Sarah Nettleton – Farmer, shearer, teacher, mother, wife, daughter, community leader, runner = superwoman.
On Saturday, September 28th, I got to spend an incredible day in the small community of Arichat, which you can learn more about here. I traveled to Arichat to spend the day with a woman who I have heard about for years, but really only started to get to know since this summer, Sarah Nettleton. Sarah is the owner of Rockloaf farm; a mixed farm producing sheep, chickens, beef, pork, eggs and of course wool products. Sarah is also a sheep shearer and travels around shearing for many people around Cape Breton. She sells her products at the Port Hawkesbury and Arichat farmers’ markets as well as at the farm gate. Her farm originally belonged to her parents, and her mother still lives and works on the farm.
Sarah is also a wife and mother of 4 boys, as well as an instructor at a literacy agency. She is highly educated, brilliant, determined and extremely hard working. On top of everything else she likes to run, and that is where my Saturday started – 9AM at the starting line of the Martell-Richard mini marathon!
Cooling down in private.
Earlier in the week Sarah had suggested that I come to visit the farm and re-learn how to butcher chickens, something I hadn’t done in over 20 years, the race was an afterthought! But I figured why not? If Sarah can do 10km and then butcher chickens I should be able to do 5km no trouble. My only goal in the race was not to be overtaken by the walkers and I am proud to say that I was successful in that but I won’t reveal my time here!
After cooling down in my car, away from the ever-energetic children who are there to make the rest of the crowd feel old, I went down to the waterfront to check out the farmers market. It was fantastic; lots of veggies, happy people, music, dancing, pottery, baking and a good selection of prepared foods. I even found lots to eat despite being on my 100% local diet at the time! I can’t wait to go again!
After the market I had time for a brief drive around Arichat and a few minutes to chat with Sarah before heading to the barn. Between her efforts and those of some neighbours it seems that this tiny community has a lot going for it in terms of food security. I saw several signs on people’s doors advertising eggs for sale and even found one farm stand although it wasn’t open at the time. Also, this community has a lot of fishing and a large fish processing plant that burnt a few months ago but will be rebuilt this winter.
Sarah and I got to the barn ahead of the others and began getting things prepared for the butchering session. We filled up barrels with clean water and she disinfected all surfaces and containers with Javex. I had a chance to look around the barn; very neat. She has a type of double floor system designed so that the area where the sheep are kept is raised up leaving a 4′ or so high space under the floor for the pigs to live. This space has a dirt floor and all the hay and grain that falls through gets processed by the pigs, along with the other farm waste they are fed such as vegetable scraps. Every few years they remove all the build up of compost that results from this system.
After the rest of the family and one farm hand arrived the real work got underway. Watching the family move and work together was really quite fascinating. Everyone knows exactly what they should be doing, from the youngest son grabbing the chickens out of the pen to Sarah’s mother Martha who invariably shows up with the right knife, clean rag or bucket of water just before anyone becomes aware that they need it. I became very aware of the knowledge transfer that happens over years of perfecting certain skills and processes. Farmers need to have tremendous amounts of knowledge tucked away in order to be successful at what they are doing I think.
I tried to keep up with the plucking as well as my 25 year old rustiness would allow. I didn’t venture too far out of my skill level since more than anything I didn’t want to mess up the works. Paul, Sarah’s husband, offered to let me cull the chickens, but I was afraid I would mess it up and cause them undue pain. Maybe next time I’ll have a bit more confidence after doing my small part this time, especially now that I know the routine!
I must admit that this was much more arm and shoulder exercise than I am used to! By the end of the 31st chicken my arms and shoulders were stiff! (Even more so than my legs from the morning run!) I was quite glad to be brought into the warmth of Martha’s farm house and fed a delicious meal with all local ingredients before returning to the now cooled chickens to bag them and freeze them.
Once the chickens were in the freezer and everything was cleaned up it was time for everyone to head home and end the day…. until the neighbour called.
3 sheep had been spotted down on another road a few miles away from the farm. We jumped in cars and trucks, grabbed a sheep dog and headed down the road. It was so exciting I couldn’t go home or even stay in the car I had hopped into! When we found the sheep I stuck close to Sarah as she first attempted to drive them deep into the woods to settle them in for the night and then when the sheep disagreed with that plan, we ran behind them as one car was leading the way in the front and one was keeping other cars at bay behind us. We laughed that this was our 2km late day sheep run.
Once the sheep were behind the fence we could all breath a little easier and finally it was the end of the day. We ended up back at Sarah’s at 8:30PM; her husband had dinner ready; she told him she was sorry for being late, “I was off playing Little Bo Peep.” He nodded an all too well knowing nod. This is life as a farmer, life as a super hero.
Settling into bed that night several hours later, I realized that I felt fantastic, tired and sore but with that content feeling that I did something worthwhile with my day. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t farm. I really hope that I get to spend more time in the future with Sarah and her family; I’m sure that if I hang out with her more I will also be able to develop super hero strength and confidence of my own. This was the highlight of September for me.