seasonality at the farm
One great benefit of running a farm, or at least a farm in the north east, is that it keeps you in tune with the changing of seasons and I truly believe that I am a seasonal animal. Some people may be happier in a place where there is always a mild summer that shifts to a hot summer and then back to a mild summer. I am not. I need the hot summer, the breezy autumn, the freezing cold of winter and the crazy unsettling temperature of spring. There is something incredibly satisfying into these shifts. And let it be clear, I do not like the freezing cold (as matter of fact Stefano is happy that spring has arrived so he gets to have a break from me complaining about the cold) but it is not a matter of liking it, but rather a matter of needing it. At the farm you learn that seasons are more than a shift in temperature - there is a shift in the cycle of nature and also (forgive me for bringing in the psychologist in me) there is a shift in your thoughts and your attitude towards the world (we call it cognitive processes). From the perspective of natural cycles, Spring is the host of the most dramatic shift you can witness at our farm. Even this year when he winter was very mild for north eastern standard, you can still feel that spring has arrived with a bang! And to be specific, spring arrived last week :) All of the sudden, life is EXPLODING in all directions! Green shoots are coming out of our soil boxes, baby chicks are kicking their way into this world and lambs are popping out like mushrooms (we have piglets every month so they are less of a seasonal event for us). When I mean that life is exploding in all directions I meant, ALL, so that means that with life comes also its byproducts :) yes I mean manure!! We have manure coming out of our ears these days. Winter froze all sorts of lovely manure morsels that now are thawing but the soil is not ready to absorb this nourishment yet so the farm is transformed into this big manure storage space - with all the lovely scent that comes along with this. From he perspective of the homini sapiens at the farm, Spring is about HOPE - Spring is time to get ready for the big pasture/rotational season. We need to focus our energy and efforts on few priorities because it is only few of us and lots to do. So books about agriculture and husbandry theory and practice fill every flat surface in the house, notebooks full of ideas lie everywhere and conversations about different approaches and farming goals substitute the winter conversations about recipes and food preferences. From all these drawings and ideas grows a very well structured, organized impeccable plan that simply cannot fail! We have few more weeks before we need to have our plan nailed down for the upcoming season and then the summer dance begins. In farming at the commercial level there is very little room for mistakes. Any detail left behind has the potential for repercussions on all other levels of the system and that can easily drag you down. I am well aware that often times people are attracted to farming because of the romantic view of farmers enjoying the outdoor life, being able to stop under a tree to contemplate nature. The reality of a small farm in the beginning phases is much different from this. Indeed farming, for me, has been anything but a calming and relaxing experience - what is necessary is precision, efficiency, ability to push yourself to the limit, creative ways to look at problems and determination to get up after the nTH time you fall down. Spring is the time when you plan ahead as much as you can and you forget that every year this happens and every year Nature reminds you that it does not matter how much you prepare or plan ... stuff happens. But at least in the wee hours of the evening, when you sit down in front of your list and your spreadsheets, you have a clear, well planned farm in your mind and you better enjoy it all because that is the only time when you will see it that way :) So spring is HOPE that this year it will be different and all you have prepped for this winter and the previous year will be ready to be harvested and enjoyed.
Summer is time for DOING. We, the farmers, are not the only one "doing" each single piece of the enterprise is DOING! and sometimes doing too much! Sheep are eating eagerly the grass, grasses, plants, legumes, trees are sending our their leaves, harvesting the sun light using all the water available, pigs are exploring, harvesting, digging, growing!, chickens are searching, hunting, laying eggs and what we are left to do is to coordinate all this. It is like being the captain of a complicated ship where all the different parts of the staff do not communicate to each other. You got to do something with the grass if the pastures are growing faster than the sheep can eat, and you need to provide new safely fenced paddocks if the pigs are digging more than they are supposed to, and you need to make sure everyone has enough water and fuel to make sure they can grow at the right speed. Inevitable it comes a time when I feel I am behind and some aspect of the system is suffering. last year it was the soil. We did not have access to our equipment so we had to let some field become overgrown and that affected the soil and also the pasture quality and logically we lost feed for our sheep. Just when you feel you have attended the needs of one of the members ... inevitably the needs of another part of the puzzle are left behind. SO summer is not for thinking, summer is for DOING.
Autumn is for harvesting. It is true that we harvest our meat all year around and that vegetables are harvested throughout summer, but Autumn is when you harvest considering the months ahead - it is time to anchor down. Only if the plans you made in Spring were followed and well executed you will have enough to set aside for the winter and Autumn is when you get to count what you have left in your pockets. Autumn is also time for the big roasts, the special traditional foods that keep us connected to our history and our culture. The porchetta roasts start piling up in the freezers and we start planning for the big social dinners coming up (Thanksgiving, Xmas and, for us, Cenone - New Years's eve epic dinner).
