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/.

Open Farm Day, March 2016

Last month, I wrote about opening our home to an exchange student from India and how much I appreciated the experience and its many facets (“Our Life through a Very Different Lens,” Mohawk Valley Living February 2016). There’s truly no better way to gain insight into a completely different culture than to share your life and open yourself to the opportunity to learn something completely “foreign.”

This past January and February, our farm (Jones Family Farm) held two Open Farm Days in which we invited the general public to visit, pet baby goats and lambs, and have some hot cocoa—all free of charge, no strings attached. This is our fifth year doing so, and the event seems to grow every year in popularity.

Why would we want to invite the public onto our farm? In many ways, I feel the same way about Open Farm Day as I did about opening our home to an exchange student…visitors learn and ask questions about what we do and we have the opportunity to gain even more in return. But what could we possibly gain? I’ve seen more grown men kiss baby lambs right on the lips than I can count. I’ve witnessed toddlers’ faces light up when they get to feel a newborn goat’s silky soft ears. I’ve chuckled with fellow mothers and grandmothers when they see for the first time what a nursing lamb does to its mother. Even the hard-to-impress teen crowd gets a thrill when they feel the tiny horns starting to form atop a kid goat’s head. No matter what their age or profession, people just adore hugging baby animals! You could say I’m addicted to the thrill of sharing something so new and so precious. I’m a very lucky gal!

Of course our Open Farm Day has its ulterior motives, too. It is good for business. We open a small store stocked with our products and allow people to shop, if they are interested. But more importantly, our farm business is based on a relationship with the community. We sell our farm products primarily in the Mohawk Valley and little elsewhere, so we had better cultivate warm, fuzzy feelings amongst our friends and neighbors! Allowing the community open-access to our operation and meeting each member of our farm family face-to-face reinforces that relationship and in many ways is simple, good-old-fashioned sales.

But more than anything, I feel a deep-seated responsibility to agriculture. Open Farm Day is our opportunity to remind people that farms are important. Few people realize that in the last 20 short years, New York State lost half of its dairy farms. Where did they go? Many were consolidated, but just as many sit empty and fallow. From our farm, one can look across the West Canada Creek and see farms dotted up and down the valley. Very few of them are still in the business of farming. Most barns sit empty. Quite frankly, I’m afraid of the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” reality that farmers face every day. For example, few people know that dairy farmers are facing the longest run of low milk prices seen in recent memory. How could you know? Unless you are in a business that caters to dairy farmers, are a dairy farmer or are related to one, you would never know. Your first inkling of trouble may be seeing the “For Sale” sign in the yard. And by then, it is simply too late.

I also worry about the general public becoming disconnected from agriculture, leaving them vulnerable to misinformation. Farmer friends across this country are constantly amazed at what the public doesn’t know. Sadly, it is rare that someone sharing food or agricultural news has an actual basis in farming. So what do you do if you are worried about pesticides or herbicides? Ask a farmer what they do. Are you worried about antibiotic use in farm animals? Ask a farmer what her protocols are. Do you hear disturbing stories about tainted milk, animal abuse or hormones in meat? For the love of Pete, ask a farmer! One specific area, biotechnology, is regularly demonized because the vast majority knows so little about it. In fact, it seems those most against genetic modification don’t want to hear from farmers that have 20+ years direct experience. My personal knowledge in the subject is purely academic since we are not crop farmers, but I understand that farmers need tools and seeds that work. If I have a question about such a complex issue, you can bet I’ll ask a farmer familiar with the subject.

The unsettling truth is farmers have never felt so disconnected from those they feed. Very real conversations meant to direct food production rarely include the voice of the farmer. But every farmer has something valuable to say! So, this is where I’ll get a little preachy: It’s our fault. It’s the fault of us farmers because we rarely want anything to do with the public. We farm because we like to work with animals, in the fields or with equipment…not because we enjoy talking to people. But that is our downfall. It is our own fault that we are “out of sight, out of mind.” Farmers need to step out of their comfort zones and host their own version of an “Open Farm Day.” It could be as simple as giving a talk to the lady’s group at church; volunteering to talk to your kids’ class at school; or inviting the local Slow Food group to tour your farm. Maybe farm advocacy groups like The Farm Bureau or more county extension offices like Madison County could facilitate educational events. The time commitment is minimal and the effort more than worthwhile. It’s a lot like hosting an exchange student: We have everything to gain when we share our love, knowledge and passion.

 

***Do you have farming questions but don’t know any farmers? There are many great resources online, including Ask a Farmer, Dairy Carrie, I am Agriculture Proud, Nurse Loves Farmer, and Farm Babe, to name a few.

Our Life Through a Very Different Lens, February 2016

Our family has been hosting an exchange student from India for about five months. A friend and member of a local Rotary club asked if we would be interested in opening our home to an exchange student and we really couldn’t say no. (Beware of taking phone calls from Rotarians—they are very persuasive, ha-ha!) Khushi arrived in mid-August, during our version of a heat wave. She was bundled up in a sweater and jeans, apparently freezing in 92° weather. She was given a tour of the house and introduced to our cadre of cats. She was shown her room and then brought outside to meet the goats. Moving from a city of almost 5 million people to a goat farm outside of Herkimer, New York, had to be an enormous culture shock. Khushi was wide-eyed, excited and a little bit emotional, but took it all in stride. Thus began our adventure with a very sweet, very enthusiastic visitor from a very different part of the world.

Khushi and Peter atop the silo.

Khushi and Peter atop the silo.

Both my husband and I had studied abroad when we were young, so hosting an exchange student seemed a nice way to “pay forward” that wonderful gesture of opening your home to a complete stranger. And as farmers, we never seem to travel farther than Verona, so the opportunity was a great way to open our own daughters’ eyes to a big, wide world. We also wanted them to understand that no matter where you are from, we are all much more alike than you can ever imagine.

