December 25, 2004
Dear Friends & Family –
2004 was certainly the busiest, and perhaps the most rewarding, year of my life. I’m not sure I’d want to relive the hectic pace of the last 12 months, but I sure had fun every single minute of it. I’m hoping 2005 will be a bit calmer and allow me more time to spend with family and friends. So if I’ve neglected you this year -sorry! – it wasn’t that I didn’t want to return your calls or e-mails – it’s just that I didn’t have the time!
The year started out quietly enough. In the ice and snow of mid-January I was invited to speak at the annual Future Harvest conference on sustainable agriculture in Hagerstown, MD. I had a great time, and apparently my presentation on marketing farm products on the web didn’t put the entire audience to sleep, as they’ve invited me back to speak again this January.
Lambing season started in late February, and was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment this year. My ewes were fat as houses and gave birth to lots of big, fat single lambs, as opposed to their usual slim bouncy twins. Only 53 lambs this year (I had hoped for 65) and I had to assist a fair number of these fatties into the world. One ewe had two 13 lb lambs, while another required an emergency c-section. I hope next year goes smoother.
My computer died in early March – with no back up files. As my entire life, farm records, real estate business, World Bank projects, etc. resided on the hard drive, I was in a panic. Luckily local computer geeks were able to rescue my hard drive data and transfer it to my spiffy new laptop. My new computer does everything but make toast (though I’m sure there must be an attachment somewhere that allows me to do this). Getting this new gadget set up made me realize I had reached a significant threshold in my life. I’m now completely and utterly middle-aged. New technology is no longer intuitive and I now require the mediation of a younger person to explain how everything works. Anyway, with the new computer I decided to go whole hog – and after many hours and zillions of dollars, I now have a high-speed wireless network on the farm with automatic back-up and other gizmos. This means I can take my trusty ‘puter anywhere (barn, fields, terrace) and be bothered by important e-mails, phone calls, faxes, etc non-stop 24/7. Ain’t progress great?
Also in March, after a chance meeting at the Rappahannock Farmer’s Co-op, Charles Francis, John Fox Sullivan and I decided to throw a book party for our mutual friend Jonathan Rauch’s brilliant new book. Jon’s guest list was pretty impressive, and I was amazed at the number of conservative pundits, thinkers, and administration officials who turned out to wish him well.
Later in the month I took a very quick trip up to New York City (for just 12 hours) to attend Michael Golder’s 40th birthday party at Sardi’s. Great fun seeing all the New York crowd and being entertained by Broadway singer Karen Mason.
April is the month that my ever-expanding real estate career took on a new dimension and my life went into hyper-drive. After some months of my pestering, whining, and and cajoling, the partners at Armfield, Miller & Ripley, Inc. graciously agreed to open up a satellite office in Rappahannock County. I found a great log cabin right in Little Washington as the perfect location. I was given a generous budget and told to “go to it.” I got to it. There were times when I think I only had two hours of sleep at night, but somehow I managed to run the farm, sell real estate, commute to the World Bank in DC, and renovate the cabin into an office. It took several months to complete, but I’m pretty happy with the results. Stop by some time and check it out – 322 Main Street, Washington, Virginia.
May was just as hectic as April in terms of Bank work, real estate work, and an increasingly neglected and weed-infested farm. Ceres, the hybrid cat that started me on my bizarre feline breeding experiment had her last litter of kittens on May 1st. Of the three born, only one survived, but she’s a beaut. “Alfie” now spends her days terrorizing my tenants Steve & Debra Cooke, but it’s clear that they love her to pieces and would never give her up. She may have her own litter of kittens this coming June, so if anyone wants a little monster – let me know.
Also in May, my cousin John Powers stopped by for a quick four hour visit. John pretty much travels the countryside buying up breweries for Miller Brewing Co., so needless to say he took me out for a suds-filled dinner and we caught up on family stories. It was great seeing him after several years, and I hope he and his family can come back for a longer visit soon.
