Vanlife Farm Stay: Southwest Virginia

October 19-December 2, 2021

I arrived at the farm after 10 pm. After calling the farmer to find out where I should park and access the buildings, I went to bed. The following day welcomed me with a colorful sunrise–I realized the farm was on a hill overlooking a small valley and a small mountain range in the distance. This would be the first of near-daily beautiful sunrises.

A New On-Farm Routine

The southwest Virginia farm was one part farm with cows and produce, and two parts farm market with a sporting event and wedding catering business. I got to help with all of it. But each day began with cows, or calves, to be more specific. I arrived on the farm just after their first round of calving. The first calves were already weaned and gathered in a dry lot near the buildings. I filled their water troughs each morning and fed them a bit of grain. A week into my stay, I helped during a visit from the vet. The vet and the farmer explained some common health challenges in calves this age and what to look for in the herd. After this, I began daily evaluations of the group while I filled water troughs. 

After caring for calves, I called the farmer to find out my next task. At the start, I was usually in the pumpkin fields picking varying sizes to refill the farm stand, the farm market in town, or to fill an order for a local business, school, or nonprofit. Sometimes, I would help another farmhand with the cows–pregnant cows, dry cows, or cow-calf pairs filled other fields on the farm. From time to time, I’d join a young man named Malachai to check on each area and repair fencing if necessary.

A few times, I also helped at catered events. The farm market was within walking distance to the Virginia Tech campus, and the farmer has strong ties to the school. Many of their catering events included football activities and other sports teams’ needs. They also catered several weddings while I was there. I helped at one on a nearby farm-turned-wedding venue. It was a beautiful property, and the owner was more than happy to share how and why she added the sizable venue space to her farm.

Not All Farm Work Is Created Equal

Some things stand out as more interesting than others. While I enjoyed learning each part of the farm and some of the catering business, I tended to enjoy working with cows and picking produce the best. Other, sometimes “type 2” fun tasks included breaking down last year’s tomato and squash trellis–which meant I had to pull wooden or metal stakes out of the ground and unravel the twine or plastic lattice that held the vine plants. That was fun for the first three hours; then it became “type 2” fun. The less fun part of cleaning up the produce fields was picking up the landscaping plastic from the former rows of plants. It’s stretchy and was brittle after what we believe was two years in the ground. And the soil had been pushed on top of it so much that pulling it up wasn’t a swift motion. It took three to four people nearly two full days to get *most* of it out of the ground. I’m not making any promises that we got all of it.

Another fun job was re-baling hay for customers. When Malachai first explained what the job was, it sounded silly. We were unrolling large round bales of hay made earlier this summer and, with the help of some machinery, remaking that hay into small square bales. After helping with this task on three occasions, I thought–why wouldn’t they just make small square bales to begin with? As usual, 19-year-old Malachai explained the nuisance of the farm. Making small square bales takes more people: one on a tractor driving the baler, and another two or three on a tractor and wagon stacking them. And it takes longer to turn a cutting into small bales, meaning those people would need to work for two or three days. It was hard to find help this summer, especially for labor-intensive tasks like baling hay. Malachai insisted that it was just as, if not more, efficient to make large round bales and re-bale into small squares if they got an order for such.

Body By Farming

At the end of most days, I returned to the farm in time to check on the calves again and top off their water troughs. Later in my stay, a few younger calves were added to a separate dry lot and needed special attention. They were on the small side of healthy, so the farmer sent me a milk replacer bag. It’s a 40 or 50-pound bag of fine powder that smells like sweetened milk. It’s lovely and messy and only mixes well if the water is warm–which was a challenge now that December had arrived and the highs only reached the 40s. I managed to find creative ways to heat the water at the building or bring warm water from the house. Feeding those calves brought a special joy. Unfortunately, some calves had died or were stillborn during my stay. Nevertheless, I was determined to make sure these little calves stayed healthy and put on some “groceries” before winter set in.

Some nights, I could barely find the energy to make or heat dinner (the house had a microwave I could use!) before falling asleep. My body wasn’t used to the strenuous days of picking pumpkins, digging up tomato stakes, and throwing hay bales around. But I did notice strength building over time. By December, I was stronger and more capable than when I arrived in October. 

Looking Back

Highlight: Successfully tube feeding a sick calf that wouldn’t take a bottle of milk replacer. I had watched a vet do it during a Cattlewomen’s training event a week or so before, but I hadn’t ever done it myself. The farmer gave me the green light and watched as I used my mouth as a third hand to steady the bottle, tube, and calf. I got it on the first try and felt so much joy and relief as the hard plastic bottle drained into the calf’s stomach. 

Lowlight: Four days later, the same calf died. It was sick and small and had given up on trying to survive. It didn’t make it to breakfast that morning. I was stunned by the news; it took me longer to process the feelings I experienced than I expected. I know animals die, but this one had been under my care. I felt responsible. Yet, I knew there was little more I could have done. The farmer thanked me for making the calf’s final days comfortable. That was the perspective I needed to hear.

I’m thankful to the farmer, who so willingly allowed me to stay on their farm, make use of their facilities, and understand their business. I was worried when I set out on this journey–especially my first stop–that I wouldn’t know enough to be helpful, and farmers wouldn’t know what to make of what I was doing. But this farmer got it and helped me connect with others in the community, farmers from across the state, and even gave me a good lead for my next farm stop. 


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