The last couple hours of my train ride, I couldn’t help but simply stare out at the beautiful scenery of Tyrol—the beautiful mountains and the farm-filled valleys kept me in awe of this creation and so thankful that my dream was coming true. And I still can’t believe that I live in this country!
The farmeress (as she will henceforth be known) and her daughter picked me up at the train station and drove me back to the village through a steep mountain pass. In the car, she mentioned how other helpers on the farm are always surprised at what hard work it is on the farm. As she emphasized this a couple of times, I took the hint about the hard work ahead, and I assured her as I had on the phone: I’m honestly looking forward to manual labor! Then she said something that really stood out to me: Some people, she said, go out and climb mountains or mountain bike or so some otherwise outdoorsy activity just to get the same feeling that she gets by working on her farm. And what’s more—that feeling doesn’t even come close to the enjoyment and satisfaction of a good day’s work on your own farm.
A Goat called Ziege: Ziege [German for goat] thinks she’s a dog. As I stepped out of the farmhouse, the first thing I noticed was a goat seated on the steps of the neighboring building. [This was highly amusing to me, but later I would find Ziege in various funny places around the farm, like standing on the bench outside the front door or, say, trying to get into my room in the sleeping stable.] After unloading the car, we stood around front talking and Ziege came over. First she approached the farmeress, who petted her. I’d never touched a goat, but petting one seemed reasonable enough. Next, Ziege approached me. Like a dog—JUST like a dog—she rested her head up against my leg…So I pet her and scratched her behind the ears like a dog. She nuzzled me some more. So I pet her some more. When I stopped giving her attention, she pressed her head up against my leg. If that yielded no results, she dug her horns into my thigh until I was forced to move—then she thought the game was on. She’d playfully approach as if to butt, but she never actually made contact. This was Ziege’s form of play: acting big and tough as if to come up and butt you, but in the end you find yourself just wrestling her like a dog. And the best part: her stump of a tail starts to wag when she thinks she gets to play! It was endearing at first—this dog in a goat’s body—but then she didn’t really know when to quit. And the horns tended to get in the way. They poked. They prodded. They hurt. I was finally tipped off that Ziege is afraid of water, and for the remainder of my stay there, all I had to do if she got too needy or rambunctious was to put a water bottle in my hand; the mere sight of a water bottle would put a safe 20 feet between us and allow my thighs to recover from the horn punctures. She really thought she was a house goat, and she simply couldn’t understand why they never let her in the house.
It was soon obvious that Ziege took an extraordinary liking to me. Even the family said she’d taken to no other guest like she’d taken to me. She was my first sight when I came down in the morning and my last sight before going to bed at night. Ziege would follow me around, even coming down the drive if I were to try and take a walk at night.
Perhaps I missed my calling. Perhaps I should have been a goat herder.
The Bugs: The lowest form of farm life. Not that I’ve been to many farms, but how could I forget about the flies? And the mosquitoes! Why didn’t I think to being bug spray?! And the ticks! Why, oh why, didn’t I get that tick vaccination?!
Day Two, or The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back:
One of the most unique experiences of every day on the farm was our Tyrolean Farmer Breakfast. It was a Müsli that the farmeress had invented—a healthy and hearty breakfast to give you all the vitamins and minerals you’d need for a jump start to your day. Our daily breakfast was a sort of carrot and fruit “muesli” if you will: grated carrots with a tablespoon full of linseed oil (as it is apparently common knowledge here that your body can’t absorb the vitamins in carrots without the fat in oil…have you guys ever heard of this?!), a grated apple, a sliced up banana, a sliced melon, a few raisins thrown into the mix, and a handful of fresh herbs from the garden to top it all off. Mix and eat. It was a strange thing to eat at first…and later too, I suppose…but despite the strange combination of fruits and veggies and oil for breakfast, you did get the sense that at least you were eating something very healthy that day…
After breakfast I was taken up to the herb garden and shown what needed to be harvested. I’ve never spent much time in gardens and I know absolutely nothing about herbs. So after demonstrating the proper picking and cutting techniques for the herbs I was to gather, I was left with several baskets and a pair of scissors and expected to bring in the herbs. I spent the next couple of hours out in the herb garden; sometimes it felt like a scavenger hunt to try and find a patch of the next herb. But, sadly, the most eye-opening thing about the experience was how many shapes, sizes, and colors of new hearty mountain bugs I saw.
After lunch I was sent to go help with the hay harvest. I was warned that it was the most strenuous part of the job and was told to put on my grippiest-soled shoes.
With a flat, short-toothed wooden rake in hand, I went out to the field on the mountainside where the grasses had been cut. The first thing I learned about the hay harvest is that hay is nothing in particular—it’s no particular grass, no particular mix of flora…simply the grasses growing in the field which are then cut, dried, and later fed to livestock. Most of the fields are mowed with a machine, but in the steepest areas they are mowed by hand. On the field where we were harvesting, the grasses had already been mowed and allowed some time to dry; our task was to turn the hay with the rakes so that the undersides were exposed to the sun and also allowed to dry.
Proper hay-turning technique was explained to me several times, and I set to work. It was surprisingly awkward to take the rake and grab a bunch of grass and flip it up into the air, tossing like a pancake in a frying pan. I needed constant tips on the most efficient raking and turning methods, and although it seemed to make sense in my head, somehow the neurons firing up there couldn’t get the information to really synchronize with my motor skills. It was such a simple task, but it was surprisingly difficult to get the hang of!
Parts if the harvest were on such steep grades of the mountainside that it hurt simply to stand there, let alone move around. The turning of the hay seemed to take forever, but that was only the first step. Next, if the incline is gentle enough, the machine can sort the loose grasses into rows of hay that can then be harvested; our job was to come along and rake the hay the machine had missed back into those rows. This was tedious work, and although the take was simply to rake a field, I discovered that I had difficulty even doing this efficiently.
Finally, after they hay had been dried, turned, and raked into rows, the machine would come back for the final step and collect the hay. The machine used for this task looked like a large truck, and it would drive over the rows of hay and scoop it into the truck bed area in the back; our final task was to rake behind the machine and collect the extra hay that the machine had missed, rake it into piles, and then put into the truck by hand. This was perhaps the most fast-paced and stressful task of all, since it seemed impossible for me to keep up with the machine.
After 4 hours of the harvest, I had to take a break. I’d started strong and not taken any breaks, but after 4 hours my feet were killing me and I was trying to avoid irritating the one (only one!) blister from raking, and I was longing to stand on level ground. I now realized how much hard work it was—it’s not complicated work, but you’re constantly battling gravity on steep hillsides, constantly using your arms and your legs (even while standing still on those steep grades!), and working in the sun…this combination would make anyone tired! Well, any non-mountain-farmer. I realized for the first time that farm work simply never ends; no matter how quickly you work, as soon as you finish a task, there’s always something else to be done, sunup to sundown. And for the meager amount of money that a farm brings in, it can only be a true love of the work and the land that keeps you going.