A Winter Among Friends
I have big goals for my semester off. I will be an apprentice at a small, diversified farm whose owners care for a herd of dairy goats, a flock of free-range chickens, and a greenhouse full of native plants, among many other things. I will be learning to perform countless minor tasks that add up to the essential maintenance of a farm. I want to learn discipline, sufficiency, rhythms both daily and seasonal. When I talk about my real education, this is what I mean.
For my winter term, I had smaller goals. I wanted to enjoy myself, learn a little bit about winter farm life, and be around animals. So my friend Emily and I signed up as WWOOFers: willing workers on organic farms. Through WWOOF USA, we contacted a few farmers and arranged to stay with them for a few weeks each, trading daily work for food and housing.
For complicated reasons, we planned to spend two weeks in Pennsylvania and two weeks in Alabama. She came from Indiana in her WVO car, I came from Connecticut in my WVO car, and we met up in Oberlin to drive back the way I'd come.
What's a WVO car, you ask? I'll get there, but to steel you for the paragraph ahead, here's a gratuitous picture of rabbits.
Okay, so, back to the WVO cars. The WVO stands for waste vegetable oil, because that's what they burn, when it's available. Most diesel cars, especially older ones with higher tolerances, can be outfitted with a second fuel tank and set of lines to the engine so that they can burn vegetable oil. The chief difference between WVO and diesel is its viscosity; because WVO doesn't flow well when it's cold, the original diesel tank is still used to heat up the engine when it's been sitting idle and to flood all the lines with diesel before stopping so they won't clog. The diesel tank is also used when, much to the dismay of WVO car owners, no filtered WVO can be found. This is not uncommon: although waste oil is easy to find, waste oil that has no particles or water in it takes time and energy to make. Particles can be filtered out, and are filtered again in the car. Water can't be filtered out and must be settled, which takes about a month. Most people who process their own WVO have only enough for themselves. You can see why it's difficult when roadtripping. But I got to Ohio on vegetable oil, and we got most of the way to Pennsylvania on it, too.
Because many of the best conversion candidates are older cars, they have the added advantage of being super classy. Here's mine:
In Pennsylvania, we met our friendly host, Leslie, and her even friendlier dogs. This is Lily, who rode along with us on the way to the vegan potluck we enjoyed on our first night:
Lily is calm and collected, even when people are leaving without her. She looks sad, but doesn't get agitated, because she has a plan: she'll wriggle out the cat door and follow you down the long, snowy driveway. Then she'll go just far enough towards the street that you're afraid she'll run away, so that you scoop her up in the car. She doesn't seem to care that sometimes her reward is sitting in the car for an hour while her people eat delicious vegan food inside.
Levi is also pretty calm, although a less sympathetic observer might just think he's slow. He spends most of his time outside, playing with the younger dogs, smelling things, and standing around, looking like this:
Lemony, by contrast, is anything but calm. She's an eight-month-old golden Lab, and her favorite activities include jumping on people, jumping on keyboards, jumping on Lily, stealing things that smell like people, stealing things that Levi wants, and eating. Oh boy does she like eating. And people. Good thing she doesn't combine these interests.
Lemony also likes Honey, an enormous Marema/Komondor/Great Pyrenees mix who lives in the pasture closest to the house. Honey is friendly and dignified, but tends to wander. Here she is, waiting for me and the food bowl:
and here are the two of them. She and Honey romp all over everywhere when they wrestle. They're about to start a pretty epic bout, as soon as I open the gate.
Last, the venerable Aspen, who spends most of her days curled up on a couch. Feeding a dog pills hidden in butter and scrapple doesn't sound like very much fun, but it is. Aspen is old and deaf and it is a privilege to measure out small doses of joy in the twilight of her very happy life.
Lest you think the farm in Pennsylvania was populated entirely by dogs, here are pictures of some of the other animals we helped care for.
The smaller sheep in this picture are all Jacob ewes, of an heirloom breed known for good mothering and hardiness. They are also, as you may have noticed, polycerate – that is, they have more than two horns. The ram is a large, gentle Dorset mix.
There are also chickens, including this fine fellow who I happened to catch while running, towards what I do not know.
But the stars of the show are Bess and Alta, two white Percherons trained for farm work. Alta, who was trained as a farm horse in her youth, is patient and people-shy and never steps on plants. Bess has a little more attitude, and she was trained as a logging horse, so although strong and willing, she is not as point-perfect as Alta sometimes. They worked as a team for several years before coming to Leslie.
In this picture, Alta is on the left, Bess on the right. They are getting harnessed up so Leslie's friend Micah can ground drive them.
From Micah's perspective, Bess is on the left and Alta is on the right.
Here, they are hooked up to a horse-drawn cultivator, which spades between rows of plants to kill weeds.
One of the lessons we took away from the experience at Leslie's farm was the importance of growing a good local network of farmers and friends. Leslie cofounded and still manages one of Pennsylvania's organic certifiers, so she is always in contact with farmers in the area. Although Leslie boards cows and goats only in the summer, when pasture is plentiful, the farmer's market and farm auction ensure her (and her volunteers!) a steady supply of local meat and dairy. There's also plenty of winter produce, bread and preserves to supplement Leslie's own.
