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Geese on the Pond

Almost two weeks ago I started writing a post about the blessing of rain, but then so much else was happening that I never finished it. One good storm the day after Labor Day and there was water in our well again. The irony of the drought hasn’t escaped us: not only were we waterless in Waterville, we had feared a season of crops rotting in poorly-drained clay soil and so had kept our fingers crossed for a summer of easy, humble rain.

Almost two weeks have gone by and so much else has happened. All of a sudden it is cold in the morning and I go to the barn in long pants and a heavy sweatshirt. The air is crisp and the sun stays clear and low. Everything in the garden is taking a deep breath and slowing. Our meat birds are in the freezer and I picked the first of our winter squash this week. Change this fall is visceral.

Within the span of two days my family shifted a generation. On Saturday morning my ninety-one year-old grandfather passed away peacefully. Not even forty-eight hours earlier, on Thursday morning, my tiny niece was born. We went to meet her that afternoon and she was bundled up and so impossibly small, and she blinked round blue eyes up at her mother for the first time. She has perfect shoulders and a dimpled chin. She has a little button nose and soft brown hair, and she is named Ella June. Everyone spoke quietly, and we joked about wanting to throw her a half-day-old birthday party. I had never held a newborn baby before. It was as if everything was right in the world.

There is so much real life happening outside of the daily tasks that demand nearly all of our energy. I was reminded recently to slow down and appreciate small and beautiful moments: the feel of the sun, morning fog settled into a valley, geese on the pond, the taste of food that is good for us. The farm is a good place for slowing down and noticing. It is a good antidote to the haste of traffic and the stress of waiting tables. It is real in the sense that it is cyclical: chicks eat and grow up and are eaten. Seeds go into the dirt and turn into fruit which leaves behind seeds. It is real because it insists that I notice and appreciate all of these moments, from pigs ransacking the chicken coop to dainty white flowers becoming peas.

Nothing makes the pace of life more tangible than births and deaths. Last week I said goodbye to my grandfather and hello to my niece. In the meantime I dug potatoes and sorted onions, made bunches of golden sunflowers, listened to geese arrive for a visit, herded pigs back to where they’re supposed to be, and let tomato sauce simmer on the stove. I thought about what a blessing it is to be grounded by love.

I was tempted into farm life, in part, by romantic notions. I think that this is not an uncommon phenomenon for people of my age and background. I read, a lot, about the satisfaction of growing food. I wrote, a lot, and still do, about the beauty of nature in the garden. I had enough experience with farming to taste its rewards. I am young and agile, blessed with freedom and opportunity, and possess a healthy work ethic. On an instinctual level I am drawn to a lifestyle that includes barns and neat rows of vegetables, firewood and mud boots, sunflowers and fresh eggs.

There are a number of facts which must also be presented in order to convince the reader that I am not of the impression that farming is easy or practical. One; farming is exorbitantly priced. We do not own land, nor could we in the foreseeable future. Two; much of the work is physically detrimental. Slogging around with fifty pound bags of grain and buckets of water is not healthy for our backs and joints. Three; not only is farming exorbitantly priced, it is not, at least at this scale, economically viable. We both work otherwise, Jacob full time, in order to support our hobby. Jacob is trying to convince me that I will feel differently once we have several hundred pounds of pork in the freezer. For now, I can’t think about the fact that based on farmer’s market prices, we are paying ourselves approximately thirty cents an hour to grow vegetables. Four; farming means sacrificing the notion of free time. Seeds in the ground will turn into plants, which will bear fruit; weeds will somehow grow unnoticed until they are veritable trees; pigs and chickens and cows will need food and water twice a day, every day, and constant access to fresh grass and ground. Five; farming is exorbitantly priced. One needs land, seed, tools, water, fertilizer, animals, grain, fencing, electricity, fuel, insurance, labels and baskets and bags, row cover and mulch, compost, buckets, feeders, and more grain.

Despite these facts, working on a piece of land to raise animals and vegetables is undeniably alluring. There is so much romance to it:

Walking through dew-covered grass to the garden in the foggy, early morning air with a steaming mug of fresh coffee to sip on.

Crouching beside the first bed of newly emerging lettuce mix to see that it has grown into thick rows of perfectly formed leaves of deep purple and green.

Taking a break in the middle of a hot afternoon to lie in the shady grass and make plans for the future.

Waking up to birdsong in the morning and a soft, new breeze coming in through the window.

Falling asleep to crickets each night.

Walking to the barn in the moonlight on a frozen January night with the one I love, boots squeaking  on the blue snow. When we bring hay to the cows, they tear into it greedily, breath pulsing from their giant nostrils and hanging still in the air beneath the lamplight.

