kidding

THE FIRST KIDS

 

And just like that, Farmer Winter is over. The kids are here, arriving in a mess of legs, fluff, and tiny sounds that only a newborn can make. Half look like Franciscan monks, the other half like Lloyd Christmas. On the part of the farmers, we are smitten. Never mind the relative chaos it will be in four weeks time when we have hundreds of bucklings and doelings to care for. For now, these kids have brought life back onto the farm, and with it, renewed purpose. When you deliver a baby goat, you make sure it's breathing and then lay it in the hay next to the mama doe, who instinctively gets to cleaning the baby with her tongue. This moment is magic every time. It is a true privilege to observe animal birth—strong, natural, intuitive. 

With the arrival of Kidding Season, we begin our second lap as farmers. The sights, the sounds, the smells & textures are all familiar now: the weightlessness of a fresh-to-this-world kid sprawled out across your lap, bottle feeding; the mama's milk that drips from the corners of its mouth; the way its full belly feels when you squeeze it at the end of a feeding. Suddenly, memories of late winter & early spring, already a year ago, come flooding back as if the ensuing seasons were a mere blip on the radar. The life cycle is spinning on, yes—and it feels like magic. 

These long days & nights spent watching, waiting, and participating in a great bloom of life on this farm—on the eve of Spring, no less—are true gifts. We learned as much last year, and the first kids are a timely reminder. So we begin. Farewell, Farmer Winter. Hello, Kidding Season!


—M&S

FARMING | OUR BYGONE HERITAGE

 

My parents were, well, surprised when I told them that we were moving to Vermont to work as kidding interns on a goat farm this spring. It was a big decision closely tied to another, bigger one: the one where we bumped our wedding up from June to January, on five weeks notice, so we could honor our conviction of waiting for marriage before living together. Old-fashioned to some, counter-culture to others—a bit like farming in the twenty-first century. 

Three years ago, I was mucking my way through organic chemistry and a host of other science courses, and the long, long library shifts that accompanied. I was on my way to becoming a third-generation dentist, the de facto family profession. And in the twenty-one years of life preceding, never once did I consider the possibility of farming for a living. In my mind, farms were foreign places. How could I even become a farmer? Farming was not a part of my identity. What I failed to consider then is how farming is actually a very real part of my heritage. Yes, my papou was a dentist whose son (my uncle) followed in his footsteps. But go back one more generation and you will find a family living in the rural Peloponnesian village of Ziria, tending to their vineyards. My maternal grandmother grew up on a small homestead in Wisconsin where she picked strawberries during summer and went door-to-door selling them for twenty-five cents per quart. She had to quit when a neighboring farm undercut her, selling them for ten cents.

Many people have similar tales from the old family farm. Agriculture is at the root of our collective heritage as human beings. But as the sun has risen and fallen over the land—seasons passing,  years and generations rolling by—our farming population has become ever smaller while our cities expand upward and outward. As evidenced by my own upbringing, so many of us have become far removed from the land that sustains us. All is not lost, though.

Upon arriving at Consider Bardwell Farm, I was gripped—rather suddenly—by this overwhelming sense that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. This was in spite of the fact that our first three days were spent (literally) mucking a winter's worth of goat poop in the barn. Truth be told, I don't even mind the act of mucking! I have found joy in using my body, in working outside, in experiencing the elements. I have found greater joy, still, in raising animals who sustain us with their bodies, through the gifts of milk and meat, as they have for millennia. There I was, no experience, no immediate background in farming. Here I am, with some experience. But deeper than that: I feel this connection, through my work & way of life, to my ancestors. I feel rooted in the earth, and the ongoing game of give-and-take that agrarian societies have played with the earth throughout human history. I have come to feel the true presence of my farming heritage. 

This is all coming from someone who grew up in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area; who comes from a family that prizes academics, having generously sent all four children to a private school and on to college; who spent many a summer afternoon playing video games rather than helping his mom in her backyard vegetable garden. I may not fit the image of a prototypical farmer, but this is the point indeed. It is within all of us, because we all come from the same agricultural heritage, whether we know it or not.


