Blue rounding up the sheep to show them the barn. Not pictured: cold rain.
Let me just start off by saying that getting to spend our days toiling to leave the ground better than we found it, care for critters and work amongst a team of people who also pursue such as life calling is pretty awesome. Please also indulge me to add the following: If you are ever interviewing for a farm job at Reverence or anywhere else, pretty much the worst answer you can give to an inquiry as to why you want to work on a farm is “because I really want to work outside.”
I guarantee you that any farmer hearing that is going to think of days like yesterday and struggle to maintain composure. On days like yesterday (34 degrees and raining in sheets with just enough of a breeze to make it interesting), we work outside because our work is outside. Outside is not an attribute.
Our goal, every farmer’s goal, is to get our outside work done when the sun is shining and it’s pleasant-enough. The day before yesterday, I was walking the farm with Niti Bali and I distinctly remember informing her what a miracle it was that we were getting to enjoy a beautiful, crisp, sunny winter day. My dream of doing desk work on rainy days and outside work on amazing days has a way of not always aligning. I guess I had a premonition that the following day would be the kind during which my hands could somehow simultaneously be both numb and very painful.
A perfect day
Anticipating the incoming freezing rain, two days ago, Hue, Jake and I sorted some heifers out of a group across the creek from the dairy barn so that the 35 ewes with the ram and the heifers could get in the hoophouse. The heifers have been hogging the shelter during recent inclement weather, and we knew yesterday was supposed to be particularly nasty. We ended up peeling 8 yearling+ heifers out of that group and had a very pleasant walk over the creek and through the woods to reunite them with the main herd. It was the kind of farm day that dreams are made of. (Hue even carried me over the creek, which was spontaneous and amazing, because I wasn’t wearing my tall boots.)
8 heifers cross Hobby Creek from the Austin Quarter side of the farm to the Haw River side.
Yesterday’s walk to the barn started off easy enough. Just feeding our 25-yo horse, Shauna, with Viv, and straight back to the house, I told myself… Didi (the 3-legged pit mix) and Dolly (the Blue Tick Hound) — our normal 7a companions to the barn — elected to stay home. Dolly wouldn’t leave the porch even with a coat on.
While Vivian was with the horses, I decided to take a look at the 50 or so sheep in the market group — they are apart from the main group on a separate property so that the ewes in the group don’t get bred to the ram, as these are sheep that haven’t made the grade as breeding stock and will become part of our grassfed lamb program. They were in the rain. They didn’t look terrible, but nor did they look especially content. We had specifically given them access to what we call the Long Barn (a run-in shed where we store equipment and straw but that also dubs as shelter) for weather like this.
Okay, I thought, it’s time for you guys and gals to learn that the barn really is accessible to you, even though the entrance appeared obstructed by one of our mobile shade structures. Blue — the rescued Border Collie who is not a perfectly trained sheep dog but whose instincts are pretty dang good — and I successfully had the sheep down to the barn in two minutes. And then we waited.
The sheep could get in this barn, but they’d rather stay in the rain. Why? Lots of folks think sheep are stupid, but we just don’t see what they see… The only area around the shader has a puddle, and puddles reflect light in a way that is often scary to livestock. With the water continually hitting the puddle from the roof, it can appear like a hazard to them.
When working with livestock, it’s best for them to move along in their own will. When you start forcing them to go where you want them to go, you better have good handling equipment to keep them contained. We rarely do, and we mostly rely on good stockman-ship, which is better for everyone anyway. Just because you can force livestock doesn’t mean you should…
Sheep have their own notions
They wouldn’t budge. Blue was perfect and twice went out to bring back an escapee on his own, no words from me. Clearly the shade structure was too much of a visual barrier.
So now I’m going to move the shader. No problem, really. It’s super easy to move with our UTV. But then one of the poles got stock on the barn post, and so now I need a second person to hold it back while I drive it out. No problem. Fred happened to arrive for morning chores at the same time Hue came out to help, so now I have two sets of hands. Easy. Then the UTV lost it’s little bit of charge while I was waiting for them (we are in process of repairing it’s electrical connections). Farming…
So now we connect it to the truck, get the shader out, and planned to just get it backed into another barn so we are ready for the next impending ice storm. But turns out the shader’s wheel base wouldn’t fit in the barn unless we re-organized the barn, which I’ve been meaning to do anyway, yet it’s still 34 degrees and raining, and now I can no longer feel my hands.
This was a sunny-day project
Fred and Hue ended up backing the shader into the barn by hand because double-axeled wagons are really challenging to back up with tinted-windowed trucks in the rain into a really tight space. My job was to prevent the shader poles from getting stuck on the barn posts on the way in (yellow arrow, below) — for which I was about 50 percent effective, because by now the only time I can feel my hands is the acute pain when they try to hold something. I had not worn gloves as a hopeful measure to prevent any kind of unnecessary activity at the barn that morning … so determined I was to come right back inside!
It’s now 10a and the barn is clean and I’m spent. I should have just given myself a 30-min respite and TLC, but now I’m several hours behind on office work and so I foolishly pushed ahead and got myself feeling pretty tired and overwhelmed, an unwelcome friend that pursued me until 10:30p last night when I finally collapsed after making some soup. We did have a fire, and the soup was amazing.
Truthfully, I didn’t need to put the shader in the barn yesterday (although it did need to be moved out of the other barn). It could have waited for another pleasant-enough sunny day. But sometimes it’s worthwhile just to get something done so you don’t have to come back to it, because 14 other things will come up in the meantime, and when an object is in motion, it’s best to just keep rolling. Some of it was just stubborn persistence.
Can you see the canine? Blue is proudly looking over his good work. You’re a good boy, Blue.
Lesson? When the sheep weren’t going in the barn at all, even when it was just a little crummy out over the previous 7-10 days, that was the time to listen to the quiet inner voice that said, “I wonder why the sheep aren’t using the barn?” The next pleasant-enough day would have been a perfect time to move the shader and reorganize and clean the barn, instead of lamenting that I was looking at spreadsheets when it was 60 degrees and sunny.
The other, and bigger, lesson? Like Eisenhower said, planning is indispensable, but plans are useless.
Days happen. Farming happens. Acceptance and surrender are really powerful tools. And gratitude, always gratitude.
Things to be grateful for from this life in the dirt: three cast-iron pans full of vegetables from people I know, butter that I made from our own cows’ milk, chicken stock from birds that graced our pastures, tomatoes grown by Doug and canned by Oci as a gift, radishes grown on our land by Doug, celery from my friend Howard at Faithfull Farms that Viv and I traded for beef bones, turnip greens that were a gift from my friend Tiffanie at Machaven Farm, Swiss chard from my friends Stephanie & John at Dinner Bell Farm that we traded for milk, rutabaga from Open Door Farm (purchased at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market on a Saturday morning trip with Vivian, and the only purchased ingredient, besides onions and spices from the Saxapahaw General Store). Every ingredient has a story. We ate love for dinner.