The slowly collapsing stone wall at the north end of the pasture, moss-covered and seemingly ancient.

An orange cat napping on a tall pile of warm hay.

A walk in the garden with a beer at sunset, just to look, when we’re allowed only to talk about what we’ve accomplished and not what still needs doing.

The smell and the smoothness of a ripe tomato.

 

We are blessed to be working and living on this land. We cannot afford ownership, but we are fortunate to be borrowing for a time. Our landowner is flexible and adventurous, and we have the chance and the challenge to create whatever we can imagine.

Life this summer is full of sweetness. There is nothing quite like being able to don boots, in the midst of baking blueberry muffins, to walk out to the chicken coop for a fresh egg.

 

 

 

I like the pigs this week. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that they are Mitt, Ron, Rick and  Newt. Jacob calls Mitt “the obvious frontrunner.” It’s true: somehow he is about 50% bigger than the other three. Jacob says he has seen Mitt napping in the feeder. It makes sense: he usually has the first and last bite, and I can see his long body fitting perfectly inside the cradle of their half-barrel trough. Usually I’m scared of the pigs, disgusted by their appetites, or mad that they’ve smeared poop across my calves. But this week things are changing.

I find it satisfying to watch them drink fresh, clear water out of their new ten-gallon bucket. They are the only animals we have who seem to drink water sensibly: the dog splashes most of it on the floor, the birds peck at it, the cat smacks at it with his Velcro tongue, the cows drink as if they have to siphon it through a straw. The pigs muscle over to the bucket and drink. You can hear them swallow, and sometimes I swear I can hear that same sigh of relief that we let out when our thirst has finally been quenched. Yesterday Mitt watched me out of the corner of his eye while I watched him drink.

The pigs will literally eat anything. Along with their grain, they’ve had waste milk, stale bread, cabbage leaves, whole basil plants, pickled green beans, sweet potato salad, samosas, and bushel baskets of garden scraps and veggies that don’t make the cut for the market. They move through the piles like vacuum cleaners, methodically absorbing every little morsel. Last weekend I watched Newt find a chunk of kohlrabi and steal it away for himself, carving into it with his bottom teeth, chopping and grunting, all the while glancing over his shoulder.

When we got home from the farmer’s market on Friday they were out. They’d somehow dug under the fence, and we drove up the driveway to find them standing outside the barn, faces buried in the buckets we use to sprout their corn and squash seeds. They went without their routine supper that night, and when I went to feed them Saturday morning they were still full. As the rest of them dutifully lined up at the trough, Ron opted to lie in the shade for a morning nap. I have never seen something like this at meal time.

Jacob keeps trying to convince me to spend more time scratching the pigs. He likes to egg me on as I watch them apprehensively from the other side of the fence: “Go on, get in there and give Mitt some love.” Lately I’ll give in and laugh as Mitt arches his back, pushing into my hand. His “fur” is wiry gold and thin, and my fingertips are instantly covered in a film of dust and dry skin. Jacob will scratch and scratch and pat their butts, showing me, “here’s the pork chops, shoulder roast, and all along here is the bacon.”

We set up a new fence on Saturday and moved them out onto a much larger pasture. Now they have grass reaching feet above their heads, a field of wild mint, and the shade of an apple tree. I haven’t seen them do too much exploring, though. They like to stick together, and they don’t like to stray too far from the barn, where cabbage leaves could arrive at any time.

Waking up from a slumber beneath the apple tree.

A good scratch against the fence                                                                 A good scratch against the fence.

Certain there must be lunch service today.

The Barnyard

Here’s a few shots from last Friday’s market, where we finally had lots of colors to display! Jacob with kohlrabi, kale, salad greens, basil, parsley, thyme, hot peppers, bell peppers, garlic, eggs, red, yellow and orange carrots, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, cucumbers, zucchini, cabbage and broccoli:

Today we finally have rain. It started last night, with a storm that brought a third of a tree onto the corner of our shed. Rain came racing through, nearly horizontal, and the wind made trees look like rubber bands. We huddled at the window and watched, with Blueberry Sonker in the oven, and I wondered if the tomatoes and peas would be flattened. I wondered what the cows would be doing with no roof to hunker beneath. This morning I found out: as I spread butter on my toast I looked up and there they were, grazing outside the window. They willingly followed Jacob back out to the pasture, where he discovered that two trees had come down over their fence. They must have been spooked; maybe they spent the whole night wandering. The cows weren’t the only ones feeling restless: when I went out to feed the chicks, a handful of them hopped out, and unfortunately had no interest in the breakfast that I had to offer them. I spent the next half an hour chasing them in circles, sweating and feeling like an ogre. I didn’t find it amusing.

