“Have you ever worked with livestock before?” the farm manager asked.
“Well,” I replied with a chuckle, cleverly avoiding the real answer with a little shrug: “I grew up in Texas.”
And that was enough to land the job as a farmhand at Kelmscott Rare Breeds Foundation in Lincolnville, Maine. The truth was that I had never worked with livestock before. Although I did spend many fine hours playing in the dirt and crawling around with puppies on my grandparents’ farm as a little girl, they raised grain- not animals.
My first day at work I was slightly intimidated but mostly excited for this new adventure. I had just quit my job working for an evil, evil credit card company where my days had been spent selling debt. I would walk to work every day to the tune of a full-blown fantasy that the bank building had been burned to the ground. It was the worst job of my life and I only made it through the days with the help of a flask full of vodka that I enjoyed during my timed bathroom breaks.
“You’re so enthusiastic on the phone!” my managers would say.
Enthusiastic, nothing- I was drunk. And the worst part about selling debt? I was good at it. So after two months of this soul-sucking yet of course high-paying job, I quit and went to work at Kelmscott Farm, for $8 per day. It was a mostly-volunteer Americorps position, and although I eventually talked them up to $8 per hour, at the beginning it was less than an ideal career move. My parents, who both grew up on farms and knew the mad amount of physical work they entailed, thought I was absolutely crazy to trade a cushy office job for long days of hard manual labor. And in the beginning, so did I.
The first morning I arrived in thermal underwear, two layers of clothes under my heavy coat, highly inappropriate shoes, gloves, a scarf and a hat. These last three are not accessories in Maine. They are necessities. It was early January and shit was COLD. MAINE cold. So cold that when the temperature bumps up to the 20’s people start talking about a warm front. So cold that the snot freezes in your nose the second you step outside. So cold that the layer of snow on the ground came up to my thighs, making farm work even more fun.
My first task was to lead the horses down an icy, snowy slope from the main barn to the big white field where they would romp all day. All the animals at Kelmscott Farm were endangered breeds of livestock, meaning that they hadn’t exactly trumped the evolution game. They had trouble mating and when they did mate, they had trouble reproducing. In short, they were freaks. Dumb and
dreadlocked Cotswold sheep, Mikey the Poitou ass from France who lived up to his name, Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs of whom there were less than forty left in the world, skinny Narragansett turkeys, dumb ducks and mean geese, slobbery cattle and a barn with three beautiful horses and one asshole pony. The head horse, named Big Pete, was a direct descendent of the medieval ‘Black Horse’ that knights rode and he weighed well over 2,000 pounds. I had never in my life handled a horse before and here I was about to be responsible for a giant monster whose head was almost as tall as I.
“Just walk beside him, not in front of him, because if he slips and falls, he’ll kill you.”
Awesome. Little did I know that leading horses down a steep and icy incline through snow up to my waist was one of the easier tasks of the day.
Manure shoveling accounted for about half of my entire time spent on the farm, but on that first day there were extra special surprises in store. After putting the horses to pasture, it was time to cut the rams’ hooves. Believe it or not, rams don’t like to be flipped upside down and have their nails done. The sheep manager was showing me how to do it properly by using the element of surprise, but he had about a hundred pounds on me- as did the rams. The whole time you have a ram flipped over, cutting it’s gnarly, nasty hooves with a evil-looking tree-trimming contraption, his friends, true to nature are ramming you from behind with their curled, ridged horns. It really added to the ambience.
Finally the task was done; hey the rams were endangered so at least there weren’t too many of them who needed a hoof job. However, they also needed somewhat of a hand job. See, these rams are very valuable on the evolutionary scale. Their TESTICLES are very valuable, containing the seeds of the future of their breed. Unfortunately for them, Maine is so damn cold that their testicles, despite a dreadlocked covering of wool, will freeze. Their testicles will freeze. And the only way to counter this is to coat them with a thick layer of Vaseline. So I spent the next hour or so rubbing ram balls with petroleum jelly, all the while being butted in the butt by their cohorts. It was almost as good as the moment later that night when my friend Amanda told the whole Time Out Pub in Rockland my story of ram-ball love, earning me a free drink and her a thousand laughs from the rough Mainer crowd.
On a farm, the work never ends, and the work is really work. I loaded bails of hay, sawed boards for new chicken coops, hauled fifty-pound bags of grain, busted iced-over water troughs ten times a day, tractored around supplies, built fences and took them down, moved ewes from field to barn, then barn to field, fed the animals and then shoveled their manure: repeat repeat repeat. All outside, all in the freezing cold.
I left that first day (after washing my hands extremely well) and drove straight to my other job at the local ski resort, the Camden Snow Bowl, and begged them to hire me full time. No go. I went home and stripped off eighteen layers of disgustingly dirty clothes, took the longest hot shower of my life and crashed into bed.
Up early the next morning to get to the farm by 7AM, I wondered what the hell I was doing. However arriving in the still morning air to a farm of hungry animals happy to see the hand that feeds them made me happy. The animals’ steamy breaths in the cold barn made it seem like they were all hitting fatties, and the dumb, contented looks on the creatures’ faces as they joyfully, simply… existed was a nice change from my work at the bank with people who hated their lives despite never having to spend the a night in a freezing barn. Maybe I can do this, I thought.
I was at Kelmscott Farm for about six months, also working at the Snow Bowl as well as a Mom-and-Pop natural foods store down the way, Fresh Off the Farm. Working three jobs seven days a week is a quick way to go crazy, but my job at Kelmscott Farm was one of the favorites I have ever had, out of dozens and dozens of jobs. Sure I was there during the brutal winter, but I was also there for spring, the birthing season. We had 94 lambs born that year, a banner crop for a breed about to kick the bucket.
