As some of you may or may not have realized our tiny abode is actually sitting right on the edge of one of the pastures here at the farm. This means that for a few days or weeks out of the year we have some four-legged mooing neighbors that take up residence literally right outside our back windows. For the last two weeks we have been enjoying the presence of these ceaselessly entertaining neighbors.
For the first few days the main herd was staying in the field. When they arrived in the field there were several who literally jumped for joy at seeing the luscious green grass that awaited them. Several in the group immediately came to investigate the mobile home and were startled when I opened the window to say hello. Sometimes I would turn around and there would be one (or sometimes many) standing at the window staring my way. I absolutely loved it and was constantly amused by their curiosity.
Once the herd left we once again received new neighbors. A handful of expecting mama cows came to pasture and soon enough their newborn calves were running all over the place. Due to the fact they are so small, the calves can pass right below the electric wire that keeps the cows in the field. So sometimes a calf would come right up to the mobile home. One of them seemed to get great joy from actually running in circles around the house, gathering speed as he whooshed past the front door. Here all pictures I was able to take without even leaving the comfort of my home!
Last Wednesday Fañch and I brought out the cream separator and transformed several buckets of milk into one bucket of cream. Each time we do this I am surprised by how much milk is needed to produce even one small bucket of cream. By Friday afternoon the cream was ready to undergo the next step in the process and we poured it into the churn.
This machine spins the cream until little pieces of butter begin to form. At this point we empty the liquid byproduct (more on this later) and add ice cold water back into the churn. This process is repeated several times to wash the butter. Once the liquid remains clear and is longer cloudy after being mixed with the butter, we were able to continue to the next part of the butter-making process.
At that point we had to knead the butter to release as much as the remaining water as possible. I find that this part, as well as the washing step, are the most important but also the most complicated. It seems like no matter what we do there are still drops of water always being pressed out when we work the butter. Eventually we decided that it had been kneaded enough and we mixed in a little salt before patting them into little slabs and packaging them up.
Unfortunately I did not take any pictures this time around but will do so in a few weeks when we attempt it again!
Now, back to my favorite part about making butter, that byproduct I mentioned earlier also known as buttermilk! I decided to use it to try making buttermilk biscuits and I have definitely found a new favorite thing to bake! They smelled absolutely delicious and topped with a bit of honey from our neighbor and some ginger syrup the first batch was eaten within a day.
Not all the work at the farm is as bucolic and picturesque as doing a head count of newborn calves or spending an afternoon harvesting vegetables for the weekly market. Sometimes farm work consists simply of four pails, a large field, and rocks to clear. This last week we went out and did just that on several different occasions.
At first I was hesitant to jump into this task as it invoked much less enthusiasm than certain other jobs I have had the chance to do. However, on the first day the sun was out in full force and I figured it would be a good time to get outside and enjoy the increasingly nice weather. So with a pail in each hand I set out along the edges of the field where Fañch suggested I start.
It was not long before the tediousness and repetitive motions grew tiresome. I decided to turn some music on using the selection on hand with my phone and that helped to liven the mood.
Emptying a field of cumbersome rocks does not demand much focus or concentration. It is a task that allows the mind to wander much further than the confines of the field.As bucket after bucket was filled and emptied of stones of all sizes I thought a lot about the work I do today compared to what I used to do or what I might have imagined for myself at different points in my life.
At one point Fañch and I took a break to compare the “treasures” we had found half buried in the soil or camouflaged with the rocks. His plastic toy car was much more interesting than my shard of an old plate. Having pocketed our treasure again Fañch asked if would have ever imagined being in the middle of a field in France piling up stones along the perimeter of a soon-to-be pasture.
While this scenario had never factored into my list of potential life plans I could not ask for a better final outcome. As I continued to work my way across the field with the sun working to maintain a perfect spring temperature, I kept thinking how grateful I was to be in that spot at that moment. One of the first great spring days and I could have spent it cooped up in an over air-conditioned office somewhere. I could have in some stuffy library study room with a stack of books piled high stressing over an exam. Now, not that those places don’t have plenty of positive aspects to them, but I just couldn’t imagine myself being anywhere else than here.
