Sunday, March 6, 2016


My mother used to say that one of the worst parts of farming is picking up the dead ones -- and the more you have, the more you lose.  Behind this thought is the reality of percentages.  If you lose ten percent of your animals in a given season and you only have ten animals, that is only one loss.  And if you have one hundred animals and lose ten percent, there are now ten lost.  The emotional reality for me -- even after forty years on a farm, even after so many animals lost & buried -- is that I feel the impact of every single loss.

Baby Goat Elizabeth passed peacefully this morning.  After so much time spent around the dying, I can usually tell from their body how they slipped away from the temporal realm.  Elizabeth's peaceful state tells me she simply slept away sometime after 5am when I last checked on her.  Her body was so relaxed.  My nature is to over analyze any situation that does not go as I wished.  What could I have done differently?  What signs did I miss?  How could she have been doing so well on Saturday morning, and dead on Sunday morning?

Unfortunately, sometimes these things just happen.  After all, Elizabeth originally came in the house because she was not able to walk or nurse after birth.  There is already something not right if a baby has to come into the kitchen to warm up; any baby who cannot make it in the barn with their own mother is already a lost cause.  I know this, I have lived it over & over, but I still cannot leave a baby simply to die alone & cold. Elizabeth drank her milk very well on Saturday morning.  She drank reasonably well on Saturday afternoon and spent time in the barn with her mother & and her brother.  Yet, by Saturday night she was in a terrible state when it was time for her to come back in the house for the night.  Did I miss a warning sign?  Even though I keep asking myself this question, I know she was doing very well when she went out to the barn for the afternoon.  Her digestive system was functioning well -- both intake & output -- and Elizabeth was quite alert. But something was already not right with her, and apparently it triumphed over her ability to fight it.

It is a struggle to start your day with a dead baby.  Frustration, disappointment, sadness, and self-castigation do not make for a positive start to a morning.  Mornings always require too much as soon as I wake up: walk the dog, let the chickens out, check water, turn out the night lights, feed the orphans.  Managing these activities prior to coffee can be plenty for this farmer to handle, and then the added loss of a little one inevitably adds to a negative outlook.  My back was already sore from working hard the last few days on trimming hooves & basic herd maintenance.  A headache was already raging from inconsistent sleep last night: first falling asleep while holding the baby and sitting at the kitchen table, then getting up in the night to try to give it milk, then getting up again to give it nutritional supplement, then another effort at giving it milk drop by drop from a syringe.  No matter my efforts, no matter how I drive myself to work on the farm, no matter how hard I work off-the-farm as well to earn the income which the farm does not provide -- still these losses come, and still they break my heart.

I raise animals for meat.  The animals will live, and they will eventually die, as will I.  It is the circle of life, and it touches each and every one of us.  Yet, in the time they live, my job is to provide the best care I can for these animals.  I want their days to be good, and I want the end to be quick.  Especially on a farm that focuses on meat production, I want their days of life to be good days.  I hate to see a little one lose the opportunity to enjoy those days.  I recognize that it would be easier for me to manage the losses if I did not get so attached to the animals.  After all, Baby Elizabeth was only in my world for sixty hours and she was just a goat.  That stark reality does not change, though, the desire I had to nourish & care for her, or the emotions I felt as a result of our time together.  The animals work for me, just as I work for them, and we live together in a symbiotic connection.  I have a unique vantage point on the circle of life.  I see my animals born, I raise them, and sometimes I am the one who butchers them.  From this vantage point, I have learned much on the value of life.  I have learned to never give up on a person or an animal.  I have learned that kindness is always of more value than profit.  I have learned to accept failure with courage when I know I tried my absolute best.  The integrity which comes from farming is priceless.

After I bury Elizabeth, there will be more babies that come along.  Some will thrive, and others will be lost.  I will cry over more deaths, and I will have more sleepless nights of care taking.  But I will also have more of those amazing moments that inspire me along the way.  When I sit in the barn at night and watch the babies playing while their mothers quietly relax, I am filled with a great sense of peace.  I know my place in the circle of life, and I know that I am meant to be doing what I do.  Our mission at Harrison Farm is to connect people with animals and with farming.  Sometimes animals make life happier and sometimes they make it sadder, but animals always enrich our lives because they teach us how to be better humans by understanding our place in the world.