This Bud’s For You

I remember the phone call from Sianna, her voice coming straight for my heart from across the Atlantic. “Dad, can you take Bud? He’s being retired and will end up at auction.”

My first response was “no,” or it might have been “Hell no” after reflecting on what Bud actually is, and what he would require of me as a farmer. Bud is an aging, all black Percheron draft horse whose ancestors were bred in France to carry knights into battle. They were war horses before the age of gunpowder.

Bud is two thousand pounds, a tractor with legs. He is eighteen and a half hands tall at the withers, or put another way, I am six foot four and can barely see over his back and can hardly reach his ears. His foot size is somewhere in the neighborhood of a medium pizza or pumpkin pie. He would need two hundred bales of hay per year, another burden on my old haying equipment and tired back. Saying “yes” just felt too hard.

Bud spent most of his twenty two years on asphalt, pulling carriages for my brother’s business, St. Louis Carriage Company. When Sianna went off to college in Missouri, she would spend many weekend nights driving Bud on the streets of St. Louis, giving rides along the Mississippi and historic riverfront buildings. Bud and Sianna were a team for nearly five years, and they made a lot of money, more than any other team on the streets. I attribute that to matching fingernail and hoof polish, and the French braids in both of their manes.

Sianna graduated and left Missouri, my brother sold the business, and Bud remained to pound the pavement under new ownership with many new drivers. The years kept circling, the work exacting its toll on his magnificent aging body. Finally the heat and humidity of St. Louis were too much for Bud, pulling those loads on hot city streets, labored breathing while soaked with sweat. He wanted to please, always willing.

Sianna kept in touch with the new owners across the years, and called me when she learned they were easing him out of service, his future unclear. That’s when I said “no” the first time, and again a few months later when he was moved to a crowded farm just outside the city. Saying “yes” still felt overwhelming, a new package of chores on a farm with no shortage of chores. At 63, my body was hoping for a little less physical work, not more. My plate was full, and Bud was something quite more than a side dish.

Several months went by, and during a visit with my brother, rather than leave well enough alone, I asked if he had any news about Bud. He said Bud had lost weight, perhaps due to difficult economic choices made by the new owner. Bud was also on poor pasture, and at one point he suffered a severe hoof infection that almost killed him. Understandably, the new owners wanted him gone, and I felt something start to shift. I started asking questions about caring for Bud. One question, as they tend to do, kept leading to another, and soon we were actually talking logistics for delivering Bud from St. Louis to Tamworth.

Finally, I said “yes,” maybe even “Hell yes.” We spend so much time saying “no” to our children when they’re young, it’s nice to start saying “yes” more often as we age. Saying “yes” meant a new connection with Sianna, an opportunity to share the love and care of an old friend. I wanted to give Bud a green grass retirement, far from the feel of asphalt and the smell of diesel. I thought maybe we could slow down together, just a little, two guys getting older on the same pasture. His needs are my needs; open space, good food, clean water, a gentle breeze delivering only silence. None of that is asking too much for an aging war horse or the farmer that brings him hay on winter mornings, hopeful and grateful for one more season together on this journey.

The Ghost That Scared My Pants Off

You can put me in a big old farmhouse surrounded by woods and the darkness of night, and I will thrive in the quiet, never fearful of odd sounds or simply the silence itself.  I have never run from solitude.  But the last two nights, quite honestly, I’ve been a little scared and I wasn’t even alone.

For the last ten months I have been sleeping downstairs with our old dog, Scout, who sometimes gets anxiety during the night.  He will limp his seventy pound body next to my mattress and put his big furry head on my pillow, asking for love and reassurance.  I’ll give him a snuggle, and sometimes we’ll both go outside to take care of business together.IMG_4944

Two nights ago Scout woke me up at 1:00 am, pushing his cold nose into my face and licking my cheek.  The night was mild so I just threw on a sweatshirt and rubber boots, leaving behind my pants for a (no pun intended) brief walk.

As we headed down the driveway, I noticed some lights where lights shouldn’t be, shining through the windows of our neighbor’s carriage shed about fifty yards through the woods.  We share a driveway with our neighbors, and one thing I know for sure, they are gone for the winter and we are surrounded by hundreds of acres of forest with no nearby neighbors.  So why the lights?  I looked up at the full moon thinking it might be reflecting off the windows, but clouds had moved in.  These were real lights, and I was standing there in my rubber boots and underwear with an arthritic dog and a weak flashlight.IMG_4968

In twenty years I had never seen these lights, and for just a moment I felt the first little seeds of fear.  So I did what any good farmer does with seeds, and I planted them.  I wasn’t looking for any kind of confrontation, given my outfit, so we headed back in the house where I did something else that hadn’t been seen in twenty years: I locked the door.

