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Column: Sustainable Steps

1. Appreciate the
difficult decisions

Farmers need to make tough choices every day. A good year can turn into a disaster if the wrong decision is made, not to mention the risk of drought, a hurricane, fire and predators to the year’s turkeys.

For me, sending animals off to market is and always will be the toughest. Some animals make it a fairly easy choice by being mean and/or a bully. Roosters here that go after kids do not last long. Cows that kick or charge and wave their horns get bumped to the top of the to go list. Pigs that have decided that human legs are tasty, hit the road. At those times, the choice is down to safety on the farm. Once in a while, however, an animal comes along that makes what we do very hard.

I remember the first cow that came along that had this effect on us. Her name was Zoey and she was given to me by a friend. Zoey had a lot more milk than my friend needed, and we had a need for more milk. She was a Jersey cow and probably the worst confirmation I have ever seen, and an udder that just about dragged on the ground, but she was a sweet, sweet cow with not a mean bone in her body. Zoey was not demanding in the bullying sense, in fact she was the lowest in the herd, in terms of pecking order. I put a bell on her because I had read somewhere that wearing a bell gives a cow status in the herd and it seemed to help for a while, with Zoey marching around ringing, or maybe the other cows were just frightened and were running from her. Zoey was demanding of attention, she would just be there expecting a pat or a scratch and, when we were no longer milking her due to the fact that we could not get her bred, she still insisted on coming into the parlor and we had to pretend to milk her to keep her happy.

The fact that we could not get her bred despite repeated artificial inseminations and time spent with a bull was the reason it started looking like Zoey would need to head off to market. Nobody liked that idea, not me, not my son, nor even my husband, so we continued to pretend to milk her. When summer came, we found a faraway pasture for her. She was out of sight, out of mind, which further delayed the decision to part with her. But fall came and it was time to make the difficult choice.

My husband hooked up the trailer to go fetch the cows that were going off to market and, having told me that Zoey was one of them, I couldn’t go with him. He brought the cows back to the barn and stood looking at me with a slight smile on his face and said he had found a surprise when he got there: Zoey was bagging up, she was going to have a baby. She stayed with us and had her calf and got milked for real. The Zoey story has a happy ending, but often in farm life that is not the case. Staying viable is always precarious for farmers and feeding extra mouths is not good business practice. But if you were to go farm-to-farm asking, my bet is that at most farms you would find that special animal that will not be getting on the trailer.

2. Consumer choices

I know I have written similar things before, but reviews are good. Buying good food is not always as simple as it looks and to find good food requires extra knowledge. I am happy to see that even our most common and routine food buying habit, visiting the giant supermarket, is changing. There, I’m seeing people reading labels. Having a local farm that you know and frequent for your food is a place where you won’t often find labels. We do not add or subtract or enhance, we sell good old-fashioned food. A package of hamburger is just that, hamburger. Learning how that animal was raised only requires a conversation with the farmer. If you want to be certain of organic, you should look for a USDA label certifying it as such. If you do not need a label and are happy with the farmers methods all natural might be fine. When buying “all-natural” what should you expect? In the meat realm, all-natural does not guarantee all grass-fed nor does it mean organic. In fact, you could have GMO corn in “all-natural” and animals could be fed grain. Consumers need to decide what standards they want for their food and make choices that work for them.

3. Fun and learning

Coming up Feb. 8 and 9 is the Farm & Forest Exposition at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester. It is often referred to as a winter farm fair and it has been going on for 30 years. All kinds of farm exhibitors set up and they have many workshops, such as “Managing your Farmers Market,” “How to Resurrect your Dilapidated Barn,” “New Hampshire Women in Agriculture,” as well as ones that focus on bee raising, raising beef at home, chain saw maintenance and backyard maple sugaring. Plan to attend, take the kids, learn something and have fun while doing so.

Ruth Holmes is one of the principal farmers at Sunnyfield Farm, a nonprofit community farm in
Peterborough.

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