We’ve got five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
We’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got
Our very first blog post, back on September 28th, 2012, stole its title from a Talking Heads song – “Once In A Lifetime.” As July 2, 2017 approaches, I thought about David Bowie Friday morning in the shower – “Five Years”. July 2nd will be our five-year anniversary on the farm.
So here are five reflections on the last five years.
First, I’ll start with that shower – it was in the apartment bathroom. First time I’ve taken a shower in it. No, Peg didn’t kick me out of the house. This weekend was Dartmouth graduation, and we rented the house to a family from Minnesota. They had the run of the house – including the queen bedroom that normally goes with the apartment – until Monday morning. Which means Peg, Todd and Jack got to share the studio apartment.
We’ve already got the house rented for next year’s graduation, but I think Peg and I will consider our options following this weekend as to whether we want to continue to rent it out. We spent a good portion of last weekend tidying up, organizing and cleaning every room in the house – Saturday I tackled most of the office, Sunday the laundry room. (Peg’s comment on the laundry room – “I don’t recognize it”). I took Monday and Tuesday off from work to help out, but at the very end Peg was feverishly vacuuming, mopping, and dusting – right up until (and after) the family came up the driveway. She was exhausted Thursday night.
So – first reflection – the apartment. It was always our plan to have a vacation rental apartment on the farm, and we created the space in early 2013 and hosted our first guests that July. Words cannot reflect how successful this venture has been. I can’t think of any guests that we wished hadn’t stayed in it. We’ve had repeat guests – later this summer a couple is coming for their 3rd visit. I’d say about half the guests want to meet and learn about the sheep. Also, about half bring their dog. Other than cleaning up after shedding, not a single dog has done any significant damage. Our listing on VRBO.com has 42 traveler reviews – every single one of them gives us five stars. A couple who stayed recently just mailed us a Thank You note. Not to brag (well…) here are the headlines of the last five reviews:
- Perfect Spot On Top Of A Hill
- Very Peaceful, Great Owners
- SIMPLY AMAZING!!!!!!
- Serene, picturesque setting
- Great rental for our weekend away!
Since Peg has stopped working a day job, she takes on most of the apartment responsibilities – corresponding to rental requests, managing payments, flipping the apartment, and sending back security deposit refunds. In season, she puts fresh flowers on the kitchen counter to welcome each incoming party.
Economically, the apartment has surpassed our expectations. In 2016, between Dartmouth graduation and the end of October – 10 days shy of five months – the apartment was empty 31 nights (not including 10 nights we blocked off for a wedding and personal use). That’s an occupancy rate of 76%. This year, between now and October 10 – four months –only 27 nights are not booked. 21 of those nights fall into three blocks – 9 in late June/early July, 6 in the middle of July and another 6 in late August. All three could still get booked.
In a word, the apartment has been FANTASTIC.
If Peg were writing this, she probably wouldn’t have started with the apartment. Second reflection – the sheep. I can approach the sheep from so many different perspectives. But as I think about the last five years, I am drawn to this – Peg’s deepening relationship with them. When we started, neither of us knew a thing about sheep, and we both read books, talked to mentors, posted questions on the sheep list serve. When we faced decision points, we often differed in our approaches (and still do). But at some point, one person needs to take a lead role and the obvious candidate is Peg.
By “deepening relationship”, in part I mean Peg’s diving into all things sheep and wool. We started this venture with the idea that we would produce naturally colored yarn, that’s it. Led by Peg, here is what we are into today:
- First, rather than just “yarn”, our product is “really soft, really spongy yarn”
- We’ve learned to add to our color “palette” by blending different shades of color and using white wool to provide lighter shades of gray (which are really popular).
- Peg is dying over both white and brown yarn to provide wonderful, vibrant colored yarns.
- The last two years, Peg obtained the fleece of a neighboring flock (not as soft). The 1st year it came back from the mill a nice shade of gray and she dyed much of it. The 2nd year it went to Zeilinger Wool Company in Michigan to be turned into batts which will get cheesecloth covers for queen-sized duvet covers.
- Every year we are now selling whole and half lambs, cut by Green Mountain Smokehouse, to locals and family.
- Every year we sell yummy colored and white lambskin rugs.
- We offer two flavors of lamb sausage at our local farmer’s market and even in a few retail stores.
- Last year we sold lamb kidneys to a couple who inquired after them.
- Back on the yarn front, after two retailers expressed interest in carrying our yarn, Peg has the yarn in several other retail outlets in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
The list goes on. But beyond that, Peg’s stewardship of the flock has grown deeper in the last five years. She often remarks she couldn’t “do sheep” without me, and I do provide some brawn and an extra pair of hands (and arms and legs) when the sheep need to be handled, and these are not “chores” or “tasks” to me but things that come, willingly, with being a shepherd. But shearing day and lambing season are times when you can see Peg’s love for this flock, for this new avocation. We both still have many things to learn and experience anew with these sheep, and Peg is leading the way.
Third reflection – The Upper Valley. Peg and I both grew up in suburbia – Peg in Greenwich, CT (suburb of New York); me in Whitefish Bay, WI (suburb of Milwaukee). Our life together has been urban (Chicago for 3 years out of college) and suburban – 10 years near Boston, 5 years near New York, and 14 years near Chicago. Hartford, VT is a town of 10,000 – the 8th largest in Vermont. Burlington tops the list at 38,000. Wilmette, IL – our previous hometown – has a population of 27,000, in a Chicago metro area that has 9.5 million. Vermont’s total population is 625,000. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
The Upper Valley area of the Connecticut River probably includes about 20 towns on each side of the river. The four towns where we spend most of our time – Hartford, Hanover, Norwich, and Lebanon – have a total population of less than 40,000. The Valley News circulation is no more than 15,000. This area is more rural/small town than suburban.
