Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Posts Tagged ‘Farming’

HOMEGROWN Life: The Richness of Farming

Thursday, April 7th, 2016


HOMEGROWN LifeMy Grandmother’s saying, one she borrowed from Benjamin Franklin, “the only two things certain in life are death and taxes,” came to mind this week. Yes, it’s tax season.

In between birthing 2 more sets of twins (that makes 4 in all), I’m tending the flocks and herds, starting up the dairy, chasing lambs, and howling at the goat kid antics. I’m wondering if the day will ever come when I actually sleep 8 or even 6 hours in a row. It’s time I bravely face the pile of paperwork that’s been patiently waiting on my desk.

Even though I am a tiny micro blip on the farming radar screen, I still keep track of the reality of what it costs and how much can be made working at this thing we call farming. I am proud to say that Bittersweet has been a sustainable operation since its second year! No, it didn’t happen because I have some magic formula for the farm supporting itself. It happens out of the sheer terror that if that changes, I won’t be able to continue.

The realities farmers face each year are enormous. The biggest realities are always: how much each year will cost? Can I continue year after year without at least making it pay for itself? That’s the very least farmers expect, because if we can’t say that – if we aren’t at least growing or raising beasts or plants to feed ourselves to cut down on the grocery bill –it’s hard to continue justifying the effort. Most people will say, you’ll never get rich farming.

After sitting down with all my piles, sorting through the slips and bits of paper with numbers scratched on them, I add up the two columns. One is what it costs to open my barn door every day. The other shows how much wool and cheese and milk and jam and pickles and soaps and other things I’ve sold. Turns out, at the end of the day, every day, 365 days a year, I am earning 91 cents an hour. That’s my definition of sustainable. I am earning, not losing, 91 cents an hour.

Now you may say, “You’re kidding, right? 91 cents an hour? Who would work for 91 cents an hour?” As it turns out, there are a lot of folks who do, and they wouldn’t trade it for 9,100 cents an hour. I’ve met a lot of them and we all seem to have something in common. We love what we do.


There’s a certain pride and satisfaction in farming. Things almost never go according to plan. When you’re relying on Mother Nature in the form of living things, whether it’s beasts or plants, it’s all a crap shoot. I think it’s hard to explain why we do it to someone who thinks we’re all crazy for choosing the farming life style.

I’m frequently asked, “You can’t go anywhere, can you?” My reply is always, “I’ve been other places. I’m happy right where I am.”

I’m not a person who spent their life dreaming of having a farm. I did set out to get some sheep 20 years ago for a property I bought in Southern Pennsylvania. It was an old stone house Jacob Flohr built in 1855 and I/we were restoring it to its original state. I’ll never forget the day my husband came home and I was pitching the 1950’s oak flooring out the front door. There were wide pines boards underneath that needed to be revealed.

The house sat 10 miles south of Gettysburg and was on Lee’s retreat route. It had been a farm, and it was a hospital during the Civil War. All farms were. Every inch of space was utilized for tending to wounded soldiers. I found blood stains in the old crumbling plaster ceiling, blood that had dripped through the floor from above where probably more than one of them had lain, maybe dying.

The stone foundation for the old barn was still there. The original barn had burned down, maybe more than once. I found a gorgeous post and bean barn further up the road that would fit the foundation perfectly and the people who owned it just happened to want to take it down. The plan was to use it for sheep who would graze up above in the old apple orchards. But, the dream for sheep ended along with the marriage. We never got around to rebuilding the barn.

Twenty five years later, as I sit with my bits of paper, I gaze across the pasture watching my newborn lambs leap in spring’s cold morning air. The flock doesn’t have a post and bean barn with a stone foundation to lamb in, but they do have a view of Mosquito Harbor leading out to the Penobscot Bay. Some mornings, their fleeces are misty with the dew coming off the water and often they are treated to dried seaweed treats from Drift Inn Beach down the street. I think it’s a good trade off.


