Why Do I Farm?
By Elizabeth Gabriel
Farming is so damn hard.
I’ve just walked inside after inspecting the fruitlets on our apple trees and very few, if any, are viable.
I’ll back up for a minute. In 2013, a year after moving into a yurt on the land we are honored to inhabit - unceded land of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫˀ people of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy - we planted a home-scale orchard of peaches, apples and cherry trees. Expanding it in 2018, adding more apple and peach varieties, apricots, plums and Asian pears, our 21-tree orchard has provided incredibly prolific harvests of peaches and Asian pears - enough to eat, preserve and give to family and friends - and enough apples to eat. We let the birds enjoy the fruit from the single remaining (and struggling) sweet cherry tree (3 others died over the years, seemingly unhappy in our rocky and clayey Appleton silt loam).
I’ve always taken care to prune and mulch the trees with our farm-made compost and woodchips or sawdust and planted a plethora of beneficial pollinating plants in and near the orchard but did little to manage the orchard otherwise. Yet, after getting hit in 2021 with brown rot, resulting in a complete loss of our peach crop, I finally took it upon myself to manage our orchard. I’ve been learning to observe for pests and diseases and developed an organic spray program with Melissa, my friend and orchardist who runs Open Space Cider. In 2022, Melissa helped me manage for tree health and for survival from the major spongy moth outbreak. But this year was to be the year to manage for fruit! This would be the first year of apricot and plum harvest (near perfect timing now that our 3-year-old is mostly on a fruit-only diet and our 10-month-old is eating solid food), plus we were looking forward to an abundant apple, pear and peach harvest.
And yet, despite being organized and monitoring the trees, despite learning to identify insect larvae stages, and despite having sprayed the right spray at the right time balancing the bud and flower stages of the trees - even if it meant spraying with a headlamp after the kids were sleeping - there won’t be any peaches, apricots or plums this year. They never even flowered because of April temperatures near 80 degrees and really cold early-May temperatures. And now, the decaying apple fruitlets I’m seeing as I cut a dozen in half show me the 26 degrees we had on May 18th hit them really hard.
This record-breaking late May cold snap followed a record-breaking warm spell in mid-April - a combination that destroyed most fruit crops.
The loss of fruit is so disappointing. We have grown to depend on our orchard to eat fresh fruit and store plenty for the year. It’s also nutritious and saves us a fair amount of money on groceries. Though fortunately for us, our farm business’s viability doesn’t depend on our orchard. For others, this type of climate-weirding weather is devastating to the business.
In many areas of the Northeast, the late May frost caused more than a 50% loss of the grape crop and even upwards of 90% on some varieties of Chardonnay. In Connecticut, vineyards were hit so hard that Gov. Ned Lamont submitted a request to USDA Secretary Vilsack seeking a federal agriculture disaster declaration for the entire state. Locally, here in the Finger Lakes, I’ve heard several accounts of farmers losing most of their early crops of lettuce and salad mixes - high-end crops relied on for early-season revenue.
Farming is so frustrating. No matter how much effort and care we give, we often have no control over the outcome.
As the record-breaking temperatures of mid-April subsided, a solid week of cold temperatures and near-steady rain rolled into the Finger Lakes. And with the rains, our lambing season started.
At dusk, I noticed a mama ewe with some seemingly normal discharge. She was still grazing and all was well. When I rechecked her a couple of hours later, post-dinner and children’s bedtime, expecting to find her nursing 2 or 3 healthy lambs, it was clear that the discharge was a tail. The lamb was breech. We’ve been raising sheep since 2014. While most of our Katahdin’s lamb independently, we’ve had our fair share of births needing assistance but have never had a breech baby.
Now it was dark and pouring rain. (Of course, it was.) I called our vet and when she explained the maneuver required to turn and pull the baby so baby (likely, babies) and mama would have a chance of surviving, I asked her to come. I know my limits when it comes to my hands inside a live animal, this sounded beyond those limits. (It was the right choice because the vet could also give the mama an epidural, which made this procedure far more humane).
Less than an hour later, all of us soaking wet, our vet pulled out the breech baby - a beautiful grey lamb - dead, followed by two more - one white and one grey - both dead. The wetness of the dark night was heavy with sadness. And regret. What could I have done differently? Why didn’t I realize it was a tail and not normal discharge? I should have checked on her labor progress sooner, but I was alone with the kids that evening, so what would I have done anyway? Maybe I could have called the vet earlier had I known or had a neighbor watch the kids. Could have, would have, should have - the babies are dead. It felt like my fault.
