This for That | The Farmer’s Life: Dispatches from Chickadee Farm in Craftsbury, Vermont

In rural communities, the value of something can take many forms.

By Julia Shipley

Oct 04 2017

Photo Credit : Julia Shipley

Wanna buy a cow? Page through any issue of Agriview—Vermont’s slender newsletter with a crop of want ads at the back, de rigueur reading for the agriculturally inclined—and you’ll find oodles of cash-for-livestock opportunities. For example: “Certified organic jersey for sale. 1st calf heifer—bred, due October 24th, polled, halter broke, nice-looking animal.”

For the uninitiated, a “1st calf heifer” is the bovine equivalent of a woman who is pregnant with her first child (a cow isn’t considered a “cow” until she’s delivered her second child, so to speak). In the mammalian world, delivering offspring is what starts the lactation process. But in the dairy industry, milk production and sweet temperament are not necessarily synonymous, so a proven milker is often preferable to a newbie.And “polled” means no horns.


Gonna need some hay? There’s that, too: “1st small squares. $4/bale at barn. 4×4 round bales, string tied and stored under plastic.” Again, some terminology: “1st” means the first cut of hay, which is a coarse hay, full of fiber—kind of like our breakfast of shredded wheat. Second cut, also known as rowen, is a more lush, rich crop (I heard one farmer describe it as the Ben and Jerry’s of animal feed).

Procuring a herd or a hayload through Agriview is a reliable way of obtaining whatever might be needed in a farmer’s life, but there are other means, too. Once, I traded a bred heifer for a winter’s worth of hay. The transaction worked like this: In September, my neighbor Neil, who desired a milk cow, hitched his tractor to a wagonload of square bales of rowan and chugged six miles over to my place. Then he and I promptly unloaded this bounty into my barn’s mow. There is nothing so comforting, so assuring, to someone who tends a ruminant as having a barn full of hay.

A month later, I followed through on my part of the bargain. Two weeks before Halloween, I called Neil and said, “OK, we’re headed out. See you in an hour.” Then I strode over to the barn to fill a rubber bucket with grain. Next, I lifted the halter off the hook and applied it to Tinker, my 2-year-old Jersey cow. I looped it behind her ears and secured it over her muzzle and held the lead rope in my hand. I opened her gate and led her forward using my “carrot” of a grain-filled bucket. Thus we emerged from the barn and started uphill toward the road.

I’d raised Tinker since she was a calf, a calf I’d also bartered for. I’d earned her and another calf, Penny, by doing Sunday evening chores at a local dairy farm for the better part of a year in exchange for knowledge and possession of these two sleek, weaned calves. The duo were about the size of poodles by the time I hauled them home in the back of my Subaru and then led them one at a time into my barn. In the year and a half of their residency with me, they’d quadrupled in size, grazing on pasture throughout summer and fall, then consuming hay bale after hay bale during the six months or so of winter. I’d bred them and, in doing so, theoretically doubled my herd, as each animal now harbored a growing calf—a calf that, once born, would render its mother a milker. I was trading Tinker, a bred, preg-checked-and-confirmed, polled, first-calf heifer, who was springing an udder and on the verge of “freshening” (giving birth), in order to ensure I’d have a winter’s worth of hay for Penny, who wasn’t due to freshen till the spring.

The bane of accountants, bartering is a common means of meeting wants and needs in my neck of the woods. Indeed, my village’s first property taxes, back in the late 1700s, were paid with bushels of grain. Later, town leaders did switch over to potent but inedible dollars and cents; however, much of the populace still makes arrangements to exchange goods and services while their wallet gently sleeps. I have traded my organic potatoes for a cordless drill; swapped my grass-fed meat for a friend’s bread and cheese; baked an apple pie in exchange for a borrowing a truck; offered my labor loading and unloading hay bales as a way of paying for a take-home portion of that crop. I once spent a winter tutoring the sons of a mechanic—two rascally boys—in grammar and composition in exchange for a new set of snow tires (mounted and balanced).

Quid pro quo, a former college professor disparaged my exchanges: This for that, implying that my arrangements might be manipulations rather than mutually beneficial agreements. And, yes, some of the transactions I’ve been a part of were not entirely satisfying. At first, I was pretty happy bringing my copy of the Barton Chronicle to some neighbors after I was finished reading it and trading it for their latest issue of the Hardwick Gazette. “Changing papers” was a common practice among many rural neighbors in the 1800s. But I let the barter expire when I realized that I would have to subject myself to some salty comments every time I showed up at their door.

Nevertheless, bartering my bulging cow Tinker for a great sum of high-quality hay was the best kind of trade. Even Tinker seemed to think so, for she came right along, never balking or grinding to an intractable halt along those miles of dirt road we traversed to meet up with her new owner. In fact, she seemed to prance the long stretch of road that passed between open fields as we pitched steadily uphill, as if she knew she was headed for a happy destiny.

She kept a brisk pace, and now, two miles in, we hung a right onto Seaver Brook Road and plodded down that maple-shaded lane past the Youngs’ farm. Then, on the verge of our third mile, just down the hill and over the little bridge by Conrad Masse’s place, we caught sight of Neil and his pregnant wife coming to meet us. At the same moment I’d left my farm, they too, had departed theirs, and here we all were, at the sweet spot in any barter: at the exact halfway point. I handed over the lead rope to Neil and gave the bucket of grain to his wife. And then, our barter complete, we each turned back the way we came.

If my arms seemed lonely and empty on the walk back, they were full every morning for the next six months, when I’d tug down a bale of fragrant hay and carry it over to Penny, my polled, first-calf heifer who was by then showing signs of freshening. And not long after, I was at it again. I got some lessons in the proper way to handle a chainsaw, paid for with two gallons of Penny’s milk.


Julia Shipley is the author of three poetry chapbooks and most recently a prose collection, Adam’s Mark: Writing from the Ox House, supported by a 2010-2011 Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant and published by Plowboy Press.