I have been packing all day and wondering how in the world am I going to write this post. So much has happened in the last five days; it's hard to wrap our heads around it. We had a large rummage sale in which we asked people to donate towards our move; no price tags. It was very successful. We were able to bless some families with a lot of great stuff and in return, some generous folks donated a few bucks here and there. It was enough to completely pay for our moving truck and gas.
As we busied ourselves with the future, the reality of our present hit us pretty hard. The following is a post I wrote (but did not publish) about a week ago. It was never meant to be published, but after a nonproductive exchange with our parents about the value of the business itself, I felt it necessary to have them read this very private diary entry of mine. After reading it, my father gave his blessing...encouraged me, actually...to post it for you. He felt it appropriate to let you all in on the realities of our time here, the bad with the good. Rita as well has read this post and feels it to be appropriate to share. I preface this because the following piece is very emotional and caused both Andy and I to cry with tears pouring down our face. I guess this is my disclaimer. I have edited it a bit in the interest of the parties involved, but I have not changed the facts.
As I write this, I see the Gehrking family testing out the 4-wheeler, trying to keep the old thing from killing on them. Cortnie trains under her father’s watchful eye. They zip back and forth in front of the house and I can see a blur of color every few minutes as they pass the porch window. It’s a hot, humid August day and the farm is alive with activity.
Andrew and I are in the final hours of our rummage sale in which we expected a myriad of friends to come and find some great stuff, donate to our moving expenses and give a final chat. We were disappointed, though not entirely surprised, to see only a handful of loyal customers and friends actually show up.
My father is busy fixing the manure spreader and alternately preparing fencing materials for the coming week. The Gehrkings are having fun with the 4-wheeler before commencing to afternoon milking. It’s really nice to see the life all over this farm. Soon, Rita and the rest of her kids will be here, ready in their muckers to take part in the family milking time.
We are glad for this change, though we admittedly feel like passengers on a train these days. My Dad is taking interest in this farm like the early days with us. It’s hard to see him fully active and teaching and investing when for so long he had shut that off to us. He wants to buy our LLC and is encouraging Rita to take over writing the blog because he doesn’t want to lose all the customers we built up. My parents are bending over backwards to ensure the Gehrking’s success here. We used to have that with them. But that’s a whole separate issue.
We learned long ago that money changes family and though we thought ours would be immune, we saw first hand that it was not. While we completely agree that my folks needed the rent that was due, we also had many verbal agreements that would get us all there in a reasonable amount of time. Consistently, those agreements would be overruled, or “forgotten” completely in exchange for a shortened timeline. We grew to fear my father’s appearance on the farm. High anxiety over the next blow up and imagined offense permeated our household. I’m sure the same was true in some way for Dad.
When we got targeted by DATCP and had to pull back our marketing, all our projections were just shot. We put all hope in the raw milk bill as a viable income. But that failed as well. It didn’t matter at that point. We knew we were out. Mom and Dad had given us an ultimatum months before the bill got vetoed and expected results by June. We needed a miracle and couldn’t see anything even close to that.
When this opportunity with Vince presented itself, we had long prepared ourselves for leaving Foxwood and it was a no-brainer. We had to jump on this. And we did. As soon as we told my parents that we were looking into leaving, that tension between us noticeably lifted. It was like we backtracked two years and felt an easiness around them we had forgotten existed. It was then that we knew...even if one of us fell into half a million dollars...we still had to leave this place.
And for the last month, we have been on full tilt, presenting our best faces and telling everyone how excited we are to move to La Crosse and St. Brigid’s Meadows. And we are! But is hasn’t been until this last week that something else has covered our moods. We’re having a tough time with it; indeed, we had not suspected this would even occur.
We are mourning the loss of our Foxwood Farm.
Andy trained Rita and the kids in one week flat. We thought it would take the whole month of August. But they really knew what was going on. Today marks the end of the second week. Andy’s been out there a few times, but for the most part, they have been on their own. And here is something that we weren’t expecting: seeing them work the farm in their own way and own schedule is amazingly hard to watch! We weren’t supposed to be here when they took over. That was supposed to happen in the last week of August or the first week of September. But time again got truncated for us and here we sit. Mere renters on a foreign farm, watching the activity of the day pass us by in a blur by our front window.
The single event that catalyzed our realization of the paradigm shift was the birth of a calf.
Our cows freshened late last year, and so repeated the process this year. We’ve been waiting and watching the herd get rounder and rounder. Just last week, the first calf was born. A diminutive heifer from Silvie, one of the Milking Shorthorns. Andy found her out in the field and delighted in seeing her walk with her mother and the rest of the herd back to the barn for milking time. She pranced and trotted and stumbled, with Silvie turning proudly back to ensure her safe passage. It was amusing to see the size difference between the two day old calf and our smallest 8 month old heifers from last December. For the first time, they looked so big!
