Milking goats, getting published, and the gift of the magi

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The man selling greenhouse kits at the fair burst into hearty laughter when I asked him if he wrote a blog about his lifestyle.

“I’m a homesteader! I don’t have time for that stuff.”

I smell what he’s stepping in. Depending upon the level of homesteading in which one engages, there is often very little time for anything which does not directly contribute to food, shelter, or heat.

The guy at the fair lives in a homemade greenhouse with his wife and children, raises his own food, and generally lives off the bounty of his land.   Having done the same at various stages of my live and having rubbed elbows with plenty of others who do also, I can testify that living life as a homesteader can indeed be a full time job.

There are lots of people who make it look easy. I know a young couple who seems to pull it all off—two demanding professional jobs, two kids active in sports and 4-H, remodeling an old house while they live in it, raising pedigreed goats and horses and assorted meat animals, attending livestock shows and meetings all over New England, doing side jobs as a farrier and show judge, and still having time to serve their community through leadership in youth and agriculture associations.

Just seeing all of that in writing feels a little overwhelming to me. It seems petulant and defensive to point out that they don’t raise and preserve all of their own vegetables, or cook all their own food from scratch, or maintain three or four miles of trail in an eighty-acre forest, or heat their home with wood they cut and split themselves.

More importantly, they are half our ages and have twice our connectedness. They are blessed with the advantage of having grown up in the world they are currently navigating, and of having broad-based support from extended family.

And neither of them are writers.

At the end of the day, all that really matters is that what they are doing works for them, and what The Mister and I were doing wasn’t working for us.

I arrived at that harsh truth one day last fall when I realized that I was showing up in the barn for morning milking later and later every day. It wasn’t that I was overcommitted with other things before barn chores. It was that I just wasn’t looking forward to them anymore.

There it was. The whole truth. I just didn’t want to milk goats anymore. And if I didn’t want to milk them, they’d be just pets. And I didn’t want that either.

The fact was, I was just plain tired of starting out every single day at the foot of a milk stand. Tired of opening my refrigerator and seeing it so full of milk that there was no room to put anything else. Tired of making cheese when I already had plenty of cheese but I just needed some clean jars to put tomorrow’s milk in. Tired of my hands always raw from cleaning and sanitizing milk equipment. Tired of always smelling like a barn.

Once I forced myself to sit down and mull over the reality that what I was doing just wasn’t working for me, I knew it was more than just being tired of the activities themselves.

It felt like The Mister and I were wound up into a tight ball with no elbow room. His full-time off-farm job left him insufficient time to get done what needed done on the homestead, but doesn’t pay him enough to hire any of it out.

We were hamsters on a wheel, always scurrying to get adequate infrastructure into place and get overdue tasks caught up and figure out a way to pay for it all. Always feeling guilty about not giving any of the animals enough devotion and constant anxiety about protecting them from predation.  And never having any time or energy left over for friends or family or each other.

I made the decision on my own to sell the goats. The Mister would never ask me to do a thing like that—he knew how much they meant to me—but he supported me once I had made the choice.

When I posted my Craigslist ad on Facebook, friends asked me if one of us were sick. No, I replied. We weren’t. Not any kind of sickness anyone could see or measure, anyway.

Buyers came from far northern Maine, western Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, and carried off the herd one and two at a time. When I was down to the last three, I rewrote my ad to say that they were my “three favoritest favorite goats” and that I would consider letting them go to only a “perfect home.”

God love the young woman who had the courage to answer an ad like that.   She arrived to visit me and my goats with a sweet smile, a supportive family, and all the right answers. Looking at my decision in the rear-view mirror, I know I made the right choice.

I still miss them. I miss their warm sweet smell, and their fun rambunctiousness, and the idea of them playing a role in our self-declared lifestyle of self-sufficiency. Mostly, I miss them as individuals.

In a rueful reminder of “The Gift of the Magi,” wherein the man sold his pocket watch in order that might buy decorative combs for his wife’s hair while the wife sold her hair to buy a chain for his watch, I realize that we now have the time and money to upgrade our barn floor and improve our permanent fencing.

Another cruel irony is this: now that I no longer have goats or engage in any milking or cheesemaking or hoof-trimming or kid midwifery or fence-moving, I have a lot more time to write about those topics.

Nowadays, published work rolls across my computer screen and dollars roll into my Paypal. This is what I wanted, I remind myself, ignoring the twinges of wistfulness.

My choice was one between doing a lot of things—many of them newly-acquired and barely-managed skills—passably and under pressure, and doing fewer things well and confidently. Although The Mister and I have no regrets of the years spent doing the former, we’re resting comfortably for now with the latter.

The guy at the fair is right. None of us can have it all, or do it all. And we would do well to take a page from his book and laugh at the very idea of doing more than we can handle.

Kathy Bernier

About Kathy Bernier

Backyard farming since 2007--raising our own, saving up for hard times, rejecting consumerism, and hugging the land.