Tuesday, May 15, 2012
This is a beautiful morning on the farm, full of sunshine -- much as it was four years ago on 15 May 2008. It was dark out that morning at 5:15am, but by 6:00am the sun's rays were starting to show on the horizon. By 8:45am, I was setting up the slaughterhouse for the day, and we opened promptly at 9:00am as we did every morning. The first customer was a grump, and he complained a great deal about having to wait for his sheep to be processed. He then proceeded to accuse me of stealing some of his meat. Under normal circumstances, I probably would have laughed: I am not a fan of mutton and my Somali workers were dedicated goat consumers . . . we had no interest in stealing the meat of a fatty, old cull ewe! Unfortunately, I reacted poorly that morning, and severely reprimanded the customer for his accusation. Once I calmed down, I apologized to him. He could not have known that he chose a very poor day to make such an outlandish insinuation. That morning I had lost my best friend, my business partner, my mother.
My mother is still so much a part of my life and my heart that it is difficult to believe it has been four years since she passed on. Four years that seem like decades; four years that passed like a whispered breath. My memories of my mother are so entangled with my childhood on the farm, and these memories still surround me -- much as the farm does -- like a living testimony to her existence. I live in the house where she grew up, I ride my horse in the fields where her ponies lived during her youth, and as the days pass by I see her face more and more often in the bathroom mirror that she also used. Every inch of this farm holds memories of our life: baling hay on hot summer days, working the sheep in the barns, harvesting produce from the garden.
My mother taught me to read, to cook, to sew, but most of my memories revolve around outside activities. I cannot say at what point I began to recognize that the existence of our family was so enmeshed with our lives as farmers, but even from my youth I had the innate understanding that our farm was virtually a living part of our family. We were Harrisons; we were farmers. Many of the hardest lessons I learned from life on the farm were accompanied by adages from my mother. I recall being thrown by Abraham the Mule when I was nine; he managed to step on my ankle as he ran off. Through my tears, I protested as my mother led him back to me so I could ride him on the return to the barn. "If you get thrown, you get back on." It was a hard lesson that day, but as I matured I grew to understand that it was not simply an instruction for horseback riding. So many of my mother's sayings that I heard over and over have proven to be such.
My mother was vibrant, she was fiery, she stated her opinion clearly, and was more than a little stubborn. We could exasperate each other, but we loved each other fiercely. Undoubtedly, the bond of a mother to her only child is unique. For us, it was unbreakable despite any tests. That stubbornness served my mother well when she was diagnosed with cancer. A routine mammogram revealed a spot, and a further biopsy proved that it was not breast cancer, but rather metastisized melanoma. Easter 2007 was a difficult holiday as we awaited the results of a full body scan. The following week, we learned that the melanoma was throughout my mother's system, including a brain tumor. Despite no symptoms, my mother was given the devastating news that she probably had only six months. Her response was classic Becky, as she informed the doctor that six months was not even Christmas and so it simply was not enough time.
My mother had always loved being outdoors, and eventually that lifetime spent outside in the sun resulted in this horrific illness. Those who have lost a loved one to cancer understand the terrible progression of watching someone fight and fail: the overnights at the hospital, the chemo, the blood draws, the prayers, the frustration, the anger, the tubes, the weight loss, the fear. It is a time of my life that is so burned into my memory. When I see pictures of myself from that year, it is as though I do not know that girl. But I can feel the extraordinary fear and exhaustion that haunted her, and I pity her because I know what is yet to come. In December 2007, the cancer spread to Mother's intestines, but she rallied and survived a risky surgery to remove part of her intestines. That was the first time I rushed my brother Joshua to the hospital to say goodbye, but it would not be the last. Before she went into surgery she made it clear that despite the small chance for survival she had no intention of missing Christmas. And she didn't.
The challenges kept coming though, and my step-father & I were helpless witnesses as the person we loved the most bravely endured this illness. While I adore pictures of me & my mother taken during the adventures of my childhood, I am convinced that she was never more beautiful than in those last months of her life. My mother lost her hair and lost an astounding amount of weight. But as those physical things fell away, it was as though her soul radiated through such temporal barriers. Her smile and her heart only grew more profoundly and breathtakingly gorgeous. All she wanted was to spend her last days with her family, on the farm that she loved, in the house she had painstakingly restored. She wanted to be surrounded by her friends and her books and her dogs. I am grateful that she had this.
