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People tend to worry about how we’re making it through winters at the farm, but it is the summers I find most challenging. The growing season brings so many blessings from the first asparagus (or later peas, new potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, berries etc.) to the riot of color in my gardens, and the influx of visitors. These blessings require planning, weeding, harvesting, sorting, preserving, cleaning and cooking that challenge me more each summer. And then I don’t want to miss the sunrise and the dew of early morning nor the sunset and fireflies. I keep stealing time to watch the does with their fawns or the nests with young about to fledge. So this August when I’m freezing peppers and pesto, drying and canning tomatoes, when the ragweed is in bloom and allergies slow me down, I’m grateful to the visitors who wrote for this newsletter, giving readers fresh perspectives on our life. We missed having gleaners this summer, couldn’t find anyone willing and able to come and pick and take excess garden produce, but we enjoyed reconnecting with old friends and showing the farm to people who had just found it.
In July Brother Tom McNamara came as he has every year but one since our arrival in 2001. He told us about his work at Our Lady of Sorrows in Manhattan and listened thoughtfully to our hopes and concerns. He played mandolin to accompany Zach’s banjo and Jo’s and Richard’s guitars for an evening of singing. He helped me snap beans for canning, helped Jo pull and clean garlic, and helped Zach at the sawmill—a first for him. He took oak slabs to make benches in his Manhattan garden and garlic to plant there this fall. I gave him lavender sachets I make and used to send with Hope to give to refugee mothers. He told me about a troubled woman he had prayed with and given dried balsam and lavender that we sent with him last year. He said she told him that smelling it reminded her of the prayers and gave her hope.
A few days later Sr. Louise came for lunch and spent the afternoon with us. She can only come now when she has someone to drive her, but we keep in touch by phone and count each visit as a blessing. Although she has lost much of her sight, her spirit and inner vision remain strong, and she still enjoys our farm food while we enjoy her stories.
This summer has also brought new people. A woman came to meet her son here for a supervised visit. The supervisor thought her office had called about coming, but we weren’t expecting them. The boy enjoyed walking our trails, seeing wildlife, and looking things up in our nature guides. The family and the supervisor took vegetables and called before their next visit. That day I had time to talk with the grandparents who brought the boy and found that they remembered us from ten years ago when their son came to do community service. The grandmother took garlic and dill for her pickle-making and I promised to make cheese with the boy next month. One Saturday when my work for the week was about done, I heard some people walking by and asking each other about the barn and what St. Francis Farm was. They were camping at a neighbor’s for a family reunion. I ended up giving them a tour and brochures, answering their questions, explaining to one how to plant and when to harvest garlic.
As the summer rushes along with all its wonders and work, knowing that we are all in God’s loving hands helps me keep my balance, and in spite of my hurrying or worrying people still find this a place of peace.
I really do feel that it was the gentle voice of God that guided me to St. Francis Farm.
When I arrived, I found space. Space to breathe in the open air. Space to exist in one place with nowhere else to be. Space to work with and get to know others who speak honestly, directly, and from the heart — with no agendas or fake pretensions. There was none of the unspoken pressure to “be” a certain way to “fit in” that is often found in tight-knit groups.
Going to St. Francis Farm is not a vacation. It’s hard work, not a relaxing time or a nice retreat. It’s remote. If you go there, you will pull weeds for hours, get tangled up in prickers while you pick berries, try to ignore the biting flies while you milk goats, and — if you have the unfortunate tendency to mess up or forget things as much as I do — get reprimanded and scolded some too (always with loving honesty).
I went to bed tired, and woke up feeling awake. My usual three cups of coffee a day was reduced to one in the morning — and my body felt no need to complain.
In the mornings everyone goes to the upstairs chapel and prays in silence. We just sit there. No goal, or purpose. Just sitting, listening. Most of the time I sat there completely distracted, my mind turning over this or that. My distracted morning prayers became my favorite time of the day.
We ate every meal together. We had break times scheduled into the day to spend time with others or go off by ourselves. In the evenings, sometimes all of us would go for a walk around the trails through the fields and the woods. Sometimes I would retreat to my room or pull one of the many books from the shelves in the chapel.
I spent hours sitting on the steps to my room and playing a mandolin that was handmade by Zachary. I couldn’t remember a time since I was a teenager first learning guitar that I had felt such a simple joy playing an instrument — playing it badly at that!
