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An Undiscovered Joy

It is December and I am hoping, as I have for the past several years, for a white Christmas. When I was small it was winter by now and it had been for weeks. I wore snow pants and my Turtle Fur neck warmer to school, my nose and chin soaked and frozen from breathing into a wall of fleece. We bought ski passes at the Snow Bowl because it was worth it. Christmas was always white. The roads were bad on the way to church and we went sledding in the yard, my hastily-tied boots filling with clumps of snow that numbed my shins.

I think about skiing with my little niece, Ella. She will have skis barely longer than her bindings, and rear-entry boots with one buckle. She will want to take a break to drink hot chocolate and we’ll have to stuff hand-warmers in her mittens. I wonder if she will have enough snow days, if there will be storms that dump enough that she can jump off the roof into tall banks of powder.

On Monday night I put lights in the windows and listened to cheesy Christmas music on the radio. It poured rain and I kept peeking at the thermometer, trying to will the red needle to drop below forty-two. “Let’s get our tree!” I keep saying to Jacob. We could go into our woods, but I’m pretty sure we cut the only scrawny Balsam out there last year. I want to walk across the street, where families arrive by the vanload on the weekends to pick out trees. I am surprised that it is already December, that it is the 13th and Christmas is in less than two weeks. It doesn’t feel like it yet; maybe it’s the rain.

We renewed our lease and are staying on the farm for at least another year. The High Mowing catalogue came out and we are talking about seeds, about finding more CSA members, and about tilling up more space. I wonder about the weather. Our crops could have been twice as prolific had it rained. We don’t have an irrigation system, which many growers depend on regardless of rainfall. We watered by hand when we could, but our well is shallow and we often didn’t have enough water for the house and barn. Maybe we don’t need a bigger garden, I keep thinking. We just need some water in the soil. Next year could be just as dry, or drier. We could have more rain than we know what to do with. Maybe we’ll have a white fourth of July.

Next year’s weather is an unknown, but it always has been. We may not have as much water as we want, but we’ll have water, and our vegetables will grow. We will eat well. Our animals will be healthy and we’ll have eggs and meat. I worry, though, about what’s to come in five, ten and thirty years. I think it’s likely that the local food culture, at least in Vermont, is diverse and agile enough to adapt, albeit clumsily, perhaps, to rapid changes in weather patterns. I’m not so sure about what Christmas in Vermont will feel like; if our next generation will be able to teach their children to ski; if each new season will be as arresting; if sap will run from maple trees each spring; if the geese will come and go and the robins will pick at fat worms; if we’ll swim in cold, clear rivers and fall asleep at night to the sound of peepers singing through our screens.

The farm has been teaching me all along that things change. The garden is constantly evolving, from snow-covered to bare earth to an unruly pattern of greens. Two weeks ago we had four pigs who scratched and ate and snorted. Now they are frozen, in neatly packaged pieces, and the cows have taken their place in the barn. The pile of firewood expands and contracts. The washing machine leaks and then it doesn’t, there’s water in the well and then there isn’t. The gray-bearded dog put on a scraggly winter coat and the cat in the barn is all of a sudden husky. The pasture is green and then it is brown, the pond is still and then it is frozen. Underneath it all is the comforting realization that this is the way things work, that this is the normal current of life. We may not have a white Christmas this year, and the roads may be frustratingly clear on the way to church. Maybe the holidays won’t feel exactly as they have in the past, and perhaps there is an undiscovered, comforting joy in the embrace of change.

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I can’t stop thinking about what’s going to happen to the pigs. I will eat them, of course, in thick strips of bacon smothered in maple syrup. They will arrive back at our house in a pickup truck, a pile of frozen pieces marked with neon orange stickers that read, “Not For Sale.” Sausage patties of them will sizzle in our cast iron skillet. We will use a long, sharp knife to cut through one of their hams at Easter dinner. But before then, the pigs have to be killed. A man whose name I do not know will come to the farm and shoot them one at a time. When I mention this in casual conversations, it is as if I really believe in it: “Actually, I’m glad for the pigs that it will happen this way. I think it’s best for them,” followed by the statement that I don’t plan to be home that day.

Jacob tries to reassure me of the rationality of this process while we’re lying in bed at night and tears are welling in my eyes. “The others will know, when the first one goes, that something is up,” I worry.                                                                      “Katie, you can’t think of it that way. Their lives aren’t like our lives.”

When I wrangle myself up and over the half-wall into their pen, dropping down into the boiling sea of fatness, I have to brave the pushing and snorting and trampling, the smearing of muck-covered snouts across my boots and jeans. On more than one occasion I have been knocked off of my feet, their precious organic grain spewing into the dusty compost only to be ground out of sight by their high-heel hooves. If I can distract them, then jump in and rush to the trough before they arrive, someone’s mammoth hide will pin me in a wrestling hold against the barn wall. And as all of this is happening they are staring. Out of the corners of their beady, sad little eyes they are looking at me.

We tried to lift just one end of Mitt Romney a few days ago – Jacob on one leg, me on the other, just to see if we could get him off the ground. His face was buried in supper, and he seemed to notice us about as much as a dump truck would notice rolling over a grain of sand. As I firmed up my grip on the fat rolls and we attempted to lift, I got a blast of flatulence square in the face.

