Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Once the winds had died down after the recent nor’easter, I looked across the back pasture of my Maine dairy farm, saw the tops of my sheep’s heads, and realized I had a bit of work cut out for me. The snow had drifted waist deep between the dairy barn and my wooly booly Irish lad and lasses. Anticipating the storm, I had filled their rack with extra hay bales, so I knew they were well provisioned within the snow fortress surrounding them. Getting to them would be another matter.
With my dairy girls dried off this winter, the dairy barn has become a sanctuary. I ration the girls (and Barnie, the boy) their grain, throwing open the stall gates and allowing each to choose where she would like to eat. Frannie usually heads straight to the milk stand. She’s a creature of habit. Dollie wanders over to the trough at the front of the smaller stall—the one where, in three weeks’ time, she’ll be birthing her kids. Sea Princess, the youngest, can never decide which spot to try first, but Dollie usually decides for her, as Dollie has taught Sea Princess her place in the herd. I laugh as she comes running over to me, and I sit down on the little wooden milking stool my son made in high school shop class so many years ago, a grain bucket in my lap so Sea Princess can have her portion while I reassure her that, some day, she’ll be the herd queen.
I give them all a good brushing — Barnie’s favorite part — and fill water buckets while they sneak into the sea mineral and alfalfa cube bag, helping themselves to this extra treat. They return to their stalls, bellies full, and content to go back to the hayrack, now brimming with fresh local hay, which, thankfully is banked directly above. Now I sweep the floor, gather up empty buckets, and climb into the Volvo, a.k.a. the goat mobile, to head two miles up the road to Harborside Market for coffee and maybe a breakfast sandwich as I contemplate my impending mountain of snow. Living on the main road to the village of Port Clyde has its advantages, as it is plowed first.
I’m greeted by Donna, the owner, and Wanda, who works the morning shift, as I wander past the front counter and over to the coffee station. All the while we’re chatting away, remarking about the storm, the wind, the drifts. Carpenters, plumbers, snowplow drivers, and retirees are stopping in for their morning cups, egg and bacon sandwiches, homemade muffins, lottery tickets, and cigarettes. The store is alive with storm stories. As I choose between a breakfast sandwich and a sticky bun and share my tale of woe about the waist-high drifts, a gentleman walks up to the counter, morning paper in hand. He has joined the conversation and shares a story about his grandfather, who had a farm in Nebraska. It seems the animal barn was far away from the house, and when the drifts were high, he, too, was faced with insurmountable snow taller than himself. His solution was to string a rope between the barn and the house so he had something to hold on to in case he sunk down into a drift.
I returned home with the image of this farmer holding on to his lifeline, plodding through winter’s deposit of white. As I stood at the kitchen sink munching on my breakfast sandwich, I glanced out the window. The light bulb went off as I realized my own lifeline was already in place: Last summer, I had put up a line of new fence stretching from the house to the barn, defining a space between the pasture and my garden. It would serve as my handhold through the snow.
During the storm, the fence had provided a barrier of sorts, with the snow swept away along the bottom of the boards by the swirling winds. There, the snow was only a foot deep and made a natural path along its edge. I dug a path to the fence and returned to the barn for the hay and grain needed to restore feed stocks for the sheep and birds. Using the strings, I strapped a bale on my back like a backpack and loaded grain buckets to the brim. With my free hand, I gripped the fence and, foot by foot, worked my way to the building.
Through it all, I thought about the Nebraska farmer and wondered how he juggled bales of hay and buckets of grain while holding on to a rope. Maybe he had more room to store feed where the animals lived and, to make his way through the drifts, all he had to do was hold on.
I think one of the things I like most about farming is having to creatively solve problems by patching or mending or designing or building or improvising with what I’ve got. James Herriot’s books are loaded with farmers’ descriptions of solutions to capturing water or mending fences or curing a sick animal that are rich and full of genius. Sharing those solutions is what brings the farming community together.
The man in my local market will probably never know how the story of his grandfather inspired me to look at my situation differently, but it did. What seemed to be an insurmountable task suddenly became an adventure. I think that’s what farming is: a life adventure where you learn as much about yourself and what you’re made of as you do about your animals or your crops. I’m inspired daily by those who choose to farm and thankful for those who’ve gone before me. The family farm is our lifeline to knowing where our food comes from, who is raising it, and its importance to our communities. I’m grateful to know my lifeline is as close as my barn—and for those who show me how to dig my way to 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.
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