Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hard Harvest

Yesterday, we took another step-- a giant, uncomfortable, yucky step-- in the direction of "real farmness": I brought a vanload of sheep to a slaughter facility in NH.

Now, I knew it'd be a hard thing. But I had no idea just HOW hard a thing it'd be.

These animals were not pets, but they had names, a history with us, distinct personalities. And so I faced the drive with trepidation, reasoning with myself all the way. Self, I said, We can't afford to keep 21 sheep,the money and food from these sheep will ensure that we can afford the others. What's more, these animals, by virtue of health, build or all-out spookiness, are not suitable for breeding and keeping, and we can't, in good conscience, sell them as such. Furthermore, we've given them good, carefree lives, better by far than those of the animals in supermarket freezers and this is just part of the process...

Oh I reasoned alright.... but this helped my reluctant self not a bit. I drove the two hours with a heavy heart, barely able to look back at the make-shift pen behind me.

And when I arrived at the USDA facility (USDA sounded a lot fancier on the phone than the scattered warehouse the place turned out to be) I began to tear up immediately.

What I really wanted was to turn around and go home. I wanted to, but I didn't. Some of these lambs had been presold for meat, and so meat they would be. Besides (here's some more rationalization...) Keeping this bunch would add close to 10 dollars a day in hay expenses, a burden our farm, and family couldn't bear. So I opened the back of the van, and helped the handler shoo my little group into a holding pen.

I didn't say good bye. I didn't even dare to look at them. I went into the small office and went through the paperwork; I checked off which cuts, which parts. Then I went out to my empty van, put it in gear, and cried for about an hour. Really. It thoroughly, thoroughly sucked.

I sat in a bagel store parking lot for another hour, re-justifying. Checking off all the reasons why this was the right and logical thing to do, and I felt like crap about it just the same. I thought about going back to retrieve my sheep-- WAIT! Never mind!-- but once their feet touched down in the dirt of the "facility" they couldn't return to the farm to transmit whatever bacteria and illness they might have com in contact with. It was done. A done deal.

I had planned to go to work after the drop off, but this was overly hopeful. Honestly, I didn't know what to expect, didn't know the day would be so out and out miserable.

Perhaps "real" farmers are used to this process, and bringing animals to slaughter is just like any farm chore for them. But It's caused me to question the whole farm premise.

When we began this enterprise, we hoped to grow good quality wool and breeding stock, and perhaps also some meat to feed our family. The trouble with this model is that meat is the farm product people want the most. We have had no trouble selling meat lambs, and if we had 20 more, we'd probably be able to sell them as well. Local meat, with good reason, is in.

Wool, however.... wool is slow going, expensive to produce, hard to market and such a specialty product. Ditto for roving. Our wool is beautiful, knitters love it, but there are a lot less knitters than meat-eaters out there.

And breeding animals? Well, we've been able to find breeding homes and fiber homes for some of our lambs but we had 11 this year, and the economy's in the toilet and several big Icelandic Farms have dispersed this year, so... nope, not sustainable.

Before yesterday, meat seemed like it might be a way to go, but I'm feeling pretty shaky-- okay, REALLY SHAKY-- about that now. Dan and I like to joke that the sheep are our retirement plan (This is a joke because the sheep COST us a heck of a lot of money each year and have yet to break even close to even.) But we cannot continue to pour money into the farm without the sheep at least earning for their own keep.

But the meat idea is a lot more real for me today than it was a week ago. I do not want to get callous about death. Yesterday,I talked the one of the young handlers at the slaughterhouse while picking up the hides of the animals I'd dropped off. The conversation went something like this:

Me (blinking back the day's ever present tears): "It must be hard, what you do..."

Him: "Oh yeah. It's not easy to get the cuts right. People think they can just do their own. Like my buddy who got a moose yesterday. I told him it ain't so easy"

Me: "No, I mean the killing part..."

Him: "Oh, THAT. That's easy. We do 250 animals a day. That's the easy part..."

When you go to the supermarket or buy local or order a deli sandwich at subway, somewhere, somebody has unloaded a bunch of scared animals off a truck into some ugly warehouse and asked somebody to kill them. That reality was pretty abstract for me, until yesterday. Even locally grown, free ranging meat is not a pretty thing to contemplate. At least not right now. Perhaps if we had a traveling butcher who'd come and do the slaughtering right here on site... perhaps at the new, "state of the art" facility opening up a few towns over this year, one designed by Temple Grandin to minimize stress... Or perhaps, I'll go back to the primarily vegetarian diet of my 20's, win the lottery and and buy hay for our growing flock like nobody's business....

Or, perhaps things will look different in a day or two.

If you've been involved in this process, or plan to be, I sure would appreciate some advice or feedback on this.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Goodbye Gobbles

The turkeys went to the butcher today. It was tough to see them go, but not quite as tough as it might have been; I have had it up to here with their troublesome wanderings, their voracious--expensive!-- appetites, their tearing up the lawn something fierce. It was a chore and a half to coach them into the barn at night (We'd sort of given up on it at the end here, leaving the flock to take its chances on the pasture fence and on the ground beside the water pump.) And I could have offed the group of them myself the day I returned home to find the whole flock up on the porch pecking at our freshly picked bins of apples and leaving a tremendous mess behind... So yes, the turks had outstayed their welcome.

But somehow-- there's always a catch isn't there?-- I miss them already.