Although most ewes and indeed most animals give birth successfully with no human help, there were always a few who needed my assistance, and I went home every day covered in what only can be called newborn lamb goo. Work on the farm is not for the squeamish or diva-esque; often my tasks involved cleaning up a cow placenta with a pitchfork or calming a horse while a veterinarian went shoulder-deep in the aft end. Alongside first-year vet students, many of whom had surprisingly never handled animals before either, I learned how to milk ewes, give shots of vaccinations and catch turkeys with a ball cap.
One morning I came in to find a dead ewe, an event that requires some fun action on the endangered animal farm, as you have to figure out why it died in order to protect the rest of the herd from the same fate.
“Do you want to help me with the autopsy?” Scott, the farm manager, asked.
“Sure,” I said, always eager for new experiences and imagining a lab room with microscopes and slides, looking for a tiny bacteria or virus that would illuminate the sheep’s demise.
In reality, we scooped up the body of the unfortunate ewe in the shovel of the tractor and drove to edge of the farm’s 180 acres where a deep trench in the earth served as the final resting place for larger animals. Bodies of smaller animals were thrown in the giant manure pile.
Scott took down the body, with latex gloves this time thank God, and we sliced into the ewe’s abdomen for a look at its insides. The smell nearly knocked me off my feet, my gag reflex kicking in for a good five minutes while the first punch of the odor dissipated. Cutting open the stomach of the ewe, we noticed tiny little nodules on its lining, which Scott said were protein deposits. Accordingly we cut the protein ratio in the rest of the sheep feed, hopefully averting another protein-induced death- no more sheep died during my time at Kelmscott.
Death and birth are part of life on the farm, and once or twice a week I slept over in one of the only heated rooms there, a classroom, holed up in my sleeping bag on a hard table for a bed. Every few hours I would wake up and make a round to check on pregnant animals, making sure no mothers-to-be were having any problems. These night shifts started at 7PM and one particular night I was a little late, having stopped for some Chinese takeout on the way. My boyfriend Joe was with me, and as soon as we arrived to the farm, I headed down towards the piggery, as we had a mucho preggers sow named Bluebell who was going to pop any minute.
There was only one way to get down the steep hill to the piggery- by sled. Sliding down the snowy incline and approaching the barn, I could hear little squeals. Not big squeals, little squeals. I raced into the barn and saw that Bluebell had just gone into labor and tiny spotted piglets were squirting out of her like popcorn into a very cold, cruel world. It was absolutely amazing.
“Keep them warm!” I screamed to a bewildered Joe and then ran out of the barn and up the icey hill to call the farm manager and gather as many heat lamps and blankets as I could find. It was an extremely cold February night, and if these piglets were to survive until morning, we had to get them and keep them warm.
Back down at the piggery I hung the lights and added warm padding for the new family, trying to count the wiggling, squirming, screaming piglets who could fit in your hand- quite a difference from the 800-pound hogs they would grow up to be. I counted eleven spotted pigs, including one adorable runt, and they lined up to their mother’s nipples like pros, stacking one on top of the other down the lineup in a happy, suckling pig pile.
Soon the farm manager arrived and a few other employees as well to witness the miracle or birth and the cuteness of newborn piglets, which is absolute. My wiener dog Louis was running around in mindless confusion and the whole piggery was lit up like a train station from the heat lamps. It looked like this crew was going to make it. We decided to head back up to the heated classroom, and everyone began to wonder off to get some sleep before we all had to be back at work in a few hours.
And then- one more piglet popped out. The total was now twelve piglets, and the world population of the Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs had increased by 25%. It was one of the neatest experiences of my life.
There were many more happy births at the farm that spring. Cindy the horse had a foal that was named Lou, after my wiener dog. A newborn foal is a rowdy fellow, and this one wanted to jump on your face and suckle your fingers. Calves would sometime appear overnight; one inbred dummy I christened Bubba and tried in earnest to teach its name: fail. With almost a hundred lambs running around, daffodils blooming and afternoons almost up to a balmy fifty degrees, it was a symphony of spring. Part of my job was to help the educational department with the school groups that came in, which meant I got to hold little lambs for young children to pet. I don’t know who liked it more, them or me.
Those lambs would one day go to market; it might seem strange to be turning endangered animals into breakfast sausage, but if this breed was to survive its plight, we had to make it marketable. We had to convince other farmers that they could earn money off these animals, despite their reproductive retardedness and random appearances. Many of the piglets would too go to market; sharing similar genes in such a small pool meant that only a few of them would ever reproduce in a carefully orchestrated global event, where hog enthusiasts would match the two least genetically similar hogs to each other. Most were artificially inseminated although we did get to play matchmaker once, letting the tusked hog Gerald have his way with the sow Mary with his corkscrew penis. That’s right, pigs have corkscrew penises.
Whether any of these breeds will survive the genetic bottleneck that they are staring into is yet to be known, but my time spent working with animals and in particular children with animals was profoundly inspiring. I learned to sheer sheep and the entire process of making wool, from the shearing floor to the spindles of finished, dyed yarn. I fell in love with horses, whose personalities are taller than their shoulders and whose cheeky attitudes are fun to play with. I researched sustainable animal husbandry and as the farm’s official “Poultry Queen,” was responsible for the future evolutionary trajectory of a myriad of chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese. I learned that although my body isn’t the world’s strongest, with the power of my mind behind it, I can be a force to be reckoned with, whether standing down a herd of sheep or convincing a stray horse to come back home. And these things were worth every pulled muscle, every manure-covered boot, every frozen finger and yes indeed- every ram’s Vaseline-coated testicle.