Mary tries to get the calves interested in the trailer
It’s a Wednesday morning and instead of firing up my computer, my cool company is letting me spend the day on a farm. Pulling into the driveway of Crane Dance Farm, I wave to Jill and Mary while my husband Tim weaves our minivan around roaming ducks and chickens. “Free range can be a real pain in the neck for the farmer,” jokes Mary as geese come up for a closer look, honking at the newcomers and drowning her voice out.
While Jill heads across the road to get ready for the fence-building work we’ll help with, Mary grabs a bottle of warm milk and explains that the first thing we have to do is feed Lamby, one of triplets an ewe had this spring and the first lamb to be rejected by its mom at Crane Dance.
On the way to the sheep and goat pasture we walk by chickens of every color, shape and size. Crane Dance has more than 40 heirloom breeds of chicken that they allow to mate as they choose. Consequently, the genetic makeup of the chickens is very diverse. Whether it’s the genetic diversity or all the exercise and worm-eating these chickens get, the eggs they produce were the first thing that caught my eye at the Fulton Street Farmers’ Market when I moved to Grand Rapids. The cartons of eggs — brown, white, speckled, bluish-green — look like Easter eggs. Their yolks stand up high in a frying pan and are thick and orange.
To convince my mom of their superiority one morning when she was visiting, I cracked a Crane Dance egg next to a store-bought conventional egg. The store egg was a watery mess, with a pale yellow yolk.
“I guess I can see the difference,” she admitted.
Quack! Gobble. Quack!
As we pass the brush pile, a lone duck stands at attention. “That’s Mr. Peeps,” Mary explains. “He’s an orphan duck that we took in a year ago. He was raised by our turkeys. He attached himself to one turkey in particular and never leaves her side.” We looked in deeper to the brush pile to see a turkey sitting on her eggs, working on some siblings for Mr. Peeps. He was apparently distraught for a few days before he found her roosting place, and he hasn’t left since.
As soon as Lamby sees us approaching, she runs to the fence, bleating and begging for her milk. Longhaired sheep mix with woolly sheep and a few goats in this pasture. While she seems a little annoyed that her mom Mary isn’t feeding her, she takes the bottle from Tim while I take pictures, and then we head off toward the pigs. It’s just after 10 in the morning, and most of the sows haven’t made it out of bed yet. Lots of piglets are awake and they run up to the fence from rooting in the dirt. As soon as we disappoint them by showing hands empty of treats, they head back to the woodsy areas and the dirt, playing and napping. A few ducks with ducklings wander into the piglets’ area. The excited pigs are roused into a game of chase and the ducks hurriedly run out of the pen, quacking in alarm. We pass by cows and their calves, who come to the fence to see us but appear nonplussed. We watch Andy, the hired hand, cut a box elder tree down in the cow pasture. The cows are delighted and run to the tree for a sweet treat.
Mary and Jill are working to take this farm back. Originally built in the mid-19th century, it had fallen into disrepair and overgrowth. They are rebuilding pastures and thinning out thickets to let hardwoods and grasses grow. When they can, they go on “treasure hunts” that consist of picking metal and glass out of the ground deposited when previous owners used the pastures as graveyards for junk cars and rotting buildings. To keep the pastures that they do have from being overeaten, they move their fences and rotate the animals, herding cows, sows, and sheep into their livestock trailer.
That’s the big task we’re helping with today. Together with Andy, we’re going to haul brush and stumps out of a pasture and stack them in the burn pile (avoiding the roosting turkey, of course). Once we clear the pasture, we’ll help Jill and Mary string up a new fence and then we’ll get the cows into the livestock trailer and move them across the road to their new grazing grounds.
