by Brian Bennett of Heuvelton, NY
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
For years, I have been telling people Bittersweet Farm is a work in progress. Well, I have reached the age of the average American farmer and progress has stopped, the workload is excruciating and hope for the most part is non-existent. My son is downstate hoping to make his fortune as a computer geek/ nerd/genius/hacker. My daughter is in Kenya learning how to milk Holstein cows and holistically manage the intensive, rotational grazing of cattle (go figure). Too bad a young person couldn’t learn those skills in such an exotic place as Heuvelton, NY. That leaves my wife and I home to pursue MY dream of becoming a small-scale, local, regenerative agricultural entrepreneur. My beautiful wife has been physically confined to an electric wheelchair for almost twelve years and I have been mentally challenged in so many ways.
So here we are, another glorious spring day in Heuvelton. Fourteen degrees above zero, whiteout conditions and the ice can’t decide whether it is coming or going. My wife just got out of the hospital with no PCA (personal care assistant). I am running on empty and have a gut feeling that I must go out and find Coco Chanel, NOW. Coco is the first purebred Scottish Highland born on our place four years ago. The day she was born one of our pigs ate her right front hoof and life for her got much harder after that. She is a pretty blonde but walks with a limp, is bullied regularly but never bred. She broke one of her horns and any real farmer would have shipped her long ago. Not to worry – I am no real farmer. So finally, she is bred. Checked her two days ago, she dropped and is clearly bagged out but is not dilated and shows no discharge. Her mother, Ginger, calved recently at the edge of the swamp where the coyotes promptly shredded the newborn and dragged the body parts across the open field. After four years, I wanted my girl to successfully raise her own healthy calf. She has been a great aunt and sister to many others. But, like I said, it was a perfect spring day in the North Country: fourteen degrees above zero, high winds, snow squalls, whiteout conditions and just cold and wet enough that in some places the ice holds and in others it drops out from under you. You hit hard and you hit painfully. So with my wife one day out of the hospital and in need of help – I, being the ever good husband – bundle up against the onslaught of spring and head into whiteout conditions to look for yet another dead calf at the swamps edge. I headed out with a gut feeling not that something was wrong, but that in these conditions there soon enough would be if I did not try. I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of me and I was not enjoying being pelted with large hard snowflakes and high winds. I made my way more or less by instinct across the open field and through the (for the most part) frozen swamp. No Coco. Up the hill towards the brush covered rock piles, no Coco at the upper pile. The wind and snow are harsh, even for a beautiful spring day of fourteen degrees. I can sort of see a cow (maybe) lying in the lower rock pile. In amongst saplings, rocks, and old rusty metal and wire there is a large, red haired calf half steaming where mom is aggressively licking her and the other half is iced over where her hooves and legs appear frozen to the ground. Well, I am cold, wet, exhausted, and all too happy. I am giddy and ecstatic, my girl has her first beautiful heifer calf, now what do I do? It did not feel like the snow was letting up and I could hear the coyotes in the distance, but could not place the direction. No fear, just anger, how stupid am I? Eventually mom and calf stood up, I stripped out three quarters and mom licked the calf ’s butt until she nursed. I attempted to walk mom and baby back to the carriage shed, but no luck. I am too old (okay, out of shape) for this. I picked up the calf and tried to walk backwards downhill through the snow while begging mom to follow. I am really too old for this. I arrived at the edge of the swamp and could not figure out where I came out at. Mom was way too far back to see. So I pushed through the cat-nine tails, over the ice and headed towards home. Soon enough the calf and I dropped through the ice up to my waist into the swamp, boy is this fun. I was not gong to let go no matter what, but this is really stretching my limits. How do you slog through waist deep ice water and mud carrying a 75 lb calf when you really, really want to give up? And where the heck is mom? After what seemed like two painfully long lifetimes, calf and I came out at the eastern edge of the swamp where I could see the front leg of an earlier calf shredded by coyotes. Is mom following? Don’t know, but I cannot carry this calf any longer. I put her down and she crumbles to the frozen ground. I turn around to hear mom bellowing and crashing out the same path I just did. All-wheel drive on her part makes it look much easier than it felt for me. She licks her newborn and we get her up, only so I get to chase the now inspired calf in the wrong direction. I catch the calf, pick her up and head to the shed; I really am too old for this long walk across the field. A perfectly good walk (ruined). We finally arrive at the carriage shed, I try my best to warm and dry the calf. The snow and wind has stopped, the sun is out, thank you very much, and where were you an hour ago? I head to the house to fetch a pail of warm molasses water. At the house my wife seems quite comfortable and in real good spirits. She seems happy. I share my story and Ann decides to have her PCA, that finally arrived, name the calf. She mentions a movie called Frozen and names the calf Blaire – no wait, it has to be Elsa, Elsa is the ice queen. I LOVE it. I carry five gallons of molasses water to Coco and a towel to the newly anointed ice queen, Elsa. I go back to the house to celebrate and wallow in my pain.
It is Friday. Kate and Kelsey show up as they have on most Fridays for the past two and a half years. Then Jeff and Kingsley show up (Who are these guys? Maybe HOPE?) They take over; Coco drops her afterbirth and promptly eats about half of it. Does the warm molasses water stimulate this? Red haired (like Elsa) Kate lays down comfortably between mom and baby. Ask Joel Salatin about lying with cows. Eventually Coco begins licking Kate’s face and chews her hair, only to make a face that suggests she somehow knows this is not her calf. Coco nudges Elsa up, licks her butt and Elsa nurses warm colostrum. I am done. Kate, Kelsey, Jeff and Kingsley take over and begin making repairs to the fence so this never happens again, until the next time.
April, fourteen degrees, a dozen dead lambs, two dead calves, eight dead piglets, one dead Highland bull and more on the way. Life just does not get any better than this. Spring is here.
Remind me later to tell you about our last Hope and how HOPE returns to the farm in the form of young farmer wannabes, students, wwoofers, intern apprentices, Wes, Arla, John and Kelly, and more.
Thank you, and remember to get your hands dirty.