Turkeys are kind of cool in a clueless, show-offy, wholly unexpected way. They are drama kings, prancing and sighing, sneezing and gobbling, and fighting-- oh the fighting!-- all the time. I'll miss the spectacle of our slate gray tom, smaller but full of game, bumping up against the bigger bronze toms. I'll miss "Blinky" who had some sort of neurological issue, listing and lurching in circles, bumping into trees and calling after her buddies. Blinky was so obviously in need that even our puppy Luka, nudged her in the right direction sometimes. I'll miss the gaudy colors, the toms' skin going from red to blue at the whim of some internal barometer, their comical snoods, the way the flock gathered around as I picked apples, toms gliding around at my feet like schooners at full sail. There might be a hundred apples on the ground around them, but turkey wisdom dictated that the only good apples come from the hand of a weary human.

I will miss them-- I DO miss them-- but it was time. (Long past time, according to Dan, who is right this minute cleaning out the tremendous stinky, turkey-fied mess that is our barn.) And I can console myself with several weeks worth of home-produced dinners and the chance to supply a farm-fresh, wholesome well-raised food to friends and co-workers. I choose to focus on this aspect today, the day our first turkeys went to the butcher.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

And a Good Time Was Had By All

The Greenway Celebration was our initiation into a new world, a world chock full of interested customers who wanted to know a little bit about Massachusetts' rural heritage, small town living, apples, wool, sheep and chickens. 30,000+ interested customers as it turned out.

The build-up and market day were some of the busiest of my life, and also the most productive. I baked and peeled apples and organized yarns and apple crisps and whatnot. Dan developed a lovely banner, brochures, business cards and labels, Micah made some beautiful signs. We were all up late into the night readying for the big day. Saturday morning found us up at four packing the minivan, waking Micah (who chose to come along for the day) and driving the two and a half hours into the heart of the big, B-i-i-i-g city to sell our wares.

Now, at past events, we barely had our "stuff" together; we set out a card table and hung around chatting. It was lots of fun, but part of the fun was our sheer, amateur-ness. We considered these small events a chance to meet other vendors and learn about the whole process of marketing.

This Greenway Celebration, however, was the BIG TIME. And we were (more) prepared. We had a brand new canopy and our professional looking banners, and we even brought a cash register... well, it was our kids' bright red toy cash register.... But you get the idea. A friend of mine made cute soaps to help fill our table and we also offered, baked goods-- Apple flax blueberry bread and apple flax walnut bread, apple oatmeal bread and apple crisp, and Dan's homemade peach, plum and blueberry jams. We also offered plain old apples to the hungry folks who came by and fresh cider. None of this has to do with our primary business, but we were advised to have food to offer.

We also offered yarn and roving, and I brought a few of my hand-crafted items, hats and scarves, to demonstrate what a person might DO with all this wonderful stuff.

We figured there'd be lots of other small family farms at the farmer's market, but mostly there were small family businesses: a cookie company, a bread company, a jam company, a coffee micro-roaster, etc etc. Businesses with inventory and a few employees and such. So once again, prepared as we were, were were, achem... out of our league once again. (It may say something about the state of Massachusetts' rural heritage that the Greenway Farmer's Market had so few small farms.) The Rodale Institute, the event's sponser had a really neat passport system to help get customers and farmers talking and also gave us free canvas bags that we could offer to customers with a $10 purchase. These were great ideas and the event organizers have our thanks and gratitude.

Anyway, being out of our league turned out to be an advantage of sorts because people were really interested in what it was like to work a genuine small family farm (They were surprised to learn that we had to work full-time jobs to support our rural lifestyle, for example.) Micah showed pictures from our farming album and answered questions. (One couple asked her if she liked having chickens and she said "Sort of. Because when you have chickens you can never go out barefoot"!) Luminaries came by; Thomas Menino, Mayor of Boston, and Caroline Kennedy sampled the apple oatmeal bread. It was really fun to "talk sheep" with so many new people. (I love to "talk sheep" any time, any place!). Micah managed to take a few pictures for us and she was quite the soap-seller, explaining exactly why that the goldfish soap was great for kids. (From the moment our feet hit the pavement, Dan and I were generally too busy to BREATHE so it was great to have our own photographer along!)

I ended up selling one of my scarves and a felted hat, although I hadn't planned on it. (I have a long way to go before I am skilled enough to set up shop) because the customers insisted on buying the items, flaws and all. I wasn't prepared for the lump in my throat as I watched by cool, reversable lizard/goldfish hat walk away on someone else's head. But I was also happy it was going to a new home where it was obviously loved and appreciated. Here it is:

So it was a beautiful, busy, joyous day. We sold out of breads and crisps and also sold a lot of yarn and roving. We met a lot of wonderful people and gave out every last brochure and business card, arrived home exhausted at 11 PM, slogged out to take care of the animals in the dark, put our zonked daughter to bed and collapsed on the couch.

And for some crazy reason, we hope to do more of this sort of thing in the future!

Friday, October 3, 2008

To Market, To Market

Saturday's the day.

Dan and I are headed off to the opening celebration of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston. The Greenway is the snaky park that's replaced Boston's old raised highways. (Think "Big Dig".) The celebration is an enormous farmer's market, concert, happenin' event.

...And we, well, we are bringin' it. All of it: Yarn, roving, apples, baked thingys, homemade soap, etc. etc.

It promises to be a HUGE event-- much larger than we envisioned when we agreed to go.

Truth be told, we are rookies, raw rookies, when it comes to hawking our wares. We putter and dawdle and are not as focused on the "business end of our business" as we could be. So this event-- upwards of 50,000 people-- is a bit, um... terrifying. But really exciting as well.

Maggie's Farm may be turning a corner. The sheep may actually pay for a portion of their own feed this year. That'd be nice. Then we wouldn't have to talk so much about what a "fun long-term project" the farm is or chuckle self-deprecatingly about how the sheep are our retirement plan.

....Maybe. Whatever else, I'm sure we'll meet a lot of nice people and come away with some terrific stories. And isn't that what it's all about anyway?

So if you're in Boston this weekend, come by and say hello.