march

We are still young enough to this that each lambing season is distinctly different. This year is like no other. Every year is new.

2016

I came home for spring break and chopped my hair off for the first time in four years and the two weeks were so brief, filled with uncertainty and new-ness. The runt of a set of quadruplets spent an extra cold night in my bedroom that wasn’t yet my bedroom, and in the middle of the night I heard it escape the cardboard box we had left it in, tiny hooves tip tapping over the bare wood floor. Carmen made me promise to come home and work for her that summer, and I negotiated for my wage, and we both signed a post it note and pinned it to the fridge. It was full of beginnings and also not-knowings and we still had a shadow of guidance.

2017

A formative year. Sweatshirt weather in february leaves the acrid taste of climate change in my mouth, harsh learning about pulling lambs and death and the way the sun can still warm your bones after you’ve lost one. The formation of teamwork, assembling ourselves in new ways. the discovery of problems, from mastitis to trouble giving birth. The not-knowing what to do about it and letting the year go. Wild herd of little boer goat kids, impossible to contain, with little growing wacky horn buds from a big learning curve with the horn-burner. Leaving for a trip at the end of lambing, not yet so committed to the cycle of seasons on the farm, but from across the world, all I can think about is writing down my feelings about lambing.

2018

The coping with the problems we learned about the year before. We lambed with the same ewes, not having marked which ones were the problem ones, we had to do it over in order to know who wasn’t a good mom anymore. Discoveries of half-bad udders, ewes who got their babies twisted up inside. Notching their ears so we couldn’t forget again.

Coming home from Prairie Preview under a pink sunset sky and bright orange full moon, glowering down on our small souls. Feeling the urgency of having left the barn a little bit too long, racing out to discover a lambing-pocalypse happened while we were gone. Diving into the pen to help a ewe in distress, little black lambs like shrimpy shadows, the lost and tiny first triplet curled up, abandoned, on the other side of the barn.

The development of my identity as the “anxious shepherdess,” a little too worried, constantly, but with good instincts and trying to use books to make up for a lack of confidence.

A ewe dies of worms in March. The winter did nothing, it seemed, to the parasites and pests that year. A new wave of grief– seeding wildflower mix and sweet peas the day of the funeral, only for the seeds to get snowed on four more times before germinating. The beginning of a long year of struggles.

2019

The long cold winter. Polar vortex bringing unseen negatives right before lambing, hauling buckets of warm water from the house, over the sheet of ice that has become the driveway.

Instead of the struggles of the previous year– having successfully gotten rid of the trouble ewes– the lambing season has been structured around a rigorous barn check schedule. When it is so cold, new lambs, wet and covered in birth sac and placenta, cannot stay warm, even if their mamas clean them up good. Thus necessitating we leave the barn unchecked for no more than four hours, ever. Every two hours during the day. A rigorous overnight schedule– me, 10 pm. Carmen, midnight. Me, 4 am. Carmen, 6. We leave each other notes on scraps of paper on the kitchen table, sometimes turning into poems. Mostly just observations of exceptional cuddles in the barn.

We’ve developed different routes across the ice field to the barn. Do you take the sheet of ice, with no obstructions but very slick, taking baby steps in your time-worn tractionless rubber barn boots? Or do you climb over the four foot drift, hardened enough to walk on by wind and ice, but with dangerous crevasses you could fall into and break your leg? The dog slips on the ice and gets a bruise on her neck that makes it swell up and difficult to breathe. We think its lymphoma, we think its the end. But its just a bruise.

Is that the way my heart can be? Suddenly, the rain of bad things begins again, and it becomes difficult to take off the feeling of emergency mode. I can’t turn off anxiety brain, and I’m on high alert. Pisces season means crying every day, not because of my own sadness, but because I care about my friends too much, and that was such an inspiring gymnastics video, and *insert any scene from law and order: SVU or queen sugar*, because march is now a sad anniversary itself, and because after a pretty good track record, we lose three lambs in one day and it’s not our fault but it is. so sad.

But it is just a bruise.

Dreaming of spring. The sun came up at 6:40 am yesterday and the birds were up to tell us about it. The office bedroom and the basement and the greenhouse are filling up with seedlings and the ten-day forecast is slowly, slowly, climbing towards the other side of 32 degrees. The ice sheet is not a permanent fixture of this farm.

