December 27, 2010
Dear Friends and Family –
There was a time, not too long ago, that these annual holiday letters pretty much ensured my status as the king of oversharing. Now, with Facebook, Twitter, and all kinds of other unnecessary competition, rank amateurs are effortlessly outdoing me with every breathless posting of their latest thought, word, or deed. In fact, if you’re on Facebook, you should probably stop reading now, because you probably know more about my life than I do. Still, for the rest of you, I’ll try and give you your money’s worth of MTYNTT (more than you need to know) about my year.
First off, a few short thoughts about 2010. As a milestone year in my life (I hit the big 5-0 along with about a bazillion of my friends) it was kinda “meh.” I got older, I got fatter, I got poorer. That’s about it. Some good times, some tough times. Made a few new friends, lost a few dear friends. Struggled to pay bills. It was definitely a holding pattern year.
Still, looking back at it all…..
The year started quietly enough. January was pretty much down time. We got a few farm projects done, like clearing all the Virginia Pine from our hammock hill, and my brother Geoff came with his boys to take home some sheep to their new farm, but otherwise it was the calm before the storm…
…. of February and the Snowpocalypse! Keith took a week off of work to help with lambing season and boy was I glad he did! By now you probably have heard whole gory story of two back-to-back snowstorms that left us in the Mid-Atlantic without power and 3 ft of snow on the ground and drifts up to 5 ft. It hit just as our ewes were about to deliver. We were snowbound for days. No heat but for the fireplace, no water but for melted snow, and worst of all – no interweb! Luckily we had laid in plenty of supplies for lambing season anyway, so we didn’t starve. But it wasn’t fun hiking a quarter mile through thigh deep snow to get to the barn to check on the sheep. Luckily the tractor was able to start, and with huge effort, we were able to clear some outdoor space for the sheep (it was wall-to-wall 65 pregnant ewes and others in the barn) and clear a path on the driveway with the tractor. The tractor became our link with the outside world. During a lambing emergency we met the vet with the tractor at the farm entrance. He left his truck in a snow bank on the road, put all his surgery supplies in the tractor bucket, and climbed in the bucket himself for the ride to the barn! Dr. Tom Massie truly is a local treasure – especially when he had to perform surgery by flashlight in our barn.
Lambing continued in March as the snow finally melted and rains pummeled us. We finally hit our long sought for goal of 100 lambs – the actual final tally this year was 101! You can see some of those lambs participating in the annual lamb olympics here. Given the continued sluggish real estate market, I wasn’t in the mood for, or the position to have, a lavish 50th birthday party (like some of you (and you know who you are!) who celebrated their milestone year in Miami, Key West, Palm Beach, Manhattan, Paris, Tuscany, Almafli Coast, Castles in Germany, etc). Keith agreed with me, and promised a quiet dinner à deux to mark the occasion. So imagine my surprise when I show up for a pre-dinner drink at the Watergate and find 50 or so of our closest friends there to celebrate. If only I had known I would have shaved!! Towards the end of the month, our house cat Calisto’s kidneys failed and we lost her. She was a completely neurotic little thing, but a good kitty and will be missed.
This April was more radiantly spring-like than even April deserves to be. Everywhere was lush greenery and blossoms and buds. The farm never looked better. For the first time ever even our apricot trees bloomed out of control to give us our first apricot crop. Aside from the always fun day at the ODH races, some highlights from the month were farm visits from friends, the Murphy/Golder nuptials, and a Cajun feast cooked for us by the multi-talented John Bourgeois. This year our kitchen garden got kicked into high gear too! We replaced the cedar boards on our raised beds and finally laid down the gravel paths. It made all the difference – see for yourself in the photos below.
If April was radiant, May was lush. Everything was blooming at once. The real estate marketing was picking up. Life was good. And then came the blankety.blankl.blank.beaver! This critter had decided to take up residence in the pond and selectively gnaw down every single (expensive!) tree that I had planted. Nothing could dissuade him leave, so Jeremy the farm manager was tasked with his removal. After spending an entire day at pond’s edge, Jeremy declared that the beaver must have moved on for good. But the next day, there he was again. This time Jeremy was determined to get him – and get him he did! After a fierce gun battle in which Jeremy was convinced that there were two beavers popping up in the water, he swore he shot the beaver dead. But where was the evidence? A day later a floating beaver corpse made an appearance. Never before have I been so happy to see a creature dead. The rest of the month was pretty stress-free. Great farm visits from friends, fun parties, and a great yacht tour aboard Trip & Alan’s Tally-Ho. We made hay at the end of the month and took in 57 gorgeous round bales.
June started out pleasant enough but soon grew but hot, hot, hot. There were 18 days with the temps over 90 – and no rain. The pastures shriveled up before our very eyes. So did the real estate market. The irrigated kitchen garden did okay, but everything else was dry as could be. It was a quiet birthday for Keith and he got a quiet birthday present – 3 mute swans cygnets to replace the swan brothers Castor & Pollux we lost last summer. These three, promptly christened Sauron, Daphne & Apollo, are now his absolute favorites and he spends more time with them than he does with me. It was sad saying goodbye to friends and neighbors Roger and Sophie Scruton as they moved back to England, but we hope they’ll come visit often.