I think I’ll take a break from my paperwork for an hour or so today and invest my 91 cents or even $1.92, in snuggling lambs, sitting with a baby goat in my lap, or running the brush over the girls’ backs. I might even bake a custard on this cool spring day with eggs from the coop and milk the girls gave me this morning.

After all the other jobs I’ve had and all the paychecks I’ve gotten over the years, it’s today that I receive the largest paycheck I’ve ever had, plus 91 cents an hour. That’s the richness of farming.


HOMEGROWN-life-dyan-150x150Dyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Bittersweet Heritage Farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Her farm is also an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.


HOMEGROWN Life: Farming Roots

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

032712-HOMEGROWN-LIFE-BLUEMy Father’s family came from Oklahoma and Texas where they farmed thousands of acres. Daddy’s Mother moved the family East so his oldest brother could have an operation in Boston, one that would allow him to walk – something up until the age of 14, he had never done. They settled in Lexington, Massachusetts, the surgery was successful, and they set to farming blueberries in the 1930’s. Later, my cousin would sell the homestead and move to Vermont where he would begin to farm 168 acres. Today, almost 40 years later, he’s there, farming goats. A lot of goats. 800 of them. Dairy. The largest dairy goat farm in the US. The land is in trust to guarantee it will remain a farm forever.

My Great Grandfather Brennan settled in Massachusetts. He was a produce merchant at Faneuil Hall. He and my Great Grandmother raised 13 children on a farm in Revere, 10 of those children dying before they reached their 20’s. Three more were born 10 years later. Two of those were my Grandmother and her sister, my Great “Auntie Mil”, who moved to Lexington, Massachusetts after my Great Grandfather Brennan died. I spent my summers, with these two women, on Cape Cod, where they eventually settled. We’d sit around the kitchen table at night, playing cards, and they’d talk about growing up on the farm in Revere.


Their Mother “put up” all kinds of jams and jellies from the fruit trees on the farm. They always said they never ate any of it as it was for “company” which seemed to be in abundance as the farm was dubbed “The Do Drop Inn.” One cousin apparently “dropped in” and was finally told her stay was over a year later. I have a basket, one I found as a teenager, in my Grandmother’s attic in the Cape house, that was used by my Great Grandfather Brennan to carry kittens to the neighbor’s houses. Growing up outside Washington, D.C., my Father expressed his farming roots in what could only be described as a “victory garden.” A typical suburban house lot was converted to a backyard orchard and vegetable garden complete with compost pile. Later, when I was in high school, we moved “to the country”.

I got to pick out my bedroom in our new house. I chose the one overlooking the Beall dairy farm stretching out across the ridge below. I could hear the cows mooing as they waited for the gates to be opened at milking time. Daddy’s “victory garden” grew and every kind of vegetable imaginable appeared on the table. Apples, peaches, pears, apricots, cherries, strawberries, raspberries surrounded the freshly planted lawn. Compost took on a whole new meaning when the day before we moved in, Daddy had 2 loads of manure delivered from the farm next door. Instead of unpacking boxes, we spent that first weekend hand spreading the odiferous mass across what would become the lushest lawn and the best garden in the neighborhood. My poor Mother, who shared neither my Father’s enthusiasm nor his love of gardening, just kept apologizing to the neighbors.


I guess one could say farming is in my blood. It sure seems that way as I don’t consider it a way to make a living, but a way to make a life. A life guided by the seasons, one that’s filled with chance meetings of some of most salt of the earth people I know. Whether they dig in the dirt or muck barns, it seems to me, farmers have a sense of what’s important in this life, maybe more than most. People who’ll give you the shirt off their back and their last minute of time to help out when you need it most. Folks who’s pride and joy is saving an animal’s life when some people would ask why bother. People who bring in and harbor a 16 year old ewe in the barn just because it will make them more comfortable in their senior years.

I owe my love of keeping closer to the land to both sides of my family with roots stretching from the wide open fields of Oklahoma to the Emerald Isle. When things go awry, translation….not according to my plan, when weary bones have me wondering about putting one foot in front of the other for another day, I think of how quitting is not an option. They didn’t.