Ice will give way to floods will give way to thunderstorms will give way to the kind of 90 degree corn sweat humidity can’t sleep with a sheet on type of summer day I’ll long to escape from. Iowa is a strange land of extremes and is guaranteed to push those ends of the spectrum in these coming tumultuous years, but its also the teeniest bit nice to remember that none of this is permanent. Change will always come for us.

Welcome to Agriculture

I started this morning trying to give CPR to a dead baby goat. It was tangled with its sibling, breach (coming out butt first), and Carmen had a time getting them sorted out to get them out. It probably died of stress before we even intervened, but. Still tried to resuscitate. Still kind of butt-y.

I’m not sure any of the old farmers I know would have ever tried to perform CPR on a dead newborn animal. It feels like the kind of confused desperation that you do as a young person when you don’t know what else to do. And, I mean. The goat was dead. But we had to try.

It’s not the only problem we’re currently dealing with, and when Carmen called one of our neighbors, who has been raising sheep for 60 years, for some advice he just said, “Welcome to agriculture.” And I think that is really fucking true. We like to post all the cute pictures, we like to tell stories about us young farmers trying things and succeeding, having great times, making good food. But that’s not the whole truth, and That. Is. Agriculture.

When you raise animals, just like if you work in a hospital, or as a vet, or I don’t know, as a coroner, you are living on the veil between life and death. Death is immediate and a physical process, and generally kind of inexplicable. It isn’t like on Grey’s Anatomy, when they always know why the person died– the brain aneurysm exploded, or the kidney transplant failed to take. Sometimes it just happens.

Of our little team of midwives, I’ve been the one to encounter a lot of the dead ones this year (when they have died overnight, etc). And don’t get me wrong– we’ve had a very low death rate so far– but when you are lambing, animals die. The process for mammals to enter the world is shocking and miraculous, but also it is very easy for things to go wrong. New life is bookended and shadowed by death, and as farmers, we suck it up and keep moving. We do our best, and take good care of our animals, but sometimes we don’t get the win. And every time I have found a dead baby– there is this sinking feeling, combined with a gritting of my teeth. And I’m not going to lie, I had a good sob out in the barn by myself at 6 am at one point too.

“There’s no crying in farming” (shout out to A League of Their Own) is about the furthest thing from my truth that I can imagine. But it also feels like a goal. Kind of.

I think the important thing with the shitty times is that we have to hold our both/ands very close. We have to feel the impact of death, we have to feel sad and understand the value of life and our morals. But we also have to keep moving, because in agriculture, you encounter death, and there’s no way not to. It doesn’t mean we’re doing a bad job, even. It’s part of working with animals, and the life we have chosen (are choosing every day), and not only that, it’s important to talk about.

I think maybe one of my biggest issues with vegetarianism/ veganism at this point is the implication that eating meat causes animal death, and that choosing not to eat meat prevents animal death. It seems indicative of someone living very out of touch from death and what that means on a visceral level, and how that would even play out. It comes from a lack of understanding of what animal agriculture is and can be.

I’m not going to deny that some forms of animal agriculture are less humane than others, but I think that we need to get the fuck over ourselves when it comes to animals and death and dying. EVERYTHING DIES. And in the wild, animals die all the time, especially during birth (for mammals). What we do, on our farm, is help facilitate as many healthy and successful births as possible, something that doesn’t happen when mammals give birth in the wild. One of our CSA customers just told us about watching a deer in their backyard give birth on the edge of this small precipice and the fawn fell over a 9 foot wall. And lived!

I’m rambling a little bit because we stayed up late last night out in the barn, and have been doing a lot of work so far today. I just think it’s important to talk about death, and not just in hushed tones at funerals. You deal with a lot of death when you work with a lot of living animals, and that is the way it is. It’s sad but shouldn’t always be horrifying, because it is so incredibly normal and a part of life. The end.

Reasons why I’m glad I didn’t go to MOSES this weekend (Also filed under why I don’t always feel like a farmer, ALSO filed under everyone should be a farmer)

MOSES is the largest organic farming conference in the country. This weekend there were many many farmers, young and old, etc etc attending workshops about organic production, from vegetables to grains to livestock, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I didn’t want to go to MOSES this weekend—I’m very relieved I didn’t go, actually, for a number of reasons. Some of which are practical:

First, we’re lambing, so leaving the farm even for a few errands is sometimes a stretch. Our lives are in the barn right now.

Second, I personally don’t do very well at conferences. Introvert, emotional, interacting with hundreds of people. Not a great combination.

