Friday, August 28, 2009

Happy as a pig in, um, fresh straw

After the "udder chaos" of bottle feeding calves back in New England -- good one, Sheffy -- one might have thought I was done with hands-on dairy, but no. Within an hour of my arrival at Nothing But Nature, I was milking my first goat, Rosie. (Well, after a snack -- I'd biked nearly 60 miles that day.) It's a very hands-on kind of place, and master gardeners Diane and Phil encouraged me to get right in there during the days I spent at the farm: pickling cucumbers, driving a bobcat, harvesting tomatoes, milking goats. Phil in particular is a thoughtful and patient teacher, and Diane is a darn good cook -- I must have that chicken and dumpling stew recipe! And the herbed chevre? Divine.

I'd learned about the farm in my WWOOFing guide. (For those unfamilar with the term, WWOOF stands for "Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms" -- a global organization that supplies folks interested in working on organic farms with information on farms willing to host volunteers.) I'd worked at a number of WWOOF-affiliated farms by now and had come to this farm with the hope of learning about some of their biodynamic practices. I did, a bit, but found myself more powerfully taken with the way the farm runs as a whole, especially in regard to the livestock.

Every animal on the farm is named: goats, sheep, pigs, cats, dogs, calves. Naming is one thing -- heck, I named my bicycle and even my friend Ben's bike that I learned on (Ollie and I miss you, Sheldon!) and Diane named the electric golf cart the couple zips around in between the house and the barn. That's not unusual, right? What is really cool is how each animal responds when called and trots on over, even from across a field. "Emily!" Phil would call, and the she-goat would gallop over. My first morning at the barn, I arrived a few minutes earlier than Diane's son Scott and his wife JT for morning chores. Dave, Buster, Tennyson, Emily, Lily, Gail, Bullseye, Buttercup, and others ambled over to survey whether or not I brought alfalfa or food scraps for them. They were friendly without being needy, clearly comfortable around people, and the goats were downright eager to be milked. When a baby sheep was born prematurely a few days before my arrival, it was named after JT (whose birthday it was, too) and Diane and JT (the human one) patiently worked with the mama sheep and the little lamb to help it suckle, cooing and coaxing until by the fifth day or so the little guy could nurse on its own. Would this happen on an industrial farm? Hardly.

The following day Phil explained a bit more about his philosophy on raising animals. They are in many ways treated like members of the family: named, coddled, talked to, well fed, and left to roam the large grazing area as they chose. Their diet of grass is supplemented with sweet dried alfalfa, buckets of apples and watermelon rinds, organic grain, and occasional table scraps. In the fall, the farm receives truckloads of dry leaves that are scattered around the barn, nearly 5 feet deep in some places, over a few piles of table scraps. The animals root around, nibble on scraps, add their own fresh fertilizer, and mix everything up with the hay bedding. As Phil adds more scraps and hay throughout the winter, the compost develops for his spring crops, the animals are well fed, and the heat from the composting process warms the barn. Genius! How come I haven't heard of this before?

The animals seemed to live happy lives -- good food, plenty of land to graze, thoughtful and affectionate caretakers, a comfortable barn -- and I'll tell you, the fresh goat milk was amazing. Maybe there's a connection between the quality of an animal's life and the food (milk, eggs, meat) it produces after all....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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