rural living

THAT WHICH IS UN-PROTECTABLE

 
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While on the phone with a utility company yesterday, a well-meaning woman transferred me to a home security company to discuss "how to protect your investment." . . . Full transparency here: I hung up. I admit that I felt a twinge of guilt, but to her credit those words have echoed in my mind long after I disconnected. Protect your investment. 

Earlier in the day I had stopped into the hardware (one of those magnificently creaky, family-run ones) to pick up a $4 bag of bird seed. For many months, my 2 1/2 year old nephew and I have been doing this together—pick up the bird seed, walk it home, fill the feeder, marvel at the sparrows and chickadees who come by, repeat.

When we ambled to the register, the owner handed me my assumed-to-be-lost credit card. "I came to your house a few times and knocked, but you must not have been home," she said. Ok . . . the owner of the shop where I had left my credit card came to our house to deliver it. Bless her. It was an unbelievable moment for me, captured in my mind's eye with perfect clarity. I am not so naive to believe my loved ones are exempt from indiscriminate danger and misfortune. Devastating events happen in small towns all the time, regardless the perceived safety that accompany interactions like the one I had at the hardware. But the interaction did absolutely reaffirm why Mark and I moved here, why we choose to live rurally. What I wanted to say to the woman from the utility company was that the investments I want to protect are of much greater worth than the Stuff in the House. 

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The investments worth protecting are our relationships. Mark and I choose rural living because of its slower pace — dull, at times — and because we can leave our doors unlocked. The relationships we establish take more work than when we lived in the city, they're harder to come by, and they tend to be with people much older than us, but they boast a richness. Let this not be a diatribe about Why the Country is Superior, Et Cetera. Instead, let it be a call to dig deep, discover within yourself the investments you most want to protect, and allow yourself to be guided by those principles. (And, hopefully, the things you most want to protect are not Things at all.) I write this for myself as much as anyone, especially as Advent dawns and Christmas approaches.

My mom and I spent a day festive-izing the house with my grandma's Christmas decorations. Of course her folk paintings, hand-sewn Santa dolls, and window wreaths are immense treasures. Each has a story. Still, it's just stuff. They are nil compared to the beauty of my nephew learning to be gentle when stirring honey into a mug of hot tea; nothing compared to our baby kicking fervently when Mark plays piano; nothing compared to the interaction I had with the hardware store owner. So that's it, I guess. Just a long post about cherishing people and moments that are, by nature, un-protectable. 

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—S

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A DAIRY GOAT | CONSIDER BARDWELL FARM

 

The sun will rise soon, but not yet. The fog remains settled in the cool embrace of the Indian River Valley before daybreak. The faint glimmer of the stars lingers in the sky above. All is quiet and still, save for a herd of milk goats that has spotted a farmer heading in their direction. With a smattering of yells, grunts, bleats, and other assorted goat noises, the day begins.

From March until December, every single morning at Consider Bardwell Farm starts the same way. 5:30 a.m. means it is time to go get the goats and bring them in for morning milking.  With the opening of a swinging gate, 140 goats spill out of their pasture and march back to the barn, udders full. They are easily distracted along the way: no overhanging branch goes unchecked, un-nibbled; no human escapes his or her fate of becoming a communal scratching post. Eventually the herd makes its way to the barnyard, which quickly comes to resemble a schoolyard during recess. Some in the herd ready themselves to report to duty, while others curl up along the fence line to grab a quick nap. Cliques form and skirmishes ensue—posturing, head butting, more posturing—it’s all in a day’s work for these ladies; all a part of maintaining the proper order within the herd.

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Goats are creatures of habit. They strive for a steady routine every bit as much as we humans do. In that sense, a day in the life of a dairy goat looks much the same as all of the others. There is something of a pecking order to milking — there are a few herd queens, several young bozos yet to learn the ropes, and, ah yes, there are those goats full to the brim with mischief. The order goes unnoticed until it is disrupted, at which time it becomes quite obvious. When we first began our jobs at Consider Bardwell, we were told that the first three groups to come into the milk parlor—54 goats in all—could pretty well be predicted. It seemed shocking, unbelievable almost, that of 140 goats the same few would find their way into the milk parlor first. But it’s true. They do. 

By 9 o’clock, when most people are just getting to work, the milking herd has finished its first shift of the day. The march back to pasture commences and ends with delight as the goats find a new paddock of untouched pasture ready to be grazed. 

Pasture crops like timothy, red and white clover, orchard grass, bird’s eye trefoil, alfalfa, and rye render goat milk very tasteful (which, you know, makes delicious cheese). The fields are good for the goats and good for the business. That said, goats are evolutionarily suited to browse—think shoots, high-hanging branches, sticks and otherwise woody forage. The best paddock on the farm still does not excite the goats as much as a single sumac branch. When it’s possible, we trudge through woods and hedgerows with moveable electric fencing to ensure the goats can have their fun while also eating grass. They happily devastate invasive species and the bark on trees in a day’s time.

This is their reward twice daily, an offering of appreciation for all that they give to us in the milk parlor. The intensive rotational grazing plan at Consider Bardwell Farm ensures that the goats are never on the same piece of land for more than twelve hours at a time. By moving to a fresh, well-rested piece of land after each milking, the goats enjoy truly excellent quality forage and roughage. 

We bring them in once more, late in the afternoon, to give milk all over again. In their mischievous, entertaining manner, these goats work hard for a living, and in doing so allow us to do the same. Healthy, happy animals make for a healthy, happy farm. A day in the life of a dairy goat is simply an exchange between time spent in the milk parlor and out on pasture. While they are being milked, the farmer is setting up pieces of fresh pasture; while they are on pasture, the farmer is readying & cleaning the milk parlor. By design, we hope to stay behind-the-scenes and out-of-the-way throughout the day, only making our presence known when necessary. They may be farm animals with work to do, but as much as possible we leave them to the natural way of life that they love best.


—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.

RURAL WINTER | THE CHRISTMAS TREE CHOP

 
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8 o' clock rolled around and the idea of staying home—clad in pajamas and sheltered from the late November rain—sounded awfully good. Alas, I had scheduled the 2nd Annual Christmas Tree Chop, and even in my sleepy, warm condition, I recognized that I would regret a cancellation. With coffee & cocoa thermoses, a bag of mini donuts, and a brother who sharpened his hatchet just for the occasion, we set off.

Picking out the Christmas tree has always been my favorite act of the holiday season—more than Cookie Day, Christmas Eve dinner, or crafting my family's "Star Chart." Even now, knowing what I do about the (un)sustainability of commercial tree farming, I'm fully willing to acknowledge that it has always been a magical day. I have long prided myself on choosing a tree with perfect sap content, plumpness, and moisture retention. The major difference between recent years and years past is that I always used to pick our tree from the discounted section at Lowe's. In truth, it didn't even matter that the tree was coming from a big box store where the trees had certainly been shipped from far, far away; it was still total magic. 

Now, my family makes a day of it—spending 3x the amount of money for a locally-grown tree that must be chopped down by hand. It's special. It's festive. It's an investment that I budget for in advance. It errs on the side of sustainability, and it keeps the money in our local agri-tourism economy. I do love the rural life. And as a result, there's a beautiful Canaan fir (with great sap content) sitting on my sister and brother's stoop.

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—S