What is it like to be a farmer? Here's an example of a typical spring day. This is an actual journal of a real day, selected at random, in this case Monday, April 30, 2012.
Get up. As Dan checks on the large animals, I get up and check the incubator. Pull 13 chicks & 2 turkeys out and take them to the brooder pen, where food & water await under the heat lamp. When I open the pen, I sadly note a dead turkey poult- it looks like it drowned, as its head is still in the waterer. I never have understood how something 6” tall can drown in 1/2” of water, but it seems turkeys manage. The heritage breeds, like our Bourbons, are much smarter than the broad-breasted ones, but still, you lose one every once in awhile. Nature is not kind to the weak or dumb. Then I do the rest of my AM chores- making sure the rabbits, chicks, chickens & ducklings have food and water. Dan tells me to keep an eye on Finni, our Dexter cow- we let her and the new calf out of the barn yesterday, and although everything seems to have gone well so far, it looks like the calf got under the fence into another part of the pasture. If he can't find his way back, I'll have to take care of it.
Household stuff- take mail out to the box, grab newspaper, check email. While I'm online, I place a bulk order for pectin for my jelly & jam making. This should save money and keep my supply in stock for most, if not all, of the farm stand season, so I'm excited to have found a family-owned bulk supplier of the stuff. Head outside to get the load of jeans out of the washer & hang them up on the line outside (I don't have a dryer). As I'm hanging jeans, I'm relieved to see that the calf and Finni are together on the same side of the fence. He must have scooted back through whatever hole he went through in the first place. Before I take the hose away from the washer and take it back to the greenhouse, I decide to do another load, so I put in some sheets and towels. While that is going, I head downtown (to Tionesta, ~5 miles each way) to grab a few supplies. I get brown sugar and raisins at the grocery store, and more peat pots for the greenhouse at the hardware. While there, I talk to one of the owners- she asks what we've got growing in the greenhouse these days, comments about the snow last week pulling the trellis in the garden down, and asks what it's for- beans? No, peas, I reply, too early for beans yet, although we're both looking forward to the warmer weather coming this week. It's real small-town America- doing business and conversation with your neighbors, literally.
I get home and unload the car, then the washer. After the sheets are hung, I drag the hose up to the greenhouse and water any of the flats that look a bit dry. A few I hold off on- if I repot them this afternoon, it actually helps if they are a bit dry. The rhubarb is growing like crazy, and the groceries I picked up are for my Sweet & Tangy Rhubarb-B-Q sauce, so I pick enough to make up a batch. The stems pull out easily, and I have kitchen shears with me to cut off the leaves before I bring it inside- they are actually poisonous! I put on an apron and consult the recipe, then chop up 16 cups worth of rhubarb. Almost everything I do in the kitchen is by hand or with hand tools, and this is no exception. It's just me, the rhubarb, a cutting board, and a sharp knife. After the rhubarb, I chop an onion and then begin mixing the ingredients in the pot to begin cooking down.
Make some more coffee- that reminds me, I've got to talk to Dan about putting in a coffee order...we've got a new business partner, Happy Mug Coffee in Tidioute, and we need to get our order in so the coffee can be roasted, packaged & picked up before the opening day at the stand, which is less than a month away now! Stir the sauce, and then find a catalog for Welp's hatchery. I need to call and order the next batch of broiler meat chicks. All goes well, and I should have poultry in the mail next week. The canner begins to boil, so I add the pint jars I'll be using to sterilize them. Stir the sauce again so it doesn't scorch, them go out to get the mail. As I walk to the mailbox, I notice a turkey walking around the barnyard. The turkey hens have a funny walk just after laying an egg, and I see this, so I make a mental note to check the turkey nest in the bottom of the barn later, and if it is empty, to look around for a new one. As I get the mail, I see a white shape in the woods and hear a familiar yowling. It's Whitey the barn cat, whom I haven't seen for almost a week. Although my least favorite of the kitties (because of the constant yowling), I'm glad to see him. Cats are a favorite food of coyotes, and we've had plenty of kitties disappear without a trace, which always makes me sad. But, on the other hand, that means I can let the kittens hang around here. I have 3 kittens right now, I hear them on and off throughout the day as Little Girl thought that the best place to give birth would be in a cubbyhole under the clean towels in my bathroom. They're about 10 days old now, so before too long I'll relocate them somewhere more suitable once they get mobile. Mostly junk mail, but excited to see my renewal of National Geographic has come, and bundled with the newest issue is the back one (last month's) I missed! I had no idea they would send it when I renewed, but thank you, Amazon, I guess. This makes me excited, as we save them and keep them in our library upstairs (we have hundreds, literally) and now I won't have a missing one.
