December 31, 2011
Dear Friends and Family –
I hope this missive finds you all happy and healthy, and ready to begin the new year. 2011 was a challenging, but ultimately rewarding year for me.
Despite of, or perhaps because of, the hard times towards the end of 2010, we decided to throw caution to the wind in January (well, in truth, the tickets had been booked months in advance) and head to Key West for the new year. Our friend Brian Theis was celebrating his 50th birthday in style; with several days of festivities and accompanying CDs, DVDs, booklets, party favors, etc. It was quite a production and tons of fun! Lucky for us (and our meager resources), friends Trip & Alan offered us a luxurious stateroom on their yacht as accommodations during our stay on the island. There’s nothing quite like leaving behind all the hoi polloi tourist kitsch on Duval Street and moments later being received by hot and cold running servants proffering refreshment as you step aboard a yacht. We like rich people! Back in Virginia and confronted with the reality of a hard knock life, Keith’s nephew’s short visit to VA boosted our spirits, and we had another nice respite celebrating Australia Day with friends Bruce & Patty and other local sheep producers. Despite the wintery weather, Patty exuded Aussie warmth, and provided us with excellent lamb (of course!) and her famous pav. We’ll miss them next year when they head back down under.
February’s quiet and mild weather (unlike 2010’s snowpocalypse) made it a pretty mellow month all around. It was easy to set up the farm for spring. The chickens, pigeons and geese were all mated up on the traditional ‘bird’s wedding day” and started laying eggs right on schedule. Lambing season started on the 23rd and was the easiest lambing season ever – all the ewes decided to give me a break and have their lambs all born, dried off, and up and nursing by the time I found them. It was truly a month to savor – no disasters and everything going smoothly according to schedule – and time to get all caught up on pre-spring farm chores for once.
One of the more totemic of the wild critters that hang around our farm is “Milou” a very rare white red tailed hawk. We see her circling around all the time, but she’s hard to capture in a photo as she blends in so well to the sky. Towards the end of the month, however, she finally obliged me with a low flight over the pastures. I took a few quick (and shaky) telephoto pix of her (included in the gallery below). She’s been around the farm for the past several years and every time we see her it’s a bit of a thrill.
March did its usual lamb/lion thing. It was so cold and snowy at the end of the month that we had to reschedule the annual sheep shearing until April. The lambing season wound down nicely. Without question the easiest lambing we’ve had in years. Keith had taken a week off of work to help, but there was little to do but count noses every few hours. That gave us time to relax and even climb a mountain. But only 85 lambs were born and we didn’t reach our goal of 100 for the year. The real estate market picked up slightly (just enough to help me limp along with the mortgage, but not enough to instill confidence). The big (tragic, actually) news of the month was that our Farm Manager Jeremy Christopher was going to be leaving us to devote more time to the company he and his wife started. This was a huge blow. In the three years he’s been with us, Jeremy had steadily been taking on more and more of the day to day farm operations, which allowed Keith and me to keep our ‘day’ jobs. He’d been an integral part of our farm expansion, and our plans for future growth. Still, you can’t hold back talented people, and truth be told, with our finances in such dire straits, it was unclear how much longer we’d be able to afford him. But how could we cope without him?
