Pine Needle Farm
Sat in a classroom on a drizzly day in December, my friend Cam and I had an obvious thought - why don't we go and work on an American farm for a few weeks?
Shortly after, I was told about a website called Helpx. This site gives you a list of thousands of host families from every where across the world, that you can go and stay with; where they give you food and accommodation in return for you helping out with their work around the place.
We fired off a couple of emails, receiving a very keen response from a lady in Montana who runs a small cashmere goat farm on the side of a mountain. Cam and I fancied milking a few goats, so we thought we'd book a 14 hour flight to see what we were missing.
After a long, 6 stage journey, we were picked up by John (the owner of the goat farm). We picked up some lunch supplies - 10 kg of chicken breast and rice. We then began our journey up to the farm, which is 4 miles off the nearest paved road, and hundreds of deer seem to have laid claim to the bumpy driveway.
We squeezed our bags into the cozy Alaskan camper that would be our home for the next fortnight, and went to meet Ann, John's wife. Ann took us on a tour of the goat farm, familiarising us with the 65 goats - each of them named - and the hundreds of chickens, turkeys and dogs that roamed the place. We had a quick dinner, and crashed in the camper.
We woke up at around 3am, because of our jetlag. We thought we'd go for a quick walk round the farm, until the guard dogs started barking madly, making us scurry back into the camper before anyone blamed us.
Later, Cam and I were assigned our first task - getting a tree stump out of the ground. Some 3 hours later, it was finally wrenched out.
We took a break for lunch, where Cam and I had a disastrous attempt at egg fried rice, resulting in something resembling an omelette.
Afterwards, we were given our next job; to clear out one of the goat pens. Our mission was to dig up continental plate-sized pieces of the poo layer, dump them into the trailer of the quad-bike, which we would drive round to the compost heap. Then we would hurl the mounds of excrement up onto the dizzyingly high summit of the compost mound.
I manned the pitch fork, whilst Cam tended to the poop scoop:
Cam quickly realised that the best part of this job was using the quad-bike.
He decided to start practicing his rally driving skills on the track between the goat pen and the compost heap. I was employed as his co-driver, peering over his shoulder on the back of the ATV. I was his eyes, notifying him of the sharp hairpins ahead and how to negotiate the narrow paths between trees.
We rapidly made firm friends with the goats, discovering that it was surprisingly easy to remember the names of 60+ goats!
After four terrifying runs in the quad-bike, skidding along the dusty track, scattering crusty goat faeces out of the trailer, it was getting near dinner time, so we called it a day.
We stripped off by the camper, and wandered up to the outdoor shower - a tank of water with a hose attached to the end. The tank would sit in the sun all day, which would heat up the water. It was refreshingly primitive, standing there showering, whilst watching the sun setting over the wooded mountains in the distance.
We went inside the house, to find a meal of goat burgers and what we later discovered to be Ann's signature dish: creamy mash potatoes with peas. To our surprise, the goat meat was incredibly tasty, very similar to that of lamb.
My two weeks on the farm were probably the healthiest weeks of my life so far. Ann and John are both very keen on buying solely organic produce, to avoid the genetically modified foods that have become common place in the U.S.A. They live mainly off their farm on a subsistence basis, using the milk from the goats to drink, as well as to make cheese and butter. The chickens, turkeys and goats provide them with meat to eat. They also have multiple vegetable patches, which gives them a pretty plentiful supply.
If everyone learnt to live like these guys, then carbon emissions would be almost non existent. They have 46 solar panels strewn across the hill above their house, which are linked up to a shed full of batteries. (These batteries used to be in their bedroom but got moved because they worried that the strong electromagnetic waves coming off the batteries were making them mutate!)
These batteries then power all of their needs, which are few. They barely ever turn lights on, because their house is full of windows and skylights. Any heating they need comes from burning logs in their stove, which they also cook on. If they need to cook when the stove isn't lit, then they have these efficient little induction stoves. They only use their internet and computer for about an hour a day. All of this means that they make do off just the power from the solar panels, even after a week of no sun in the winter.
We woke up early again. This time it was because of the light seeping through the thin, thready curtains, and the continuous cries of the roosters coming in through our open windows. We took a little wander around the farm, seeing all the wildlife scurrying about in the dim morning light.
Today was to be another day clearing out the goat pen.
The wind had picked up, meaning that the dusty soil we were shoveling was now coating our sweaty backs, the inside of our mouths and lungs - by the end of the day we looked like speckled eggs!