Stir the rhubarb again and clean up the kitchen, doing dishes. (nope, don't have a dishwasher either. On days when I'm canning a lot, I may do 4-5 sinkfuls by hand.) Eventually, the sauce is thick enough to be ladled into the hot jars and put in the canner for processing. Now I can relax a tad and have lunch. As I'm heating up some leftovers, I see the calf by himself, so I walk out into the pasture to see where his mother is. Turns out, she was just hidden from my sight by some trees, and looks at me as if to say “What are you worrying for? I have this under control!” But as I'm walking back, I feel a few sprinkles, so I take the laundry in. Luckily, most is dry already. I decide to eat first, then fold & put away. I eat quickly (I don't even take enough time to finish reading the paper), then fold the laundry. Next is taking the hot jars out of the canner to cool and seal. As I'm doing the second round of dishes, Dan stops in; he'd come to get a chainsaw & trailer for the next job of the day and dropped off the zip ties I'd asked him for.
After he leaves, I head to the barn, zip ties in hand. The net roof of the peafowl pen is sagging, and it is catching the males' tails as they show off. By bunching up the net at the edges, I can tighten it with the zip ties. I've been meaning to get to this forever, so I figured now was as good a time as any. The peafowl are the wildest of the creatures we raise- they go out of the barn if I come into their pen to feed, unlike everything else around here which pretty much runs up to anyone holding a feed scoop. But they are magnificently beautiful birds. I really don't spend as much time just looking at them, admiring them, as I maybe should. It's easy to take things for granted when you see them every day, even things of great beauty. I really try not to do that. After I finish up with the net, I see the water pan is empty, so I grab a bucket and head to the hydrant.
Another task down, and I need to decide whether to clean the chicken coop or transplant seedlings in the greenhouse. I love greenhouse work, but cleaning bird pens is pretty much my absolute least favorite farm activity. I decided to clean the coop, mainly so I could not dread it tomorrow. Manure happens on a farm. I'll clean stalls all day without complaint. Manure powers our farm- it's how the pastures stay so green, and how we can grow amazing amounts of garden produce without chemical fertilizers. I have a deep appreciation for the stuff and its place in the circle of life. It's just poultry manure I find so unpleasant. I don't think that's unreasonable though, as it is either thick, heavy, and with an overpowering, gagging reek of ammonia, or dry and like a fine powder that becomes airborne when shoveled, coating your hair, skin, the inside of your nose. When I clean the pens, it's about a 50/50 mix of both types. I'd cleaned the peafowl & turkey pens yesterday, so if I just suck it up I'll be all done, I tell myself. The other downside to cleaning these pens is that it's pretty much impossible to get the horse-drawn manure spreader close enough. The best way, unfortunately, is for me to shovel it into a plastic bushel basket with handles, then carry the basket to the spreader and dump it in. Between the two pens yesterday, I carried 15 basketfuls, each weighing about 50 lbs, maybe more. Today's job will be a little bit bigger yet.
I dig in and got to work. By basket #12 I need a short rest and something to drink, so I go up to the house. The calf is up and about, but again, Finni is just out of sight. I begin to suspect the calf is stuck, sort of- he's in a small patch of pasture bordered by fence on one side & the creek on the other. It's where he's been all day. The creek there is small- just about 3” deep by 6” wide in most spots right now. But, I guess, scary enough when you're only 8 days old. I walk out with the idea to either shoo him or pick him up and set him down on the other side. He first runs up to me, then turns and starts running up the fence line toward mama. If he stops at the creek, I figure I'll just scoop him up (well, as much as you can scoop up anything weighing 80 lbs) and set him on the other side. Finni looks up and sees the scene playing out. Her maternal instinct must have kicked in, as she starts running in our direction. This is not funny or cute; this is about 1,000 lbs of mama cow, complete with a set of horns which are plenty big and pointy enough to impale a human. I wasn't close enough to see the look in her eye, but I wasn't taking any chance that she just wanted a cookie. I run for the patch of scrubby trees, the closest thing I could get to. She stops about 20 yards away from me, hollers at her kid, eyes me, and moseys back. Although she didn't come any further than the calf, I figured the only critter in potential danger was me, so I leave the calf to figure out the solution on his own and go back to the coop, where it is still stinky, but safe. Basket #19 is the last, whoo hoo! I walk down to the barn and get some pelletized lime to sprinkle on the floorboards, which helps to absorb the ammonia smell. I go upstairs to the hay mow to fill my basket one last time, this time with sweet, clean hay for bedding. I spy something white streak out of the barn as I startle it by opening the door. It's either Whitey again, or else Itty Bit, my prized mouser. I return to the coop and spread the lime & bedding, then grab the waterer. While the feed can wait another hour or two until I do PM chores, it's never good to leave the waterer empty. I put the waterer back, full, and open the coop doors. The chickens pop in from their outdoor runs, both for a drink and for the fun of scratching around in the new bedding.
By now, it's 3 PM. I'm sweaty and feel rather disgusting. All I want is a shower, but I look up at the thermometer for the greenhouse and see that it is 105 degrees, meaning I should really go open the other door for more ventilation. That done, it's shower time! Yay! Once I get out, I spy the lone cupcake left on the kitchen table from last week (I made some for a friend's birthday). I figure 19 bushels of manure x 50 lbs or more each = about half a ton of manure moved by hand today. That's certainly enough calories burned to earn a cupcake!
