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Today, we spent the morning cleaning the barn. Actually, I had no idea what this meant before we started and came quite unprepared for the work. My old athletic shoes, which work fine in the garden, would not do for the little pellets of goat excrement and the heavy, wet straw and hay that lay on the cement floors of the barn.

Fortunately, Ron, the farmer we are working with, saw my predicament and offered me a pair of boots that he keeps on hand for city slickers like me who venture here to help him out. I was grateful for them although after today I will definitely buy a pair of my own because I intend to continue doing this farm work.

Farm work. Yes. I like the sound of that. Actually, I came to the farm looking ahead to a future where declining natural resources will make life different, especially since we depend on oil to run nearly everything in our lives. I think Sharon Astyk’s call for 100 million farmers and 200 million cooks (I already cook) is sound advice and essential preparation for survival in this new and uncertain world. Today, I would start this venture with a lesson on barn cleaning.

My new farm buddies and I shoveled manure all morning, which was not as bad smelling or as difficult to handle as I’m sure cow, chicken or pig manure would have been. In fact, the smells were almost pleasant as the goat waste mixed with the hay and straw.

I learned to use a pitchfork and was surprised at how easily it picked up the manure. However, there are two tricks to using a pitchfork: (1) avoid overburdening yourself by taking too much; and (2) lift the fork close to the tines using the muscles of your legs as a fulcrum for better leverage. After all, a pitchfork is just a lever. Also, there are two kinds of pick-up: the top layer is light in weight because of the drainage and added loose straw and hay, but the layers underneath it are heavier with matted globs of bedding, urine and caked “caca,” as Ron calls it. The caked “caca” usually has to be scraped down to the cement floor for a more thorough cleaning.

Shoveling manure clued me in as to why so much of our colloquial language focuses on this substance and other bodily functions, which I’m sure is a leftover from thousands of years of farming.

As I tossed the manure into a pile in the middle of the barn, I began to relate to it in an unexpected way: cleaning the barn gives the animals a better quality of life. In other words, we clean the barn to ensure the health and comfort of the goats. Granted, barn cleaning is a necessary farm chore, but it is also our gift to goats along with the clean, new straw for their bedding. Ron says the goats treat their new digs like a Christmas present when they re-enter the barn. They look around with excitement and sometimes even dance on straw with delight. Unfortunately, I would not see this today, but I would later on, and I came to love it and look forward to it.

One other important thing I learned today is that the caked “caca” is at a stage where it is becoming compost that helps re-generate the soil. Because the “caca” is “caked,” air cannot reach the interior. Air has oxygen, which the microbial world needs to break down the organic matter into friable compost otherwise know as the “brown gold” all gardeners and farmers treasure. Though some of the manure already looks like soil, it still needs that boost of air to drive the furnace of microbial metabolism to create real soil. This process is utterly amazing to me, and just a preview of many other wonders of Nature I would discover on the farm.

Actually, Ron has been composting the garden for the past 25 years. When he bought the property in 1984, it was sandy moraine left over from the glaciers with the thinnest layer of organic matter supporting ragged and noxious weeds. Now the soil in the garden area is over 18 inches deep, and it is dark and rich.

Ron has said it is very difficult to garden without using manure from healthy livestock. His animals are fed free choice, a well-balanced loose mineral that the animals do not incorporate. These minerals wind up in the soil through manure and urine and enrich the compost, which enriches the soil and is finally taken up by garden plants and the animals—all to be recycled again.

Once we loaded the manure into the tractor bucket, Ron hauled it off to the compost pile located in the field next to the hoop house. He’s been collecting this most recent batch since last fall. It doesn’t have an offensive smell, but rather it smells like the earth. When the compost is turned, steam rises from it, which indicates the heat generated by organisms working it. In fact, on cool mornings we can see trails of vapor rising from the compost pile. To a gardener, it is a beautiful sight and a sign of the cycle of life where nothing is wasted

Another thing I discovered working on the farm today is the generous spirit that emerges among the gardeners. Because a garden yields such great abundance, one family can’t possibly eat all its produce. That makes sharing an essential and natural thing to do. For example, Matt brought us all some sage from his home garden. He divided it into bunches, tied it together with orange plastic twist-ties and put the bunches into a paper bag stem up to hang for drying. Donna made a polenta cake with hazelnut flavoring and gave each of us a moist and tasty slice of it. Mmm—good!

While we worked, we talked. Today, we all found out about the farm and each other. Ron, the farmer, is a retired research scientist from a pharmaceutical firm, a lawyer and a martial arts black belt. Matt is a professor who says his family thinks shoveling manure is what his job is all about anyway. Donna was a nurse before she got into medical sales and marketing. Now she is a leader in my town’s local food movement and a founder of a new farmers market. She has a 12-year-old daughter who thinks that farmers are heroes because they grow food for others to eat. I am a writer, ex-nun and soon-to-be former professor looking for the next thing to pursue in my life.

After three hours of shoveling manure, my aching body was in shock. The car ride home took 15 minutes, but when I arrived, I stripped off my work clothes at the front door and crawled upstairs for a hot bath followed by a hot shower. The water felt soooo good and it helped rejuvenate my back and especially my knee that gave out a couple times today.

Yet, despite my pain and the dirty job I did today, I felt complete satisfaction. I had engaged my whole body and soul into something that involved a cooperative effort with others who all worked toward a common goal. (We traded off the jobs of scraping, shoveling and dumping the manure into the tractor bucket.) Farming is certainly NOT an abstract endeavor as my teaching career has been. It is the real world, the physical world, the sensual world—and I like it.

After I put on some clean clothes and found a comfortable chair, I felt content and satisfied. Farming may be the next thing I do with my life.