Have Scythe, Will Farm



I recently woke up with a badly aching right elbow. In fact, I could barely use my arm. Must be Lyme disease, I concluded. Pain in the joints is a primary symptom and I knew I’d been bitten by at least one tick since we purchased a farm property in Upstate New York. That would also explain the flu-ish feelings I’d been experiencing lately.

But when I reported to the local health clinic for treatment, the doctor had a very different diagnosis: “tennis elbow” from all the scything I’d been doing since deciding to raise livestock on 20-plus acres of pasture. Staying ahead of the grass was a never-ending chore. I’d already trimmed twice around our new 4,200-foot electric perimeter fence. The tall weeds the sheep didn’t eat I leveled with my scythe. The road frontage needed to be cut presentably short.

Now I could barely lift the coffee pot to pour my morning cup.

You may be wondering why a 60-year-old guy would uproot his family from a comfortable home in the District of Columbia to start a farm entailing all this physical toil 400 miles north in New York’s dairy country. To answer that question, you’d have to rewind several years. I’d built a food garden at my daughter’s charter school, attended master gardening classes and started a blog called The Slow Cook. My wife and I were living in a big row house on a corner lot two miles north of the White House. I tore out the lawn and built a huge kitchen garden.

Because we owned rental apartments, we could afford an unconventional lifestyle. My wife worked part-time as a catering chef. I taught kids cooking part-time at a private elementary school. But a move was in the cards. The corner house proved too big. We’d need to find somewhere else to grow food. Plus, we had our eye on global warming. It was getting too hot to be outside in Washington’s steamy summers.

We looked at acreage in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, but when we checked the government’s climate predictions, that idea got canned. We turned our gaze north, looking for a spot outside the fracking zone and east of all the snow and overcast around the Great Lakes. We wanted lots of sun and plentiful water. Oh, and affordable acreage not in the middle of nowhere. My wife’s online research led her to Washington County, three hours north of New York City on the Vermont border. The search narrowed even further to the rolling, southern part of the county because it was in gardening zone 5, not 4. Think Grandma Moses country.

We would spend the next three years looking for a new home there.

My food writing had focused on sustainability issues and the conflict between industrial agriculture and farming more in tune with nature. I knew that people all over the country were taking up alternative farming as a profession. But just try to find a farm! Here in dairy country, farmers lost their shirts in the 1980s as they did elsewhere in the country. Farms were sold off to “subdividers” or bigger dairy operations. Or they just disappeared under shrub and brush and forest as nature reclaimed them.

We’d decided to raise livestock because tending animals is actually easier for older folk than growing crops. Plus, we are meat eaters and stick to a diet that has little room for starchy foods. We hoped for a fairly small parcel of mostly pasture–50 to 100 acres–to raise some chickens, some sheep, some beef, some pigs. But we couldn’t find anything that worked for us. In fact, we had all but given up the search in late summer last year when a certain property crossed our radar screen: 25 hillside acres of mostly pasture with a sweet, five-year-old house built in the classic farmhouse style, all conveniently located three miles outside the village of Cambridge, a town with lots of interesting people, an arts center, a cafe bakery, and a decidedly upscale food co-op.

It even had a view.

The previous owners agreed to stay over the winter as tenants to maintain the place while we prepared for the big move. I got here in May, while my wife stayed in D.C. to pack our belongings and get our rentals ready for new tenants. I got busy looking for animals to eat all that grass. A local sheep and cheese farmer agreed to sell me six of her yearling Friesian ewes. I brought 30 Rhode Island Red chicks home from the feed store for laying hens. I outfitted my pickup truck to transport two Kiko meat goats–a six-year-old dame and her daughter–from a breeder in a neighboring county. A nearby dairy woman sold me one of her year-old Jersey heifers as our future milk cow. I built a “tractor” to raise Freedom Ranger broiler chickens on grass. I’m raising 15 Guinea fowl to mount a tick patrol.

I quickly learned why young people find it so difficult to start farms of their own. There was the initial purchase price of the property, of course–actually less than the cost of an efficiency condo in D.C., but still considerable. Since then, I’ve spent at least $30,000 on various fencing, drilling a new well, laying water and electric lines, livestock, lumber, feed and sundries. Yet, other than the four-wheel-drive truck, we have no heavy machinery. No tractor, no mower. It was just me against all that grass.

My most important purchase turned out to be a light-weight, European-style scythe from the Scythe Supply company in Perry, Maine. Foliage has to be kept off the electric fence to maintain a high-level charge and the grass and weeds had a big head start on me. To create paddocks with portable electric fencing for the sheep–a key element in a rotational grazing scheme–I first had to cut through the overgrown foliage to make lanes for the fencing. When the sheep were finished in one paddock and moved to fresh pasture, I came behind them with the scythe and mowed whatever they hadn’t eaten.

Hardly a day passed that I wasn’t swinging my scythe at something.

