Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.


Posted on | May 4, 2015 | 4 Comments

I am a full time mother first.  I know this because if I should wake up in the middle of the night, I immediately lay there quietly, listening intently, trying to figure out if it was a sound from a child’s room that woke me up.  Is there a kid in the bathroom, is he throwing up and, most important, did he make it to the toilet before he threw up? Is that a kid crying or just laughing with his brother long after he should be asleep?  Is that the hall light someone left on or the glow of a laptop screen and is she working on homework or still up texting?  Once I have determined it is just one of the dogs roaming around (it’s always those dogs!), I think to myself, “Is it a school day?”  And then my mind spirals off wondering what to pack for lunches, if anyone has an orthodontist appointment, is there a sports game (requiring a clean uniform) or just a practice, and can I get away with pancakes for dinner (breakfast-for-dinner is everyone’s favorite) or do I need to plan something with vegetables.  This is what mothers wonder about in the middle of the night.

Being a wife, a daughter, the maid, and having a “real” job can only be pondered once I’ve determined whether everybody can ride the bus home or someone needs to be picked up after school from chorus, where I put the field trip permission slip that a kid asked me to sign and return, and whether each kid has shoes that fit.  With the soles still intact, not peeling away from the uppers.

But then there are times when I am not a mother first.  When being a wife, daughter, the maid, or going to my “real” job aren’t even on the radar.  Because there are times when I am a farmer.  Thanks to the rise of hobby farms, farmlets, and backyard chickens, there are a lot of us out there.  We look like normal mothers, wives, and daughters.  We are still the ones who wipe down the kitchen counters, hang up wet towels off the bathroom floor, vacuum and mop even as our family walks right past us, still wearing their filthy shoes (with intact soles).  We have “real” jobs to pay the bills from the feed store.  But every once in a while we get a break from the ordinary.  We get to be farmers.  And some of our farm chores are very farmer-y indeed.

Certain chores defy a typical suburban life.  Warm teats in hand, the ping of the milk in the pail, foam of fresh milk.  Milking goats—whether it’s at 4 am before leaving for my “real” job, at 6:30am after the boys get on the school bus, or at 9am on a lazy Saturday morning—is a very farmer-y enterprise.  Perhaps the only thing more farmer-y is carrying that bucket of milk back to  the house to strain and bottle.  Because while y’all are coming up the driveway with the morning newspaper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, I’m all like this:

Milkmaid Paintings - The Young Milkmaid  by George Goodwin Kilburne

Well, minus the fancy hat.  And the apron.  And who the heck carries the stool out of the barn so they just have to carry it back the next day??  Although that’s not as weird as attaching the stool to the apron.  Like this odd idea.

Ladies, just leave the stool in the barn.

But milking isn’t my only farmer-y job.   Slopping the pigs is outside most people’s comfort zone.  While everyone else is eating a sausage biscuit, I’m busy growing sausage with a bucket full of bread or grain, soaked in spare goat milk, and dirty or cracked eggs thrown in for good measure.  But it’s wonderful to see those floppy pig ears perk up as soon as they hear my feet crunching down the gravel driveway.  Pigs are joyful about eating (a fact I can appreciate) and their happy grunting and munching is a pleasant way to begin and end each day.  Never mind when they push those rubbery noses against your hands and legs checking for more.  The pleasure of rubbery pig snouts is reserved for farmers.  Always has been and always will be.

Unless you have a house pig.  I have a friend that has a house pig.  ‘Cause that’s a thing now. (Who knew??) I’ve been told the pig, Betsy, smells like maple syrup.  I kind of want to smell Betsy and verify that fact.  But maple syrup makes me want a sausage biscuit.  Which seems….I don’t know,… rude?

Gathering eggs is another farmer-y chore, probably one of the easiest jobs around here.  If the girls have been good and laid their eggs in their nest boxes, it’s just a matter of plucking them out and setting them in the egg basket.  (If you remembered the eggs basket.  If not, you’ll have to settle for the folds of your shirt.  Don’t use your pockets.  Never use your pockets.  Unless you want broken eggs in your washing machine.)  There’s something magical about smooth, warm eggs in a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes right out of the nest box.  Tiny pullet eggs, huge double-yolkers from the older hens, shells with bumps or wrinkles, creamy white shells or chocolatey brown or covered with speckles.   The medley makes store-bought eggs seem sterile and unpalatable.  Besides, leaning in the coop, pushing aside broody hens, and sliding eggs into the fold of your shirt instinctively feels like something your grandmother did and her grandmother did and her grandmother did before her.  It’s farmer-y.  Although I doubt my great-grandmother wore high heels to do her farm chores.  I have the nice solid hips and shoulders of peasant stock—-there are probably more bubushkas in my past than stilettos.

But there are some things about gathering eggs that never change.  Like the hens that didn’t lay their eggs in the nest box but found a nice, inaccessible spot usually involving dark corners and lots of spiderwebs.  Around here, Little is in charge of hunting down those eggs.  I didn’t invent that solution, though.  Women have been using children for that chore for a long, long time.

Of course, the best farmer-y jobs involve the use of the truck.  Nothing distinguishes you from the rest of the ho-hum ordinary citizens than cruising down the back roads in the farm truck, trying to avoid the sheriff’s department because you have an overflowing, uncovered load and maybe even a child or two back there.  Keeping an eye on the side mirror just in case any livestock busts out of the transport cage hobbled together out of cattle panels and twine adds to the excitement.  A few weeks ago I brought home the pigs in the back of the truck right through historic downtown in order to avoid the highway.  As we drove slowly through town I spotted a friend enjoying a meal with her family at an outdoor cafe.  I gave her a two fingered wave as me and the pigs rolled by.  Because two fingered waves are very farmer-y.