The next day, the rains continued. And so did the births. While we have several moveable shelters, we have limited indoor facilities, so we lamb later in the spring when they can usually be born on pasture without trouble. Wet, cold new babies quickly lead to dead babies. We brought shelters to the pasture and put a new mama of triplets, all nursing and doing well, in their own shelter so they could get and remain dry. We led the other mama and her twins to our temporary nursery in a high tunnel.
At first light, relieved to see that the rain had stopped, I went to check the sheep. The rain was so heavy the night before that the saturated fields pooled water in all the ruts in the ground, even under the shelter. Two of the triplets were nearly dead, stuck inside the shelter in one of the small wet ruts. Mama was baaing, communicating to her babies to get up and eat. I quickly picked up the three babies and walked, as mama followed, to the high-tunnel nursery. Inside, I laid the lambs under a heat lamp and tube-fed them. They died later that day.
As the lambing season continued, another second-time mom gave birth to a lame lamb who couldn’t pick up his head or stand. I’ve read about this but never seen it. After three days of treating him for various possible illnesses/diseases and tube feeding him, it was less cruel to slaughter him - a perspective I hate having to have. Another third-time mom had a seemingly quick and normal birth, but her baby was stillborn. Another seasoned mom gave birth to two strong babies, but the third needed to be pulled because her labor wasn’t progressing. And lastly, a lamb from a set of strong triplets, all nursing and enjoying time in the high tunnel nursery, was dead one morning - with no explainable cause.
All in all, we had seven lambs die under our watch. At least a few of these were avoidable.
Farming (not unlike being a parent) requires radical acceptance and reflection. Is the season pushing our limits? Are we too distracted raising kids to raise sheep properly? What needed to be done differently?
The comforting routines of the season eventually were underway. We were training new, curious employees. Lambs frolicking on green pasture reminded me of the joys of this work. Yet, just as the repetition of moving sheep fences every two days felt grounding, the dusty air of drought started to coat the landscape.
What was May’s usual overabundance of grass is now mediocre forage. Fields are dry and cracking; even perennial plants are wilting. It’s not even June, but it’s been nearly 30 days since our last rain, with temperatures in the mid-80s, and the 10-day forecast offers little promise. We struggle to find the time to water the several hundred trees and berries we planted earlier in the spring. Forest fires are sparking nationwide and the air quality impact of their smoke is being felt worldwide. Farmers across the Northeast and Midwest dependent on irrigation are quickly depleting their ponds.
Farming can make you feel so defeated. We’ve experienced droughts mid-summer but in the spring? Even when you think you’re prepared, nature throws a curveball.
I could go on… The air conditioner in our CoolBot broke last week when it was 80 degrees, threatening the 100+ pounds of fresh mushrooms waiting to be delivered to CSAs and restaurants. One of our new employees showed up late for the 5th day in a row, but it’s more complicated than just firing them. No matter what natural treatment I’ve tried, the potato bugs keep killing the cucumber starts and are starting on the lettuce.
Farming is exhausting.
Farming offers more than an endless list of to-do’s - the to-dos are actually one of the exciting things about farming - but the endless list of challenges makes farming so damn hard. For every to-do, at least a few things can go wrong, from something that needs to be fixed to a living being trying to die to something like the weather that’s entirely out of your control.
So, why do I farm?
Yes, I love being outside. I love using my body and feeling strong. I love taking part in cultivating the abundance of the landscape, of plants and of animals. I love feeling like I’m part of an (eco)system much larger than myself. I do - I love all these things. But if you’re looking for that essay about the labor of love of farming, this isn’t it. Although I’ve been farming on and off for nearly two decades, I’m starting to wonder if I feel like I’m farming or if I’m being farmed. This season has tested me and taken from me - it’s tested my trust and taken my time, my energy, and my heart. Yes, it’s impossible to separate my feelings at this moment about farming from my mid-40-year-old self or my mother of two small children self, which also accounts for my exhaustion and feeling of endless giving, but either way, farming used to fuel me, nourish me and give me hope and I now question if it does.
And so, if I’m being honest, I don’t know why I farm - but I do know I’m not ready to stop. Not yet.