From a farming standpoint the cool and wet summer was a mixed blessing. The non-stop rain meant that I had incredible grass growth and very quick growing lambs. The trouble was, I never had enough dry days in a row to make hay or even trim pastures with the tractor. The answer to this dilemma was, of course, to spend lots of money on even more farm equipment. I traded in my finish mower attachment and my riding lawn mower for a new zero turn mower. The rationale for this purchase is that it would cut my mowing time by more than half and be ‘lighter’ on the ground than my tractor. The reality is, it’s a heck of a lot of fun to drive too! Come visit and take it for a spin. By mid-June it became very apparent that my real estate career was really taking off, making it extremely difficult to juggle three jobs at once. It was a tough decision, but it was increasingly clear for financial reasons as well as my own sanity (rush-hour traffic making it a four hour round trip to DC), that I needed to give up my position at the World Bank to devote full-time attention to real estate. This decision was made a bit easier by the retirement of my immediate boss and great friend Csaba Csaki at the end of June. With Csaba returning to Hungary to help run the Budapest University of Economic Sciences I felt it was the perfect time for me to leave as well. After 12 years, I’m grateful for the time I spent at the Bank where I enjoyed my work. While I’ll miss my dedicated colleagues, I certainly won’t miss the commute.
It was also in June that I got a call from the folks at Humane Farm Animal Care to ask if my ewes and I wanted to be part of their new consumer ad campaign. I said sure, why not? They sent out a great photographer for a misty morning photo shoot. You can see some of the results here and here, and up above.
It was still raining and I still couldn’t make any hay in July. In the midst of this sodden and cool summer, our local pub, the Griffin Tavern, decided to make a mint on Thursday evenings by holding a “quiz night.” The premise is that teams of 2 to 5 players compete against each other to answer 30 triva questions in one hour. Of course lots of eating and drinking, and good-natured kidding takes place as well. Sounds kinda corny, but the whole thing is a lot of fun (including the cheesy prizes). I’m on the “Poe Folks” team which is comprised of my neighbors (we all live off of South Poes Road) Howie Swaim, Sandy Panek, Heather Novak, John Sirgany and myself. This has rapidly evolved into a Thursday night ritual that I look forward to each week. I’d like to say that we’re the winningest team out of 30 odd or so, but that honor goes to my lawyer Frank Reynolds and his team “the Village Idiots.” We are the second winningest team however….
Also in July Shannon Hayes’ long-awaited Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook was published. Not only is Touchstone Farm profiled in the book, but two of our lamb recipes are also featured. Not bad for a guy who can’t cook.
It was still raining in August, but by the 16th my neighbors Manfred and Hunter Call and a few others helped me bring in a beautiful hay harvest – an abundant cutting of 725 bales that should more than see me through the winter. This year’s lamb crop continued to grow beautifully and I was able to sell some excellent breeding stock to several new shepherds here in Virginia. In late August I had an encounter with a red tailed hawk which came to a happy end.
September was an extremely busy real estate month, but in between hurricanes and other semi-disasters, I was able to get my Little Washington office spiffed up enough to host a ‘grand opening’ garden party. Perhaps because I took the precaution of tenting the garden, the weather was absolutely perfect and we had a crowd of around 100 show up. I’m hoping I can make this an annual event.
Unfortunately I missed Mark Turner’s (by all accounts “epic”) 40th Birthday party in Southampton, but my annual sheep breed association meeting was taking place in Wisconsin on the same weekend. Snicker as the Hamptons habitués might about a bunch of shepherds sitting around and chatting about their flocks (Jeez, I can hear you all snickering as you read this), it is precisely because of such snickering that I so much enjoy the chance to compare notes with folks who understand the joys and frustration of sheep farming. Anyway, this year’s meeting was at Pat Eastwood’s beautiful farm in the “driftless area” of southwestern Wisconsin so I combined it with a brief visit to my brothers Wayne & Eric and their families in Chicago. If you’re really bored, you can read all about my trip here.
I hit the ground running after my midwestern jaunt. Before and after that weekend, I had been busy preparing my flock for the culmination of a two year effort to import “genetic material” from three of the top Clun Forest rams in the UK to the US. Faithful readers of my long-winded Christmas letters (all three of you) will recall the trials and tribulations of that importation from last year. (WARNING – Adult Material ahead!). Anyway, in order to prepare my ewes to be artificially inseminated with aforementioned ‘genetic material’ I had to insert ‘vaginal sponges’ in my top thirty-six ewes. This was a delicate procedure to say the least. Made even more so by the fact that I had never done this before and the fact that it had to be timed precisely to coordinate ovulation. 56 hours before the actual insemination was scheduled to take place (this happened to be 2 am in the morning!), I had to pull all the sponges and give hormone shots to all ewes. Luckily it seemed to have worked on all but two of them.
