My mother’s voice rings in my ears “Don’t put it in writing!” And so I hesitated sending this story to my typist. Is it too forceful? Too opinionated? Perhaps a bit controversial? It has sat in my notebook for a couple of weeks. I read a piece written about me for a book the other evening. In it I was described as a “writer” who moved up here and who wrote my “autobiography”. I have a quick temper that rises, rarely, but more or less occasionally, in flames. What to do? I’m still wrestling with myself to find a way to correct the erroneous information the writer had managed to construe from the telephone interview. There were several other misunderstandings as well. I’d prefer to be referred to as a laundress and a farmer. It would be more honest. It is more accurate, if describing something I “do” to an occupation that takes more time. Doing laundry certainly takes more of my time than I spend scribbling with blue ink on white paper. For money I might add. Before I came here I was, and still am, a mother and a homemaker, and supported my family in whatever miscellaneous ways that turned up. I am now a farmer, which takes up most of my life and combines the best attributes of being a mother and a homemaker. So, here is the story my mother would tell me not to tell you.
I have, on occasion, been referred to as a writer and a farmer. Or, as a farmer and a writer. When I was growing up, possibly because I was a voracious reader, the people in my life would say “She will be a writer.” No one, including myself ever imagined I’d become a farmer. It always rubs me the wrong way when I am referred to as a writer. I am a farmer. My twenty-fourth anniversary as one was a few days ago. I always rebelled at the suggestion when I was in school that I become a writer. It seemed too pretentious an ambition. Too egotistical. Unseemingly. Immodest. It felt, and still does like a presumptuous demand that absolute strangers read my writing. On the other hand, it is not a demand but, rather a necessity to expect people to eat food, without which the human race would rapidly become extinct. Therefore it is a most honorable profession to be a farmer.
When I first started farming, and began a year or two later to write about it for this paper, it struck me that the reason I was called a writer was that in people’s minds writing was a special thing to do, and farming didn’t have any cache. Now that perception has become somewhat reversed. All kinds of people now call themselves farmers including some who have a back yard garden or three or four chickens. It has become a fashionable thing to call oneself. “Know where your food comes from” is the lure and cry of todays politically correct and fashion conscious people. “My eggs today, came from Buhlia, the black and white hen over there on my patio.
I was engaged in a discussion with a long time friend the other day in which she tried to convince me that her neighbors raising vegetables in the backyards of their Brooklyn brown stone were farmers because they “fed” their families with what they grew. Probably not their endives. How I long for a classical education in those moments! What would my replay had been had I been trained to debate properly?
On rare occasions, a customer will buy a lamb from me saying they’re glad to know where it comes from. Most of my customers are Southern or Eastern European who have lived on farms and are experienced with the slaughtering of animals whom they are about to eat. They would never think to say they are glad to know I’ve raised their lamb or kid goat. I’ve never had the courage to ask the questioner, usually a woman, accompanied by a boyfriend or husband, why are they “glad” that their dinner is coming out of my farm. There is no loss in my mind. While their assumption, correctly or not, is that said, lamb has had a nicer life living here therefore shall taste better than one bought in a gourmet butcher shop (because surely there is no other kind that can sell the kind of milk-fed animals that I raise) if bought off the farm (for twice the price, by the way) they truly have no way of knowing what kind of life that I’ve given that animal. The question that also comes up from these people is “how” can I “stand to kill the poor little lambs?”. Were they to have any manners at all they wouldn’t ask were they to assume it would upset me. My reply, never out loud but one that immediately comes to mind is, your husband, boyfriend, kills the pool little lamb. Not I. “I have, on rare occasions,”, I will say “killed one by accident but none by intention.” Another frequently asked question from the want to know where their food comes from crowd is, and then only from the woman, is “Do you eat your own lamb?” I now look them straight in the eye and say “No, I can’t afford it.” The eighteen or twenty pound dressed weight lamb they have bought from me at about a hundred and fifty dollars to serve their friends at a barbecue is not only not in my food budget but I can’t afford to take that money away from my hay payment. Were they to buy said lamb at a specialty butcher they would be paying about three hundred dollars.
