When I arrived at the Old Crow Ranch in Durham, I was welcomed by the farm kitty and Red, the cattle dog, who barked from the house. Steve was out on the tractor, cutting hay. When I called Steve to make a plan for the farm run, he said he’d be out haying, but he’d jump off the tractor, grab his sixth cup of coffee, point out the boundaries of the farm, and then he’d have to get right back to the fields.
Every farmer I’ve called has said that my visit would depend on the weather; getting the haying done before the rain is priority one. When I arrived at the Old Crow Ranch, I learned that the forecast had shifted and that Steve would have to finish the haying in a single day. Not that he was upset about it; Steve usually works 17 hours a day, and it clearly lights him up. He raises pasture-based livestock for slaughter on a 70 acre farm that he works with his wife, Seren. Many farms lease unconnected blocks of land that are spread out across a number of properties, and that’s true for Old Crow Ranch, which has several plots in Durham. They move the livestock and crops, cycling operations each year. Steve’s job as a farmer involves lots of knocking on doors, giving neighbors the heads up that pigs, for example, are going to pasture nearby. Though rural property owners tend to like the idea and the landscape of farming, not everyone is receptive to the sounds and smells that go along with it.
In preparation for this project, I’d imagined big business and large-scale development encroaching on farmland. I’ve seen some examples of that, but my run around Old Crow Ranch has me pondering individual property owners. In some cases, rural property owners want the feeling of farmland without the working farm.
The original farmhouse for Old Crow Ranch was sold off before Steve took over, and his dismay was evident when he described how the owners tore down the barn to put up a boat storage shed, “I couldn’t believe it. There went the only value that place had!” His dream is to buy the house back and turn it into a farm stand for the ranch.
Steve pointed out some landmarks before I took off on my run. Having gotten disoriented at the Mitchell Ledge Farm, I decided that locating property maps would be an essential step in each farm visit. When I mentioned this to Steve, he chuckled, “You won’t have a problem here; it’s basically one big square…though there is a place in the old pine woods where I still get turned around.” With the likelihood of “getting turned around” in mind, I set out to run the big square, starting at a large pine near the chickens. As I started running, I giggled out out loud, happy to be running, making art, and connecting with sights and smells reminiscent of my childhood.
The woods got dense quickly, and since no path was evident I wove my way back and forth from field to trees. During our chat, Steve had pointed across the farm to a grove of old growth pines where I’d be able to locate the far corner of the property. He said I’d find the grove after passing two streams, the second of which would lead me to the pines and then back to the road.
The first stream meandered through swamp land, and after mucking through it, I reached the second stream and then the pines. It was impossible to run through without poking out an eye on the low, dead branches, so I caught my breath and walked across the carpet of soft orange needles.
I emerged on a field near the original farmhouse and ran out to the road through wet, spongy moss. I cruised back along the road and then up the final stretch, through tall grass, to the farmhouse.
At the end of my run, I found Steve haying another field. He idled the tractor so we could chat for a few minutes. It had been a beautiful run, and I felt incredibly grateful for the opportunity to experience his land. I thanked Steve and told him that it was tough to find the right words and that I didn’t completely understand it, but the experience had been profound for me. Steve replied,
“People come visit and want to see the farmer, farmhouse, barn, and animals all in place. You’re seeing the whole thing–how we take care of it all: land, water, and air. It makes me feel great to have someone appreciate it.”
I left with a huge smile on my face, feeling that the project has meaning beyond my own joy and creative expression.
I’ve chosen a range of farms for this project, and this weekend, I head up to Tide Mill Farm–1400 acres of farmland, including 5 1/2 of oceanfront. From my initial conversation with Aaron, I’ve learned that I’ll be navigating unincorporated Maine forest and, at high tide, some rock scrambling. I can’t wait!