Yesterday afternoon Fañch and I headed to the farm to get some more work done on wedding preparations. Along the way we stopped to check on one of the cows who had recently calved because her little one had wondered off and the mama’s anxious moos had gone on all morning. We searched all over that section of the farm and finally found the little guy hidden behind a wood pile all tangled up in the brambles.
Fañch climbed behind with him and managed to help the calf wiggle his way out. Having regained his freedom he ran back to the barn where his mom was, got one look at her angry mooing, then turn and ran in the other direction down the old country lane that is now mostly covered in overgrown trees and fallen leaves.
Fañch climbing back to where the calf is hiding
He made it out!
We tried to get him to join his mama again in the barn but each time that he would come back up the road he would get a glimpse at his mom and take off running back in the other direction. Later that afternoon we saw him asleep in the shade along the forgotten road. Though now he is finally back alongside his mom. Sometimes a calf will drink a bunch of milk and then trot off to find a warm hidden spot to lay down and sleep all day while he digests.
For the last several weeks I have been steadily increasing the time I spend working on the farm. Now that we live on site it is much easier for me to be involved in the daily goings-on.
Three days a week I milk the cows with Jean-Yves and every other weekend it is Fañch, Julien, and I that do the milking while Annie and Jean-Yves have the weekend off. It has become one of my favorite parts of the week. I find that waking up right away in the morning and getting to work boosts my motivation. We are typically done milking by 9:30am so I still have the entire day ahead of me to work on any number of projects. Sure, there is the slight downside of occasionally being splatted with cow poo, but I enjoy the rest of the work so much that it more than makes up for the messy side of the job.
milking the cows selfie
walking to work
All this has been made all the more enjoyable due to the fact that the rain has stopped. This weekend we had plenty of sun and it is projected to stay that way for another week or two. Roads that have been covered in mud since November have finally begun to dry out and foot-deep tractor ruts that were filled with rainwater all winter have transformed into cracked earth. For the first time in months Fañch returned home last night covered in dust instead of soaked through from rain.
The calving season has also started which is one of my favorite times of year at the farm. Because our mobile home is situated two fields away we have to walk through these to get to the farm everyday. The second of these two fields is where the cows who will be calving our currently staying so my commute to work now consists of checking to see if there are any new fur babies stumbling around on unsteady legs or hiding in a patch of particularly tall grass.
During the recent sunny days Fañch has been hurrying to get all the new pastures seeded. This entails mixing eight different kinds of grass and alfalfa seeds in a cement mixer. I have really enjoyed helping with this part, it is a little bit like baking though instead of a cake as the end product it is an entire field of robust green cow chow.
Besides the usual farm work typical for this season there is the additional work which comes with preparing for a wedding. Our wedding will be at the farm so for the next four months we all have various projects to work on in order to get the place ready. I am very excited to have friends and family visiting and to finally share my life here with my loved ones on the other side of the Atlantic!
Since moving into our little mobile home I have become even more aware of our daily impact on the earth and its resources. Every day I am confronted head on by what goes in and what goes out of our humble abode. From the start we made a few choices that would help to limit our impact on the environment around us and we hope to do even more to leave the smallest footprint possible.
Instead of using the normal toilet that was already in place we decided to remove it and put in a composting toilet. This was done for several reasons but our principle motivating factors were to facilitate the move without having to worry about setting up where the waste would go and to limit our water usage. In France most rooms have a separate water closet for the toilet so it was easy for Fañch to remove the original one and replace with our composting toilet.
Some people may be skeptical about this contraption but I can assure you that it makes for an excellent environmentally and economically-friendly addition to the house. With a compost toilet you never have to worry about plumbing issues or clogged toilets. We also use it to dispose of all our vegetable and food scraps, reducing the waste that heads to trash cans and landfills.
No, the smell does not appear to be any worse than a regular bathroom. Any odors are limited by the addition of sawdust that is sprinkled in the toilet after use. Every few days the bucket is removed and dumped into a larger composting area which is also used for clippings from the lawn.
When Fañch hooked up the water to our home he also installed the pipes that would evacuate the water from the two sinks and the shower. The pipes carry the water outside and lead to a hole he dug. He will eventually fill the hole with rocks to help with the filtration of the water back into the ground but for now there is just a large hole.
