“A meat chicken has a short life,” said Bambi Freeman. “It only lives about six weeks before it gets too fat and falls over.” The chickens in the large pens were busy devouring the bugs and grubs that hid in the greens beneath their tubby white bodies. It had been an unseasonably cool summer in Vermont. But the grass was still growing and the sheep and the chickens were happily putting on weight. The old world guardian dog who kept an eye on the flock was content. No heavy hot weather, laden with humidity and bothersome flies. The weeks had been filled with cool days which rolled into even cooler evenings, punctuated once in awhile by a spray of warm sunshine that lit the verdant hills and illuminated a brief but transparent blue sky overhead.
Bambi raises egg chickens as well as meat chickens. In fact every Thursday I make sure to stop by and pick up a dozen fresh eggs from her. She saves them for me and refills the same cardboard carton that I bring back week after week. The egg chickens have a slightly better existence than the meat chickens. For starters, they live longer than six weeks. They are also less constrained as they cluck and fuss and run freely around the barnyard and the vegetable gardens. Bambi leaves the radio on in the barn all day. She says it keeps the hens company. She claims that they are particularly enthusiastic about the Boston Red Sox. I can imagine a row of fecund hens gathering around the transistor listening intently to the games broadcasted from Fenway Park, their heads bobbing up and down and then cocking from side to side as their favorite players run the bases.
Bambi Freeman is a farmer and has been for more than half of her life. Originally from New Jersey, she found her way up north in the 1950’s to ski. She met her husband here, settled down, had children and started a farm. At 70 years old, she now lives on her own in the loving company of four dogs, two cats and a myriad of farm animals. Twenty years ago, Bambi’s husband suddenly left her after learning that she had an aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis. Despite no previous symptoms, she woke one morning in the mid 1980’s unable to move. Rendered virtually paralyzed she could not continue to work her farm. Without her husband to help she was unable to sustain it and had to sell her animals. Her husband had taken the farm equipment, but left her the land. What followed, she told me, were years of hard work to get her body back. Despite expectations that she would never work again, Bambi persevered through rehabilitation and learned to move her limbs by looking at them and willing them to function.
Gradually she rebuilt her farm, buying an old tractor, a relic of sorts, from a fellow guest at a friendly dinner party. Then she brought back her animals and bred them. Today she is best known for her lamb, but her organic, free range chickens are pretty spectacular too. She also mentors other women farmers, many of whom are struggling as single mothers, just as she did at one time. She helps them learn how to grow food and raise animals. Working the land to feed one’s family is a very empowering experience, she has said. Particularly for people who feel helpless. It is the ultimate in self sufficiency. No one can take that feeling away from you.
The first time I met Bambi Freeman was in the dentist’s office a number of years ago. She works there during the wintertime when her farm activities slow down. The job provides her health benefits, a necessity in her condition. Several Christmas seasons ago, I ran into her behind the cash register at a local ski lodge. She sold me a pair of cross country ski boots. But this summer, when I saw her at a local farmers market I learned about her real vocation: farming.
Late one afternoon in August, just as the sky was once again filling up with turbulent thunder clouds, I pulled into Bambi’s farm in a friend’s truck to get a load of sheep manure for my own garden.
Bambi came out to greet us from the front door of her crooked little house. She offered to show us around before we had to take our truck around the back entrance to get closer to the manure pile. As we carefully followed her strong limping frame I noticed we were caringly being herded by an Australian shepherd named Roy.
Up on a distant hill her herd of 100 or more sheep grazed under the watchful eye of her youngest guardian dog. She explained how that dog’s sole purpose was to care for the sheep and that he would live his whole life up there on that hill with them.
“Have you ever lost a sheep to coyotes”, I asked, knowing that there were packs marauding the area.
“Not a one,” she said confidently. In addition to the guardian dog, she had also designed and installed an electric fence with precise distances between the horizontal wiring to keep the furry hunters out and the little lambs in.
We drove our truck around to the back entrance of the farm as Bambi had instructed, making sure to lock the gate behind us so the animals would not get out. Next to the old barn was a pile of manure which stretched out about ten yards. It was mostly sheep manure, Bambi told us, but there were also other things thrown in like an old chicken carcass. She was quite sure though that the chicken bones had already been licked clean by one of the dogs.
