There are places out there, the ones you think about when you see those bucolic countryside scenes-the kind that make you think of another time, another era. Do they live somewhere in postcards, or antique books? Is "farmer Brown," some sort of bygone notion, and archetype of hard work and near poverty that is scorned by the masses?
Somewhere out there, there are people who would laugh a hearty "no," then get back to work, on tractors, on horseback, ambling in fields that have yet to be taken up by large corporate farming, where pesticides are the norm. No, the organic farmer (or, as Mama would have said, "the farmer") is working hard to feed his or her family, and YOU, and such was the world I was traveling into.
A bus has left the huge concrete world up North, and slowly wended and whirred into a world full of golden fields and red century barns and cattle lowing while chewing cud. This is no Currier and Ives world--this one exists, and I would be teaching beekeeping here, to people who wanted a smile slice of "better" in keeping livestock organically. This would be no grand cake walk, but a wee piece of learning, and a chance for me to return to a place I love--the Midwest.
Of the brave people who battle the elements, disease, and one too many daily chores, I would be meeting up with my friend and fellow farm-hearted soul, Donna OShaughnessy. A Chicago raised, Irish bred lass, Donna is also a fellow wordsmith who writes for our other blog, The Renegade Farmer. Here, I had met her, and died laughing at her amazingly witty and insightful posts about her farm life in Illinois, which is also chronicled on her own amazing site, The Midlife Farmwife. Her farm--cleverly named South Pork Ranch-- is a testament to a life where she and her husband dared to be organic, with a grass-fed meat and RAW MILK operation--you know, the way they USED to do it before the farm world decided to accept pesticides, medicated animal feed, and growth hormones. In fact, much small, organic farming is so regulated that it proves difficult for honest farmers to continue farming without fines, hassles, and paperwork, where as large agricultural operations (BigAg) is allowed to get away with many more provisions that can harm the average citizen.
No, Donna and Keith are good folks who truly cared about their animals and strive to create quality food for you and I. Their farm encompasses a rambling 40 acres of good pasture, with a myriad of animals. Indeed, driving in with Donna, we were immediately greeted by a Great Pyranees dog that could have been my Polly's skinnier sister, a slate turkey hen, and a barn cat. They followed us around the farm and farmhouse. Visions of Doctor Doolittle immediately ensued.
Peacocks...gorgeous, but loud...
Their larger pastures had a nice mix of cows. Dairy Holsteins, English Milking Shorthorns, and the smaller Jersey cows seemed to be the general makeup of the herd. They frolicked--literally!--running in funny circles around the pasture, for what reason, I'm still not sure, but it was a wonderful site. Calves in a smaller pen in the front also ran after each other, kicking up their heels.
Calves on one pasture, Red Wattles in the back pasture...
There were peafowl, chickens, ducks, and guinea hens. In another far pasture, several pigs from the American heritage breed known as Red Wattles--a specialty animal raised by Donna and Keith--lazed in lush terrain. There were also some-odd number of heritage spotted hogs, and mothers and babies lounged in various pastures, while juveniles jaunted in others.
Donna is a creative, funny woman with a mischievous streak and a penchant for making GREAT soap. She and Keith live in a rambling farmhouse sans several adult children who have since moved away. Donna's soaps sit in her her living room and smell wonderful, and THEY ARE, since they're made with herbs, and in ways I have never heard of. Keith seems to be a bit more introverted, quiet, pensive. He clearly loves the animals, and is diligent with milking, feeding, and caring for the many animals on the farm. He was scrupulous about milking, and their quality milk was created via a small operation--not more than a dozen cows--that made for a remarkable product. Their milk is as popular as is their grass fed beef, their heritage meat was served in restaurants and coveted by such noted chefs as Rick Bayless. Plus, they have a wonderful little farm store that sells all of their meat, milk, soap and other organic wonders.
Even so, their farm is for sale. Surprised, I asked Donna why, and am told that even the farm--this farm that they clearly love--has become too big.....that hey love what they do, but they want something smaller, simpler, for themselves. Mind you, nowhere during our stay did I feel that they FELT this life of theirs was a burden--indeed--they went about their days with happiness, humor, candor--they never complained, did not seem annoyed and had such a great spirit about them--the same farmer spirit that I fell love with. Because, truly, it is still a gift to live as they live and look out on such an honest life.
The day for beekeeping class came--no one had registered online, but I was not worried. I had faith that perhaps someone would simply pay "at the door," and I also wanted to help Donna and Keith, as they also planned an Open Farm Day to coincide with my funny little teachings. I needn't have worried. Firstly, there were two sweet people who came to learn. Also, Keith and Donna's son and others came to help for the farm day. And so what ended up happening, after hours of teaching and selling, meet and telling, and wrangling small children and animals is that we all were gifted with a glorious day, our profits measured in smiles and new friends and hard work recognized.
I leave this place with a sense of satisfaction--of doing this little journey and keeping my promise to meet and teach, and of wonderment of these beautiful folks, resourceful people that seem to take everything in stride, and with a smile. I know it's not easy, doing this thing, but I am amazed at how buoyed everyone and everything is. I will miss Donna and Keith--funny, intelligent, good people--my friends. If you are in Chatsworth IL, please do support these salt of the Earth folks--you will not be sorry to own their goods.
And I will miss the animals--the image that stands out is one of their cute Red Wattle piglets, a somewhat spoiled precious little oinker that I call Rufus, and Donna calls "Big Fat Mama's Boy," who got out of his pen and giddily chased Keith, son Jason, and farmhand Aaron, before mama called him back to her side. A modern day Wilbur from Charlotte's web--he circled around legs, ran back on forth on grass--happiness written all over him.
Here is the spoiled little fellow in question, eating with mama....
Even in this small act, on Midlife Farmwife should be proud.
I hope I get to see her and her family again, soon--to thank her for all her kindness...
Tomorrow--a tale of beekeeping at Antiquity Oaks.