A Baby Step away from the Cubicle
Looking for any opportunity to gain farming knowledge.
Many people enter farming from unique places. Some take over a small family operation that needs new energy and ideas. Some lease an empty abandoned plot and introduce a farm to where once stood an old parking lot. And there are the back yard farmers who seek a place to expand their burgeoning operation. On this rather warm day in February, my brain is babbling about maybe starting that covered raised bed destined as a lettuce plot. I try to put that notion aside and reach back through 23 years of living on a farm to how it all started.
During late Winter in 2000, I was having lunch with a co-worker at Overnite Transportation where I was coming up on my six-year anniversary as a customer service rep. “Hey Barry,” I ask, “Would you ever leave all this,” waving my arm gesturing across the company cafeteria, “for a job away from the city? Say perhaps starting a farm business?” He looked at me, and opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it and closed it again. After squinting at me as if he did not quite recognize me, he finally asked, “Do you have a game plan or some kind of business plan for this? I mean, you’ve got a pension here. What kind of farm would this be?” I thought for a minute, “Well, still trying to figure that out. I know it will involve some fiber animals like sheep or maybe alpaca. Still doing the research.” “How will this thing make money?” Barry asked, “And do you have land?” He was asking all the questions I had been asking myself and still not sure what the answers were. “I do have a little bit, 11 acres, remember? I told you about it.” He nodded. “It is mostly wooded, but it does have a cleared 3-acre pasture.” “Not a lot,” He mumbled. “I know, but enough to start something. I was thinking not only animals but also starting a knitting group in my dining room. And perhaps I could even teach knitting. And I could hand spin yarn to sell. I have been teaching myself to spin.” He rolled his eyes, “Do people still do that? I mean, it’s cool and all, but isn’t that a dying art?” “Well yes, or maybe,“ I said. “I think trying to rescue that lost art might be part of my mission statement.” I smiled considering the idea. Working with yarn and knitting and learning to spin were certainly more fun than answering calls about lost freight.
Barry was someone I could bounce ideas off of. Sometimes saying a thought out loud helps me to try them on for size. He did remind me I had what most would consider a good job. But I was turning 40 and did not want to continue with trucking. When a little girl plays with her Barbie and imagines what she will be as a grown up, working in a cubicle tracing freight and giving LTL shipment quotes never is imagined. But in fairness, I never thought of farming either. Not seriously. It just seemed to be calling me at this moment. I just needed the idea to make financial sense. I thought my first step might be to look for something, or some way to make a living closer to home. I also did not want this one-hour commute to downtown Richmond. If I was going to be a country girl, I needed to live and work in the country.
I scanned the local newspaper (yes, newspaper. The internet was a baby in the year 2000.) I was hoping to find a job on a farm. Mostly what I found were housekeeping jobs, or grocery store clerk positions. Then as I was flipping through the newspaper one more time, I stumbled onto a little advert from the paper itself. They were looking for freelance correspondents. I used to work for my college newspaper at LSU. Mostly, I did photo work. But I wrote the occasional story to go with the pictures. So, I made an appointment with the editor.
The Powhatan Today office was in an old insurance building in the village of Powhatan, 15 minutes from my soon to be little farm. The editor, Melony, or Mel, she insisted on being called, invited me in as she was finishing up her phone conversation and taking one last drag of her cigarette before placing it butt down in a full ashtray. She caught a strand of her long hair and wrapped it behind her ear, then motioned me to a chair in front of her desk which was surrounded by boxes of files and stacks of misaligned paper. “Hey, sit sit. Thanks for coming in,” she said in a voice that sounded like it should be coming from a larger person. “Let me explain what I am looking for. It is not much, and not sure if it matches your expectation. I have a small staff, but I need someone that can cover the stories that…ok, I will be honest, stories that my staff writers prefer not to do.” I am nodding that I understand. I didn’t, but she kept on talking. “For instance,” Mel gets up and pulls open the top drawer of a filing cabinet behind her and lifts out a thick file, “I have several story ideas here that I just can’t seem to get done.” She flips through the file and pulls out one of the sheets of paper. Then she looks up at me, “You did say on the phone you had done some journalism?” “Oh yes, well a little. A bit in college,” I said. “Ok. This story really needs to get done. And don’t worry, you’ll have a good editor,” she gave me a wink. “This is about a goat farmer on Route 60 near the county line, who has received lots of complaints over the years from his neighbors. It looks like he is being charged with some kind of neglect.” Route 60? I think I had seen this farm. “Is it that guy who chains his goats to dog houses?” “Yep, that’s the one, you’ve seen it?” “Yes,” I said. I was thinking at least it was a farm story, but maybe not the type of farm story I had envisioned. “So, I pay by the story and picture from our correspondents.” Ok, I was thinking, wishing it could be a full-time job. Mel was reading my mind because she said, “In time, this could lead to a more full-time position, you never know.” I let out my breath, “Good to know.” “Well in the meantime,” Mel said, “we’ll see how you do with this story. Oh, and see if you can get some sort of picture that I can put with that.” I nodded, as I am mentally trying to remember where I put my trusty Pentax 35-millimeter camera. She hands me the paper that has some instructions along with the name and address of the goat farmer. “We go to print every Tuesday, so do you think I could have the finished story Monday morning?” It was currently Wednesday, and I had the day off from Overnite on Friday, so I thought that was doable. I shook Mel’s hand, and I left her office as she was answering her ringing telephone and lit up another cigarette.
