Photo by Ashley Breeding
It’s early autumn when I agree to write a “day in the life” story at Coverdale Farm Preserve, a sustainable farm operated by Delaware Nature Society and nestled on 377 acres alongside Wilmington’s bucolic Way Road. This is where I bring my 3-year-old daughter on Saturdays to cavort with cows and piglets and chickens, and to shop the local harvest. It’s a sunny place where the grass twinkles and the oak leaves sway in the soft breeze, and shrieks of laughter can be heard from children who come here to commune with nature.
Now it’s a late-fall morning; the sun has evidently slid into hibernation and the wind whips across the exposed hilltops. I’m here to help Coverdale manager Michele Wales and her farm assistant, Mindy Brown. It’s the week before Thanksgiving—turkey season—one of the busiest times of year for chores. I’ve dropped one glove somewhere on my commute between home and daycare and the farm, and my knuckles go numb before they even meet the biting air. I can tell these women are resilient. I zip my two jackets up to my chin, wipe away tears of sleet and prepare to play the part of hardy farm gal.
Today I’m thankful for our late start; it must feel frigid at the roosters’ first crow. Our first chore is to load old picnic tables onto a trailer, which warms our muscles for the second task: feeding the livestock. This is the one I’m most excited about—a sweet image in my mind of the kids scooping pellets into the pig pen as the snorty critters with their curly tails clumsily fall over one another in a race for the dish.
But then: “You see these waters?” Michele asks, pointing to two 5-gallon jugs hanging on chains from the beam. “We need to collect these from all seven poultry houses and refill them.” Running over our feet are about nine different breeds of chickens, identifiable by their beautiful distinctive colors and patterns. Up close, they look like little dinosaurs. We top off their feeders and load the empty water jugs into the back of the Kubota ATV we’re zipping around on, then move on to the turkey houses.
The moment I see the Orlopp Mammoth Bronze birds, I know I’ll be skipping the main dish this holiday. They’re nearly my size, and the males have iridescent blue feathers they fan out to let me know whose house it is. Those intimidated by my presence blush (you can tell a turkey feels calm when its face and wattle remain a pale blue, Michele tells me). They all come running, barking like dogs, when they hear the scoop hit their food pellets. The day they’re processed for Thanksgiving is an emotional one for Michele and Mindy, both will later tell me, but the birds have a purpose and they have had a good life.
We do this seven times—refilling bird feed and unhooking jugs, which we bring to the cow pasture to rinse out and refill with the hose. The wind feels wicked as it hits the wet spots on my jeans, and I’m ecstatic for my next chore—scrubbing poop from the young-chicken feeders—because the sink is in a barn closet. “Hot water, yeeee!”
Next we’re off to feed the flock of sheep. Hay bales are heavy, but those woolly critters are warm to hug, and we enjoy a good nuzzle. This is where I want to spend the rest of the day, but alas, I’m here to work.
Sixty gallons of water need to be rehung for the birds and 40-pound bags of seed delivered to their dens. This is where a clear distinction between them and me—farmers and snowflake—becomes apparent. I schlep two bags, but a third pulls me down to the ground with it. I think, my toddler weighs this much, why can’t I lift these? I watch Mindy effortlessly fling bag after bag over her shoulder, tossing each into the bed of the Kubota.
Noon hits, and I hit a wall. My muscles are tired, and I realize I should have made a buttery four-egg breakfast. There are no breaks on the farm today. It’s time to move the poultry houses. That’s right, hook those babies to a tractor, hop inside and slowly herd the birds onto new plots of fresh grass. Sounds easy, right?
If this were Kansas, it might’ve been. But here the acres sprawl across rolling hills. As the wood-frame houses drag across the ground, with them come unbudgeable clumps of earth and grass and corn husks. We constantly have to pull out the debris to keep from sticking while simultaneously moving the turkeys forward. My gloved hand can’t grip the earth; my bare hands are jabbed by blades of straw. We’re an hour behind—things rarely run according to schedule, Michele concedes—but have to stop short of the last house. Both women have other aspects of the job to tackle that afternoon.
I’m both disappointed and relieved to see the day end. It’s hard work, but it’s the kind of thing you build endurance for with practice, and you can’t put a price on working outside in nature, with nature, for the good of the community. I feel exhausted but accomplished. Like a sissy but strong. As I drive away, looking at the vast landscape hugged by grand maples and oaks, I wonder why I didn’t choose a career where I get to do this every day.
Coverdale Farm Preserve and Delaware Nature Society’s mission is to be a living classroom that connects people of all ages with the earth and to improve the environment through education. It also continues to adopt more sustainable methods of farming. For more information, visit delawarenaturesociety.org.