“I’m new to this livestock thing,” I said to the 30-year feed store veteran, after asking him whether straw shortages are common.
Hearing this thought out loud brought out an awareness that in piecing together this farm, we are far-extended into new territory. Pioneers born out of a generation gap in the how-tos of farming before machinery and electricity, running water.
This year alone, we’ve learned how to raise chickens and ducks, how to kill and butcher, how to shear sheep, wash fleeces, card wool, hand spin, how to store salted meat, have tasted milk from nearly every animal producing it off our neighboring farms, made butter, knitted cat fur (to prove a point), discovered the essential characteristics and differences between a mule and a donkey, found out oxen are just cows and that Jerseys are smaller and produce creamier milk, keylining and subsoiling, contouring, the history of the NRCS, the Yellow Sweeting is the oldest variety of named apples in the United States, grant-writing skills, that sheep produce pelleted nitrogen that is nearly double the concentration of horse and cow manure combined, uses for common “invasives,” that rye is like candy to chickens, and what a stoat is. The list goes on and continues to grow each day.
It’s intimidating, it’s enthralling, it’s an education born out of necessity. And it takes unadulterated commitment. Commitment to be willing to try and fail, to trust your own ideas, to trust the ideas of others, to re-learn what worked in the past, no matter how much work it entails in the present, to build community, to ask for help, to cross into new territory with a kind of unabashed curiosity. To know your own boundaries and to push them constantly.
This is new and sometimes painful growth. It is growth that comes on in the flush of a sudden rainfall, post drought. So many ideas curled up into one Bing cherry, pushing the flesh until it nearly cracks open. We have come to this place and have been careful to follow the subtle messages the land affords us: Carrots will grow well here, whisper the Queen Anne’s lace; Plant your asparagus there, say the reseeded brassicas.
Ghosts of old farmers are with us everywhere, in the old nails dug up as we begin planting posts for new grazing lands, a paint brush uncovered, a license “farm” plate from the 1950s, a playing card that frightens me with its taboo lineage, flowers planted in the 1940s still blooming with the story of the woman who tended them, the old apple tree with its graft grown through producing once again. My child wanders up to the chicken coop and I feel an urgency to close the door, but the door slams ahead of him and stays put. Likely wind, but I call aloud, “Thank you, Louis!” The way we were told DeYoung’s wife used to call for him, the latter part of his name affording a shrill upward slant from the start – “Lou-eee!”
We are both observing and interacting, weaving in intricate dance between the knowing and the showing. Building a foundation whose form is made from fitted stone, rather than the simple configuration of brick on brick. The community, the history, the farm life acting as a blueprint that is ever-shifting into greater efficiency. Solid, yet fluid. Hungry, yet satisfied.
So, that when I say, “I’m new to this,” I do not mean I am naive, but rather on new territory. I am not fledgeling, I am pioneering.