December 31, 2006
Dear Friends and Family –
Hope this letter finds you all well and enjoying the new year. I’m later than usual in sending out my holiday letter, mainly ’cause I haven’t been able to find the time to cut this all down to a manageable length. Who’d a thunk that 12 paragraphs could be so long?
Though not without some bright spots, 2006 was the saddest year I’ve ever had. I hope the new year brings better times to everyone. The year started off promisingly enough, with mild temperatures and a full schedule of farm and real estate work. However, at the end of January I received the sad news that my Aunt Violet Hopkins had died after a long struggle with a brain tumor.
At my aunt’s funeral in early February my father still appeared quite weak from his last round of chemotherapy, but was looking forward to regaining his strength and perhaps visiting me later in the year. A delayed lambing season this year meant that things were relatively quiet for the rest of the month. A sudden snowstorm mid-month resulted in our annual neighborhood sledding party (click for photos). I also had a few quiet winter moments to help revamp the North American Clun Forest Sheep Association website, and I was pretty pleased with the results. Toward the end of the month my parents called to tell me that a visit to the doctor showed that my father’s cancer had, unfortunately, spread to other organs. He took the news stoically despite the fact that it meant more chemo and an uncertain outcome.
This year’s lambs began arriving in early March. I continued to have excellent results from my artificial insemination program, and my AI lambs looked terrific. Because I had left the rams in with the ewes longer than usual, the 73 lambs born this year were arriving over a longer time period. This was frustrating because it meant I wasn’t able to visit my dad until late in the month. However, thanks to the unflappable competence of my neighbor Heather Novak, who watched the farm for me during the birth of the last few lambs, I was able to get away briefly towards the end of the month to see my father. My brothers and sister had told me privately that I should discount my father’s cheery attitude on the phone, and that his condition was much worse than he let on. Still, it was shock to see how weakened he had become. The next trip to the oncologist made it clear to us that he was too weak for any further treatment and he really only had a few weeks left. I asked my dad what we could do for him in his last weeks; if he had an special wishes or desires; what did he want most of all? His simple reply was “just be there with me.”
I don’t really remember much of April other than long drives back and forth between Amissville, VA and Tryon, NC. Each week I would spend 3 days at the farm dealing with farm things and work and then 3 days down in Tryon with my family and the day in between in travel. My mother’s determination to respect my father’s wish that he die at home meant that she pretty much did not leave his bedside the whole time. We had excellent hospice care, but really it was my mother’s calm strength and complete devotion that made my father’s last weeks peaceful, and brought our already close family even closer. On April 23rd, my father died 45 minutes after I left his bedside to head back to the farm. I miss him greatly and expect I always will. He was my best friend and the one person in the world, I think, who understood me best.
Although it was a beautiful month, May was somewhat subdued, and I spent most of it getting my life back in order and contemplating a world without my father. One happy occasion was the picture-perfect wedding of my friends Tom and Cole (neé McKenry) Johnson on top of Red Oak Mountain. It made me really appreciate what a special community I live in, as did the second annual RCCA Spring Gala. In mid-May I spoke at a Virginia Organic Producers and Consumers Association conference. I also ‘inherited’ a small leaky row boat from friends that were renovating a house on the Shenandoah River. I was able to clean it up, plug the holes and buy some new oars, and now have a sea-worthy vessel that can ply the vast ocean of my pond. It’s fun to take for a spin on summer evening and confuse the swans when they see me floating alongside them.
May photos (click on photo for larger image)
turned out to be an amazingly busy month. The real estate biz really kept me hopping with some interesting new listings. When I wasn’t showing properties, I was making hay, tending sheep, and enjoying visits from old friends Juergen and Frank from Germany, Steve and Doug from Minneapolis, and my cousin Bob and his wife Annette from Iowa.
June photos (click on photo for larger image)
|Juergen & Frank|
|Steve & Doug|
|Annette & Bob|
|Bob shows me how it’s done|
July’s heat brought a plea from my mother to visit her at her beach house in DeBordieu, South Carolina for Independence Day (click for photos). Considering that my parents had had the place for nearly 10 years and I had never seen it, and that my mother had plans for a mini family reunion, there was nothing for it but to take some time off and go. As it turned out, we all had a great time and it was nice to have the family gathered together for a happier occasion. July 15th also marked the 10th anniversary of Touchstone Farm. Looking back, I was pleased to see how much I had accomplished in the past 10 years (see photos below), but also it unfortunately also made me realize how much was still left un-done! I resolved that the next year was going to be a ‘great leap forward’ for the farm…..so stay tuned.
July photos (click on photo for larger image)
August was as hot and dry as August should be, and busier than ever. Despite the press of farm and real estate work, I managed to squeeze in a few fun things. My tenant’s cat “Alfie” finally had a long-anticipated litter of kittens (and none too soon as the tenants were scheduled to leave in few months). These kittens were a major step forward in my cat breeding program. On the 12th, my friend and trivia team-mate Alexia Morrison treated us all to a real western rodeo (click for photos), and on the 27th I took a few days to head out to Chicago for my new nephew Grant’s christening and catch up with the rest of the ever-expanding Zuschlag clan (photos below).
