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/.

Springtime on the Farm, April 2014

Springtime on our farm is exactly what you would imagine it to be—filled with babies. We breed our goats and sheep to give birth at several points during the winter and spring, with the newest moms (often referred to as “replacement” does and ewes) giving birth at this time of year. This means baby goats and lambs are bouncing all over the barn, racing up and down, playing ‘king of the mountain’ by climbing on their un-amused mothers, and practicing butting heads like they can’t wait to grow up. There are literal piles of babies sleeping in every corner, because they love to cuddle with one another for warmth while their moms eat hay. It is such a busy, chaotic time, it’s hard to imagine how all the moms and babies keep things straight. Yet, they do. Each mom knows her baby’s call; each baby responds when Mom says it’s time to eat. They know each other’s voices, they recognize their smells. It’s an amazing thing to witness.

As magical as a barn full of baby farm animals may sound, it represents years of hard work, hard-learned lessons, and mountains of perseverance. For example, I’ve learned that first-time moms are the most challenging. Their frames are often slightly smaller and their pelvis and various ligaments are not as limber as the seasoned birthers, so they are more prone to needing assistance during birth. Even worse, their mothering instincts are all over the board. If I’ve done my homework and chosen replacement does and ewes from good mothers, I can only hope good mothering instincts will kick in. But sometimes they are not good mothers; in fact, sometimes they are terrible. Four mothers rejected their babies this season, making my busy job even harder. Finally, new moms are simply not as good at producing large volumes of milk. Again, if I’ve done my job and chosen my replacements carefully, I will have good milk producers that will quickly raise healthy, meaty babies. Called selective breeding, this is the farmer’s attempt to breed animals for specific traits. It is both a science and an art—and I have great respect for folks that do it well. My approach is nowhere near scientific and at no other time of the year is my lack of breeding expertise more apparent than in the spring.

Nutrition, of course, is of the utmost importance just before babies arrive and for the few months following their birth. About a month before her due date, a goat or sheep should be getting the best feed possible, with a free-choice, balanced mineral supplement. She shouldn’t get fat, though, because that too can cause terrible problems, including ketosis and difficulty giving birth. After having her baby, good feed and minerals continue, although she’ll be eating and drinking significantly more in order to support milk production. That all sounds well and good, but how do you make sure this proper balance is met? Since we are a small, grass-based operation, we do not work with a nutritionist nor have anyone testing our hay. Instead, I spend many hours observing our animals, feeling babies for full bellies, checking eyelids for anemia, and watching out for those that hang back during feeding time. Not working with a nutritionist is an enormous gamble, however. The past two years of drought followed by a much-too-wet summer produced very poor-quality hay here in Central New York and has made for an extremely difficult spring for many small producers. A number of small local farms experienced high levels of mid- and late-term miscarriages as a result.

This, too, is a time to be aware of any potential health problems. Moms can develop mastitis; babies can develop coccidiosis, “floppy kid” syndrome, or white muscle disease. Again, we’ve been extremely fortunate to experience very few of these problems, but that doesn’t allow me to be lax in my management. I have to watch for hot (or God forbid—cold) udders, for damaged or sore teats, weak babies, muddy butts, runny noses, even sagging ears. I have to recognize the difference between a lamb’s normal, plaintive hungry call and a weaker cry that means she isn’t getting as much milk as her husky brother. Preventing potential problems is every farmer’s first line of defense, usually in the form of clean bedding, adequate housing, fresh air, and proper nutrition. Of course, Mother Nature is often wicked and unpredictable, so the next line of defense is catching and treating health problems as early as possible.

Successfully raising happy, healthy animals in a sustainable manner is infinitely more complex than diet or management style alone.

But would I say I have it “all figured out”? Absolutely not! That barn full of rambunctious baby goats and lambs is both a joy and a sobering challenge—every day, all year long. This humbling life as a goat farmer has me truly appreciating the experienced farmers around me, whose skills in animal husbandry seem to come so naturally. These days, it seems there is so much focus on whether a farm is organic or not, or feeding genetically modified grains or not. All the while we’re missing the bigger picture: Successfully raising happy, healthy animals in a sustainable manner is infinitely more complex than diet or management style alone. You can’t learn it in a book; you can’t even get the full picture with a degree in agriculture—it takes years of doing. And good farmers seem to understand that they are never done learning.

