Farm Journal: a farm can feel like an island

Forest pigs on Mace Chams Farms. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton

Forest pigs on Mace Chams Farms. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton

This is part of a series of Farm Journals, farmers writing regularly about life on the farm, week to week, through the season. Courtney Grimes-Sutton is co-owner of Mace Chasm Farms in Keeseville.

July 1st

Soggy farmer’s thoughts…

Well, the ambient noise of rain is with us again tonight- a perfect soundtrack for thinking about what directions to take things here at the farm. It’s just been raining and raining. Construction of an ark will begin soon if the clouds don’t let up to offer sun and a drying wind.

I’m going to share an excerpt from an e-mail I wrote to a farmer who is a good friend and a mentor. I’d just learned that he’s really sick and he’s feeling tired. Between the rain eroding the topsoil, the pendulum swinging between drought & flood, and a strong organic farmer having cancer, I guess I felt overwhelmed.

What is sickness about? I remember your saying it was about some repressed feelings that you've been holding onto for most of your life. Taking care of health is underestimated, I guess. I certainly never think about it unless I'm forced too, and I could do a better job. And then one realizes through seeing a friend be so tired, that all we really have to go on is our health, and we should consider it more.

Erosion on the bean fields. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.

Erosion on the bean fields. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.

I have low standards for a lot of things about my life in this first year of our farm – quality of life has fallen, stress is high, tiredness is a given, fun could be greater – silly, huh? Just to grow some organic food and figure out what we're doing? Stress has to be eliminated. I don't like it. I've allowed some distance from my priorities.

Have you ever done that? Seems like you guys started in such a low-stress, small-scale way. I should probably have another job so that I can pay the bills, and cut back what we're doing on the farm. Cut out the tillage, which has just led to terrible erosion this year, with no opportunity for weed control. I'll be a grazer. Maybe look at strip-till cropping, or the no-till drill. What about feeding my animals!

Glaciers have melted, and there's so much water in the atmosphere- dry hay is hard to get at. We've gotten no cuts yet & don't really have the labor for it anyhow. So my mind winds on and on, wondering what to do. Bale wrapper? Ag bags? Forget breeding & overwintering animals- buy yearlings every spring to finish, and slaughter all the young stock we get from dairy friends as veal in the fall? Buy bred gilts every spring & harvest the sow when she regains condition? Start breeding only if I can't rely on my animal sources anymore?

Farming feels brutal to me right now. Regulations so thick & hard to see through, ugly farmer's market politics, the incredible gamble on the weather & investment in the sun shining – and when it finally does shine, I won't be able to swim & hike- we'll have to kill weeds and run to catch up from the rain. It's the long work hours combined with being unable to pay all the bills or have health insurance.

Nothing is comfortable yet… so we haven't gotten it right. Super naive. But still hopeful.

 

It’s like a letter from an island. Mace Chasm Island. A farm can feel like that to a tired farmer, I guess. There you have the less hunky-dory side of things, which is as important a driver as the moments full of satisfaction and appreciation.

When a person can’t do what one normally stays busy with, questions arise! What is up with this weather?! How can we adapt? And so on. My mind has tied itself in knots today travelling those roads of thought, so I won’t head that way now.  The defeated tones in this e-mail were left behind at the kitchen table when I got up to head out for the day.

Farming is so much about creative problem solving, and the answers are so particular to each farm and it’s farmers. Trial and error. Soon Asa will be off-farm doing stonework – I left my welding job recently, and he’ll pick up where I left off on the bill-paying chore. We’re trying to prepare as much as we can for his imminent absence by reaching some goals for animal systems on the farm this week. Jesse and I cut meat today. Asa moved the field pigs to a new patch of forest. They’re clearing brush, rooting up the forest floor, and behind them we’ll sow grass seed.

There’s a very sweet sow in the barn (named Stubbs) due to farrow – birth piglets – this week, and we’re all looking forward to that. She looks healthy & happy in her hay nest in the barn. Jesse had a nightmare that he shared at breakfast, a little sheepishly, involving flood waters and the new piglets. But it won’t go that way-  I’ve heard tell of the rain ending later this week- and if it doesn’t, a good sow can keep even floodwaters away from her nest when she’s nursing.

I shared my dream at breakfast too, which had been about working on a bus that needed fixing – but the bus kept switching between being mechanical and being anatomical – so the work was back and forth between fabrication & swingin’ wrenches, to cutting meat & giving stitches… it was a weird bus alright. Asa had dreamed that some neighbors’ pigs – huge monsters – had gotten out and were chasing the horses. Farmers farming the dream-waves can get pretty far out, I guess!

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2 Comments

  1. Farmers more than anybody, rely upon the predictability of the weather, and climate change has thrown the old rules out the window. Knowing how much rain or sun to expect is the farmers special knowledge that allows them to feed us or not feed us, and we are dangerously close to the edge.
    Farmers learn as they go, from year to year, what has worked and what didn't, and there is always an opportunity to try again next year, to get it right. Creditors are not as patient, and expect their plans to always work out within 30 days. The farmer needs a way to share his stress with those upstream.

  2. Courtney–I found your journal entry so moving, including the very dark bit from your discouraged friend. We're trying to keep our sense of humor about the rain–trying to figure out what to do if we can't get hay in this year (we square bale). Like you, we toy with ideas of selling livestock before winter, building back in the spring. I doubt we'll do that unless we're at our rope's end. When you farm at a small or modest scale, individual animals do matter. Even those you decide to market. It takes the joy out of farming and out of the hard work involved if we can't care about the animals and land we care for. Hang in there.