In fact, Micah was over to see the horses because Leslie offered to let him use them this season in exchange for feeding, keeping and working them. She doesn't have time to work with them this year, and Micah needs a large team to work the ground for the vegetable CSA he runs with his wife. Such generosity defies description, and is an essential ingredient in the glue that binds communities together.
Emily and I left Pennsylvania amidst alarmingly frequent storms and the beginnings of sickness. Rather than brave the mountains in the snow, we headed to Oberlin to regroup. I got to spend a day in the AJLC garden, harvesting kale and mustard greens and transplanting baby herbs.
The mustard greens, snug tight under the low tunnel.
Happy transplanted basil! As an equal-opportunity vegetable grower, I know I shouldn't say this, but some seedlings are cuter than others. Basil seedlings are just adorable.
Then Emily, who had been gamely travelling under a black cloud of sickness, decided that she didn't want to go down to Alabama sick, too. She needed to recuperate at home before facing another long semester in Oberlin, so we parted ways, amicably, and I left for Alabama alone.
As a reward for my dedication, I got to Alabama, settled in for a night, and promptly came down with the flu. I could not help build a cob oven, as I had hoped. I could not help build a shed. I couldn't even cook or do the dishes, which are two of my favorite ways to contribute to a household. I could help with the animals, though, so I did that.
These are the farm cats, and friendlier farm cats I have never met. I never thought a cat would lick me so much that I would want them to stop. Here they are in their basket:
but they are rarely there if a lap makes itself available:
As well as friendly cats, there are friendly dogs aplenty. This is Bloom, the dignified beagle who goes where he pleases and causes no trouble – or if he does, he doesn't tell us about it.
This is Lugnut facing off with the goats. Lugnut and I developed a special relationship while Charlie was away. He would sleep in my bed, follow me around, and whine when I was in the bathroom. For my part, I would pet his head, tolerate his mouthy puppy play, and say "Oh, Lugnut." He's an awful nice dog (and very warm at night). He does tend to bark at goats, cats, Bloom, and the occasional fast-falling blueberry branch, but he leaves chickens alone.
The goat on the left was was the first of a menagerie that now includes two pigs, three goats, four ducks, and a couple of dozen happy, free-ranging chickens. He was a pet in Birmingham before authorities found and evicted him. Charlie took him on as a trial in large-animal management, and boy, is he a trial. Right now he is tied to a stake (near a large bush for munching) because he keeps leaping the fence of the goat-and-pig enclosure. Bob is friendly, and pretty saucy, too:
Bob is so over this photoshoot.
The other two goats are fiber goats. They're not pet-tame, but they're not too skittish, either. They tend to tattle on Bob when he jumps the fence. Here's one:
Yes, I did slip "goat-and-pig enclosure" into that paragraph up there. The Tamworth/Big Black gilts were recently allotted their own housing, a very suitable plot of wooded pasture in which they can root without destroying the surface. The fencing system is a clever one, using a single electrified wire. Alas, because of some electrical problems, the pigs have figured out that they can get out of the gate area even when it's electrified. They haven't generalized this realization to the rest of the fence, and with luck, they never will. Until a new gate is put in place, they're back in with their old chums the goats (except Bob, who's tied up near the privet bush, remember?).
I'll confess that I didn't like the pigs at first. They're big, and they're pushy with people bearing food sacks. They do like pig grower an awful lot. But it turns out that they like back scratches too, and despite all the time I've spent chasing these ol' hogs around, I like them.
Luckily, the dozens of chickens and small flock of guinea fowl do not need to be confined. Their high-roofed shed allows them to perch out of predators' reach, and they're far enough from the road that crossing it doesn't tempt them. The chickens are harder to get a good shot of than the larger animals. They're individually beautiful, but the flock as a whole is more so. The way a subflock fans across the driveway, the way a rooster cocks his head at a couple of hens on the other side of a rosebush, the way a single hen alights on the pasture fence and hops down before being followed in sequence by seven more chickens: these things can be seen, but not recorded.
So here are some shots of individuals instead:
But what would a flock of chickens be without a beautiful basket of eggs?
My favorite activity to watch, hands-down, is dustbathing. If you've never seen a chicken dustbathe, find a way to make it happen. First, it'll make you laugh, and laughing is good for you. Second, it'll make you think about all the chickens in the world who cannot dustbathe, and buying free-range eggs is good for chickens (and you!). Like most other flock behavior, dustbathing is hard to photograph. I didn't even try to catch it when I saw a large group of chickens having fun in the dirt pile near the shed. I just watched, quietly aglow.
I do have a picture of dustbathing chickens, though. I mentioned in my post about taking PLOA that my chickens have retired to Michigan. This is one of the last pictures I took of them before they went:
When I miss them, which is often, I remind myself that the dust baths at SASHA are dusty and deep. They're happy where they are, and I am, too: I'm in Oberlin right now, among friends with fewer paws, saying hellos and goodbyes before I go. Dear readers, this is my last blog post for a while, so I wish you excellent dust baths and safe travels, wherever you may be.