At times when bones are weary and just putting one foot in front of the other seems to be a big chore itself, I head to the barn. Sitting on the milk stand, listening to the gentle movement, the slow steady breathing of the animals, hearing the horn signal at the lighthouse as a steady fog makes it way to shore, sets my mind back to a better place, one of gratitude. I’ve come home to my roots and and they just happen to be planted at a place by the sea. I’m grateful for that too.

When I hear that horn, I can almost see my Great Grandfather Brennan standing on the bow of a ship, moving to a new place and a better chance at making a life of farming. I chose to make mine at the edge of a rocky shore, surrounded by the wind, the sea and some beasts who fill my life with laughter and joy, new best friends, and a family of folks who call themselves farmers.


HOMEGROWN-life-dyan-150x150Dyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Bittersweet Heritage Farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Her farm is also an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.


HOMEGROWN Life: Bryce on Growing Up in Farm Country

Friday, May 8th, 2015


HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Ahh, the glories of spring. Morel mushrooms. Dandelion bacon salad. Mornings with extended sun. Frisky livestock. Weekly lawn mowing.

OK, so maybe I could go without the lawn mowing, but I suppose it’s a small price to pay for nutritious and growing pastures and plants (and correspondingly animals).

In my neck of the woods, spring is also a time for the annual ritual of reflecting on one’s school years. This year that reflection is an incredibly rich mix of joy and regret and memory. Maybe it’s because my wife is a teacher. Maybe it’s because I can’t believe my boys are already concluding their third and fifth grade years. Maybe it’s because I’m getting ready to attend my 20 year high school reunion here in a couple of days.


Regardless, I’m feeling a swirling bundle of thoughts pertaining to what it means to grow up in farm country in today’s world. The complexity is interesting.

Take the graduating class of souls at the little country school where my wife teaches art, creativity, open-mindedness, and lessons on growing up in the city (my wife is from St. Louis originally). There are seven graduates. Yep. Seven. It’s a class filled with good kids most of whom have grown up on multi-generational family farms. They have been expected to work with their families to help out where they can. They have learned skills regarding mechanics and biology. They have absorbed worries of economic disparity in the farming sector, moral questions about how to be a good person, confusion about an urban dominated media landscape (local radio and TV stations are sent out to us from Kansas City) and tenuous positions as modern teens trying to figure out what they should do next.

In most ways, they are similar to graduates of public schools in small towns before them. In other ways, I feel like they face some important differences. Mostly, I am feeling a bit of despair for them as they struggle with questions of continuing their education, getting into the workforce, or joining the military.


I should say now that no one gave me a word of caution when I came up through my small town school about whether or not I should attend college. I didn’t give a minute of concern as to whether or not I would be able to pay for it. My older brother was in college, and we were the first generation in our family to attend University. I was a good student, got good scholarships (the best I could get from Missouri’s public University) and still left school with thousands of dollars in student loans.

The big difference is that these 2015 graduates fully understand their possible college debt load. They’re scared of it, and rightfully so. They’re making some important considerations for what this debt load would mean for them in their life to come. That’s a good thing for these students. Remember, we’re talking about seventeen and eighteen year old kids here.

My big questions to throw into the great bonfire of public discourse here are: how do we as a society help a gang of confused Farm Belt graduates make good choices within the parameters of their understanding? Do we want to maintain the status quo of developing a pipeline of military prospects from the places with questionable economic futures? Or should we rethink our educational system and try to develop new pathways of economic opportunity for the future leaders coming up through our public school system every year?

The choice is an important one. And the lack of a public dialogue about these important issues is disturbing. But maybe this, like the issue of student debt, is something we can illuminate in the important years to come.

There is much, much more to write about this topic. I’ll keep thinking about it as I attend graduation and alumni and reunion festivities over the next few weeks.

My hope is that society will do the same.


HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multi-generational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.