Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I’ve been described as a Renaissance woman. I don’t know why, because I see myself the same as many other hard-working women I know. Some of us are on our own, and some of us have partners—husbands or significant others who share the ups and downs and grinds of everyday life. Whether it’s a friend who spins wool or who is a fellow cheesemaker or a shepherdess or a gardener or a house cleaner or a traveler or a writer, we all seem to share something in common. That something seems to be determination.
July is an especially poignant month for me, as it is in July that I remember the anniversary of my son’s death. I named my farm Bittersweet in commemoration of what I had always hoped would be something we would share as he matured into an adult, had a family of his own, and came to enjoy what the farm stands for. My son loved animals. I remember one school trip where we went to a local farm in the fall to pick pumpkins. When it was time to go, Jeremy was nowhere to be seen. A trip down to the barn solved our mystery. He was standing next to a small stall, with a baby calf sucking on his fingers.
My son’s middle name was Francis, named for the patron saint of animals. He would have loved this place, although he probably would have thought I was a little nuts for taking it on. I named my first goat Frances, with an E, in his memory. She has his spirit, always keeping me guessing as kids do—human kids, I mean. Always trying my patience, as kids do—goat kids, I mean.
Each morning, as I watch out my kitchen window at the sheep grazing, the chickens chasing bugs, and the tom turkey in full display, I think of him. I had no plans to settle in Maine. I had no plans to be a farmer, even though it’s in my heritage. But I’ve learned over the years that my plans mean nothing at all. There is some other plan intended for me—not one I have any idea about or take part in making. It is a larger plan, much larger than I could ever imagine. My plans tend to run small, manageable, controllable. But this plan was one that was put before me, and it seemed to make sense. Some days, when all is going to hell in a hand basket, which could be most days, I am reminded that it’s all part of a plan.
I think most women farmers—all farmers, really—must operate under a similar mindset. Ms. Phyllis called me on the 5th of July. It was hot as hell, if you don’t mind my saying so. I was on the way home from a farmers market, soaking wet with sweat and half sick from the heat. When she called to say the hay was ready in the field, I melted even further. But you don’t plan when the hay is ready in the field. I got on the phone and tried to rustle up some help to get the hay banked in the barn. No luck. My main helper was laid up in the hospital. Perforated ulcer. Too many cigarettes finally caught up with him. Nobody else wanted to brave the heat and humidity. So, we wait for the next cutting. That’s the plan. Not mine. I called Ms. Phyllis, and she said “next time.” She’s a true Renaissance woman. Married forever to Mr. Harold. He died a few years ago, and she carries on. Tough as nails. I love her! Salt of the earth and a true Mainer.
Now, as for cheese: If I am a Renaissance woman, it would have to be in this department. I had no intention of becoming a cheesemaker, but frankly, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Not meaning I make the best cheese, just that every day when I open the kettle to see how the day’s milk has turned into gorgeous, creamy, delectable stuff, I am amazed. For me, that’s a good thing. I have a tendency to master something and then move on to the next thing. With cheesemaking, every day it’s the next thing. Each batch is an experiment in turning the ladies’ milk into what can only be described as just short of heaven on the taste buds. One customer said, “It’s like eating whipped cream.” I’ll take that as a compliment.
Cheese is a living thing. I remember a scene in the movie Sideways where Virginia Madsen is describing to Paul Giamatti how she got “into wine.” She describes how she thinks about wine as a living thing and, while she’s enjoying it, how she imagines the people who harvest the grapes, “how if it’s an old wine, some of them must be dead by now,” and how the wine itself changes even after processing because it’s alive. I feel that way about cheese. Not the dead people part—just that it truly is the byproduct of a few patient goats who stand twice a day while I pull away on their tatas. What starts out as a creamy white liquid turns into something that takes on its own expression once played with a bit. And it is almost play, actually, because there are so many factors that go into cheesemaking.
As a small producer, I am able to allow that process to happen, to allow the changes that occur with seasons and hormone imbalances and cycles of gestation. No two milkings are the same, and as a result, there will always be variations in my cheese. I like that. As a cook, I respect a recipe, a pattern to follow, a tried and true version of putting ingredients together that results in something that tastes really good. But I also like the unpredictability of taking that pattern and experimenting with it. The not knowing of it intrigues me and inspires me to try something new, with no money-back guarantee. I think that’s why cheesemaking fits my life.
As I celebrate and also mourn the 14th anniversary of my son’s death, I’m even more grateful to have been brought to this farming and cheesemaking life. Farming is about family—and sometimes, for those of us who have none, it’s about extended family: next-door neighbors at farmers markets, folks I meet buying cheese or milk or wool at my farm stand or in my market stall. For me, now, family is an entire world of possibility.
I’ve given up making plans. I’ve given in to simply enjoying each day and the richness it brings to me in the form of animals or people. Watching a hummingbird sip nectar from a Black and Blue Salvia in the low morning light while I sip my coffee on the front porch after milking. Taking time to bend down when a lamb comes up to me in the pasture, wanting to lay her head in my hand. It’s like taking the hand of a child.
So, here’s to the unpredictability of life and to all the Renaissance folks who call themselves farmers. I raise a glass of chilled, silky smooth goat milk to you and honor your perseverance, your pride in what you do, your determination to carve a life for yourself out of weeds and muck, thorns and sweat. Today I celebrate your lives, and the lives of your children, and those of your children’s children along with my son’s, brief as it was. I miss him every day. That will never change. The change his loss has brought to my life truly is bittersweet.
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.
All Photos from Bittersweet Heritage Farm