The drought has been tough on everyone this year. Our gardens aren’t producing as much as we’d like, our animals are tired and have little forage to graze, but we get by because we can always purchase what we need at the store, right? But what if what we purchase at the store is coming from our local farms, and they are struggling on a much larger scale? It’s tempting to think that the grocery store will always provide for us, but especially if we are talking about dairy, then we are really reliant on a much larger network than the grocery store chain. We are reliant on the local dairy farmers, all of whom are seeing the same drought conditions our backyard lawns and gardens are suffering from. And what might be an inconvenience of dry gardens for our own families in the short term is a state of emergency for our dairy economy, and for the people who work 24/7 to produce the milk on our tables. Our farm sits between two of these dairies, and we are watching the crisis unfold first hand.
This year’s record drought conditions have created a dairy crisis in our state. Without immediate aid, most of the 101 dairy farmers in New Hampshire will be forced to sell their milk cows for meat processing. Most of these farmers will become the last of many generations to farm their land, and will watch the farms sold off in pieces to cover their collapse expenses. Just within the last year, New Hampshire has already lost 19 farms, causing a 16% drop in local milk production (UNH Cooperative Extension). At a time when China is one of our country’s largest suppliers of apples and a large portion of our commercially-raised meat is being processed outside the country and imported back, do we really want the last major agricultural commodity in our state to go by way side? The movement to eat local is fueled in large part by dairy. Consider how many of the foods you enjoy contain dairy, and then consider whether you are willing to pay a premium to purchase those foods as imports. (Let’s not even open the can of worms that is the conversation about food safety if we are importing it form afar!)
Dot Perkins, the UNH Field Specialist for the Dairy, Forage and Livestock team, recently shared with us that UNH monitors forage crops each summer, and that this summer the crop loss is significant due to the lack of rain. “The silage corn crop is down 50% or more from last year in at least four of our ten counties, with the rest not much better off,” Dot said. “In Merrimack County alone, most growers only took one good cutting of hay, when in normal years they will take two, and sometimes even three. Those who were able to do a second cutting reported crop yield was only 25% of what it should be.” In the central part of the state drought conditions this year are in addition to a low crop yield during last year’s drier than average summer. Many of the dairy farmers already footed an expense last winter to purchase in hay and silage to feed their herds, and now they are faced with a crop loss that will force them to buy even more feed to get through this winter, a virtual impossibility for most.
To add insult to injury, Dot went on, milk prices paid to producers this past year have been extremely low. “The average price per hundred pounds of milk (cwt) is $14.00/cwt, but the cost of producing of that milk is an estimated $17.00/cwt. This has made it difficult – if not impossible – for most farmers to pay off the debt incurred by forage shortages last year,” Dot said. At a meeting on Monday August 29th in Claremont, dairy supporters spoke about how vitally important NH dairy farms are to our state economy. They keep over 70% of our open land open, adding to our aesthetic appeal. WMUR reported recently that close to 88 million dollars will be coming into the state from tourism this Labor Day weekend alone. Tourists – and their dollars – come to New Hampshire because of its rural character and open space. According to UNH Cooperative Extension, dairy farms also generate a third of our agricultural income, which goes directly into our economy. But it’s not just the farms themselves: consider the dominoes that line up to support an agricultural economy. Tractor and tractor part sales, grain, veterinary services, paper products – all of these are consumed by a dairy farm, and all in turn mean jobs for the people providing the services and supplies. In good rain years, dairy farms make feed for other animal enterprises, including hay for horses, cattle, llamas, alpaca, sheep and goats, all of which thrive on small agriculture business models, returning meat, cheese, fiber, and recreation to our economy. But most of all, our local dairy farms feed the majority of us three times a day. Very few families can self-supply the milk and dairy products they consume each day, and if prices rise due to imports, very few families will be able to afford them, either.
This issue has been raised with NH State Representatives and Senator Annie Kuster. They were asked to find a way to provide financial assistance to NH dairy producers as quickly as possible, to keep any more farms from going out of business and to help preserve one of NH’s most vital agriculture commodities. Governor Hassen and Senator Jean Shaheen have been contacted, to see where monies might be found for immediate aid while we seek more long term solutions. Representatives from Farm Bureau and UNH Cooperative Extension are assisting them by providing information about production and operating costs so a reasonable dollar amount can be calculated. Trucking and purchase of forage from as far away as Pennsylvania may be necessary. Some New England states have petitioned their governors for stimulus monies, and NH needs to do the same. We expect a meeting with government officials right after Labor Day weekend.