Surrounded by spaciousness, there was nothing left for my anxious mind to latch onto. My biggest challenge on the farm turned out not to be milking goats (although that WAS a challenge), but grappling with the negative sides of my own mind laid bare for me to confront. Feelings of anxiety, insecurity, and worry feed off of the distractions and competitiveness of consumer society. Often I’m able to suppress these feelings with busy-ness, or project them onto other people, things or circumstances. Doing that proved impossible on the farm, and I had to face what I felt. Thank God I was around understanding people during those moments, who listened with patience, heart, and clarity!
Playing that mandolin, pulling weeds, getting pricked in the berry bushes, I was able to look at these anxieties and tensions I carried and see them as exactly what they are: illusions, lies, and mental habits run amok, pulling me away from my true identity as a child of God.
How many people in our world are walking around in a state of tension, inner conflict, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and fear? How many people have so deeply internalized these illusions as being an essential part of their selves? How many people self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, television, or workaholism? How many people honestly think: “I am an anxious person,” or “I am a nervous person,” and truly believe that this is who they are?
I had spent my first years out of college living a mostly unspiritual life, focused on myself, on politics, on studying, on activism, on travel, and doing “interesting things.” A lot of people told me I was doing things right. But at the end of the day when nothing was left to distract me, I sat in my room by myself, and I felt empty and anxious. I had forgotten God.
How had I forgotten that I’m really a child of God? That every single person I meet is too? How could I have forgotten that this inner child — no matter how much I bury it and forget it underneath the layers of ego — is the source of everything good, all life itself? One day I’ll look back on this period of my life as the time that I remembered God and began to pay attention to the gentle voice that spoke me into existence. That voice still calls me from within to be who I was created to be.
St. Francis Farm for me, was the place that I needed to be to listen to that voice more clearly, and it was clearly that voice — soft and true — that led me there. Thank you, Lorraine, Joanna, Zachary, and Fr. Tom, and God bless St. Francis Farm!
I first heard of St. Francis Farm from a former volunteer on a forum dedicated to progressive Christian thought, and was immediately intrigued by the life of prayer, quiet, and of course agricultural work that took place on the farm. For a week in July, I finally got the chance to visit St. Francis Farm and reflect on its message for my life and our times.
For someone starting graduate school this fall who grew up largely in the suburbs, St. Francis Farm embodied a radically different way of living and working. I had experience doing manual labor and even a little farm work, but the pace and quantity of the work here was challenging to me. Yet this challenge was not without its rewards: not only did I learn all sorts of practical skills, from milking goats to gardening to making cheese, but I found my work mentally rewarding and had little difficulty focusing on it or pushing through a given task. Lorraine, Joanna and Zach were incredibly helpful in showing me the ropes and were always patient with my mistakes as I learned.
For me, the change of pace that agricultural life represented was only a small part of a much larger challenge posed by St. Francis Farm: a challenge to think critically about what we consume, the consequences of our actions, and what really matters in life. As I negotiated the differences between life on St. Francis Farm and my life at home, I frequently found myself asking “do I really need that?” The Hoyt family provides a powerful example of a life built around conscientious consumption, economic charity and self-reliance, and attention to spiritual and communal needs over individual and material wants.
I do not see the challenge of St. Francis Farm negatively at all. My time here was a sign of the profound joy and peace a conscientious lifestyle can bring. I loved having blocks of time set aside for prayer and a clear balance between my work on the farm and my pursuit of other interests during my off time. While eating food that was largely grown locally was a new experience, the meals tasted delicious and it felt incredibly rewarding to contribute to all stages of the production of what I was eating. Even drinking a glass of cool spring water after a few hours’ work filled me with gratitude and reminded me of the value of my work. Perhaps most meaningfully to me, St. Francis Farm combined its productivity with community and hospitality. Not only were the Hoyts incredibly welcoming to me and brilliant conversation partners, but stories about past volunteers and my brief meetings with locals attested to an ongoing and expanding community and let me feel connected to past (and future) volunteers at the farm and those who benefited from it. This feeling was very humbling, to be sure, but also a chance to recognize the value of my contributions to a broader community.
I do not yet know if my life will lead me to embrace an agricultural lifestyle like the one I experienced during my time at St. Francis Farm, but I can say I hope to take the lessons I’ve learned with me no matter where I go. In this regard, I hope to answer the challenge that St. Francis Farm represents to our materialistic culture by letting the example of community, friendship, hard work and all of its rewards affect my relationships with others and my thinking about issues even if I live in the city – or the suburbs. Thank you.
This year’s big project for me was tearing off the old shingles and roll roofing and putting up new shingles on the front side of the barn we live in. I did the back side last year, but the front was a little different because it has eleven skylights instead of one, and the pantry roof is also connected to it. I started work in late May and finished in late June, working on the roof whenever I had enough dry days between rains.
