Here’s a lovely valentine to community everywhere, and a great read from one of the more inspiring & innovative young farmers we’ve encountered in Northern California in recent years, Gowan Batist of Fortunate Farm in Caspar, California. Thanks to Gowan, Evan Wiig of the The Farmer’s Guild, and Janae Lloyd for the photography. Happy Valentine’s Day – RR
Blood & Mud, a Love Letter to Cross-Generational Farm Communities
The Farmers Guild has taken me to some strange and beautiful places over the years. From a tent in a citrus orchard in Temecula to an ancient farmhouse in Northern Italy, we’ve gone out and had fun and learned a lot. In many ways, our gatherings seem like a big party; we drink beer, see friends, and sometimes dance. Opportunities to make connections, visit other farmers, and have a good time make up the majority of my Farmers Guild experiences.
I was reflecting on this the other day as I lay prostrate in bloody straw, panting with effort as I milked blood out of an udder so tight I could barely get my fingers around the teat.
A neighbor had messaged me with a terrible situation. Her ewe had delivered stillborn lambs sometime the day before and her un-nursed udder had swollen to a floor-dragging, purple and black monstrosity. My neighbor is an intelligent, capable, older woman but this was way too big of a job for her to tackle alone.
She told me that although many people on her road had farmed (actually the area used to be famous for dairies and poultry farms), they were all much older than her. She was out of time and options.
She reached out to me because of the Farmers Guild, where she’d learned that I too had dairy sheep.
When I arrived at her barnyard, I was stunned by the condition of the ewe. When I spoke to her on the phone I wasn’t overly concerned. I had milked out an overly tight goat’s udder last season for another neighbor and while her bag was pale and painful and the goat was in distress, it was quickly relived and back to normal. I pictured a scene with teats that were difficult to milk because of the tightness of the bag and the discomfort of the ewe. This was different. Her bag had filled to literal bursting and broken blood vessels colored her teats purple at the top and black at the tips. She couldn’t walk or lie down and was alternately moaning and grating her teeth with a sound like a bad transmission refusing to slip into gear. We carried the poor ewe into the barn and my neighbor held the ewe’s head while I braced my shoulder into her side, pushing her against the wall and tried her teats. Pure black blood gushed out.
I had a friend last season whose ewe burst a blood vessel in her udder and I had poured a bucket of the pink-tinged milk into a trough for my happy hogs. This was different.
This was the color of red wine with the lees left in. I desperately wanted to call a vet and relinquish responsibility for this ewe. I wasn’t even sure if milking her out was safe, thinking it might worsen her bleeding. But in our rural area we only have one mobile large-animal vet and she was at least 8 hours out. The ewe was suffering more profoundly than I had ever seen a sheep suffer. The only thing we could think to do was relieve the terrible pressure.
An hour later my wrists were aching. My pant legs, hair, and jacket were covered in blood. The blood was full of small clots that caused the teat to spray wildly, mostly all over me. My face was a stiff mask of droplets of bloody milk.
In this moment of intense, miserable effort I was hit with a wave of gratitude.
We all know that we need a rural network of support. The neighbor support network is something I grew up with – something infused in rural culture based on decades of familiarity and shared efforts toward group well-being.
In our current shattered context, with farmland going under for development, more and more young farmers trying to enter the field every day, and fewer older farmers there to nurture them, those ties don’t come ready-made for everyone. Many of my peers are from the city or suburbs, or are farming in rural communities different from the ones they grew up in.
The Farmers Guild gives us a chance to meet with the shared knowledge that we’re in this together. Whether you’re a 4th generation rancher or an urban permaculture student, you can go to a Guild and find people working on the same project that has defined our occupation and largely our species since the beginning of time: the quest to live on land and be supported by it while improving it, instead of degrading it.
Community is messy. We don’t always agree and well-being as a group project is often full of moments where what needs to be done is what you least would like to be doing. That, however, is what life connected to the earth is like, and we all share that experience.
As I drove home I passed a For Sale sign in the front yard of a farm I had loved and learned a lot on. I remembered learning to milk in the old barn years ago, and nights around a lantern watching the presentation of little feet and a little nose diving into the world. If that farm, now gone, hadn’t been there I would have been less prepared to help my neighbor. If I can’t keep body and soul together on my farm, I won’t be able to help others learn the skills they need to live this life.
When old timers know what needs to be done and can’t do it, and young folks could do it if they knew how but they don’t, we lose our heritage.
The Farmers Guild is something we’re creating collectively as we go along. Like most brilliant ideas, it’s obvious – something we all know – not something that sprang uniquely from the mind of one person or institution. I’m grateful for the Farmers Guild, even in the rain, down in the mud, wrestling with bloody sheep teats. I’m so grateful I have people to call in my moments of distress. I’m so grateful I can be the neighbor on the other end of the phone when the rock of Must meets the hard place of Can’t, with a person and an animal in-between.
With the successful funding of our own Mendocino County Wool Mill coming just a week after this experience, I feel like someone who is witnessing the birth of a new era, watching it kick and struggle and bleat into being. We’re going to have more neighbors who will raise sheep. We’ll increase our flock. New challenges will come and my neighbors will help me when I get in trouble and I’ll help them.
And once per month we’ll gather, have a beer, and knit the social fabric that acts as a safety net and a banner, the individual colors and textures coming together to form our community and our Guild.
P.S. The ewe recovered nicely and is currently out grazing in the pasture