—M

ON RAISING A (TINY) MEAT HERD

 

On a day that now seems so long ago, at the beginning of June, we decided to raise our own goat. We called him Satchmo, cleaned out a pen for him in the barn adjacent to Pink Cameron, and agreed that we would raise him for meat. Our choice was the culmination of a conversation that we have been having since we began our work at Consider Bardwell Farm; a conversation that we thought worth having with the community around us. We promised to give updates and to discuss our thought process and ethics as they relate to the choice of raising animals for meat.

Naturally, much has happened since then. First, Satchmo gained a pen mate. We named him Smithers. Many people decide to forgo naming animals being raised for meat for the simple reason that they do not want to become too attached, as if they were pets. We worked around that by purposefully choosing names that weren’t too cute (because how can you skip out on the opportunity to name your own goat!). We set up an outdoor enclosure and began weaning Satchmo & Smithers from goat’s milk. They started to forage plants and munch on hay and grain, growing bigger by the day.

Then, two more kids came along. Suddenly, we had a herd and an experimental homestead going on our humble little campgrounds. As I write, I can hear Dill & Tuna outside, loudly voicing their displeasure over weaning. Today will be their first day without any mother’s milk. Fortunately for them, they have two older, capable pen mates showing them the ropes of a post-milk diet. Also fortunate for them: Smithers has decided to stop bullying them. Surprising as it was to see sweet little Smithers head-butting the newbies, the naturally selective & competitive instinct in animals always comes to the surface, no matter the size of the herd.

Raising our own herd of meat kids has been challenging, enriching, fun, not-so-fun . . . all of the above. There are many times when the last thing we want to do at the end of a twelve-hour farm shift is more farm work. Alas, these four kids are living beings that need and deserve our best care, day in and day out; and because we really believe in what we are doing, it is not too difficult to muster the energy required to do just that. This whole experience circles back to the fact that we are consumers of meat. More than that, we are striving to be conscious consumers of meat. For us, that means coming face-to-face with all that choice entails; it means that we will see the process through from beginning to end, and that we will try to “do things the right way” from pasture to plate.

Our goal is to keep Satchmo, Smithers, Dill, and Tuna as healthy and as happy as possible. We make nutritious food available to them in an outdoor environment that is perfectly suited to goats; and we personally interact with them, showing them affection on a daily basis. If we are going to be consuming meat, we want it to be coming from an animal that we know was happy and healthy during its lifetime. And a significant reason for why we have chosen to raise four goats is so we can nourish not only ourselves, but also our family & friends with the very same peace of mind.

We have received a few common questions on the subject: Why don’t you just raise them as pets? Don’t you think that it’s wrong to kill them? These are valid questions and deserve answers. It is our view that goats fall into a category of working farm animals that are called to a productive life (just as we are!). The herd of milking goats here at Consider Bardwell is a prime example of that. They work hard to give us clean, nutritive milk, which is then made into cheeses of excellent quality. They “come to work” twice per day, seven days per week; and between their “shifts” (a.k.a. between milkings), they are rewarded with lush, fertile pasture and all of the tasty shrubs and weeds that grow around it. In order to do all of this, they need to be bred every year. As is the case with humans, with all animals, without babies there is no milk. So, there are kids every year—kids whose gender it is impossible to select or predict. Some are female and can be raised as milking goats, while others are male and cannot. In a world where meat is consumed, it makes sense for those kids to become meat. It is their most productive purpose. In that way, meat is a necessary byproduct of dairy.

As for the final step in the process—slaughtering—it is an inherently difficult task. We have yet to perform it ourselves, but we have given it a lot of thought. Let this much be clear: no, we do not take pleasure in the idea or the act of killing anything. We anticipate that the final act of our goats’ lives will be a painful and emotional one for us.  Nevertheless, it is a part of the production of all meat. And as consumers of meat, we have already had a hand in the slaughter of those animals we have consumed—whether we see it or not.

So long as we slaughter our goats in a humane manner, it is an act that we believe is acceptable and in no way “wrong.” Their meat will help to sustain our bodies and give us the energy needed to live, and that seems reason enough. Moreover, that goes without saying that the meat kids who are being raised on the farm for sale—who will be slaughtered and processed at an Animal Welfare Approved facility—help to pay our salaries, giving us the ability to make an honest living. Their mothers, the milkers, do the same. They make our lives here possible. So it goes on our little experimental homestead at Consider Bardwell Farm. We owe so much to these goats, and so we try to give back to them the best way we know: by caring for them, by loving them, and by giving them the best lives that we can.


—M

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