Not wishing to wake or alarm Amy who was sleeping upstairs, Scout and I quietly went back to bed.  Surely there would be a logical explanation come daylight.  But before daylight could come, Scout woke me at 5:00am with a little nudge, so I decided to look out the window for the lights.  They were gone.

When daylight came I milked cows and made yogurt for the farmers’ market (chores first, mysteries second), then walked up the unplowed driveway to the carriage shed.  No footprints were anywhere to be found in the snow.  No lights were on.

Evening soon came, and I talked it over with Amy but we had no explanation.  She thought perhaps it was a dream, but I knew it wasn’t.  Around 9:30pm I was in the shower when Amy poked her head into the bathroom and said “The lights are on!” I quickly toweled off and got dressed, complete with pants, and we both headed quietly toward the carriage shed.  About halfway there those seeds of fear must have sprouted, and we stopped.  This was no dream, and who was in that inaccessible building surrounded by woods, and leaving no tracks?IMG_4955

With a slight grin, Amy suggested that I keep going and she would stay behind with her cell phone to call 911 if I yelled for help.  I desperately wanted to reverse those roles, but somebody had to wear the proverbial pants in this situation, and Amy reminded me that I’m not particularly proficient with cell phones.  Good point, so I kept going, boots crunching loudly in the snow, feeling vulnerable.  Approaching the long building I thought I noticed a pick-up truck in the dark shadows of the far end.  My heart rate jumped; was it really a vehicle or just my imagination being fueled by delicious sprouts from those seeds of fear?  I decided to retreat with hopes of taking over cell phone duty.

Amy was gone.  I listened in the silence, and soon heard footsteps back by the carriage shed.  Scout started to bark wildly.  An owl hooted and I knew it was Amy back by the carriage shed.  She had approached from a different angle, down by the phantom pick-up truck, so I ran back to meet her by the light-filled windows, and we saw that nobody was inside.  The florescent lights were on in the middle-bay workshop, but there was no way to open the long sliding door.  It was heavily banked with snow that slides from the roof all winter.

The adjacent sliding door to the outer-bay was open, so I walked in with a flashlight and found a small opening in the wall, barely big enough to crawl into the workshop, which I did.  I walked over to the row of florescent lights and saw where they were plugged into the wall, and there was no timer for turning them on and off.  Which, of course, begs the question: Who or what plugged them in and then unplugged them, and then plugged them in again in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night?

I am a big fan of logic, but that only gets you so far in life.  We are so limited by our human senses, so unaware of multiple dimensions beyond our reach. This could be our whimsical friends Lucy and Dexter from a half-mile down the road having a bit of haunted fun, given Halloween was rained out. But I doubt it.  Again, no tracks in the snow.  Until that logical explanation hits me squarely in the face, I am happy and content thinking it is something else altogether, trying hard to shed some mysterious light on this uninitiated farmer in the dark.


Bella’s Last Bale: Goodbye To A Friend

I had been dreading Bella’s final day on the farm for weeks.  Her death was on the horizon just as sure as the setting sun, and I knew this only because, in fact,  I had scheduled her dying day for January 2nd.

Bella came into this world back in April of 2012, sliding into daylight at 100 pounds, warm and wet like August rain, the soon to be crowned Queen of Yogurt.  But there were days and weeks and months of work before her reign would really take hold on this farm, on this community.  She nursed from a half-gallon bottle morning, noon and night for three months, inevitably forming a bond between us that someday I would break.

After the milk it was all grass all the time, the credo of a cow.  Lush pastures in summer and sweet smelling hay in winter.  Like all milk cows, she was bred to have her first calf at age two, and shortly thereafter I discovered that her milk made superior yogurt to any of the many cows I had milked through the years.  Each jar was firm and rich with a memorable layer of cream on top, the probiotic crown from the queen.

She was a nervous milker at first and that can be dangerous, particularly in her case.  She was the biggest cow I had ever raised, close to 1,300 pounds, and one kick from her thickly muscled hind leg could have me making yogurt in that great creamery in the sky.  This was a job for Mozart, said a musical friend, so I borrowed some CDs and played them during milking.

It actually seemed to help, and over time I slowly weaned her off classical music and back to the quiet hum of the vacuum pump, barn swallows flying in and out, the rhythmic sound of other cows chewing and my own whispers of encouragement.

