A small farm, whether intended for profit or pleasure, requires round-the-clock maintenance. Intimately in sync with the rhythm of your livestock, crops and daily routine, you may find it difficult to leave your operation for an extended period of time. However, many farmers today can arrange family trips and vacations once thought impossible through the invaluable assistance of a farm sitter, allowing farmers the freedom to leave their property for more than a few days while preserving their peace of mind.
Erica Frenay, manager of the Northeast Beginning Farmer Project at Cornell University and owner of Shelter Belt Farm outside of Ithaca, N.Y., felt anxious about leaving her familyâ€™s 28 acres for the first time. Frenay and her family raise sheep, turkeys and pigs, and they planned a trip to reunite with friends in Portland, Ore., one spring, dangerously close to the time their breeding stock of ewes were scheduled to deliver.
“There are so many things that could go wrong,â€ť Frenay says. “You donâ€™t know what you donâ€™t know until you are gone, and we havenâ€™t left the farm for more than a two- or three-day period.â€ť
Fortunately, she hired a farm sitter who had prior experience working with her family and farm. Frenay built a relationship with her sitter over nine years, and she felt her farm would remain prudently managed in her absence.
“Just because you have a farm doesnâ€™t mean you are stuck there forever,â€ť Frenay says. “Itâ€™s so important to get away, whether for learning or relaxingâ€”you just have to be an intentional planner.â€ť She advises only hiring a sitter who has experience working with the specific livestock species raised on your farm and having live training sessions to ensure the sitter has considered every possible circumstance, even unlikely emergencies, that could arise while youâ€™re away. The farm sitter needs to know how to contact the veterinarian and monitor signs of distress or illness in livestock.
Trust Is Key
All the preparation in the world doesnâ€™t guarantee that a sitter will do what you ask. Now a rancher in Arizona, Susan Dedrick-Shuford once returned to her small Indiana farm after a long weekend to find her dogsâ€™ water bowls empty. The farm doesnâ€™t lieâ€“farmers will notice signs of a negligent sitter upon their return. Today, she works with someone dependable who regularly oversees the care of several dogs, horses and free-range chickens at her remote ranch near the Mexico border.
While trust and experience are essential qualities for a farm sitter, Dedrick-Shuford emphasizes the value of communication, too. When sheâ€™s away from the farm, she knows when her sitter is checking on the ranch through text messages.
When hiring a farm sitter (be they part-time or full time), Lily Marie Plasse, owner of Barnyards and Backyards Farm Sitting Services in Troy, N.H., encourages farmers to consider hiring someone who offers sitting services as a business with insurance. In addition to running her own hobby farm, Plasse oversees as many as three farms at one time, often separated by long distances and involving several visits a day. As a sitter, she performs basic upkeep including livestock and pet feeding, brushing, milking goats, administering medications, and other routine duties. Some of her clients travel as often as every month for work or pleasure.
“People still want to have a life and be able to travel, and most people who do have a hobby farm also work outside the farm,â€ť Plasse says. “Having a farm, itâ€™s tough to ask your neighbor to do everything if you have different animals, and you donâ€™t have the option of a kennel.â€ť
She stresses that farm owners should write every instruction or detail down either on paper or electronically, including dietary regimens, livestock turn-out schedules and veterinary contact information. She conducts a meet-and-greet with every client and asks that they leave out equipment and place feed in assigned areas for a fluid check-in.
“Do your homework and find somebody who is experienced, insured and does their work professionally,â€ť Plasse says. “Ask as many questions as you can, and the farm sitter should be able to answer all of them.â€ť
Narrow Your Search
If youâ€™re not sure where to start your search for a farm sitter, many online resources, including www.farmsitterusa.com, are available to assist with finding a farm sitter. Here are some tips to a successful search.
When seeking out a farm sitter, reach out to fellow farmers in the area or your local veterinarianâ€™s office for recommendations. When considering a farm sitter for hire, ask for a veterinarianâ€™s reference and a reference from a previous client.
Discuss and Agree On Compensation In Advance
Many professional farm sitters will have set rates and might charge extra for some services.
Conduct a Live Walk-Through
Especially if itâ€™s your first time working with a farm sitter, insist on hosting a live walk-through or training session. During this session, the farm sitter should ask many questions about your farm, and you should ask many questions about the sitterâ€™s experience. If you have a particular type of livestock needing care, ask the farm sitter about specific experiences working with that animal. Be as specific as possible and donâ€™t hesitate to interview several sitters before deciding on the correct individual.
Put Care Information In Writing
Before you leave, make sure your farm sitter has as much information as possible in written and electronic forms. Sit down and write out detailed instructions. All information regarding medication and nutrition should be in written form. If youâ€™ve hired a good farm sitter, he or she will take notes, too.
Discuss Safety and Biohazards
Safety should be the highest priority while youâ€™re away. Does the farm sitter know how to reach the veterinarian? Do they know who to contact in case an animal escapes? Is there a plan in place in case of severe weather? The sitter should have instructions to direct them in every situation.
To reduce biohazard risks, make sure the sitter knows to bring decontaminated equipment and attire, such as clean muck boots, to work on the farm. Donâ€™t forget to talk about the farm sitterâ€™s safety, too. If a horse displays behaviors that might endanger the farm sitter, make sure the sitter is aware of those characteristics. Make sure the farm sitter is aware of equipment dangers around the farm.
Establish a Relationship
Finally, if the farm sitterâ€™s work has impressed you, foster a long-term relationship with that sitter. Build rapport and trust so when you need someone to step in during a family emergency, you know you have a friend, not just a sitter, who you can call upon.
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About the Author: Elizabeth Troutman Adams is a public-relations specialist and freelance writer based in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. In addition to gardening, cooking and homesteading, she loves riding horses, practicing yoga, and spending time with her French bulldog Linus and husband Shawn.