I don’t have much grace when it comes to the animals. Our broodiest hen hisses at me when I look at her; she lifts a wing to let Jacob reach under her and take all of her eggs. When the pigs smell me coming, they scream and stand up, front legs hanging over the half-wall that we climb over to get to their feeder. They practically knock me down before I can empty their bucket of food, and they are about one quarter of the size they’ll be in another five months. When Jacob feeds them, they greet him cordially and step aside, waiting patiently while he serves them their supper. He scratches them and they smile up at him, thankful and polite.

When we moved the chicks onto fresh grass last Saturday, we sat for a minute watching them explore their new territory. It was their first encounter with the fence, and we soon realized that they are still just small enough to step right underneath it, unfazed. Each time I’d try to persuade them back through, they’d dodge me and flutter away; it seemed that all Jacob had to do was ask and they would lope back in. One bird evaded him. Each time Jacob would try to herd it one way, the chick would go the opposite. In and out of the fence, into the tall grass and over for a look at the pigs. But Jacob is never to be discouraged and almost never brought to frustration. He waited for the little chick to grow eager enough to be with the others, and as it headed back to the coop, he gently scooped it up and gave it a kiss.

Photos!

 Finally! A few quick snapshots to get you filled in.

The Farmhouse

Big barn and pig pasture

Our view of Laraway to the East

Gardens! Greens, Broccoli, Radishes, Flowers, Peppers

Corn and Squash Garden

Bachelor Buttons

Onions, Leeks and Shallots

Cherry Tomatoes just barely getting started!

The door to the chicken coop…

Our view of Mt. Mansfield to the South

The Pond.

Ishmael and Ophelia, with plenty to eat.

 More to come…

The Older Woman

These few days each June are special. I turned twenty-six on Sunday, and Jacob will be twenty-five tomorrow. We get to celebrate for days on end, and for three days I get to be two years older than Jacob. This morning he is at work and I am plotting surprises for tomorrow. There are souvenirs from Sunday’s party on Lake Champlain throughout the kitchen: half of a mocha-chocolate cake, barbecued chicken in the fridge, a (new to me) antique pitcher full of fresh daisies on the table, and a finally exhausted, gray-bearded dog napping on the cool floor.

Outside the house, a good day on the farm is under way. Here are the 11 am observations for Tuesday, June 19 (thank you NOAA):

The cows are taking a siesta. Avery and I walked out to check on their water, and I spotted them lounging in the shade of the big Maples that line their new pasture, chewing in the breeze.

The pigs are poky, pushy, fat, hungry, thirsty, and scabby. They’re busy pulling weeds for us in the corral outside the barn, cleaning up that patch of woebegone pasture where the cows spent their winter days.

Laundry is drying on the line.

Zucchini and yellow squash are making a miraculous recovery from last week’s onslaught of slugs, and are setting out new leaves and bright orange flowers.

Our first planting of beets is recovering- not miraculously, but recovering, nonetheless- from….we’re not sure what. Poor germination? Soil compaction? Flea beetles? They’ve been babied these past few weeks with lots of watering, fertilizer, and row cover, and they’re finally coming around.

There are 1/8th-inch-long sugar snap peas peeking out!

Our forty meat birds (round, yellow fluff-balls, rather) and nine chicks are eating and drinking and bickering under their heat lamp.

The meadow is soaking up warmth, and smells like sweet clover.

The corn is planted, the potatoes are leggy, and the second round of greens is coming on strong.

It is a good week for birthdays.

Our debut at the Essex Farmer’s Market on Friday was a success! Before the sun got too hot, we picked bushels of spinach and baby greens and made a mess of the kitchen washing, drying, and bagging them. While they cooled in the refrigerator, we played an interesting game of Tetris trying to fit tables, tent, coolers, boxes, baskets, scale and four flats of teenaged tomatoes and peppers into the back of the car. At the greenhouse, we picked carrots, beets, scallions and head lettuce, then rushed to get everything into shade and cold water before it went completely limp. The sky clouded up as we drove into town, and we hustled to unpack and set up our little green tent in Spot Number 22. I was nervous: had we brought enough? Were the kale bunches, the heads of lettuce, and the beet greens going to look like wet towels? Would people think our prices were fair? We filled our one modest table with dark greens, oranges, and reds, and by 7:30 had sold almost everything. In the meantime, we were able to trade for jam, fresh bread, and sweet potato salad, visit with family and friends who’d stopped by to see us, and share a six-inch tall Old Smoky from the local deli and a cone of Coffee Chip ice cream, homemade by the folks across the way.

