Tuesday
Sep022014

Reflections from an aspiring farmer

Written by Gabriel Antonucci; Photos by Sarah Wiederkehr

Hello everyone. I'm Gabriel, one of the summer apprentices here at Winter Hill Farm. I hail from Massachusetts, but am currently a rising sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont.

When I told my friends that I would be spending the summer working on a diversified dairy farm, they all responded similarly: "oh... that's cool." Working on a farm was clearly not how many others would choose to spend their summer vacation. To many of them, though, food comes from the grocery store, not from the land. They don't have any idea what life on any kind of farm is like, let alone life on a diversified dairy farm like this one. But then again, I didn't know what life here would involve, either, besides working hard and waking up early. Both of those turned out to be completely accurate, yet inadequate, descriptions of life here, which is surprisingly hard to put into words. Especially after Caroline described much of our routine in her blog post, I was at a loss for what to write about. But then we had an experience this past week which I had to write about. This is certainly not the glamorous side of farming -- it's the dirty, down-to-earth, honest side. So bear with me.

Caroline with a mama pig

 

One of our big projects in the last few weeks has been moving our growing pigs into the woods. We have been clearing out paths for electric fencing and setting up fencing along the road through the woods, so that the pigs can clear out the underbrush along this road. This week, we finally finished setting up for the pigs and moved them onto the first section of the road. The process of loading all 16 growing pigs into the trailer from their pen on pasture and unloading them into the woods was nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

 

 

We worked hard all Wednesday morning to put the finishing touches on their electric fence enclosure and feeder, waterer, and temporary tarp shelter. Finally, after lunch, Sarah, Tim, Olivier, Caroline, and I set out to load up the pigs. The sky was dark, but the rain hadn't started yet. None of us thought that this would be an easy task, but I don't think any of us properly anticipated what we were in for.

Tim backed the trailer up to the fence and we readied ourselves with some whey to tempt the pigs onto the trailer, gates to set up a chute, and the red panels that we use to move pigs around. When everything was in position, we opened the trailer, set a delicious bucket of whey inside, and stood back, ready for the pigs to walk on in. Instead, the pigs ran all around their pen, everywhere except where we wanted them to go. After a few minutes of chasing pigs randomly around their pasture, we realized we would need to strategize. By this point, it was raining, and we were quickly becoming wet and muddy.

We finally decided on a strategy: Olivier and Sarah would stand on either side of the trailer door with gates and the rest of us would try [try being the operative word] to push the pigs through the makeshift chute. Sounds easy, right? It took us a good fifteen minutes to load the first two pigs, who we quickly locked in the front half of the trailer. About ten muddy minutes later, we finally convinced the third pig that we were bringing them to a better pasture, and the fourth jumped on a while after that. We were completely wet by this point, and had used up nearly all of our whey. We also realized that the electric fence battery was dead so nothing except fear was keeping the pigs in their pen. (The pigs are trained to the fence, so they don't want to cross it even if it is off. But if they somehow realized that touching the fence didn't shock them, we would be in big pig trouble.) We had lots more pigs to load, and so we kept at it. I should mention that, instead of being frustrated and miserable as you might imagine, we were laughing and smiling. And, surprisingly, we were able to keep smiling, as pig after pig evaded our tactics and ran away from the trailer. One pig, in his incredible determination to not step onto the trailer, got himself stuck in a metal gate and then broke the bars (!) as he squeezed his way out.

Somehow, we managed to load up half the pigs into the trailer and decided to try another method to load the others. They were all hiding in one of their houses, so we agreed to close them in, back the trailer up to the front of the house and then push them right onto the trailer. To do this, we had to take down some of their electric fence enclosure, so this was, we realized, an all or nothing idea. If it didn't work, the pigs could easily escape and, given how hard they were to load while they were in a pen, they would probably be nearly impossible to catch. I elected to be shut inside the house with the pigs and push them out once the trailer was close enough. To everyone's surprise, the pigs loaded very easily, and as soon as the trailer door was shut, we all congratulated and high-fived each other.