This has proven to be quite fascinating for me but also eye-opening. Every time we wash the dishes or one of us takes a shower we can clearly see the quantity of water that was used. It has encouraged me to make a few changes such as turning off the water in the shower whenever it is not being used to rinse off. I also try to avoid turning on the faucet every time I want to rinse a dish, instead using the water that is already in the sink.
For now the adjustments are a good start and we hope to continue outfitting our home to keep its impact minimal.
Having returned from our holiday trip to the U.S., Fañch and I set to work in early January preparing for our move to the farm. I had just passed the French driving test which facilitated our leaving behind of city life (and all the public transportation that comes along with it) in favor of living back at Fern Island Farm.
In a few years time Fañch and I will live in the main farmhouse. His parents have purchased a new home on the farm’s property but will not settle into it for another couple of years, the time it takes to install running water, rebuild the roof, and lay down some flooring other than packed earth. The 80-something year old gentleman living in the stone cottage had not done much to modernize it since the generations that had called it home before him.
While this work is being done Fañch and I have decided to install a little mobile home on the property instead of continuing to rent elsewhere. Our two main motivations were wanting to be closer to the farm and wanting to find a way to save money in order to redirect more of it towards my student loan payments.
So as the new year rolled in we visited a few potential homes before finally settling on one. Despite its small square footage, the space feels light and airy, with several large windows letting in sunlight and offering views of the pasture outside. It was no easy feat getting it from the driveway at the farm to the location we had decided to place it. After a month of near constant rainfall the fields were soaked. Using the tractor to pull a mobile home across two of these fields ended before it could begin when the trailer supporting the home sank into a muddy rut. Three weeks went by before Fañch was able to pull it free, this time with a larger tractor and one-of-a-kind homemade skis he had fabricated to place beneath the trailer’s wheels, allowing it to slide across the still wet fields.
I have had a lot of fun decorating it this past week. Both of us are looking forward to this spring when the cows will return to pasture and the green expanse beyond our windows is filled with them happily munching on grass and alfalfa.
Yesterday Fañch and I also set out to do something we have been planning since last summer. When we started talking about marriage I knew I didn’t want the typical diamond ring. I have never been much of a ring person (as proven by the fact I have lost nearly every ring I have ever owned) and so we brainstormed other things we could do to mark our engagement. We decided on planting a tree together at the farm.
So we set out Sunday afternoon and went for a long walk through the farmland. Fañch had a few particular fields in mind where he thought we might find an abundance of oak saplings to choose from. Sure enough there was no shortage of the young trees and we soon found one to our liking. With a few good scoops of the shovel Fañch had the earth around the roots loosened up and the tree removed from its corner of the field.
With the sapling in hand we took back off across the fields, our boots squelching with each step in the soaked earth. Arriving at the chosen field Fañch got back to work digging a small hole for us to replant our oak. A few minutes later we were filling the hole back in being careful not to let any large rocks tumble in with the dark soil.
I feel so much more attached to this little sapling than I could have to a ring. All last night as strong winds whistled through the countryside I kept thinking of the young oak tree and hoping it hadn’t been yanked from its fresh bed of soil by the gusts. The place we planted it is along a newly formed embankment that borders recently acquired fields. We can’t wait to watch it grow along with the pasture surrounding it and our own relationship together at Fern Island Farm.
Well I may not have been wielding an ax while accompanied by a tractor-sized blue ox but the last couple weeks I have been playing my version of lumberjack at the farm. During the second week of vacation I was eager spend some time beginning preparations at the farm for its wedding transformation.
I started by clearing out a miniature bamboo forest that was blocking passage between several of the buildings where the festivities will be taking place. Cut down one by one it took an entire afternoon to be able to see from building to the next. The following day Fañch pulled one of the tractors around and I loaded the bamboo up so that he could bring it to the giant bonfire pile. Once that was finished I worked on trimming back other plants, clearing woodpiles, and raking clippings.