The years went by, three, four and five, seeing her each and every day in the barn and pastures, by now the dominant cow in a hierarchy of a half dozen animals.  Her remarkable yogurt, some 10,000 quarts in her life, went down to the farmers’ market at 50 to 100 per week.  I thanked her each morning, scratched her neck beneath that giant head with Viking-like horns, then sent her outside for another day of work.


It is not like having a dog.  Cows will generally play it cool, showing little emotion.  They will not adore you or wag their tail in delight.  But every one of them does indeed have a personality, and daily contact over many years unlocks their little secrets, like where to scratch until they close those big, dark eyes in bliss.  I knew all of Bella’s little secrets: favorite trees to rub against, places to give birth, and which cow was her best friend.

So why January 2nd, why now when cows can live into their teens just like a dog?  In a word, biology, a breakdown in bovine biology which wouldn’t have mattered at all if she were a dog.  Most of us don’t want our dogs (or teenagers)  getting pregnant, but all of us want our cows getting pregnant.  That is what stimulates a fresh lactation each year, and that is how they earn their keep. Each cow eats 200 bales of hay to get through a typical New England winter, and all of that hard work in the hayfield quickly removes cows from the category of “pet.”  I can’t keep pets at 200 bales each.

My artificial inseminator (the “AI guy”) tried three times during the summer of 2017 to get Bella pregnant, with no luck, but I couldn’t ship her.  This was Bella.  So he tried again last summer with the aid of a vet,  and I received the final phone call in August.  “She’s not pregnant.”

The death sentence had been handed down.  Our butcher was booked until January 2nd which I was quietly happy about, giving me several more months to enjoy the sight and company of this memorable cow the size of a small car.  It also gave her time to hang with her herd, “retired” for a few months, able to enjoy those final desired bales of second-cut red clover.

Protocol at the butcher required she be delivered the day before slaughter.  That gives the animals time to calm down from the stress of transport, and it made New Year’s Day her final day on the farm.

Morning came with clear skies and mild temperatures, insuring a more comfortable ride for Bella and a less stressful ride for me.  Nothing raises blood pressure like the combination of a wintry mix and pulling a trailer down the highway with an animal on board.  I hadn’t slept well, worrying.

After milking the other cows and finishing my morning chores, it was time to put a rope halter on Bella and lead her from the barn for her last time, and onto the waiting trailer.  She knew something was wrong when I approached her with the halter, something I had not used on her since she was a frisky calf.  I put her majestic head in my arms asked her to just follow me one last time.


Part of me wanted her to resist with more than her mild hesitation.  Part of me wanted her to deliver a good bruising to my vulnerable body so I could feel more affirmation in the awful duties of the day.  But none of that happened.  She trusted me.  I started the truck and pulled her away from the only little world she had ever known.

Ninety minutes later, thoroughly stressed, she retained enough trust to back out of the trailer and follow me to an empty stall at the facility.  I weigh less than her hind leg, and I always marvel with gratitude at how easily they give themselves over to our wishes, the embodiment of willing.  I pulled the halter from her head and closed the gate.  I thanked her one last time for the gift of her life, and my sadness was only surpassed by her confusion.

That unfamiliar stall was where I left Bella, alone for one more night in the complicated world of hard choices.  When I think I know for sure the goodness or correctness of any aspect in this journey through farming and life, I think of my day like a circle, 360 degrees, 360 ways to see that New Year’s Day.  One view looks straight across at another, each one delivering a question mark or two, something to simmer as I pointed the truck back home, pulling an empty trailer but feeling for many, many miles like I was still carrying a heavy load.


Why I Am NOT The Tamworth Beekeeper Who Shot Three Bear Cubs

Where is the fake news when you really need it?  My daughter in Boston was the first to inform me that WMUR TV in Manchester, New Hampshire, recently reported on a Tamworth man who shot three bear cubs for “going after his chickens and beehives for several days… State law allows someone to kill wild animals on their property that are damaging crops, poultry or domestic animals.”

I have friends that shoot bears in the name of agricultural defense, though none of them are responsible for this latest shooting.  Friends, like bears, are important to me, and I’d rather not trade one for the other since both can sometimes seem elusive.  It boils down to simply hoping that your friends can handle your honesty without absorbing it as harsh judgement, and sometimes that honesty gets released with a few too many sharp edges.  The older we get, the more skilled we become at sanding those edges just before impact.

We are all wired so differently.  I cannot imagine shooting a bear, yet I have bees, chickens, cattle, and apple trees.  So far, after nearly 20 years of farming, I have not suffered any serious loss to bears.  They’ve eaten some apples and, last spring, tore the door off the chicken coop and killed some laying hens.  We had just left town the day before to attend our son and daughter’s college graduation, and friends were doing the chores but not living at the farm.  The bears had good reconnaissance and I admire their stealth.  They were only trying to create an opportunity for another good day on planet Earth, just like you and me.


