Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Switch Hit

I teach Animal Behavior at Vermont Technical College. I have to admit it’s been challenging. Not only have I been out of the formal teaching scene for 9 years, but I feel like my teaching style is still back where it used to be: hands-on, visual, non-Power-Point or Blackboard oriented. For those of you oldies, like me, Power-Point dominates the teaching style. It’s computer-based, and a virtual slideshow with hyperlinks and imbedded images. You slap your pen drive into the main network with your class material, and voila, it magically appears on the screen, and the whole class is mesmerized by a slideshow. BORING.

Blackboard, or Moodle are online campus communication systems that allow the students to track their grades and assignments online. People don’t go to the library to read reserved material anymore; it’s on Blackboard that they just magically log into on their PC or tablet or iPhone.

Every part of the syllabus and class is virtually uploadable, so they can see if they’re failing or passing. Of course the input provided by the professor needs to be accurate: it wasn’t until week 9 that I realized I was loading quiz scores as assignments. When I made the switch, the grades changed dramatically. Whoops, sorry students…

One time I went to class and realized that I had attached the wrong lecture on the Blackboard, so they hadn’t studied for the correct material (major grade curve).

Another time I tried to explain the difference between positive reinforcement and negative punishment. Several students had the courage to point out the fact that I had completely reversed them. As a result, we have dropped this subject line completely until I have the gumption to try and explain it again…

Teaching is like farming, in the fact that there is a lot of switch-hitting going on. The difference is that in farming, when your plan falls through the floor, most of the animals and plants don’t know that you just bluffed your way through the day. When fifteen pairs of 20- or 30- something year-old eyes look at you and say: Really?- there’s not much you can get away with (if the corn doesn’t get weeded when you say you’re going to weed it, it’s usually a little more understanding).

Eleven year -olds don’t expect switch hits. In fact, my eleven year-old detests them. He would much rather have a routine than my potpourri of surprises. But I am about to embark upon the greatest switch hit I’ve made since graduating at the University of Vermont with a B.S. in Wildlife Biology. Back then, I noticed a job notice advertising for a volunteer seabird biologist on a remote Hawaiian Island; room board, airfare paid for, student loans deferred.

I lived on Tern Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for almost four years, first as a volunteer, and then as the refuge manager. Five hundred miles northwest of Kauai, on a remnant volcano, surrounded by aqua-blue water and seabirds, seals and turtles, I had an experience that changed my life- for the better. If I had stayed in Vermont and assumed my job as interior decorator in the local store in Middlebury, I think that my life would be vastly different- and boring.

My eleven year-old is wired in. DSL, PSP, Wii, Dish, I can’t even keep up with it all. He doesn’t have any of those things, but I hear about them every day, and how boring his life is without them.

Still- he is ecstatic when the moon is so full and bright that it fills the entire backdoor window. He coos at the sight of the first gray squirrel we’ve ever had on the farm when he catches it gathering nesting material (there’s another squirrel in the area, apparently). His love of birds is growing, and he now has a flock of laying hens that is so productive that we supply a major grocery store in Norwich.

And so, it’s time for me to change it out. I’m taking the summer off from retail farming. Yep, it’s true. No pigs, no meat birds, no 2 acres of vegetables in production. Fallow fields with cover crops and green manures, fallow hoop houses, fewer sheep, and fewer bales of hay. I’m going to construct a Facebook event to barter the cows to a new farmer, with the stipulation that I get something back in the end. No turkeys, no Guineas, geese or ducks. No farmer’s markets. I’ll still have enough for us and for our small CSA, but, nope, nope and nope, I’m spending the summer with my son.

I feel as though I have an opportunity to do something with him for one last time as he changes from eleven to tweenager, and what I’d like to do is hike the Long Trail in Vermont.

Is this crazy? Some people think so. The majority of people I tell look at me, worriedly, like I’m giving up. But I’m not.

I have four freezers full of meat. I have shelves lined with canned vegetables, fruits, juice and jellies. I am farming, but I am concentrating instead on soil-building and conservation.

Is there the chance that I’ll lose my customer base? Yes, but I got it once, and I am confident that I’ll get it again. What I’m not at all sure of is that I’ll have a working relationship with my son for the next five years unless I take the effort to interact with him now.