The weather could not make up its mind this April: cold, then hot, then cool; rain, tornadoes, storms, then calm. Still, we were able to muddle through and do all our usual April things. The Old Dominion Hounds point-to-point race is an annual fixture on our calendar and a good way to get friends to visit out in the country. Keith’s nephew-in-law, Marc, took some amazing photos of nasty fall, but surprisingly both horse and rider were uninjured. Sheep shearing went off without a hitch, and my annual “Tom Sawyer” barn cleaning is proving to be more and more popular with local gardeners. So much so, that I think I should start charging them for the privilege of shoveling sheep manure and straw bedding out of the barn. We had a great weekend visit from friends Wes & Greg and enjoyed trying to turn them into country boys. Towards the middle of the month we set up the kitchen garden for the season and were looking forward to trying some new veggies. The fruit trees in the orchard suffered a bit when we penned the geese in there for their annual attempt at nesting and rearing their own goslings. In years past this had been done in what is now the kitchen garden. But this year’s experiment was a bit of a failure – not only did the geese fail to hatch a single egg, they successfully demolished one young apple and one young pear tree. We’ll have to find a different nesting place for them in 2012. Another disappointing annual April tradition has been our search for morel mushrooms. Each year our friends and neighbors collect shopping bags full of these incredibly delicious fungi. This year, Keith and Alan collected a grand total of two! I guess our farm is just a bit morelly challenged. Otherwise the farm looked fantastic – and all set for the summer growing season. But on a sheep farm, summer means work – and lots of it. This year, just seeing the lush April grass starting to grow filled me with a bit of dread. No Jeremy meant that there would only be one person around to move sheep to new paddocks, mow 70 acres of fields and fencelines, maintain 40 acres of woodlands and trails, round up and weigh and worm the lambs every few weeks, feed all the animals, and cope with anything mother nature decided to throw our way. April showers made me yearn for January snow.
Beautiful weather with lots of rain in between meant that in May everything grew extravagantly – and geared us up for a busy summer. Super lush grass gave us really big and bouncy lambs – we had record weaning weights. New goslings arrived (all the way from Oregon), and were promptly adopted by Keith, and lots of chicks were hatched out. Jeremy was no longer around to help out with day to day chores, but he still came to visit every so often and helped make the first cutting of hay over Memorial Day. The farm got a nice plug when Washingtonian Magazine named us one of the “Best Places to Buy Meat.” Our miserable finances got a bit of a break when we made the last payment on the tractor (of course that means it’s no longer under warranty either!). Marc Schmidt’s birthday extravaganza in Richmond was a lot of fun and we got to appreciate Marc & Rebecca’s love for that city. Neighbor Will Hopkin’s big 5-0 celebration was on a spectacularly beautiful Spring day that showcased his gardens to perfection.
For the first time in several years June was a really nice month. There were some hot days for a while, but then it cooled down to what summer ‘should be’ and almost never is – cool nights, warm days, no humidity and a gentle breeze. We got the first cutting of hay the barn, and the lambs continued to grow nicely. My nephew Luka from Chicago came for weeklong visit and we had fun turning him into a country boy. The real estate market puttered along, but not enough to be sustainable. Luckily the kitchen garden helped put food on the table, and we had a few nice outdoor dinner parties with neighbors and friends.
Summer arrived in full force at the beginning of July. It was hot, hot, hot! Luckily we escaped most of the heat by heading north. Leaving the farm in Jeremy’s capable hands, we packed up clothes, sheets, booze, swimming trunks and iPod and headed north to Martha’s Vineyard on the 5th. Neither of us had ever been before and we were looking forward to a week of sun, sea, lobster and cocktails. It did not disappoint. In fact, it may even challenge Maine in our annual “best-place-to-escape-Virginia’s-heat” contest. We stayed with friends in an old (1730’s) summer house that was everything a summer house should be, but rarely is any more – mis-matched furniture, odd assortments of plates and cutlery, moldering paperbacks from 1953, etc. The low ceilinged upstairs rooms, peeling wallpaper, outdoor shower, and window fans clearly hadn’t been updated since 1962. It was, in a word, heaven. Since we were on a secluded country road in West Tisbury we were far away from all the tourist bustle, but we made a point of hitting all the spots – Edgartown, Chappaquiddick, Oak Bluffs, Aquinnah. My absolute favorite was Menemsha. It wasn’t until the last afternoon on the island that we took the time to explore the beach that ‘came’ with the house. Taking the beach key from a basket in the kitchen, and following directions down a 2 mile stretch of sand and scrub pines we came to what can only be described as the most beautiful, pristine, empty, and dramatic beach on the east coast. Little did we know that Quansoo Beach is the probably the most exclusive on the island. Absolutely stunning – we should have spent the entire week right there. We’ll definitely go back!