I do not make much of my living from apples, chickens, or bees, and therefore would never consider it a capital offense when a bear comes knocking.  Perhaps an attack on my main income, the cows or calves, would elicit a response as yet unknown to me, but I have always tried to frustrate and outsmart the bears.  I always bring newborn calves in the barn, and I always allow my cows to grow their horns for self-defense.  This can backfire, and I have been injured a couple of times, but I sleep much better knowing my half-ton cows have the head-gear to tell a bear or coyote to choose something else on the menu.IMG_3387

A powerful electric fence usually (but not always) does the trick around bees, chickens, and apple trees, and do not forget the value of an extroverted dog like ours that loves to talk.

From the standpoint of firepower, I have what it takes to kill a bear.  My Winchester 45-70 has bullets the size of cigars which offer a fierce recoil when fired,  but the only thing I have ever killed with it is my shoulder.  I showed the bullets once to a bear in our apple trees, and he climbed down and left.  He returned that night and I fired a warning shot over his head to scare him off.  Instead, our old 400 pound pig, Lucy, bolted from her pasture and spent a day or two jogging around greater Tamworth.  She arrived home exhausted with considerably less bacon on her bones.  The bear was fat and happy, dropping apple pies throughout the pasture.

The only time I was ever threatened by a black bear, I resolved the situation with four-letter words and a handful of rocks, not a rifle.  Amy and I were deep in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness in northern Minnesota, and one morning just as we had finished breaking camp, a big sow with three cubs came sauntering into camp.  Immediately the sow sent her cubs up three different trees, and Amy wisely ran for the canoe.  I, on the other hand, stayed with our heavy packs which contained our food, and the bear and I sized each other up from 50 feet.  What happened next I had learned about while earning a bachelor of science degree in wildlife biology in Wisconsin.  She suddenly charged me and hit the brakes at around 10 feet, close enough where each of us could tell if the other had recently flossed.

It was a bluff charge meant to scare me from the food, and I stood my ground only because I was too afraid to do anything else.  This was a long long way from campus life.  She slowly retreated, and I think that bluff charge was a masters and PhD all rolled into one.

Then she came at me again, and this time I remembered the advice of a backcountry ranger, and I threw a handful of rocks and hurled some primal language.  It worked, and I actually advanced on her with more rocks and more insults regarding her grocery shopping habits.  She and her cubs retreated out of camp and, of course, so did I.

That sow cut me some slack.  Evolution had groomed every one of her cells to know that each conflict has a cost, and you’d better be pretty good at accounting.  In a crowded world where humans continue to encroach on wild, forested land, black bears will continue to come knocking.  I hope we respond with the finest, most creative and compassionate bluff charge that humanity can muster, and then remember to cut them a little slack.

Honeybee Love: Deadly Sex and the Sweetness of Summer

The post office called on this mid-April morning,  8:00 o’clock sharp with a slight sense of urgency on their end of the phone.  It appears I have no ordinary package to pick up.  My thousands of honeybees have arrived.

They are not killer bees, so I decide to let the post office enjoy these honorary guests for another hour while I finish bottling milk, cleaning the milking machine and drinking a cup of tea made perfect with (what else?) honey.  Finally, I hop in the truck to go claim my nine pounds of bees.

So how do you mail nine pounds of bees from Jessup, Georgia, to Tamworth, New Hampshire?  The smart-ass answer is very carefully, and it’s true.  I start three hives every spring so I received three separate boxes, each one containing three pounds of bees.  They are wooden boxes a little bigger than a shoe box,  with screens for sides so the bees can breathe.  Each box also contains a can of high fructose corn syrup with a few tiny holes punched in it to feed the bees during their three-day first-class journey.  The bees spend their time in a cluster around the can to stay warm, texting each other on Hivechat.

IMG_2840There is one other thing inside the box besides the bees and corn syrup.  It’s a tiny box the size of your thumb containing a queen bee and half a dozen other bees known as her attendants.  They feed and care for the queen, allowing her to pursue her queenly duties.  I have always wanted a half-dozen attendants.

This little queen box with a screen top hangs next to the can of corn syrup, and all of the other bees can cluster around her as well, keeping her warm and passing on her pheromones as they all get to know her.  The three pounds of bees already know each other, since they were taken together from an over-crowded hive in Georgia.  But the queen is not from that hive and therefore must be introduced slowly from the little protected box, or they might kill her.  She needs time to win them over, but even a queen can have a bad day,  no matter how many attendants.