The scene behind the barn belied an ecosystem until itself. Two of her old retired farm dogs regarded us curiously while standing at a distance. There were sheep here too, grazing on the blades of grass that had sprouted everywhere. They took no notice of us as we pulled up in our truck. The backside of the barn was open and the scent of wet hay and mud with a hint of sweet manure wafted towards us. I could hear the muffled radio music in the distance. The cool evening air carried the prelude to the storm.
Bambi crawled up onto an old red tractor, started it up and thrust it into gear. As it lumbered forward into the manure pile she released the bucket on the front end and it plummeted into the black morass. With the dexterity of a surgeon she filled the large claw and lifted it up overhead. Delicately so as not to lose a drop, she drove the tractor to the back of the pickup and released the contents of the bucket into the trunk. With a big grin she looked over at me and ordered “Go into the barn and get a pitchfork.”
I nodded and turned towards the barn. From the back side it was much bigger than I had originally thought. Where was I to find the pitchfork? My friend followed me and we explored inside while Bambi continued her work in the dirt. Finally we found a wall of pitchforks near the blaring transistor radio. Which one to use? They all seemed to be covered in cobwebs. We grabbed two and went back out to the truck.
I was not sure what I was supposed to do with the pitchfork, but decided to climb up over the back of the truck into the bed of manure. My hiking boots sunk in the gooey black mass and as I looked down to find a clean spot I noted that I was surrounded by living moving bodies: worms. Bambi was just returning with another load and I shouted out, “Bambi, there are millions of worms in this manure,” She chuckled “Yup. But I won’t charge you extra for those.”
I waited until she had turned away again before I drove the pitch fork into the manure, trying to even it out in the back of the truck, but to no-avail. My inexperience gave me away. The clumps slipped through the fork prongs, my brow and neck broke out in a sweat and the final humiliation was when the fork fell off the long handle. My friend, who raises horse, looked on and laughed. She jumped onto the truck just as Bambi returned with another load. I managed to stick the fork back onto the handle in time and we both set about pulling the sticky manure out of the bucket into the truck bed. Bambi just smiled and nodded but said nothing.
With gusto she made several returns to the pile and with our help she worked more quickly. Finally I told her I thought we had enough. She nodded and shut off the tractor engine, gingerly dismounting from the tiny red metal seat on which she had been perched and limping over to where we stood. She looked back at her tractor once more before turning to face us.
“They want me to install a safety bar around the top of this old thing in case it rolls,” she laughed. “This old thing is never going to roll. They just don’t make tractors like that anymore. You know I can drive this one on the open road and it gets going as fast as a car.” I thought that sounded rather treacherous: Bambi on a tractor on the open highway.
Over the years Bambi has learned to live and adjust to the disease that plagues her. She says that warm humid weather is particularly tough and makes it hard for her to move. But she is certain that it is all the hard work that has kept her alive and healthy. She could not have done it alone though. Recently a local Rotary Club in partnership with a local Church raised money to build a stairway with railings inside Bambi’s barn so that she could more safely access her hayloft. Other volunteers in the community solved a serious water drainage problem which was causing ice build up at the entrance to her home and her barn. She says that the help from her community have ensured that she can continue to farm longer now.
Bambi makes her living selling her chickens, eggs and every part of her lambs. Her vegetable gardens yield a harvest that is converted into preserves and jellies. In the spring she sheers her Shetland sheep and prepares the wool for sale. She has cooperated with other sheep farmers and when they could not get enough money for their wool created an effort to ship it to Canada to have blankets made on the Hudson Bay looms. They were shipped back to Vermont and sold.
Bambi used to sell exclusively from her farm. Customers would come to see her to buy her meat and eggs. But now she travels all over the area to a selection of weekly farmers markets where she meets her regular customers while at the same time attracting new ones. She says that it makes much more sense, “After all, if you can’t bring Mohammed to the mountain, you have to bring the mountain to Mohammed,” she added. The result is that Bambi is ruthless with her time, between chores on the farm, cultivating and harvesting, sheering, slaughtering and getting to market there is very little time for anything else during the year. But she is never shy to make a sale. She was ready to bring me a mountain too if I wanted it. When she heard I would be travelling back to the Midwest in a few weeks, she said she’d put together a cooler filled with lamb and chicken for me to take with me. She’d take cash or a check. I said I would consider it.
As we talked the thunder was beginning to grow in the distance and roll towards us. It was gaining momentum as it only does in the mountains. My friend and I decided it was probably best we get going and seek shelter. Bambi nodded and smiled at us as she stood in the middle of her open field unfazed by the impending onslaught. Another threatening storm was hardly worth an acknowledgement in her world. There would be many more to follow.