We still had to unload the pigs, however, and little did we know that the most ear-splitting part of job was still to come. I had set up a electric fence chute to funnel the pigs into the woods pasture, so all we theoretically had to do was back the trailer up to the front of the chute, walk the pigs into the pasture and we'd be done. But because nothing is ever as easy as it sounds, two of the pigs absolutely refused to get off the trailer, even as they heard the excited squealing of their brothers and sisters who were already eagerly rooting around under the trees. The floor of the trailer was, by this point, a disgustingly slippery mess of pig poop, whey, and mud. If you've never tried to unload pigs off a trailer whose floor is covered with said mess, the closest thing I can compare it to is trying to push a 100 pound lead ball with hooves while on ice skates on a slanted skating rink. The pigs were screaming at the top of their lungs and we slipped and pushed them and made faces at each other while hoping our ear drums would survive. It took three of us to push the pigs, one by one, out of the trailer.

But then we were done and all the pigs were in their woods pasture. They were happily digging around in the dirt and eating all the plants in sight. And we were happily done, completely soaked and coated with that disgusting mixture of pig poop, whey, and plenty of mud.

I don't mean to highlight this one event because it was my favorite thing we've done all summer (which it wasn't) or because it's an example of the kind of work we do every day (which it is). Instead, I decided to describe this one event because I think it represents so well three of the reasons why I love farming.

Farming is super fun! I am well aware that there are many people to whom the idea of loading 16 growing pigs in the pouring rain doesn't sound like a good time. Honestly, none of us were looking forward to it. Yet slipping and sliding through the muck, chasing pigs into the trailer (or, more accurately, not into the trailer) was great and we all had a good, if muddy, time. (Though we are certainly in no hurry to repeat that experience.) We joked and laughed while trying (and failing) to get the pigs loaded because it was really silly: who were these five crazy people spending a rainy afternoon pushing pigs around in the mud?

I really love working together with others to accomplish a goal. Whether everyone is laughing together about being completely covered with mud, talking about politics while harvesting snow peas, or having a contest to see who can find the most tomato hornworms (those amazing yet horrible caterpillars that look like aliens), getting a job done with others is really a great feeling. I think that's the reason that Thursday mornings have always been my favorite part of the week here. We harvest for our CSA and the Yarmouth farmers market on Thursdays and everyone works together to harvest, wash, prepare, and package all the CSA boxes and veggies for market. We talk about the most random topics while we wash lettuce, trim onions and garlic, bunch beets, and sort out the baseball-bat sized from the only-slightly-too-big squash.

to-do list

Farming is all about accomplishing a never-ending list of tasks. Even though there's always plenty more to do, finishing a job is incredibly satisfying. To see the pigs finally rooting around in the woods, after weeks of preparation, was like looking back after weeding an extremely long row. I have never achieved this same feeling of satisfaction after writing a long research paper or solving a complicated math problem because I can't appreciate the work I've done -- I'm always too frustrated or stressed and never want to look at my work again. After weeding or setting up fence, I can take a minute after I finish and look back to appreciate my work. After spending Thursday morning preparing veggies, and then bottling milk and packing yogurt, cheese, and meat to take to market, everyone breathes a sigh of relief as the truck drives down the driveway. We did it.

finished CSA boxes

There's a joke in the farming world that goes: "How do you make a small fortune farming?" The answer: "Start with a large one." Nobody ever said that farming is easy work, physically or financially, but it's great work. I do have a good idea of the challenges involved in farming when I tell people, confidently, that I want to be a farmer. My experience at Winter Hill Farm this summer has helped me confirm and refine that statement, as I further figure out how I want to farm: what livestock and crops I want to raise, what scale I want to farm on, how I want to manage the land. This has been a fantastic learning experience and I know I'll leave this apprenticeship with a fuller idea of what it takes to run a successful farm, or at least how to load pigs in the pouring rain.

sorting tomatoesartichokes
onions curing

 

carrot menage a troisSaving heirloom tomato seeds

Saturday
Jul262014

A day in the life 

We have four amazing apprentices this summer. I have asked each of them to write a short reflection of their time here on the farm, and here is the first. Written by Caroline Summa. Photos by Caroline Summa. 

