6.08.2017

For the dignity of the birds...



Tomorrow, Friday, June 9th, commenting will close on the USDA’s National Organic Program’s new set of rules referred to as the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP). If you have been following the new revamping of the organic standards you might be experiencing deja vu for it was just this time last year that the Obama USDA was accepting comments for the OLPP. In the final days of the Obama administration the OLPP were finalized and set to go into practice in May 2017.  As the Trump administration’s modus operandi has been to undo anything the Obama administration had done; they have temporarily delayed the implementation of these standards and have offered them up to public comment with the potential to delay them indefinitely. This of course is to be expected but it is not to be tolerated.

In the past decade the organic food market has grown to reach, in 2014, a $39.7 billion dollar force and with this the term organic has become more vague and more open to interpretation by big Ag eager to get a slice of this organic moneyed pie. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service estimates that 50% of organic eggs are laid by hens who have never been outdoors. Organic egg cartons are covered with meaningless adjectives like “free range”, “natural” and “happy” that create an illusion of the barefooted Sally Henny Penny scratching for worms in the pasture but in fact are not subject to any standard of definition.

Obama’s USDA aimed to change that by narrowing the definition for the organic label in their National Organic Program standards. These standards were aimed -mostly- at poultry practices but encompassed a broad spectrum of animal welfare from birth to slaughter. One such proposed change would be to require more indoor and outdoor space per bird and a requirement of at least 50% soil coverage on any outdoor bird space. The current lax organic standards allow for poultry producers to provide ‘outdoor’ space in the form of ‘porches’ that allow for the bird to see neither sky nor ground and thus stretch the definition of ‘outdoors’.

Detractors from the NOP site fear of Avian Flu outbreaks as their primary concern against such luxuries as the outdoors. The 2015 Avian Flu outbreak cost the poultry industry some $3.3 billion in losses. While the fear of another outbreak is understandable it has nothing to do with outdoor access; all of the operations that suffered from the 2015 outbreak were confinement operations with their birds laying, and suffering, inside.

More frankly opposition to the OLPP  is about money and the producers that are resistant to these proposed changes are motivated by economic concerns. The buildings currently housing organic laying hens, for example,  would need to be modified and in some cases rebuilt. This is a cost the producers could pass along to the consumer, but they are reluctant for the risk and would rather continue to keep animals in gross confinement.

The new OLPP rules have been a decade in the making and will bring more clarity and enforceable standards to the organic label. The new administration has just 2 more days of the comment period before they decide what action to take on the standards. Go, and comment. Lend your voice.  Use these great talking points if you need inspiration.  Tell them, on behalf of all of the animals that give us our food, that we insist on these standards that they are good for us, for the animals and for our environment.





3.29.2017

Trees that rain apples, and such.






Yesterday I found myself lying in bed, battling my (now) usual fit of insomnia and enumerating my reasons for living rurally. Particularly, in response to a recent question of why anybody would want to live in Vermont. More specifically when the punishing March that we have had is dolefully forecasting yet another foot of snow this weekend, two weeks into spring.

So, while my over-caffeinated and under-slept body fought mind, this is what they came up with: 

  1. You can pee wherever you want.
  2. You can waltz naked from house to pond and back again. 
  3. Milking a cow, in the field, at first light, and again at last light.
  4. Eating snow with maple syrup. 
  5. The trees that pour maple sap when you poke them.
  6. The wild trees that rain apples when you shake them, and the resulting cider.
  7. Mushroom hunting, specifically in May, for morels, but also in July, for chanterelles.
  8. The internet that is often out for long, blissful stretches of weeks. 
  9. The complete absence of cell phone service.
  10. The dogs that run free. 
  11. The bear that lives on our North hill. 
  12. The heron that fishes our pond every summer. 
  13. The baby moose that spent one early winter sleeping on the side of our driveway.
  14. My child’s confidence with the forest, with fire, with cows and sheep and pigs.
  15. My child’s friendship with house piglets. 
  16. Our freedom to be filthy.
  17. Feeding the winter fires.
  18. The winter's night sky.
  19. Fireflies.
  20. The sound of sheep chewing their cud.
  21. The sound of pigs snoring in a pile.
  22. The mama hen that lets herself into our home, uninvited, with her clutch of chicks underfoot, looking for crumbs. 
  23. The animals that feed us.
  24. The animals that break our hearts. 
  25. Driving a tractor. 
  26. The smell of Nick bucking a pile of firewood.
  27. The smell of the hay barn BUT NOT the sting of it in my eyes and throat.
  28. and 
  29. and
  30. and….



