October 27, 2012
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One year ago today, in the midst of a freak snow and ice storm, we arrived in Schoharie NY, armed with a bunch of books on farming and some pretty grand notions, and started our new life. The plan was to see if we even liked farming for a year. Would goats be fun to milk, or would we resent them? Would lambs be cute or repulsive? Would we be welcomed or run off? These were the questions we could only answer by experiencing farming first hand. We gave ourselves a one-year trial period, and in that time we have answered many questions, and raised many more. Here are the top 25 things we have learned in the last 365 days.
1. Goats are more fun than expected
Man, we love goats! They’re the highlight of the day. They all have personalities, can be reasoned with (unlike sheep), and are quite easy to keep. We knew we would like them, but when you have your eyes set on a goat cheese operation, it’s a relief to discover you truly enjoy the animal you may spend the rest of your life with.
2. There is more to the dairy business than meets the eye
We thought we’d get some goats, milk them, and make some cheese. Simple pimple. It turns out there are a great deal more regulations, requisite facilities and governmental inspections involved than we would prefer. So until we can piece together a milking parlor, a milk house, and a cheese plant and an aging cave, we’ll have to keep making our raw goat cheese for home consumption only.
3. There is a use for everything
I wrote about “stuff” early on, and we’re still beating that drum. There is little you can’t build out of some wooden pallets and zip ties. I’m forever hauling “finds” home from hither and yon, just in case they will come in handy. The same can be said for food and food scraps. I work for a food co-op in Albany, and I graciously haul home boxes and buckets of produce scraps, moldy bread, and leftover deli food for the pigs and chickens to enjoy. It keeps the food from going to waste, and gives us some relief from ever climbing feed costs. With a steady diet of Ezekiel bread, goat milk, and kale, we figure our pork will be amazing, and taste approximately like a hippie would taste, if we were allowed to smoke and eat them.
4. Fashion is optional
Neither Thomas nor I were particularly caught up on fashion when we lived in the city, but we were prone to wearing pointy shoes and tight jeans on occasion. The only dress code on the farm is that the hole in the crotch of your jeans must be smaller than a cat to be worn outdoors, and there should be limited pig shit on your trousers when appearing in a public place. The thrift store is no longer a source of ironic baby-tees to wear out to the club, but the place we actually go shopping for clothing, because that’s what the budget will allow. So we apologize in advance if we’re not quite a sharp looking as we used to be when we show up to your new baby’s bris brunch. We have a couple hundred mouths to feed, and we like them more than the fall line.
5. People are more open minded than expected
We fully expected some gay bashing and some awkward moments when we moved to the sticks. I find that red necks are more aggressive in the South, and just kind of keep to themselves up here in the North. If anything, we have found people genuinely excited to meet younger farmers moving to their area to keep a lifestyle alive. (No, not that lifestyle, the farm lifestyle.) People are truly more open-minded and accepting that we are told they are by our media, politicians and religious leaders.
6. We can kill things
We can kill and eat our own meat. Previously, killing was reserved for injured or ill animals, but now we have seen life full circle. We have hatched eggs, raised the chickens, killed and cleaned said chickens, and made delicious meals from them. It feels as satisfying as it tastes.
7. Being poor can feel like a million dollars, if you eat well
The other day while at work, I was chatting with a customer about our farming venture, and what we’re working towards. He plainly asked if Thomas and I were trust fund babies to be able to afford such a change of lifestyle. I’m pretty sure I snorted with laughter. If we are trust fund babies, nobody has let us in on that secret. Every purchase down to a cup of coffee is considered now, and if a more frugal option exists, that option is taken. We eat largely from our garden, and our store of frozen and canned goods. Managing our tiny trickle of income is a constant concern, but when you sit down to a meal of braised Muscovy, leeks and purple cabbage, aside herbed mashed potatoes, as we did last night, and every ounce of it came from your land and your hands, there is no richer feeling in the world.
