Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Reality of my Small Farm

I do not know when I finally stopped crying today.  I suppose at some point, your body is just too spent to even form tears.  The funny thing about mental anguish is that it can be so all-consuming that you stop noticing physical pain.  You don't feel the muscle exhaustion from carrying buckets of water or bales of hay.  It doesn't really register when you slip on ice.  All you keep thinking about is the dead baby goats, the predator killing your chickens, the overwhelming maintenance of an old barn & farmhouse.  I love being a farmer, and I try to focus on all the wonderful aspects of that life.  Sometimes, though, I have a day where I feel the burden heavily of trying to be a good farmer.  And today's misadventures led to a profound crying jag.

Yesterday was the due date for my goats, and I had purposefully scheduled myself to be at home for a few days.  The temperature yesterday was pleasant, the goats had plenty of good grain & delicious hay, but they seemed in no hurry to kid.  When I checked on them before going to bed last night, all was well.  This morning I needed to manage some items in my home office before I headed out to do the morning chores.  Last Friday, the furnace quit yet again in the farmhouse.  Matt was able to order parts and repair it by Monday night . . . But that was a mighty cold weekend!  I was able to juggle some funds to cover the cost of the new flame sensor, transformer, and control panel, but -- since it is the off-season at Jorgensen Farms -- money is a bit tight.  Then, on Sunday afternoon, ice came off the east roof of the farmhouse, and ripped the gutter off the side of the house.  Matt's intent to nail it back up was hindered by the discovery that the fascia wood was completely rotted.  With the knowledge that the trusses could also be affected, I was analyzing options . . . And then that night more ice ripped the gutter off the WEST side of the house, landing precariously on top of a live electrical wire!  Fortunately, the electric company sent a crew to remove it, there was no water coming inside the house, and I had heat.  Thus, I was trying to be grateful for these things while I reviewed options & finances this morning!

All the animals were very calm when I arrived in the barn late morning.  The chickens are adapting well to their new home, the sheep were content, and the goats in the west end seemed peaceful.  As I did my walk around checking everyone, the calm atmosphere abruptly ended when I realized that one of my goats had TWO heads protruding from her.  She seemed so quiet that it was hard to comprehend what a bad birth was occurring.  I tried to rapidly, yet calmly, move her to the front of the barn where I could work with her.  In better light and with my birthing supplies, it was even worse than I could have imagined.  Sticking out were two heads and three legs.  I have no idea how this occurred, but it was obvious that the babies had already strangled.  All I could do was try to save the mother.

I tied her up, put on gloves, and examined the situation closer.  Both heads were covered in dirt & straw.  I knew I needed to act as quickly as possible.  To pull out both babies at once would only increase what had to be excruciating pain for a mother.  To push one in -- thus making it easier to pull one at a time -- would expose the mother to germs being introduced internally from the dirt & straw.  I investigated the legs, and decided which head went with two of the legs sticking out.  I know it had to be terrible for the mother.  I tried to smoothly pull the legs which I thought went together.  I tried to hurt her as little as possible.  As she pushed and I pulled, there came to be a point that I realized we were both crying out loud.  Slowing I extracted one intact kid goat, and then the second.  As I already knew, both of these big beautiful babies were dead.  I moved from the mother goat's rear end to her front end, and put my arms around her neck.  I was crying freely while I told her what a good girl she was and how brave she was.  Yes, this was likely quite ridiculous, but she had suffered and all I could offer her was my own meager form of comfort.  

I led her to the small pen up front, and brought her fresh water, sweet feed, and some choice hay.  I sat with her and kept quietly talking to her while I waited to see if she delivered the placenta.  If it followed shortly, then there were no more babies inside of her.  If it was not to be expelled, I would have to glove up again and reach inside to search for another baby.  Thankfully, it soon passed.  She ate it (as goats typically do for the nourishment), and I turned my attention to the babies.  A boy & a girl, they were big and perfectly formed.  I have no idea what turned this birth so wrong.  And I blamed myself.  But there were other living animals to assist, so I just kept crying while I started hauling buckets of water from the house to fill tanks.  The hydrant froze up on one of those sub-zero mornings, and it has not worked since.

