Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
My Grandmother’s saying, one she borrowed from Benjamin Franklin, “the only two things certain in life are death and taxes,” came to mind this week. Yes, it’s tax season.
In between birthing 2 more sets of twins (that makes 4 in all), I’m tending the flocks and herds, starting up the dairy, chasing lambs, and howling at the goat kid antics. I’m wondering if the day will ever come when I actually sleep 8 or even 6 hours in a row. It’s time I bravely face the pile of paperwork that’s been patiently waiting on my desk.
Even though I am a tiny micro blip on the farming radar screen, I still keep track of the reality of what it costs and how much can be made working at this thing we call farming. I am proud to say that Bittersweet has been a sustainable operation since its second year! No, it didn’t happen because I have some magic formula for the farm supporting itself. It happens out of the sheer terror that if that changes, I won’t be able to continue.
The realities farmers face each year are enormous. The biggest realities are always: how much each year will cost? Can I continue year after year without at least making it pay for itself? That’s the very least farmers expect, because if we can’t say that – if we aren’t at least growing or raising beasts or plants to feed ourselves to cut down on the grocery bill –it’s hard to continue justifying the effort. Most people will say, you’ll never get rich farming.
After sitting down with all my piles, sorting through the slips and bits of paper with numbers scratched on them, I add up the two columns. One is what it costs to open my barn door every day. The other shows how much wool and cheese and milk and jam and pickles and soaps and other things I’ve sold. Turns out, at the end of the day, every day, 365 days a year, I am earning 91 cents an hour. That’s my definition of sustainable. I am earning, not losing, 91 cents an hour.
Now you may say, “You’re kidding, right? 91 cents an hour? Who would work for 91 cents an hour?” As it turns out, there are a lot of folks who do, and they wouldn’t trade it for 9,100 cents an hour. I’ve met a lot of them and we all seem to have something in common. We love what we do.
Why Do We Do It?
There’s a certain pride and satisfaction in farming. Things almost never go according to plan. When you’re relying on Mother Nature in the form of living things, whether it’s beasts or plants, it’s all a crap shoot. I think it’s hard to explain why we do it to someone who thinks we’re all crazy for choosing the farming life style.
I’m frequently asked, “You can’t go anywhere, can you?” My reply is always, “I’ve been other places. I’m happy right where I am.”
I’m not a person who spent their life dreaming of having a farm. I did set out to get some sheep 20 years ago for a property I bought in Southern Pennsylvania. It was an old stone house Jacob Flohr built in 1855 and I/we were restoring it to its original state. I’ll never forget the day my husband came home and I was pitching the 1950’s oak flooring out the front door. There were wide pines boards underneath that needed to be revealed.
The house sat 10 miles south of Gettysburg and was on Lee’s retreat route. It had been a farm, and it was a hospital during the Civil War. All farms were. Every inch of space was utilized for tending to wounded soldiers. I found blood stains in the old crumbling plaster ceiling, blood that had dripped through the floor from above where probably more than one of them had lain, maybe dying.
The stone foundation for the old barn was still there. The original barn had burned down, maybe more than once. I found a gorgeous post and bean barn further up the road that would fit the foundation perfectly and the people who owned it just happened to want to take it down. The plan was to use it for sheep who would graze up above in the old apple orchards. But, the dream for sheep ended along with the marriage. We never got around to rebuilding the barn.
Twenty five years later, as I sit with my bits of paper, I gaze across the pasture watching my newborn lambs leap in spring’s cold morning air. The flock doesn’t have a post and bean barn with a stone foundation to lamb in, but they do have a view of Mosquito Harbor leading out to the Penobscot Bay. Some mornings, their fleeces are misty with the dew coming off the water and often they are treated to dried seaweed treats from Drift Inn Beach down the street. I think it’s a good trade off.
I think I’ll take a break from my paperwork for an hour or so today and invest my 91 cents or even $1.92, in snuggling lambs, sitting with a baby goat in my lap, or running the brush over the girls’ backs. I might even bake a custard on this cool spring day with eggs from the coop and milk the girls gave me this morning.
After all the other jobs I’ve had and all the paychecks I’ve gotten over the years, it’s today that I receive the largest paycheck I’ve ever had, plus 91 cents an hour. That’s the richness of farming.
Dyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Bittersweet Heritage 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. Her farm is also an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.
Photos by Dyan Redick
This post originally appeared on HOMEGROWN.org.
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