Before that the truck was used to pick up rolls of hay.  Huge 4’X5′ round bales loaded with orchard grass and fescue goodness are like farmer crack.  Whenever the balers are in the field or an overloaded trailer or truckload of hay approaches on the road, I have to slow down and ogle.  Is it dry?  Oh my.  Is it tightly baled?  Mmm–hmm.  Is that alfalfa? (gasp!)  So the day I am bringing home my own truckload of hay is always a good day.  I hum along happily to country music on the radio, leaving a swirl of loose hay in my wake, giving all passersby a two-fingered wave, and feel very farmer-y indeed.  It feels like this:

Ford Model T Truck Hauling 8,000 Pounds of Hay, 1921. The Henry Ford Collection (THF22063)

The cussing and fussing won’t start until I’m trying to roll the hay over that damp, soggy spot right in front of the barn doors.  The hay has to make it over that spot before The Other Half gets home and sees the truck parked over the septic field to unload and starts his own cussing and fussing.  No one tells you this when you get married, but men are obsessed with the septic field.  Why is the truck parked on the septic field?  Did you just put a fence over the septic field? Is that a pallet chicken house built on the septic field? The same man that can run over an entire row of perennials with the lawnmower (Oh, were those flowers?) can tell as soon as he steps out of his car from a long day at work exactly what unmarked section of grass, field, or dirt encompasses the septic field and how it has been violated.  No one knows why this is, but around here farmer-y activities are supposed to take place away from the septic lines.

Of course, keeping a large horde of animals stocked with hay isn’t necessary to be a farmer.  I’ve never understood exactly when gardening becomes farming, but there are lots of farmers raising fruits and produce.  Perhaps a gardener becomes a farmer when there are more vegetables than flowers in her garden plot.  Maybe it happens when she raises more food than her family, neighbors, and co-workers can eat and she starts offering free patty pan squash to strangers in line at the bank.  Could be when she has to stagger watering her crops in 30 minute increments throughout the day or else the well shuts off, thinking there’s a hole in the line.  It’s definitely farming when you’re forced to spend Saturday mornings at the farmers market just to avoid eating spinach for the 10th night in a row.  Although this picture is obviously fictionalized.  Because no one can actually grow cauliflower.  No one.  Put that in the ground and it just dies.  Every time.

The hippies making out in the background are about right, though.  The flirtations between the farm slaves interns, indentured servants apprentices, and WWOOFERs at market are rampant and entertaining.  What is it like to be loved even when your legs aren’t shaved in the peak of shorts-wearing summer time?  Can you and your boyfriend share that brightly colored kerchief he’s using to hold back his dreads?  It’s a brave, new farmer-y world, people, and there’s no room for judging.  Except for the cauliflower that was obviously bought from Whole Foods and not grown in a home garden.  You did not grow that.  You.  Did.  Not.

Regardless, walking along a 40′ row of snap peas and gently wrapping their tendrils onto the trellis or hosing off a bushel of new potatoes is very farmer-y.  Fighting the good fight against blight and cucumber beetles and cabbage worms is like a secret war, unknown to the scores of people at the local WalMart or the drive-through.  Taking pictures of the family meals made entirely from the garden and wondering whether that’s just too obnoxious to post on Facebook.  Farmer-y concerns, people, farmer-y concerns.

Oh, I’m not saying the farmer-y chores are always less tedious then the ordinary ones.  Fixing the fence.  Again.  Fixing the water hoses.  Again.  Hauling compost to the garden.  Again.  Weeding the rows.  Again.  It’s just that the chores are the ones I’ve chosen to pursue, not the kind of chores that just have to be done on order to have more clean clothes in the closet than dirty clothes in the hamper or take a shower without trying to desperately avoid touching the mildewy shower walls.  I don’t sell more than $1,000 worth of agricultural products but I do produce more than $1,000 worth of food from my barn yard and garden for my family.  Which means when I am trimming goat hooves or staking tomatoes, I am a farmer.  Just like those bikers that cruise by on our country road on sunny weekend afternoons.  They are probably dentists and store clerks and mommies most of the time.   But on a beautiful Sunday, with their glossy helmets, the wind fluttering their t-shirts, and the roar of their engines filling the air, they are bikers.  I always look up from what I am doing in the garden, and give them the two-fingered wave.  They nod their helmets in return.  Because helmet nods are very biker-y.

As a child you will be told that you can be anything you want to be.  That’s true, of course, keeping in mind that you need to pay your bills, that you will change your mind multiple times during your life about what you want to be, and that even in your dream job you will occasionally wish you were on a beach far, far away, sipping margaritas instead of at work.  Such is the whimsy of life.  Embrace the whimsy, people.  Embrace it.  And don’t forget to find some time to be exactly who you want to be.

Young couple riding motorcycle : Stock Photo


4 Responses to “Farmer-y.”

  1. Andrew
    May 4th, 2015 @ 5:15 am

    I used my pockets once.
    Yes, don’t do that.

  2. Bobbie
    May 5th, 2015 @ 8:35 am

    Very good. 🙂

  3. Aunt Ro
    May 5th, 2015 @ 10:09 pm

    Hey, S. Happy Spring; well, probably Summer for you! Loved the post; your great gramma most certainly DID harvest eggs in high heels. Life on the farm…………..didn’t appreciate it 50 years ago; long for it now. To quote the ‘Moody Blues’, (google them), “Isn’t Life Strange?”

  4. Lauren
    May 13th, 2015 @ 7:55 am

    My daughter loves it when I grab her coat to run out to the coop in the morning, especially when I forget eggs in the pockets and she finds them at a Christmas party. It’s really cool when your in the 8th grade and pull a egg out of your coat, not really… lol

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