What I hadn’t counted on was seeing our world through Khushi’s eyes and how it would provide me and my family a much-needed reminder of how amazing the Mohawk Valley truly is. Where she comes from, the landscape is flat and not very green. Her reactions driving down Vickerman Hill, walking the trail at Trenton Falls, or riding the scenic chairlift on McCauley Mountain, were absolutely heartwarming. Before moving here, Khushi had never seen snow or leaves change color in fall. As the hillsides surrounding our farm went from lush green to gorgeous golds, oranges and reds, her innocent reaction to seeing these things for the very first time—things we all take completely for granted—was something I want everyone in the Mohawk Valley to hear: We live in an amazing place.

The same climate that we all grumble about has had Khushi in rapt awe since she got off the plane. Crunching snow beneath her feet, seeing vehicles drive on lake ice, “steam” rising from the West Canada Creek on a frigid morning and painting the surrounding trees a glistening white…it is all new to her. The very first time she saw her breath in cold air—like a puff of smoke from a cigarette—she quite literally jumped back at the sight. “What in the world was that?!?” was her immediate reaction. You’d think she had never seen anything cooler in her life. And you know what? It is! We just forget that sometimes.

Of course hosting a guest in one’s home for an extended period isn’t always perfect sailing. One of my greatest hurdles as host mom has been Khushi’s vegetarian diet—no meat, no chicken, no fish. I had truly no clue how hard it would be, in essence, to convert my family and myself to a vegetarian diet. First, I had not anticipated how much I depend on meat as the “star protein.” When I normally think of what to have for supper, I always start with the meat (pork chops or chicken thighs, for example), then throw in a vegetable and maybe a starch. To think of a wholly vegetarian meal was nearly impossible: I did not know where to start. Second, I had not realized how much I was upsetting our family’s nutritional apple cart by simply “subtracting meat” from our diet. A vegetarian diet, to be properly balanced, is a heck of a lot more than just “missing meat.” My family and I began fantasizing about glistening hams, juicy burgers, and gnawing meat off of rib bones. Ads for all-you-can-eat prime rib began to sound downright cruel. I had clearly underestimated the nutritional value of meat and its importance in our diets…an invaluable reminder for a farmer that raises meat for a living.

I also learned that it is supremely difficult for an exchange student in today’s world to truly immerse themselves in another culture. Given the ease with which we can all text, Facebook and Skype family and friends anywhere in the world, there’s precious little time to live in the moment or even have the opportunity to miss home. It’s what teenagers do, no matter what language they speak or religion they practice. When I studied abroad 25+ years ago, all I had was the post office and a very expensive calling plan. Talking on the phone was almost painful: the delay between speaking and being heard seemed an eternity. Talk about cutting the cord! But the sink-or-swim approach worked. Spending hours every day on Facebook and Instagram…well, you don’t need to buy a plane ticket or leave home to do that.

The Rotary exchange program seeks to place their students with several host families over their year-long stay in the US, so Khushi has moved on to live with another family. It was a bittersweet day in our lives. My youngest, Margaret, fought back tears as she hugged Khushi in a death-like grip. My husband, Peter, was sad to see her go, but he is a practical man and is equally happy to not have to close the bathroom door anymore. As for me, I believe change is good. Moving ever forward and challenging ourselves to grow is, after all, what life is all about. Sometimes it takes seeing our world through someone else’s eyes to wake us up a bit and appreciate all that we have. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing Khushi’s reaction to spring in the Mohawk Valley…it is going to blow her away!

The Inspector Cometh, January 2016

Do you pay attention to food news? I certainly do. I can’t help but read every story I see that talks about some aspect of agriculture, be it drought, commodity prices, or farm policy. I am also keenly interested in how food gets from the farm to my table and yours, which of course means the entire food supply chain: Farmers, truckers, processors, distributors, grocery stores and restaurants.

Food safety comes up time and again as one of the greatest challenges the industry faces as it attempts to get food from farm to table. It’s not a particularly sexy or exciting subject, but it is incredibly important. According to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 1 in 6 Americans will get sick, 128,000 will be hospitalized, and 3,000 will die of foodborne illnesses every year.

Since we purchase and use ingredients to make some of the dairy products on our farm, we subscribe to a service (Food Safety News) that disseminates every US food recall, including salmonella in pet food, norovirus in Korean raw oysters, or botulism in a Michigan-based grocery chain—all real stories, all with potentially hazardous effects. Unless you subscribe to such a service, you’ll only see the “big” recalls that make the nightly news—for example, listeria in Blue Bell ice cream last year or Rancho’s 8.7 million pound beef recall in 2014. Indeed, if you are not paying attention, it would seem that recalls only happen to really big food corporations. The truth is, not a day goes by without a recall of some sort happening somewhere in our country.

It is important to note that recalls and foodborne illnesses are not in any way solely attributable to large-scale food producers. Quite the contrary—a small, organic vegetable farmer selling direct to consumers via farmer’s markets is quite capable of sickening his customers if he washes his lettuce mix in spring water containing high levels of coliform. The nice lady that quietly sells raw goat milk without a permit is putting every one of her friends at risk of ingesting Listeria monocytogenes, a highly pathogenic bacterium that can cause miscarriage in pregnant women. Food safety is something all producers—large and small—cannot ignore.

My husband and I have learned quite a bit about food safety over the years, having built our own state-inspected cheese plant, followed by a 5-A poultry slaughterhouse. State inspectors visit our farm at least once every month (sometimes announced, other times unannounced) and federal inspectors can come at any time. I’ll admit, in the beginning it was intimidating and downright nerve-wracking…and still can be. At least a few of my grey hairs are the result of the inspection process! But as intrusive as the process may sound, I assure you, this oversight has helped us to become better at what we do. It doesn’t hurt that we’ve had good working relationships with all of our inspectors—they’ve all been firm, but fair.

