sustainable farming

ON WASHING DISHES + JOURNEYING FOR LAND

 
on washing dishes

On Sunday, with half a loaf of sourdough, a jar of almonds, and our farm boots packed up, my little family loaded into our Volvo station wagon and headed an hour south. Over rolling hills, along the edge of the state forest, and down narrow dirt roads, Mark and I settled into the familiar conversations that accompany our car trips — What are your dreams? What will we eat for supper? When will we visit Greece again? — until we arrived at the nondescript, half-mile drive of a beautiful farm. As part of a yearlong early career farming program we've participated in since last fall, we are paired with farm mentors in our state. We requested this particular farm run by these particular farmers, and are we ever glad. Mark strapped the baby on and we helped the husband-wife team setup a bit of electric fencing for their Jersey steers, Katahdin lambs, and Kunekune hogs. I asked as many questions as I could spit out, but for every answer I thought of 20 more. Farmer wisdom is like maple syrup: when the weather is right, you tap the trees. We talked about pasture grasses and intergenerational farming. Every farmer is a touch crazy, we joked (in seriousness); living with land and beast is Truly, So Good, we agreed (in longing). We imagined if their farm were ours but, more than that, we imagined what will be ours, someday, some way.

washing the dishes
washing the dishes

Sometimes the goal feels faraway, and hard to grasp; cerebral, even. Other times we are living and breathing it, working it into being. Both versions have their place—are necessary, even. To quote my dad who is quoting Thich Nhat Hanh, "Scam, when you're washing the dishes, wash the dishes." And that's just it. Accepting and sinking into everything. Sometimes you're watching your dream unfold as your husband sets up pasture with your baby on his chest; sometimes you're folding another heap of laundry. Days like Sunday are critical for us. They illuminate what's possible, inevitably renewing our faith in the good and decent work of human beings. On my part, days on farms are like a sliver of my past life—a dazzling memory of what I (willingly) gave up when I became a mother, and a glimmer of what I know I will reclaim someday, some way. Everything in its turn.

For every Sunday, there is a Monday, in which the dishes need washing. If less glamorous, making a home and making a budget and making a loaf of bread are critical, too. I awoke Monday, saw Mark off to work with his lunch (turns out I love packing my husband's lunch), set bagel dough out to rise, and then visited the backyard with Rosemary. We sat down by the young, small milkweed—really getting down low to observe it, this little plant that I transplanted in hopes it might attract just one pollinator—and do you know what we saw? A monarch caterpillar.

So, say it with me (and my dad, and Thich Nhat Hanh),
"When you're washing the dishes, wash the dishes."

washing the dishes

—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.