Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Romance, Livestock and Carpal Tunnel (Keith)

Broadturn farm was the second stop of our Tuesday morning, three farm tour. I was particularly interested in this stop since I was going to be there working in the afternoon and will be there next week as well. It was a busy morning on the farm. Tuesday is the day CSA workers volunteer on the farm, there was a group of home school students due with their parents AND someone was supposed to be showing up to artificially inseminate Blackberry (their cow). If all went well, there would be time to move the pigs in the afternoon.

I was pretty darn excited.

Our farm visits made me think of "The Tree" by John Fowles. It's basically an autobiographical book in which Fowles discuses the essence of nature and it's relation to the creative arts. Fowles uses an analogy for much of the book. He compares his father's orchard to his own. His father, he writes, goes through painstaking efforts to control, maintain, shape and nurture his orchard into a clean, neat and functional aesthetic. His own orchard, on the other hand is left to grow mostly wild with only the bare minimum of maintenance. It is full of wildflowers, insects, grasses, sticks, stones and wildlife. His orchard is a part of the landscape as opposed to his father's which is something removed from it's natural surroundings, preserved in a little neat patch of order. The author does not claim one choice is better than the other. He simply relates that in each case, a choice was made.

Broadturn farm reminded me of Fowles own orchard. There was life everywhere. John and Stacey use the environment to create a farm that works with the lines and patterns that nature has laid out for them. Are their fields laid out in rows? Of course. It's a farm. But there are areas around the farmhouse, barns, greenhouses and outbuildings which are beautiful, effortless chaos where bright dots of color stand out against a dozen shades of green. Even within the confines of the greenhouse, volunteer nasturtiums, sunflowers and herbs from dropped seed inhabit wherever corners and cracks provided fertile real estate. That's my kind of orchard.

During our first workshop session on Thursday, John said that he has animal anxiety dreams. He has dreams about his livestock escaping and running rampant on the farm. He dreams that they multiply beyond his means. (I secretly wondered if John had read too much George Orwell as a kid). John stated that so much of farming is control, and yet, there is so much that you can not control. Which brings me to my first afternoon of work. . .

John and Stacey have been trying to inseminate their cow for a few months now. They have a bull, but he is too young to be man enough for the task. So they call in a professional. I was surprised to see a professional cow inseminator drive up in a little station wagon. I was not surprised to see the tell-tale brown streaks of occupational hazard smeared on his overalls. His gear was all of a clinically polished stainless steel. So, Stacey, a CSA family and I stood and watched as Blackberry was walked into her milking stall, a REALLY long rubber glove was donned and the insemination process was performed. Barry White tunes played through my head. Someone crossed their fingers. Blackberry was nonplussed. Stacey asked if she should cut him the check or mail it in. At $30 a pop, she was really hoping this time the scientific magic was there. I couldn't help but think that maybe some romance would increase the chances. Candles? A bottle of Cabernet? A decadent chocolate mouse torte to follow?? Maybe next time.

Next up was seed planting. Intern Samantha showed me the recipe for soil blocks of the perfect consistency. I pressed out blocks and dropped lettuce seeds into them. A LOT of lettuce seeds. If my math is right, I planted somewhere around 800 lettuce seeds. Lettuce seeds are very small. I held one hand out flat and upturned with a small pile of seeds. The other hand carefully picked out two seeds at a time. After 20 minutes of this, my wrists were on fire. I was incredibly grateful to move on to summer squash and zucchini. Much bigger seeds. The trays of soil blocks then got lightly covered with vermiculite to retain moisture and a fine coating of potting soil. I felt like a pastry chef putting the final touche of confectioners sugar and cocoa powder on racks of rich fudge petit-fours.

Last was moving the pigs. Broadturn has 4 pigs. They use them to create new garden space. Pigs love to dig up tender roots and shoots, which makes them productive little porky roto-tillers. Stacey also told us how much she loves pork tenderloin. The pigs are multi-taskers. Their work in their present pig pen was done. Time to move on. So, Samantha, Courtney, John and I set up a new electric pig fence. Moment of truth. To get the pigs to go into the new pen. That proved to be much more challenging. I saw first hand where the phrase 'pig headed' came from. We tried everything. We spoke soothingly to them. We moved their food and water to the new pen. We tried to strategically out flank them into the new pen. Nothing worked. They stood in a row, their backsides touching to create an intimidating phalanx of proud porcine power. These pigs made it clear. They were not moving. We couldn't make them do it. So we didn't. We set up a separate fence to create an alleyway from the old pen to the new pen. When they got hungry enough, they would make the journey to the promised land. On their terms.

This is what I took form my first week on the farm. It's what John Fowles was saying in his book. The natural world has it's own way. It's own terms. The more you try to go against that order, the harder the work will be. Sometimes order doesn't look like order. Sometimes it looks like the opposite of order. Entropy and order go hand in hand. It's a delicate dance that happens every day on the farm. Now for those candles and cabernet. . .