When we first bought the farm there weren’t a lot of plans that were cast in stone. We thought we’d try a Community Supported Agriculture model of selling shares of our production to local families and we also planned on giving aquaculture a shot as well, something we went on to do quite successfully until the fire put an end to that business model. What we hadn’t considered, or even discussed, was becoming the kind of farm with cattle and hogs, sheep and goats or even more than a couple of chickens. To be fair we had absolutely zero experience with an agricultural lifestyle beyond an annual garden in the backyard and because of that never considered the dynamic of livestock in our lives. Right after we bought the place, six months before we moved in, I made friends with a neighboring farm and bought a side of beef from him and promptly threw it in a freezer where we’d pick at it a few cuts at a time over the course of the first year until it was gone. I loved the act of selecting a rib eye or a flank steak to thaw for the grill and when it was all used up I thought how nice it would be if instead of buying our beef, we raised it ourselves. After all, we had the land and I was already busy sinking fence posts along all the streams and property lines, how hard could it possibly be? My cousin had driven up one weekend with two chickens, named after our paternal grandmothers, Emily and Hazel and I set them up in the old run-in in the back yard. We were, unofficially, an animal farm. Later when my wife and I were discussing the possible names for our new place that was my first choice. She showed me how she felt about that with her expression rather than an outright denial, but I got the message loud and clear and we decided on something less ironic and more community friendly. I still think it was a great idea, but I understood her concerns — not everyone would appreciate the humor in it and considering some of my past decisions where it came to social commentary, it wasn’t exactly subtle, so I put the idea to rest. Over time, however that is exactly what we have become and it is the one thing that I can say we’ve done well with, consistently. My wife believes that I have a natural affinity for working with animals and though I do feel at complete ease with them I have no idea why. Part of me believes that we all have some inner connection, built on a million years of genetic coding due to our historic interactions. Humans and livestock have domesticated each other by their proximity in such a way that we both prefer to be in contact with each other and have our own inborn traits that allow us a form of short hand that emerges in each every interaction. Whenever we add new stock, raise sets of meat birds or new layers, calve or farrow we make sure to spend as much time working with them so that our presence is integral to their reality. These days when a hog gets out it comes looking for us, or if I see the herd drifting out of an open gate all I need to do is make my presence known, call out in a certain tone or use a familiar call and they come as if they understand me completely. The old anxieties are gone and with them the nervous energies that unsettled the animals in the past. I never rush to see that things are put back in order, but take my time with them, patiently, lovingly even, knowing that they understand our connection. Maybe it’s something I’ve taught them, but it seems more likely that it was myself that learned these lessons from the livestock.
Hogs are driven by hunger and it is never sated. I have written before about the kinds of feed we give them, fresh vegetables by the box full, spent brewers grains, organic breads from a local bakery only hours past their sell by date, surplus milk and whey, pommace in the fall. They go readily for whatever I put down, but they have their preferences. A pile of strawberries and watermelon rinds will keep them busy until I toss in some donuts and then the fruit becomes far less interesting. They clearly have a sense of flavor and a scale by which they rate their rations. Carbohydrates rank above all else, sweet feeds come in second, everything else goes, eventually, but there is a scale. You can never feed a hog enough. I have dropped at times forty or fifty pounds of chopped kale and wilted heads of lettuce, quarts of blueberries and dozens of avocados and papayas in heaps before the old boar and he will work the pile with relish until the only thing left are orange rinds and pits. There may be a limit to what they can eat in a single sitting but I have never seen what that might be. Because of this I have learned that any loose pig can easily be brought back with ease if only you have a couple of soft bananas or an old box of cereal to salt the trail back to the enclosure. They live to eat and because of this they will remain on farm without ever once making a move to leave. Forget their hunger and you cannot contain them for long. There have been times when I have passed on feedings due to work or exhaustion and eventually, if enough time passes they will find a way to extricate themselves from behind rock walls and split rail fences. Electric lines that keep them in will be pushed aside and they will come searching for the upright pig that dispenses the feed. They are curious animals as well and social as well. If I am working on firewood, cutting timber or installing fence I will lose the hogs and call them to come with and they will trot along with the dogs up into the high pasture or deep woods at the back of the farm and spend their time rooting for snacks and forage while I work. You can see them keeping watch out of the corner of their eyes, insuring that I never get to far from them and when the work is complete I call them in and always, without fail they will emerge from whatever fold or declivity they have been investigating to return once more to the evening enclosure and another satisfying meal. In this way we have learned to keep them pacified, docile and obedient to our wishes and eventually to fill our freezers.
