animal husbandry

CLOSURE

 

Last summer, still fresh to our farm roles, we took in four baby goats. If you've been reading our blog since then (and to that point, if you have: wow, and thank you), you know that we raised them for meat. You saw their faces, and maybe you felt something personally—positive or negative—about our decision. They were our pets for a time, but their roles in our lives always carried more weight. We have a catalog of memories to do with Satchmo, Smithers, Dill and Tuna — from bottle feeding each one while we renovated and outfitted a home on wheels, to weeping in each other's arms at midnight after petting and uttering words of consolation to Satchmo and Smithers as they died of illness. My fondest memories are of winter, when Dill and Tuna were fluffy with winter coats, and seemed to love nothing more than to show off their incredible jumping skills, going so far as to use our legs as catapulting props in their obstacle courses.

Winter was an imminent time, as soon their lives would end. We would shortly close the final chapter on this book—a book that taught us so much about love, farming, and how you must, must, must feel the first if you are to be any decent at the second. Processing Dill and Tuna was a very difficult day. We did everything ourselves; they never left the farm. We made an eleventh hour decision to cure their pelts and have them tanned so that we could truly use every single element of their precious bodies. We toured the tannery (the only environmentally responsible tannery in the country) and spoke of our desire to see their pelts treated with care. After six months away we have them back, and how glad I am that we made that eleventh hour decision. I am proud of us, and I am grateful to Dill and Tuna. Mark and I witnessed life and participated in death, and made ourselves a part of every step in between.

Their pelts are not objects of interior decoration; they are not show pieces to be mounted and admired; they are not luxurious furs. Their pelts are a reminder of what animals can and do provide for us every day; they are warmth for when it is needed; they are utilitarian and natural; they are here because they worked, and so did we, to symbiotically give and take from one another.

Mark and I have deeply appreciated the support, and even the opposition, we experienced during this first journey in raising animals for meat. This was a learning experience — and a deeply moving one — that we hope you were able to experience in some capacity alongside us. Whether you strongly agree or vehemently disagree with our approach to farming and our choice to eat meat, we hope you respect our transparency and our desire to steward both land and animal with dignity.


—S

A VISIT TO A VERMONT FIBER FARM

 

Tammy White is the sort of farmer who makes you want to be a farmer—actually, no, she's the sort of farmer who makes you believe you can be a farmer. Or, in our case, fiber farmers. For a few idyllic hours, we left the land of dairy and butterfat to walk around with, learn from, and posit many a question to Tammy, the shepherdess at Wing & A Prayer Farm. She offered guidance on curing goat skins; taught lessons on the fiber of different wool breeds; humbly explained how her family survived after their first alpaca gave birth to a cria (baby alpaca) when they didn't know she was pregnant; plus, we briefly discussed bartering mucking for natural dyeing/spinning lessons. (A dream.) We went with the knowledge that a visit to her farm would surely deepen our desire to someday grow a fiber flock, but we left with the deep need to include a miniature donkey (or four, like her) in our plans. If you need evidence of why this is so, behold Kalinka and Bilbo, the mini donkeys below. You understand, yes? The small farm community in Vermont continues to inspire in us the drive to do good and to be open to others who might want to see / participate / believe in a different way. 

For a bit of fiber animal guidance, the animals pictured within are: sheep, miniature donkeys (not fiber animals, but good guard companions), angora goats (with the ringlet curls), and alpacas (the goofy other-wordly creatures).

While walking the grounds at Wing & A Prayer, you cannot help but feel included among the menagerie of breeds and species. For one thing, the animals around you are so clearly happy and loved—a contagious disposition, if there ever were one. Beyond that simple fact of life on the farm, Tammy and her family has spent decades creating a warm, welcoming, and educational environment. As you look around, there's a morsel of information about this animal, a tidbit about that one, a hopeful message here & there for anyone who dreams of farming, or who is simply curious. After a long and hearty pasture walk, we settled in her big, well-lived in kitchen so that Sam could touch all of the yarn and talk knitting for a little while. (Their scrumptious farm yarn can be found here. Shetland is wow, wow, wow.)

She is a small farmer with big vision. She is quite what we aspire to be — a breath of fresh air, really. For an industry that can often feel insular—reclusive, maybe?—her farm is a reminder of the good that small farms can do for animals, for communities, and for the Earth, our common home.