What are the inspectors looking at, you may ask? Every time they come, inspectors are looking at three elements of our business: Facilities, processes, and product. Facilities refers to everything physical in the plant, including floors (are they smooth and clean or pock-marked and in need of repair? is there proper drainage?), walls (is paint peeling?), windows (are they clean?), lighting (is it adequate for a safe work environment?), equipment (is it made of a food-grade material that can be cleaned properly? in good working condition or in need of repair?), and water (is the source free of harmful bacteria and nitrates?).

Our processes are thoroughly reviewed—a relatively easy task if we are in the middle of production—but significantly more difficult if the inspection occurs during down time. As a state-inspected facility, we are required to keep processing records. In the cheese plant, we keep all the chart records from the pasteurization process, results from antibiotic residue tests, and batch information. In the poultry slaughterhouse, we keep track of batches processed by number, date, and random temperature tests. And despite the fact that my husband and I are the sole employees, we must document our Standard Operating Procedures and have them ready for any state or federal inspector to review.

Finally, our dairy products are tested for a long list of bacteria, including listeria, coliform and e. coli, proper pasteurization, and compliance with federal codes, depending on the type of cheese. If something has gone wrong either with the facilities or the processes, the proof will be in the pudding, or in this case, the cheese.

As purveyors of local food, my husband and I have benefitted greatly from the overall “local food movement,” one that has emphasized small and sometimes artisan producers. In turn, this movement has gotten a tremendous boost from the seeming rise in large-scale food recalls I spoke about earlier. Food recalls are flat-out scary and the fear they generate has driven at least a portion of the population to seek out small, local alternatives. Of course, this is great for us and other small, local farmers. But are “small” and “local” any guarantee that your food will be safer to consume? Of course not. And when I hear of a local producer cutting corners (which sometimes they do) or of someone unashamedly and deliberately defying state laws regulating raw milk, for example, I shudder to think of the consequences. Not only could someone get very sick or even die, such blatant disregard for food safety could have deleterious effects on the overall local food movement.

Of course, I don’t mean to scare you. In fact, the amazing truth is our food supply is safer than it has ever been, due in no small part to oversight and regulation by state and federal government. That’s not to say this oversight is perfect in any way. New York State Agriculture & Markets agencies seem to be perpetually understaffed and underfunded. But champions of local food that romanticize a time before these regulations and dismiss their importance are not doing any favors to consumers or the local food movement. But this is once again where buying local, from area farmers, is the ultimate trump card: We can have this conversation in person.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Inspectors for Jones Family Farm do not live within the Mohawk Valley Living distribution area, lest anyone suspect Suzie is attempting to win them over. I’m not kissing up, I swear!

Married to the Farm, December 2015

Twenty years ago this month—New Year’s Eve, to be exact—my husband Peter and I got married in a former convent in South Minneapolis. We were both 25 years old. Friends of ours had recently purchased the building and were converting it into an art space, renting the small dorm rooms that had formerly housed nuns to fledgling artists. The small chapel was perfect for our informal ceremony and the common room was lit with white Christmas lights for the reception. It was a frigid, winter Minnesota night.

For our vows, Peter and I took turns telling our story—how we met, how our friendship evolved, what that evening’s promises meant to each of us. We then asked our guests to chime in, adding their own voices to our tale. I had expected most of our friends and family to decline the invitation to stand up and say something deeply personal about the two of us, but they didn’t. One by one, sometimes several at a time, our guests stood up and told the crowd a funny anecdote or how knowing the two of us had affected their lives. Virtually everyone added their voice to the ceremony that night, including my mother-in-law, who is no longer with us. It was a little overwhelming. At the reception downstairs, we served pies instead of cake. (I much prefer pie!) We ordered spring rolls and steamed dumplings from our favorite Dinkytown restaurant, the Camdi. We broke a piñata, which I had made just for the occasion. Instead of hiring a photographer, we asked our friends to give us copies of their pictures. It was simple and sweet and perfect. That was New Year’s Eve, 1995.

Fast-forward to 2003 when Peter started talking about farming. Scratch that. He had always talked about farming, but then he started to really mean it. “Search for properties online,” I suggested. “If something looks good, we’ll take a look.” Again, I didn’t expect much to happen. But it did…and quickly. Farm properties in our home state of Wisconsin were out of our price range, so Peter focused his attention on the Mohawk Valley. We had driven through the area on I-90 on January 15, 1996 two weeks after getting married, on our move to Massachusetts. The rolling hills dotted with dairy farms reminded us of Northwestern Wisconsin, near the Minnesota border. Charming, charming, charming!

The first few farms we visited were either too-perfect-and-super-expensive or too-ramshackle-and-super-affordable. But then our realtor brought us up a winding, seasonal road to a small farm overlooking the West Canada Valley. I was completely distracted by all the work that had to be done to clean the place up. Although the price seemed about right, I thought it was all too much for us to take on. But Peter could see past the two collapsing buildings, the broken windows, the carpeting in the kitchen (yikes—that was some scary stuff!), and declared that we had found Our Farm.

Everything we have done here since that fateful day has been part of his greater vision—he was the one who wanted meat goats and then sheep. He wanted to raise chickens. It was Peter who wanted to milk goats and make cheese. He built his very own cheese plant. He wanted a tractor and hay-making equipment and proceeded to make hay. In so many ways, I’ve been along for the ride. He comes up with ideas of how to expand or make things better, and as a team, we make it happen.

Well, somewhere along the way, I’ve fallen in love with our little farm. It may have been his idea to raise goats, sheep and chickens, but it has become my passion to learn everything there is about how to raise them and to keep them healthy. It may have been his idea to put in a cheese plant, but I adore the cheeses we make and have devoted my life to gelato. My infatuation with the foods we raise and our farm life has turned into an all-out obsession—so much so that my love and connection to this farm have become fiercely personaI. Writing this column has been a wonderful release and outlet for me to explore and share this love of farming that, twenty short years ago, I never knew existed. I love this farm as much—if not more—than my husband does and cannot bear to think of the day when we can’t do it anymore due to age, financial constraints, or unforeseen circumstance. And because we must plan for the unforeseen, we have to plan for what would happen if tragedy ever strikes. Would I continue to farm if something happened to Peter? I haven’t the slightest idea. I know that to lose the two greatest loves in my life—my husband and my farm—would be devastating.