WINTER - winter for me is for sleeping. I am not a person that sleeps a lot, I can happily go by with 4 to 5 hrs per night but comes winter and I become dysfunctional if I do not have at least 8 hrs. I get sleepy shortly after the sun goes down (which here in VT means it is hard for me to stay up past 7pm) and I would be completely contempt to sleep and eat the whole day. But I do have animals to attend, so I roll out of bed and go take care of the little guys across the street. Unfortunately in winter we have to work harder than before in some basic things we do not even boher with in the summer months: cleaning the barn becomes a whole day ordeal (and it is never fully clean), giving water is sometimes an epic adventure with potential for story telling for the following years (do you recall when your hair froze to the bucket of water? Or that time when you poured the whole buck on your head and it was -20 outside and almost died of pneumonia? funny stories of endurance like that...). That is the time when I always threat to raise the price of bacon :) I love pigs because when it is cold and windy, they also do not want to be bothered so at times they barely bother to get up as you put food in the early hrs of the morning (fast forward to Spring and you feel they are ready to eat you alive from how much they are screaming if you are 10 minutes late to deliver breakfast!). Winter also is time to enjoy all you have harvested during the summer and it is time for more indoor projects, and for us that means curing and preserving our meat! The natural cold temperature is perfect for making all sorts of insaccati (called in the US charcuterie). Recently I was at a pizzeria in VT with my daughter (5 yo) who noticed the place was very italian looking, or at least, very familiar to her, which I think is what prompted her to start this conversation with the waiter: "Where is your basement?" The waiter confused "The basement? You mean the bathroom?", Eva "No, the basement, you know, where you hang your prosciutto and salame for the winter?" Which makes me realize that perhaps I am succeeding at giving her an idea of what it is like to grow up Italian even in the middle of Vermont.
This is when it all started - it was the first year that I raised my own pigs and then my friends Justin Turcotte and Michele Seplak Turcotte came up to my house and helped me harvest the meat that was going to feed my family for the upcoming year. The experience was a mixture of anxiety, sadness, gratefulness, fulfillment, happiness and an overall sense of achievement for something BASIC ... I was following the steps of what millions of people did before me - I connected to what my ancestors did before industries were created, before we had electricity and phones and even gas. All these emotions I went through were once experienced by the young man and women that started my lineage and eventually saw me coming to the world. And the end product was incredible. I stepped out of the system and created something independently from anyone else. I felt alive. After starting my commercial farm I had very little time to harvest and see the animal start to end. Usually someone else does the slaughtering (a USDA inspected facility) and the butchering happens under extreme time constraints in a sterile and impersonal room. Today, for the first time in too many years, I will be harvesting again my own meat, at my farm, and tomorrow a group of people will join me as I carefully harvest each part and gratefully plan for meals for my family for the next year. And for the first time in a very long time I have again a mixture of all these feelings that made me feel alive the first time this crazy journey begun. It is funny how such feelings have remained. I am glad that the nervousness and sadness of harvesting my meat with my own hands has not gotten any easier even after so many years and so many animals I have raised and butchered. I have always been alarmed of how easy it is to take a life ... in the flick of a minute, with an extremely simple gesture, that life slips from your hands. The only thing that allows me to hold on to a sense of humanity are the emotions that go through me as I see this life go away - as soon as I am certain that I did my job as quickly and efficiently as possible and he/she is no longer suffering, all the images and memories of the time I had with this specific pig flash through my eyes. Sadness enters my body and questions about being a carnivore enter my mind. I am not interested in explaining why I choose to be a carnivore because I do not want this to be a platform to try to convince others of the legitimacy of my choice - I only want to share this experience with others who have never raised, slaughtered and butchered their own animals. My answers have always been in favor of being a carnivore, but just because the answers are positive it does not mean I do not question it. After, comes the stage of gratitude and the memories of the sacrifices done over the year to ensure this animal had as natural of a life as I was capable of providing. The memories of the pig running through the field with ears flopping in the wind, the times he rolled in the dirt, got to harvest his dinner from the parsnip field or laid down in the sun munching on an apple fallen by a wild tree, got into a playful fight with a sibling and, of course, the first time he got to suckle on mom's milk and snuggled next to her for some warmth. Comparing this to industry raised pork, or even local pork from farms that raise 900+ pigs, gives me a sense of accomplishment. Perhaps I do not provide the perfect setting for my pigs; there are times when they do not have enough hay, times when the shelter leaks, times when I waited too long to deworming - there is always something I can do to improve my management - but I look at them, all 89 of them, and I know in my heart they are happy animals. They would have not had this life if I did not decide to have a farm and if people around me did not value this sort of thing to spend a little more money and go a step further to come and find me and purchase the meat from my farm. They would either not be here or they would be in a sterile barn where they can hardly move and would never know what it is like to find an unexpected hickory nut under a tree. Now, as the day unfolds, I will have time to say goodbye to the pig we will harvest tonight. Tomorrow that will turn into a multitude of roasts and chops and cured meat that through the year will create new memories for my family and my farm. May I not waste one single bite that costed the life of this animal and may I have the energy and focus to ensure that each part will be honored in the way it deserves. Now, off to feed her and give her a last hug (and choccolate - I give them chiccolate the day they are harvested because I am not sure it is good for their health but... at least I want them to try it once... it cannot hurt them right?)