NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Essex Farm, Essex NY

The toughest job she'll ever love
Now fully entrenched in farming and ranching, this newcomer discovers that the struggle and the beauty of this chosen way of life are inextricably tied.

By Kristin Kimball
Posted June 16, 2005

Farm-At-A-Glance

Essex Farm
Essex, NY

Farmers: Kristin and Mark Kimball

First season: 2003

What they raise: Mixed vegetables, dairy, beef, pork, eggs, chicken, dairy, wheat, rye, oats, corn, oilseed sunflowers, maple syrup, cherries, apples, plums, pears.

Location: On Lake Champlain, a little south of Burlington VT.

Marketing strategies: Year-round CSA for 25 families.

June, 2005. We bought Rupert, the Highland bull I wrote about in my last journal entry -- plus fourteen brood cows, nine yearlings, and eight calves, with six cows due to calve in the next few weeks. This brings the beef herd to a grand total of fifty-two beasts. We weren't planning to expand so fast, but the people who were selling the bull decided they'd just as soon get rid of their beef herd entirely and offered it to us for a price we didn't feel we could refuse.

The new yearling bulls are in the barn now, waiting for the vet to come cut them. The heifers have joined our jersey yearlings and a dry dairy cow, grazing down the weeds and brush and grass growing up around the outbuildings. The rest of the mighty herd is a gorgeous sight on the long, green pasture. They are richly furred and crowned with long, fierce horns.

Every morning and evening, my pup Jet and I hike out to check the electric fence, the automatic waterer and the height of the grass. Our diligence comes from fear that the fence will ground out, or they'll run out of grass or water and charge through the next field onto the county highway. In less than two weeks of rotation, they've managed to munch their way through the spring growth on a 15-acre pasture. I'll move them further out next week and rotate them through the 30-acre pasture. We could use some warm weather to get the grass going. The chilly spring we've been having has really held the growth back.

The time it takes to tend the expanded herd has taken up any slack we had in our already stretched schedule. We farm 14 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. Sundays, we try to relax a little after chores, go to town for a meal or a movie, or take a walk around the farm and catch up on sleep. Today, a Sunday, the sun came out and we went out for what was supposed to be a relaxing stroll through the pasture, only to find that the beef cattle had ripped out a section of the high-tensile fence, which needed immediate repair, and there went the Sunday nap.

A farmer Mark talked to recently reminded us that when farms like ours fail, it's usually not for financial reasons but because of burnout or divorce. We, newlyweds, laughed about that, and now when things get really stressful, we yell 'Burnout and divorce!' at each other, but we are also sincerely struggling with fatigue and time management. Nonessential chores like mowing the lawn and keeping the housework under control just haven't been getting done, which lowers our morale, and we both feel like we've let down friends and relatives who haven't gotten much attention from us lately.

Meanwhile, the workload is due to get heavier before it gets any lighter. This week, for example, we have to set up some kind of head gate to hold these big yearlings for the vet when he comes on Tuesday. The little calves already on pasture have to be banded and tagged before they get any bigger, and we have no easy way to do it. My first batch of 130 broiler chicks arrives this Thursday, so there is the brooder to set up, the feed to formulate, grind and mix, and mobile coops to build. And the meat freezer is nearing empty, so we'll have to slaughter a hog this week and also a steer, if we can figure out a way to get a tractor through a muddy patch between home and the cattle pasture.

But the bright side: The plants are looking awfully good. Standing on our shaggy lawn, looking out toward the lake, I can see six acres of tilled ground, three planted now in regular rows of garlic, greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cabbage, peas, tomatoes, beans and potatoes. Our ad-hoc greenhouse (the south facing porch of the farmhouse) is stocked with flats of healthy looking seedlings. Flowers have been planted next to the distribution area. While we haven't yet been hit with the full force of summer weeds, we have, so far, managed to keep the fields fairly clean. We've been working the horses almost every day, spreading manure and disking and cultivating, and they look fit and hard. When I see them grazing in the pasture, I feel a small pang of pride.

Tomorrow, we'll start preparing another two acres of ground for planting corn. The horses will be frisky after their day of rest. They'll throw themselves enthusiastically into their collars to pull the heavy load of compost over soft ground, and I'll admire them from where I sit, behind. By tomorrow night we will have moved the fight one small step forward. Yesterday, an elderly neighbor stopped by to see what we were up to. She grew up on a ranch out west. 'It's a very good life, farming and ranching,' she said. I agreed. 'One does have to get up very early, though,' she went on. Then she got very serious, and pointed a finger at me, like she was giving me the secret to a happy farm home. 'The important thing, dear, is to make sure you take a nap every afternoon.' I'm going to schedule one in for tomorrow.