We Learned A Lot When We Established Our Small Farm
The First Year Begins
By Janice Bever, Highland Hills Farm, Charleston, New York
The summer of 1996 began a new episode in our lives. My fiancé and I had been searching for a place to move our animals to begin our married life. We had both been married previously with grown children and at this point wanted to stay in an area near all of them, yet get to our jobs and doctors and shopping. Land prices had gone up dramatically over the years and so had property taxes. Sticker shock set in quickly. We hit the roads and drove around all the places we thought we could find something. We also stopped at real estate offices, but when they discovered we had so little to spend, they very quickly lost interest and showed us the door. We answered ads in papers, left notes at prospective houses and seemed to just literally go in circles getting nowhere fast.
Finally, after weeks of looking, we spotted a small sign from a land investor stating he bought up old farmland and subdivided it and held the mortgages. We made an appointment and met at an old decrepit dairy farm to take a look. A younger couple had just bought the house and barns six weeks before, and the two other parcels were a bit too small for us. What was left was a 32-acre mixed hayfield and woods. The reason it hadn’t sold became very obvious. There was no access! The only way in was up a shale embankment or across the neighbor’s driveway. He “assured” us there was no problem with taking the Jeep up their driveway to get on the path to the property. We found out how wrong he was, as the new owner came running out screaming and waving her arms wildly for us to get the heck off her property! Welcome to the neighborhood.
It was a bit too late at that point, so we took the coward’s way out and Ron pushed the Jeep further along the trail to the hayfield. It was obvious — this place had never been cared for properly or farmed in quite a while. The “hay” was over my head and there was simply no way to even see the lay of the land. There was a barely noticeable old logging path that kind of led to the woods, and we headed that way. Luckily it had the old stone walls and the agent had everything newly surveyed, so boundary lines were clearly marked. We walked and found the blaze marks on the trees, steel pins and an old cement monument deep in the woods. The great part was this property adjoined hundred more isolated acres that were landlocked and turned to swamp; no neighbors that way.
The view from the top of the land overlooks the historic Mohawk Valley, and you can see to the Adirondack Mountains and towns along the way. After all these years, I am still entranced by this breathtaking scene. The early settlers must have felt the same way.
After some time of swatting bugs and marveling at the woods, we wandered to the fields and more than once my soon-to-be-husband had to pick me up from the ground after I became entangled in the mass of weeds and grasses that filled the fields.
A natural spring seeped from the embankment of the far field and we figured this could be enlarged as a pond at some point. We got an idea by then of what we could do with this place and if it would work for us, and how we could get a road in. The price had been dropped because no one wanted to bother with tackling all this, but we were tired and discouraged and decided we didn’t have anything to lose. The shock came as we were leaving and the agent told n us someone else was stopping to look, so if we wanted it, a check would hold it. Okay, the oldest trick in the book, but how would we really know? Could we take the change he was just trying to push us to buy? All we had hinged on making a decent attempt at finding ourselves a future home.
Shaking and terrified, I wrote the check—$1,000 hard-earned dollars for a chance at a new life for us. The agent would hold the mortgage until we secured our own financing or paid off the balance. Our 32 acres cost about $25,000 at eight percent interest. The monthly payments were about $280. Arrangements were made for a swift closing and after a minimal amount of waiting and paperwork, we had our very own little farm.
Large equipment was brought in to dig out the shale embankment and put in a culvert at the road. This was accomplished pretty quickly and Ron, his younger brother, his niece and her boyfriend, helped with stringing high tensile fence and we were able to move our animals in. The woods provided shelter and they would need that to make do until the barn went up. We put up tarps between the trees for the horses, goats and my pot bellied pig. The dogs were in chain link kennels and the Scotch Highland cattle did just fine in the weather. As we were building in the hayfield, clearing was a matter of having someone come in with a mower so we could get a backhoe in to dig the holes for posts for our pole barn.