If you are in favor of helping our dairy farmers, please send an email or call the Governor’s Office to voice your support of allocating immediate emergency funds to our dairy farmers. Only by voicing our opinions in a unified manner will the cries for help from our dairy farmers be heard. Call the Governor and your Representative, and tell them we need immediate aid. Spread the word! Like this page and repost it so all concerned citizens can join the cause.
Milk: it does the body good, and the state too.
Also see the article by Elodie Reed in the August 30th Concord Monitor: Dying Dairies: How Drought, Low Milk Prices Lead to Decline in NH Farms
Reposted from our original blog, August 5, 2013. I wrote this as we were struggling to explain to ourselves and our family why this journey of our farm was so important to us. We had just chosen the farm's name, and found that many people didn't understand the context, or what it meant. On the three year anniversary of this endeavor, things look vastly different. But it's important to remember where we started, and the dream that pushed it all forward.
The Hillsides We Leave Behind When I was eight and my sister a toddler, our parents bought a farm. It wasn't a working farm, not one that supported us financially, but it had once worked to do just that and it held its farmness firmly in outward appearance. My parents, sister and I embraced it eagerly. It was an old place, 1850s at least, with a huge barn and three-story colonial farmhouse, perched atop a hill with a fabulous view of fields and the mountains across the valley. The house was named "Hillside," aptly so, and I was so proud that my address - back before house numbers were required by the post office - was simply that: Hillside. The house had an identity of its own that we took on when we moved in, and we loved it, each for our own reasons. While my father worked painstakingly on renovating the house and barn, fascinated by the old construction, the artifacts and stories each addition revealed and told, and the craftsmanship of each (rotting, but still solid) beam, the women in the family immersed themselves in everything else a colonial farm could offer.
We kept horses, one for each of us in a progression of creatures that, in hindsight, each reflected the stage of life and personality of its owner. My stubborn first pony when I was a 12 year-old tomboy was outgrown and replaced by a rebellious and ornery colt that took me years to train as I struggled equally through my teen angst. We rode our horses all over the hill, on trails we discovered and explored, on dirt roads that led to hidden parts of town we had never seen from the car. We found blackberry patches that we waded into, long sleeves and pruning shears fending off the brambles, and Mom taught us to make jam and pie with the gallons of berries my sister and I toted home. We trekked into the neighboring orchards and woods for grapevines that we wove into baskets and wreaths. We dabbled in chickens, in ducks, in pigs. We were right-hand daughters as Dad designed and built outbuildings that involved countless hours of planning and instruction and, finally, construction. We learned to rough it when Dad tore the roof off the house to discover a progression of rot that could only be remedied by tearing down the third floor, and then the second below it, until our shower was in the formal dining room and we skirted over boards across a floor-less living room to get to the kitchen. We saw the house rebuilt, and I sat as an heiress, overlooking the kingdom I imagined I would always have. My children would return to this house to play with their grandparents. Someday, my grandchildren would return to visit me while I tended Mom's old garden. It would be my inheritance, the one most important thing in the world to have: this house, this identity. Hillside, which was me.
The imaginings and dreams of a teenage girl seldom come true, and this was no exception. My parents divorced while I was in college, the house was sold, and new lives and dreams competed with the heartache of losing Hillside to another family. Time moved on, and my children now know nothing of that house. My husband has never seen it. Since it changed hands, the old barn - so lovingly restored to its post and beam glory - has burned to the ground and been rebuilt with a modern stable. My father and I went back several years ago and knocked on the door of the house, hoping to see it again, hoping for permission to feel the sense of ownership we immediately felt when we entered the driveway. The woman who answered the door was confused, skeptical, leery of our eagerness to claim knowledge of her home. She didn't allow us into the house. We never saw whether the cherry floors I stood on as Dad screwed them down from below were still there, if the banisters he hand-made still stood, if my old room still had the same view that I remembered from 15 years earlier. She did let us see the new barn and her horses, and she listened graciously while Dad reminisced about the property. We finally left, disillusioned and resentful somehow. It was no longer our home, but we realized we had hoped that somehow it was still our house. Dad moved back to his new home overseas and, I suppose, closed the chapter on his identity as it related to Hillside. I mourned its loss again and moved on, too.