After I finished attending to the other animals, I carried the poor babies to the compost pile.  There they joined the four dead chickens from last week.  While I was off the farm last Wednesday, four of my hens were killed by a predator inside the little hen house.  When I returned to the farm that day and found them, it was already late afternoon.  I tried to fix the hole where I thought the predator had invaded the hen house, but it was already getting dark, and I was very, very upset.  Those four chickens made seven killed this calendar year . . . 25% of my little flock.  I was already keeping the ladies inside their house all day to protect them, and now I felt so unable to protect them.  So, one by one, trudging through the snow, I carried them to live in another building.  So far, thank God, they have been safe.  When you carry your chickens one by one through deep snow, trying to race the setting sun, you think a lot about how life brought you to that moment.

I love my little farm.  I love raising animals, and I love raising my own food.  There are, however, trade-offs to every situation.  And this is why I am so angered by those who judge farming, without understanding it.  Yes, I am happy with my little group of chickens and my old-fashioned way of raising them.  But as I carried each of my surviving ladies through snow (wearing Carhartts over the dress I had not yet changed out of when I arrived home that day), how much I wished that I had a confinement operation that could provide my hens with constant warmth and protection from predators.  I am proud to say the eggs from Harrison Farm are cage-free, but I am under no illusion that this makes them morally superior.  And I resent that individuals who are not involved in farming believe they know better than farmers do on how to raise animals.

The reality of a small farm is blood, sweat, and tears.  I love my animals, and I want to do the best I can for them.  I work at Jorgensen Farms to have the income to provide for my animals and to exist myself.  The reality is that my small farm loses money every year.  And every year I try to make adjustments to make next year better.  But my small farm does not provide enough income  to have an employee to assist me, it does not provide health care or benefits, and it certainly does not give me time off.  I do what I do because I love it and I believe in it.  I also fault myself harshly when something goes wrong, like the birth did today.  

Whenever you fall into the mindset that small farms are better than large farms, please think about the realities that I share with you.  Large farms often have the assets to be able to provide a better work environment, a more stable atmosphere for animals, and improved quality of life for employees.  This does not mean that large farms or small farms are better, it just means that there are trade-offs.  And likely, it is the farmer that knows how to manage each situation the best.  This is why I have such a profound dislike for Chipotle's marketing methods: the chain presents itself as supporting small, sustainable farms by marketing in a negative manner against other farms.  

The last time I went to Chipotle was right at the start of their "Farmed & Dangerous" campaign.  As I stood in the restaurant and looked at all the customers drinking out of their cups that said "Farmed & Dangerous", I literally became sick to my stomach.  I cannot support a business that tries to succeed by making some farmers look bad.  My grandfather was the kindest, gentlest man I ever met.  He used crates for his pigs, because it broke him emotionally to keep going around and picking up dead babies.  He made the best management decision he could -- and I keenly understand the devastation of picking up dead babies.  To support Chipotle is to send my money to a company that makes large political donations to hinder the ability of individual farmers to manage their animals prudently.  To support Chipotle is to send my money to a company that portrays large farms as ethically immoral -- even though some of my closest friends run large farms.  To support Chipotle is to say that my grandfather was not a good steward of land & animals.  To support Chipotle is to say that all farmers should be forced to face the challenges I face that are inherent to small farms.  No one from Chipotle or HSUS or PETA was there to check the goats early this morning when I was facing other issues, they were not there when I had to reduce my herds as I managed my neurological challenges last year, and they certainly were not there this morning as I held my goat and cried.  

I started this blog because I wanted to share the reality of farming.  I am a real person, with real experiences, and real feelings.  I hope when you are asked to make a decision about farming & food production, that you will think about the challenges that actual farmers face . . . Not the propaganda.  I did not stop working when I was so upset this morning, because there is always more work to do on a farm.  I hope you will keep these realities in mind as you spend money on food and as you vote on farm-related issues.  Please show support for your local farms by listening to farmers, by considering their realities, and by buying products directly from them as often as you can.  If you have a question about farming, please ask.  Farmers love what they do, even if sometimes it breaks their hearts.

1 comment:

  1. Katherine, my heart breaks from reading your post and at the same time I too understand the difficulties with a small farm. Phil and I lost 2 babies and the mother goat because I just let her go for too long hoping we could get the babies to come out. In the end, I made a bad decision and lost all of them! :(
    Please know that we are here if you ever need a helping money required.....we miss our little farm that we lost!
    Love you,
    Sherri Johnson