Ron and I were working crazy hours and days, anything to bring in some money. We borrowed an old generator to power the few tools we had and Ron’s friend and co-worker was studying for his engineering license, so he helped with making sure the building was structurally up to code. Every spare moment was spent finding the best prices for supplies and getting them to the site, and then began the backbreaking work of getting things put together. A typical day would be Ron leaving for work before light to a small city about 25 miles away, and me driving to the farm and feeding the animals, then going to work on the other side of the Mohawk River and back up the other side of the mountain to be in a classroom before 7:30 a.m. I look back now and it frightens and exhausts me to even think about those early days. You do what you must to survive and hope for things to get better.
That first year was a test of our new marriage and of what we were capable of enduring. We had a simple ceremony in the roadway of our new property with the wind gently blowing the bobbing wildflowers as we exchanged our vows. A cousin and his wife had flown in from a business trip in California to attend our wedding. He arrived early and not knowing that there was no real road or house (or anything else), decided to go off-roading in his beautiful new black Lexus. He drove through the fields with grass over the windshield trying to find a road! Ron soon discovered a closeness and craziness of an Italian-American family. (All these years later, hestill marvels at some of the thingswe do!) It was a lovely last day ofsummer and the beginning of ournew life. My daughter decorated in my favorite blue with fresh flowers and silk arrangements. The yard was in bloom with my mom and Aunt Mary’s beloved flowers. Dear friends and favorite cousins helped make this a special day.
Our honeymoon was a night at a really nice hotel in Saratoga Springs, and then on to a truck and tractor show at the local fair the next day. My new stepdaughter and her boyfriend fed the animals while we were gone. The support of family and friends made all the difference during this very trying time.
We learned to barter and trade, and we met others who were attempting to live this same type of lifestyle. We lived in a small old house trailer on a dairy farm that my husband had worked on before the place went belly up. We drove the 10 miles to our new place, sometimes several times a day to check the animals or drop off needed supplies. We had decided on a 28-foot by 50- foot pole building, using pressure treated posts and rough-cut lumber from local sawmills. We made slow and steady progress; the animals managed better than us.
I awoke one night to the sound of thunder and lightening. Being the calm, rational person that I am I shook my new husband awake and insisted we drive to the farm at 2 a.m. to check on everyone. I was just mildly hysterical. Driving up the muddy road with flashes of lightening and torrential downpour, we got out of the Jeep and holding flashlights, located the horses in the pasture. I couldn’t believe they were out in this instead of in the woods. After trying to coax the horses to the woods and getting nowhere, we were soaked. I let my husband convince me they were okay and we had to be up for work soon. Little did I know that this would be just one of many “adventures” that would await me.
Before the first hard blast of winter, we had the barn siding on. We bought a huge orange tarp for the roof until we had money for the steel that would eventually cover it. Winter arrived hard and brutal in 1996. It was a nightmare getting that little CJ-J Jeep to plow that much snow up our 1,200-foot lane. Sometimes it was impossible and we used various means to drag hay bales to feed the critters. The ducks, chickens, goats, llama, pig, horses and cattle learned the safety of the barn was the place to be.
The decision was made to buy an older camper and move it to the farm to live in while we figured out our next move toward permanent housing. We found an affordable one nearby and a friend moved it with his truck. Adding our old picnic table and some gas lanterns, it was like paradise to be there and keep an eye on things.
We used every penny to buy supplies and keep the animals fed and healthy. Luckily the pastures were able to accommodate multiple grazing species—goats loved the browse, horses had grass, Scotch Highlands selected young saplings, and the goats finished off the stray leaves and bark. It really helped having them all working on these old neglected fields and bring them back to productivity. We kept a five-acre pasture for grazing and the neighboring five acres for hayfield.
In the meantime, we discovered our woodlot was a thriving, though over crowded, sugar bush. We had all the firewood we would ever need and the possibility of logging enough timber for a home. The water hole in the far field yielded a nice little spring fed pond our son-in-law dug out with a backhoe.
Things were starting to look up.