To help distract us from the work, the two guard dogs would come and slobber on our knees as we dug, as well as conveniently lying on our quad bike track, not moving no matter how close you drove to them. The dogs definitely provided us with some laughs though!
Ann and John didn't really eat lunch, somehow they manage to last all day on breakfast. This meant that for making lunch, Cam and I were left in the kitchen to concoct something vaguely edible. After yesterday's previous catastrophe, Cam wisely delegated the cooking to me. Raiding Ann's fridge, I managed to make some chicken pasta, which became our staple lunch for the next fortnight.
That evening, I made a plan to hike up to the summit of the mountain that the farm was on, for sunrise. Ann showed us videos of mountain lions tearing apart deers, that she had picked up on her wildlife cameras in the past few days. This removed any doubt we had about how dangerous the woods surrounding us were, and made us slightly terrified about the prospect of hiking by ourselves.
Strangely, it was a really cold night, getting down to nearly freezing point. In the camper, we still had all of our windows open, so when we woke up at 5:30 am, Cam turned to me and said:
"Jamie, I can't feel my feet mate"
I wasn't much better, but we went ahead with our plan anyway. We picked up John, and Nellie - one of the farm dogs. She had been up hundreds of times, and trotted along ahead despite the lack of any trail. Cam and I called her the polar bear, because of her extremely lengthy fur. She was ever elusive, and wouldn't let you get within a few meters of her.
We made it to the top, just as the sun was appearing over one of the mountain ranges.
We stayed up there for an hour, until we were all pretty numb. For the first time in weeks, the valley was clear of the smoke caused by the raging forest fires in Glacier Park. It was the first time John had ever been to the summit for sunrise, having lived there for 20 years, so it felt good to give him a new experience!
John told us about their tradition of adding a rock to their pile on top of the mountain every time they climbed it. This is the result:
I had given Cam a Harmonica as a bit of a late birthday present. He brought it up the mountain with him, and started serenading us, jigging about on the rocks.
We descended the mountain, and huddled in the house for a while, trying to regain feeling in our outer extremities.
Ann came in, slightly distraught. She gave us the news that her oldest goat, the last of her original goats, had died last night. He had lived a long life, to be 16 years old. We put our gloves on and went outside to deal with the body. It was strange seeing something so large and healthy looking completely lifeless. One person to a leg, the goat was still so heavy - Cam cracked a joke about 'Dead weight' that was fantastically inappropriate.
We laid the body down in the back of the pickup truck the head hanging out. Ann brought out her Jigsaw cutter, taking off the horns to save as a memory, marking the origins of the farm.
We shut up the pickup, and set off. It was a pretty solemn journey, sitting in silence as we bumped along the rocky track. Eventually we pulled up at a remote spot. We dragged Angus' limp body out of the truck and climbed down a steep bank into the woods. Carefully positioning him in a thick patch of brambles, we made sure that the corpse wouldn't be seen from the road.
Cam and I were both somewhat shocked by the brutality of this funeral, but after talking to Ann about the reasons behind it we understood more. She leaves the bodies for the mountain lions and coyotes to drag off deep into the woods, in order to aid the circle of life going on.
On our way back, we were all feeling slightly more cheery. We stopped at a natural spring, which had been Ann and Johns sole source of water for 5 years. They would come down every day with barrels to fill up. Even drinking it straight out of the ground for all those years, they never got sick.
Cam and I, both feeling like Lady Macbeth, tried to rid ourselves of the goat stench by drenching ourselves in the water spurting out of the ground. We drank gallons of it, soaking our faces as it splashed everywhere. It was so clean and cold, it felt great to get something straight from nature.
The next few days were all business, just Cam and I getting some serious tricep tone from the constant swinging of pitchforks and shovels. On a couple of mornings, we woke up early so that we could help milk the dairy goats. Ann gave us a quick demonstration, turning the udders into a dual fire hose torrent of milk. After some painstaking configuring of finger positioning, I worked out how to get some faint dribbles. It's a really tricky job, especially as the goats don't enjoy being poked, prodded and squeezed an awful lot!
On a few days, we had driven into town to pick up supplies for the farm. On our drives there and back, we would see the beautiful scenery that was spread out at the bottom of the mountains. One place that caught my eye was a lake that I could see off in the distance. As we drove past it, I asked John if we could pay it a visit at sunrise the next day.
It was another really early start, and Cam was less than keen to get out of bed. I remember giving an abnormally motivational speech about how it was worth it in the long run - how the temporary inconvenience of getting up early is heavily outweighed by the experience it brings. Whatever I said, it really clicked with him, so we got up and grabbed John.