I’m still a certified organic farm inspector for North Eastern Organic Farming Association, still a vet-tech at VT-Can! in Middlesex, and still a farmer. Just a different kind of one for the summer.

Today the hiking boots that I bid on through eBay arrived. Tomorrow, a high-tech flashlight will come in the mail. I have the tent and the sleeping bags. Now, just to convince the boy…

Friday, March 18, 2011

Who Falls In Love With A Cow?

Kyle has forgotten that it’s the end of daylight savings time, so he can’t ride the Dartmouth Coach to Logan airport in Boston to catch his plane to New Orleans. He’s headed there for a week-long conference through the National Park Service- the first continuing ed program he’s attended in about 15 years. So I’m driving him there, but right now, it’s 3 am regular (well used-to-be) time, and we’re doing the chores while Bradford sleeps inside the farmhouse.

Kyle comes racing in from the horse barn to the main barn, where I am mucking out the cow stanchions and grabs a flashlight. “Jennifer, come!” he yell-whispers, then puts his finger to his lips, shushing my inevitable “why?”

We sneak out to the horse barn, where the door is open, but the lights are not on. There is an owl, a Barred Owl, sitting on top of the manure heap just a few feet away from us, looking down at the remains of my pet cow, Tildy Anne. We have composted her here, and now, this raptor is taking advantage of her remains. Here, too, congregate crows, starlings and red-tailed hawks in the daytime, and at night, foxes, mice and voles. It’s the little vermin that the owl is most likely trying to hunt in this snowy winter, where all of the animals that are dependent upon ground-dwelling rodents are desperate for a food source that is safely protected under the thick blanket of snow.

Who falls in love with a cow?

There’s no shame in fawning over the family dog, cute stuffed toy in mouth, or in swooning over the antics of the fuzzy, energetic cat as it pounces on the toilet paper roll.

But who falls in love with a cow?

My husband used to fight wild fires. He’d be flown out west, far from our eastern bubble in Vermont, and do “mop up,” not the spectacular sky jumping, but one of the crew that would come in after the blaze and make sure that it was really put out. On one of these excursions, I was left in our newly rented trailer in Vermont. It had taken me nine years to figure out a way back to my birth state and we had finally succeeded when Kyle was hired as the Ecologist for the new national park- the first in Vermont- at Marsh Billings Rockefeller in Woodstock. We found a trailer to live in with our menagerie of chickens, ducks, geese, goats, a horse and three sheep, a dog and four cats. When Kyle left to fight a fire out west, I felt as though I had not a clue what to do with myself. It was 1998 and February, a notoriously brutal month in Vermont, and I was sick of watching Bill Clinton try and lamely defend himself to the nation with his explanation of what sex was.

I had recently quit my job as refuge biologist for the Department of Interior on Monomoy Island , Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My days in Vermont were spent walking miles around the hillsides and back roads in search of a farm for us to purchase. On one foray, I stopped at a dairy farm and asked if the farmer would sell me milk. At first, he was wary, being in his 70s, and having grown used to our litigious society- his generation was built upon bartering and community- he wondered why I was asking. He finally agreed to sell me milk after I explained what Kyle and I wanted to do- to start farming in Vermont. He had three cows- Guernseys, from which he sold milk to neighbors directly from his farm. This was all done underground, because it had become illegal to sell milk in Vermont unless it was bottled and pasteurized in an inspected facility. So, for $3 a gallon, I could walk a mile to the farm and get organic, raw milk.

Back then, I didn’t have an iPod, so I listened as I walked, to the river, cracking its ice during the spring thaw, to the return of the first red-winged blackbirds, to the whish, whish of cars driving back and forth on Route 14 in the rural valleys of central-eastern Vermont.

Kyle would be gone for a little over two week intervals on the fires, but it seemed like much longer, especially in the winter months, when I am at the bottom of my game, because, well, even though I’m a Vermonter, I hate winter and I hate the cold. The walk to the farm was blissful to me.

When Kyle had been away for 9 days, I walked to get milk, and Bob, the farmer, asked me if I’d like a calf. He would breed his dairy cows to beef bulls (by way of artificial insemination) because he thought that they would become pregnant more easily by diversifying the genetics. The calf was a Guernsey-Hereford heifer- a female- and he had no use for her, because being half beef, she wouldn’t be a great milker, and being a dairy farmer, he wasn’t interested in raising beef. Besides that, Vermont farmers tend to frown on raising their heifers for slaughter, because it’s a perfectly good waste of an animal that is slow to mature and then replaces itself at the most only once a year (the boys, on the other hand, are usually expendable).