A few days later, Rita and the kids began their twice a day milking schedule in order to prepare to ship commercial milk again. It will take the cattle a few weeks to mentally get used to this and physically respond with more milk production. That same day, a Holstein named Leche gave birth to a strapping bull calf. We were excited to see our herd expand with healthy calves.
Last year, we didn’t have a lot of calf raising knowledge and lost a lot due to malnutrition. Over the winter, we did some research with several farmers who kept calves on the mothers longer than a few days. We really wanted to imitate nature and keep the babies with their mothers for at least two months. We learned that this was not only possible, but successful for small scale diaries. And it was perfect for us, since we weren’t shipping commercially. The excess milk would be going to the calves anyway. Why not bypass the human intervention and just let the animals live the way they were designed? We were excited to try this out, despite all the headaches and extra work involved. To us, it was worth it to have 100% surviving calves, with shiny coats and healthy family units. Last year, we lost nearly 40% of our babies. We learned a grave lesson and determined never to repeat that again.
What we didn’t count on was an entire change in farm management between March (when we came to this conclusion) and August. When Silvie’s baby came to us, we were still in charge. When Leche’s baby arrived, his birth coincided with an unspoken farm transfer. That day, without even knowing it, we had entered our first day as “civilians,” for lack of a better term.
We learned from one of the kids that they’d successfully separated Silvie’s and Leche’s calves and put them into the two available calf pens in the barn. We both were like, “Oh.” It hadn’t dawned on us that the calves would be separated. It was one of those moments that catapulted us out of our St. Brigid’s Meadow’s stupor and caused us to realize...this farm is leaving us. The very face of it is changing.
Now, to be fair to Rita and her family, separating calves from milking mothers is a very common practice. I would estimate that 99% of modern dairies do this without a second thought. It is successful and calves grow well and the rhythm of the diary doesn't skip a beat. Andrew and I, through a series of mistakes, learning experiences and research had come to the conviction that we wanted calves on mothers. In our farming model, it made complete sense. Rita, with aspiring to increase production and ship commercially as well as raw, needed the calves to be off the mothers. She was doing nothing wrong. It was just something that really hit home for us.
The next day, Andy came into the barn to supervise the milking and saw that the tiny shorthorn had wiggled out of the pen and found her mother. The big Holstein bullcalf had busted out of his pen and found his mother as well. They were promptly recaptured and tied up with twine to keep them in place. I didn’t see all this, but Andy told me about it with a deflated spirit. We listened to them bellar all day until they were fed at the evening milking. We began discussing why it bothered us so much to see the babies separated from their mothers. After all, didn’t we do the same thing last year? Didn’t we callously confine the infant cows and shove a rubber nipple in their hungry mouths? Why were we brought to tears over this single event?
We didn’t really know. We hadn’t come to grips with it yet. The following morning, long before sunrise, we heard a way-too-close moo from our bedroom window. Andy lept out of bed to see poor Leche seeking her calf’s bawling on our front lawn. Our hearts just broke. It reminded me of the scene in Dumbo, when his mother proudly washes her new baby elephant and protects him from the cruel comments from the people. In a tragic scene, Dumbo is taken from her and she just loses it, thrashing tents and equipment, losing all care for her own well-being in order to once again secure her precious little one. Leche broke through at least three electric fences in order to appear on our front lawn. She didn’t care. She was searching out her little one in order to protect him from the unseen terrors that were causing him to call for her all night long.
What could we do? We knew she would continue to break through fencing in order to find him. So we let her in the barn and she trotted a bee line to the bewildered little bull tied to a stanchion pole. We stood back and basked in the reunion. We knew it would only last an hour, until milking time. But it was so completely satisfying, the emotion caught us by surprise. I thought once again to Dumbo and his short lived reunion with his banished mother. The tender embrace she gave him as she stretched to the end of her chains; nuzzling, loving, tender animal warmth. An instant later, the small shorthorn heifer shot out of the other calf pen and ran out the door. We took a step to stop her, but just let her go. We were happy that she’d have a similar short lived reunion with her own momma.
And in the last few days, we have seen three more calves arrive in the barn. Each one within hours of birth, tied to a stanchion with string and being bottle fed colostrum. Andy stepped into the barn today for the first time in two days to see this scene. He came back to the house with tears in his eyes. “I can’t be here anymore,” he said. “Seeing a new family, with those calves...in the place I worked so hard to build up...” He stopped from emotion.