But perhaps I have mourned when I should not have. Hillside the location was not my inheritance, but even if it had been, would not it have changed into something other than what I had growing up? The idyllic memory of my childhood in that place is forever preserved, likely even more glorious in memory than it really was because the place is no longer mine. What have I truly lost, then? The gift of Hillside was not its location, or its beauty, or the notoriety of having lived in such a prominent place in town. The true gift of Hillside was in the grapevine baskets and wreaths that I know how to make with my own children. It was in the love of work that starts early in the day and shows a return by noon. It was in the confidence that I can grow things, build things, make a life out of the land. I am stronger for having had such a childhood of privilege, one full of rough hands and beautiful views, but that is not where it must end; indeed, that must not be where it ends. I understand now that the purpose of living and loving and losing Hillside was in learning to pass it on. People can inherit land and homes, but if they don't continue to teach the lessons those homes hold at their cores, then the inheritance means nothing, and does a disservice to the word.
My husband and I have finally settled on a name for our farm, after several months of trying things on for size, feeling them out, discarding them. A true inheritance is not what we receive in tangible goods, but what we take with us in our souls, what we leave behind in a better state for others to use, to learn from, to pass on in turn. It is not connected to any one place or thing, but it is what my parents - and Hillside - truly did leave to me: the knowledge of how to grow, and build, and love. Hillside will exist long after our family's living memory of it has gone, just as it did long before we had ever seen it. Whatever Sam and I create, and wherever we create it, will do the same, God willing. And so I think back to my teenage self, who sat in awe of all that might someday be handed to her, who mourned its loss when the house was sold, and I tell her: Thank goodness you finally realized that your inheritance has been sitting beside you all along.
Loving an animal is easy. It doesn't matter the type of animal - birds, fish, furry mammals of all sizes are fair game. We read our babies books that contain images of animals, and sing them songs about Old MacDonald. We are hard-wired to love, nurture and protect species other than our own. And when we find one that is injured, there's no stopping our hearts. We fall madly, deeply, and protectively in love.
It doesn't matter if the people around us doubt the injured animal's chances. Miracles happen, and they only ever happen because someone loved the animal and believed in the miracle in the first place. How often have you read a story about a dog left for dead that healed itself and disappeared into the woods? Never. But Facebook is full of people-connection recovery stories, for one simple reason: we love to love our animals, and we love to share the joy of them with others. We name ourselves their parents, and even our extended families get involved. I have seen "I Love My Grand-dog" bumper stickers on more than a few cars. And it's true! I love my mother's dog and consider her part of the family, just as I do my own dogs. (Would my mother's dog be my dog-sister? Wait, that might be taking things too far...) But the point is, animals bring out love in us, pure and simple.
This spring, when babies were flushing out of nests and growing like weeds, a little duckling on our farm became the subject of much doubt. She was unable to walk, but she was eager and determined. I was tempted to say those fateful words that creep when we need a defense mechanism to steel us against what we know is a low-hope cause: "She's just a duck." As farmers, we often have to make that call to forestall heroic measures long before we would if the animal was our pet. That doesn't make it easy, but it is the nature of what we signed up for, in many cases.
Jess didn't see it that way.
On the morning that Jess asked if she could "just snuggle her for a bit," I watched a bond happen. It was nearly instant. Jess and Stevie, Stevie and Jess. If the duckling had imprinted on her own mother before that day, it was forgotten. Jess was love, protection, nurturer. Jess was Mom. And Jess accepted that role with a whole and open heart. Over the next month, she bathed and fed Stevie, encouraged her to use her hapless legs, researched vitamin and food remedies for whatever could be ailing Stevie, fashioned a carry-case for her to ride along on errands, and never gave up hope that Stevie would grow out of whatever was causing her to be so off-balance, she couldn't walk or stay upright. I never saw Jess without Stevie. When we dropped our sons off at Boy Scout Camp, Stevie rode along and charmed the families. When I went out to do chores, there would Jess be, painstakingly helping Stevie learn to swim in a kiddie pool.