In 2008, May the 15th fell on a Thursday. My mother died at 5:15am on 5/15. It does not matter how old you are when it happens, the moment you become an orphan changes you forever. There will never again be someone to parent you through life's challenges, to protect you from the pains of the world, to stand in your corner whether you are right or wrong with a parent's love. I called Auntie at 6am, I called the hospice nurse, I called the funeral home, I called my mother's friends. And then at 9:00am, I opened the slaughterhouse and I worked. My mother was the toughest human being I ever knew and she was a worker -- I had a legacy to live up to. On Friday, Joe & I planned the funeral, and on Saturday we endured the calling hours. I had a migraine, and I wore my favorite black hat that my mother loved. We buried my mother on a Sunday. The funeral home had lost power, but the staff had lit hurricane candles throughout the chapel. I have never seen so many flowers, and I was grateful for the people who overflowed the chapel. My mother's friends, her fellow teachers, her former students, farmers, local business people, my friends, our customers from the slaughterhouse. The outpouring of support was sincerely appreciated, and will never be forgotten.
I miss my mother every moment of every day. I doubt a human ever heals from such a profound experience, and I do not know that I would want to. My mother was a character, and was one of a kind. I am eternally grateful that I had her for a parent. As her illness progressed, my mother lost her ability to speak. My mother died on a Thursday; the last time she was able to speak was on the previous Monday. As I did every night, I told her I loved her before I fell asleep on the couch next to her hospital bed. That night, my mother was able to respond. Her last words to me were "I love you". In retrospect -- whatever words she used -- that was all my mother ever said to me.
Monday, May 7, 2012
As I write this, I am cooking Oreo the Goat. Oreo the Goat was the mother of Mary Beth, my bottle baby. While I was sorry to reach the conclusion that Oreo needed to meet a quick death, it actually ended up being in Mary Beth's best interest that she was already being fed on a bottle. Mary Beth and her brother Timmy were born on a cold January day. She was named after my current intern from Ohio State, and almost mirrors her sunny disposition. Oreo made it clear from the start that she had no problems with her daughter, but there was no way in the world that she would feed her. In contrast, Oreo allowed Timmy to nurse without problem, but was deadset that Mary Beth would not be allowed the same nutrition. Thus, I became Mary Beth's surrogate mother . . . and Mary Beth learned to drink her milk from a recycled Yuengling bottle!
If a new mother rejects a baby, I have found that this typically means the goat lacks proper maternal instinct. In that case, the goat has no place on a working farm. It will be sold, for the betterment of the rest of the herd and of the human. Every creature on this farm must contribute. If an experienced mother, however, rejects a baby, I have found that there is usually a reason why this happens. God has gifted humans with brains that cause us to analyze our behavior, but animals are blessed with the simplicity of acting with an instinct that involves no need for reason. Oreo was an older goat, and was thinner than I would have liked. Her instinct must have told her that she could only raise one baby. Timmy was the baby she chose, and Mary Beth became my baby.
Mary Beth has become a superstar visitor to local schools. Her first visit was to a pre-school near Ashville, where she entertained numerous little children . . . who all wanted a turn to pet the baby goat! This was a quick trip, where she was able to stay outside. Although Mary Beth was not a fan of riding in the Goatmobile, she gradually adjusted. Her second event was an educational day at Plain City Elementary sponsored by Madison County Farm Bureau. To my surprise, the school chose to place a Goatherd and a goat in a classroom! Mary Beth was quite a professional: she relieved herself outside the school after we arrived, and then calmly followed me right through the front door of the building! We got our fair share of double-takes as students and teachers observed me taking "my kid" to school! The picture at the top of this post shows Mary Beth entertaining a classroom of students. Although I could tell she was tired by the end of the day, I was impressed with the calm manner with which Mary Beth handled a public appearance. Truly, she was made for the limelight!
Sadly, Oreo began to go downhill quickly when Mary Beth & Timmy were almost 3 months old. I found her in the barn one day, unable to get up. The other goats were out grazing, but Mary Beth & Timmy had remained inside with their ill mother. As I examined Oreo, I realized that at her advanced age this was not an illness she would recover from. I could treat her -- with an antibiotic and with a de-wormer -- but more than likely, she would still pass. I decided the most humane thing to do would be to end her suffering and give value to her body. I moved Mary Beth & Timmy to live in a small pen in the front of the barn with my new calf E. Shackelton and Mop & Fuller the Goats.
