Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Summer is such a busy time. There’s really no chance to reflect, to absorb, to acquaint oneself with things beyond daily life, the grind of chores, the work of the farm.
When autumn arrives, in all of its colorful glory, I start to notice things. It’s not just the change of leaf color or the feel of the air. We move from hot summer days to the crisp coolness of waking up in darkness and days ending much sooner in faint light. The light bends in brilliant ways, making the beginning and ending of each day a painting, untouched by Photoshop.
For me, there’s always a certain melancholy to the farm in fall: thoughts of everything I had planned to accomplish during the warm months, ideas for how the summer would stretch into autumn and then winter. But there’s a sense of accomplishment, too, in making it through such a busy schedule, sometimes stretching from the wee hours of the morning into the dark of night. There’s also a sense of loss at not being able to spend more time with friends, relaxing and enjoying all there is to enjoy about summer in Maine, especially living near the coast. I’ve come to understand that we all feel it, all of us who work to provide folks from elsewhere with their farm-fresh products, their time on the water in boats and kayaks, their fresh-caught lobster suppers.
On the farm summer is almost a blur, connecting those early days of spring, when lambs and kids and calves and chicks and all other sorts of creatures are born, to tending the expanded flocks and herds in the fall. Before we know it, it starts all over again, with the cycle renewing itself.
I think it’s the perpetuation of that cycle that lets melancholy wend its way into my mind. Thoughts of how each day begins and ends much the same. Thoughts of why I’m willing to work as hard as I do, just to produce what in the eyes of megafarms would be considered a paltry amount of products. Thoughts of spending the rest of my life with the animals I love and have come to depend upon for keeping me grounded.
I have more time to spend in the barn now, quietly watching the girls as they interact with one another. In her usual seasonal way, Frannie is trying to dethrone Dollie as Herd Queen. It’s quite comical. In the order of the herd, Dollie goes first at milking time. I’ve already dried her off, giving her a good long break this year, so she only steps onto the milk stand for her grain ration. Frannie is convinced she’ll be moving into first position any moment now. Before Dollie lumbers up off of her knees following a long night of rest, Frannie is already crafting her approach to the gate. And each day, her attempt is thwarted. Sometimes Dollie crawls on her knees to the gate, as if to show Frannie she’s not the least bit intimidated. Other times, Dollie’s gentle reminder comes in the form of a head-butt or a push to the chest.
Either way, it’s Dollie who ends up on the milking stand first, happily munching away on her morning ration of oats and sea kelp. I swear she’s smiling—or maybe it’s a smirk. Poor, deflated Frannie retreats back to the hay rack but not before giving Sea Princess, the lowest girl on the herd totem pole, a push. I guess that’s how Frannie gets out some of her frustration at being shown, once again, who’s boss. There’s actually a dance to it, with Barnie standing there, rolling his eyes (really!), and glancing at me as if to say, “Women!”
I’ve learned the hard way how intelligent goats really are. It’s not just routine or chance. Goats have certain expectations of how things will be. It’s hinged on trust. I expect it’s that way with most animals, and trust is a two-way street. I was thrown from my cousin’s horse when I was a young girl. I never got back on. It was a circumstance where the horse had no reason to trust the person who was handling it. That person was my dad. The horse didn’t know him, and she certainly didn’t know me. I’ve mistrusted horses ever since, until now. Working with Saanen goats—certainly not the size of a horse but for a goat, large animals, 150 pounds each and wicked strong—I’ve been thinking I’d like to get to know horses better.
It takes time to build a relationship with an animal. When I was offered Dollie, she was malnourished, hadn’t been handled much by humans, and was bullied in the herd because she was a bit smaller. I brought her home and spent four months just sitting in a stall with her. Over those four months, we began to trust one another. About halfway through that time, she started to allow me to touch her, then to introduce a brush, slowly progressing to gently trimming her badly overgrown feet and rubbing her belly. Dollie is my main girl now, my best milker and the sweetest, gentlest goat in the herd, even when she’s putting Frannie in her place. I think she’s the perfect Herd Queen and I hope she holds that title for a long time. She has earned it. Last spring she gave me two sweet does, just like their mama, Shelley and Periwinkle. I can’t wait for them to become moms, which, if all goes well, will be next spring.
There is a gentleness to farming. It’s what drew me to it in the beginning: the sweet morning discussion that happens in the coop when the dames are waking and, if there are peeps about, the innocent but intricate communications between mom and chick. I literally am astounded sometimes when I watch my does in the barn or out on pasture. No choreographer could duplicate the intricately timed dance of two animals greeting each other. Two goats rearing up on hind legs, dropping down in perfect synchronicity with one another, heads barely touching upon contact. Ballerinas on hooves.
Ah, yes, the melancholy has set in, and I intend to enjoy it, next to a warm fire on these now cool evenings while I sip hot cocoa made with my girls’ sweet milk, dipped right out of the pail. Knitting projects are already lined up. The season of milking and cheese making, haying and gardening, jam making and apple drying is beginning to wind down. It’s when the flakes begin to float to the ground that this melancholy will pass. But for now, I’m wrapping myself in it like a warm fleece and relishing the comfort of it.
Dyan Redick describes herself as “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Her farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross ﬂock, goat milk soap, lavender, woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Bittersweet Heritage Farm is an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food source, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.
Photos by Dyan Redick/Bittersweet Heritage Farm