We drove back home and had 12 hours in which to wash clothes, check on the farm, and catch a flight to Atlanta for my brother Ray’s Wedding. Ray and Shelley put on an outstanding show and Keith and I will have a hard time topping them next year. It was a great occasion for the whole family to get together and see cousins and aunts and uncles we hadn’t seen in a long time. You can’t beat a wedding reception where Elvis shows up! An added bonus was catching up with old friend Jasper Boudreaux (it doesn’t get much more Cajun than that folks), having some great eats, and touring the Fox Theatre.
It was a bit of a let down to come home mid month to hot and sticky Virginia and an overgrown farm.
August brought more heat, but less humidity so we actually had some nice summer days. Friends Greg & Wes invited us to join them at their beach house in Rehoboth, DE. I hadn’t been there in well over a decade, and Keith had never been, so we decided to check it out. It was fun to reconnect with one of the haunts of my 20s. Something things never change – like the horrendous beach traffic – but the town is a lot bigger, busier, and fancier than before (kinda like most of the old friends I ran into there…). Greg & Wes were awesome hosts, and we had a fantastic time. Unfortunately we came home to a hot and dry farm. After all the spring and early summer rain, August was kinda parched. Everything looked a little listless.
One day, happily weedwhacking away in the summer heat, earplugs firmly in place against the loud whine of the weedwhacker, and covered in sweat, bits of grass, and smushed insects, I turn around and almost smack a huge black bear right in the chest. I finally, truly, understand the expression “to jump out of one’s skin.” He’s standing not more than 6 feet away from me (the weedwhacker is a good three feet long). I stare at him, he stares at me. “Good thing I’m armed with this loud whirring weedwhacker,” I think, as it slowly sputters to a stop. “Uh, oh. Now what?” We continue to stare at each other for a good five minutes until the bear, slowly (sloowwly) walks away. I follow at a discreet distance, not believing this is happening, but hoping I can reach the car where the camera is and snap his photo before he walks away.
On the 23rd I pulled into the local bank parking lot to discuss my dismal financial situation with my banker. As I was parking, everyone started pouring out of the building, bank staff and customers alike. What was going on? A bank robbery? Instead they all mobbed me and asked in one voice, “Did you feel that?” “Feel what?” I asked. Some thought it was a bomb blast, others, some super-sonic shock wave. Still others were adamant that it was an earthquake. I was completely dismissive. I hadn’t felt a thing. Still, when I left the bank, the radio was filled with reports of the 5.8 earthquake that was felt as far north as Canada, but centered just 30 miles from where I was. I felt gipped!! All that excitement and I didn’t even get to experience it? I got home and found everything okay, but some pictures on the walls were a bit crooked and there were two ominous cracks in the concrete apron in front of the garage. The next day there was an aftershock that many felt, but I was bouncing around the farm on the gator, and didn’t feel that either. The next night – just as I was again thinking about how I had missed out on one of the experiences I had always secretly wished to have – the whole house started shaking. A nice solid rumble as if the house were on the flatbed of a big truck on a bumpy road. It didn’t last too long, but long enough to give everything a good strong rattle. I was completely satisfied – so that’s what it feels like!
A few days later, Hurricane Irene came sweeping through, and while she wreaked havoc on the rest of the East Coast, she brought us some much needed rain that really started greening things up again. With a fresh washing from the hurricane, the farm really looked fantastic, and as I toured around I felt very smug indeed. There was a mellow, late summer glow to everything. The gardens looked great, and the lambs and chicks were all growing nicely and some were showing excellent promise as potential breeding stock. Keith and I enjoyed some great meals with friends with produce right from the garden – his eggplant parmesan was beyond outstanding – and I actually made a passable pesto. Yet, financial worries made me acutely aware of how tenuous it all was.
September went by in a blur. Seriously, I think it lasted all of two weeks – tops. Right when the cupboard was bare, and I was wondering if I should buy a lottery ticket to pay the mortgage, someone, somewhere must have flipped a switch and suddenly convinced a whole boatload of people that they needed to buy a country property and they needed to look for it right NOW! What started out as my darkest hour, now showed a very promising hint of dawn’s early light. In a flash, my personal economic recovery had begun.
