HOMEGROWN Life: A Bittersweet Month on the Farm

| 8/5/2013 10:01:00 AM

goat cheeseI’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.goats by shed

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.

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