Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Kara adds more bedding to the stall in the back of the cargo van, with Suzie the cow peeking over the top of the board. A bystander was watching, wondering why on earth she was throwing bedding into the van! Photo by Ann Berlage.
Read Part 1 of this series here.
It was after picking up the two pigs and winding their way north to Vermont that the new twists in the plot of the cross-country cow trek for my sister Kara and mother, Ann, began. It started out with a bit of fun diversion from all the endless driving — staying over with our intern Sam at Green Mountain College, where she’s finishing her senior year (with plans to rejoin us at the farm this summer!).
Attached to the campus is an experimental farm, where Ann and Kara got to meet Sam’s capstone project — oxen calves training to be team pullers, named Moon and Shine. They toured the campus, checked out the locally-focused cafeteria, and made the final preparations to the cargo van for loading what were fast becoming known as our celebrity cows.
Back at the Farm
Meanwhile, Steve and I were holding down the farm. Besides minding the shop at Farmstead, with all the comings and goings of folks making preparations for Thanksgiving, we chased after escapee turkeys, fixed busted piglet pens, hauled endless buckets of water and bales of hay, dodged the back end of the donkey, and scratched our heads over the intricacies of the plumbing in the aquaponics greenhouse.
When chores are customarily split between a group of people, each learns little intricacies that, over time, seem natural (the particular twist of your wrist to latch that gate or in which direction to pour the grain so the ram lambs don’t get their heads wedged in the fence as they covet what someone else is eating).
All those little things we weren’t privy to, making for hilarious flubs or needing two people for a task that might have been accomplished by one if we actually knew what we were doing! Needless to say, most of the days were spent doing chores, minding the shop, and then doing more chores.
And there were all the questions: “Are the cows back yet?” “Is the weather OK for them?” “Where are they stopping?” “How are they holding out with all the driving?” “How are the roads?” “How are they handling the smell?” I had folks stopping, phone calls, even Facebook messages! But there was one phone call we weren’t expecting on the day of the cow pickup.
“Hey, you guys have got to hear this…” Mom started on a cell phone call mid-day, amid historical yet exasperated laughter. “Kara and Sam are in Sam’s car, ahead of me. They have all the maps, the address, and the GPS, but they made a wrong turn, so I pulled off. I have no idea where we’re going, they’re long gone, and they’ve been trying to tell me where to go over the phone. I’ve passed the same place three times now, and I don’t have Sam’s cell phone number!”
Yikes! So Steve and I jumped to the computer to try to figure out where she might be among a string of small towns along the sides of a New Hampshire mountain. Sam and Kara had been preoccupied with talking and were far afield, trying to wind their way back as well. We had calls going both directions, first one person being dropped and then another by the fickleness of cell coverage in a mountainous area. This was further complicated by the lack of signs in New Hampshire telling travelers the name of a town they were entering — guess if you don’t know, you shouldn’t be there!
Finally, all coverage went dead, and Steve and I had to wait, not knowing really where anyone was, hoping that they would be able to reunite. They still had to get to the farm with the cows! Then, at last, came a call. “Well, they found me.” It was Mom. “I stopped at this gas station, and it turns out they saw me a while ago and have been trying to catch up with me and make me stop. But they’re here now.”
“Did they at least give you a map now?” Steve asked, feeling a little grumpy and wishing he could be there helping instead of stuck on the other end of the phone.
“Nope, uh-oh, and they’re pulling away. Better go now.”
This time, though, they didn’t lose each other. The roads wound up and up, until they came to the farm, which was plastered up against the side of the mountain. The short, jovial owner was ready for them, with the anticipating cows tethered in the barn. He was eager to show them around, but darkness had already set in.
And as Mom and Kara looked at the two cows they’d come so far to see, the bottoms fell out of their stomachs. They had been told these six-month-old heritage Irish Jerseys were going to be the size of sheep. Instead, they were about the size of Caramel, our mini horse!
“They’re not going to fit,” Kara worried. All this way, all the work to prepare the van. What if the cows were too big? What would they do?
But the farmer was cheery and optimistic (later admitting he wasn’t sure the cargo van ideas would work for that distance of travel either, asking them to let him know their adventure story upon return!) and tethered leads to the cow’s halters. Starting with Suzie, the heifer, he climbed inside the plywood stall and began to coax her inside. With ears erect and tail arched, she remained stubborn.
“You want me to climb into what?” So they moved their attention to Sherlock, the black bull calf, and with enough coaxing and pulling, he climbed inside. Sam crawled in by the pig kennels and held the tether while Suzie was coaxed again. Finally, both were in, and the farmer squeezed his way out before Kara screwed the back panel into place.
“Don’t worry,” Sam assured. “It might look kind of tight, but cows are Houdinis.” And she was right. Despite the smallness of the stall compared to the cows, they managed to lay down and turn around, spending much of their trip looking out the back windows at the cars behind.
With much congratulations, big grins, and a sense of accomplishment, they headed back down the mountain. But when they reached the base, Sam’s car began to shimmy and then a piece of the steering broke and one of the front wheels toed in, making it impossible to drive. So they sat in the van together, grateful no one had gotten hurt, waiting for a tow truck.
“We’re still here,” came a phone call, five hours later. Yes, they were way out in the mountains, and AAA wouldn’t let them leave the car for pickup — someone had to be there with it. Another hour after that, the broken car was deposited (it later turned out that part was under recall) and Sam was with her folks and Mom and Kara began heading off to the next hotel, finally arriving at 2 am!
By the next night, they were south of the Great Lakes, and on Thanksgiving Day, they made the long trek north through heavy winds, rain, ice, and finally snow. A weary crew stepped out onto the home farm at 8 pm. We were so glad to see them safe, in one piece, successful in their journey. The critters would spend the night in the van, comfy and content, so we could move them into their new homes in the daylight of morning.
All through the trip, the joke had been how smelly life would be in that van. “It really wasn’t too bad,” Kara kept saying, cheerily. “It’s like being in a clean barn. They get fresh bedding every day.”
“Well,” Mom countered. “It’s not that bad, unless one of them is taking a crap, then it’s a little intense for a while.” But, opinions aside, the two did smell a little strong of the barn that night! Needless, we met them with big hugs, warm soup, and then off to showers and bed for everyone. Thanksgiving dinner waited until the weekend, once all the animals were settling into their new stalls and pens. Despite all the nay-sayers, the unexpected breakdown, and getting lost, the two gals, two pigs, and two cows had made it safe back to the farm.
Everyone’s settling in well, the van is returned all nice and clean, and life finds its way back into routine with a few more characters in the cast. Pictures will have to do for now, but maybe on a summer farm tour, you’ll get to meet our first cows down on the farm sometime.
Suzie and Sherlock safely at our farm are still getting used to the new surroundings. Photo by Kara Berlage
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 North Star Homestead Farms
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