guest essay: redfeather mothers
The origins of the Female Farmer Project lie here, in my own rural farming community of Snoqualmie Valley in Western Washington. Many talented women who own and operate small to medium size farms quite literally surround me. It's a special privilege every time I have the opportunity to visit, witness and document the women who grow my food and feed my community.
About a month ago, Janya of Redfeather Farm and I started cooking up a scheme. Her sow, Mrs Hughes was pregnant and what better time is there to visit a farm than when it is growing with new life? We set our plans, and waited anxiously and hoped for a daytime birth so that I could photograph it. As we drew closer to the date, Janya received sad news about her favorite animal on the farm. It appeared that at the same time she was adding life, there was to be subtraction too. Farm math that is emotional and an inevitable part of a farmers' life.
The due date span of three days arrived, and on the final day - Mrs Hughes delivered! At midnight. And I came down with a flu. What's that saying about 'best laid plans'? So after we both had a chance to rest and recuuperate, I ventured out to Redfeather to meet the new babies, and follow Janya as she went about her evening chores.
I was so touched by the resulting images that I asked Janya if she could share some thoughts about her experience as the farmer and caretaker of these animals. I hope you enjoy her essay and my images of her and please feel free to share your experiences with us below.
Redfeather Mothers by Janya Veranth
I believe all farmers are nurturers. Whether feeding a lamb by hand, midwifing for a pig, or singing to a tomato, we are all in the business of life. Anyone who pays close attention to a plant or animal day in, day out, rain or shine, and cheers it on toward growth is a true nurturer. I knew when I started raising livestock that I would join the ranks of family farmers who champion their animals’ life force and essentially mother them through their days. What I didn’t expect was how much I would be mothered along the way.
We began raising sheep almost three years ago and added pigs to the farm late last year. From the birth of our very first twin lambs I felt I had found my calling. My sense of purpose in shepherding our first ewes through the lambing season left an indelible mark on me. They didn’t need me at all; they’d had babies before and only needed a safe, quiet place to give birth. But I needed them more than I could have ever predicted. I needed to be surrounded by mothers; unconditionally loving, giving, peaceful mothers who protected their young from threats seen and unseen. Mothers who fed their babies before filling their own bellies. Mothers whose udders were so full of milk that their bags banged between their knees, walking nearly bow-legged so their babies would want for nothing.
I did not anticipate the healing power of a pasture full of mothers who, every year, raised their babies diligently then turned them over to us to raise to put food on the table. I marveled at their selflessness and resilience. There were the mature mothers who, in utter darkness and silence, pushed out their slippery little lambs. There were the first-time mothers with questions in their eyes who screamed through contractions and let us step in to pull their babies to life. And there was the mother who mourned for days over her lost lamb. The mother, who even when I showed her the baby’s lifeless body to prove that he was gone, was never again the peaceful creature she had once been.
Taking care of my animals, my flock of mothers is a relentless responsibility and a privilege. Fussing over their day-to-day, feeding them apples by hand, even watching them flirt with the herd sire, is satisfying to the bone. This also means that losing one is devastating. When we found out last summer that Taffy, our herd grandma, needed to be put down due to a medical complication, I begged the Universe for it to be otherwise. “Not her,” I pleaded, “not my Taffy. “Someone else, anyone but her,” I bargained. But changing the facts was not in the cards. It was, of course, my girl, my favorite that would leave me. The consummate mother, the crone of the flock, the girl who taught me everything that mattered about sheep. The girl whose fleece won Reserve Grand Champion at the fair, causing a well of pride in me so big I could not swallow. When I accepted that the greatest act of love was to let her go while she still had her health, I knew that letting go was what I had to do when all I wanted was to hold on. She taught me that, just as any loving mother would teach her child a hard lesson.
I spent the summer with Taffy and slowly said goodbye over the course of long, warm days. We put her down on a bright autumn day where her life and service were profoundly honored. As I watched her daughters and her granddaughter graze the fields, I was filled to bursting with gratitude for how she allowed me to mother her and bask in her effortless mothering for three short years.
Two days after her passing, our sow had a litter of piglets. New life and a new mother were born in the glow of a harvest moon. We were reminded that, with every loss, every heart-wrenching act of letting go, there is always life around the corner. You can always count on life to pull you through.
originally published October 14, 2014