This is my contribution to the Driftless Terroir column of the March 2014 edition of Voice of the River Valley. I hope you enjoy a peek at living and working on a homestead.
We are farmers, my husband and I — homesteaders more specifically. We come by it naturally. On both branches of Bill’s family tree there is history of growing produce for sale at farm stands, to neighbors and from a wagon in downtown Chicago long before his parents moved to Wisconsin to be dairy farmers. I had the privilege of being raised on a fourth-generation, century-old dairy farm north of Spring Green. We grow vegetables, raise a variety of farm animals, harvest maple syrup and honey, make vanilla and natural skin-care products, all for ourselves and for sale at farmers markets and through community supported agriculture memberships on our 57-acre farm north of Blue River.
We spend a lot of time together not only working but home-schooling our children. Naturally sometimes we get on each other’s last nerve. Bill has a way of leaving a trail of tools and assorted odds and ends in his wake that drives me crazy, and he has had to listen to me explain myself and my feelings ad nauseam for 21 years.
But fortunately, we like each other. We share a strong conviction to focus our time and energy on the important stuff — our children, the people in our lives and sustainable farming. I took great comfort in Bill’s calm belief in me when our second child was born so quickly the midwife hadn’t yet arrived, and I value his innate handyman abilities (essential on a homestead). He appreciates my “let’s get it done” work motto — even being willing to spend the night of my 32nd birthday making fence in sleet and snow instead of insisting we dress up to celebrate properly at a restaurant.
Our three children share the farm with us. They observe and explore it, learning about themselves through their adventures with it. One January morning, Liam, 14, and Aidan, 10, headed off to track a rabbit in the freshly fallen snow. The boys came back rosy-cheeked, proudly carrying a rabbit, the details of their hunt bursting out of their mouths like popcorn popping out of a kettle. They had followed it through the pasture and into the frozen marsh along the creek. Fearing they had lost it, they stopped, ready to give up. Suddenly the rabbit jumped out from beneath their feet! It had been hiding in a tunnel created by the dry, dead, fallen cattail stalks underneath the snow they stood on. Bill helped them skin and fry it.
One of Liam’s favorite past times is picking a watermelon, climbing the barn ladder, sitting with his feet hanging out the haymow window, and eating it and spitting the seeds as far as he can. Aidan is often found in our mulberry tree watching birds while Marlee, 7, spends countless hours catching fireflies and dancing in the coolness of summer evenings.
Living and working on our homestead lends itself to being available to our children. There is time to tell silly jokes, ponder life and remember times past. Often only the first words of a favorite story need be uttered for a shared memory to flood back like a small child comforted by clutching the corner of a favorite blanket. Lest you think it all sounds quaint and romantic, there are times that are more trying. Just weeks before last Thanksgiving, a neighbor’s straying dog broke into our moveable turkey pen in the hayfield by the house and, in a crazed frenzy, killed all but one of the 25 birds. The violence shocked us to the core even though eventually we ourselves were going to take their lives.
“Why Mom, why did the dog do this?” Marlee asked as tears dripped down her face and off her chin, landing on the same ground where the mangled bodies lay. In that moment, my calm mom-self kicked in, and I gently explained the strong force instinct plays in animals, assuring her of our safety as I held her close. The dog wasn’t a bad dog even if it was dangerous. The situation became more complicated later when the owner arrived and the found dog nuzzled his hand with its blood-stained face. The next morning, in the comforting daylight, the conversation turned to the choice we had made to house the turkeys in such a manner. They would be less vulnerable living in a shed but wouldn’t be able to forage for grasshoppers in the fresh alfalfa. Consensus was quickly reached: It was worth it but not without changes to prevent such an attack in the future.
Our relationship with the animals on our farm has evolved over the years. We respect the sacrifice of their milk, eggs and meat by protecting their right to express their “animal-ness.” When I was nursing our first child, we learned the many advantages it provided. Looking at the management of our dairy goat herd, we questioned the conventional practice we followed of taking kid goats from their mothers to be raised away from the herd and fed sterile milk replacer or pasteurized milk from a bottle. It now felt wrong to us.
Kids left with their mothers benefit not only from the nutrition, immunity and good bacteria in their mothers’ milk but also from interacting with other goats, thereby learning what it means to be a goat. Yet, we still wanted their milk, so we compromised. Now the kids and mothers stay together for at least a week to bond. Then each night until they are weaned, we put the kids in a pen next to the other goats. They can see, hear, smell and touch their mothers through the fence but not suckle their milk. In the morning we harvest the mothers’ accumulated night milk for our use. The kids return to the herd for the day, nursing at will. Our kitchen window overlooks their hillside pasture, and with my hands deep in sudsy dishwater, I watch the kids cavorting in the green grass their mothers graze and know this decision is right for us.
Reminiscent of the Little Red Hen, we care for our soil by aerating, mulching, cover cropping, applying compost and micronutrients. However, unlike Red, we’re not in it alone. Our family, friends and neighbors help us plant seeds, lend us equipment, cover seedlings when frost threatens, harvest produce (even in the rain!), critique our website and test new soaps.
Our relationships with each other, our children, animals, land, friends, family and neighbors reach out past our farm. Every Saturday, May through October, we wake early and eat a quick breakfast while the sun finishes rising. Then I take a basket to the fields to cut fresh basil, rosemary and parsley while Bill loads our vehicles with the week’s work — a cornucopia of vegetables, maple syrup, soaps and lotions to sell at the farmers market. We head out — Bill to Richland Center, I to Spring Green anticipating the coming day of sales. The warm, fulfilling feelings we experience collecting feedback, trading recipes, catching up on issues of the day and family goings-on with CSA members and market customers are addicting. Tired, exhilarated and thankful, we regroup on the couch later back at home before starting the week over on Monday.
In this currency-driven economy, Bill and I are defined by what we do to make a living — growing food and products. We are farmers. Yes, the nutritious food and natural products we grow in the fertile ground of the Driftless Area nourish our bodies and support us financially, but the relationships we are cultivating with each other, our children, animals, family, friends, neighbors, customers and the land feed our souls and make our lives satisfying. They are the rich terroir of our lives and, ultimately, they define us.