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

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