How very different it is. It’s not typical but extra quiet this year down on our little farm in Unity, Sullivan County. Underneath the sense of feeling “at loose ends,” nevertheless, a good chunk of time is still doing what I love to do – taking care of animals.
I wasn’t born on a farm like my maternal grandfather, on our ancestral place in Sunapee, but visiting there to play with cousins, and going to fairs, zoos, petting farms, and even an occasional local horse show were always regular summer activities. For me to somehow be near animals was what made me happy and still does. One of my favorite places is now being at those venues explaining animals to the visiting public.
Special early memories include a llama ride at the Bronx Zoo; sitting behind the collar of Uncle John’s work horse; petting all the huge pulling horses lined up for contests (but Papa not letting me watch them pull because the teamsters might hit or swear at them); taking bread scraps to spoil a neighbor’s goats; being content to watch milking all down the line and playing cowgirl trying to tame the Sunapee Shorthorn calves.
Living in Keene in the 50’s I found that 4-H was only for kids who lived on a farm and FFA was only for boys. Undaunted, I walked or biked to nearby farms in West Keene to hang around, breathe in the smells, help shovel or groom cows and horses to come home smelling like a barn. I got to ride a few cast-off horses, read everything I could find, always listening, trying to learn all I could for “someday.” Papa sometimes arranged for a riding lesson and girl scout camp with riding.
It seemed maybe I liked animals more than people, so being a Veterinarian would be a logical choice. But in 1960, a five-foot tall girl was not even looked at for large animal practice and I knew I did not want to work inside. I had enough money from all my summers waitressing at Sunapee for maybe a year of college and went to Montana. I wrote in my yearbook that I would, “Study pre-vet and ‘someday’ write about animals” (because, of course, I would marry and do the family bit like every other girl). I did think maybe I could get a job at the sheep research station as a step above small animals even though I had only one acquaintance with sheep. How could I have missed all I had read in Zane Grey books about woman’s place out West!? They wouldn’t even interview me and neglected to invite me to sign up for the livestock activities.
When I married, I really did not expect children who would share my dreams because of all those experiences with parents and children who seemingly never shared their parents’ passion for horses. Yet lo and behold I was blessed with two who took to all creatures great and small from birth. Family outings followed the pattern. They fed the ducks everywhere, cooed in front of me in the saddle and they were like Velcro on ponies. We bottle fed baby lion cubs at the Oakland Zoo, where probably the most prophetic memory occurred — my gut fascination with a goat birthing triplets, completely mesmerized by the miracles of life.
My dad wrote that New Hampshire was crying for workers. We moved. By then, my dream was to have a small farm in a small rural town so we could have some animals, do some gardening, belong to a local church, be active in the school’s PTA, and join Grange.
50 years ago my older daughter, at age eight, began 4-H with our pony and a bunny. Showing first at Cheshire Fair in 1970, she launched our family on a whole new life. Juli asked at the end of a successful day to have a lamb project next. The following year Jeni wanted a lamb too. The flocks grew with horses, beef, including scramble calves, dairy goats, even a milking Shorthorn, plus hens and bunnies. Never did I imagine how sheep and 4-H would steer our schedules year round through the 70’s, much less that the skills I acquired – shearing, fitting, wool and fiber handling, breeding, management, judging, trucking, consulting, and much more, plus the shear (pardon my pun) enjoyment of working with good country folks- would end up making my living and taking me around the world.
In case anyone is wondering, yes, I did do writing also. I became the first field editor in the 80’s for New England Country Folks, the only weekly ag newspaper in New England, and wrote articles for the sheep magazines. That position afforded me a wonderful further education by covering all kinds of ag-related seminars, conferences and other events, with my press pass opening select gates, across our country and even in others. I invented, edited and published for 5 years a directory/magazine for my Tunis sheep breed at the end of the 90’s promoting the spread of popularity of Tunis from coast to coast.
Through it all was a rhythm of traveling to exhibit animals, not just our own but many different breeds of sheep for various clients, besides other management jobs including lambing five springs in England when Jeni was having two grandsons born over there.