I was excited as I got into my car to drive home. I could not leave Overnite Transportation for a part time job at a weekly newspaper, but it was a step away from the cubicle toward the country.
I called the farmer, Larry, the next morning to see if he would meet with me on Friday. He was happy Powhatan Today was interested in his story. He wanted to tell his side of things. I arrived around 10am, with camera in hand, along with a pen and steno pad Mel had given me before I left her office. It was a bright day. As I arrived, I looked around and did not see any goats chained to their doghouses. I saw the farmer heading towards me as I was getting out of my car in the driveway. We exchanged introductions and then I asked the burning question, “Where are all the goats?” “Oh, I sold them at auction in Blackstone a couple of weeks ago ‘cuz of having to go to court.” I wrote that down and looked around, he had a couple of donkeys and some chickens. I did not see a barn or chicken coop. “Where do the chickens sleep?” Larry stated they roosted in the trees, and he thought they were safe enough, though he never knows exactly where they lay their eggs. I nodded. Then I asked, “Did you ever have any fencing for the goats?” “No,” Larry said, “I couldn’t afford it.” He then talked about coming to Powhatan from New York State where he worked for a large bakery chain. When he retired, it was his dream to raise goats to sell as pets. He did not have any farming experience. He started out with 3 goats, but the number grew to as many as 85. I was writing this down. He thought the goats had a good life even though they were chained up. Once a year he let a buck loose to service the does. “What about the babies?” I asked. Larry said he trained them to stay with the mamas. I mentioned according to the Sheriff’s report, that several neighbors called in about the babies in the road. “They say I was cruel, not giving them water or hay, but that was not true. I’m not from here, that is why they’re concentrating on me.” I asked, “But did you ever lose goats in the road?” Larry did admit he had. After the conversation, I looked around for a possible picture opportunity. There really wasn’t anything to take a picture of. Later I interviewed a couple of the neighbors, as well as the Sheriff. One of the neighbors said he had to give up raising vegetables because the baby goats raided his garden regularly. Another neighbor, due to his concern for the goats, called the farm a goat concentration camp. A good quote, I thought.
I went home to write the article. I gleaned some lessons as I continue to gather farming information. Don’t jump into any kind of farming before you have at least some skills. Animals deserve a knowledgeable farmer to care for them. And be mindful of your neighbors. Just because you are in the country and a bit more separated from the closest neighbor than in a suburb, it does not mean you have a right to do anything with your property, especially if the venture becomes a nuisance. The laws might not be very strict, and hence there is more freedom in the country. So, a farmer needs to take responsibility in how he uses that freedom and address grievances when they happen and work things out with his neighbors. There is rarely any kind of neighborhood association to help litigate disagreements. It is best to develop a good relationship with those close by.
I finished up and was trying to figure out what I could photograph for this article. Then I remembered a neighbor of mine. My friend Lorie and her husband raised a couple of cashmere goats three properties down my dirt road. I called her up and asked if I could take a couple of pictures of her goats. “They might be in the paper!” I told Lorie. She was tickled. So, I put my youngest son, Ian in the stroller and took the hand of Geoffrey, now 6 and we walked down to Lorie’s to take some pictures with my Pentax.
Later the following Thursday evening, Lorie called me, “Have you seen the paper?” “No,” I said. I had just gotten home from work. “My goats are famous!” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Look at the paper, you’ll see. Congratulations. I have to go and finish dinner. We’ll talk soon.” And she hung up. I went out to my car to get the mail I had left on the seat after I retrieved it from our mailbox on the main road. I find the March 22nd edition of Powhatan Today. I opened it up and staring at me from above the fold on the front page were two large goats with the headline, “Goat Farmer Charged with Cruelty”. Gosh, I could not help but smile. So maybe this might lead to a permanent position. The possibility just became a little more likely. Could it be enough to let me quit Overnite and finally leave that cubicle? Find out in my next installment of Talk is Sheep!