Its not a complete list and the list of things I dislike about rural life could easily lap the one above. But it is March. Morale is low enough. Focusing firmly and a bit artificially on the positive. Forgive me.

3.15.2017

On drowning goats.



Often, it takes stupidity-in-action to really learn my lesson. I blunder through life, I learn, I hope to blunder less.  If I’m lucky, the blunders don’t cost me too much. Recently, through a series of impetuous blunders,  I learned that melting ice will break under a grown woman’s weight.

Last month, during an unseasonable February melt, I was jogging with the hound when I came upon a pond filled with (4) drowning goats. Each had fallen into individual goat-sized holes in the ice, created by their not insignificant 40 pound selves. Having spent the frozen part of winter reveling in their ability to walk on water they awoke that morning, to the warm air, thinking only what a great day for a romp instead of the more urgent and human wouldn’t it be foolish to ice-skate today?

Their humans were away and given the total non-presence of neighbors in our parts, the hound and I were the first to happen upon their sickening cries. 

I didn’t know that goats could swim. I suppose most land mammals at least make a go for it when given the alternative of death, and these four creatures were doing their damnedest to live. I have never witnessed a drowning and I wish I could tell you that I kept my cool and Did What Needed to be Done. Instead, I panicked. I ran towards the pond, hound in tow; a pair of flame-bent moths. 

I proceeded towards the goats at a crawl assuming that if I spread out my weight thusly I would be less likely to fall in. Hawkeye followed my lead. Any sensible person could see that this didn’t work for the goats and thus was unlikely to work for a human but I was panicking, not thinking, so I missed that crucial bit of logic.

Predictably, we fell through almost immediately, many meters shy of the goats. It is a shocking experience and was my first time falling through ice. I panicked [again!] but quickly recalled that I could swim and broke the ice frantically back to the bank for the both of us. 

Sopping wet, I understood that it would be foolish to continue my half thought attempts at a solo rescue. Nobody knew I was here, in this remote pond in the woods. If nobody could hear the goats they were unlikely too to hear my cries for help should I continue to make idiotic decisions. 

I thought briefly [briefly!]  of abandoning the goats and continuing on my run. Just a half a second, but such is my selfishness and I would be remiss to not mention my wickedness. 

Fortunately the unearthly sound of the goats knocked me out of my selfish reverie. 

I would need to find help to save these goats who were still screaming and trying not to drown. 

First the dog and I ran east up the road to where I had seen a man parked on the side of the woods taking a phone call. He was gone. I tried yelling for help into the sugar bush but the trees remained ever passive. Next we ran west. I passed six homes over a mile before I found humans at home. The mile was uphill and my legs had an extra 10 pounds of winter over them. It took me so long that I got distracted with how much I hate running hills. I kept taking breaks to curse the incline and slow my heart and then I would remember the goats and heave my wet self forward.

The neighbors I found were capable and recognized the urgency of drowning goats. Perhaps they were unsettled by my muddied and frantic appearance but they were kind enough to come. 

By the time we arrived one goat was floating dead and the other three were washed in a sickening silence, still swimming but somehow slower. The man had a Vermonter’s sense of how to proceed. He walked to the far side of the pond and waded in. Breaking the ice before him, he dragged each of the goats out. Something, of course, I should have had the presence of mind to do 20 minutes earlier. He saved the remaining three and even went in to the furthest -the dead, fourth- to give it and the day the decency of removal. 

We carried their sodden bodies up to the homestead and lay them in the sun, toweling them off as best as we were able. They couldn’t stand, much less walk. They were tiny Nigerian Dwarf goats, ones that could sit in your lap if you were willing. I and the woman held them against our bodies, trying to steady their shaking.

There was an awkwardness to the conclusion. We had stopped the drowning but the goat’s humans were not yet back. A mother-in-law -hearing the commotion- had stopped by and was in the house making the necessary calls to the necessary humans.   