Sometimes our best just isn't enough. Sometimes it's not up to us to heal, and there comes a time when our hearts push new information to our brains: it's time to let go. For a farmer, that message might come very early on. But for an invested heart, that information has to wade through a mine field of hope, love, determination, and courage first.
Jess came to me one evening last week in tears. Stevie had taken a turn for the worse. In her attempts to right herself off her back, she had self-inflicted a deep eye wound. Her back had developed a sore from being stuck there in the night, unable to right herself. The vet's determination was that the problem was with her ears, perhaps, and that she would not overcome her handicap, even if the infections were healed. Stevie was suffering, and it wasn't going to improve. Jess' heart had pushed that information, and with love, determination, and above all, courage, Jess had to make the call to let Stevie be at rest.
It's tempting to say to ourselves, "Well, she was just a duck." It's easy to say, "I never should have tried." But we know in our hearts that it's never "just" anything. The grief is real, because the love was real, and the trying was worth it. Jess made a courageous decision in taking on Stevie. She offered Stevie a life. It may have been short by our standards, but if Jess had not stepped in, Stevie would never have known water, grass, warm blankets, Boy Scout camp, or sleeping snuggled in Jess' lap. She would never have perked her head up and peeped with joy when she heard Jess' voice across the room. She would not have lived at all, because she would not have brought the joy and love and hope to Jess that only Stevie's little life could.
And so, I honor the little life of Stevie, who rallied and fought to be a duck. But even more, I honor and admire Jess, who walked freely and whole-heartedly into love and courage.
Jess, you did the right thing in trying. You did the right thing in knowing when to let Stevie go. The love that Stevie brought to you remains. I witnessed your patience and kindness, and was reminded of their deep and abiding value. You are a keeper of ducklings, a champion of the weak, and the mom of Stevie. Hearts are with you, and thank you for the life you allowed her to have, because in doing so, you added that much more love and hope to the world.
A month ago, our little silver Swedish duck hatched out four ducklings. About few days later, we received a text from our farm-family neighbors, who were out by the pen watching the babies' first outing to the pond. "One of them is stuck," he wrote. "He needs help."
I went out to the pen to find that one wee baby was indeed left behind and struggling in the long grass. Her mama and the ever-present guardian geese weren't alarmed, which should have been an alarm bell for me, but I was too focused on getting her back to her nest to think about it. I helped her to the duck house to join her family, and that's when I realized that she wasn't stuck at all. She was unable to walk. She struggled around the house in an attempt to get back to the warmth of her nest, but could only flail in circles. Eventually she rolled out through the fencing, back onto the cold ground outside the duck house. I scooped her up and took her inside to a brooder box.
She had no apparent injury, but her legs didn't seem to want to work. She'd flop onto her back and flail her little feet, then shoot herself across the box once her toes got purchase on the bedding. When she tipped her head up to drink, her neck flopped sideways and over she went. She couldn't hold herself up to eat or drink - she could only flop into the dishes, then flop out again - but if I held her still she was ravenous, so clearly she wasn't ready to give up. I bought vitamins to counteract a possible niacin deficiency, held her at her dish when I could, and gave her the stand-by stuffed moose that had comforted two other abandoned -lings in the past (goose Elinor and Dudley success story, the abandoned duckling Pip).
I gave her a couple days, but because I could not be with her all the time, I watched her decline and, finally, decided it was time to let her go. The problem then turned to how to put her out of her misery, when she clearly wanted to survive. As I was struggling with this conundrum, (farm family) Jess came by to visit. She took one look, heard my verdict, and announced, "I'll take her."
I will be totally honest: my unspoken response was "there's nothing you can do to help." Nature was just not on this little duckling's side. But I didn't count on the determination and love of Jess, who is most definitely was on her side. Jess named her Stevie (the jury is still out about her gender, so it's a good goes-both-ways name), wrapped her in a towel, tucked her under her chin, and took her home.
It's now three weeks later, and although Stevie still isn't fully right, she is growing under Jess' amazing care. Like Pip's savior Randi last year, Jess has stepped in as a guardian angel for this little duckling. She's still not able to walk properly, but she's eating and getting a lot of loving support from Jess. Stay tuned for updates on her progress! #ducklingstevie
Ray is part of the Ray and Randi duo, who actually don't live on the farm. They have a micro-homestead in Gilmanton, but are VERY active over at IFP and are guest bloggers for them.
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