I have never had a blog, nor been asked to write a blog post before. I much prefer letter writing as a means of keeping in touch with friends and family, and in so, do my best to support the growingly obscure United States Postal Service. But today, I was tasked with writing an apprentice blog entry, in hopes of sharing my summer experience at Winter Hill with all of you curious readers. So, without further ado…

My name is Caroline. If you haven't yet met me, I'm the only female apprentice; the one who (by far) eats the most on the farm; the one who has trouble doing math at the farmer's market; the one who relishes a mid-day power-nap; and the one who grew up on Chebeague Island here in Maine. I started my apprenticeship in the beginning of June, and will continue to milk, weed, feed, plant, and eat cheese up here until the end of August. At this point in my life, I fit in the "student" category and am a rising junior at Oberlin College in Ohio. My Environmental Studies major with a focus in 'Food Systems and Agriculture' pairs nicely with the work here at Winter Hill. I still don't know what I want "to be" when I grow up, but I do hope that farming will always play a role in my life. 

For those of you who don't know, a life of farming is not a leisurely one. The fantasy farm romance wears off as quickly as the witch grass grows in the asparagus (which is really gosh darn quick. I've already weeded it twice this summer). This isn't to say I don't love mucking stalls, handling afterbirth or being smeared by a pig with mud, for these experiences can all be quite zen if one is in the proper mindset. Instead, the novelty of it all fades, allowing you to see beyond how cute the animals are and understand how they function as a part of the larger farm system and business plan. All aspects are carefully intertwined to support one another. A full understanding of the in's and out's a diversified farm requires direct engagement on a daily, seasonal, yearly and even lifetime basis. My apprenticeship will only bear witness to the summer season. Most of what I learn in these fleeting months will have no application come winter.

That all being said, I am the most guilty of ogling farm critters on a daily basis. There are few others who opt to romp with the Jersey bull calf, destined for veal, after a long day's work. I simply can't help help havingone favorite chicken out of a flock of 150. At the sight of wriggling piglets, I heave sighs of excitement, and I know for a fact Steve doesn't approve of how I coddle the barn cats.

While there are set tasks that must be seen to on a daily basis, I would argue there is no such thing as an "average day". I'll do my best to list the weekly consistencies, along with some of the unexpected occurrences I've had the pleasure of being involved in.

 

Consistent:

-5:30 am: Morning milking. The morning milker must prep the milking system, feed out grain and hay for the cows, retrieve the cows from the pasture, milk the cows, clean the milking system, bring the cows back to the pasture and then clean the barn. A lengthy task.

-6:30 am: Morning chores. This entails feeding all farm critters besides the milk cows. 36 pigs (sows, piglets, growing pigs), 6 calves, 3 heifers and 200 chickens (pullets and layers). The person on chores is also responsible for opening the two greenhouses before it gets too hot.

-Mid-morning: Bottle milk for the day. This includes on-farm customers, wholesale accounts, CSA members or farmer's markets.

-Mid-day: Cheese and yogurt making, depending on the day of the week. These are both day long processes that take place in the very steamy creamery.

-Mid-day: Moving and fencing for animals. Nearly all 258 of our animals are out on pasture during the summer, and need to be moved periodically to fresh grass. Electric fencing is a fine art form in which I am inept.

-Mid-day: Wholesale deliveries. Portland on Tuesday, Freeport and Yarmouth on Friday.

-Mid-day: Farmer's Market. Yarmouth on Thursday, Lewiston on Sunday.

-Entire day: Garden work. No matter how persistent your effort, there will always be steady supply of weeds.

-Late afternoon: Evening chores, identical to morning chores.

-4:30 pm: Evening milking, identical to morning milking.

Unexpected:

-Septic System Malfunction: It was a pungent and frustrating day when the dairy septic backed up. Steve headed the problem, while the rest of us observed from as far away as possible.

-Midnight escapades: One night Sweet Pea (milk cow) escaped the pasture around 1:00am. The same night, coincidently, my dreams were infiltrated with broken fence lines and cows in the forest. Negligible damage was suffered by the garden.