But the third reason is something that kind of bugs me about myself—an assumption I have about who goes to things like MOSES. Because while a lot of people attending MOSES are actually farmers, there are a lot of non-farmers, aspiring, or beginning farmers too. People growing on a single empty lot in a city, or on a sixteenth of an acre of their grandparents land, or grow microgreens hydroponically in a trailer. And because they aren’t doing what I’m doing—not to the scale of the farm I’m a part of—the snarky, judgmental part of my brain wants to say they aren’t farming. Because we maybe don’t have a lot to share with each other, production-wise, I want to write them off, I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t have an idea of what someone growing smaller than me can offer me. And I want to write them off because I don’t think their experiences count under the category of farming. And it’s stupid, because I know there are farmers that would do that exact same thing to someone like me—who call vegetable farms gardens, and would scoff at our flock of 30 ewes (36, but who’s counting (just kidding, I’m definitely counting, we’re lambing, don’t you remember)).

And I think this thing I struggle with, with categorizing other producers in a way that excludes them from *what is farming*, is exactly the same thing that makes me sometimes (often) feel like I am not a farmer. The most common barriers to farming are things that I don’t have a straight-forward relationship to either, so why am I judging these other aspiring or beginning farmers? Let me lay a couple out for you.

Land access

It is safe to say that land access barriers mark the number one obstacle to young farmers actually farming. In Iowa alone, farmland is over three times more expensive than it was in 1990, even after adjusting for inflation (Iowa State Farmland Values Survey). When you combine that with the fact that 97% of Iowa is privately owned, and 92% is farmland, and the average age of the Iowa farmer is 57 years old, you can see why it is hard to access farmland in Iowa (State Data Center). Land is too expensive, owned by old white men, and privately owned/ not for sale.

(A quick note to acknowledge that it is pretty fucked up that we even talk about land in this way—that it is very colonial in the first place to approach land from an ownership perspective, and that all land in America was stolen from indigenous peoples.)

Not only that, but not all land is the same, according to county and state zoning laws. If you have land that is not zoned ag, there are a multitude of different restrictions on the type of business and farm you are allowed to run, and higher taxes to pay on residential or commercial property. Not only that, but in my county, there is an inane law stating that in order to be zoned agricultural land, one must have a property that is 40 acres or more. Based on the average price of an acre of farmland in 2017, 40 acres in Johnson County would cost $293,040, an amount that is inaccessible for beginning farmers.

My personal relationship to farmland is a pretty good situation, all things considered. My sister purchased a farm from a woman we’ve known our whole lives, and while I haven’t yet decided how I want to permanently be involved, I’m working for and with her on the vegetable CSA and our livestock operation. My own troubles with this barrier are trivial—it is just me, making a fuss about calling myself a farmer without my own farm. But that’s pretty dumb.

Capital

Related to the fact that farmland is so expensive is the fact that start-up costs for a new farmer are monumental. Depending on what enterprise you start with, after you find access to land, and depending on the situation on that property, you not only have to buy seed stock, but you probably need to buy tractors, tractor attachments, fencing, feed, livestock, etc, and each one of those things I just named costs a buttload of money. Even cows. Cows are fucking expensive.

This is why family farms were a thing. Because it is almost impossible to start from the ground up, passing functional operations on through the family was one of the only ways to make ends meet. But now that even that often leads to debt and ends not meeting, rural farmkids are leaving. They have been leaving, and it’s still true. There are no jobs here besides the struggle of farming, so kids of farmers move to cities for other kinds of work. For a “better life.”

Capital always has been and probably always will be a huge obstacle to new farmers. It’s a big topic and there are new and creative ways farmers are attacking it, from kickstarters to grant writing. For the record, I don’t think it is realistic or a good example to fund your farm off of grants and then sell what you are doing as economically sustainable farming. Just for the record. But anyway. Capital is a big problem. My sister was able to purchase the farm with a combination of money our family had and loans. Not everyone has that privilege, and even with that privilege it was logistically difficult to buy the farm. And the farm came with the infrastructure to run a CSA and keep sheep on pastures– many of the other starting costs were incorporated into the sale of the farm.

Experience

This one is a little subjective, and I think one I struggle with a lot. There’s no education or training requirement to start farming, if you have access to land and capital. So then what amount of experience qualifies you to begin farming? There are ag degrees at many colleges, but what do those actually prepare you for? On graduation day, can you go out and just start farming successfully, from land management to bookkeeping? Probably not. How many years do you need to work on someone else’s farm before you should strike out on your own? What if you have worked only for short amounts of time on many farms? Do you have enough relevant experience with the day-to-day management, year in and year out, to do it by yourself?