Meat that once had a name
The morning goes relatively smoothly and by early afternoon the new pasture is clear of brush and stumps. It looks beautiful — trees, bushes, and tall grass stretch luxuriously until they meet the property line, butting up against a neatly snipped lawn and a new, gigantic brick house. We take a break for lunch and Jill and Mary grill up some of their meat. I have to admit, I love Crane Dance sausage, whether chorizo, hot Italian, sweet Italian, or breakfast. I used to be a vegetarian, but I suppose I’m now one of those flexitarian types. I blame it on Jill and Mary — I eat meat now, here and there if I know where it comes from. It’s a strange dichotomy for me to be romping around with happy animals that will end up being a meal later on. Mary and Jill make it personal. They name most of their animals, care for them gently, and love them.
We talk over lunch about their path to Crane Dance. Jill went to a state university here in Michigan and stumbled into the agriculture program in the 1980s. They were taught strictly conventional farming methods: pesticides, confinement, get big fast, etc. There was no other way mentioned, but she said she knew something wasn’t right. She recalls doing extra research for one term paper about organic vegetable production and was marked down for it. When she started farming, she wanted to be a vegetable farmer. “But the vegetables wilted in the field while I was with the animals. The vegetables just didn’t capture my attention.” Mary was a high school teacher of English and literature who left the profession to farm full time with Jill about five years ago.
Jill looks directly at me and sets down her bratwurst. “It’s great to come and work for a day. But being a small meat producer is nothing but fighting an uphill battle every day. You get over one challenge and then the rest are in line to take over if you figure that one out.” I nod. I know I’m getting all of the reward today without any of the risk – I’m hanging out at a farm, working my body, enjoying a nice day, playing with animals, and will leave for home tonight.
“But we absolutely know we’re doing the right thing,” they agree. “We want to eat good food. We want animals to have good lives. There’s nothing else we could be doing.”
A mooving moment
After lunch we put up the fence in the pasture, which takes a good chunk of the afternoon. The task I’ve been waiting for is the loading of the cows. I’m a little nervous to be in a pasture with these huge animals, but I’m also curious about them. As we move the fence so that Jill can expertly back the trailer into the pasture, the herd comes thundering over to see what the commotion is about, mooing loudly. At first they’re way more interested in the people than the trailer. They nibble our jackets and butt us with their heads. I can’t get them to stop nudging me and am getting slightly worried; their smallest nudges feel like a shove. I look up and saw Mary lean her shoulder into the cow to push past her and realized in a “duh” moment that the pat I usually used to move dogs wasn’t going to work for this 1,000-pound animal.
By enticing the cows with barley, Jill and Mary are able to get a few of the girls up into the trailer. The rest are not overly interested; Mary guesses that it was probably because they had never tasted grain before. So we wait.
“We spend a lot of our time waiting for the animals to be ready,” Mary explains. After the first few clamber into the trailer, we take them across the street and then came back for the others, hoping it will be easier to get a second round on the trailer now that the herd was split up. But this second batch is more stubborn and less adventurous. Things are not going quite as much by the plan any more. We are able to push a couple more cows and a few calves into the trailer, including Beauty, a cow with a gigantic udder who was nursing a baby. As evening approaches, one calf and two cows are left in the field, and they simply aren’t getting into the trailer. Jill and Mary decide to let them stay in the pasture overnight, hoping that by morning they’ll be lonesome for the rest of the herd and ready to move.
Tim and I walk back to our minivan, trailed by chickens, ducks, geese, roosters, a few friendly cats, and the two farm dogs, Maggie Sue and Winnie the Pooh. We can see the fence we helped put up today and the cows in their heavenly green pasture. I’m absolutely exhausted and I have cow slobber all over my shirt. I feel calm and grateful to people who do this every day and to the animals who end up on our plates.
Today, like no other day in my life, I’ve really worked for my food.
Guest contributor Stephanie Pierce lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she writes, dreams, and plans at Fourth Sector Consulting, a for-benefit company that works only with mission-driven organizations. Her unofficial title is Practical Wonderer. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Stephanie can tell you why Lake Superior is better than Lake Michigan and how to correctly pronounce “sauna.”