This is my first post as a guest blogger on BAP this week. I'll be talking about my farm, poetry, and anything else that occurs to me.
For almost two years, I've lived on a small acreage in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles south of Harrisburg. My husband Rick and I spent most of our lives in Harford County, Maryland -- a once-rural place that has become, unfortunately, a perfect argument against out-of-control development, strip-mall blight, insane traffic, overpriced McMansions, and all of the consequent ills that come from an inadequate infrastructure and too damn many people. We remembered, though, what the area had been when we were children - a place full of farms and fields and wonderful woods for kids to tramp through. In memory, it was idyllic; it was safe; there were no deer ticks or poison ivy. We dreamed about the day we could move away from surburbia (usually when our next-door-neighbor had a party) and find our own version of God's little acre.
Two years ago, Rick's father died (I wasn't sure how to bring this up without sounding like a gold-digger, but there it is), and with a small inheritance we were able to buy the place we live in now. The house was built in 1858 and has been basically well-maintained, with the quirky, make-it-up-as-you-go feel that comes from generations each adding their own special touch. The last people who lived here were master gardeners, so there are the bones of amazing gardens that I am still uncovering (there's a lot of weeding to do). There's a pool, and when I'm feeling really uppity, I show people the tennis court. The facts that the last time I played tennis, Carter was President; the asphalt is so bubbled and cracked as to resemble the moon after a meteor shower; and junk car "projects" belonging to my gearhead husband and sons are parked all over it mean nothing: I am a woman with a tennis court.
But most important are the three acres and pole barn that came with the house. Before proceeding, it is necessary to know that a large portion of my inner life was formed from reading Charlotte's Web when I was in 4th grade. On top of being a terrific story (and what contemporary children's author could get away with beginning a book with "Where's Papa going with that axe?"), it portrays farm life the way it should be - with talking animals and clean barns. From the first time I read it, I wanted to be Fern, not necessarily with a pig, but with Fern's ability to hear what the animals were saying and participate fully in their animal lives. It didn't occur to me at the time that Fern never mucked out a stall or slopped Wilbur herself. Lurvy, the hired hand, did that. I just assumed all farms came with hired hands to do whatever work needed to be done.
The reality of farming is, of course, quite different. For one thing, it's appallingly hard work (on occasion, one of my neighbors, Mr. Schneider, can be heard out in his fields running the hay baler in the middle of the night. When the hay is down, it's down, and the weather gods won't wait for you to get a good night's sleep before sending rain). For another, the knowledge base required to be a successful farmer is enormous. I quickly realized that it would take a lifetime to learn all the things I needed to know -- or even half of what my neighbors had at their mental fingertips. Things like what kind of soil blueberries like (sweet -- add lime to the compost. Okay, how do you make a compost pile?); how much to feed a newborn calf so he doesn't drink himself to death; when to rotate the corn out of a particular field and the soybeans in. Don, across the street, raises hybrid walnut trees, whose fruit has won prizes at the Harrisburg Farm Expo (the biggest farm show in the country, complete with the world's largest butter sculpture -- you should check it out). Ralph and Naomi, down the lane and over the hill, run a dairy farm, raise hogs, and maintain 250 acres of corn and grass for hay with intermittent help from their son (who took himself out of action for several months last winter when he wrecked his ATV on the ice). Sean, up the lane in the other direction, works in partnership with Mr. Schneider to raise beef cattle.
We decided pretty quickly that this was going to be a hobby farm -- raising a few animals and crops, and selling the added-value products (things like wool and honey). So far, our farm animals consist of two Babydoll Southdown sheep and a 16-year-old horse with a bum knee. We are going to expand at least a little (Dairy goats? Bees? Alpacas? A field of purple lavender?). But, to be honest, not only do we not have the land to make this a real business, I frankly don't have the work ethic. What I do have, however, are very kindly neighbors who are willing to share their expertise with me and are kind enough never, ever to laugh at their strange new hippie-liberal city-slicker friend. Don, who is about 70 and once lived in our house (all the surrounding farm land used to belong to his family), has been especially patient and kind, even after I displayed my appalling ignorance by asking him about some walnut saplings he was tending. "That's asparagus," he said politely. Ralph, too, although he wrinkled his brow in puzzlement when I asked if I could photograph his cows for an art project, waved his hand and said, "Sure. Tramp around where you want to." I think they think I'm an oddball, but basically nice, and that I need all the help I can get.