The other day I had quit while the sky still had some light in it. This time of year the day starts a little after four a.m. when it is light enough to do the early chores and it usually ends when I can still make out the house from the last light behind the mountain in the west. If I turn in less than sixteen hours I scold myself for being an underachiever, but there are days when I run out of steam and make my way back to the house to throw in the towel. I had stripped off my work clothes in the mudroom and made my way to our bedroom without eating because I simply couldn’t do another thing. I had spent the better part of the day working around the new hen house and had let out the pullets for the first time. They kept close to the coop under the watchful eye of the older roosters and I knew that not long before dark they would put themselves back into the roosts and all I needed to do was to close the door to the pen. The dogs were unusually quiet — they love to wrestle and play right before dark, usually on the patio or the front yard where the warm flat stones still hold the last of the Sun, but that evening they were absent. I have learned to trust my instincts and as badly as I wished to remain horizontal, something told me to get up now and close up the pens. As I made my way around the fence in the back the Border Collie poked his head out of the coop and the second he saw me his ears flattened and he dropped to the ground in a crouch. I made my way into the pen and the younger dogs had corralled the pullets into a corner and were silently pacing left to right to keep them in. I called them off and as I pulled the chickens out of the corner by the handful I discovered that more than twenty had suffocated from the press of feathers. In my anger I chastised the dogs and they took the opportunity to flee back towards the house. I pulled the dead birds out and placed them in an empty feedbag, their bodies still warm. 12 weeks of feed and care, a potential of a thousand eggs per bird all gone. By the time I got back to the house I had gathered myself as best I could and when my wife asked what was wrong, sensing it immediately, I was able to reassure her that everything was fine. I locked the younger dog in the barn and went back upstairs but after a few minutes came back down and let her out. I thought about what had happened and realized that to the dogs, the easily frightened pullets still wandering around the back yard were in danger as night was rapidly approaching and they ran them back into the coop where they belonged and held them there as they frantically mobbed up on one another. They hadn’t barked because they knew that it was distracting to the birds and the birds, unused to the dogs having been penned since they were chicks, reacted in their natural way by seeking safety in numbers. The fault was all mine. I should have penned the birds myself, and it was my failure to adequately provide for the very nature of my stock that caused the loss. I made up with the dogs as best I could, biscuits and belly rubs, reassuring them the whole time that they had done well, they had acted exactly as they were bred to do.
We keep the lambs in the orchard until they are well suited to the activity of the day. They are skittish and shy, but they learn the ropes quickly and will keep within eyesight of the dogs and humans as a form of security. Once trained to their place they will not wander and I have never been troubled by a lost sheep since we got here. They require the least amount of care of all the animals, finding water where they can, grazing in the early morning and early evening hours and then coming in close to the buildings at night, or squeezing in to tight spots where the boulders fall together on the south flank of the mountain. When you approach them you do so calmly and they will stand rigid if only for the time it takes to scratch them on their head or under their jaw, then they will dart off, to the left or the right to find another piece of vine or bramble to worry with their nervous mouths. There is no more docile animal on a farm than a sheep, and I have wondered if this is in part why they taste so good. Their days are simplicity multiplied, their flavor indescribable.
I finally turned the cows out on to pasture. Last night it was in the upper thirties, the second week of June and only a few degrees from freezing. All of the early growth of grass has gone to seed and the sugar levels have dropped, but when I let them out they ran towards the pasture like children getting out of school on the first day of Summer vacation. They stopped to feed here and there from the dense growth of timothy and orchard grass, brome and vetch and then ran off kicking their legs and tossing their heads from side to side. I walked down behind them, the calves running far out in advance of the rest of the herd, their first time on pasture in their lives. The late Spring sky unfurled above us, rolling white clouds with dark grey undersides, flashes of brilliant azure against the forest edge moving with purpose from north to south. The sunlight spilled in waves across the boulder fields to the west, blinding then darkening, lambent streaks across the face of the land. The dogs ran on the far outside of the herd, half in earnest and half in play, grabbing at each others tails and then racing off ahead. In the distance you could hear the murmur of the brook falling away towards the lake, and even further off the sounds of wood cutters clearing land a mile away. I kicked old piles of manure in a spray as I came across them and stooped to pick up the errant cobblestone or stray piece of baling twine from the grass. After an hour of grazing the herd settled down in a favorite spot on the lea side of the drumlin and rested in the sunlight. I walked up to them and watched for a few minutes, stroking each one on their shoulder or head as I passed among them and then took a seat myself and then laid back to watch the sky above me. You could almost feel them chewing their cud, the constant masticating jaws grinding back and forth and back and forth, their lashes blinking off the small flies that had descended and they breathed slowly, in and out and it wasn’t long before my own breathing synched up with them and we all lay there together, the dogs looking off, tongues lolling with drops of saliva hanging from their tips. I looked at these animals with a mix of pride and awe, not anything I had ever expected to feel about a farm animal when we first started out with this life and they regarded me with whatever the bovine and canine equivalent of trust and comfort might be. It felt good to be with the herd and the dogs, effortless and peaceful. We’d come to understand each other across the lines of species, hogs and chickens, lambs and cattle, dogs and people living in a highly organized and symbiotic lifestyle that suited all of us and catered to our nature. I wondered if they shared the same kind of thoughts about place and needs even if it wasn’t expressed and as I thought this each of the cows and the dogs gazed at me with the same kind of curious benevolence. I closed my eyes and breathed in and out with the animals around me, over an over, awake to the world in a way that I had never imagined it could be on an animal farm.