Read Sylvia's Farm Online

Authors: Sylvia Jorrin

Sylvia's Farm (2 page)

I asked him if he were interested in working for me. His head still down, he slammed the door to the truck and repeated the same sound that gave me the impression he had said maybe once more. And that was the first moment of the creation of this farm.

One afternoon the man in the hunting cap appeared in my backyard. “You wanted me to work. I'll be here tomorrow after milking.” I could hardly understand his accent. I never did understand but part of what he said. Gradually he spent more and more of his time working for me on the house. One day he suggested that I raise sheep here. I protested as I always did whenever the subject of
raising livestock was presented to me. He then suggested that we create a farm together. We talked about it for four months. We seemed to understand one another. I said yes.

The South Central New York Resource and Development Center gave the farm a fine deal on a flock of sheep. They offered nine sheep and the advice of a livestock specialist. Free. A year after the sheep lambed, we were required to return three good ewe lambs a year to the program until the nine were replaced. In turn, they would pass those sheep on to another new shepherd.

That year they presented a choice. As our farm was the last to apply for a flock, they would give us, immediately, a flock of nine very miscellaneous sheep. Should we refuse, we would have to wait for the last flock of the year to be distributed. Should there be more applicants than available ewes, it might mean a wait for another whole year. We chose to begin immediately and accepted the nine miscellaneous ewes.

And so one day, a small pickup truck pulled into the driveway at Greenleaf. Phil Commings, the grand gentleman of sheep farming and the livestock specialist from the R&DC, was driving. His wife, Pauline, was by his side. Phil opened the gate of the cab. Out came a huge black ewe with a classic Suffolk head, to be named Ophelia. Then came a short, chunky gray ewe with a squat Southdown body, to become Amelia. Lavinia Brandon and Lady Fettiplace, two Finn-Landrace sheep, followed. Megan and Brigit, two Dorsets; Collette du Bac, a huge Corriedale, and a huge low-slung crossbreed who became Miss Pettitgill came next. One Southdown ewe, whose name escapes me, followed. Then, staggering on sticklike legs, thin enough to be nearly transparent, came an old Finn-Landrace sheep, mother to Lady Fettiplace and Lavina Brandon. “She's free,” Commings said. “If you don't want her, I'll take her back.” I knew back meant the dog food factory. “I'll take her,” I replied.

And so arrived Penelope, the mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother of most of my ewes. A fine sheep she was. Renowned, still. My daughter had come to celebrate the first arrival with us. And the man who said maybe and whose idea it all was, was here as well.

I made a noontime farmer's dinner, served on my best dishes. White linen tablecloths, starched and ironed, were on the kitchen table. We bowed our heads and said grace. The farm, which had begun as the dream of a man wearing a woolen hunter's cap with the earflaps down one May day, became, a year later, a reality, with nine miscellaneous sheep running around the barnyard, pasture, meadow, and the neighbor's front lawn. And with the man, no longer wearing the cap, and me as their shepherds. The sheep were wild. They were from different flocks and therefore didn't know one another. They made a practice of knocking me over, or trying to on a regular basis. When penned in the barn they raced in a broad circle, challenging me to catch them if I could. Feet needed checking; gums as well. Ear tags were wanting to be inserted. There are many reasons why sheep need to be caught and examined. They knew them all and also understood I didn't know how to catch them. I'm convinced that they knew precisely what they were doing in those days, the days that seem so long ago.

Gradually, the farmer's granddaughter who knew nothing of farming became, in the deepest sense of the word, a farmer herself. Imperceptibly, slowly, the mind began to become still. The eye began to perceive and the ear achieved its voice. They shall teach you what you need to know to take care of them, I was told in the beginning. I had dismissed the notion as both too impractical and too esoteric. The fence builder who became my business partner had several conditions to which I must agree, however, should I accept his proposal to start a sheep farm. The first was “no books,” or I'd “get ideas which would make more work” for him. I said yes to that
one. Listening to what the sheep had to tell me was to be the only way by which I could learn to take care of them. The other was that I wasn't under any circumstance to go near the sheep because they may knock me down. He built me a bench. I painted it a pale peach color. He placed it on a lawn overlooking the barnyard and said, “You can sit here if you want to but you can't go any closer.” I said I would. I lied and he knew it.

