Elmore Mountain Farm

One Vermont couple turns a run-down farm into the love of their lives.

by Dani Yokhna
Hobby farmers Peter and Bunny Merrill hold their goat in front of a red barnPhoto courtesy Peter Merrill

About 10 years ago, after years of driving back and forth to northern Vermont for weekends and vacations, my wife, Bunny, and I finally got up the nerve to pull up our suburban roots. We’d thought about the move for a long time, and we had a pretty good idea about what we wanted: space, mostly. Space to be outdoors with our kids and to have a vegetable garden and some animals.

We bought an old farm from the estate of a 96-year-old woman who’d lived there for almost six decades. Good karma, we thought. The place was a mess, and we slept on the screened-in porch that first summer while we fixed up the house and shored up the barn. We’d never be bold enough to call ourselves farmers, but we jumped into farm life with both feet: Honey bees, apple trees, goats, donkeys, berries, grapes, a rabbit, and enough zucchini and cucumbers to sustain a small army. We were very ambitious.

Despite our best efforts and intentions, the bees swarmed, deer girdled the apple trees, the donkeys bullied the goats, the goats ate the grapes, and the poor rabbit didn’t make it through the first winter. We refocused our efforts: got more bees, replanted the apple trees and returned the donkeys to the farm from which they had come. For Christmas that first year, I gave Bunny two baby Pygmy goats. The weekend before, our sons and I had filled two small crates with straw and gone to pick them up. The male goat had just been neutered, and on the ride home, I told the boys about the birds and the bees. This pleased Bunny almost as much as the goats did.

We named the Pygmy goats Bud and Genny, for Budweiser and Genesee, because they looked like little beer kegs. Together with our two Oberhasli goats, Lucy (named for the prior farm owner) and Helen, they doubled our “herd” to four. That same winter, we borrowed a handsome young buck named Jacques to breed Helen and Lucy. After they kidded the following spring, we began milking them, and we experimented with making cheese and soap. Our cheese looked like latex caulk and tasted worse, but our goat’s-milk soap was pretty good. We gave it away to friends and put it in Christmas stockings along with the jams, jellies and dilly beans we’d made from the garden. We began selling our soap in a few local stores, and pretty soon our kitchen, the spare room upstairs and finally the garage were overrun with curing bars of fragrant soap.

Somehow, goats seem to get a bad rap. The old adage about fencing goes: “If it won’t hold water, it won’t hold a goat,” and it certainly seems to ring true when one of our Pygmy goats has just finished clear-cutting my blueberries, but generally speaking, goats are easy to keep and give back far more than they demand with their quirky personalities and peaceful demeanors. Each night before bed, we shut them in for the evening and spend a few minutes nuzzling with them, scratching their heads and enjoying the smell of their warm hay-breath.

Bunny and I work well together. She loves taking care of the animals and making soap. I’ve enjoyed creating the artwork for our packaging and marketing our products in the local area. Every year, my vegetable garden gets a little bit bigger. Our scale is modest, which is how we like it. Our farm and our labors support us in ways that go well beyond our fragile bottom line. If they somehow allow us to live the way we want to and to do what we love, that will be enough.

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This article originally appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Hobby Farms.

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