In many ways, farming is not that different from a marriage. First and foremost, it is a partnership between the farmer, her animals, and her land. (I like getting farming advice from folks about as much as I like getting marriage advice from strangers. Ha-ha!) It takes a fair amount of work, patience and understanding. Getting mad doesn’t fix things; in fact, it often makes things worse. There’s no place I’d rather be—it’s hard to leave the farm, even for an afternoon. Finally, it’s a relationship that evolves over the years, better today than when we first started out. Happy Anniversary, Peter, and thank you for taking me along on this wonderful ride!

Holidays on the Farm, November 2015

I so enjoy the holiday season! The last two calendar months of the year are, for nearly all intents and purposes, dedicated to food, drink, and family…although not necessarily in that order. On the farm, it means a slowing down after a busy summer and exhausting fall harvest season. I get back to really enjoying food again. I cook and bake. We throw a holiday party for friends and neighbors. We are social once again after a long, communal drought that allows only work, work, and more work! But of course holidays on the farm aren’t all gift wrap, turkey legs, and grasshopper pies. Farming continues in its usual, unforgiving manner.

A few Novembers back, we agreed to allow a friend to set coyote traps on our land—down the hill, near our creek. Our children and dogs had no reason to go over there at that time of the year, and we certainly didn’t mind him thinning out our resident predator population. Our friend quietly came and went those crisp fall days, checking his traps regularly. Later that month, we were excited to have family from Pittsburgh visit for Thanksgiving. Our three nieces are the same ages as our girls, and are equally active and curious about the natural world. When my daughters asked—on Thanksgiving Day itself—if they could take their cousins down to the creek, I thought nothing of it. In fact, I was relieved to have them out of the house so my sister-in-law and I could concentrate on getting the big feast ready. It couldn’t have been twenty minutes later when I heard the screams. My youngest, Margaret, had sprinted the quarter-mile up the hill and back to the house, screaming that Canute (our guardian dog) had been caught in a trap. Of course, we dropped everything and ran down to investigate. Canute, at 140 pounds, was wild with fear. Any attempt we made to open the noose holding his paw resulted in him thrashing and snapping—he seemed to be all teeth and froth. I had never feared our gentle giant until that day. (A frightened dog can be extremely dangerous.) We called our vet—Herkimer Veterinary Associates—and Dr. Fischer was the lucky doc on call. “How was your turkey?” I asked in my attempt to keep the mood light. “I don’t know—it just came out of the oven!” was his reply. Oops. But Dr. Fischer came straightaway and managed to sedate our frightened pooch. It was only then that we could extract him from the trap and assess any damage. Remarkably, the trap had done exactly what it was meant to do—ensnare his foot, but otherwise not hurt him in any way.

Every winter, we have our usual crop of lambs and goat kids—a few each day throughout the months of December and January. Once all is said and done, we will have 100-120 babies bouncing around our barn. Thankfully, the vast majority of those births are uneventful with experienced, healthy mothers doing most of the work all on their own. Of course, we have had our fair share of not-so-simple births, too. But, again, the vast majority of those needing assistance just need a simple repositioning of the head before it will exit the birth canal or pulling a very large baby out of a tired mom. Unfortunately, we had a sheep prolapse her entire uterus a few years ago…on New Year’s Day, in fact. Having never dealt with a prolapse before, I called our vet and found that Dr. Hayes was on call. He told us to keep her calm and still, and to run warm, clean water over her prolapsed uterus until he could arrive. Once Dr. Hayes was on site, he proceeded to remove the placenta (detaching the cotyledons from the caruncles), rinsed her uterus well and checked it for tears, and then slowly and carefully pushed it back where it belonged. It was fascinating to watch and I learned so much that day. Our sheep, “Prolapsia” as we then named her, pushed her uterus out again a few days later. But having watched Dr. Hayes do it, I got my confidence up, rinsed her (now much smaller) uterus and pushed it back into place.

I’ve grown accustomed to recognizing the signs of early labor in sheep and goats: Pawing the ground, “talkative” behavior, seeking out a quiet spot. I’ve become attuned to the timing necessary to have their babies unassisted and can even manage to go into the house for a hot cocoa or warm my boots for the fire before going out again and attending to wet newborns and anxious mothers. It was last Christmas Eve that I noticed young Lizzy, a first-time freshening ewe, was straining and pushing as if she were in labor. She had showed no other signs of labor—she didn’t even look like she was ready to freshen, really. Everything about it was very odd. I checked her and found that her cervix hadn’t softened or opened. She clearly needed more time for labor to progress, so I gave her a quiet spot with fresh water and hay and went inside to wrap presents. When I went back out 45 minutes later, she was really straining—pushing as if her life depended on it. As I texted my husband to come out for a consult, I watched her push out much of her large intestine. Before I could even react, she pushed out more…much more. It was an absolute mess. We didn’t call the vet that night, as we knew there was no fix for poor Lizzy. My husband often gets the worst job on the farm—putting an animal down—and he did it quickly and quietly that Christmas Eve night.

So, yes I love the holiday season and its change in pace and focus. But we’re never really “off the clock,” as the farm is always calling. I’m also continually wary of my track record of needing a veterinarian on major holidays. Here’s to hoping yours (and my) holidays are uneventful this year!

