“I’ll be home for Christmas.” This phrase has been stuck in my head for the past few weeks, because this is the first Christmas – the first big holiday, actually – since Peace Corps that I’m spending with my family, in my hometown. I know now how hard it can be to NOT be home for Christmas. For those of you experiencing that this year, take heart in remembering that the historical events we celebrate on Christmas are all about a family who was very far from home.
I’m in Minnesota on holiday break after a few months in Massachusetts, where I’m currently a student in the “Learn to Farm” program at a place aptly named The Farm School. The past few weeks were quite busy there as we prepared for the farmers’ zombie apocalypse (a.k.a. winter). After taking in the final harvest in November, we began in earnest to button up the farm for the cold season. We chopped, baked, sorted, packed and otherwise processed what was leftover from the harvest for long-term storage in the freezers and root cellar. We cleaned out barns and moved animals in. We’ve barely begun to stock up on firewood…. I told myself I’d start blogging about my farm school experience long before winter came, but as I’m learning on the farm, saying you’ll do something “before winter” can be a lot like saying you’ll start a diet “tomorrow.”
Now, as we roll into the winter season, there will still be daily upkeep and classes, but the workdays are shorter and mellower. Looking back on the fall quarter, I can hardly believe how much was fit into the last couple months! We spent many days in the forests around the farm with a progression of classes beginning in tree species identification and culminating in our current group project to build a timber frame shed. In between we learned about sustainable woodlot management and took a three-day course in chainsaw safety and operation. I felled a tree for the first time in my life! We visited a farm in Vermont to learn about draft horse driving then came back and began skidding logs with the horses on this farm. And an introduction to the tools and methods used to roll logs were followed by many hours at the sawmill, moving and cutting lumber for the timber frame.
Another highlight of the fall quarter was milking, beginning with the Farm School tradition of hand-milking Goldie, the sweet (and sometimes cantankerous) mini jersey cow. After a week or two on Goldie chore, we had the opportunity to learn how to milk using machine milkers at the farm down the road. It’s the earliest chore in the morning, but a warm barn with warm cows isn’t such a bad place to be at 5 AM. The milk there does not get pasteurized, so producing a safe product requires very careful attention to cleanliness at all stages of the milking process. A simple test is used to check for Coliform bacteria, looking for a “count” of less than 10, which constitutes a product safe for human consumption. When it was my week to milk, we tested a sample to see how I was doing. And the results? Coliform count: 0. Bam!
I can’t wait to see what lessons and adventures await on the farm and elsewhere in 2015, but before ushering in the New Year, I want to raise a glass to those who’ve made my 2014. To many people, but in particular, to the Beninese community that hosted me and to all my friends and family who supported me tirelessly through my Peace Corps service and the transition back to America. To my parents for making it possible for me to attend farm school and for graciously welcoming into their home for the year, my spunky African pup (Breed: Basenji. Literal translation: “small wild thing from the bush”). And to my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers – for being some of the most genuine, rugged, and downright fun group of people I’ve ever known. As you scatter yourselves around the country and the world, I hope it will often be my good fortune to cross paths with you during travels of my own.
Merry Christmas, everyone. And Happy New Year!