8. Walmart is horrible, yet occasionally necessary
It’s been weighing heavy on my conscience that we have shopped at Walmart. I’m not proud. I’d rather shop anywhere. But sometimes you need cat litter, and you’re on the wrong side of town, and it’s just the only option. Since becoming poor, we have softened our stance on Walmart shoppers. Some people truly have no option besides the cheapest option there is, and others don’t have a taste for beautiful, whole, local foods despite their relative abundance in this area.
9. You can dress up cheap booze by changing the bottle
If you pour Gordon’s gin into a Tanqueray bottle, you can even fool yourself into thinking it’s the good stuff. Just make sure you’re mixing it. Pouring Jim Beam into a handsome decanter will serve the same purpose.
10. Blogging about something takes as much time as doing something
We find it terribly difficult to get around to blogging about farming when we are actually doing the farming. I know people hire bloggers to do their blogging, and others hire farmers to do their farming, and others hire people to do both. We don’t have such luxuries, so for now, we’ll keep on doing both to the best of our abilities. And as much as the phrase, “I love your blog” makes me ill, thank you for those who are interested in what we’re doing up here. Keep on sending your good thoughts and energy our way.
11. Cooking is a pleasure not a chore
One of the biggest adjustments from city to country was the change in eating habits. We don’t have food delivery up here, and we don’t have the Whole Foods salad bar around the corner. To eat, we must cook. Thomas and I were both reared in the kitchen, so daily cooking was a welcomed return to our roots.
12. Pigs are really cool
Similar to our unexpected affection for goats, we just love pigs, and expect to have many more of them in the future. Pork may be our only profitable product for some time. We will slaughter our first pig next week, and as hard as that will be, we know that pig had a superior life, as will the future generations born on our farm.
13. There is life without nightlife
We often laugh when we go to bed at 10:00pm that in our previous life we would have just been getting showered and dolled up for a night out on the town. Not so much anymore. With no TV, no reliable Internet, and no bars down the street, bedtime comes early, and yet we are still happy. Likewise, there is life with limited cell phone and Facebook usage. We promise.
14. Muscovy ducks reproduce like rats
Thankfully they are delicious, and great foragers if allowed to range. We have a good number in our freezer and have several more to join them before winter sets in. We think they are the perfect farmstead duck, and everyone should have a few.
15. You can neuter a cat on a picnic table
People dump cats near farms. Then the cats reproduce. Then those cats reproduce. It’s a nasty situation, especially when you love cats, but hate the fact that they crap in your hay, and indirectly kill your livestock by spreading toxoplasmosis. To help with the feline overabundance on the farm, we asked a veterinarian friend for help. She graciously came to the farm and neutered as many boys as we could catch, right on the picnic table. Exterior genitalia are more easily removed than the internal types, and though we neutered our goats ourselves, we figure we’d leave the cats to an expert. Until the girls are all done, there won’t be much difference in the starving kitten population around here, but we’re doing our best to help.
16. You can find friends anywhere
Much to our relief, there are quality folks all over this planet, and it didn’t take us long to find a few new friends. We found them in Albany. We found them at work. We found them at the feed store. We found them through answering Craigslist ads.
17. Craigslist can solve any problem
We have Craigslist to thank for much of our farming adventure. Our farm rental itself was the result of a Craigslist posting. We’re big advocates of putting it out there on Craigslist when it comes to apartment hunting. When you are clear about what kind of tenant you are, and what kind of property you are looking for, it’s easier for the property to find you. We have found sheep, poultry, goats on Craigslist, and keep our eyes open for peacocks, alpacas, llamas, livestock guardian dogs and new farms.