August photos (click on photo for larger image)
Every September I look forward to the cooler temperatures with an equal measure of dread and anticipation. For some reason the country social calendar is always packed with events every weekend (The Taste of Rappahannock, the annual Krebser Fund Dinner, The Thornton Hill Hounds Point-to-Point, etc), while at the same time everybody and their sisters, cousins and aunts, wants to look at real estate. On top of that, the farm becomes a mad-house of sorting lambs to go to slaughter and dividing up the ewes into their various breeding flocks. Yet in between socializing and non-stop work, I managed to make it out to Minnesota for my favorite event of the year – the annual Clun Forest Sheep meeting (click for photos). Somehow at the end of the weekend I wound up as the new Breed Association president. This year I was also lucky enough to also host a mini Clun Forest Sheep meeting right here at Touchstone Farm for a great group of Virginia Clun Forest breeders. We had a wonderful time, but I’m not sure everyone reading this would understand why. I think there are two types of people in the world – those who really enjoy getting together to discuss the finer points of good livestock, and those that don’t.
September photos (click on photo for larger image)
October turned out to be even busier than September. More real estate listings, more parties, more lambs to market, and more visits. My mother and Uncle Roy came for a short visit and it was good to spend time with both of them, though it was a bit bittersweet seeing them without my father and aunt. After a ten year hiatus I also started riding again with a great instructor. It’s amazing how many people are now offering me ‘free’ horses. So far, however, I’ve resisted the temptation. For some odd reason, my nephew Will’s big wish for his 9th birthday was to come and spend the weekend with his uncle on the farm. His visit (click here) was a lot of fun – for both of us. October also marked the end of an era. After four years, my tenants Steve & Debra Cooke were able to get home of their own in Ballard, WV. I’ll miss Deb’s good cooking and Steve’s help around the farm and his constant offers of “here, have a beer!” All of their cat’s kittens were sold, but I kept the pick of the litter, a young male kitten whom I named “Ajax.” He’s a total monster and is constantly jumping on things (including me), stopping up the toilet with whole rolls of toilet paper, and running across the computer keyboard as I’m trying to type. But, if all goes well, he’ll be siring the next generation of kittens on the farm. On the 29th, I had a great time when my friends and neighbors Steph Ridder and John Beardsley invited me to go beagling (click here).
October photos (click on photo for larger image)
With my tenants gone, in November I was able to finally start the first of Les Grands Projets that had long been planned to finally get this farm in shape. This involved running a water line from the tenant house well up to my house and then adding several water lines to pasture field hydrants and pressurizing the whole system from a new super-sized pressure tank. This project went off without a hitch (though it was a bit dodgy tunneling under a stream). Now, for the first time in ten years, I have water that doesn’t turn all my clothes orange. To celebrate I went to Walmart and bought all new underwear. When Land Rover’s PR people asked me to find them a suitable estate for an off-road “experience” for local Range Rover owners, I immediately thought of friends Sophie and Roger Scruton’s Montpelier. Luckily, Sophie graciously agreed to the host the event on November 5th, and I got to tag along and test drive a few vehicles myself. My friend Craig Deutsch visited from San Diego just in time to attend the annual CCLC auction. He didn’t buy anything, but I think he appreciated the local auction custom – ply the audience with enough booze, and they’ll bid on anything. Another sad event this year was the sudden death of my friend and fellow Krebser Fund board member Tony Lapham. He was passionate about protecting America’s farmland and rivers, and a great champion of land preservation here in Rappahannock County. His quiet decency made me proud to know him. Thanksgiving was spent with my great friends and neighbors John & Heather at Gossamer Farm. Any event at their place involves incredible food, fun people, and lots of board games till the wee hours.
November photos (click on photo for larger image)
was the usual diet disaster. I gained at least 10 lbs as I lurched from one Christmas party to the next. The holiday season started out with the annual Town of Washington Christmas parade and Steph Ridder’s incredible square-dance birthday party at the Flint Hill Fire Dept. (amazing to see her dancing just a few days before she had hip replacement surgery). When not gaining weight at the nearest buffet table, I spent some time organizing phase II of the tenant house project, which culminated in an explosive event on the 16th (click here for photos). Almost immediately afterward, another big project began on December 20th. Over the past 10 years my neighbor Emannuel Pullen and I would meet at our joint fence-line for a mutual admiration society. I’d admire his land and his cattle, and he’d admire my land and my sheep. We often discussed what would happen to his land when he was gone – as his children had no interest in farming. When Emmanuel passed away in November 2005 his heirs contacted me, as per his instructions, to see if I would be interested in purchasing the land. For at least the past 100 years this beautiful pasture and woodland has been known “the Banks field.” No one in living memory has any idea where the name came from, but on December 20th it finally started to make some sense. The deal is, I get to farm it, while the Bank owns it. I spent a quiet Christmas in Tryon, NC with my mother and brother Ray.
December photos (click on photo for larger image)
So that’s been my year. Some progress and some minor achievements, but overall a sense of loss. For some reason these lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s poem “In Memoriam” seem particularly apt for 2006.
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky, The flying cloud, the frosty light: The year is dying in the night; Ring out, wild bells, and let him die. Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow: The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true.
May 2007 be a happy one for you all.