The Messier Side of Farming, February 2014

There has been a rash of books published lately about farming. It seems there is tremendous interest in farming stories, especially if you’ve just left your high-paying city job and bought a small farm in the country. While I’ve enjoyed a few of these memoirs, I’m also always a little dismayed at the way the authors gloss over the messier side of farming—namely, death, loss and hardship. The story then rings hollow for me and doesn’t even begin to touch on what I consider to be at the very core of farming: A profound understanding of loss and deep appreciation for what really matters in life.

It’s not like there aren’t true, messy stories to be told. My husband’s grandfather—a rancher in Minnesota—lost the tops of his ears to skin cancer because all the man ever wore for protection was a seed cap. When my husband split his finger in our wood splitter, our neighbor Vera (with a wink and a grin) very helpfully pointed out that he’d “never forget how to use that wood splitter again”. I accidentally poisoned our donkey by feeding him what turned out to be Japanese yews. When our neighbor Steve was struck in the face by the kicker on his hay baler, he ran to the house and asked his sister-in-law to “quick patch him up.” He figured his face could be dealt with later—they had to finish baling before the rain came. And when we asked our neighbor Bob if we could use his jack to shore up our collapsing garage, he asked if we needed the snowmobile helmet, too? After we gave him a quizzical look, he told us the story of being knocked out cold when the jack had kicked out and whacked him in the head. Waking up in a pool of blood, he decided he’d never use the jack again without a snowmobile helmet on. We really couldn’t argue with him.

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Truth is—farming is messy. As a farmer, you develop an intimate relationship with loss. Where you have life, you also have death; it is impossible to experience one without the other. We try to keep losses to a minimum, but often Mother Nature has other plans. Within the confines of this harsh simplicity, the farmer tries to find a healthy balance. Unnecessary losses are to be avoided, and we embrace the life side of the equation. Any attempt to describe it otherwise is to gloss over the reality; anyone trying to convince you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

Furthermore, farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, agriculture averages almost 40 fatalities per 100,000 farmers per year. Historically, farming ranks as the 5th most dangerous job in America, more deadly than firefighting, police work, and electrical power-line installers, but less dangerous than fisheries, logging and steel workers. The vast majority of the fatalities are vehicular in nature. Dealing with heavy machinery, working long hours—often alone—and simple distractions can be a deadly combination.

Our Mohawk Valley farming community lost one of its own shortly before Christmas. A neighbor on the other side of our hill was using his tractor to clear scrap metal out of a shed when he was crushed to death. The tractor had lurched forward, bucket pinning the farmer. The neighbors that passed by and saw the tractor parked in that odd spot could not have imagined what had happened.

Although my husband and I knew him and his wife only in passing—we waved when we met on the road, we know their cars and equipment by sight—we were still deeply saddened by this loss. Our neighboring farmers, too, were clearly shaken by this accident—the result of a benign, yet common activity. This was something that could happen to anyone, at any time. And the loss didn’t stop there: the dairy herd was shipped the very next morning, perhaps signaling the end of their farm. This is as “messy” as farming gets, yet is a reality that plays itself over and over for farmers everywhere. Maybe someday someone will write a book about that.

My Extended Farm Family, December 2013

December is the month I’m busy preparing for my favorite event of the year—our annual Christmas party. The house is finally cleaned after months of being ignored. Decorations cover every wall. Fun, new cocktails are devised. And I cook the whole week—pulling bounty from our freezers and filling the house with holiday cheer. Ever since our very first year on the farm, we have held a Christmas party and invited our friends and neighbors to show our gratitude and love.