-Pig trailer parking lot: Just the other day, Steve and company were loading Clover the sow onto the pig trailer for her transport to the slaughterhouse. The trailer lives in the parking lot alongside the apprentice cars, and my (mother's) van was unlucky enough to be parked in the line of the large metal swinging door. Steve currently owes me a side view mirror.

-Tractor practice: The day after the pig trailer incident Gabriel (the other summer apprentice) and I were mucking out a stall in the barn, a perfect opportunity to practice using the bucket on the tractor. I earned my official nickname that day, and was henceforth known as Barn Breaker for clipping the edge of the doorway with the bucket. A couple boards were lost and others crunched, but we all agreed it was a fair trade for what Steve had done to my car.

 

Tuesday
Dec182012

Cheese, glorious cheese

It seems that the craziness of summer has just ended, and yet I am already gearing up for the coming busy season again already! Honestly, I am not even sure our 'slow' season is any slower than the 'busy' season. Different, but not much slower. 

As I plan the coming season's vegetable CSA, I can't help but come back to the idea of a cheese CSA as well. We did a trial run of a version of this idea through a friend's veggie CSA this past summer, and the feedback was quite positive. As I continue to learn the ins and outs of cheesemaking, and experiment with new cheeses, I think about how to best get people to try them too. Farmer's markets are good avenues- set a sample out on the table and they will be eaten. Those samples eaten off the table have sold most of my cheeses for me. But not all cheeses work well as samples, and I don't always have samples of each type of cheese set out. And customers get stuck, too. They find something they like and fall back on that, instead of venturing to try new things. So how to introduce these new cheeses, get people to try new ones?

 

A cheese CSA. Same idea as the veggie CSA. You pay for a 'subscription' for the season. 20 weeks of cheese, at a really good price. Not necessarily 20 different cheese- there may be some repetition over the course of the 20 weeks. But diversity! Cheese lovers can sample lots of different cheeses over the course of the season. Fromage blanc, feta, ricotta, camembert, and more! Perhaps even some 'guest' cheeses from other local cheesemakers.

I haven't really seen this model used in many places, but I think it may catch on. What cheese lover would not like this idea? If you think you might be interested, I will be putting together anapplication for the 2013 season and you will find it posted here on the website shortly. If you have additional questions or thoughts on this idea, please don't hesitate to let me know, I am always open to hear feedback. 

I hope some of you are as excited as I am by this! And of course we are offering our regular vegetable CSA for the summer as well. The details of that are on the website, and I will be posting the application for the 2013 veggie shares this week. Come grow with us!

Sunday
Jun032012

Wet June

What better thing to do on a rainy rainy Sunday than sit down and write a little blog entry? We have had a serious amount of rain in the last 24 hours, and it will continue for another 24, it seems. The newly plowed field is pretty well swamped, but at least I had raked up about half of the raised beds and these seem to be floating as there are moats surrounding each. We spent a good deal of time digging trenches to run off some of the water from this field, and it did seem to work to some degree. I spent some time photographing vegetables in the garden today during a short 'dry' spell (that lasted all of 15 minutes or so).  

We have been very busy around here! We started two of the three farmers markets that we will be doing this summer. The Falmouth market is every Wednesday from 12-4, and the Yarmouth market is every Thursday from 2:30-6:30. It is pretty funny to realize that the markets have felt like my 'down time'. They are more relaxing than my regular pace of life here on the farm! I have really been enjoying getting to know the customers, and getting ourselves out in to the community a bit. The vendors at both markets are great and I finally feel like I have a social life again:) We will be starting up the Lewiston market on Sundays starting in two weeks, every Sunday from 10-2. 

Our vegetable CSA starts in a few weeks and I am looking forward to the regular pace of harvesting and washing and delivering vegetables. I have been bringing some veggies to the markets and had great success selling them. I have also been making batches and batches of fresh cheese, and experimenting with many different flavors. They are quite popular at the markets and I have sold out both weeks. The most popular flavor this week was chipotle, which I was a little surprised at, but I guess Mainers like their spice!