I don’t think there was a single day in July that the thermometer dipped below 90 degrees. Plenty of days it would exceed 100. And not a drop of rain to cool things off or green up the pastures. It was awfully stressful on the lambs. Instead of growing like weeds on summer grass they were losing weight from heat stress. When the heat, weight loss, and weakness from heavy worm loads got too much for the wee beasties I made the decision to put them in the barn and feed them hay. This was a first in 13 years of shepherding, but we probably would have lost half of our lamb crop if we hadn’t done so. Despite the oppressive heat, the garden produced an astounding variety of beets, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc. The heat (and aggressive predation by Jeremy) seemed to have knocked out the annual squirrel devastation of the fruit trees, so that this year we could harvest a wonderful crop of peaches and pears too. Chef Keith took the summer’s bounty and prepared two absolutely stellar al fresco dinner parties at the farm, and I actually made a passable peach sorbet for dessert. Keith’s swans soon outgrew their small wading pool and graduated to a small penned corner of the pond, and then a few weeks later, they were big enough to have the whole pond as their playground. Despite the heat, my sister-in-law Beth was brave enough to drive cross country with kids and au pair in tow for a two day visit. My nephew Grant took to farming in a big way. I expect plenty of work out of him during summer vacations when he’s in high school!
August was still hot. We set a record for over 60 days of non-stop 90+ degree weather this summer. It totally fried the pastures. The sheep rallied a bit, but they were still stressed and not growing well. Some rain at last provided relief mid-month. The swans grew nicely under Keith’s watchful eye. Dinner parties in the orchard continued and Chef Keith expanded his repertoire for friends Heike and Richard and his sister Barbara and brother-in-law Brian. Ask him about his roast beet and goat cheese salad. We had a great visit to Keith’s sister Yvonne’s place in Charlottesville, and being the great winos we are, we also toured some great wineries. Virginia ain’t Napa, or Mendoza, much less Burgundy, but we’re getting there! The highlight of the month was definitely our weekend trip to Saugatuck, MI. Our yachting friends Trip & Alan invited us to spend some time with them at their summer house in this small artists colony. The stunning lakeside landscape was the perfect summer escape. CNN came to farm at the end of the month to film a short segment and I had to be heavily edited just to make me sound semi-coherent, but the farm scenery was the main focus of the story.
The start of the fall real estate season in September usually means a very busy month for me. It’s the best time to look at the lush countryside and fantasize about the Virginia estate of your dreams. Unfortunately, during the great recession everyone seems determined to leave those estates firmly in the dream world and not sign on the dotted line. This year things were ominously quiet. Now, by carefully hoarding pennies over the past couple of years and strong lamb sales, I’ve been able to keep this whole enterprise afloat. But that has meant no major farm improvement projects for over a year, and certainly no major travel or splurges. So, in a situation like that, when you’re handed a free trip to Europe, it’s probably wise to accept it. And, I, being a wise man, accepted. Actually, it was a series of small incremental forces coming together that led to a fantastic and memorable Euro-jaunt for us. The first was sister Jen and brother-in-law Gunter having their third child in July and moving to a small village near the French border. Their new house conveniently also comes with a downstairs guest suite. The second was that, in the endless parade of 50th birthday parties this year, my old friend Jürgen decided the best way to celebrate his was to invite all his friends and family to all expenses paid weekend at a phenomenal castle hotel in northern Germany. The third was the the fact many of the airline miles I had been assiduously saving for the past several years (in hopes of financing a dream trip to New Zealand), were due to expire at the end of the year – and I needed to quickly use them or lose them. It just so happened that there were enough for two round-trip economy tickets to Europe. So, the trip was planned. The icing on the cake was a casual comment my sister made about the new high-speed rail link to Paris just minutes from her house. The introductory fare was only 29 euros. And, said she, “it’s only two hours, so you can go for the day!” A quick poll of Parisian friends found most of them out of town, but one of them, Jean-Philippe (yet another celebrating the big 5-0) insisted that we take his apartment for a few days as he would be spending the month at his house in South Africa. It will be sitting there empty, he insisted, so you must stay there. How can you say no to a fabulous penthouse in the Marais? Bernard, another friend, said he’d be in town and delighted to take us to dinner to catch up. Et voilà! Ten days in Europe sponging off friends and family. What more could you want? It was more than fantastique, it was ausgezeichnet!
There were too many great adventures to recount in this space, so I’ll just skip to the most important moment – our last night in Paris after long day of sight-seeing. A quiet evening in a tiny but very cozy excellent little restaurant around the corner from our apartment, where we sat in the window and watched the world go by, and where the food was simple yet wonderful, and where the owner/sommelier, discovering that Keith had a palate to match his own, became our new best friend and insisted on opening up bottle after bottle for us to taste (much to the puzzlement and wonder of the other restaurant patrons). It was in this haze of delicious wine, great food, Parisian charm, and simple gratitude for the wonderful life we have together that Keith and I made a decision on something that we’d been thinking about for a long time. We’re gonna get married! It’s probably going to be a long engagement, as I’m not sure which will take longer, saving the money for the wedding or getting the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA. But, like it or not, we’re getting hitched. I’ll keep you posted.