Every morning I'd get up shortly before dawn and make my coffee. I'd then pull on a sweater, Catskill summer morning, and go down to the barn where the sheep had spent the night. The floor had been limed and a little spoiled hay strewn around. I'd sit on the sill of the barn and watch the sheep in wonderment. Restlessness possessed me. I wanted so badly to know, to know everything. To already be what even at that moment I was becoming. I wanted to have happened what was in the process of happening. At first, the sheep delighted in running away from me. While in the barn they'd stand in a corner as far from me as possible and stare. When I'd open the door, they'd break free, as one, and then scatter. Donald had installed barbed-wire fence intending to enclose them in one section of the farm, but he was a dairyman and fences are different for cows. Sheep have fleeces; therefore, barbed wire means nothing to them.

He farmed dairy with his father and brother on the family farm down the road and was used to working for wages, both on the home farm and for the neighbors on his days off. He was not used to working for himself without wages. He never had. It became quickly apparent to him that if he put up fence on our farming venture, there was no cash in hand at the end of the day. If he built a porch for me, however, or laid a stone floor in my outdoor living room, there'd be money when the job was finished. And so the fence was built, sparely, and my wood room floor beautifully laid with stone.

Tension and confusion were created. He became tense, I,
confused. The farm was his idea, hardly mine. I knew he'd be subject to relentless teasing about starting a farm with me. A woman and an outsider. When I told him that I knew he'd be teased, he said, “It don't bother me none.” He was a direct man, of sorts. I believed him. I think he believed himself, too.

His grandfather on his mother's side was a famous shepherd. In the great days of the railroad, the countryside was laced with accessible routes on which to ship livestock all over the country. They raised more than twenty varieties of purebred sheep and traveled with them to shows up and down the East Coast. They still raise a highly respected flock of Tunis. Donald's father had a commercial flock as well, and so he was raised around sheep since he was a child. But his family “never did much with them,” he'd say proudly, as if that were a mark of glory. “The lambs survived anyway.” He had a customer base, knowledge, experience, and muscle. I had a barn, land, hayfields and pasture, and a small amount of cash. I had time, a commodity of which he had precious little. His wife had left him somewhere in between the time he first started working for me and his proposal that we start a sheep farm together. She left the children with him as well. His commitment to being a father was a driving force in his life. And it spilled over into his handling of the sheep. Sometimes.

I honored my promise to read no books and spent my mornings in the barn staring at the sheep. There was a hole in my heart when I was with them, an empty place that grew larger as the mystery of them and what I was facing became increasingly evident. Slowly, they became accustomed to me. And gradually, one by one, they would approach, tentatively at first, increasingly trusting. Penelope, my see-through ewe, was the most brave. Or wisest. It was she who first allowed herself to be touched and fussed over. Every night I'd try to put them into the barn. At first it took more than an hour every
evening. But gradually they began to come in more easily. “Come on,” I'd call. “Come on.”

One day the sheep were to be brought to the barn for an inspection. We were in the R&DC sheep program and Phil Commings was committed to regular visits. Donald came with his two sons to gather in the flock. Arms flailed. Voices barked commands. The nine sheep were on the run. The boys drove them into the cow path. The sheep broke and leaped over the stone walls into the pasture. Gathering, scattering. Again and again. I moved into the cow path and began to call, “Come on. Come on.” The sheep headed toward me, a stampede. “Get out of the way! They'll knock you down! They'll jump the wall!” I didn't move. I stood absolutely still and called, “Come on, come on.” And they did come to me, swerved, raced past me, and ran into the barn. I laughed. Donald scowled. His sons slapped each other on their shoulders and began to laugh and tease their dad.

The sheep now come to me whenever I call, “Come on, come on.” Almost always. “Come on” has become, “Cahm ahn, cahm ahn.” Yankee for “come on.” I've added commands that I know the sheep all understand. “Don't knock me down. I'm all you've got.” “You're very bad girls.” “You're very good girls.” “Go.” “Steele, put them in the barn.” “Enough.” “No good.” And “steady.” Many know their names. They know when we are visited by friends and when we are visited by customers who shall take their lambs. They know when they can get away with mischief and when they can't. They know when they need me and when they don't. But “Come on” was the first command they, as a flock, understood.

Donald and I had gone to the County Clerk's office in the Norman Rockwell Town Square in Delhi, New York, the county seat, and signed the documents making us legal partners in the sheep business. We were both proud of doing it that way. It made it seem
both more serious and more lighthearted. No one but us believed the partnership would last. They were all correct. We were wrong. By November I was told the partnership had come to an end. I very much wanted the tension to end, but I didn't want to end the partnership. He had a different point of view.