Back at the farm, I wait for the calm of early evening to install each package into their hive.  It’s a bit tricky, but I carefully remove the queen box from the main box and put it inside the new hive.  Before doing so, I must “open the door” to the queen box so she can come out in the next few days.  The “door” is a plug of soft sugar the diameter of a pencil.  I poke a small hole through the sugar with a finish nail, and now the hive of bees can slowly chew their way towards the queen, and the attendants can  start chewing on the other side of the “door.”  After a few days of chewing the sugar will be gone, the queen will be known, and she can safely make her entrance into the hive as the accepted queen.


She will soon discover it’s not all clean sheets and royal jelly.  Her life will now consist of mainly laying hundreds of eggs each day in the honeycomb, like a chicken on steroids.  Where, you might ask, is the rooster?

Ninety-nine percent of a hive is female; they do all of the work.  In their short six-week lifespan they will perform different duties for the hive, such as nurse bees taking care of the brood, guard bees at the entrance, housekeeping bees, and of course the field bees gathering nectar and pollen.  The few males, known as drones, exist only to mate with the queen, and she will only mate once, taking flight on some sexy sunny day with hopes that a strong young drone will catch her.


When he does, they copulate (keeping it clean here) and the drone has his genitalia ripped from his body where they will now fertilize the queen’s eggs, thousands of them, for life.  The drone then goes into a death spiral, perhaps wondering how life can seemingly be so good and so bad at the same time.

I am not making this up, but I have never witnessed the mating of a queen and drone.  Some beekeeping books describe the fateful moment as having an “audible pop.”

I love having bees around the farm for spring, summer, and autumn.  They pollinate vegetables and fruit trees, and provide lots of wildflower honey.  But I no longer try to keep bees through the winter.  I did that for years and years, and typically what happened is this: You leave them 80 pounds of honey or so to get through the winter, and they consume most of that but still die in late winter.  The 80 pounds of honey is gone, which could have made me a thousand dollars at the farmers’ market, and I still need to spend more money on new bees.

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Since I am trying to make a living at small farming (and I have been for many years, now), it is most profitable to keep all of the honey, sell most of it, and buy new packages of bees each spring.  When late autumn rolls around,  I can’t get too sentimental about a fascinating but non-native insect with a six-week lifespan.  I have bills to pay.

Every January, just like ordering seeds for the gardens, I make my call to the same apiary in Georgia for the bees.  Sometime in mid-April I will get the phone call that symbolizes, for me, the beginning of another year of farming, another New England summer where most everything in life is about to get a little bit sweeter.






24 Teats Below Zero

Darkness and cold are powerful partners.  I am no match for them on these arctic mornings, so I always stay in bed until one of those partners dies.  Darkness seems to roll over and perish much quicker than the frozen air on these January mornings, so I exit the sheets when that eastern light comes knocking.

Twenty below zero this morning, 45 above zero in the bedroom, not much better in the kitchen.  But soon the old Queen Atlantic cookstove will be casting heat from a fresh fire, the tea kettle will boil, and I can begin the usual routine for dealing with 24 teats below zero (or six cows if you do the math correctly and divide by four teats per udder. And not to belabor the anatomy lesson, but if this were a goat dairy, 24 teats would equal 12 goats).


The routine commences with a brisk walk to the barn in my slippers to simply turn on a hair dryer that begins warming the vacuum pump.  The pump won’t pump in these anti-pumping temperatures, so I built it a wooden box and put a hair dryer inside.   I suppose I could just milk by hand during the winter, but the milking machine on vacuum is a quick, airtight system and perfectly clean.  Milking into an open bucket is neither quick nor clean.

Back in the house I assemble the milking machine, then assemble myself beginning with a sweatshirt on top of my t-shirt and flannel shirt, a warm vest, and finally my insulated coveralls to complete the wrapping.  Insulated boots and a couple pairs of socks take care of my two-wheel drive.  I return to the barn with the milking machine, extra milk totes, two gallons of hot soapy water, wash cloths, rubber gloves, iodine teat dip and teat salve.


Hot water is key (and fleeting) at 20 below zero.  Even with warm gloves, my fingers get cold quickly while bringing the first two cows into the barn for milking.  Once locked in their stantions, I switch to rubber gloves and plunge my cold hands and a clean cloth into hot water.  My fingers are so grateful for the CPR, and I take a steaming wash cloth to each udder and wash the teats clean.  Each teat is then dipped in an iodine and comfrey/glycerine solution, wiped off with a fresh cloth, then attached to the milking machine for anywhere from five to 20 minutes depending on the cow and its stage of lactation.


