved my job at the time, but I had grown quite fond of this new creature in my life. Leaving her side seemed unthinkable. Leaving her with another human being to care for her while I was gone? Impossible! As I look back at it now, that was one of the few times in my life that I felt “trapped.” We were in no financial position for me to become a stay-at-home mom, nor was I really sure that’s what I wanted. In the end, it was the fact that I had no choice but to return to work that proved so difficult for me. I felt trapped—and I didn’t like it.

So then, when people ask me what I want for my own children, I almost always immediately answer: That they have choices. I don’t want them to ever feel trapped, be it in their career, education or personal lives. I don’t want my daughters to be constrained by what someone else thinks they can or cannot do. I want them to realize their full potential, whatever that may be.

It sounds deceivingly simple, but having the freedom to choose one’s own path takes a great deal of planning and preparation. True freedom of choice comes from getting a good education, from exposing oneself to a vast world of possibilities. It’s one of the greatest reasons I never desired to homeschool my girls—I feared I would limit them to my worldview. Quite the contrary, I want my daughters to have their beliefs challenged—even if they are beliefs I share; to engage in and not run from discussion or dissenting opinion. I want them to hear voices different from their own, to meet people they never knew existed. I want them to always be inquiring, to at all times be curious about their surroundings. No matter what path in life they choose, my girls will always find a world of opportunity if they maintain a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness.

With freedom of choice, of course, comes tremendous responsibility. I want them to understand the consequences of their choices, and that every choice they make affects someone or something else.

It’s funny, but this is exactly how I feel about farming. As a farmer, having choices is very important to me: I need to have the freedom to make choices about how I farm. I’ve seriously considered on multiple occasions different farm certifications including organic, Animal Welfare Approved, even a “farmer’s pledge,” but none of them quite fit, and all of them constrained my freedom to make the right choices for my farm. In some cases, such as organic, I would not be allowed to use antibiotics to save an animal’s life and still keep her as a productive member of the farm. In the case of Animal Welfare Approved, I was disappointed to hear they did not like a particular breed of chicken, despite the fact that commercial animal breeds are continuously being improved. Although all of these certifications aimed to identify “best practices” and communicate information that the consumer indeed wants, they are all ultimately marketing tools aimed at selling product. None of them specifically allow for learning, flexibility and adaptation on the part of the farmer.

Believe it or not, a farmer is constantly faced with having her beliefs challenged. Indeed, there is little room for ideology in farming; the farmer either adapts her methods to real-world and often changeable conditions or the business suffers the consequences. I have yet to find “one right way” to farm, which makes it pretty darn exciting. I honestly enjoy being confronted with new information or observations that cause me to re-evaluate my business plan or my approach to animal care. My own sense of curiosity has been rekindled by becoming a farmer and I am excited about the potential of new research coming out all the time. It’s a cool time to be in agriculture!

As I said before, I believe that freedom of choice carries tremendous responsibility. As a farmer, I want to understand the consequences of my choices, and am always looking for ways to improve upon “best practices”—a bar that is continually moving up. Even more importantly, farmers will be faced with feeding two billion more people in the next 30 years. The farmers of tomorrow will be challenged with growing enough food in a changing climate—with the same or even fewer resources. It won’t be easy!

I left that financial firm when Harper was almost three, to move to a farm and try to get used to the idea of being a farmer. That in itself has been a long process, but it has opened a whole new world for me. I had my second daughter ten years ago. I am happy to say I didn’t feel trapped; I didn’t feel stressed. It helped that Margaret seemed to be a much easier baby, but I was a different mother, with seemingly infinite choices in front of me. I hope they have a world of choices in front of them, too.

Letting Go of the Homestead, April 2016

Do you remember the day you left your childhood home? Or have you ever had to move out of a house filled with a lifetime of memories? Whether it was yesterday or decades ago, you probably remember it well and understand how emotional these milestone events can be. My husband’s family just went through one of these very emotionally draining and bittersweet life changes.