In 1995 I skipped the England gig and married my sheep shearing pal, Matt Best from Ohio. We managed a sheep and cattle ranch in Montana for three years, including the sheep show circuit, before the booming alpaca industry lured us back to Ohio to manage one of the two largest alpaca operations in the U.S. There we learned to shear the camelids, expanded to shearing off farm, even spending our whole month “vacation” shearing alpacas in New England. The Down Easters pressed us to become resident shearers and we moved back to manage one of them in NH in ‘04. There were really too many breeders needing our services to carry on part time so we made the plunge and started our own place two years later and here we are.
My old friend from 4-H parenting days reminded me several times that I needed to renew my NH Farm Bureau membership and join Associated Women. So grateful for that. We have attended some terrific FB training/leadership workshops and conferences around the country where I learned methods to better advocate for agriculture and farm life and proper care for our animals at legislative hearings. My experiences have come in handy explaining to legislators various details essential to caring for, breeding, and the general handling of livestock, including horses.
Through Farm Bureau I also connected with New Hampshire Agriculture in the Classroom, a perfect fit for interacting with youngsters about animals. I started by reading the annual ag literacy books at local schools, even bringing the animals, tools etc. to the schools. A bigger goal was conceived, nurtured for almost 10 years, until coming forth as Sullivan County School to Farm Day which of course included my sheep, hens, and Percheron, Abby. During Holiday Season, I take lambs, donkey, and sometimes, alpacas dressed in camel tack, to local Nativities, another venue for interacting with young and old who have never touched a farm animal.
And now 2020… the beat is missing. No fairs means no shows to exhibit animals, nor judge. No extra prepping which I love doing –hands on, in the wool– shearing, washing sheep and their blankets; no need to halter train lambs and practice posing them and the yearlings; no deadlines for extra ear tags and rush registration papers, although we did have the annual veterinarian inspection for health papers, etc. for sales of breeding stock. No time spent weekly from Memorial Day through Columbus Day on the usual scheduling and reorganizing supplies to take, vehicles to keep road worthy, loaded and unloaded.
Chores now are rather tame. Most of the lambs had to be sold early to live markets for much less than usual to meat customers due to the jam for abattoir appointments. An increasing number of friends keep trying to convince me to quit. Why would I stop what I look forward to doing regardless of the weather? Anyway, with a pail held high, I open the gate for the six lambs eagerly greeting me as I spot check eyes, noses, shiny faces, and reply to their Hello baas, “Giddy Up, Let’s Go.” They bolt ahead, their chestnut red ears flapping and snapping as they buck and whirl and swerve away downhill toward the feeder. Part way, they halt and hop back to see if I am really following before they continue the race. Heads up watching they give a moment to fling the grain straight out into the trough. After a gulp or two they jostle and trade places like children playing musical chairs, always making me laugh, a great way to start the day. As they chow down, I walk around them to check legs and rear views for any signs of problems. I pause, thankful for nice healthy lambs and the ability to be out with them. An old shepherd mentor once told me, “A good shepherd looks at/sees to his sheep every day.” I have committed to that literally for the woolies, remembering that we have the Good Shepherd watching over each of us. Then I hotfoot it back to shovel wet bedding into the waiting wheelbarrow before the lambs finish their grain because it is a struggle to have their help.
The other five buckets of feed go onto my plastic toboggan/sled (Yes, even without snow it pulls better than the red wagon) and head out back. The older sheep and other animals all have their greetings and antics that delight me, also prompting chuckles and grins that make my day. They all know that “Giddy Up, Let’s Go” means go ahead to their feed troughs but they all go their own way. The mini donkey is also a daily giggle and although she runs with the little horse, she has a separate creep pen so she gets all of her share.
I always run my hand over most of the little horse after putting grain and hay in her feeder, checking while smiling and remembering the saying “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of man…or woman!” I believe we all come to this Earth given interests that lead us to talents and gifts in order to improve life and help others.