Tuesday, June 11th
Today is our last full day at River Run Farm & Pottery in Springfield, KY and this morning we said good-bye to Henry, 7 and Walt, 6, the two young Hurley boys who are going to spend the rest of the week at their grandma’s house. In just two short weeks, both JC and I have grown quite attached to the pair and to life here on the farm being developed by Jonas and Julie Hurley. JC has really taken to working the field machinery. Meanwhile, I continue to find ways to shift gears.
River Run is our very first organic farm internship and has been, in many ways, the perfect introduction to “WWOOFing”. We’ve participated in an incredibly wide range of farm tasks since then: shearing sheep; planting both seedlings in the high tunnel and seeds in trays in the greenhouse for succession planting; shoveling manure in the burgeoning orchard; tilling and planting a fairly large field with feed corn and sorghum; rotating chickens and sheep from one pasture to the next; operating a rideable mower; washing and carding wool; mending an electric fence; weeding; selling pastured pork, vegetables and herbs at local farmers markets; building a gravity-fed water line to ease the watering of the pigs (JC’s idea and handiwork); and, funniest of all, bottle feeding an orphaned lamb.
We also had a chance to throw pots with Jonas one night in his ceramics studio, which was a lot of fun! (I simply can’t fathom how he coaxes such beautiful pottery into being!) And the food has been fantastic! Freshly baked artisan bread six out of thirteen days, 10-hour chicken, spicy smoked rabbit pasta, homemade yogurt and granola, ricotta pancakes and my favorite, maple scones! The Hurleys have a wonderful kitchen and we’ve been able to produce a bit of deliciousness ourselves – JC-smoked ribs and Boston butt, Tuscan pork liver, and David Chang’s pork buns made with homemade lard. Delish!
Remarkably, we did not have a chance to participate in any butchering at River Run. Jonas and Julie raise a broad range of animals for food including several varieties of chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, sheep, goats, and hogs. They are currently selling various cuts of pork that were butchered a few weeks ago and processed by popular local abattoir, Marksbury Farms. The pork is AMAZING and I highly encourage you to reach out to the Hurleys for an overnight shipment. Both JC and I are very interested in learning how to properly dispatch and butcher animals. We’ve agreed that if we can’t stomach the process of killing and processing an animal, then we shouldn’t be eating its meat. If you know us and our BBQ/foodie inclinations, you will find this a little hard to swallow. But we are serious. There’s quite a lot to consider on this topic and we’ll be posting about it very soon. (Read my first post on butchery.)
We’ve learned a great deal here, too much for one post. So, I’m only going to cover a few moments / thoughts. If you want to know more about any particular activity, please let us know in our comments section – we’d be glad to elaborate!
Thankfully, the work schedule has not been overly rigorous for our soft citified bodies. Each day we would wake at 6:30 or 7 and climb a steep path from our guesthouse/ apartment through a magical little patch of woodland to the main house. There we’d have some breakfast (usually something incredible and unexpected), play with Henry and Walt and discuss the projects for the day. We would normally stop for lunch around 1:00 and break again at 5:00 or 6:00 to shower before dinner – though there were days we worked until the sun set at 8:30. Walking back in the dark, I often shut off the flashlight to marvel at the inky silhouettes of trees illuminated by fireflies; Kentucky’s enchanted light installation.
Using one’s strength and stamina to perform work is such a departure from being chained to a computer! Thankfully, I’ve reconnected with an almost childlike enjoyment of being lubricated from head to toe in sweat, something I thought I’d lost when I quit gymnastics at 15. Muscles long underutilized are making their presence felt again and I can see baggy jeans in my future! I dug in the dirt for hours and was deeply pleased to see the product of my labor coalesce. (I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed gardening!) I loved walking home and feeling the soreness radiate. It was my proof that any fears about being too weak or soft to deal with WWOOF’ing were unfounded. And, it just feels simply righteous to feel good in my body again. For some people, making the steep butt-burner commute from guesthouse to farm several times per day, walking 17 hilly acres, and the stooping, chopping, pulling and scraping to remove ubiquitous weeds may just feel like a great outdoorsy work out. But they’d be completely missing the point. This activity, orchestrated properly, produces food; it provides what we need to live. What can be more meaningful? More essential to life? In this context, even my sore back is something of a pleasure.
A Day in the Life
The second day we were here, Jonas announced that we’d be shearing sheep the next day. We were thrilled! Shearing sheep was not an experience I had expected. Expectations are tricky devils though; regularly setting mental limitations at odds with reality and making you believe you can organize Life.