So here’s the rest of the trip highlights in four sentences: 1) Arrived in Germany for brother-in-law Gunter’s birthday party and fun weekend visit with new nephew Henry and rest of family. 2) Took the high speed train to Paris for 3 days of sightseeing and romantic memories. 3) Wonderfully fun day visiting Bob & Doris Schmidt in Heidelberg, and then off to my old University town of Marburg for a day of nostalgia. 4) Weekend at Schloss Waldeck and in Frankfurt to celebrate Jürgen Reemers’ birthday in high style.
Once home from Europe I had two days to round up sheep and drive north to Ontario for my last annual meeting as NACFA president. Great fun with the sheep folks (as always) and a fun adventure driving two rams all the way to their new homes in Canada. A stop at Niagara Falls on the way back for a short two hours gave me more than a decade’s worth of tourist kitsch experience.
September Photos (Click on photo to enter slideshow)
October is always a beautiful month. After the hot and dry summer even the very air seemed alive in October. The farm got a new fresh wash of rain and cooler temperatures and bounced right back in all of its autumnal glory. No travel plans meant that we could sit back and enjoy it too. The kitchen garden redoubled its bounty. Taking stock of things made me glad to have finished the struggles and sacrifices over the past 15 years to get this farm to where it is today. The sheep looked great, and the years of constant culling and selection and artificial insemination has really started to pay off. I’m really proud of my flock and think it only needs a little fine tuning to maintain the current high quality. All the earth-moving, planting, and fencing over the years has resulted in a landscape that reveals itself to be even better than that which nature herself created. Keith was making some pretty amazing meals with things plucked right from the garden moments before. We might be a bit low in the cash department, but life seemed pretty much perfect. Too perfect. And, sure enough, just to make sure I didn’t get complacent and too self-satisfied with my life, the fates intervened, as they always do, to knock me down a peg or two (or three). Not content to let me hold on to what I have and eke out a semblance of a living, the powers that be decided to take the most tranquil, mellow, and beautiful of seasons to deliver me firmly and decisively on poverty’s doorstep. This was accomplished in the usual one-two-hit-him-while-he’s-down style that doesn’t give the victim time to recover or regroup. First, I developed a nasty lingering cough that confounded the medical establishment even as they bled my bank account dry while trying to determine its source. Second, several promising real estate deals dissolved before my very eyes. Third, in very rapid succession, the truck broke down, the car broke down, the well pump failed, the furnace died, the smartphone smashed to bits, the tractor needed repairs, and my computer gave up the ghost. In the space of a few weeks, my carefully hoarded reserves which had seen me through the last two years of economic downturn, were completely depleted. By the end of October, I was pretty much broke.
October Photos (Click on photo to enter slideshow)
Needless to say things were pretty mellow in November. While putting the farm to bed for the winter is always satisfying, this year things seemed a little bittersweet. The last bits of tidying up the fields and trails and winterizing things for barn cats and poultry gives a nice seasonal completion to another successful year. But the nagging question in the back of my mind was, ‘will we still have the farm this time next year?’ Not a question I’ve ever had to contemplate in the past. We sold Keith’s swan Apollo so that his other cob Sauron could have Apollo’s sister Daphne all to herself. A quick day trip to Richmond was a good distraction. Who knew Richmond had such interesting little neighborhoods, restaurants and museums? Actually, Keith’s niece Rebecca knew, and she gave us some great recommendations.
November Photos (Click on photo to enter slideshow)
In years past, Keith’s annual December vacation week has always meant a fun trip. So while poverty dictated a ‘staycation‘ this year, it didn’t mean we couldn’t have a lot of fun in the process. We started the week with a farm visit from good friend Frank Brooks from LA and the usual suspects from DC, followed by a family visit to the farm for the annual Christmas in Little Washington, and then a day trip to DC for museum hopping and cocktails. Another short trip to NYC to see friends, see the Christmas decorations, and eat at another of David Chang’s amazing restaurants. Yet another day trip to a completely deserted Harper’s Ferry was educational, and dinner that night at Volt in Frederick, MD was, without doubt, the best meal of the year. Amazing food in a fun little town. Christmas was spent with the Miller clan in Virginia and a good time was had by all.
December Photos (Click on photo to enter slideshow)
So that’s been my year. Some sad and unexpected goodbyes (Michael Schmidt, Kevin Pruitt), a few wonderful highs, deep satisfaction with the two main pillars in my life (Keith and the farm), mixed in with considerable anxiety for the future. Still, I have high hopes for 2011. If the economy can improve (and it must!), and I can keep limping along (and I must!), then perhaps a year from now I can look back at 2010 as a year that really forced me to take stock of the things and be grateful for the things I have that really matter – a wonderful partner, good health, true friends, and a loving family.
Wishing you the same blessings in your life.
Happy New Year,