We wet three were most certain the goats would be dead from exhaustion or hypothermia within the day. There is a unsentimentality in rural life regarding animals that I am still fumbling with. The Kate I was before Vermont would have called the vet, no matter that they were not my animals. But here the austerity of life forces practicality. I followed the lead of the pair of seasoned Vermonters;  these goats will likely die, we reasoned, the most we could do was give them a dry, safe space to do so. No sense in spending anybody’s money on a vet who would tell us the same. We locked the three in an empty and warm duck house and went our separate ways. 

I was shaking. Cold, certainly, but also from the adrenaline of the situation and the shame of having not acted with intelligence when I first found them. I could have gotten myself into a whole lot more trouble and was lucky I fell in where I did and that I wasn’t wearing heavy boots or heavy clothes when I did. My uncertainty and panic cost the life of the little black goat. 

Later that night, I got an email from my female accomplice. She had a visit from the goat’s human, thanking her, naturally, for the work she and her husband did. She was happy to tell me the goats were recovering, the owner had carried them to the wood stove when she got home and the dry heat appeared to be the needed remedy.

I've run passed the homestead several times since as it is a loop to which I am devoted. There is no further sign of the goats. 




1.19.2017

A land where beasts rule humans.




The dogs and I took Amelia for a walk this afternoon. The boys are still away, reluctantly returning this evening after a weekend playing with old friends in New York. I wanted to go too. I can presume the fat and bored babe on my chest would have been up for it. Farm doesn’t allow for both Nick and I to leave at once. Farm is a needy, greedy beast. Too many lives dependent on us. Too many nuances to responsibly ascribe to a sitter. 

It is a conclusion I’m coming to belatedly: farmer’s don’t vacation. I have a vague recollection of concerned friends warning me of this. Farmers are poor on disposable money and rich on work to do. I come to farming from the suburban and spoiled life of somebody accustomed to the Getaway. We’ve squeaked out trips away in the first four years. Nothing too egregious; a drive down to North Carolina; Christmas with my parents on the Vineyard; a wintery week on Cape Cod; a handful of summer days with our families.

When we both leave inevitably something goes Wrong; animals develop debilitating case of maggots-in-the-ears, the tractor smokes and sputtesr, a waterline freezes, the dogs kill a lamb. This is not for want of capable farmsitters. To the contrary the help we’ve hired is, historically, overqualified, capable, well-read, respectful and kind.  Rather, the inevitable happens whether we are here or not.  Our Systems are overly nuanced making it rather painstaking to describe solutions over the phone and unfair to the good kind soul who volunteered for a weekend of light farmwork.

As I write, there is a heifer out of the cow pen, eating dropped bits of hay. She is free to the world, able to, should she choose, saunter to town or go shit on the hood of my car [blessedly the latter has happened but the former has not, yet]. One heifer does not an emergency make. An hour earlier, before our walk, three were out. 

Heifers are the most disagreeable of cows as they are full sized and not yet burdened by calf.  This results in a propensity for adventure and mischief [qualities I favor in human women but find unduly troublesome in our cow-nterparts]. My solution an hour earlier was to run at them as a madwoman, dogs in tow, scaring them back into the pen. Now I sit here, at my desk, writing -a beer, nearly empty and aggressively gripped in one hand- watching a new heifer flaunt my attempt at a fence. I’m not alone in my vigil. I can see, from my perch at the computer, the herd watching her from behind the dubious strand of un-electrified poly wire that we blithely thought might keep them at bay. 

The herd is fighting their collective Cow Brain. They know it is our preference that they not cross the fence. They know that when they do they often find themselves chased by a pair of dogs and a madwoman. They know too that one of their number has crossed the fence and seems to be enjoying herself and a fresh bit of hay. They are struggling with all of this logic. We are about an hour shy of sunset at which point it is my hope they forget the temptation and fall asleep. 

A herd of 20 cows galloping through snow is not an easy group to tame with an infant strapped to ones chest.

Clearly the fence needs to be reinforced. But this is why -nearly always- at least one of us remains behind. It would be irresponsible [shitty] to leave a farmsitter with such a likely doomed scenario. 

Because we are required here to supervise such unfolding scenarios we put great stock in our daily walks. Today we went chasing the setting sun in the old hay field. Amelia trotted along attached to my chest, blinking, and occasionally letting out happy sighs while we watched the dogs somersault over one another through the snow. The four of us making slow but good-natured progress. 