Peter's childhood home

Peter's childhood home

My father-in-law, Norrie, has been getting increasingly more forgetful over the years. Up until recently, he lived on the family’s homestead, a five-acre “farmette” where he had lived for over 45 years and where my husband took his first steps as a small boy. It is a beautiful property, complete with a gorgeous old farmhouse and three outbuildings. Although it hadn’t been farmed in almost half a century, the big barn at one time held a dozen milking cows with plenty of room for hay up above in the mow; the pig barn, long since torn down, once held six to eight sows and a boar; a tiny chicken coop could house maybe 25 birds. The other barn that once held horses and carriages has since been converted to a garage and storage space for tools and the lawn mower. The house and barns are all painted in the very traditional red with white trim and have been kept in immaculate condition.

As with any family home, the place is filled with treasured memories. Peter tells great stories of growing up in that beautiful house—of climbing (and sometimes falling from) the large oaks by the road, of building dams and redirecting the flow of their small creek, of waking to the sounds of cats batting colored eggs around the hardwood floors on Easter morning. The rope swing his dad had put up for him in the barn is still there—and has been enjoyed many times by our own daughters. A retired geology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Norrie had piles of unusual rocks artfully arranged throughout the property. Now almost 20 years old, the tree we planted when my husband’s mother, Judy, died still stands in the middle of the yard. It was in the kitchen that Peter and I announced our engagement to his parents; it was in their living room that we exchanged Christmas presents and talked long into the night on countless occasions.

Norrie loved to tinker, he loved to garden, and he loved keeping the house and property in good shape. But it was all getting to be too much for dear Norrie to manage.

When it was decided that Norrie would move to a retirement home, my husband and I had THE talk. Should we move “back home” to Wisconsin…to keep what is arguably one of my favorite places on earth in the family? We’d be close to Norrie and close to my family—my parents, my sisters and their families. Our own children see their Wisconsin relatives but once a year…far too infrequently. We could move our entire farm business there, raising chickens, goats and sheep, making cheeses, and selling to the community as we do here.

But the reality far outweighed the dream. To make it as a farm business these days, you need much more than just five acres. Such a small parcel would limit the number of goats we could raise and would make feeding them much more expensive. The barns haven’t housed animals in decades… who knows how much work we would have to do to retrofit it all. Differing state regulations would have to be navigated, too. Wisconsin’s cheese industry is more tightly regulated and it would take us two years to complete the required coursework to become licensed cheesemakers there. Assuming they would accept our processing equipment and our previous experience is a small gamble. We’d certainly have plenty of hurdles to cross.

And then there’s the age factor…if only we were in our 20’s or early 30’s! I’d be excited at the prospect of starting all over, of packing up all that we have built and striking out anew. There are certain stages of one’s life that are perfect for that kind of challenge… and 45 ain’t it! We’ve built too much and worked too hard to build a life here in the Mohawk Valley. Yet it saddens me to watch the window close—a window that represents “going back,” of capturing those memories in real time, of getting back to the place I will always call home.

Then again, “home” is what and where you make it, right? Besides, the past is an awfully confining place to live. As much as it breaks my heart to let go of the old homestead back in Wisconsin, my head says it is the right thing to do.

Farming families have to cross this or a very similar threshold with every passing generation. Who will take over when the parents can no longer farm? Does the next generation even want to farm? Assuming the children want to continue the legacy, can they make a living at it? Smaller, older farms can require expensive updates to buildings and improvements to the land in order to make them home to a viable business. This can make an old homestead a big risk for the cash-strapped, aspiring young farmer. Of the multi-generational farm families we know, the process of transitioning is long and slow and is more often than not muddied by years of interpersonal issues—something not at all unique to farmers. Whatever the transition, such decisions regarding the family farm are never made lightly and are by their very nature, incredibly bittersweet.