Should anyone be farming by themselves?

Confidence

Once you overcome all these massive obstacles to becoming a farmer, you still have to have the guts and wear-with-all to say: “Yeah. Fuck yeah, I still want to do this. I’m going to farm because I like growing things more than money, personal time, or any other priority I might have. And I have the confidence to do so, because I know I’m a badass and can make it work.” (And while I am privileged to know so many awesome badass women farmers, I’m going to go ahead and say that this type of confidence comes more easily for men, who have been socialized to have confidence. Yay for them!!!)

I have confidence issues every damn day. From how I ask my sister whether we should go check on the animals to my hesitation to even write this article, I’m constantly asking myself whether I’m good enough. Whether I qualify. If my experience gives me the authority to say anything on the subject. Whether I could do this by myself if I wanted to, or if I wanted to start my own enterprise.

Conclusion

All of these barriers and definitions of what is farming are keeping people from working together. Also these are not the only barriers to farming– there are many many different obstacles besides the ones I mentioned. We all need to get over ourselves and our own ideas of what can constitute a farmer Pretty Damn Fast. Because we have a crisis on our hands, a crisis of aging farmers and changing climates. Everyone needs to adapt their expectations, and stop perpetuating stereotypes that you have to have land, capital, experience, and maybe be a white man to be a farmer. Because the goddamn answer to this crisis is that everyone should become a farmer.

Of the people I know from college, I literally think I know two others besides me that are farming. Of my high school classmates (from RURAL IOWA), there are even less. There are a lot of jobs to do in this world, I know, but I think the stigma of what farming means and who should do it, and then the logistical impossibilities on top of that, are stopping a lot of people who would be great farmers from farming. There are so many different ways to grow food, and so many types of food to grow. The options would be endless, if it wasn’t so hard to start farming.

Everyone who attended MOSES this weekend should be a farmer. Everyone who owns farmland should either be farming or rent to their land to a young farmer. Or both. Everyone who has capital or could help young farmers access capital should be doing all they can to get young people on the land before all the old knowledge goddamn dies with the old generation. Everyone should have relationships with farmers, even if they live in big cities, and should put their money where their mouth is. Everyone should be a farmer.

It has begun

Lambing: the time of year when all the ewes you bred back in September/October start popping out their babies, heralding a sweet hope for spring.

Lambing: a season of profound anxiety, where cups of coffee and sheep checks in the night intermingle into a strange glowing orange blur, where decisions become a battle between urgency and patience, where new life brings you constantly face to face with death.

Lambing: the time of year where I probably feel most like a farmer, where my gut instincts are good, when handling animals feels like a thing I know how to do. Also the time when I feel the most doubt about being a farmer, where the gaps in my knowledge become most evident and glaring.

Last year, lambing felt like a celebration and a discovery. I was figuring out that I wanted to be a farmer, I was beginning to claim the word as something I could use to talk about myself. We had some difficult births, and the times when we succeeded felt symbolic, probably too symbolic. One lamb we had wasn’t breathing at birth, and I noticed, and, for lack of any other option, attempted to do lamb CPR like I had read about in one of my sheep-keeping manuals. I got it completely wrong, but in the process, managed to clear the lamb’s airway and he started breathing. We called him the Boy who Lived. Everything felt significant. Everything we were doing was right and good, and we were learning every step of the way.

This year, everything is different.

The season started with struggles. One of our most troublesome ewes, that we have tried and failed to get rid of for the past two years, somehow prolapsed her uterus a week early. We got it back in, and thought she was going to die, but gave her a chance. A week later she passed three dead lambs, and now she’s got mastitis. Troubles upon troubles.

Our dear original dairy goat, Mommy Rockstar (named by the dear boy when he was four), followed this past Sunday. She had gotten a knee injury in the fall, and so the pregnancy has been very hard on her, and her kids needed a little hand getting out into the world. The smallest one died, we think of a birth defect or pnemonia, maybe both. The other two are looking good, but her milk hasn’t really come in so we are bottle feeding.

Since then, we’ve had some good lambs born. The maternity ward of lambing pens is full, the heat lamps are on, we’ve been giving shots and docking and tagging. And it’s funny—when I started writing this piece, the direction I was planning on going was talking about how I have personal struggles with feeling or not feeling like a farmer, and how this year, the struggles have deepened what I even think that means.