The Trouble with Chickens, October 2015

Bakers, breakfast joints, and egg lovers everywhere have noticed that our nation is experiencing a major egg shortage. A particularly virulent and deadly form of the avian flu (H5N2) devastated egg-producing and turkey farmers this spring, particularly in the Midwest, meaning fewer eggs in the grocery store and higher prices at the checkout. Farmers and health officials have had to destroy more than 48 million birds in 16 states and Canada. The outbreak, believed to be caused by migratory birds, has affected commercial and backyard flocks alike but has since been contained via new, stringent biosecurity measures and warmer summer temperatures in which the virus cannot survive. Of course, fall brings cooler temperatures and another wave of migratory birds, so health officials and poultry farmers everywhere are bracing for what could be an even more devastating round two.

Because the disease is so highly transmissible and so very deadly, flocks found to have been infected are destroyed in their entirety inside their housing and composted in place, using high heat and time to destroy the virus. Farmers whose flocks are infected and then destroyed lose at minimum 6 weeks’ use of the housing. Only after receiving the green light from government inspectors can they replace their livestock, along with putting new, more rigorous biosecurity measures in place. Of course it takes time to raise a hen from the chick stage to actually producing eggs—approximately 5 months. Industry analysts say it could be another year before US farmers are able to return to previous production levels. In the meantime, food companies large and small that normally use lots of eggs have been scrambling (pun intended) to find egg substitutes. The US has even begun to import eggs—lots of them—from countries like France and the Netherlands. Whether or not you buy eggs at the grocery store, chances are your pocketbook has been affected since eggs are found in so many foods. The net result is not insignificant. Analysts predict that US consumers will ultimately spend an additional $7.5 to $8 billion because of the shortage.

Industry analysts say it could be another year before US farmers are able to return to previous production levels.

While you may have noticed the spike in egg prices and perhaps even the cause, you may have also noticed a corresponding precipitous drop in chicken meat prices. Oddly enough, it is all related. While the deadly strain of avian flu has affected laying flocks, it has not infiltrated meat bird operations, keeping the nation’s supplies at their usual levels. Unfortunately, despite the fact that this flu has not affected meat birds, nor has it any chance of entering the food chain, countries that are normally large importers of US chicken (like China and South Korea) have barred its import as a precautionary measure. Chicken farmers in the US are left with a supply that greatly outpaces demand, causing the current drop in price.

We have been supremely fortunate so far here in New York State and the Northeast in general in not having had any cases…yet. Cornell University, its extension offices, and the state’s Agriculture and Markets division have kept poultry producers informed of the virus’ path, successful interventions, and instructions on what to do if we suspect a case on our farm. The state even took the precaution of barring poultry from all county and state fair competitions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have kept a close eye on the virus’ progress, too, warning that while transmission to humans is rare, it is possible. Vaccines have been developed for both humans and poultry, although the poultry version would only slow the virus’ progress, not halt it altogether.

Chickens on pasture after terrible rainstorm in 2013.

Chickens on pasture after terrible rainstorm in 2013.

To be sure, chickens have always posed a bit of a challenge for large and small farmers alike. For example, as daylight hours diminish every fall, chicken owners all experience the same disappointing phenomenon—a slowing or even a total stop in egg production. Chickens are light-sensitive, and will almost cease laying eggs for a few months as the days get shorter. Some will “molt”, losing many of their feathers, resulting in a rather disheveled look. Some folks will choose to leave a light (on a timer) on in the chicken house in an effort to “fool” the chickens into thinking the days are not getting shorter. This trick will work for at least a little while—I’ve done it myself—but the girls will eventually take their break one way or another, despite the farmer’s best efforts. Of course, the chickens still eat their usual ration of food while on their “egg strike”. In fact, my husband lobbies hard every year to get rid of our egg-laying chickens, pointing out that they are a money-losing venture. It costs $16 per day to feed our 150+ laying hens. During the fall, their production drops to about one dozen eggs each day. Of course we don’t charge $16 for that carton of eggs. We sell what few eggs we get and keep feeding the hens, losing approximately $12 per day…and hope they start laying again soon!

As a chicken farmer, I’ve been watching the avian flu story with great interest and no small amount of worry. Our own chickens range far and wide and have regular contact with wild birds. I’ve seen crows, pigeons, and song birds of all types helping themselves to our outdoor feeders and waterers. (The recommendation of state officials, of course, has been to protect poultry from these encounters.) I am reminded that the troubles posed by chickens, whether caused by a nationwide flu outbreak, a natural weather disaster, or simply the rhythms of Mother Nature, are the same troubles experienced by farmers everywhere—regardless of what they raise. I’m grateful that there is a system in place to help farmers meet these challenges, where state officials and universities research the issue and share information. What worries me the most, however, is how farmers must contend with the constant challenge of supply versus demand. While we cannot control what natural disasters come our way, we can at least adapt; having no control over prices—and therefore farm profitability—is scarier than any outbreak.

When Moms Reject Their Babies, September 2015

My daughter, Harper, and I recently brought a newborn baby goat to a few area farmers’ markets with us. Little “Chip,” as we call him, was only four days old at the time. We brought him in a small dog harness on a leash, so we wouldn’t lose him, and brought a cat carrier in which he could nap. Customers and passers-by alike all got the chance to pet Chip, hold him, even kiss him. (Chip got an impressive number of kisses that day!) And the pictures—oh, I wish I would have outfitted him with our farm logo or maybe even a hat—he was a virtual celebrity!

It was a lot of fun bringing little Chip to market. The smiles on everyone’s faces and squeals of joy from the children (and some adults…you know who you are!) were well worth the effort of bringing him. But even more worth the effort was talking to people about baby goats in general. People were amazed to learn that baby goats (and lambs and calves) are standing within minutes of their birth. I forget that it is pretty remarkable that these newborn creatures are up and nursing on their mothers fairly quickly, with little to no help from me.