Suddenly I was facing the first winter alone with the sheep. I was terrified. I had honored my agreement not to read anything about sheep and was, therefore, in total ignorance. By that point there were eighteen ewes and a particularly violent ram on the farm. The ram hated me. The ewes were uncertain. There was no glass in many of the barn windows. No doors that shut properly. No electricity and no running water. I was both out of work and out of money. December came in with a ferocity that has not been equaled since. There was not a day that the thermometer registered above zero. The weathermen said it was the coldest December in recorded history. I borrowed
Raising Sheep the Modern Way
from the public library, bought some extra flashlight batteries, and found a wooden chair on which to sit in the milk house of the barn. I stacked hay against the cracks of the doors, put plastic on the windows, and installed the ewes, minus the aggressive ram. I had no idea when any of the sheep were bred or when any would freshen. Some were huge. Some were not. Nor did I have any idea of what to do should the event happen. I propped up two flashlights on the milk house pipes and read the book, over and over again, and looked for signs that the sheep were going into labor. When I became too cold I'd run to the house for a while. And then go back down to sit on that chair, staring at the sheep.

One ewe, Miss Pettigill, was so big she could hardly breathe. I'd sit on the steps of the milk house and let her put her head on my knee. It stretched her body out enough to give her lungs a bit more room. When she freshened, she forgot all about what a kind friend I had
been. She decided immediately after her first lamb was born that I was the enemy, again, and ran from it and me until she had to lie down and deliver a second one and, shortly after, a third. She wanted to have nothing to do with them, or me, and ran wildly about the milk house. The floor had been strewn with lime, some straw, sheep droppings, urine, a lot of amniotic fluid, and three slimy placentas. In other words, an incredibly perfect place to begin to learn about lambing. The lambs sensed their dam's panic and ran. So did she. I grabbed Miss Pettigill by the leg and held on for dear life. She dragged me across the floor. She landed on her back. I landed on mine, but I hung on. She lay still, trapped between the wall and me. I stretched my free arm as far as possible, trying to grab one of the little lambs as it raced around the lambing room. They were in a panic. So was I. I lay absolutely flat and grabbed, caught one, slid on my back to the ewe onto whose foot I was still hanging, and stuck the little lamb onto his mother. He nursed. Thank God.

This is the story of the life here, written as it is being lived. It is about the rhythm of the days and their attendant nights, the flow of the seasons and their gifts of joy and sorrow. Above all, it is the story of all of us, my flock, my beloved dogs, the marmalade barn cats, the cows, goats, chickens, geese, pigs, and Giuseppe Nunzio Patrick MacGuire, the donkey. We have together created something far more than any of us could alone. This is our story.


coming back, the southeast corner, bordered by the brook and the cow path. It was my worst. The first year I had sheep, I put them on it to graze, goldenrod- and weed-filled as it was. The second year, the goldenrod and weeds were gone, having been chomped and stamped to death by the small flock of somewhat wild sheep. Instead was June grass, quite uniform and consistent, delicate, pale green at first, changing as the summer wore on to an airy delicate shade of rose, exquisite in the evening light. Underneath was beautiful green moss, and everywhere, spindly strawberry plants, bearing neither blossoms nor fruit. Needless to say, the June grass so pleasing to the eye while on an evening walk, was highly unpalatable to the sheep, hard stems and nose-tickling tops, at that. The sheep didn't eat it, leaving that pasture as a last resort for the lazy days when they didn't want to go too far from the barn. Gradually, white clover, the blessing of Delaware County, took over the adjacent field below the barn. Bit by bit the white clover inched forward to invade the field of June grass, grateful that the sheep removed the taller plants and weeds that shaded it from the sun. Please forgive me, June grass. I'm quickly reminded that my neighbor, Ellen Sanford, told me her father made very good hay from it, because, of course, he knew the exact moment when to cut it. But I don't make hay, and you're just not right for summer grazing for sheep. This year, however, I've found the flock grazing that field more often. Mark Clark helped me and my son, Joachim, clean the barn this year with
his efficient little loader. He moved one load to my three wheelbarrows full of black gold to the fields. He spread manure where I couldn't have. A third of my barn's output went onto that field. I then spread the piles with a fork. It covered only a modest area, but it is progress.

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