First thing the next morning, we were herding the sheep and goats into a circular pen with a shoot on one end and a trough in the middle. Feed is poured into the trough drawing all the animals into the circular pen. This makes it easier to lure/coerce the animals, one at a time, through the shoot and into the stabilizer that holds the animal in place. A pull on the lever releases the locking mechanism and cradles the sheep. You can then turn the stabilizing contraption – and the sheep – all the way upside down if you need. Jonas uses this machine to inspect the sheep for parasites and to clip the animal’s hooves so they don’t get hoof rot from the soft pastureland. Afterwards, the sheep is led out onto a tarp where it will be sat on its butt or laid on its side to shear.
After snapping some pictures, I squatted down to help steady the first ewe, a brown Border Leicester. Jonas was nudging the giant shears through her wool, which turned from a light café au lait at the tips thru deep caramel into dark, dark chocolate at the skin. Shearing this way is quite physical, definitely not the hot knife through butter routine that you see in movies and on TV! When I began to sweat, I realized how close to the animal and the earth I had gotten. She was very warm and her body radiated a damp, grassy vapor. Often, she would struggle to get on her feet and my worst fears conjured images of young Henry taking a hoof to the eye or a blade from the rattling shears flying off into my cheek. I focused on trying to soothe the ewe, cooing sweetly and rubbing her head. It made no difference; panic ran through the animal in tidal waves. And don’t think just because a sheep is pinned on the ground getting a hair cut it stops pooping. Just so you know, sheep shit comes out in large, soft, shiny turds smelling vaguely of wheatgrass and rancid vinegar. Somehow, I relaxed into it, surprising myself with exactly the lack of squeamishness I hope for in my wildest Amazon warrior dreams.
JC and I had a chance to try our hands at shearing, but the shears were proving to be more problematic than expected. So, Jonas decided to move on to spreading manure in the young orchard until he could procure better shears. Before we could move on however, we had to herd several errant sheep back into the pasture. And now I know the proper way to secure the gate chain! JC, Jonas and I ran around, waving our arms and grunting at the wool balls on wheels, while Mattie, responding to what I am sure is some deeply inbred instinct, chased them down and nipped at their heels. But, as she’d never been trained to herd, all she managed to do was panic them up and down the fence line, causing them to try to leap through the metal mesh. I was terrified that one of the sheep would break its neck, but each time they rose and skittered away. And then I turned to find a sheep lying awkwardly against the fence with Mattie hovering nearby. My heart sank. If the ewe’s leg was broken, it would have to be put down. Jonas released the sheep and she struggled to her feet. One stumble step. Then two. A third. And then she was running again. Disaster averted!
When we finally got to the orchard, the sun was high and Mattie, exhausted by all of the herding, decided to steal a nap in the shade of the truck hauling the manure. Each time we moved down the row, she had to be ordered away from the front of the truck. After the fourth or fifth time, she finally got the message and moved to a nearby tree. We moved on down the row telling stories, getting to know each other and having a better time than I ever thought possible shoveling shit! Suddenly, there was a yelp. The truck had rolled over a sleeping Mattie and her back foot dangled loosely. A million panicky fears ran through my mind. We bundled her and JC into the back of a vehicle and dashed to the vet.
Later that day, Dr. Cook confirmed that it was just a compound fracture; spine and organ damage were ruled out and I finally breathed a sigh of relief. Mattie came back to the farm with a full cast on her hind leg and a plastic cone to keep her teeth away from the bandages. Quite a pitiful picture! Somehow, we would need to keep her immobile and off her leg for the next 6-8 weeks. We briefly considered changing our WWOOF’ing plans. But accidents are bound to happen. The sun keeps rising, the seeds keep sprouting and on our big adventure there is no turning back. So we went back to work in the fields and Mattie stayed in the guesthouse, where she reconnected with air conditioning and carpet!
A few minutes ago I was out in the sun, hanging wash on the line. Birds tweeted and chortled in the trees around the house and down by the river. A gentle breeze was blowing and my thoughts were still. My muscles and back were sore but I felt so good and strong standing there barefoot in the grass. I was taking my time putting the clothespins in the right spots on the shirts and suddenly, my inner quiet collapsed. The old rushing around stress had returned. And then I reminded myself that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing and could choose to do it as quickly or as slowly as I wished.
So, I inhaled deeply and down shifted.