But now, now that lambing is going in earnest, and we’re doing bottle feeding shifts and the barn checks aren’t just expressions of anxiety but actually are discovering new lambs or ewes in labor, and all the shit about being a farmer or not feeling like a farmer doesn’t really matter. Because we are doing it, ready or not.

Waiting, part one million

Because we don’t preg check our ewes and goats, we don’t have exact due dates for any of the animals. We know when we put the ram and the buck in with our girls, and have calculated the range from that, and now all we are left with is a waiting game. We are in the period of possibility, but no one has dropped any babies yet. Every day I feel my anxiety growing, and the urge to race out to the barn and check keeps getting stronger. I keep dreaming about the lambs._IGP1712.jpg

It feels like there is more at stake this year, in regards to catching the births. It’s fucking cold out, and if we don’t find the babies soon enough, they might just freeze. High stakes. Last year it was warm, sweatshirt weather even, and this year we are getting buried in February snow, negative temp nights. _IGP1750.jpg

Waiting waiting waiting.

_IGP1732 3.jpg

a year ago today

Just about one year ago today:

Mid-January. Soggy brown grass glows with frost first thing in the morning. My sister, Carmen, is bed-ridden with the stomach flu, so I head out to do morning chores solo, wearing my saggy gray sweatpants and the thread-bare carhartt jacket that came with this house she bought last year. Heavy on my feet are my timberlands, worn and untied, but still clean enough to wear to town.

I can hear the lambs bleating the moment I step out the door. I pause on the cement step, listening, unsure. I make a beeline for the flock of ewes in the field, swinging my legs over a wobbly fence, almost falling. My mind takes a minute to catch up to my feet, comprehension is slow this early in the morning.

It can’t be possible—our sheep aren’t due to have their lambs for another month, but my ears aren’t lying—something’s wrong, I can hear it. I clomp down the hill with untied boots, and sure enough, I can see them, dark little shrimps in comparison to the large wooly ewes. Two of them, they stand alone on trembling legs against the side of the hill. They stare at me with wide eyes, still bleating.

As I pull out my phone to dial Carmen (if anything were to make her get out of bed, this is it), I cast my eyes around the flock, looking for the mom. She should have a full udder, and she should still be covered in after-birth. There she is! A third dark lamb hovers behind her, the smallest by far.

“What?” Carmen groans when she answers the phone. I can hear that she can’t believe there would be anything worth calling her for. Honestly, I can’t believe it myself.

“We got lambs,” I say, to the shock of us both. “We have lambs in the field!” We collect ourselves quickly, make a plan. We have to get the new mom and lambs into the barn, where its warmer and they have access to fresh hay. I gather the two bigger lambs in my jacket, zipping them in with their heads sticking out. It isn’t unbearably cold out this morning, but they’re shivering, and they need to get inside. I hike up the hill with these babes in my arms. I’m out of shape, its January, for goddsake, and we aren’t anticipating lambs for another month. Carmen staggers out to herd the rest of the flock up, there’s no way we will be able to round up the mom and the third lamb out in the field.

As I stumble up the hill, panting, the lambs are calm, gazing around them. Even though I’ve walked them away from their mom, they are quiet together. The world they’ve been thrust into is gray and harsh and cold and here they are, so warm and small, and for a moment, there is nothing in my brain but the urgent need to keep these nuggets alive. I reach the barn, kneel down in the hay, and sit with these lambs, so small in a big big world. I didn’t think, a couple years ago, that I would ever be here now, mid-wifing a flock of sheep just down the road from where I grew up. I wanted to leave, to do anything else, and now the only thing I can think about are these small woolly babes and how precious life is.

sheep, another observation

I know which one is always staring at me now. I finally recognize her. It’s Field’s mom; the skittish girl who last year dropped a single jet black lamb way out in the pasture. He was so large and healthy that we could barely get them up to the barn, they were dancing around, his long black tail wagging. A pure white mom and an all black lamb, stranger things have happened. Somehow they have the exact same face.

She has a white dorset face, but a narrow one, like the suffolks. The way her fluffy ears perk forward give her a childish look, but you know if you take one step towards her she will run. That wide-eye stare, watching your every move.

John said the ones that pay attention to you are worth keeping. He was talking about this beautiful big brown cow, who was staring at us, in our brown carhartt suits and standing in their muck, she kept an eye on us, and she’d been watching him since she was a calf. He said that means they’re quality, that the ones that’ll pay that much attention to you will raise a good herd.

None of us can remember what he said, what the staring means.

Her perky crooked head, sideways eyes, gazing forward.

How does anyone write a memoir? How does anyone remember their lives?