Winter is the time we consider what comes next, as a family and as a farm. Mark and I go on a retreat every February, to talk about what we’ve done and what we want to do. But this year we’re starting early. We’re already calling 2012 The Year of the Horse. We are committed to expanding the use of horse power here in the coming year beyond the work we already to, to encompass more of our hauling and transportation, and even generating power for farmyard jobs. We want to be fossil fuel free by 2016. We kicked things off last week in a celebratory way, by hitching Jay and Jack to the hay wagon, and hauling the whole extended farm team around Essex for an evening of caroling. We had my great grandparents’ sleigh bells and a crew of 20, with a few extra people picked up along the way. I thought we sounded beautiful but then I am a little tone deaf.
It’s been a week of tidying up for the end of the year, both physically and financially. The team put a big effort into moving all the equipment to winter storage, to get ready for the snow and the plowing that comes with it. The popcorn is in, shucked, and drying. The laying hens moved to the greenhouses. The breeding sows came up from pasture, to the snug east barn. Meanwhile, Mark and I sat down with folders of receipts, the big ledger, and our various checkbooks to get a sense of our 2011 numbers so Mark could meet with our accountant. The numbers we finally flushed out of all those scraps of paper told the story of a farm that has truly become community supported. There were entries for generous donations, for in-kind gifts, and for interest-free loans. There are places where certain unnamed employees gave back their hard-earned paychecks. There were discounts from farmer-friendly suppliers and contractors. And a neighbor who wishes to remain anonymous has volunteered to enter every single check we’ve written and deposit we’ve made in the last eight years, which means that next year, we won’t be using that pencil-filled ledger anymore, but a slick, powerful spreadsheet. The amount of goodwill received – in the form of pies, words of encouragement, and expressions of gratitude for food received– is immeasurable. Thank you to our members, to the farmers who work hard for little cash, and to the friends of the farm for your support. You are what make this farm sustainable.
We had two new calves born in the dairy herd this week. Connie had a heifer, whom we’ve named Clementine, in honor of the season. Clara had a bull. Two more fresh cows means net milk production is back up, despite the drop we’ve seen since the cows finished the rich oat/pea pasture and started eating plain old hay. Egg production, however, has dropped precipitously. The hens did not appreciate being moved, and it took a few days to get lights on in the greenhouse, so we threw off their biological clocks. Finally, thanks to Ryan at Ace Electric, we finally have all of our electrical meters combined and hooked to the solar array. Hooray for closure on that long but worthy project. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this windy-enough-to-skew-a-solar-panel 50th week of 2011.
The dairy herd is pastured way out at the eastern end of the field called Superjoy this week, grazing the rich oat and pea mix we planted in September. I was the evening milker yesterday, and as I made the trek out, the sun was beginning to set and the wind was picking up, driving a cold drizzle ahead of it. I was so glad to be out in it. It’s been way too long since I’ve milked the cows. There are fresh faces in the herd, barely recognizable as the babies of earlier autumns, grown up into first-time mamas. I said hello to Delia’s petite granddaughter, Juniper, inheritor of her big white spots. The group came through the gate and strung out in a twelve-cow line along the path to the barn. I walked behind, tapping lugubrious Trixie with my stick to keep her moving. The leaders bunched at the corner, and the herd lost its momentum. Now the parade was in disarray. Cows won’t be hurried but they can be cajoled. I moved back and forth, back and forth, first calling from the front (COME-on, come ON boss), then prodding from behind (whoosh! whoosh!), until the whole group was on the move again. I thought about all the people in the world walking a herd of cows home with me, as the sun made its setting arc across the globe. Whatever words a woman uses to move her herd in Ukraine, in Uzbekistan, in Uganda, her cows plod along just like ours do, and answer in a common language.