I cut hay in late June this year, and I cut more than we needed because I failed to account for how thick the hay was this year following the very wet spring we had. We ended up with 320 bales instead of the 150 we needed. We used 20 that were damp for mulch in the garden, and we sold the extra 150. It took about a month to sell them, but finally we found a buyer who actually did what he had said he would do. I cut the rest of the fields in July, and the new haybine knife was a great improvement over the old one. As I was mowing the last field one of the wheel spindles on the haybine broke off and the wheel fell off, but I was able to get a used spindle from a salvage yard and with some new bearings and a new seal it was back to work in a week or so.
In late July I built an access ramp at a home in Altmar, and in early August I built another in Sandy Creek. I was able to build each ramp in one day, which saved extra trips and avoided having to move the tools more times. As in the last several years I am again working under the auspices of ARISE which determines where to send me and purchases the materials. I make the plan, get the building permit and, once the materials are delivered, I build the ramp. I am planning to build two more in September and October.
Lumber sales at the sawmill have been slow over the summer after a fairly busy winter and spring, but it is common for the timing of business there to be irregular and unpredictable. I wasn’t able to get to the woods to bring out logs from January, when the snow became too deep, until late June, because the wet weather kept the ground soft. Normally I have been able to move logs any time after late April, or even earlier in some years. A few people brought in their logs to be sawed. They seemed happy to have a place where they could get just a couple of logs done at a time. This summer Richard and Alicia, two of the volunteers who stayed with us, and Fr. Tom McNamara all ran the sawmill during their visits and seemed to find it interesting.
Joanna’s work (written mid-August)
The growing season is in full swing. I’m frustrated by failures, pleased with good harvests, tired from the work, and grateful for meaningful work and for helpers and learners.
Spring and early summer were wet, but the weather turned drier July into August. Running drip irrigation round the clock and watering morning and evening allowed the crops to grow well. We had our best strawberries ever, froze many and had all we wanted to eat fresh. The peas bore abundantly. We froze all we wanted, sent the soup kitchen and the Community Cupboard all they could take, and finally cut the vines to feed to the goats. We’ve finished canning green beans and are still eating and sharing them. We’ve had good lettuce, kale and chard. The eggplants that got off to a slow start in the early cool weather are starting to bear. Peppers and basil are coming in as fast as we can process them. We’re eating and sharing cherry tomatoes, drying Juliet tomatoes and canning large tomatoes. We’ve had minor fungal problems that thrive in the humid weather, but so far the harvest is good. Some of our garlic was affected by mold, but most heads were large, healthy and good for storage. Cukes and squash were slowed down by squash bugs (which the chickens eat after we pick them off) and vine borers. We’re enjoying new potatoes and onions, and expect to have plenty of both for winter storage.
We’re still trying to figure out what to grow more of and how best to share it. At Task Force meetings people talk about the growing need for food, and particularly for fresh food. But the local places that distribute food can’t always find takers for produce in a timely manner. This may be partly because some people don’t know how to cook with fresh vegetables, partly because of program limits that restrict how often people can get food from certain centers. This winter when there’s more time we’ll think about how to make this connection work better.
Last year the drought meant we didn’t get many wild berries. This year we’ve had a good raspberry harvest and the blackberries are off to a good start. The apples didn’t bloom much, so we expect a smaller harvest there.
Our goat Nan developed severe health problems soon after kidding and had to be put down. We bought a new doe, Robin, from the same farm where we got Amada, who is still with us and producing very well. Robin is settling in and milking well, though she and Amada continue to fight over who gets out to the milk stand first. Nan’s kid continued healthy and we sold her to an Amish neighbor. The rabbits have been prolific; we’ve had six litters from our three does, and Kittery is now pregnant with the year’s last litter. Rabbit forage has grown abundantly in this rainy year.
I’ve had good help and good company as I deal with the ups and downs of farming. Emily, a friend from the Syracuse contradance community, spent the Fourth of July helping us out with gardening as well as bundling willow for winter rabbit feed. Giovanni spent a week with us in early July, Richard came for nearly two weeks in late July, and Alicia was here for just over a week in August. I’m thankful for their help in keeping us caught up with watering and weeding and picking. Richard and Alicia asked quite a few questions about the how and why of gardening, as they hope to keep growing some of their own food. Working together gave us all time to talk about questions of faith, work and calling. I wish them well as they find their way, and I appreciate their presence and their help in this life to which I was called.
It’s been a lovely time for birds. Below: 1-week-old chipping sparrows in their nest in the rose bush, one of those sparrows newly fledged, and barn swallows in Zach’s barn.