“I know,” I said. “I don’t think we were ever supposed to see this transition. We didn’t know it would happen so quickly.”
But it doesn’t change the hurting. It doesn’t make the time grow shorter. We were able to arrange a sooner moving date; ironically, because we thought we’d be bored! But I think it was God’s grace in helping us deal with the pain of losing a business that had become our very lives. I think we’d go crazy if we had to stay a whole week longer amidst this flurry of activity. Our sale wraps up today and then we focus on packing the actual house. Our days are filling up with friends who want to see us one more time before we go. We can’t busy ourselves enough...
As I close this post, the Gehrkings drive past the porch door heading for home. Milking is over, fencing is made, manure spreaders are fixed (for now). Suddenly the farm becomes “ours” again...for a few fleeting hours. Tomorrow we are thankful to the Gehrkings that we don’t have chores before church. We can take a leisurely morning eating homemade pancakes and eggs, giving baths and heading off to service. It’s been a year and a half since we experienced a Sunday morning like that. It’s nice, and frankly, a luxury for us. We’ll take the day and enjoy a small break.
This farm was our lives for such a short time, in the grand scheme of things. Two years, really. But those two years came to define us as people and as a family more than a the calendar could reveal. We grew up here. We became adults here. And we cried, sweated and bled here. Saying good bye is really saying good bye to a huge part of ourselves. Yes, we get to take the fruits of this labor away with us. But Foxwood Farm will always be our proving grounds. It will always be our First Step, our Leap of Faith.
And so, in leaving the farm, we inevitably leave a piece of our hearts here. Maybe that’s what it is. A realization that we’ll never get this back. That our hard work is being pushed forward by someone else. And somehow, it doesn’t seem to hurt less just because it’s someone else that we love and trust.
It’s just something that’s going to hurt. And that is where we are at. Longing for our amazing future and mourning for all that was...and could have been.
[We want you to know with fullest clarity that we have nothing against Rita and Gale. The transition would have been hard to see with anyone at the helm of this ship. We love them very much and want you to know that they did nothing wrong. We are simply expressing our mourning.]
When I wrote this last Saturday, we did not see what was to come in the next four days. Monday afternoon we met with my parents to discuss the inherent value of the LLC and the amount of rent that we owed them from the last ten months. Both parties came with different hopes for the meeting, and it became glaringly obvious 30 minutes into it that a solution would not be found that night. Something that they revealed to us, however, was that they wanted to be done with farming. This was not news to us. It was the very reason we had to leave in the first place. But in training up a new family, they had inadvertantly become more involved with the farm than they had been in the last year. It dawned on them that the retirement they were hoping for was still months, if not years, away. We encouraged them to offer the Gehrkings more responsibility because they are very capable of taking it on. We don't know how that was received. The meeting ended inconclusively and we agreed to meet again later in the week.
On Tuesday, we met with two good friends who have also been amazing mentors for us financially and spiritually. We discussed the status of the farm and felt the need to offer advice to Rita about the goals she had for the farm and the working relationship with my parents.
On Wednesday, we talked with Rita at great length and the outcome of that meeting catalized her to re-evaluate her needs and goals. Unbeknownst to us, my father and Gale were having a similar conversation about the same time. That evening, Andy went to the garden and ran into Rita harvesting the tomatoes. They had a heart to heart about the future of the farm. She had decided that the best course of action for her family was to pull out. With this knowledge, we soberly accepted the reality coming forth and spent a nice night with out-of-state friends.
Thursday morning we awoke to a message from Rita saying that my parents had confirmed her choice to stop working here by saying they were not ready to invest the time and energy into another endeavor. Both families agreed that ending now, rather than later, was the best choice for all. We agreed as well.
As important as this business is, relationships are far more important. We cannot condone placing money and work in front of God and family. We support Rita and Gale. We support my parents. And we brace ourselves for an emotional farm auction.
So here we are, on the eve of our big move to St. Brigid's Meadows, sitting with another good friend who came to see us. We are talking about packing, grass-fed pork and bad dates in college. What we aren't talking about is the fact that when we leave this house in two days, we will be leaving it forever.
We haven't mentioned that our friendly milking cows will be gone in a matter of weeks. We have skirted the fact that when this farm sells, I won't be able to drive down this road without shedding tears.
This week marks the final week of our time on Foxwood Farm. This has been established for quite some time. What we never saw coming was that this month marks the end of Foxwood Farm completely. Five generations of history. Over 100 years operating on the same land. Livelihoods made and broken here.
But I don't want to think about that right now. We are looking forward to Saturday. It marks the new beginning that God created for us. There is so much potential and so many lives to touch.
And we can't wait to tell you all about it.
Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on Google+.
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