So I waited for Kyle to call me (this was before cell phones were bought and sold as easily as baseball cards used to be), and I asked him what I should do- I knew nothing about cattle. In true to form style, he said, “Do what you want to do.”

Having lived with each other for almost two decades now, he realizes the weight of these words, and after llamas, rabbits, white-tailed deer fawns and baby woodchucks, I don’t hear them as often.

I stuffed the heifer in the back of my Toyota Tercel, her eyes as wide as mine, and we unloaded at the trailer. I had made a make-shift shelter for her in a shed stuffed to the gills with the owner’s prized possessions that were too valuable to chuck—broken window panes, spent lawn mowers, rusting sap buckets and bent nails. She was 6 days old. I bottle fed her and walked her outside, and by the time Kyle got home, she was halter trained. I named her Fern, but our 90 year-old friend told me that that was no name for a cow- that her name should be Matildy Anne. And so she was.

Tildy was the lead cow of our herd. She’d tell me when the fence was down (by bellowing, but not getting out, even when the rest of the herd was in the garden), she’d be the first to lead everyone back into the barn in November, when the grass had gone, and the days would be spent eating hay in the paddock outside, but the nights would be spent tied in stanchions in the barn. She’d always have her babies on the wrong side of the electric fence, so we’d have to fish them out of the woods or the brook, and she’d be the peace keeper when new cows would join the herd.

Her biggest fault was an insatiable appetite for grain. She could figure out six ways to Sunday how to get to the grain in the barrel inside the barn, and on more than one occasion we had to chain her up and send dark beer down her gullet to kick start her bacteria in her stomach. Not this time.

This time, she knocked in the plywood wall and weaseled her way through the fenced gate to find the barrel. By the time I got to the barn, there was more than 60 pounds of it missing. When I found her, she was down, outside, and freezing cold temperatures were about to arrive after a bout of rain and snow. I could leave her outside or bring her in to treat her inside, running the risk that she would die, and then there would be a 900-pound body to deal with.

If it had been any other cow, not my pet cow, the practical thing would have been to keep her outside, but I couldn’t do it. So after crying on her pelt and pleading with her to get up, she did, and we made it to the barn. After two days of vetting, she crashed, and Kyle and I decided that she had had enough.

The life and death constant of farming is so overwhelming sometimes, especially when it’s winter, when there is no birdsong or no warm bath of sunlight to keep your spirits up. Winter especially brings death: the sickest, the oldest, the inexperienced all succumb.

If I called the vet to kill my cow, he would inject her with a substance that would be lethal to anything that would eat her later, and, although I frequently wish ill-will on coyotes, foxes and skunks, not all of them learn to eat my animals. And what about the red-tailed hawk, which has spent the winter here, perched in the dead cherry tree? Or the bald eagle that came to eat a lamb who never took a first breath? What about the barn cat that feeds on the carcasses of dead animals, or the birds and field mice that pick the bones clean? There was no point in even trying to dig a hole in the frozen ground beneath the three feet of snow, so the only option was to kill her myself by shooting her and to compost her.

Suffice it to say that I consider myself a pretty strong, practical type, when it comes to raising and eating animals and plants. But I have yet to be able to eat anything beef after Kyle and I killed Tildy Anne. Every time I look at beef, I see Tildy Anne, my first cow, whom I knew nothing about, and who taught me that farming isn’t just something I do, it’s something I have to do.

Today the cats and I lounged on the deck that overlooks the snow-covered fields, in the heat of a 50 degree spring day. The three new calves, Martin, Nestor and Fur Ball, are racing around in the paddock with their tails held high up over their backs. Their mothers are chewing their cuds and watching them play. Cider is Tildy’s three-year-old calf, and she is Fur Ball’s mother. She’s no lead cow. It looks as though Ginger, the petite Jersey-Ayshire cross may take over, her head always held high, sniffing the wind for signs. It may be an interesting summer, spent chasing calves and cows back inside fences. Hopefully, Tildy is watching somewhere and will give me a sign when the herd gets into the sweet corn.