You know those picturesque New England paintings of a ship captain wearing that stereotypical hat, with a big white beard, who doesn’t say much but you can just tell he knows an awful lot?
That man is Bill Thayer. And Bill Thayer not only has a magnificent white beard, but he also has a beautiful farm in Gouldsboro.
Ok, so he might not be a ship captain, but together with his wife Cynthia, a farm manager and two apprentices, they run Darthia Farm.
There’s a long, dirt road that leads up to the farm itself. Surrounded by fields and woods, the place is fairly isolated. There is a main barn, some out buildings, two hoop houses, the farmhouse, a farm store, and probably other buildings I’m forgetting to list. What I’m getting at is that there is quite the operation being run here.
Farm Name: Darthia Farm
Operated by? Bill and Cynthia Thayer
Primary goods: Produce (SO much produce), lumber, fiber, canned goods, (i.e. jams, jellies, vinegars), rhubarb (Ok, so rhubarb isn’t primary, but it was exciting that they had it.) Christmas goods
Sell to the public? Yes
My personal favorite part of the farm: The sheep. I’m a complete sucker for sheep.
Most interesting part of the farm: The fact that horses are used to do more work than the tractor
Now, it’s absolutely no secret to anyone that I am a sheep fanatic. It made my day to be greeted by fourteen sheep: Nine lambs and five ewes.
There’s some math here that I’m sure to botch, because as Bill told me, there is one ewe (wait, what’s a ewe? It’s a female sheep, ‘course.) who is successfully nursing her triplets. Bill also informs me this is not common, usually you see twins, or perhaps a ewe will have triplets and only be able to nurse two. This ewe just happens to be super mom.
Some quick sheep facts:
1. It is not uncommon for sheep to have multiple births.
2. You can have a ewe with both a black lamb and a white lamb.
3. Mathematically, if Bill has nine lambs and five ewes… and at least one has triplets, and another has twins, I think… I think that means one ewe didn’t have a lamb this year.
Ewe: Female sheep
Ram: Male, uncastrated sheep
Wether: Male, castrated sheep
So why sheep? Well, I have a personal hunch that Bill just plain ol’ likes them. But aside from that, the farm store holds weekly fiber classes, and the wool is sold from the sheep. (Who were sheared not long before I’d arrived there.)
Bill’s sheep are mutts, which is beneficial in terms of hardiness and variety, I’m told, but also because they tend to have less genetic problems. An average sheep will produce about a ten pound fleece.
For those of you unaware of the process of… processing wool, it is incredibly labor-intensive and easy to mess up. There is an extraordinary amount of oil in the fleece, which must be washed, but not agitated or else it will felt and ruin the entire fleece. It’s a smelly, messy, long process, but the end-result is beautiful fiber for spinning.
Sheep, depending on the variety, are extremely multi-functional. You can, feasibly, get meat and fiber out of one animal. They’re very handy, and they also are high-rate reproducers, as it’s not (as we discussed before) unheard of to get twins and triplets.
Aside from sheep, as far as livestock goes, Bill keeps about a dozen chickens, and currently has six bovines: Two babies, about two months old, two yearling steers, and two adult cows, and also has three equines: Gus, the 29-year old NOT retired Haflinger pony who has the heart of a lion, and two Fjord ponies.
The ponies do the work around the place, plowing, hauling logs, driving carts. Things a tractor would do.
Bill has a tractor. It’s green, and sitting dormant about forty feet from the sheep barn. Here is a summation of our tractor conversation:
(Please note, this bit of my interview really hit home for me, when you realize that not everything is about efficiency and money.)
Me: So I see there’s a tractor over there…
Me: What’s the point of using the horses for all the work?
Bill: Well, tractors can be expensive, you can easily spend twenty thousand on a tractor, so horses are more cost efficient for me. And more fun.
Me: But vet bills and food…
Bill: Well, I guess. But you can’t hug a tractor.
Sold. Put a fork in me, I’m done, the guy’s melted me.
But really, Bill does use the tractor for small garden patches the horses can’t easily maneuver around. He says, “You drove past a pretty good-sized hay field down there. That used to be entirely forest. I had some people come clear it, they even paid me for the stumpage rights, and then I worked it with the horses.” The man is old school, and he is successful at it. He even predicts that working the land with horses will make a come back, and insists that it makes the most sense.
He even uses the horse manure mixed with crab waste as fertilizer. It’s easy to underestimate just how much one animal can contribute to the workings of a farm.
We walk through the farm store and although it’s not quite up and running for the season, Bill explains that they sell all sorts of jam, jelly, vinegar and other canned and processed goods right in the store. There is shelving from floor to ceiling, and tables everywhere. You can tell when it’s in full-swing, the place is stocked.
And EVERYTHING is made on-site.
Not only do they sell things in the store, it also hosts a weekly fiber meeting where people gather and create goods from wool.
After touring through the certified kitchen and farm store, I get a peek at the veggies and herbs that are grown at Darthia. Bill lets me wander about a bit.
I notice the hoophouse is surrounded by rhubarb. I have gone to heaven; Rhubarb is the leafy form of my happiness. There is also an enormous herb garden right in front of the greenhouse which has been well-maintained and produces almost everything Cynthia uses in her kitchen.
Cynthia Thayer (Who wrote “Strong for Potatoes,”) tells me that they have not bought any vegetables in thirty years. Bill says they only buy lettuce in the winter, and the rest is stored in a root cellar or in the form of preserves.
Because that was one of my big questions: I want to buy vegetables locally, but how can I do that during the winter? Bill’s solution is to can and freeze as much as possible, and make tomato sauce with the rest. (“We started out with 100 cans of pasta sauce this winter, and now we have thirty, you’d be amazed at how versatile it is.”)
The hoophouse was looking pretty green when I took a peek:
Bill is a fairly quiet man. At least as he was touring me around, he let me talk a fair amount, and really kept his words quite concise, but you can just tell that he loves what he does. He looks around at the farm in the same way a proud parent looks at a child.
He is seventy-five and he works every day with his hands to create an amazing amount of goods from his own soil. It’s inspiring, really.
He showed me the tiny, incredibly hot hot-house that is used for starting seedlings. He stood back and just watched me take photos, all the while explaining that everything is started from seeds right here.
So what did I get as an overall impression from this farm?
This is not only about making a living and selling goods, but it is a statement. Not only does Bill truly care for his animals, and know them, but he respects the hard work it takes to create something worthwhile. On top of this, he is from a generation that knows how to do things. He makes his own carts for the horses from recycled materials, and plows fields with a pair of Fjord ponies. If that doesn’t scream hard work and dedication, I’m not sure what does.
What makes the biggest impression on me?
Well, the biggest impression was that I got to spend a couple of hours with someone who very obviously has a passion for what he does, and a wealth of knowledge. He was very willing to share it with me, and to let me explore on my own. He truly loves what he does, and seems to relish the work instead of describe in detail just how hard it is. They say that if a man can find a job that he loves, it is no longer a job but a way of life.