I had always thought that farming—by its very nature—is a lonely profession. I can go for days without seeing or talking to another soul outside my own family. It is often what draws people to farming. If you like to work alone, if you like animals or working on equipment, if you like being outdoors…farming may be the life for you. And if you live on a quiet country road like we do, you know who is driving by just from the sound of their vehicle. “There goes Brad!” or “Cindy’s home from work!” are things we say on a daily basis.

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But farming brings people together in ways I hadn’t expected. Before we moved to Herkimer ten years ago, we lived in a city about the size of Utica. We lived there eight years before we met any of our neighbors (and that was only because I had locked myself out of the house). We were surrounded on all sides by people we saw every day, but knew none of them. Contrast that with our first day on the farm, when we were visited by FOUR neighbors. Henry’s barn had burned down the month prior and he wanted to inquire about our bulk milk tank. Eric grew up in our house. Joanne was curious. And Bob wanted to know if we would be willing to rent hay land to him. All of them wanted to introduce themselves and see what the new neighbors were like. In the following years, we have been to weddings, graduations, and funerals—celebrating life and mourning loss with our new-found extended farm family.

When we moved here and started farming, we had a LOT to learn—and still do. Animals get sick. Animals die. Equipment breaks down. Ice storms leave you helpless and stranded. Our farming neighbors took us under their collective wings and helped us at every turn. And it was often just a kind word that helped the most. In my early days of tending to newborn goats and assisting new moms during birth, I made my fair share of mistakes. And when I would lose one, just having my neighbor Rob say, “It happens!” made all the difference in my outlook. It gave me the courage and the confidence to keep going and keep learning.

Early on, we often joked that we only saw our neighbors in an emergency. When our chimney caught on fire that first winter, all of our neighbors showed up. After this spring’s floods, we drove down the hill to see what nature had wrought and found many of our neighbors doing the same, ready to lend a hand if necessary. Truth is, neighbors show up when they are needed. I can’t imagine making hay without Brad, Catherine, Joey and Jacob or not lending a hand when Steve or Joe are pouring concrete. You go, roll up your sleeves, and help. Not just because they are our neighbors, but because farming is awfully hard without them.

If I were to offer one piece of advice to new farmers, I’d tell them to go meet the neighbors and make them your friends. You WILL need them, and you will learn from them, and you will be a better farmer because of it.

Better yet, start a Christmas party tradition to thank your new-found extended farm family.

I Like a Good Story with my Meal, November 2013

November just might be my favorite month and Thanksgiving my favorite holiday. It’s a time when we are thankful for all that we have, when we appreciate our friends and family just a little bit more. And we celebrate FOOD—one of the great loves in my life. Food is important to me not only because I make a living by raising it. Food—and the great care it takes in raising it—is very personal to me and my family.

Why? Food has such a profound effect on us. Have you ever noticed how certain foods and their aromas are absolutely linked to certain memories? I can’t smell tomatoes stewing on the stovetop without thinking of my mother and her mother before her, canning mountains of tomatoes. There was a great bustle in the house, the kitchen was “hotter than snot”, and there was this incredible sense of accomplishment when those jars were stacked on the basement shelves like we were expecting to feed an army.

Have you also noticed that food seems to taste better when you know more about it? That may seem like a stretch for some folks, but consider this: If I ask you to take a sip of wine, for example, but tell you ahead of time that you will detect notes of apple and vanilla, you will taste apple and vanilla. If I ask you to take a bite of cheese made from the milk of cows raised on an Alpine slope and fed lavender, you will taste a hint of lavender. I’m not a psychologist and I’m definitely not sure why this happens, but food is more than just fuel for our bodies. It’s connected to our brains, and the best foods hold great meaning for us.

The New York Times recently ran a story about a poultry company that has paired up with a number of high-end restaurants in New York City. These famous-name establishments save their kitchen scraps and ship them to the farm to be fed to the chickens. These same chickens will then be served at these swanky restaurants. The chefs were quoted as being excited about the possibilities of flavoring the meat of their future birds.