The rest of the week was spent liberating a beautiful oak tree from another overgrown tree that was hogging all of the earth, air, and sunlight in that corner of the yard. It took some coaxing from Jean-Yves to get the brush pile bonfire started but once it did the mass of branches and leaves that once crowded the lawn was reduced to a smoldering pile of ash. Fañch used the chainsaw to cut down some of the larger branches and trees that my giant pair of gardening scissors were helpless against. The work is not done yet but it felt great to make a start on it all. Early last week while I was explaining addition in English to 2nd graders Jean-Yves continued the work in the yard, clearing out the area around a couple fruit trees. When I arrived at the farm afterwards he had prepared more piles for a bonfire which I eventually succeeded in burning despite the days of drizzling rain and soggy branches.
Once I make more headway on the work I will be sure to post some before and after pictures!
The last few weeks have flown by in a flurry of hammers on nails, kindergarten lesson plans, baby coos and little calf moos. So here is an update on everything that has been going on at and around Fern Island Farm.
On September 25th Julien and I left the market a little earlier than usual so that he could go with Camille to the hospital. By dawn the next morning Mathilde had arrived and Fern Island Farm’s population grew by one. Making her debut one month early, the tiniest new Guillou just couldn’t wait any longer to grace us with her beautiful blue eyes and tiny grasping fingers. First time grandparents Annie and Jean-Yves are completely smitten while Uncle Fañch can’t help but smile in awe every time he sees his little niece. Mathilde has already been out in her all-terrain stroller for several walks at the farm and loves bathtime above all else.
The other big project at the farm is still the séchoir, the immense building at the entry of Fern Island where the hay will be dried and stored. Last month Fañch found out there is a deadline for receiving funding for which he has to have the majority of the building completed for instead of being able to take his time on it this winter. The last couple weeks have been long ones for him as he hammers away to build the final walls and pours concrete to fill the gaps between cinder blocks. Hindering his progress even more is the all-expense-paid trip to Ireland he currently finishing up (poor him). Several months ago he had been asked by another Breton musician to accompany him to perform at this festival. Fañch gets home tomorrow and I know he is anxious to finish up on the building.
Calving seasons is just about finished with only a couple more cows remaining who have yet to welcome their wobbling offspring into the world. I think this is one of the best seasons at the farm. One of my favorite things to do is walk into the pen with the calves and wait patiently while they build up the courage to come lick my hand or rub their head against my boot. I tried to upload a couple of pictures of them but it’s not working for some reason. I will try again soon!
Unfortunately I haven’t been spending quite as much time as usual at the farm because I took a post teaching English in an elementary school in Quimper. Every week I go visit the kindergarten class, the 2nd grade class, and the 3rd grade class to work on forming and advancing their English skills. It has certainly been a crash course in classroom management (read: what to do when a student crawls under a desk and won’t come out or when your 3rd graders call you out for saying a bad word in French when you didn’t even know it was a bad word). So far I have enjoyed my twice weekly lessons with the students despite a few minor discipline hiccups. They are very excited about learning English so I am looking forward to seeing how I can help them progress from now until the end of June.
Last week Fañch trekked to the other side of the region to surprise me with material for making cheese and butter. I got a call around 9pm saying not to worry but that he would either behome late that night or the next morning. Of course I was confused as the last I had heard he was simply spending the day spreading manure in the fields. As it turns out, he was already 3 hours away and by the time he finished picking everything up he might be too tired to drive home. In that case he would sleep a few hours in his car before returning the next morning.
Well by 11pm he messaged to let me know he was going to go with the second option and sleep in his car before continuing with the long drive home. What I didn’t know was that he was actually stranded at a gas station having filled his car with gas instead of diesel. Not wanting me to worry about his current state of “stranded-in-the-middle-of-nowhere” he simply told me he was going to wait until he was well rested to return. Eventually he was able to borrow a tool from a passing family in their camper and proceeded to empty the tank. However this turned out to be quite a long process, punctuated by a visit from the gendarmerie who had been called to check out this strange man seen siphoning gas out of a car in the middle of the night. So, after this mishap and earlier road construction, missed exits, and detours, Fañch climbed as quietly as he could into bed at 4:30am. As usual, his alarm went off at 7am and he was with the cows by 8.
Pictured below are the two main machines he brought home with him that night (plus a stainless steel table that just barely fit in his car).