On Saturday, October 2nd, Dr. Martin Dally from UC-Davis arrived to perform the actual AI procedure. As AI in sheep is a laproscopic procedure involving minor surgery, I had to assemble at team of surgical assistants (my local vets Dr. Tom Massie & Dr. Derek Vandrey, tenants Steve & Debra Cooke, and neighbors and fellow shepherds Cathie and Dave Shiff) to help capture, restrain, shave, scrub, and anesthetize 30 ewes in a very make-shift surgical theater. Martin gave us a short training session and then we hopped to it. As Deb Cooke is a registered nurse, she was elected as “semen jockey” – a term which her husband found very amusing. Her’s was the job that required steady nerves and some finesse. Basically she had to take the semen straws from their frozen state, thaw them in a precisely timed warm bath, and then load and hand the pipette for Dr. Dally as he peered through his laproscope. Time was of the essence as the ewes were at their peak ovulation for only two hours. Luckily we managed to get it all done on time (just). We then repaired to the Griffin Tavern to nurse our banged and bruised bodies with a few pints and some shepherd’s pie, while the even more banged-up ewes had to make do with cold hay and water. I’m very grateful for all their assistance, and am especially grateful to Dr. Dally, who managed to fly out to Virginia under trying circumstances at a difficult time. I look forward to the birth of some top-notch lambs in February.
This year was my 19th annual mountain climb up Old Rag Mountain. I guess it’s just another sign of growing old, but I used to be able to con about 50 or so friends to join me on this annual trek. This year’s group was a mere eight! I think next year’s 20th anniversary hike may be the one where we hang up our hiking boots and retire. Still, we had a great time, despite the bitter cold, rain and hail…… (okay, maybe it wasn’t so great, but at least I had fun – sorta). On our way back we stopped by Longview Gallery in Sperryville, where local artist Geneva Welch was having an opening reception for her latest show. While the rest of the crowd was in their art gallery finest, we tromped in with muddy hiking boots and wet sweatshirts and looked at the terrific paintings – including a a huge canvas that featured one of my swans and another landscape showing a cow wallowing in my pond à la Constable. Wish I could afford to buy one.
In mid-October, I was invited to speak at the Northeast SARE Conference in Burlington, Vermont. Since the University of Vermont was picking up the tab, I was happy to go as I’d never been to New England in the Fall. The conference was fun and I really enjoyed the farm tours of beautiful farms around Lake Champlain. The fall color was spectacular and scenery along Lake Champlain with the Green Mountains on one side and the Adirondacks on the other was pretty amazing. I was almost tempted to pull up stakes in VA and head to VT until the local farmers started telling winter horror stories.
Also in October my non-stop real estate work schedule finally eased up a bit when Howie Swaim and Amy Sloane Timbers joined my office. It’s great having talented co-workers who are also fun people to have around. All three of us like hanging out in our increasing cozy (read: cramped) log cabin. Stop by some time and see us – the door’s always open.
And just when I thought I could relax a bit, in November I found myself appointed to the boards of two local environmental groups, the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection and the Rappahannock County Conservation Alliance. Between the RLEP, RCCA, KFRCC, and RFA, it’s hard keeping track of what board meets when, but I’m honored to be involved in all of them.
In late November I found time for a quick trip down to Tryon, NC to visit my family for Thanksgiving and my Dad’s 75th birthday. My sister Jennifer and her husband Gunter made it over from Germany with Helene and Stuart, while my brother Geoff and his wife Sandy drove up from Florida with Will, Sam, and Meg. Brother Ray stopped in from Athens, GA to make it a mini-family reunion.
It wasn’t until December that I was able to get farm all tidied up for winter. All the pastures were mowed, fences cleared, brush cleaned up, etc. After a busy and wet summer it was nice to finally get the farm looking like it should. Most of this credit goes to young Eric Kling, who has single-handedly restored my faith in today’s teenagers. When Eric’s father had asked if anyone needed some part-time I was a bit hesitant to respond. Grown men have been known to quail under my relentless micro-management. Eric, however, cheerfully accepts any task I give him and does a great job. I’m glad to have him helping out.
The relentless onslaught of Christmas parties this year has meant postponing both my much needed diet till New Year’s Day, and the drafting of this Christmas letter until Christmas Day. I’m just finishing up the last bits of this missive after a pleasant Christmas dinner with Roger Scruton and Doug Ginsburg who stopped by the farm today. It’s now just after dark and the sky is clear, the air is still and crisp and the moon is full – a perfect Christmas evening.
So that’s been my exhausting but fun year. I’m hoping 2005 will be quieter but just as much fun – and I hope I’ll get more time to spend with those who really count in my life – you!
A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all,