Start somewhere and then become better. My first batch of pigs, I bucket watered from a river during the winter. I carried the buckets up a little hill, over the driveway, and then had to lift them over a gate that was almost shoulder height and pour the water through a smallish hole at the top of my waterer. When the pigs were bigger, they were drinking almost 80 gallons per day. I will never do that again. BUT, it worked while it had to. I absolutely hate inefficiency and go through my days thinking of all the ways I could be more efficient. But becoming more efficient tends to also cost money so I’m learning to take baby steps and be happy with the small time savings.
I will always be learning. This is perhaps my favorite part of being a farmer. The more you know, the less you know. Every year, every day even, I will continue to learn as long as I keep farming. I will learn more about the soil, more about the animals I’m raising, more about business, more about myself.
Don’t wait too long to start the grazing season.
My biggest fear with the 2017 grazing season was running out of grass. My solution? Wait until I was sure the grass was ready. I didn’t start my grazing plan until mid-May. Because of this, most of the grass was over mature by the time the cows arrived and they trampled rather than ate most of it. As I was finishing my first rotation of the farm some time in early July, the rain stopped and the grass stopped growing. We squeaked through until the fall but I started feeding hay in early November and I know I grazed the grass down too short before winter came.
Say yes to help. I had many offers of help and volunteer work on the farm. I felt guilty and selfish for accepting help, so I thanked them for their offer and didn’t take them up on it. When I did have people over to help I felt bad having them do the harder and less romantic projects. And then I stressed out about how to get those projects done. This year, I’m going to work on changing that, starting with regular volunteer days at the farm!
Communication, communication, communication. I learned a lot about family and communicating in 2017. I am the first to admit I’m not great at communicating through difficult topics, but I learned last year that clear boundaries are very important. My family and I should have laid out clear terms before I started this business. Oops, we didn’t do that. So, this is something my family and I are laying the foundation for in 2018. Luckily none of us have killed each other yet so we can only go up from here!
What works there does not necessarily work here. At Polyface most of the laying hens free-range without the protection of electric fence. However they have 30 years of predator prevention built up including livestock guardian dogs that patrol the property and they live in a different area of the country. I just assumed that I could do the same on my farm. Good news for the coyotes, very bad news for me. This mistake cost me dearly; over 100 of my laying hens were killed by a coyote pack in two days. Luckily, my Uncle came to my rescue and helped me replace those laying hens.
Be prepared. To be fair, I’m not sure if you can ever be 100% on top of this as a farmer but it’s always something to be striving towards. The first real winter snowstorm in the beginning of 2017, my Dad was driving me to Tractor Supply with his flatbed trailer to buy gates and panels to retrofit the old fairy barn into a free-standing barn. By the time we were on the way back, there was snow piling up on the road. We worked our tails off and then blissfully opened the doors for the cows to pile into the warmth. Except the Scottish Highlander with the big horns wouldn’t come into the barn. And she also stood in the doorway and would let any of the other cows go into the barn. So they stood out in the storm while the warm cozy barn remained empty. This winter, that cow has provided nourishing food to many people, and the cows got used to going into the barn in the summer time.
This is home. If you asked me five years ago, I would have laughed if you suggested I would ever move back to Rhode Island. The first year of living back here was a huge challenge. Giving up on the weekend trips to Big Sur and Yosemite. Not having the freedom to go to yoga class at lunchtime and leave work early to go mountain biking with friends every Wednesday evening. I missed and still miss those things more than I thought I ever would. I miss the grandness and space of the West Coast. But I’m realizing that there are things here that are slowly filling the empty spaces and perhaps filling my life with much more than I ever had before.
I love the tenacious, passionate, loving, smart, and warm community of farmers that exists in Rhode Island. I love that despite there being no good reason to go into farming, that so many people here are doing it. I love that Rhode Island has the most expensive farm land in the country and yet it also has the highest percentage of young farmers and it’s one of the few states in the country where the number of farms is actually increasing. I love being a part of something real, changing our food system, that our society so desperately needs. I love giving people a connection back to the earth and their food that some realized and some didn’t realize they were missing. I absolutely love raising animals and although it’s so hard for me to part with them, I know it’s part of the cycle of life. My family roots pulled me back here from thousands of miles away and slowly, I can feel my own roots sinking into the ground here.