Once a friend was able to arrive to help me, we moved Oreo from the barn. I typically butcher animals by the hydrant so I have plenty of water available. Oreo's blood pressure was very low, and she passed quickly when I bled her. I was once told by a vet that there are two things that can kill an animal: the one big hammer or the fourteen little hammers. Sometimes death is triggered by a major thing, but other times it is a number of small items that combine to cause illness. In Oreo's case, she was elderly and was dealing with a heavy case of parasites. This was combined with lungs that were not in the best condition and a swollen gall bladder . . . and these were just the things that a simple goatherd & butcher immediately detected. While I hated to say goodbye to this longtime member of the herd, it was my responsibility to show her the respect of a quick death. When humans were given dominion over animals, we were also given the profound responsibility to treat them with love and respect. This dominion is a great power, and thus requires great responsibility in our human behavior.
Mary Beth & Timmy are adapting to their new location. When I examined Oreo, I realized that she had stopped producing milk, and therefore Timmy is not struggling due to a quick loss of dairy nutrients . . . he had already been forced to stop drinking much milk. Mary Beth is quite used to humans, and her relaxed attitude is helping Timmy to adjust to being around me more. Oreo's meat is going to feed the Pyrenees pups. She is keeping them strong, and has left a legacy in her daughter -- a goat that is educating many young people on the wonders of farming!
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Some days, Sheba looks at me when I get ready to depart the farm and gives me her "sad puppy eyes". I know that I will be home soon, but at the same time I always wish I was staying on the farm with her. I am happiest when I simply have a quiet day to work with my animals. It seems as though those days are more rare, and more treasured. I sometimes wonder if I like meetings, since I seem to attend so many. In truth, I do not -- but I believe so strongly in agriculture that I am more than willing to participate in sessions that better our farm community. Along the way, I've had some amazing experiences and great adventures. And I hope that these have made me a more fun dog owner for Sheba . . . even if I have had to be away from the farm!
Yesterday, I had the fantastic opportunity to offer testimony to the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee on Senate Bill 281, which expands Ag-Link. Ag-Link is a linked deposit program which offers low-interest loans for farmers. It has been in existence for over 25 years, and has helped more than 40,000 farmers. I was quite honored when I was asked to represent Ohio Farm Bureau to speak out in support of legislation to expand Ag-Link. One of the greatest attributes of Ohio Farm Bureau -- in my opinion -- is that it is truly a grassroots organization. Its policies are directly established by its 60,000 farmer members. Ohio Farm Bureau members support the Ag-Link program and support its expansion.
When I was first asked to offer testimony on behalf of Ohio Farm Bureau, I will admit I was a bit hesitant due to my lack of experience with the program. I have not been a participant in Ag-Link. I have, however, known many farmers who have benefited from it. I also know firsthand the challenges that young farmers face in starting agricultural endeavors . . . and one of the greatest is having access to enough capital. My friend Beth, the Policy Princess, offered me great support in learning about the proposed legislation to expand Ag-Link, and I found that I personally supported the ideas. Senate Bill 281 raises the maximum loan amount from $100,000 to $150,000. While $100,000 might initially seem like a large amount, when it comes to funding land, equipment, livestock, seed, etc, this dollar figure can be exceeded very quickly. Raising this amount keeps the program useful for farmers. Senate Bill 281 also directs the State Treasurer to increase annual funding from $125 million to $165 million. This increase is a reflection of growth in the state's treasury, and allows for the increase in individual loans without decreasing the number of farmers that can participate. Finally, updates were made in calculations of the lending rates for farmers that keep the program in line with current financial practices. It is important to keep such a program fiscally responsible.
As usual, I was running around like crazy to be on time for my testimony. Plus, I needed to make a special delivery after I finished at the Statehouse. I actually awoke on time, and managed to do what immediately needed to be done in the barn. (How do you know you're a farm girl? You find yourself hustling out to the henhouse to let the chickens out while wearing a bathrobe and muck boots! Apologies to my neighbors . . .) The Policy Princess was an excellent guide in preparing me for the day. I had my notes all ready on the technical aspects of the bill so I could answer difficult questions, and I had studied up on each of the committee members so I could tailor my answers to their interests. I did acceptably for my first time offering testimony, and I sincerely enjoyed it. Much to my sadness, not a single question was asked to test my knowledge! It was, however, a great experience and I was so grateful to have the Policy Princess & my Sister-in-Slaughter Angie both there to support me!
As I departed the Statehouse, I called my friend Chef Seth to let him know I was ready to make my delivery. What had I taken to the Statehouse with me? Well, Seth is working on a garden and needed some horse manure. I agreed to a trade in exchange for his delicious Lamb Bacon recipe. Thus it was that I had a container full of horse manure in the back of the Goatmobile. While it might be said that some people bring a load of "crap" when they come to lobby at the Statehouse, I literally did! And I like to think that my animals would be proud that -- no matter what I may be doing -- my heart is never far from the farm!