1st Year Farming Lessons

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Laura Haverland

Laura Haverland › Laura Haverland is a beginning farmer in coastal Rhode Island. After years living in New York ...

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When my husband and I decided to start our own cheesemaking dairy farm in rural Rhode Island, I knew I would have a steep learning curve, since I spent the past ten years doing the opposite of farm work: sitting in an office in New York City. Some of the lessons I’ve learned, though, have been a little unexpected. While we’re working to get the dairy operational for next summer, we decided to raise some livestock this season (namely pigs, chickens, guinea hens, ducks and turkeys). I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned so far from our “part time” farm this year which seems to have turned into a full time adventure.

There’s a reason most people don’t keep roosters.

Before we decided to raise 50 roosters for meat, I hadn’t given too much thought to the hen vs. rooster question (except that obviously I knew hens produce eggs). After tending to said roosters for about four months at this point, I can put a fine point on the drawbacks. First, the brutality, and second, the noise. With so much testosterone, it’s a battlefield out there: the weakest roosters had blackened combs and bloody tail feathers before we rescued them to live separately with the hens and turkeys, where they seem to have adapted to a life of domesticity and tranquility. The next weakest just perch on their roosts all day, hoping the top birds look away for a minute so they can hop down and eat something without being attacked. And then there is the crowing: roosters don’t only crow at daybreak; they start around 3 a.m. and just keep going, all day long. Luckily we have extremely tolerant neighbors (so far). I just left a message for the local slaughterhouse, so you big loud roosters, let this be a warning that your days are numbered.

Perfect summer beach weather means really *&#@% hot farming weather.

We live in a bucolic seaside town where the population easily doubles in the summertime. This year, our vacationing neighbors have enjoyed an incredible summer of dry, hot, sunny days. We aren’t suffering from drought nearly as badly as much of the country, but I’ve realized that since I now work outdoors, I’ll take cool and cloudy weather over a sunny day anytime. And, we worry even more about the animals getting too hot also. Pigs need water to regulate their body temperature, so we have to bring them enough water every day to create a mud wallow for them to roll around in. Once it got really dry, the wallow was evaporating almost immediately, so as a joke/experiment, we brought them what turns out to be the small pig farmer’s best friend: the kiddie pool. The pool holds water better than a wallow; and in case you were wondering, five piglets can fit in the pool at once, while the others fight over whose turn is next. Their swimming adventures provide endless entertainment for their human caretakers, unless you feel like your brain is melting because you’ve been moving fencing for two hours in the 90 degree heat.

Those nursery rhyme sayings about farm animals are all true.

Before we created our equivalent of Old MacDonald’s farm, I never spent much time thinking about the origins of phrases like “acting like a chicken” or “getting your ducks in a row” or “eating like a pig”. You need only to spend a few minutes with the animals to understand that we use those phrases because they’re so naturally true. Chickens are unbelievably skittish; ducks exclusively move in herds; and pigs will try to gnaw on anything (including, unfortunately, the legs of a 15-month old daughter of visiting friends). That said, I’d like to state for the record that our ducks act more “chicken” than our chickens, and that our pigs really prefer organic heirloom tomatoes from the farm across the street to beet greens, eggplants or cucumbers – they won’t just eat anything.

People are enthusiastic about the resurgence of small farms – and they want a tour!

We feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by neighbors who are excited that we are bringing a local farm back to life. The upside is we have a built-in market for our products. The downside is having to find the willpower to occasionally say it’s not a great time to give a tour. And let me tell you, it doesn’t feel good to say no when it you’re making a two-year-old wait a few hours to see your piglets because the only thing you can think about is sitting in the shade with a pint of ice cream and a glass of lemonade. I’m grateful that this first year of farming allows us some leeway in getting our agritourism strategy organized. Next year, we’ll be sure to schedule community open house days and weekend tours so we can make sure to engage interested friends and customers on a more regular schedule.

As a new farmer (or old, actually), when in doubt, go to the internet.

As beginning farmers, anytime we’re stumped by a problem, first we consult our books, which seem full of useful information until we really have a crisis. Then, we go to the World Wide Web. From MyTractorForum.com to HomesteadingToday.com to BackyardChickens.com, God bless the people who share their photos, knowledge and experience. But seriously – where do they get the time? All I have to say is thank you for the help: ideas on how to build a chicken nipple waterer, how to fish a gas cap out of your tractor’s gas tank (whoops), how to make a pig waterer of out of a barrel, what to do if your guinea keets look dead (don’t panic – they just sleep that way) or what to do when your ducklings start pulling each other’s feathers out. (Note to the author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks: in the next edition, might I suggest fewer chapters on duck genetics and more on how to keep ducklings from spilling all of their drinking water and flooding their brooder?)

Farming as a woman is a lesson in humility.

Until we started our farm, I worked in an office setting, where men and women were equally good at crunching numbers, surfing the internet and chatting by the water cooler. Now, working alongside my husband, it’s impossible not to be constantly reminded of the disparity in our physical abilities. I like to think I’m strong for my size, but the truth is, I can’t move a chicken coop that weighs 100 pounds; I struggle pushing a cart with water buckets across a pasture; and after working on a carpentry project for a while, our drill is too heavy for me. A few months ago, we found out we are expecting a baby this November, so the list of what I physically shouldn’t do has become even longer. (Note: try asking your midwife is she thinks it’s safe to work with pigs and chickens – expect a blank stare and then laughter.) I hate having to admit I can’t do some chores anymore. Asking for help seems like defeat, but I am learning some of my limits. So far, it’s been infuriating and humbling, but at the very least I hope it’s good training for motherhood!

Photo Credit: Laura Haverland