The usual September calendar stalwarts popped up right on schedule: the Thornton Hill Hounds Point to Point, the Taste of Rappahannock, and, of course, my annual pilgrimage to the NACFA meeting. This year’s meeting was held in beautiful Wilton, IA. No doubt you are tired of reading every year how much I enjoy this event, but I really do have a great time every year! This year’s meeting was just as delightful as those in the past, but the Iowa location gave me a chance to fly into Chicago and spend some time with my brother Eric and Sister-in-Law Beth and their kids, and then squeeze in quick visit (45 minutes) with cousin Bob Powers and his wife Annette in Iowa City (that’s them with their dog Peanut right below), and return to Chicago to spend some time with my brother Wayne and sister-in-law Audrey and their brood. I also got a chance to see Will Forrest and Mark Smithe’s simply amazing penthouse with a panoramic view of the entire city and lakefront. Driving through the farmland of central and northern Illinois was a wonder. The Midwestern landscape of my childhood surprised me with a jolt of bittersweet nostalgia for an America that I sometimes fear no longer exists. I had a new appreciation for the vast prairie landscape and endless horizon, and picture-perfect farms, and the solid and sensible people who run them.
Immediately after returning from Iowa, I hit the ground running to set up for October – the busiest month of the year. A quick visit from my brother Geoff to pick up some sheep for his farm in SC was an excuse to give him an impromptu 50th birthday dinner. Then I had to set up 31 ewes for their ‘date’ with the artificial insemination Dr. later in the month. This is an exacting procedure requiring me to pull hormone plugs from the ewes and give them a perfectly timed hormone injection for their operation 56 hours in the future. I’m always nervous about this, as it can be a very expensive mistake if I mess it up. Anyway, I’m right in the middle of doing this, alone in the barn, when some old feller pulls up in a rusty pick-up truck and shouts up to me to ask if I’m missing some sheep. “No, says I, “They’re all here.” “Well,” says he, “There’s about 20 sheep that were in the middle of South Poes Road about a mile or so down – I didn’t know what to do with them, so I herded them into someone’s driveway.” “Well,” I say, “there’s not much I can do about it for the next 20 minutes or so until I finish this, but if you care to wait, I’ll check it out.” So, after I’m done with the first tranche of ewes, I go look on the other side of the farm, and sure enough, the rams and about 25 lambs had broken through the fence and silently snuck out and wandered off – 3 miles from where they were penned! The old-timer took me to where he had left them, but they were nowhere to be found. About another mile down the road we found them in another field. It took 3 people an hour to herd them up the road and back up to our barn, with several passersby stopping traffic to allow us safe passage. Luckily we got them all back safe and sound and the AI ewes got their shots and were successfully AI-ed 2 days later. In between lots of real estate activity, Keith was profiled in a local DC foodie magazine, and we celebrated Keith’s mother’s 89th birthday. We also found time to host a small ‘revival’ of the annual mountain climb I used to organize back in my prime. We climbed Old Rag mountain on a perfect October day. We only managed to get 6 hikers opposed to the 50 or so I would be able to wrangle 25 years ago, but hey, we’re 25 years older…
The highlight of the month was meeting Stephanie Selig. Waay back in the Pleistocene era, when he and I were both 18, Stephanie’s father Volkhard Selig was my ‘host brother’ for a summer exchange program with a German family. I got to live with Volkhard and his sisters and parents, and they got to put up with me and my miserable German language skills. They were wonderful to me. So much so, that when I studied at Marburg University a few years later, they were my home away from home for all semester breaks and holidays. Though we’ve kept in touch over the ensuing centuries, I had never met Stephanie. She, however, was determined to follow in the family tradition and create her own exchange program with a visit to us in the States. Keith and I approached this idea with a bit of trepidation. How could two middle-aged men, living in a small house on an isolated farm, in the middle of nowhere, entertain a 19 year old German girl for a month and a half? There’s no way our America could live up to the version she’d no doubt seen on TV. Yet we needn’t have worried. Jet lagged as she was after a 19 hour trip, Stephanie fit right in from the moment she arrived. We had the best time with her and really enjoyed showing her around Virginia. We couldn’t have wished for a better house guest and it was fun introducing her to local Halloween traditions.
