The tricky thing about spending time on a farm is – for me, anyway – that it’s damn near impossible to leave.
I went there two Thursdays ago to help set up the barn for the weekly distribution of product and food to CSA members. And all of a sudden there it was, a full week later and I still wasn’t home, my bag full of ripe laundry and my fingernails packed with dirt.
There’s always something to do – something to be done – on the farm, so most of the time I don’t feel like too much of a nuisance. And plus, there’s definitely use for the odd butter-laden meal around these parts. I’m fitting in just fine, and where I don’t I listen closely and observe carefully so as to learn.
I don’t know if it’s the smell of earth after it rains or the way the sun looks at 5:45 in the morning, orange-red and brilliant and perfect, but something very strong and specific about this lifestyle speaks to me. Perhaps it’s just the way being around people who work hard makes me feel; I have never met a group as dedicated and responsible as this. But I’ve also never met people who make me laugh so hard that my body shakes in a fit of helpless giggles on a daily basis.
Work on the farm is hard and unrelenting, but it has to be done and there is joy in doing it.
It snowed that Sunday night. I woke at 3:30 and sat up in bed, rubbing the sleep and disbelief out of my eyes before padding over to the big window closest to the door. I pressed my hands against the pane and peered out into the night. Across the street the machine shop was illuminated by the glow of the coop, constantly lit to encourage the growth and health of the broiler chicks. Its roof was white – not just dusted, but packed – with a sheen of thick, white flakes.
I shivered and blew into my hands. “It’s snowing,” I said out loud. “Hey. It’s snowing.”
Tim made a non-committal murmur and rolled over onto his back, sleepily motioning toward the space on the right side of his chest. ”Mm-really?” he asked, his eyes closed.
“Really,” I said, climbing back under the covers and letting my head nestle into the spot between his shoulder and neck.
The snow was still there, heavy and wet, when we woke two hours later. He bundled up and ventured out to take care of chores as I tied my sneakers and pulled sweaters over my head.
I start most mornings at the farm with a run. The rolling hills and sudden twists and turns in the path keep me sharp and clear the early morning cobwebs from my head. On that bitter Monday, I felt I needed it badly.
The road was only half-plowed and with each stride my feet splashed up slush, spattering it across my calves and knees. Halfway through the 5-mile route it began to snow again, fat snowflakes that stuck on my eyelashes and blurred my vision. I shook my hair from its rubber band and let the snow collect in my curls as I plodded down the road. The wet on the pavement made me feel slow and cautious, heavy like a horse doing plow work.
Tim with horses – Photos by Anthony Aquino
Breakfast on the farm is served at 7, and by 7:15 that day most of us had congregated around the table, a worn wooden plank with collapsible leaves, once owned by Matt’s grandmother. By 7:45, though, Gillian still hadn’t arrived and I began to wonder where she could be. The blustery snow made things seem urgent and worrisome. When I left to pull on jeans over my running tights, she still hadn’t arrived.
Later that morning as I sliced beets into thin rounds, she stopped in to the house in search of batteries for the voltage meter. I asked if she was all right.
“Phee-ew. This morning. It was difficult,” she said, running a hand through her hair, starting at the roots and stopping once she reached her ponytail. She laughed but her body seemed tired. “I had to move the mobile coops, but the snow was so cumbersome that it made it really hard.” She heaved a sigh of frustration.
“If it makes you feel better,” I said, setting down the half-beet I was holding, “I can barely lift a bushel of potatoes.” She smiled and I wiped my hands on a kitchen towel. They were stained pinkish red at the fingers through the upper part of my palms.
I smiled back and wrapped my arms around her shoulders. I wished there was a way to tell her that she inspired me, that her work ethic and dedication and desire to be the very best – not just her best, but the best – gave me heart.
But she wouldn’t have believed me. Like anyone who works with land and vegetables and animals, she holds herself to the highest, most rigorous standards, and wouldn’t accept flattery. And that’s exactly what makes her a good farmer, but I just hugged that happy piece of irony in to myself and squeezed her tighter.
The rest of the week turned out similarly; not snowy, but cold and rainy and windy like something awful. A discouraged sense of ennui settled over the farm as projects got pushed aside and extra layers were zipped up.
“What the hell!” Sam said on Tuesday, checking the forecast for the rest of the week. I nodded and sighed, thinking of the outdoor work to be done by everyone but me.
As I prepared dinner the next day I considered my place on the farm. A small part of me felt a tinge of guilt for not contributing in an obviously physical way. I didn’t know the first thing about moving beef out to pasture and I couldn’t build chicken coops – or at least I’d never tried.
“Sure you could,” Tim said when I told him this later, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.
But there was something I could do, could contribute, that was real and tangible and just as important, if in a different sort of sense.
I pulled eggs, Sam’s smoked bacon and Steven’s maple syrup from the refrigerator and clicked the oven on to preheat. I could bake something comforting and warm and rich and cheeky and silly, and I could serve it with supper that very night. I didn’t have to; dessert is welcome though certainly not expected. But deep down I knew that I’d be sorely disappointed in myself were I not able to give these farmers something to smile about on a chilly, dreary day. I felt an urgent refusal to ignore what I was sure was my duty and mine alone, and so I made a cake from maple syrup and rendered bacon grease.
And there, in the kitchen on a small farm in Cazenovia, I realized that although I was a weak one yet, and only in the most abstract of terms, I was indeed becoming a farmer.
- 3 tablespoons rendered bacon fat, from:
- 4-5 slices bacon
- 1 cup milk, preferably raw
- 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces or softened (to facilitate melting)
- 1 cup maple syrup, plus 3 tablespoons
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 eggs, beaten, preferably organic
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9X5 loaf pan with lard or butter and set aside.
Cook the bacon over medium-low heat, rendering out as much of the fat as possible to yield at least 3 tablespoons. Reserve any extra for other, sinister uses.
Combine 3 tablespoons of bacon fat, the milk and butter in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the butter has melted and the milk is at a gentle simmer. Remove from the heat and add in the maple syrup and vanilla extract, stirring to combine. Let cool for 5 minutes.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and spices.
Add the eggs to the warm milk-fat mixture and whisk vigorously to combine. Add the liquid ingredients to the bowl of dry ingredients and fold together gently with a spatula. Add in the walnuts and mix once more.
Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 60-65 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for ten minutes, then invert onto a kitchen towel and remove the cake. Set the cake on a cooling rack over a sheet pan.
Meanwhile, heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Crumble the cooked bacon into tiny pieces. Once the pan is sizzling hot, add the 3 extra tablespoons of maple syrup. Let it bubble and pop, then add the crumbled bacon. Stir to coat completely, then carefully drizzle the glaze over the top of the cake. It helps to reserve the bacon bits back with a spoon and dollop them on top.
Let cool almost completely before slicing into pieces and serving.