I hear Dan & Matt pull in; their workday is over. Dan is super excited because he's got a log splitting machine in tow behind the van. They got it at work, and it looks to be old and homemade. It makes the models for sale in front of places like Tractor Supply look small in comparison. The engine has a crank start, and looks a lot like the Wisconsin engine Dan rebuilt a few winters back. We could sure use a splitter since we heat the farmhouse with wood, and although the engine didn't fire right away, it seems as though it's moved to the top of Dan's project list.
I go inside and return a call to the man who runs Whispering Brook Cheese Haus in Chambersburg. We've been playing phone tag for a few days, so it's good to hear him answer. I finalize our order for raw milk cheese so we'll have it on hand opening day for the stand. We'll go pick it up in about 2 weeks, which works well...if we plan it right, we'll be able to take both our moms out for a meal for Mother's Day. Dan and I also discuss what we think will work for our new partnership with a local coffee roaster, Happy Mug Coffee of Tidioute. Dan and I are on the same page about what we think our first order should look like, but we both have questions, so I'll email the coffee guy tonight or tomorrow and go from there.
PM chore time comes next. Check the incubator again, a few more chicks & another poult. Time to carry feed for the rabbits and chickens, each in a 50 lb bag that must be moved from the stand. My arms scream in protest at the thought, but Dan takes pity on me and carries them for me tonight. Rabbits fed & watered, ditto for the quail, ducks, chickens, peafowl and turkeys. As I feed the rabbits, I notice Finni & the calf are with the rest of the cows, by the pond. He's made the creek crossing, so that's one less thing to worry about. Eggs are collected now too. I don't have as many chicken eggs as normal, but that is OK. I figured shutting them out of the coop for a couple hours this afternoon would have that effect. Next I go across the street, to the woods to check turkey nests. My heart sinks as I see the feathers. We've already lost two hens to nighttime predators this year. I try to be diligent about counting heads in the evenings, and this one wasn't sitting on the nest the last I checked yesterday, but there weren't tail feathers everywhere the last time, either. Back I go, to see if by some chance she escaped. I'm only counting 5 hens...one is missing. But the hen perched on the fence by the gate has about 5 tail feathers left. Bingo! We have a broody hen...and she's alive. I walk up and grab her by the ankle. I carry her off to the backyard and put her in a chicken tractor, one we usually use for meat birds. It was empty, so now it will be a sort of turkey jail. I'll keep her there a few days to a week, until she stops sitting across the road. I feed her and walk away. She clucks unhappily, but she's alive. As I walk away, I see another turkey hen, returning from a nest just beyond the blacksmith shop, so all turkeys are now present & accounted for.
Next, dinner time for us. I'm making a favorite recipe of Dan's, pork chops with caramelized onions. I sear the chops (home-raised, of course) in a cast-iron skillet, and caramelize an onion in another. Then I put the chops in an ovenproof dish and top with a bit of butter, some sage (homegrown) and the onion, then put in the oven for about 45 minutes. Then I slice a few potatoes into wedges and toss with butter, Parmesan cheese and some seasonings. I place those on a baking sheet, and into the oven they go as well. As it cooks, I do dishes. Again.
After we eat dinner together, more business. It's time to sit down with the mushroom spawn catalog and figure out an order. We're very interested in adding edible mushrooms, like shiitake and oyster, to our market lineup. This will be a new process, but it seems low-maintenance, with the possibility of fruitings over several years after the initial investment. Dan has some fresh logs that will be suitable, so we're eager to get this project underway. We talk about what to feature for the May newsletter, which I need to finish and send out in the next day or so. I mention ordering strawberry plants as well, and Dan shows me a part he took off the log splitter motor which will need taken out for repairs tomorrow. By now, it's about 9 PM. Time for bed.
While this day had more completed projects than most, it's really not unusual for us to do so much in a day. Doing as many different things as we do, you have to work hard, but also smart, or you'll never get it all done. And it's always necessary to pay attention to the critters, the plants, and what is going on. It becomes second nature to be alert, as it is often far easier to prevent a problem than to fix it, whether it is an invasion of cucumber beetles in the garden or an issue with the animals. In plenty of cases, like the broody turkey, you can't fix it after the fact. One she becomes something's dinner, there is no undoing. And yes, I do cook from scratch pretty much every night. While it is so easy to say, “I don't have time,” I'm pretty sure I'm just as busy as you. In fact, I know I'm busier than when I worked away from the farm. If I can do it, you can too, it just comes down to a matter of importance- is it more important to be quick & easy, or healthy and sustainable? It's a question everyone has to answer for themselves. Anyways, I hoped you enjoyed a detailed look into what really goes into being a farmer. It's so much more than just being outstanding in your field.