When milking is complete, I rub a protective salve onto each teat, mostly to help guard against frostbite.  Frostbite creates a wound that cannot heal if the teat is being milked each morning, forcing that quarter to be dried off until spring, losing valuable milk.  Which begs an obvious question I’ve been asked most winters: Why not let the cows live in the barn during winter?


First, it would double my morning workload, which is already full with milking cows, bottling milk, making yogurt and kefir, cleaning equipment, feeding and watering cows, etc.  With cows living in the barn I’d be forced to deal with the aromatic offerings that frequently exit their bodies just a little north of the milk.  The milk I can sell, but you won’t find their pies in any bakery.

I think cows are healthier when they’re outside, moving around in sunshine and fresh air.  Their udders stay cleaner when they bed down outside versus in a confined space.  I also don’t need to spend lots of time and money procuring sawdust or shavings, and their manure ends up on the pasture naturally without me spreading it.

The biggest threat to outside cows is wind chill.  I have a section of woods fenced off near the barn, and I feed them hay in that protected spot when the wind is blowing. When the wind and cold temperatures are both extreme, I put them in the barn where I love to hear them quietly chewing their hay while a nor’easter  rages at the door, testing the limits of lumber, nails, and trigonometry.


Several years ago I stopped the evening milking and began milking just once a day each morning.  The cows stay in better shape, but more importantly, I felt as though I’d been let out of prison, a release from bovine bondage.  Now, in my new halfway house,  I was free to pursue other interests or chores in the late afternoon and evenings without being shackled to that relentless second milking.  The extra freedom felt like a gift I’d been waiting to open for many years.  Now, as the seasons and years keep rolling by, all of them measured in lactations, my body is hungry for a little more of that freedom.  I think I know where to find it, and thankfully, I am my own parole officer.


Ninety percent of my farm income is made from May through December.  With just a small loss of income I can have a large gain in freedom, eliminating milking altogether from January through April.  It seems like an elegant solution to the arctic milking blues, when the icy air and tired sun make me feel like I’m heading outside to commit my last act of agriculture.  It is a logical next step for a farmer who, I dare say, has probably already seen his greenest pastures.

Gusting To 60

The clock reads just past midnight, October 30th, and I am about to spend most of my 59th birthday wide awake, from start to finish.  Three hours earlier I had fallen asleep knowing what was coming: heavy rain and wind speeds approaching and exceeding my age.  But I have always slept the sleep of the dead, like a January bear.  Once, as a boy enjoying an outside sleepover with friends, they rolled me down a small grassy hill to try and wake me.  We had plans for the Saturday morning movie at the local theater.  They left without me, no need for a 911 call.  Bob is just sleeping.

This night is different.  It is the eve of All Hallows’ Eve, or the contraction Halloween as we call it, the time in the liturgical year when the dead are remembered, and the time when pagans may have believed that the boundary between our world and the spirit world grew very thin.  I am not sure what spirits are riding the 60mph gust that hit our house just past midnight, but I awake with the certainty that I am about to join them.

I fear the pounding wind will collapse the old single- pane six-over-six windows and blow the flesh-eating glass all over the bed.  I lie awake listening for most of the night.  Happy birthday.

Morning light comes, but no electrical light.  I prepare to milk cows with the generator, and go looking for them in the pasture.  As usual, they seem fine, unflappable, even after a long cold shower with a serious blow dry.  No toppled trees into the pasture that threatened the cows, but I think back several years to the one tree that did.

I am still amazed and embarrassed to think that I may be the only farmer in the entire human history of farming to ever drop a tree on one of his cows.  But I did, andIMG_2412 there were witnesses, otherwise I would have taken that secret to my grave.  I was cutting firewood along the edge of a pasture and periodically keeping track of the cows, especially when I dropped a tree.  At one point, with two gardeners watching from the neighbor’s house, I went to cut a 12-inch diameter ash tree and drop it into the pasture.  The cows were nowhere to be seen.  The brush at the base of the tree was thick, and I removed that while also taking time to remove some old fencing wire near the tree.  Then I cut the notch and made my horizontal felling cut.  I stood and faced the pasture at the same time the tree began its slow, precise fall.  And I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was as if my favorite and oldest cow had blown in from the spirit world on a 60mph bovine breeze from the other side of the pasture.  I only had time to scream her name as the gardeners watched in disbelief.