When I think about the Upper Valley, three things strike me:
- In a small town, people know one another. You’re more likely to run into someone you know on the street, at the grocery store, the post office, a restaurant, the liquor store(!). Just Tuesday, I saw John wandering around the aisles of the West Lebanon liquor store. John is the husband of Lise, who is in a weekly knitting and spinning group with Peg. When I told Peg I saw John, she said “he was exiled from the house as the group was meeting at their house; he must have been passing the time.” I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, that you have to be careful what you say about someone – you might be talking about someone’s cousin, or lifelong friend.
- In a small town, you can’t hide. By this I mean, if something needs doing, you pitch in and do it. In 2013, I volunteered to serve on an ad hoc advisory committee to the Hartford Select Board about solid waste. I knew nothing about solid waste, but I felt a civic duty to chip in. Peg serves on the Hartford Energy Commission, and is the board chair of the CATV station that serves the towns of Hartford, Norwich, and Hartland in Vermont and Hanover and Lebanon in New Hampshire. For two years, I’ve been a reading mentor at the White River elementary school in Hartford, and last year joined the organization’s board of directors. Peg also serves on the board of the Norwich Farmer’s Market. In all the towns we’ve lived in before, we never did this kind of volunteering.
- The educational/entertainment/recreational opportunities within a half hour’s drive of the farm are incredible. Education – Dartmouth College makes almost all its lectures by outside speakers open to the public. Entertainment – Dartmouth (again), Northern Stage, New London Barn Playhouse, two cineplexes, Lebanon Opera House, Opera North, Parish Players. And recreation – hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, tennis, golf, curling, downhill skiing, cross country skiing. The Appalachian Trail runs along a ridge about a mile north of the farm – we hike it regularly with Jack.
Fourth reflection – Jericho. Not only did we stumble into a hillside home with 25 acres of grass for the sheep and ridiculously wonderful views for the people, the area of the town of Hartford that is Jericho is a loosely knit neighborhood that works to keep together and provide mutual support, and has done so for over 100 years. Our first introduction to the neighborhood came after Martha and Dolly ran off the farm in August, 2012. In wandering around in search of them, we ran into Becky and her dog Duke. Becky told us she would post our search efforts on the neighborhood list serve.
This list serve is, in a way, the lifeblood of the Jericho Community Club. The list serve tells community members about the upcoming pot luck dinner/club meeting held three times a year, the Christmas caroling on the back of Marty’s truck (with hay bales for benches), the apple pressing party, the New Years’ Eve game night, the sugar on snow open house at the Miller sugar shack, the (upcoming first-in-a-long-time) multi-family yard sale. It also alerts people to lost dogs, power outages, icy road conditions, mulch bag thefts, memorial services. Just this morning: “If you are missing a rabbit there is a white one on Sugartop. Last I saw it was by the road down near the brook.”
If the list serve is the lifeblood, the old one-room schoolhouse is the heart of Jericho. That’s where most of the above activities take place. The JCC took possession of the building for $1 from the town of Hartford years ago, and is responsible for its maintenance and insurance. A few years ago it was determined the foundation needed some serious work. Club volunteers obtained estimates from potential contractors and designated a $65,000 budget to authentically restore the foundation. The club historian, Leo, led efforts to raise the funds, and got to about $37,000 – mostly from club members. Peg and I jumped in and reached out more broadly to other individuals and businesses in the area to raise the rest.
The Jericho community is a cross section of ages, backgrounds, life stages. There are about 75 households in the membership directory. To say these households are all “best friends” or even really know each other well would be a stretch. But when a member is in need, the community as a whole pitches in. A few years ago Tom had a bad back and couldn’t load firewood into his basement in preparation for winter. Erik put out a few dates to help out on the list serve, and Tom’s basement was full in no time.
In 2002, Peg published a book about getting and staying in connected with your neighbors – Block Parties & Poker Nights. If she wanted, Jericho could provide plenty of fodder for a follow-up.
Fifth reflection – Just Do It. Peg has always been the explorer/entrepreneur in our relationship – trying new things, new ventures, coming up with ideas. I’ve tended to be more conservative. Not that I’m not impulsive – I once took a 10-day canoe trip with Lori in the Quetico Provincial Park of Ontario with literally no advance notice or planning.
But, on September 5, 2011, I said to Peg, “You know, if we got a dog like that, I might think about this.” That was on San Juan Island in Washington state, as we pulled out of Annette’s driveway after meeting her sheep, her border collie, and learning more than we needed (at the time) about sheep farming. That one sentence started us on a journey that has us here, now.
Taking a dramatic turn in your life pretty much requires a lot of first time experiences. Some are inevitable – if you breed sheep, you will get lambs; if you decide to feed sheep large round bales of hay, you need to buy a tractor to move them (and, also inevitably, join the “three wheel club” when the bale is too high off the pitched ground and one of your rear tires goes airborne); if you have lambs, you will (most likely) slaughter the rams; if you stay in the sheep business long enough, you will lose some (two ewes this spring); if you keep breeding year after year, you will drive 1,000 miles in your pickup to pick up a new ram with new genetics.
But some aren’t inevitable – this spring I boiled about 4 gallons of maple syrup; after several years without a pet, in October of 2015 we welcomed rescue dog Jack into our family (Peg’s idea, not mine) and we couldn’t love a dog any more than we love him; we’ve held not one, but two fabulous weddings at the farm; Peg started some serious gardening with four raised beds; after cutting the fence line with the brush hog last summer, I learned how to spice high tensile wire fencing; we rented out our house for Dartmouth graduation.
Looking forward to many more years of Just Do It.