In animal news, the piglets are here! We picked them up three weeks ago in Cabot. I have never seen such tantrums from animals. Pigs are supposedly very smart, though, and I’m not surprised that they were displeased at being nabbed, carried by their back legs with arms hanging to the ground, and stuffed four deep into a crate built for a medium-sized dog. They screamed and bawled and panted, and we rolled down the windows and turned up the music. All the way home, I wondered how, and why, and when, our conversation about growing vegetables on our own had turned into an attempt to also raise cows, hens, piglets, and the meat birds that are scheduled to arrive any day.

But people are eager for good food. Jacob already has takers, months out, for our pork and chicken. Market-goers on Friday were thrilled by locally-grown carrots on June 1st. So while raising animals is a much more overwhelming endeavor than tomatoes and kale, I keep telling myself that it will be just as valuable to us and to whomever we can feed. “Expensive pets,” Jacob reminds me whenever I threaten to chicken out of eating Ishmael, or our little piggies, when the time comes…

Between dinner shifts last weekend, I squeezed in the most beautiful morning adventure.

Our dear friend Grant was here for a surprise visit, and we woke up Sunday to one of the best spring days yet. At the picnic table over eggs and bacon, we talked about what we might be able to accomplish before I had to leave for work. Prepare a space in the barn for the four piglets that are on their way… plant more greens… install our deer/chicken/dog fence around the garden… or, we could take a walk in the woods and climb up that mountain we’ve been staring at all winter.

We went out empty-handed in jeans, the gray-bearded dog charging ahead. The forest was familiar up to the first mounded ridge and over the first two stream crossings and the rusted truck morphing into the ground. It was familiar to the foot of the hill, where the earth first begins to swell up in a young stand of hardwoods and where we had turned around on our cross-country skis this winter. Past that, we began our ascent of uncharted territory.

We found ourselves scrambling through long-since fallen and moss-covered boulders, and post-holing into piles of bouncy detritus. Grant and Jacob slung jokes about leadership and safety, mocking the ultra-deliberate style of adventure  which we had happily abandoned today.

“You bring your compass, Jacob?”

“Alright, let’s stop and discuss risk management here.”

They climbed up eagerly and without hesitation, Jacob nearly running in his ecstatic, boyish delight at being out in the woods, Grant as if he were on a rock wall, delicately placing his feet and hands, making it work in sneakers and black denim. I moved clumsily, clinging with sweaty hands to anything solidly adhered to what I perceived as a perilous cliff. Avery panted and clambered straight up, muscles rippling, crazed by the anti-histamine steroids she’s been having every day at breakfast. At one particularly bleak move, I secretly prayed that I would be able to use her as an excuse to turn around, but she took one look and powered upward, arms outstretched, a veritable Yvon Chouniard. So I took her advice and continued, stepping, reaching, and shifting my weight carefully.

By the time we reached the top, and found that it was in fact a false top, it was past time to turn around. A warm breeze ran through the band of hardwoods we’d landed in and we stood to catch our breath and peek through the trees at the surrounding hills.

Our descent took us south through the freshly budding branches, past a modest wall that we had to stop and inspect for the potential for top-roping, and along a drainage that quickly dropped into a narrow, rocky gorge. We tumbled down around it, through “ankle-breaking territory” and finally back to the old logging road. At the second stream-crossing, all four of us stripped down and dipped into the one sunlit pool deep enough to sink our bodies into: the first true taste of summertime, the cold, shocking welcome of the outside world.

On our giddy lumber back to the house, I felt a new excitement about this place. I thought of John Muir and his philosophy about the importance of expanding perspectives. He wrote that, “all that is necessary to make any landscape visible and therefore impressive is to regard it from a new point of view…Then we behold a new heaven and earth and are born again, as if we had gone on a pilgrimage to some far-off holy land and had become new creatures…”

I felt just like that on Sunday morning. I felt born again, rejuvenated by the simple pleasure of this piece of land. Grant and Jacob and I had gone on a sort of pilgrimage, had had a sort of baptism in our proud little river.

I feel differently about this farm now that I know it a bit better. It was good to just enjoy it for a day.

Update!

There are new, wide cobwebs in the barn this morning that remind me of Charlotte’s Web. It’s a beautiful spring day, bright green and rainy, and just damp enough to want a fire in the woodstove.