But what perplexed people the most, a fact of life that I’ve simply become accustomed to, is the reason baby Chip was with us there in the first place. Baby Chip needed to be bottle fed multiple times a day because his mother had rejected him. “How could a mother reject such an adorable little creature?!?” was most people’s reaction. True, it sounds terribly cruel and virtually unthinkable from a human point of view. But it is, unfortunately, not at all uncommon. Chip was one of triplets and his mother was taking good care of his siblings, but had rejected him. “Did she know she didn’t have enough milk for all three?” a young woman asked. I had to admit I couldn’t know for sure, but it was more likely that Chip was separated from his mother shortly after birth.

To understand why a mom would reject her baby, it helps to understand how the bonding process takes place normally. Mothers and their babies are bonded first and foremost through sense of smell. A rush of hormones causes the mother to start “talking” to her newborn and a desire to clean him from head to toe by licking him. These same hormones cause her milk to “let down,” filling her udder and intensifying the desire to nurture. All the cleaning and licking and talking from Mom invigorates little baby, giving him a virtual second wind after all that hard work of being born, and most importantly, triggering baby’s critical suckling reflex. Within an hour or so—a relatively short period of time—mother and baby are happily nursing, talking to one another and building a bond that can last a lifetime.

So what happens to cause a mother to “reject” her baby? Something has to interrupt that important boding time. Usually, it’s as simple as the two of them getting separated shortly after birth. As is often the case with multiple births, Mom will plop the first baby in one spot, and then mosey a few yards away, plopping the next baby elsewhere. If she’s not paying attention, if she’s inexperienced, or if there are additional stressors such as other animals interfering, she may forget entirely about that first baby.

Many sheep and goat farmers use “jugs” or temporary bonding pens in which a mother and her newborn(s) spend a couple days’ uninterrupted bonding time. There are plenty of advantages to such a system: Mom and baby get individualized attention from the farmer and relief from competition for food and water, plus the farmer has the chance to de-worm the mother or give vaccinations, ear-tag babies or castrate males, depending on the farmer’s protocol. It is a great system, one which we use religiously during the height of our kidding/lambing season over the winter. But its effect on bonding only works if Mom is jugged during labor or placed with her babies very quickly after giving birth.

It is during the busy summer months, when we have far fewer babies, that I abandon the jug system altogether. Because we’re not feeding hay (they spend their days out on pasture) and because summer is so hectic, I am not doing regular baby checks nor taking the time to put them in a jug. I may not even notice we have new babies out on pasture until the evening check, and by then the critical bonding time has progressed to the point that a mom will not recognize her own baby if they have been separated. It is then that I am reminded how truly cruel life can be—for if I place Mom and all of her babies (including the rejected one) in a jug together, Mom will “butt” the rejected one (sometimes to the point of injuring it) and refuse to allow it to nurse. I then have to tie the mother up, milk out some colostrum for baby or coax baby to suckle—a surprisingly physical and painstaking process. (Colostrum is the first milk that Mother makes—a thick, rich milk that contains critical antibodies and is easy for the newborn to digest. If a baby does not get colostrum, their chances of survival are quite low. Many farmers will keep additional colostrum in their freezer for such an emergency or use a store-bought mix made from powdered colostrum.)

We’ve successfully raised many bottle babies over the years, but it is not a job I relish. Babies simply do better under their mothers’ care and I have more pressing things to do. It has been our two daughters’ job this summer to bottle-fed little Chip several times every day. He has been nibbling and getting more nutrition from grass and will soon be off the bottle altogether. Chip is much too big now to be brought to farmer’s markets and would most certainly help himself to some of my fellow vegetable vendor’s wares. He’s still awful cute though, and still gladly accepts hugs, kisses and the occasional photo!

The Ties That Bind, August 2015

My husband and I moved here just over ten years ago and started our little farm with the idea that we would build a simpler life, doing the things that we loved. We left corporate jobs and steady paychecks, 401ks, paid vacations and employer-provided health insurance. We both enjoyed what most people would call “Success”…careers, travel, and steady advancement. Indeed, we had hit The Big Time, with impressive-sounding tales that we will be able to tell for years to come. But something was missing. My commute into work demanded that I left home before our baby daughter awoke in the morning, and my long day and return commute meant that she was asleep for the night before I returned. The corporate environment in which I worked provided many friendships, but no sense of true ownership. I watched too many higher executives get escorted out of the building after giving their best years to the company—all so someone younger and more dynamic could take their place. And the successes we were enjoying at work were not without significant stresses. It all made me wonder…was this really what I wanted?

Husband Peter can't stop talking even for a photo... 

Husband Peter can't stop talking even for a photo... 

Fast forward ten years to today. Balancing life and work has not necessarily sorted itself all out now that we are farming. In fact, we find ourselves in a never-ending battle to choose what is best both for our farm business and our family. And because the two are so thoroughly interwoven, perhaps it is even more difficult.

One of the most interesting challenges we have faced is defining what “Success” means to us. If I were to listen to many others, “Success” would mean selling our product in New York City, distributing regionally, or even nationally. (“How can you consider yourself a success if you aren’t selling in the City?!?”) What about national awards or winning a cheese competition? That certainly would be a sign of success.  But what hole would that fill and to what end? Would it make us successful and ultimately, would it make us happy?

Fortunately, my husband and I made the decision fairly early on that we would produce food only for our immediate community. The decision was an entirely practical one at first: We simply didn’t produce enough food on our little farm to warrant travelling very far. But that small circle we drew on the map so many years ago—with barely a 30 mile radius—has proven to be a virtual mantra for our farm business. We want to be part of a healthy, local agricultural network that feeds its citizenry. To be part of a community, and in that sense, playing a vital role in feeding that community, provides a greater feeling of accomplishment than any traditional definition of “Success” ever could.

This has certainly not been the trend in agriculture over the last 30+ years. Ask any farmer that has been slogging at it for any part of the last century and they’ll tell you that the overwhelming message has been “get big, or get out.” And this is understandable, considering the need to modernize and make farms more efficient. If you are making milk in the Northeast, for example, and dairy farms in the South are able to produce milk with fewer inputs or at lower cost, the farmer in the North will have a harder time competing and ultimately may not survive long periods of low milk prices.

