Chop Wood, Manage Water

As you know, the so-called Frankenstorm lurched its way through the Northeast early this week.  On Sunday night, I awoke to the sounds of wind swirling around my window casings, howling Dickens-esque about the ghosts of Christmas future – a.k.a. the weather on our planet in years to come.*

At dawn, we weatherproofed ourselves as best as possible and headed to soggy fields to harvest spinach.  The work was slow, thanks to the frost damaged leaves that we had to sort from healthy ones while we played tug of war with a stiff wind intent on reuniting our harvest with the surrounding fields. By afternoon, we retreated to warmth and tea in the farmhouse for a tree ID lesson while the power switched off then on then back off again.

We were well-prepared for the storm.  Cows and sheep were pastured near open barns, we filled pots of water in the event of an extended power outage.  But in the end, Hurricane Sandy delivered her worst elsewhere, saving a special streak of cruelty for an unlucky Barred Rock hen that we found the next morning stuck upside down in a stack of milled lumber.  She’d probably been tossed there by the wind and couldn’t right herself for close to 24 hours.  Once freed, she zig-zagged across the lawn before indignantly fluffing herself and glaring at the once-again normal world – I’m guessing not unlike many folks in New York.

Our fields of freshly planted garlic slept peacefully inside their dirt bunkers, none-the-wiser to the stormy conditions above.  Luckily, the rain started out soft and steady, which primed the dirt like a damp sponge so it could handle the deluge that came later.  After the storm, one of our growers, Tyson, unearthed a garlic clove to reveal impressive inch-long roots. Some marshy spots in our fields flooded, a tree fell on bunkhouse, but all in all, we weathered this one just fine.

* * * *

Our daily chores begin on the farm around 6 am. Some of us are assigned to cattle, others to sheep or pigs or preparing breakfast for the group.  But the most coveted chore is milking.  When I reach for an iconic image of farming, I see a weathered man hunched over on a stool next to his prized milking cow. And this relationship – man with milk beast – goes back eons.

According to one book I’m reading, people in the Sinai region of Egypt were using fences to confine, breed and milk antelope more than ten thousand years ago. In Spain, traditional houses were designed around and over the cow stalls to take advantage of their considerable body heat.  And in early American history, small-town churches could only serve a radius wide enough to accommodate the parishioners’ twice-daily milking schedule.  All of this has changed of course, as we have traded in our agrarian lifestyles for the pursuit of a consumer-driven economy, but these roots can still be found at the epicenter of capitalism in this country.   Cows are the original “stock” in the Stock Market.  And in the middle of the concrete corral that is Manhattan, a golden bull presides over Wall Street as a symbol of America’s economic strength – (all commentary on the sensibility of our economy withstanding.)

Happily for me, this was my week to cash in on our own $1500 piece of stock – a pretty little 5-year-old milking Jersey named Patience (and Dina’s other True Love).

Before Farm School, I’d never spent any time at the business end of a cow, so fumbling around in between Patience’s legs felt intimate and mildly inappropriate at first.  On top of that, our initial milking ‘dates’ took place during the height of a howling storm that forced a dozen pushy, curious sheep inside to share our milking stall.  During our first 36 hours together, Patience stood tensely in the stanchion with her ears pinned back and wouldn’t touch her usually irresistible hay rations.

We were horribly slow milkers.  At the start I dribbled about as much milk down my arms and as I actually got in the bucket.  And none of us could figure out the mystery of her left-front teat, which never filled and never fully emptied.  As a result we missed a fair share of breakfasts.

It did get better, though. By midweek, I could feel the moment when her milk would drop and eventually we settled into a rhythm, Patience chewing placidly, me with my forehead head pinned to her flank. I began to anticipate when she was going knock over the milk bucket or swipe a poop encrusted tail across my face. We learned that when she shifts back and forth, tapping the inside of her hooves together like a little girl, this is the signal to back up, cover our noses and find a shovel.

When my final morning of milking arrived, Patience walked over to the stanchion unprompted and obediently poked her head through the narrow bars.  I locked her in and rested my hand on the broad spot between her trusting eyes and recognized my gratitude for being in sync with a thousand-pound animal.  With the gentle sound of rain, the rhythmic chewing of hay and the alternating hiss, hiss streams of milk raising froth in the bottom of the bucket, I wondered if we both somehow appreciated the stillness of the blue predawn darkness.

For the rest of the week we belonged to Chainsaw Bill, a tree-cutting savant who nails the role of the ‘classic New England logger’.  He’s broken his nose ten times.  We suspect his real name is Chainsaw and since he never joined us for lunch, I half-jokingly think he must have been off trimming his rapidly growing beard.

We spent three days with him learning how to safely turn trees into logs. We also learned the myriad of ways one can kill and disfigure oneself with a single misstep (there are MANY).  I made the mistake of passing some of Chainsaw Bill’s horror stories onto Dina, who promptly declared any forest on our future farm would be managed as an old growth stand and that we would cut no tree taller than ten feet.

Now I’m heading back to the farm after a brief city visit, complete with sushi and soft beds and dinners at home. I’m looking forward to the week ahead: trying my hand at the art of timber framing and fighting with the new ram, ‘Marbles,’ (who knocked down three students last year). I’m not ready for earlier sunsets and for scant sleep.

But by weeks end we’ll have traveled one-week closer to our someday farm.

More photos from the week can be found HERE.

*Thanks for the reference, professor Kate.


  • November 5, 2012 at 8:05 am // Reply

    Eric – when I read your entries – I hear the sounds, see the colors, smell the smells, and vicariously live through your words. Thank You.

  • November 5, 2012 at 12:59 pm // Reply

    Great story about milking your cow! Loved the progression from unknown territory to familiarity with her. Very tender and real. Also impressed with the garlic roots and spinach leaves and delighted to hear that the farm weathered Sandy without too much trauma with the exception of that very blessed chicken. You take care and know we are thinking of you and Dina all the time.
    Love, Lynne

  • November 5, 2012 at 9:41 pm // Reply

    I look forward to your blog each week and following the rhythms and routines of farm life. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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