People ask if I’m retired and I can’t help but think how much harder I’m working now than I was back in D.C. I started taking antibiotics to address my Lyme paranoia. But nobody told me that the drug involved can cause lesions in the esophagus. For a while, I could barely swallow. Then I bruised some ribs tackling a sheep that had wandered off on the wrong side of the temporary fencing. I sliced my thumb on the chicken “tractor” chasing a Ranger escapee.

Because of the bruised ribs and trouble swallowing I took to sleeping sitting upright on the living room sofa. Needless to say, I’ve been a bit sleep deprived lately. You could call me one weary, 60-year-old farmer.

It makes me wish we’d started this 30 years ago. But hardly anyone was thinking about this kind of grass farming back then. And we wouldn’t have had the money to pull it off even if we’d thought of it.

It sure is fun, though.


  1. It seems to me you have two options. Since manual labor is not gender specific, your wife can help out with the scythe duties, or buy a walk behind weed mower.

    • Jan, scything was a big issue this year because we were so far behind the growth in the pastures. We’ve held off any large equipment purchases until we know exactly what our needs are. What I really wanted was livestock to eat the foliage and help improve the soil and the grass/weed profile. But it took some time to figure out what kind of animals we were going to purchase and where to buy them. Hence, the pastures got really overgrown before we could start anything

      We should be in better shape next spring when we will already have sheep ready to mow as soon as soon as the grass is tall enough. We are also looking at compact diesel tractors with mowing decks.

      • Ed, while sheep are grazers and will get the lower grasses, goats are browsers and if you can corral or tether them where the tall stuff is, they will do an amazing job of annihilating it. In some areas, you can even hire a herd to come in and clear out an area.

        Also (from one farmer to another), consider opting for a bigger tractor with a larger (6-8 ft) Pto-driven mulching mower; it sounds like even with all the grazers, mowing might be common in your future, and the big gun will take out a lot of stuff in less time. Plus, you can get a tractor with a front loader (which with all the livestock you may appreciate), and you can hook up other implements to the pto when you’re not using the mower. Spring for the 4-wheel drive, you won’t regret it, especially when winter comes.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a teenager from a dairy family near you who would love to earn some money working with you, and they may even know a lot about the best local places to get deals on equipment, etc.

        Good luck to you!

        • Anne, in fact I have found it to be not true that sheep only graze the lower grasses. They’ve done a great job of stripping all the leaves off tall weeds like golden rod. What they don’t eat or the tough, stemmy parts and that’s what I end up mowing down. We were really more interested in getting our flock started and staying as self-reliant as possible. A neighbor offered to loan us his 17 sheep to help with the mowing. And we are starting a herd of Kiko meat goats to help clear the vines and woodier plants along the hedgerows.

          As far as the tractor is concerned, we’re giving that a lot of thought. The same neighbor who loaned us his sheep also is sharing his John Deere rider mower and we’ve found that it does a great job of clearing up the pastures after the sheep are done with them. We now know that we can get around the entire property with a mower–no need for a “brush hogger.” So our priority is a machine agile enough to mow around the house and in our orchard of 120 young fruit trees. That argues for a smaller tractor: a diesel with four-wheel-drive, front-end loader and mower deck is what we’re looking at. Time is one thing we have plenty of, and I’d rather not be driving a huge machine that tends to compact the soil. The smaller tractors also come with PTO. For readers not acquainted, this means “power take off,” which is a drive at the rear of the tractor that can power all kinds of attachments, from mowers to wood chippers to snow blowers.

  2. I enjoyed your post, Ed. Have you considered taking on a couple of younger tenants who share your ecological/agricultural beliefs? I’m not talking about starting a full-blown intentional community, but a couple younger associates could be just what the doctor ordered. Along those lines check with the local agricultural colleges about Wwoofers.
    I admire what you’re doing. Don’t stop.

  3. Stan, the reason we bought a property this size and were considering even more acreage is because we see a potential farm business out of it. A considerable tax break also adheres to farm operations in New York that gross at least $10,000 in sales.

    Meat, cheese, fruit and all kinds of finished products could be a source of income. We wanted a place big enough to support that, and we thought that in our dotage we could invite a younger person or couple to take over the farming, operate the business for their own income and share some of the food with us for our personal needs. These kinds of arrangements are becoming more common because young people often do not have the means to purchase a farm of their own. The challenge is finding people interested in such an arrangement. It so happens there is a website for New York State aimed at making those matches. But it’s no sure thing. We will be exploring that further as we move along. We also have a 13-year-old daughter who potentially might also be interested in taking over a farm business. At the moment, she’s more interested in boy bands and iPhones.

  4. I think what you are doing is majorly awesome. I, too, have a certain Lyme paranoia–I’m hoping that recent directives from the CDC saying “Seriously, guys, THIS IS A PROBLEM” will have some effect!

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