November was a very productive month. Solid real estate sales made me somewhat confident that the previous two months were not an anomaly. Good thing too, because all three of our vehicles decided to break down at the same time! Keith and I traded out cars until all were fixed. Replenished finances also meant that some long delayed maintenance around the farm could be attended to; particularly an ominous water leak near the well; and for the first time in 2 years we now have functioning lighting again in our living room and the poultry barn. Lambs went off to slaughter and were sold to waiting customers. Finances recovered enough to let me confidently order 10 replacement maple trees for our double allée above the pond. Of our original plantings of 26 trees back in 2008, 10 never made it, and for the past 3 years they’ve been a stark reminder of my life on hold. Stephanie, good trooper that she is, helped us plant all 10 on her 20th birthday. What’s not to like about a girl like that? As a reward we let her stay with good friends Heike and Richard in DC. I think both she and Heike enjoyed the break – they could do girl stuff together (und auf Deutsch!).
We took a few days to travel to Williamsburg and Jamestown to show Stephanie a bit of Virginia’s history and to re-connect with Keith’s Jamestown roots. We even found the plot of land that Keith’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather bought when he came to Jamestown in 1621. The autumnal weather was perfect and we had a real sense of connection to our country’s past through Keith’s heritage and an excellent archeological tour. Later in the month Keith’s sister Yvonne, an accomplished chef of Chinese cuisine gave us an excellent Chinese lunch in Charlottesville when we went to show Stephanie Monticello. Stephanie’s six weeks with us went by too quickly, and we really miss her! Keith’s sister Barbara put together a wonderful family Thanksgiving dinner.
Real estate sales continued robustly in December and delivered me the best Christmas present in years – financial solvency. After 3 years of wondering how am I going to keep it all together, I finally think we’ve turned the corner. Now to start saving for the next crisis! Let’s hope that’s decades away.
Of Keith’s many stellar attributes, his nose for travel bargains is probably the most highly evolved. When he combines his priceline.com acumen with his free travel benefits on Amtrak, watch out! For his annual December vacation, Keith put together a great stay for us in Charleston, a return to VA for a weekend of Christmas parties, and then a short sojourn in NYC. We had an outstanding time. I was a bit wary of Charleston initially. My foggy memories of the place from a long ago visit was of older well-heeled suburban tourists who went there to play golf and shop for over-priced antiques. That crowd was still there, but it’s not your mother’s Charleston any more. The whole city radiated a much younger, hipper vibe exemplified by our hotel (great bargain, Keith!), and every place we went. The combination of 300 year old architecture and high style food, drink, and clothing was great – the perfect mid-70s degree weather didn’t hurt either. If I were 30 years younger, I might even consider becoming a Charleston hipster. The next week, Keith planned a great getaway to NYC. New York before Christmas is always wonderful. Aside from the holiday decorations, shoppers and smell of roasting chestnuts on every street corner, meeting up with old friends for drinks and dinner certainly put us in the holiday spirit. From our very first trip to New York, Keith and I have made it a tradition to eat at one of David Chang’s restaurants. Luckily he keeps opening new venues, and we still have one new one to visit. Our visit to his Má Pêche did not disappoint. Another fun visit was Eataly. We had a great lunch there, and are glad that they may open one soon in DC. Back at home, Christmas with the extended Miller clan was a grand fest of too much good food and too many presents, but somehow, just right.
So that’s been my year. Looking back, it was a pretty good deal, compared to the past few. It’s much more satisfying dealing with rising expectations than coping with diminished circumstances. If my small example of recovery can be used as a wider indication of economic trends, then I think we’re all in for a more prosperous 2012. Surviving the great recession has been a humbling experience to be sure, but it’s helped reinforce the important things in life – good friends, a supportive family (thanks, Jen!), and a wonderful fiancé.
Wishing you all the best in 2012,