I took the following post down for a few weeks after I found out that the farmers we recently worked with had read these words. While when I wrote the post I chose to leave out the name of the farm and farmers to keep it relatively anonymous, I understand that it must have been hard to read. I sat with the decision to keep the entry up or not and tried to sift through what I wanted to get by recording and sharing this experience with my small community of readers. In the end, I’ve decided to leave the post up. I truly feel for all small farmers in financial hardship, trying to make ends meet. I also believe that this experience was my own and has a right to be shared.
Coming all this way, giving up my “former-life,” I definitely had expectations for this apprenticeship in downeast Maine. I had quite a list of assumptions about what I would take away from this time on the farm. I would better understand the land, myself, and my future. I would fall so in love with the place, the animals and the farmers that I would want to stay on, through the fall season and possibly the winter too. I would learn to make really good cheese. I’d take pictures everyday. And teach myself to cross-stich in the cabin by the wood stove. I’ve done some of these things but expectations remain.
When we got to the farm, I was elated to finally be here. To have a purpose that I’d been so searching for and to finally be following a path that felt so true and necessary to my well-being.
And then we moved into our very tiny cabin. Cute from the outside but needing a deep-cleaning and an extra 140 square feet. There was no running water and no refrigerator as promised. The closest bathroom was far down the hill in the creamery.
It was getting dark as we carried our belongings up the icy hill. As we trekked back and forth to the car, knee-high in snow, we realized a fire still needed to be built but were weary to leave things in the car that might be damaged by the sub-zero weather. And yet we were still excited about what we came to do.
There were beautiful moments here. There was learning here. Even though fingers were often numb and toes ached through double wool socks and muck boots, we were witnessing kid goats being born, day and night. We learned the first signs of the milkers going into labor, watched for complications and blow-dried the kids as soon as the mothers stopped licking them off. We bottle fed colostrum, the first milk and tucked in the kids under heat lamps, watching from our cabin for the red glow of the hoop house in the middle of a blizzard, to make sure none would freeze in the night. Witnessing these moments and having such a hand in these lives felt meaningful, the kind of meaningful we were looking for. For a brief time we felt we were being taught, we were engaged and learning.
And then coinciding with a lack of motivation we were sensing, the cabin seemed smaller. And there wasn’t any food provided like we assumed there would be. We were working six days a week, 11 hours a day. Mostly doing pretty monotonous tasks. The long hours were less the problem than the lack of direction or instruction. We began to wonder if “apprenticing” here just meant being cheap labor. There I said it.
We had signed up to work in exchange for a place to stay and an education but felt that our farmer “teachers” just weren’t teaching. We were helping in the creamery but most often we were bottling, labeling, packing orders….right along with the paid employees. When cheese was being made, often there wasn’t enough knowledge to make a good end product and we witnessed waste upon waste.
Kid goats were getting sick and we would assume it was because of lack of space in the stalls built for newborns. If medicine is administered, the goats are no longer “organic” and we at least were engaged by our own questions of what that meant to us. Is having the label “certified organic” more important than a goats existence?
We realized we were witnessing a sea of burnout. The farmers were too busy scraping by, exhausted by debt and too distracted by their unsustainable practices to seem to have room to teach. Infrastructure was not often thought out and we were often rescuing goats who had heads stuck in feeders and fences not constructed for the horned. There was a lack of organization and treatment of outdoor equipment. Mostly, attitudes were becoming toxic. And this just wasn’t the model of a farm or model for life that we wanted to glean anything from.
After much debate and reflection, we decided that we weren’t crazy, but this situation might just be. We deserved to get the most of our time and we had options. Even if it meant having a hard talk with the farmers as to why we couldn’t help them for the rest of their season, we had to go.
And maybe most farmers do struggle to feed themselves. Maybe it’s more often than not a failure running a farm or a dairy. But so many paths are leaps of faith and not everyone fails, or has reached total burn-out. There must be achievable small-scale models out there to engage with.
Still looking for the education we have been seeking, we’ve decided to move on. We’ve got some heavy hearts leaving the animals we’ve grown so close to and we’re sad to see a say goodbye to a few co-workers as well. But putting ourselves first, we head south today. We’ll take to the road to visit a handful of New England farmers, doing shorter stints with a diverse mix of people willing and able to teach.
If all goes well, we’ll visit Nigerian dwarf goats in Maine, a diverse small farm with goats, pigs and vegetables in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and an organic vegetable and goat farm neat there. Then very small herd of small Irish Heritage Dexter cows in the high peaks of the Adirondack mountains of New York and a homestead, bread maker in Vermont who mills his own wheat and grain to make beautiful rye bread. He says he loves to teach.
So thanks Downeast Maine. I shot my first gun, milked my first goat and was swooned by some damn good accents. Amidst all of the chaos and struggle, I learned an awful lot. I met character upon character and got used to locals asking me where I was from before I even opened my mouth.