So you think you want to be a farmer?
It seems these days that everyone wants to live on a working farm. Well, everyone in my generation, or at least everyone who doesn't already know better.
I am not a farmer, but maybe a hair closer than some. I grew up on an old dairy farm in Camden, with 40 acres of woods and good fields. I had horses and as a family we had chickens. My parents tended a large vegetable garden, my dad planted some semblance of an orchard and we had honey bees.
I went through a phase, sometime between college and returning to Midcoast Maine in 2008, where the pastoral life was nary a blip on my citified radar. I'm quite certain I didn't even own a pair of shoes that didn't have a three-inch heel, and the idea of donning an outfit the least bit imprecise — or sans designer label — would inspire a reaction somewhere in between a tantrum and a panic attack. It was not my finest hour.
Then I left the city (Portland) and moved back to the Midcoast. I did so on something like a whim, subletting a great apartment, leaving a great job — all signs pointing toward my hunger for change.
Fast forward four years and I can safely say that my passions and interests — as a woman staring down the barrel of 30 — mirror those things I loved as a child. One of those prevailing passions is my love of animals and I've managed to leverage that into an opportunity for myself. I spend several weeks each year watching a handful of farms around the Midcoast, I get paid to do something I love in both my day-to-day job and my adventures as a farm-sitter.
This week is one of my barn girl weeks. I rise with the dawn and yank on my ever-muddy boots and horsehair-laden gloves. I leash the Great Dane in residence at the house where I'm staying, since she can't quite be trusted to come when she's called, and trudge out to the barn. I don't look at the clock, but I know it's likely about 5:45 a.m.
I have a handful of horses and ponies to care for in paddocks and barns spread on either side of the house. The ones in the main barn nicker and paw as I open the sliding doors and flip on the aisle light. It's as dark inside as it is out, but I won't complain about the light since the temperature isn't painfully low.
Since a bitter cold night Friday, Nov. 30, incidentally my first day of the gig, the weather has taken pity on me and hovered above 40 degrees during the day. The well pump isn't functioning correctly, so I'm hauling clean water by hand from the house. The simple fact that all of the buckets aren't frozen solid in the morning saves me both time and the unpleasant task of bashing the ice out of them one-by-one, which inevitably involves removing my gloves and submerging my hands in an iced trough or two to lift the bigger shards of shattered ice out of the drinking water.
I feed the horses, a task that requires some hauling of hay and distribution to various paddocks for consumption during the day. The sky is coming to life, and that old, debatably meaningless weather adage, “red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” is playing on a repetitive loop in my head.
The air smells like earth, horse and hay; and I like it. By the time I return to the barn to muck stalls I'm beginning to enjoy the chores. There's something wholesome in the work. I always make the mistake of saving the water for last; it takes nearly 40 gallons to fill every trough and bucket, and in five gallon increments — lugged by hand — there's a certain level of dread involved. There's also the certainty I will end up soaked by sloshed water and if it's cold enough my pant legs and boots will fuse together with ice.
It's right around 7:15 a.m. when the chores are finished, though it feels much later. There's something secretive about beating the sun to work; there's some inevitable triumph once the morning chores have been accomplished and I'm allowed to shower for work and pass on to the next phase of the day: my regular life.
As I type this column at my desk the first hint of darkness is transcending the sky and I know I'll hit the ground running once I get back to the farm. I'll toss halters on the horses and lead them in for the night, the water process will repeat, though I might do four buckets instead of eight, tonight, I think, my pant legs will freeze. I try to stay ahead of things and sometimes I silently thank myself at the end of the day, when I've been awake and working for 13 hours by dinner time, for going the extra mile in the morning.
So every now and then, when I really think I want to be a farmer, I get to have a reality check. While it doesn't deter me, I realize just how important it is to be prepared. I have many friends who are bonafide farmers and during the growing (or lambing or calving) season they work harder then anyone else I've encountered in my life. I'm vaguely amused at the throngs of millennials — my peers — who seemingly idealize this perfect farming life, and while I wholeheartedly support the cause, I wonder whether the majority of them have actually, truly road tested the idea.
Jenna Lookner is a reporter for Courier Publications.