Despite this harsh reality, the push for ever-increasing efficiency has had a tremendously positive overall effect on our food supply. There are 200 million fewer people starving on this planet than there were just 20 years ago, even though global population has increased by 2 billion during that time. Technology has allowed the 1% of our population that still farms to make food for the rest of us, increasing crop yields, decreasing soil erosion and compaction, even lightening the load of manual labor with smart tractors and robot milkers. Globally, modern agriculture has allowed people to rise above subsistence farming, increasing education levels, and lowering birthrates. Indeed, we will need the very best of modern agriculture to feed the nearly 9 billion people expected to inhabit this planet by 2050.

While the leaps in technology have been in large part an overwhelming positive in my mind, there have undoubtedly been some undesired side-effects of modern agriculture. Just as cell phones, texting and social media have forever changed the way we communicate with one another, people no longer know their farmer—or any farmer, for that matter. That knowledge gap poses a variety of very real problems, especially regarding public policy. People fear the safety of our food supply and are dubious of methodologies that farmers employ. Marketers take advantage of that fear and demonize the competition for their own benefit. I hear and see misinformation shared every day, from antibiotics in milk to hormones in chickens. The level of mistrust—and in some cases, complete vitriol for “industrial” farmers—that is largely the result of a complete lack of knowledge makes me incredibly sad.

Perhaps that is why I enjoy our small, community-focused model as much as I do… I enjoy the relationships and the ties that bind us and our customers, our friends and neighbors, and our fellow farmers. It is one of complete transparency and honest, open communication. I will never romanticize farming with our customers nor paint a caricature of other farmers—and I find it offensive when others do. Our farm is not a model of efficiency, nor do I have any illusions that our type of farming could feed the world. But I chalk up one small “Success” every time I’m able to reconnect people with their food and those that raise it.

Farm Ghosts, July 2015

I love old houses. I love the character and personality that comes with an old house—the wide pine floors, the detailed molding, the old-fashioned doorknobs. I love the staircases, with their carefully crafted newel posts and banisters worn smooth after years of hands running their length and generations of children sliding down them. I love the windows with their divided panes, despite how frustrating they are to clean. I even love the sloping floors and the sounds of scratching coming from the attic every fall. Our old farmhouse has loads of character and personality. It once was heated with coal-burning stoves on the first floor, with ducts that carried the heat up to the second floor. Those coal-burning stoves are long gone, but I am reminded of them every day I look down: Every room on the second story has a hole in the floor with the simplest of wood detail surrounding it. It’s beyond charming and reminds me that my home has a past. So many families grew up here; so many memories were made under this roof.

Alexei & Paraska Salanco were our farm's previous owners--close to 100 years before we came along!

Alexei & Paraska Salanco were our farm's previous owners--close to 100 years before we came along!

If you are a homeowner, perhaps you know your home’s previous occupants. We are supremely lucky to live right next door to the people who last farmed our property. If you’ve ever owned an old house, you may have had the pleasure of having a past resident or their descendant knock on your door and ask to come in. That happened to us while living in our first home in Gloucester, Massachusetts. One day, I heard a knock at the door and it was a young woman that timidly explained that her grandparents used to live in our house and that she remembered Christmases there…would we mind if she came in to have a look? Of course we didn’t mind and thoroughly enjoyed hearing her stories of her then-departed grandparents. The woman seemed happy to capture some lost memories, but I felt that day that we had gained so much more: We got to learn a little about the history and the character of our home.

The Salanco cousins, in front of our living room windows.

The Salanco cousins, in front of our living room windows.

Moving to and taking over an old, established farm is altogether another experience. This makes sense, of course, because oftentimes multiple generations and even multiple families will occupy the same house and farm the same land for a century or more. That is certainly the case with our farm. Our first week after moving in—boxes everywhere—we were visited by a man named Steve Salanco. He was tall, slender, probably in his mid-80s. He told us he was born in this house, and that his parents and grandparents ran a small dairy here many years prior. Using a cane, he walked through the house, room to room, smiling and telling us all about his family and how many children were born and grew up here.

Steve was a regular visitor to our farm those first few years. We learned that when the old barn had burned down in the 1920s, his family rebuilt using what was then cutting-edge design. As I scraped layer upon layer of wallpaper off the walls in the house, he told me who had put each of them up. When we removed a small bathroom from the first floor, he told us about the elderly aunt that had lived in our “new” dining room. When I asked for old photos of the place, his wife Rosemary had me over for coffee while we poured over ancient photo albums. When our children discovered the wild leeks growing in our woods, Steve told me about the wild leek festivals they used to hold…and how not much digging of leeks actually took place.

Steve’s son Tom came by, too. When we removed the old chimney, we found his initials and he told us about building that chimney as a young boy. He warned us to be very careful if we ever removed a very old maple tree in the yard—he had filled it with a bucket of nails one hot summer day. Tom’s cousin from Albuquerque simply showed up in our driveway one day and was dying to see where he once milked cows with all his cousins and where they had stacked tens thousands of bales of hay over the years. Steve’s nephew Ken visits us nearly every week to buy eggs. I know he enjoys the eggs, but I suspect the farm itself and his connection to this place are what bring him here time and time again. Tom’s ex-wife even popped in one day to introduce herself. They had divorced long ago, but she had always loved this farm and was dying to see what we had done to the place.

Certainly, part of the reason these visitors come is to satisfy a curiosity. (“What are these people doing to our farm?”) My husband grew up on an old farmstead in Wisconsin, but his parents did not farm it. The former owner popped in from time to time and my husband, even at a very young age, could tell there was an air of disapproval from the retired farmer. My in-laws were making choices and changes that he did not quite approve of, but would never dare say so out loud. I always thought that was so bittersweet: The old farmer clearly cared very deeply for his former farm and was heartbroken to see it fall out of use.