Arriving down at the lake, we saw how smokey it still was. I accepted the fact that my hopes of a bright orange sunrise were gone, and settled into the idea of exaggerating the stillness of everything. The water was perfectly calm, and the thick smoke created an atmospheric blue haze.
We walked onto one of the pontoons, standing at the end staring out into the haze.
We waited for a while, sitting on the dock, to watch as the light passed through it's early morning stages. As we waited, a turtle popped up and splashed, the only sign of movement in the mirrored water.
I had been given a few sets of sunglasses from SunGod, to take photos of whilst we were out on our adventures in America. These sunglasses are tailored towards an active lifestyle - with lifetime warranty, and being manufactured from smart plastics the frames are flexible and indestructible. The shades are also fully customisable, so why don't you go and design a set yourself here!
I think the next day was a day off, as a reward for our work on the goat pen. John got out one of his hunting rifles, to give us a bit of target practice. Our makeshift target was a milk bottle, with a few rings drawn on the side. John took us to a clearing in the woods, where we set up our firing range. He warned us he hadn't shot a gun in a few years, so he might be a little rusty. On his first test shot, from 80 feet away, he obliterated the milk jug, an inch away from the bulls-eye. There was obviously some unspoken man to man competition going on here, so I fired off six shots, managing to land half of them on the jug. I felt this was a pretty acceptable performance for someone popping their rifle cherry!
Cam meanwhile seemed pretty intent on shooting every tree that surrounded the target.
We spent most of the rest of the day catching up on life back home and strumming on Ann's dusty guitar.
Our evenings with Ann and John were pretty chilled. After dinner, John would usually sit, bathed in blue light, in front of his aquarium tanks for an hour or so, watching as his fish flit about.
John is a massive music fan, and seems to know every detail about any song you can name. On the occasion that Ann get's to choose her music, she get's her guitar out, and strums or drums along.
A few days later, Cam and I were whisked off to Glacier National Park.
Read all about our mad adventures here.
Shockingly, Cam and I survived being left to fend for ourselves in the park, and were returned unharmed to the farm 5 days later. Back on the farm, we resumed work, but now we were collecting stacks of logs from the forest. For this, we had to weave our way through the trees with the quad bike. Cam, still being on his speed frenzy, drove us flat out through the trees, getting some serious air as we bounced over tree stumps. We reached a clearing in the woods, and Cam went for a sharp turn, taking us onto 2 wheels, nearly rolling the quadbike. Unfortunately for us, Ann had positioned a wildlife camera here, and got some pretty epic footage of us thrashing about her beloved ATV. Cam was given a pretty firm slap on the wrists, whilst he shamelessly tried to pretend it was an accident and that his finger got stuck on the throttle!
For collecting the wood, we devised a solid system. We would park the trailor near the stacks of wood, Cam would stand by the logs, and throw them to me, I would catch them and put them in the trailor. This was a pretty fun and efficient way of doing things, but had some inherent flaws, the main one being that if I didn't catch a log it would hit me and knock me out. Our system eventually failed when I caught a hefty log that Cam had hurled at me like a pro cricket bowler, and a piece of it buried deep into the palm of my hand.
Seeking medical attention, I went inside, with blood dripping from my hand. Ann just laughed and gave me a set of tweezers.
That evening, Ann taught us how to spin wool into yarn. It took a hell of a lot of persistence for us to even make a few inches of string, but after a lot of swearing we got the technique.
The following day was yet another day off for Cam and I. This also happened to coincide with Ann's spinning club, so somehow we ended up in the basement of the church surrounded by a ring of Kalispell's finest spinners, who were swooning over our accents, and surprisingly, admiring our pitiful spinning attempts. The rest of the day was spent trawling through thrift shops - bouncing on sofas, having wheelchair races and trying on hats.
Danii, one of the dogs, was getting to quite an old age. She didn't have seem to have any particular control over her bladder, much to the annoyance of Ann and her beloved carpet. Several death threats would be hurled at the dog daily. As it was our second last day, we took Danii, and ourselves on one final walk up to the summit.
On our final day, just before we left, I promised Ann I would take some photos of the little animals she makes out of cashmere and wool cloud. She makes these from a process called needle felting, basically stabbing a ball of wool over and over with a needle until it starts to take some sort of shape.
We were dropped off at Kalispell airport, and said a sad goodbye to Ann and John. It was one of the most unique experiences I have ever had, such a different lifestyle, that I had finally gotten used to.
Now we were flying back into the everyday life of L.A.
Support Pine Needle Farm by buying some incredibly soft, lovingly hand-spun cashmere wool from the best treated goats on the planet!