There is a very good chance we will be getting some Berkshire (pig) breeding stock very soon, in which case we will have lots and lots of piglets in our future. The list of projects seems neverending and often overwhelming, but this coming week we need to focus on building some A frames to house pigs out on pasture. We also need to start building a more permanent housing solution for our newest chickens- 120 more golden comets to join the 50 mixed heritage breed chicks we got earlier in the spring. Currently they are clearing a large area in the homestead so that I can seed some flowers. When we finish their mobile housing they will be out on pasture for the summer. Come late July we will be swimming in eggs!

I keep hoping for some real summery weather but so far we keep getting more of the same- wet and fairly cool. Looks like this week won't bring the sun, but I am hoping the second week in June will be sunny and warm.

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Apr262012

Spring, glorious spring!

What an incredibly beautiful day it is on the farm today (though I admit, I would be decidedly happier if it were 10 degrees warmer). It has been awhile since I have posted, so decided to take a walk around this afternoon snapping photos to share with you all.

As you can imagine, we have been extraordinarily busy, as all farmers are in the springtime. We recently had both of our part time employees leave us for full time jobs. We were thankful to have their help through our tranisition to Winter Hill Farm, and now thankful that they have both found good opportunities to move on to. But in their absence we are truly scrambling to get things done and still have any family time! We will be welcoming our new apprentice to the farm on Monday, and we are thrilled to have another person living and working on the farm with us full time. 

As for farm updates..... where to start?? There is so much happening. There are many garden beds planted already. I have beets, carrots, chard, kale, lettuce, onions, garlic, peas, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and potatoes all planted out there already, mostly still under row cover. The fabric row cover (also called Remay) provides a small amount of greenhouse effect by day, increasing the ambient and soil temperatures slightly for the plants under cover. In addition and more importantly, it buffers agains low nighttime temps. We are looking at temps in the low 30s for the next few nights, but I am confident that the cover will keep even the more sensitive plants safe. For some crops we will use the row cover to keep out pests- I am anticipating using cover on the eggplants to guard against flea beetles, for example. We also have vegetable starts galore. As usual, I planted way too many tomatoes seedlings. They are happy and healthy and if anyone is looking for some nice heirloom starts, talk to me! We just bought a greenhouse and it should be up this weekend, so hopefully I can move all the trays of starts out of my living room and into the greenhouse very soon. 

The apple trees are starting to leaf out, and the crabapple is about to flower. The blueberries are also about to burst. We have lots of flowers- magnolias, violas, tulips, hyacinth, daffodils - that add some color to the landscape and reinforce to us that spring has sprung. The fiddleheads are unfolding, the grass is SO green, and already the weeds are out of control in the garden! 

Isaac and I have become avid birdwatchers, and there is plenty of action to keep up with! We put bluebird houses out on the fenceline by the garden, and we have been watching the tree swallows and bluebirds fighting it out daily as they figure out who will get to occupy the houses. We have also seen cardinals, yellow finches, house finches, white throated sparrows, phoebes, woodpeckers, and so many more birds at our feeders in the crabapple. We are so happy to have so many flycatcher-type birds all around as they will be welcome allies as we grow vegetables this season. Bluebirds, swallows and phoebes are all great at eating up a lot of insects. Natural pest control in action!

And finally some news on the animals. The pigs successfully turned up my new garden area which is drying out before we till it up. Now the pigs have moved on to greener pastures, where they are turning up an area that we plan to reseed. We also have more pigs on the way, for a total of 9 pigs on the farm starting next week. The cows are still in their winter area, but we think we can put them out on pasture maybe as early as next week, thanks to that massive rain we had a few days ago. We will be adding 2 jersey cows to our herd, and they may join the cows on pasture next week as well. We decided to get a couple of these mild tempered cows before our farmers market season begins, as the demand for more milk increases. And finally, the chicks are growing up fast. They are entering in to what we call their 'awkward adolescent' phase. Soon they will move outdoors to start foraging for insects and grass. Hopefully we will start getting eggs from these new ladies in August. 

Experience spring on the farm through the photos I took today, and enjoy the sunshine!