Sadly, Steve, and then Rosemary passed away a few years ago. We are lucky to have learned so much about the history of our wonderful home from them in the time that we had. But the visits have not ended! I could have never guessed that we would continue to see their extended family—long-lost nieces and nephews and great-great grandchildren pulling into our driveway or sending us emails and messages on Facebook. I never anticipated the joy we have seen in their eyes when they connect to this place—this farm, and by extension its former caretakers and their children, all who cared for it and loved it just as we do now. They are happy to see that we are still farming it. For the generations that know what agriculture used to be in this area, they are pleased to see the land and barns still in use. But even more so, they are thrilled to see their great-grandparents’ hard work carried on. The same outbuildings they either built themselves or repaired are still standing and housing animals. The same hayfields are still producing and haven’t been lost to scrub. The water lines they dug by hand are still bringing life to the farm. All that hard work, all that love and dedication…it wasn’t for nothing. Quite the contrary; as this farm’s current caretakers, we’ve benefitted tremendously from their grit and determination.

My own children slide down the banister now and help with the chores, adding the next chapter to this farm’s story. I don’t dare wonder what the next 100 years will bring, but I sure would like to hope the farm will carry on.

What Does "Dairy Month" Mean to You? June 2015

June is Dairy Month—the time we all celebrate our favorite food group by drinking a glass of milk or eating ice cream. And we should celebrate! New York is the country’s third largest producer of dairy products, after California and Wisconsin. Dairy generates more than half of the state’s agricultural income. Furthermore, we are fortunate to live in an area with a rich history of dairy farming and cheese production. The Mohawk Valley was once the center of the cheese making universe (or at least in the US). Prices for the entire Eastern seaboard were set in downtown Little Falls from 1853 to 1875. Upstate New York was once dotted with thousands of small dairy farms and hundreds of little “crossroads” cheese factories—places where dairy farmers could easily and quickly transport their milk for processing.

Peter pouring milk into one of our vat pasteurizers.

Peter pouring milk into one of our vat pasteurizers.

Of course change comes to every industry, and dairy is no exception. Before mechanical refrigeration, farmers had to pack ice around their cans of milk to keep them cold, limiting the distance they could reasonably travel with their precious cargo. During World War I, gas refrigeration made it possible to ship farmer’s fluid milk much greater distances via railroad car, and the population explosion and resulting demand in New York City meant the milk went downstate, signaling the end of all those little, independent cheese factories. Over the last 50 years, the dairy industry has undergone even more change and consolidation. In fact, our state has lost over half of its dairy farmers in just the last 20 years. Although there are far fewer farms, those that remain are larger and produce thousands more pounds of milk than their predecessors.

(New York State) has lost over half of its dairy farmers in just the last 20 years.

It has never been easy to be a dairy farmer, and today is no exception. Unless you are a dairy farmer or know someone in the business, you may not be aware that farmers here in the Mohawk Valley have taken a 30-50% pay cut in recent months. Fluid milk in this country is treated as a commodity and priced according to a government formula. This formula is not clearly linked to inflation, cost of living or even cost of production. The price fluctuates—as all commodity prices do—but when supply is greater than demand and there is a surplus of milk as there is now, prices plummet.

Dairy farmers are paid by the “hundred weight” or per 100 pounds of milk (cwt) picked up at the farm. To put this in perspective, 100 pounds of milk equals approximately 11.6 gallons. Prices last fall were in the $26-30/cwt range for conventional, Class “1” milk and are now in the $14-18 range, depending on components like protein and butterfat. According to Hoard’s Dairyman, the average cost to make 100 pounds of milk is $17.50. Again, to put this number in perspective, it costs the farmer $1.50 to make that gallon of milk you buy at the grocery store. At today’s low price, many area farms are operating at a loss. Even worse, the surplus of milk in today’s global marketplace means an unfortunate few have been dropped by their processors and cooperatives altogether, meaning they’ve had to scramble to find a new buyer for their milk…or dump it altogether.

With this in mind, I spoke with a handful of our dairy farmer friends and asked them what they would like the general public to know as we celebrate “June the Dairy Month”. They all said they love their jobs and their animals. They want everyone to know that they take great pride in producing a safe, high-quality product that they in turn feed their own families. They explained how they are subject to multiple inspections from their buyers or cooperatives, and federal and state government agencies. Their milk is rigorously tested for antibiotics, somatic cell counts, and bacteria; and the farmer suffers significant financial consequences if they ship milk that does not meet strict standards. They work closely with their veterinarians to maintain optimal herd health. They are producing some of the safest, most healthful milk ever made.

But they also expressed frustration. They see some consumers have lost faith in the quality of their milk, due in part to bad information deliberately spread in the marketplace and to the fact that so few people are connected to farming anymore. They are frustrated with a pay system that often leaves them with too small a check and too many bills at the end of the month. As one farmer saw it, he believes he and his wife will be the last generation to milk on the farm that his grandfather built. Their children have no interest in dairy—having heard too many times over the years that the milk check won’t cover expenses, who can blame them?

...the future can be bright, if we appreciate our dairy farmers and support them now, while we still can.
— Lorraine Lewandrowski

How does the future of dairy look in the Mohawk Valley? I asked a farming advocate friend of mine what she thought. She believes that the future can be bright, if we appreciate our dairy farmers and support them now, while we still can. We have the infrastructure and people associated with dairy in place—not just the farmers, but the veterinarians, ag schools, machinery dealers, mechanics, and truck drivers. Just as importantly, we have water (unlike the drought-ravaged West) and are rich in grasslands. We have the ability to positively affect dairy in our own backyard—by supporting our dairy farmer neighbors, talking to them, understanding their challenges, and by paying attention to the Farm Bill. We must do something to support dairy in our state in a meaningful way, and quickly. For me, celebrating “June the Dairy Month” just took on a whole new, much more significant meaning.