18. Small farms can be part of the problem as well as the solution
The local food movement spends so much of its time and energy fighting, fearing, and resisting the corporate agricultural giants, and rightly so. The sad truth is that many old school small farmers are no more humane or sustainable in their practices than are the corporate backed giant firms. There is a preference to lock animals in dark barns and coops rather than let animals graze, forage and behave naturally in the sun. Some farmers will take their (possibly) grass fed animals to a livestock auction, a borderline inhumane experience unto itself, and then take their earnings to buy antibiotic-laden feedlot-fattened midwestern meat from Walmart. We plan to reinvent and reeducate ourselves every year, but many farmers are going out of business rather than trying new techniques, or in some case reverting to old time techniques. The only way we can fight it is to do things the right way, or the more right way. A locally produced, humanely raised diet has proven to be incredibly diverse and delicious, and incidentally “healthy.”
19. You can cook anything in a cast iron skillet or a Le Cruset Dutch Oven
One of the most important things on which to judge a potential mate is their cookware. As Thomas and I both had the same cast iron skillet when we met, we knew it was meant to be. What we didn’t know we were missing was a Le Cruset Dutch oven. I’m sure there are other brands, but why mess around. This thing is amazing, and was a gracious housewarming gift from our friend, and fellow aspiring farmer Bann. If roasting and stewing are in your repertoire (and they should be) put one on your Christmas list now.
20. The most useful farm tool is the internet
There have been many times in the last year where we wished we had Internet access in the barn. It seems contradictory to think that old time farming practices are alive and well online, but they are. Sometimes a Google search for a picture of a particular skin rash or a quick YouTube video about gutting a rabbit are all you need to make an informed decision. Along with our growing group of farmy friends, we have formed Facebook groups of “Chicken Friends” and “Goat and Sheep Friends” and both are invaluable tools for getting advice on all aspects of animal husbandry. A lot of what was once passed along word of mouth can be shared across the country instantly. There are dozens of livestock specific websites and message boards. Backyardchickens.com has occupied a shameful number of hours in my life. If you have a question, there is really no better place to find the answer than the Internet.
21. A chest freezer can change your life
Thomas’s father and stepmother gave us the gift of food preservation. One thing we didn’t trust to Craigslist was a big freezer to help us keep all of our hard earned food. You can find plenty of cheap ones, but if a freezer with 150 pounds of pork, 40 pounds of lamb, 18 chickens, and 15 ducks, and bushels of produce goes out, you feel pretty bad about it. Not having the means to purchase a nice new freezer ourselves, Marty and Angela came to the rescue and sent us a mammoth freezer. It’s coffin sized. Like big American person coffin sized. We love it, and we love them. (And not just because they buy us pretty things.)
22. Changing your life is quick, easy, and possible
We often have trouble believing that we changed everything about our lives in 1 year. Actually it took less time than that- maybe 3 or 4 months. I suppose we had nothing to lose, but so many people hold themselves back from trying or creating something new. We’re glad we didn’t wait for the “right” time, because it’s always the right time to make yourself happy.
23. It’s very easy to bullshit
Honesty seems entirely optional these days, but Thomas and I were raised right. We only speak and write the truth. So if we say we did something, we did it. It’s simple with Facebook and blogs to misrepresent yourself and whatever it is you happen to be selling in the glossiest manner imaginable. It’s commonplace in politics or infomercials, but you expect farmers to be a more upstanding sort. Not always true. The very co-op I work for sells hundreds of dozens of “torture eggs” a week that all have words like “cage free” on them. As soon as a term is created, it is co-opted by someone else to sell his or her inferior product. “Natural,” “free range” and increasingly “organic” don’t mean much anymore. Get to know your farmer, and see first hand what she’s up to. Proud farmers aren’t ashamed to show you what’s going on.
24. We like farming
This was the right move. We get up early. We go to bed tired. We have no money, but we eat like kings. We can’t imagine a more honest career. It just feels right, and we’re going to keep on doing it.
25. We like each other
If anything could drive a wedge in a relationship, a complete change in location, career, and lifestyle might have done it. But it didn’t. We’re more committed to our new life and our life together than ever before.