On the Farm
Norman and Walter go for a stroll
Every Tuesday mornings we have staff meetings at 7:30 am. This is a time for all of our farmers and teachers to get together and share information that will keep both the farm and our camp running smoothly. With this in mind I generally rush through my somewhat sleepy and calm morning routine on Tuesdays and attempt to arrive at the farm early enough to settle into meeting mode. Little did I know that on one particular Tuesday morning our bull, Norman, and ram, Walter, would have their own distinctive moos and bellows to contribute to our round-table discussion.
The night before we had hosted a talk by Michael Pollan, in which he shared a few excerpts from his new, illuminating book entitled "The Omnivore's Dilemma." In it, he takes a close look at the food chains that support us, including industrial food, organic or alternative food, and food that we forage for ourselves from the natural world. We wanted to be sure to introduce our friendly herd of grass-fed, rotationally grazing Belted Galloways to the author and to our visitors, so earlier that day we had given our campers a ranching experience and had enlisted their help to herd our "Belties" in from their current pasture to a one situated next to the Aero Avenue.
This locale was also closer to Norman and Walter, but the herd had been this close to them before without incurring any visitation from the boys, so no one guessed that come morning Norman and Walter would have attempted a visit. However, we had overlooked the fact that two important barriers that had kept them separated to prevent premature mating in the past were no longer present. The last time the herd was in this close, the bull and the ram had been out of view of the herd inside the barn, and the electric fence near the boys had had a higher and more effective voltage.
On this evening, Norman and Walter played it cool during Michael Pollan's talk and patiently waited until the cover of night before testing the fences and realizing that the fences packed little to no punch. What joy Norman must have felt when he discovered that he could pay a visit to the herd. Sadly for the boys, the final fence between Aero Avenue and the herd packed too strong of a punch for even Walter and Norman, so the following morning they were found peacefully lolling in the lane.
Dylan Rice, our hard-working farm intern, was first on the scene and had already concocted a clever strategy using vehicles to corral our charges and herd them back to their proper summer pastures. Within the next 10 minutes most of our FARM Institute crew arrived, and we went to work implementing the plan. Unbeknownst to us, Norman and Walter had their own strategy in mind, which involved a skilled navigation of the parked car barricade and a jog around the property to pay our neighbors in Katama a morning visit.
Rob, Wes, and I followed the boys while the rest of the staff attempted to move the herd back to its more remote pasture. Rob stuck to the fence line to keep an eye on their movements from behind while Wes gallantly ploughed through thick brush full of poison ivy and other sharp branches, attempting to get in front of them and turn them around. Meanwhile, I ran around the brush through our unsuspecting neighbors' driveways and mowed lawns, also attempting to cut them off. As I jogged along I wondered what our waking neighbors thought of their visitors, animal and human alike, and I envisioned Norman and Walter evading our herding tactics and opting for a long and meditative walk on South Beach.
Back with the herd, Hollye, Dave, Jane, and Melinda attempted to drive the animals back to their proper pasture, but instead came into contact with an unexpected slough of challenges. Perhaps the herd had been flattered by the visit from the boys and desired to stay close to them, or maybe it was just the fresh and varied grasses covered with morning dew that slowed them down. Whatever the reason, when they finally seemed to be on the move back to their home pasture one would circle back and leave our staff standing in the middle of the herd shaking their heads.
Back in Norman and Walter's realm, we noticed that their pace had slowed to a more fatigued jog and they were finally moving in the direction of the farm rather than the beach. I thought for a moment that a swim in the ocean on a steamy morning such as this might actually be a blessing, but picturing Norman and Walter in the surf was enough to revive my determination to herd them back toward the barn. With Matthew in on the act, we succeeded in returning them to their proper pasture and, in time, to the barn. Later that morning the herd too was returned to its home pasture, and all was well for the moment.
Unexpected and somewhat chaotic moments like these remind me that we are caring for intelligent beings who, while they depend on us for food and water, will venture outside their normal routines if they sense a better opportunity in the next pasture. Our goats, pigs, cows, chicks, ducks, chickens, and sheep generally stay where we expect to find them because that is where they find their water and food. However, from time to time, they see that the grass is in fact "greener" on the other side of the fence, spring gate, or road, and they decide to test out the fence and take a taste.
We ended up missing out on staff meeting that week, but Norman and Walter's jaunt allowed us to work together, communicate, and strategize in a different way that was valuable in its own way. As we went about the rest of the day with our campers, the farm buzzed with a different kind of energy and a new regard for the intricacies of the care and management of our clever and sometimes wily beasts.
One week later, we enlisted the assistance of approximately 55 campers, ranging in age from 4 to 14, and our entire staff to orchestrate a well-choreographed bull run to return Norman to the herd. All went well, and Norman is now happily grazing in the greener grasses with his fellow Belted Galloways. Walter spends his days communing with his neighbors Jessup and Buttercup (our milking goats) and still yearning for the time when he will be back with his fellow sheep. All in due time.
For the peace of mind of our neighbors, please note that all of our electric fences have been repaired, and we have stepped up their maintenance to minimize unplanned ram or bull runs. Still, there are no guarantees, what with the wise and crafty animals of Katama Farm.
Bridget Meigs lives in Tisbury. She is a farmer and teacher at The FARM Institute, which is based at Katama Farm in Edgartown. Ms. Meigs's notes on life on the FARM appear from time to time in The Times.