JFF chickens on pasture

JFF chickens on pasture

Now, as a chicken farmer, I’m of two minds: First, I’m duly impressed by this ingenious gimmick. It’s ingenious because it’s a great story. The chefs and their staff will describe the unique diet these chickens are getting and may even note certain herbs or vegetables that were used to sweeten the meat. Diners at these restaurants will have a story in their heads that will then inform and shape their dining experience. Whether or not these additions to the chickens’ diet have any effect on their flavor is not important*. The story is there.

On the other hand, every Midwestern bone in my body is offended by this idea. How rich is this country that we are shipping fancy restaurant kitchen scraps hundreds of miles to feed chickens? I shudder to think what poorer nations must think of us. And, more importantly, how hungry is our nation for “real” food that this story works on us? This company’s ingenious gimmick evokes images of chickens being raised in Grandma’s backyard with scraps from her table…nothing could seem more wholesome.

That’s why I am once again thankful—thankful that we are residents of the Mohawk Valley, where I can buy half a cow for my freezer from one neighbor and a pig from another. I will proudly serve Harold’s turkey, Amy’s carrots and Karen’s sweet potatoes to my loved ones this Thanksgiving. We live in an area where most everyone can stop along their commute to work at that cute little farm with the “brown eggs for sale” sign and get the best eggs on the planet. Because that cute little neighbor farm has a story—a real story—and we residents of the Mohawk Valley savor our food all the more because of it.

*The chickens from this story are a slow-growing variety, taking twice as long to grow and requiring a diet lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates (corn). As a result, their meat WILL HAVE a different flavor and the fat WILL BE more yellow in color.

A Farmer's Dirty Little Secret, October 2013

As a farmer that sells direct to the public via farmers’ markets, I get to talk to people every week about our farm and the foods that we produce. And since we are a diversified farm, raising and selling chickens, goats, and making cheeses and gelato, customers invariably ask, “How do you get everything done?!?” The dirty little secret is…we don’t. We don’t get everything done. In fact, many things go undone. Of course, this is true for all of us, isn’t it? We all lead such busy lives that it is impossible to cross everything off the to-do list, right?

But farming is different, of course. Farmers have to-do lists that are ever expanding and never ending. You plan your days, expecting to get such and such done. But then something happens. Whether it’s the skid-steer springing a new leak, goats that have gotten through the fence and are in the neighbor’s yard or a frozen water line, the farmer must switch gears quickly to adapt to very immediate needs. My husband and I often joke that “if it isn’t bleeding or on fire, it can wait.”

Suzie texts a photo of a down tree to husband, Peter. He'll have to come later with chainsaw in hand so we can clear it away and fix the fence.

Suzie texts a photo of a down tree to husband, Peter. He'll have to come later with chainsaw in hand so we can clear it away and fix the fence.

And then there are the times when the weather dictates all. A stretch of hot weather with no forecasted rain means you are doing hay—no matter what else you had planned. A storm may come through, knocking a tree down on your fence line and grounding out your fencer. Or if it’s raining like it did this spring and your corn planting is washing away before your eyes, well, you go back to your spreadsheets and your checkbook and you try to figure out how you’re going to feed your animals and pay your bills. Believe me, those are the sobering times when a long to-do list is a welcome distraction.

Of course, this means that the “little” things—family vacations, weddings, or the birth of a niece or nephew out of state—often take a back seat. And forget about cleaning the bathroom or sweeping the stairs, because those things will always be there.

Both my husband and I have farming in our extended families, but neither of us grew up on working farms. So when we started our own farm ten years ago, we had only an idea of what we were getting into. We were both thrilled to buy a farm that had been a working dairy since it was built 150 years ago. The previous owners didn’t have enough time—or money—to make big changes to the woodwork or tear up the lovely old floors. We spent that first year bringing back an old farmhouse gem. Good thing…as we haven’t had a moment since.

So that is why, when you talk with a farmer about spring planting, making hay, or harvest time, you will get the sense that they’ve seen it all. It all gets done eventually…or it doesn’t. But it can’t be a long conversation. We farmers always have to keep moving—that to-do list is always calling!