Editor's Note Spring 2008

bird house

Written By

Caroline Abels

Written on

March 01 , 2008

The word ‘chores’ is spoken often in New England’s farming community, but people who work outside the agricultural sector don’t use it much. Last time many of us heard the word was when our mother told us to go do our chores–or no allowance! Nowadays, we ‘run errands’ and ‘go to work,’ reflecting our estrangement from manual labor. We certainly have as much to do as farmers, especially if we’re parents or are working two jobs to make ends meet; all of us are busy in our own way. It’s just that farmers rarely get a day off.

As you’re reading this, farmers throughout Vermont are doing chores–familiar, backbreaking, invigorating chores. In corn fields and along rows of kale, in sheep pens and chicken coops, in gleaming milking facilities or seated on the bottom side of a bucket under a cow’s udder, farmers engage in the repetitive work that keeps their operations going. In winter, this work eases up a bit for fruit and vegetable farmers; for folks who work with animals, there’s something to do for 365 days a year.

I don’t know about you, but I like traveling to far-flung states and countries, going on vacation to slice through my daily routine and experience a new part of the world. For farmers, though, this isn’t easy to do. Sometimes I want to wave a magic wand and give all Vermont farmers two weeks off, not because they don’t enjoy chores–most of them do, and wouldn’t want to live any other way–but because many farmers I’ve spoken with tell me they get tired sometimes. And when farmers burn out, the rest of us often end up watching another piece of farmland get lost to development and see another source of local food evaporate.

I can’t wave a magic wand, that’s obvious. But what if I became a magic wand?

Like my friend Julia.

Every Sunday evening, Julia helps one of her neighbors, a dairy farmer, with evening chores. The two meet at the farmer’s dairy barn–which is firmly fixed on the crest of a hill outside Craftsbury, comfortable in its faded wooden skin–and proceed to shoo away the black barn cats, scrape the day’s manure into the trench that runs behind the cows’ platform, feed each cow a couple scoops of grain, turn on the compressor for the vacuum pump, and assess which of the two dozen cows needs to be milked that night. Then they hook up the portable milkers to the cows’ teats and to the pipe delivering compressed air, and wait. After they feel a cow’s ‘bag’ and deem it empty, they remove the milker and pour the warm contents of the portable tank into the bulk tank. When the milking’s done, they carry heavy bales of hay from a far section of the barn to the cow’s stalls. They haul buckets of water to the heifers and watch the water get slurped up in seconds. Then they put their hands on their hips, decide they’re done for the evening, call the dogs, and head back to their respective homes.

The days when Vermont residents regularly joined their farmer-neighbors to help with chores are a distant memory, but they may be coming back. Many CSA’s invite customers to work a few hours a week in exchange for a discount on their share; it isn’t purely voluntary work, but it’s something. Recently, Lee Findholt of Wicked Good Farm in Hinesburg started a farm-sitter network for folks in Chittenden County who have fewer than 30 barn animals (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/farm-sit). In East Haddam, Connecticut, a woman named Cathy Kerkes has started a business called “The Fairy Barnmother.” She takes care of people’s horses, sheep, and other barn animals for a fee. Your wish has been granted, reads the blurb on her business card.

All of us who enjoy local food can become volunteer fairy barnmothers if we have the patience to learn the ropes of a particular farm and the commitment to show up when we’re needed. I’m grateful to have the kind of job that allows me some spare time to assist farmers with chores. I used to stop by my friends’ vegetable farm near Brattleboro to help Jim and Lori pick corn, weed the cilantro, fill the CSA bags. Soon I’ll be moving to the Montpelier area, where I hope to earn the trust of another farmer who says, “Want to help with chores?” Then I’ll be a magic wand of sorts–not a panacea for all the challenges of farming, but a reinforcement against them. I’ll be someone who helps spread the hay, fills the water buckets, and closes up the barn door–but the door will be closing a little earlier than usual.

–Caroline Abels

About the Author

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels is the editor of Local Banquet and the founder-editor of Humaneitarian.org, a website that inspires people to buy and eat humanely raised meat.

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Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape ties into larger questions of sustainability and the future of our food supply.