We made it to the old hay fields and spun around to face the sun that was already obscured by some taller trees. We blinked, searched our pockets in hopes of a mid-walk treat: a nib of chocolate or a stale almond but came up only with a few bits of lint, an egg shell and a trio of rusty screws.  Disappointed but sated from the walk and sun we set back towards home. Limping stoically through the deepish snow. 

Amelia was asleep by the time we reached the house. I lay her down in her crib. She had lost both shoes, apparently, as I unwrapped the sling to find her only in socks. Fortunately it wasn’t cold -warm by some perverted Vermont standard- so Amelia survived the walk to the far fields without frostbite. The shoes will melt out in May and they will be a happy, forgotten, sodden treasure when they are found.

In the middle of writing to you the cows did overcome their brains and charged through the fence. The break of the levee poured them en masse from the cow yard into the Open Farm. With great resignation I finished my beer,  grabbed sleeping Amelia from her crib, stuffed her into a wooly and sling and ran at them -this time with a shovel so as to appear menacing. One sight of me and they all scurried like bad lambs back to their cow yard. We poured a kettle of hot water on the frozen barn gates and locked them in for the night, leaving the fence-fixing for tomorrow. 


Amelia and I skipped proudly home; I feeling intolerably smug in my role as MotherFarmer and Amelia thrilled with the adrenaline of galloping beasts. It wasn’t until I had undone her from the tangles of the sling that I noticed I had wrangled cows in my underpants. Such is my mental state that I can hold a 7 month old while running through a foot of snow to terrify a herd of cows through the small mouth of the barn gate but I am incapable of remembering or realizing the need for pants.

2.08.2015

The Lunacy of February


February is my least favorite month. Fortunate then, for its 28 days. 30, or worse 31 and I would have left Vermont after that first winter. It snows every day in February. A law passed by the state legislature in 1892 requires it so. Coupled with a bone chilling cold and an utter lack of sun we spend hours looking at photos of summer wondering at the possibility.

Snow at this point in our winter has lost all novelty. Oh, its snowing says the mistress of the house as she descends in her pajamas that were yesterday's clothes. Not, Oh! the exclamation when one has found a forgotten stash of Christmas chocolate. Rather, Oh, the resignation when your mate suggests cuddling up to The Walking Dead instead of The Good Wife.

Some afternoons, after shepherding my son from house to car to co-op to car to house the guilt of his winter imprisonment overcomes. There is a break in the snow.  I stuff his chunky appendages into tubes of wool and tunnels of down. I wedge the hand-me-down-woolen blob that was once my son into his sled and pile ratty blankets reserved for this purpose all around him. He is sufficiently shielded from Winter with only the triangle of his eyes and nose visible. The absence of any screaming tells me I can proceed. I tie the sled off to my belt and mush forth.

We ascend the driveway, just a half mile to the top. The mailbox sits there and provides our walk a humble goal. I gingerly unfold the broken mouth. Oh! bills. I'm forever optimistic in my expectation of a package. It is unreasonable as they never come of their own volition and I never order anything online to warrant one.

Disappointed I turn to head home. My small shadow is still stoic and breathing, watching the dogs smell each other's marked trees. I stuff the bills into a pocket that I suspect carries a broken egg. With gloves it hard to distinguish between an egg yolk and an eyeball but my money is on the egg. It will have been the third broken one this week. And we are not a household that can afford such carelessness.

Our chickens are laying one egg a day. 29 hens producing one egg. Curiously, its almost never the same egg. They've decided, collectively, that one egg a day should keep us off their backs 'til spring, so I reckon they take turns. With every $20 bag of organic scratch we bring them I do the humiliating math. Three bucks per egg returned.  If we were better farmers these hens would be stew birds in the freezer by now. We have a soft spot for old layers...and motherless lambs, and mean knobby kneed goats, and 3 legged pigs, and mastitic dairy cows. Farming for us has always been a delicate balance of hoarding lunacy and responsible shepherding.

We are nearly home. I slide in behind Leland and we sail downhill the last hundred meters to the front porch. I roll Stay Puft through the front door. As I begin to unravel the wooly layers the reality of our return to prison hits my tiny son. He screams, a guttural awful noise. I hold him as the angering reality of mid winter courses through. A piece of buttered raisin toast seems to appease him and within minutes he is chewing thoughtfully in front of the fire. I sink  into the sofa on the far side of the cell and look outdoors. Oh, its snowing I say to nobody.
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