` We can now move on to eggs. I rarely eat those either. I am paying five dollars a week more for laying mash that gives me thirty percent more eggs than the cheaper grain, adding some oats and corn for scratch. The store I sell eggs to can’t up their price any, so I make it up in volume like an industrial farm but only eat eggs when a box of a dozen isn’t complete or when there is an occasional twenty-fifth egg in a day. Oh, they pay their feed bill now. But I have to buy some replacements this week, chick starter, etc. and feed the new non layers over the winter. No eggs than, Martin Harris whose Opinion column in Farming: The Journal of Northeast Agriculture I read immediately upon receiving, wrote about the recent proliferation of hobby farms, ones that don’t require a profit to stay in business. Some farmers worry that the hobby farmers who seem to be proliferating up here as well, will drive down prices. I worry about that a little bit particularly this year when I’ve gotten more requests for starter flocks than in the past ten years. There were one or two years, a long time ago, when hobby farmers sold lambs at Easter for a considerably lower price than the rest of us and my business was hurt. Fortunately, that year, some year round lamb eaters turned up and I did sell all of my ram lambs. I’ve never been stuck with any livestock by the year end. However, the four people to whom I sold starter flocks to will be my competitors. One already is. While price fixing is a no no and I did have lambs to sell to one of his customers, this is presenting a problem. The idea that the more lambs available will draw more customers holds no reassurances for me. I did turn away requests for a large number of meat lambs this past year. So demand is up. But will prices go down? My costs have gone up as I have given myself the luxury of paying someone to, as in today, help me sort lambs to bring to the south pasture. The grass is better there and I can feed them in the holding pen, worm there and tame the ones who shall remain in my flock to my liking. And so I feel that expense and know because of such luxuries I shall lose even more money this year than last. I am raising my price for Memorial Day five dollars, and, if I have any left for Labor Day, another five dollars. That will probably net me about fifty dollars in my income column this year. The new chicks will cost $110 for twenty-five Golden Comets plus the starter grain at $16.50 a bag plus what a grower ration will cost to feed them until they start to lay. The question that unsolicited and unwanted slips into my thoughts, during some discouraging moments, is, perhaps, I, too am a hobby farmer. I suppose the forty-five dollars or so I earn from telling you this story could also go into the farm income column as well. Were I to count the sale of a new book about the farm then there would be a “profit”.
There was a time when voices discouraging me from farming were loudly suggesting I write a mystery book (because I read them) and give up the farm. I need history, too, and some science. They only wanted to be helpful. The next question is obviously, why do I do this? Buy chicks, feed them and go without eggs. It is a bit more than that because I love it. Although that is what most people assume about me. It is, the bit more than love, it is because I am deeply proud to be a farmer. To me, aside from being a mother or parenting it is the most heroic, courageous, respect worthy occupation of all. Those of us who day in and day out put one foot in front of the other to pasture food for the rest of us have taken on a life that is increasingly without rewards and has even become controversial in a negative way. The scale is being tipped again, however slightly. The new balance occurs in part from our perceived detriment to the environment. “We’re growing vegetables in our backyards, front lawns, etc, etc.” But a tinge of romance has followed us, the vanishing breed of farmers, and the pet chicken owners and back yard gardeners are beginning to refer to themselves as farmers, too. There was an article in the New York Times about several retirement homes that have sprung up recently for chickens that urban chicken raisers no longer want. Great idea. It is unlikely that Buleah or Sadie will end up in a pot. Who wants to eat a pet chicken? Someone will begin to make money on said retirement facilities. No axes or chopping blocks on city terraces.
In other words, as blue ink crosses this lined page, and I am in the process of telling you this story, it isn’t the telling it with which I want to be identified but the doing of it that matters to me. The doing of it. Because I am a farmer.
There are more
postings in the Farm Stories Archive