We were happy to see the rain this weekend! As the clouds crept up and over Mt. Mansfield on Saturday morning, we hurried to build a few small beds in the garden and plant beets and peas. The soil has been dusty and dry, and the spinach we put in a week ago has been patiently awaiting a watering. On Thursday we borrowed the tractor and tilled the three plots we’d prepared in late fall, plus a new, fourth garden that will be a good place for corn and squash. We think it all looks great, and unfortunately so do the chickens… before we plant too much more, we’ll have to set up some fencing.

Our plants in the greenhouse have been transformed by last week’s sunshine. We’ve moved all of the tomatoes, and almost all of the peppers, into bigger pots so their roots will have more space in the weeks before they are planted outside. This weekend Jacob trimmed the onions back so that they’ll grow wider as well as taller. I planted the first round of flowers, which presented some logistical challenges: some require a temperature of fifty-five degrees to germinate while others require eighty-five degrees; the larkspur needs a chill period of thirty-five degrees and darkness for seven days (a requirement met, I found out with relief, by storing our seeds in the refrigerator).

We are pleased to announce that we have our first CSA member! Jacob says that the only thing worse than having no members might be having just one, but I have faith that we’ll find our five. We have a spot in the Essex Farmer’s Market, which begins in just under six weeks. We’re hoping to have spinach, salad greens, lettuce, beets, carrots, kale and chard by then. We’ll also need to create a display, so we’re scavenging for folding tables and some form of shade tent, and designing shelving and signs.

From the bookkeeping desk… we recently acquired our Tax ID number and are ready to start a bank account for the farm. This is great- it will allow us to separate farm money from our own, and force us to keep finances organized and keep track of all expenses, from potting soil and grain to seeds and farmer’s market fees. This is perhaps the most intimidating part of the whole project for me- paperwork, finances, rules and regulations – and luckily we have some great resources to guide us, including family (some of whom practice law and find excellent tidbits for us such as Anne Higby’s “Legal Structure of the Farm Business,”  which is basically a step-by-step for the beginner), the VT Agency of Agriculture and NOFA. Next up is to find the insurance we’ll need for the farmer’s market…

Jacob will start his new schedule at High Mowing next week, squeezing forty hours into four days, and will have a three-day weekend to work here. I’ll also be reducing my work load to three nights at the Bee’s Knees, and plan to spend my days in the garden. Hope it rains just enough but not too much!

P.S. I know I need to post pictures. They’re coming.

 

 

 

 

 

Digging In

I’ve been feeling nervous lately. Our list-making has turned into check-writing and seed-planting. Our garlic has pushed up through the mulch and is looking around. After a week of summer and then nights in the single digits, we’ve been shuffling our fragile plant starts between greenhouse and back living room. We have two months until our first market. It appears as though this thing is happening.

I’m nervous because although we’ve been here for four months, it’s just now settling in that we’ll see seasons change here; we’ll put seeds in the ground and care for them through fruition here; we’ve got a commitment to this little piece of earth that is just becoming tangible. This is one of my internal dilemmas: I long to settle in, and I long for a little piece of earth to take care of; simultaneously, I long for change and adventure- all my life I’ve been too easily bored. And so it’s the work that’s scary but also the being here, the chores morning and night, the staying here.

My best friend came to visit last weekend. She showed up late Friday night, her long brown hair dyed red at the tips. She came into the house laughing, which is what she does for my soul. Out of her shoulder bag emerged a pound of fresh coffee, music, a new cookbook, and then a pineapple, which cracked her up. “I bought this at Trader Joe’s!” – the absurdity of which cracked her up again. April is my reminder of real life. She can worship farm fresh eggs as well as the next guy, then waltz into my living room with her spandex and boots and her spiky Chiquita pineapple.

April lives in Portland, Maine. I told her that if I had a city life right now hers would be it: funky apartment littered with art projects, a job at a corner bakery with butcher blocks and massive windows, bars and dance parties and friends with dogs who chase kids on the beach. When she came here, she told me that the city isn’t right for her right now, that if she had a country life mine would be it. She told me over coffee, eggs and toast, and a glass of champagne, “I know you know how much you have…how lucky you are…but Katie, I would do this in a second if I had someone to do it with.”

It is sometimes lonely here. I sometimes feel that I should be in a city, or at least a town, with people my age. I sometimes fear that I’m too young to be out here in the quiet with the barn and the record player and the gray-bearded dog. I sometimes regret turning down an opportunity to go backpacking in Montana for three weeks this summer.

This spring is about digging in. It is for doing the things that I have talked about and dreamed about. It is for understanding the choice I’ve made to move my life here and grow food from the ground. It is not forever; we are borrowing and exploring. This season is about knowing what I have and taking care of it.