She took a direct hit across her back, right above her rear hip bones, and all four legs buckled yet IMG_2457she caught herself and refused to collapse.  She lunged forward and out from under the tree like only a thousand pound cow could do.  I ran to her feeling as sick and awful and low as I could possibly feel, and not surprisingly, she hobbled away from me with fear in her eyes.  The last thing she had just heard was my voice yelling her name before a tree came thundering across her back.  It’s true that cows aren’t very good at math, but she put one and one together pretty well and kept her distance from me.  Later that night I gave her a handful of cow aspirin for the pain ( yes, cow aspirin; each one the size of a cocktail wiener), and she lived out her life with a bit of a limp to remind me of my historic blunder.IMG_2436

This stormy morning there are no trees on cows, but thousands of trees on power lines across New England.  After milking, I do the generator dance for my birthday.  It involves moving extension cords and the generator to different locations outside the house and cellar every few hours, to keep five refrigerators and four freezers nice and cold.  What could be scarier on Halloween than a hundred quarts of warming yogurt?

Halloween dawns and the yogurt is still cold, courtesy of gasoline and internal combustion.  The grid is still down.  The day passes with chores, planting garlic, the generator dance, and finally kindling a Halloween bonfire for neighbors, friends, and passers-by.  And the flames shed light on kind faces and old souls, some of them sneaking in while the boundary is still thin.  There is no power in the cables overhead, but all the power we really need is gathered around this fire.  Friendship and community mix with  smoke and cider and laughter.  At age 59, I am hoping, like the midnight wind, to gust toward 60.IMG_2459

The Joys and Dark Secrets of Haying

It is true that you have to make hay when the sun shines, but beneath that welcoming veneer of azure skies and warm temperatures are unintended consequences, and many of us who cut hay would rather not talk about them.  I will ease myself into that darkness by starting on the bright side.

Imagine the perfect forecast, three days of sunshine and warmth, low humidity and perhaps a nice dry breeze out of the northwest.  Then imagine that all of the equipment is greased and tuned and unlikely to fail, and you have the auspicious beginning to a round of happy haymaking.  The tractor is humming along on a textbook summer day, cutting row after row of knee-high clover in full view of the White Mountains.  It is actually a field of winter-time yogurt and other dairy products, each cow needing 200 bales of hay to pass the winter.IMG_2285

After the field is mowed on day one,  I’ll return the second day to flip it over and fluff it up with the tedder, an egg-beater-like implement that speeds the drying process.  On day three the happy farmer is all smiles raking the now dry hay into windrows in preparation to bale.  And when that amazingly complicated baler, built the year I was born, starts spitting out perfectly tied bales until 300 of them are evenly spaced where the clover used to be, farming might not get any better than that.IMG_0152

But it does. The field is now quiet, no tractor and clanking baler to break the silence. Friends, kind friends (is there any other kind?) show up to help load bales onto pick-up trucks.  There is camaraderie built on easy conversation and a shared task, and that feeling of accomplishment facilitated by no broken equipment or unscheduled thunderstorms.

IMG_0190We head for the barn and stack that hay like bars of gold, knowing full well its value as currency in our own little economy.  When the sweating is done, we might share a meal beneath the apple trees, pleased that the barn is one step closer toward another successful journey through winter.

That narrative, of course, is far from complete. Any hayfield should also be thought of as a little ecosystem with lots of life and death going on amidst the grass.  When a farmer shows up with fast-working mechanical equipment, the death toll spikes.  Sometimes you see what you’ve killed, mostly you don’t.  It is impossible to drive across a field with sharp knives whirling like propellers, and avoid all of the life hidden in the grass.  It’s not as though every hayfield is another Gettysburg, but I have killed mice, voles, frogs, snakes, bird eggs and even newly hatched turkeys. The unluckiest of farmers have collided with young fawns lying low in the tall grass.

Last year, for the first time, I noticed a fawn in the hayfield the day before I was going to cut.  That night I was anxious about it so I called two friends to walk the hayfield that following morning.  They found the fawn and marked its location so I could steer clear. But you are never certain that the grass ahead is simply grass.

All food systems have their ugly secrets, but there are winners here, too.  The ravens, crows, and coyotes show up to take the dead and wounded from under the hay.  Nature’s undertakers.  The ravens and crows fly over-head within minutes of my beginning, and soon they are landing and taking off with an easy meal.  Once a coyote came trotting behind the tractor, just ten feet away, leaping and pouncing on the newly exposed mice and voles running for their lives.  When I stopped the tractor and stood up, the coyote bolted for the woods.  When I started mowing again, he came right back and followed within ten feet, grateful for the new buffet of local meats.  We could learn a lot from these masters of eating locally.  No shopping.  No cooking.  No dishes.