—M&S

TO BE A KIDDING INTERN

 

Their gummy little milk-covered faces have turned into head-butting, hay-loving machines. Gone are the days of scanning the barnyard every fifteen minutes, checking to see which goats are in the beginning stages of kidding. Our clothes are clean—those that were laden with colostrum, poop, placenta and afterbirth. The mud room of the Fish and Game, our humble and sometimes-eerie abode, no longer contains mud. Of the 300 kids born on the farm, 22 doelings and 50 meat kids became our thrice-per-day companions. We hung out at 7 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m. In the end, we came to learn their voices, to know their horns, to recognize when they were sick. Sometimes they were. Some got better, some got worse. Several kids died; more lived, thrived

Being only a few days on the other side of our internships, we are not able to describe quite what it meant to be interns at Consider Bardwell. We can quantify our improved strength, sure. We can show someone how to perform a disbudding, a castration, and a subcutaneous or intramuscular shot. We can milk a doe. Resumé boosters, surely. But what really sticks out is what we learned about ourselves. 

Did we almost strangle to death unwilling, stubborn kids? Probably not to death, but it sure felt like we could have. The honest reality of spending upwards of nine hours per day (in the beginning) feeding baby goats is that at some point—usually when you need to eat, did not get enough sleep the night previous, and have just been head butted in the crotch—you imagine, in full color, the ways you could end a goat's life. You could, but you never would

There were tears, and shouting, and walking far, far away to cool down. And after some time, there was the strategy that we found to be most effective for restoring our calm, caring instincts: grab the most bothersome kid of the bunch, pull it close to your face, and have a long look at that gummy little milk-covered face staring back at you. With lowered blood pressure and a renewed sense of mission, resume feeding. The fact is, we care for these young animals deeply; much like a parent cares for their own young (we imagine). Our bouts with frustration were mere expressions of our fervent will to keep the kids alive and well. No level of mounting anger could ever compare with the devastation of carrying the lifeless body of a previously mischievous kid out of the barn for the last time.

We wrote of life & death on the farm in one of our first posts during kidding season. Those sentiments carried forth as spring advanced and the days grew longer; as we took on greater understanding and ownership of our roles on the farm. We found fulfillment as caretakers. We savored each morning, afternoon, and evening spent outdoors and inside of drafty, old barns. We relished the feeling of being in tune with our bodies and their capabilities, and drank in the sensations of exhaustion, enlivenment, hope, and fear that flooded us all at once. We are learning, growing, and wrestling with what it means to live out a passion. 

We have a bit of time to reflect more fully on what it meant to be a kidding intern. As we retreat to Greece to spend a few weeks with the family that we have longed to see every day for the past two years, we expect we will return to the farm anew. The kids will be stronger and increasingly aware of their place on the farm. So too will we. 


—M&S

HAY DELIGHT + THE FIRST KID

 

"The day will start and it will end." (A mantra for farming, dating back to Sam's days at Wayward Seed Farm.)

Our days start and end with hay. At the hours of dawn and dusk we delight in feeding out bales of nutritious hay to the herd. Their eyes glimmer, they honk and hoot and hurl their bodies against one another—all while maintaining their characteristic Mona Lisa smiles. And in between all of that, they kid.

The first kid, and sixty-two others, were born during our first week. The first, a little Oberhasli and Alpine cross, spent a few days happily receiving all of the attention. He was born a week early but remains healthy as anything. He hops and bleats and rams his head into our sides when we feed his cousins. In fact, he seems huge; quite a tyrant. But those first few days were magical for us, what with the bottle feeding and the running up and down the barn and pretending like 300 kids were not about to be born. They are indeed starting to come in droves. It's comical / frustrating / rewarding work to get the dopey ones to learn how to suck on a silicone nipple. We feel their bellies fill up with mama's milk and simultaneously breathe a sigh of relief. *This one will definitely live until morning* Farm work of this sort—animal husbandry—is pure. It is also covered in poop. 

Between pulling babies out of mama does during their final stretch of contractions (just like humans), cutting umbilical cords, milking the mama for colostrum to feed to her newborns, and ultimately teaching the kids how to eat on their own . . . a lot of action has been had by all. We walk out the barn doors exhausted. Shower beers are a sometimes necessary piece of farm life. But when you go home with a sense of satisfaction, and wake up feeling eager to get back to work, it would seem as though you've found it. As for us, we feel especially lucky to have landed on a truly special farm with phenomenal teachers (hi, Pete and Riker).

P.S. If you're curious about how we have found ourselves on a dairy goat farm in rural Vermont: Good Food Jobs.