When Jacob was gone for a week in September, the pigs found their way through the fence five times. When I snuck out of town for twenty-four hours and Jacob’s dad came over to check in on everybody, I got a call reporting that, “the candidates were out again. Out by the pond. Yeah, they came running right back when I called.” Of course, like all of the animals on the farm, the pigs are trained to respond to the Keszey family whistle. If I’m lucky I need only to shake a little grain and whistle twice and they will follow back through their gate. “Whew,” they seem to say, “that was weird. Thanks.” Other times, I am far less interesting to them. If they have made their way out to the cows, they would rather socialize. If they have discovered a gold mine of chicken poop, they pretend they can’t hear me. If they would rather trot through the yard, take laps around the picnic table, and peek into our windows, I don’t have a chance.

“You should just take a sacrificial ham off of Mitt on Tuesday,” Matt says as he’s cooking dinner at the Bee’s Knees.

“They have another four weeks!”

“You never know, though. That could make the difference in the election.”

I am reaching up to the shelf for a Band-Aid and the tassels of my scarf are dangling too close to the pile of sausage Ben is processing. It is delicious, fresh sausage from the owners’ farm. Their pigs were slaughtered just a week ago, and we had a sample the next day. It was spicy and orange grease pooled on the plate. I thought, okay, this makes sense. You raise a pig, you get a healthy source of protein. This is how it is supposed to happen. Now, lying on the cutting board, the pile of meat is pink and raw. “This is what Mitt Romney is going to look like!” my mind is screaming. I turn, bandage my finger, and push through the swinging kitchen doors.

When the pigs are loose in the barn, they saunter into the chicken coop like four obtuse women clip-clopping into a parlor for afternoon tea. Their hooves on the bare barn floor, their butt cheeks bouncing with each step. In my mind, they wear lace-covered hats and clutch wrinkled leather purses to their bosoms. They saunter in with such entitlement, four beastly sisters bored with each other’s company and wanting to get the whole thing over with. “Ladies! We’re here. Give us some shortbread.” The poor startled chickens must be younger cousins, forever bullied and barged in upon.

Ron Paul has a perm. The other three have straight, wiry hair, but Ron’s coat is thick and wavy. The others are an orange-brown with an occasional spatter of black. Ron is so red he is almost mauve, and he is tinted white. He is the only one who hydrates mid-meal, and consequently is by far the smallest. I sometimes wonder if things would be different had he won the primary.

By December, we will no longer have pigs to feed morning and night. We will no longer spend seventy dollars a week on Morrison’s Organic Swine Grower. I will no longer have to brave jumping into the snake pit of fat. We will have a freezer overflowing with neatly packaged pieces of Mitt, Ron, Rick and Newt. I think I will miss seeing them out there rolling in the mud, smiling out of their contented eyes.

October Report

Happy Fall! Our CSA and farmer’s markets are over, and we’re busy putting the gardens away for winter. Here are a few shots from the last market on October 5:

 

All of a sudden the leaves have fallen. The garden has frozen, thawed, and frozen again. The onions, garlic, potatoes, and squash have been harvested and are curing in preparation for winter storage. The freezer is full of chickens, tomato sauce, pesto, blueberries and blackberries, green beans, peppers, broccoli, zucchini, kale and chard. Jars are lined up on whatever kitchen surfaces we can find, full of pickled green beans and cucumbers, tomatoes, and pears. There are carrots and beets awaiting more permanent storage in the root cellar. The garden is nearly empty, save for a few beds of hardy fall crops- kale, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and kohlrabi- tucked inside cozy tents of row cover.

Over the weekend, we pulled out the corn, sunflowers, tomatoes, leeks and peppers and tore up the ten beds of plastic mulch that kept all of our squash (nearly) weed-free. We still need to clean out the last few beds – herbs, flowers, carrots, and beets, and finish planting a cover crop of winter rye and clover. There’s talk of tilling up more space for next year, in the pillowy meadow that Jacob mowed on Friday just north of the big garden. And we’ll need to plant garlic before too long. The days are short now, and there are no more evening projects that can be tackled after Jacob’s long drive home from work. The mornings stay cold, and the gray-bearded dog and I have to bundle up before we go out to the barn for morning chores.

It’s been difficult to prioritize this work of putting the gardens away; there’s other fall work that needs doing and there are new seasons to think about. We still need to cut more firewood and see the pigs through these last few weeks of their happy lives. We need to better secure our barn for winter: last week an intruder snuck into the chicken coop and killed half of our birds. The remaining ten walk around quietly, still traumatized, waiting to meet the new laying hens that we still need to find. There is chimney cleaning and a siding project on the house. The list is long and but the days are short, and we are trying to make autumn last as long as we can. There are friends visiting from out of town. There are hikes to take and pumpkin pies to bake. There are jobs at the Bee’s Knees and High Mowing in the meantime. We are even starting to dream of a winter visit to the Tetons…

Last weekend we spent two days in Middlebury with my family and my brand new niece. She slept and cooed and took her first trip to the apple orchard, a little tiny bundle of cheeks and button nose and skinny legs. Soon it will be time for her to make a trip to the farm. She’ll have to bundle up and come out to the barn with me, boots squeaking in the snow, to bring Ophelia and Fern their hay. Someday. For now, I am enjoying the warmth of the sun and the smell of woodsmoke, surprising and wonderful all over again each autumn.

                                                      Pig Face

Pig ButtsPig Butts

Ophelia, Enjoying the Sunshine

Fall Cows

Corn and Squash Garden

Empty Corn and Squash Garden!

A Few Remaining Beds of Cabbage, Kohlrabi, Kale and Spinach

…and again, without Tomatoes, Sunflowers and Leeks!

 Beets, Carrots and Greens Covered Up for Fall

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.