But let me return to the bright side, to something all New Englanders love as much as apple cider, maple syrup, and brown eggs: a great view.  Were it not for a little bit of agriculture here and there, New England would be a blanket of trees right up to the edge of every road.  Hayfields give us a place where the breeze can get rolling, a place to clear our minds, to let in the light and show us the surrounding geology of gorgeousness.  Hayfields are, indeed, places of darkness and light, sadness and inspiration, easy explanations and complex mysteries.  As a New England farmer I will always love setting sail through the forest for those verdant little islands of poetry and purpose.IMG_0196

Taking The Sons And Daughters

The philosophy of food can sometimes make my brain feel like a forgotten fried egg in a smokey skillet.  What is really best for the human body?  Paleo, vegan, Mediterranean, raw, slow-cooked, fasting a little, fasting a lot, or just sit tight and eat right for your blood type?  I think, after many years of feeling passionate and curious about food and food production, I’ve been asking the wrong question.  There is no singular philosophy of food that is best for the human body.  There is only that philosophy, or even lack thereof, that seems to work for our own bundle of biology.  I am more certain than ever that certainty has no place in a food fight, with the one exception that fresh, real food of any kind trumps processed, industrial food every time.  Otherwise, we could use far less preaching on food, and perhaps even religion, since each of us can gauge for ourselves what makes our bodies, and our souls, really sing.

There is one aspect to my own eating that is particularly sorrowful, but first I want to put it into context.  I eat mostly whole grains, vegetables, and fermented dairy (yogurt, kefir, etc.),  so if you’re looking for a philosophical label I suppose vegedairyan might work.  But I also occasionally eat beef from our farm and fish from the sea, so, in fact, I sound like just another omnivore.

I have always gravitated to a homesteading, farming lifestyle for food production.  I enjoy the work, but I am not preaching to convert.  It is just an interest of mine that makes me happy.  What a mess we would have, at this point, if everybody on Earth wanted to farm.  But if you want to farm and eat somewhat sustainably in New England, putting animals on the rocky, grassy pastures seems like a good bet.  Something to transform all of that abundant New England grass into human food for the long winter ahead.  Something like a dairy cow.  Something like the six dairy cows that currently graze these hilly pastures of home.

This is where the sad part comes in.  When a cow freshens (gives birth), she begins lactating so her calf has the milk it needs to survive.  It is a beautiful sight to see a cow with good maternal instincts standing still while her newborn stumbles to figure out the workings of her udder.  It is equally beautiful to see them curled-up together in the green grass, napping hard beneath the warm sunshine.  But it cannot last.

Virtually IMG_1794all big dairy farms, and even most of us on a small-scale, separate the calves from their mothers.  The big farms do it right away, and I usually wait about a week, keeping the cow and calf in a big,  clean stall in the barn.  Imagine the logistical chaos if newborn calves were left with their mothers on a large farm.  Getting the cows into the milking parlor would be a nightmare each day, and cows that are nursing calves don’t always let their milk down for the farmer.

IMG_2268My biggest reason, however, for separating the calves from their mothers, is safety.  Valuable calves are easily taken by coyotes and bears, so I like the calf in a safe barn while mom is out grazing under the stars.  But it is mostly my safety I’m referring to.  I want the calf to bond with me, not its mother, because in two short years it will be pushing a thousand pounds with legs powerful enough to hit the delete button on my life while I’m milking her.  I want her to remember all of the times I gave her a bottle with mother’s milk, all of the times I scratched her chin and led her to fresh green grass beneath the apple trees.

The only way that happeFullSizeRender(2)ns, and the only way I can easily get milk from the mother (which is my income), is to separate the mother from her calf. I do that after their week of bliss together in the barn.  Mom goes back out to graze, but soon, within hours, she will start to bellow for her calf.   It is the sorrowful and sometimes panicked sound of a mother who cannot find her child.  I have heard it for 17 years, several times each summer, and it haunts me most at night when I’m laying in bed.  My heart aches every time.

And every time I remind myself that she will get over it, and they will reunite in a few months to once again eat grass together.  But the sound of that pain is a dark and empty hole in the philosophy in which I’ve chosen to eat.



A Note From Bob

I’m sorry for the long absence since my July post, but I injured my arm (more on that later) at the same time my 2006 laptop suffered a fatal injury.  I just upgraded to a 2008 for fifty bucks, and now I can get back to checking the weather forecast, sending e-mails, and posting now and then on The Farmer’s Pencil.  I’m hoping you will scroll down and read the latest posting  “A Market Most Advantageous To The Inhabitants.”  It was published last summer in “Tamworth As We See It”, a book that offered perspectives on our town at 250 years.  I offer my piece again in honor of a town I’ve loved for 27 of those 250 years, and also in honor of National Farmers’ Market Week.  I think it was last week, but really, who knew?