Bleak. The farm is quiet. Dead quiet. Erie. It is missing its life. Our life.
Normally we would be preparing for our morning routine. Horses out to the field (or for the last two days – the yard). Make rounds, check on everyone. Grab a saw and head to the woods to cut down trees for fresh browse for the ruminants. Move the rabbit tractor, feed, and water the chickens. Fill stock tanks. The normal, morning routine… But, not today.
I slept hard for about 30 minutes last night, but Chris wasn’t sleeping well either and his snoring woke me. After that, my brain just swirled and replayed yesterday’s horrific events over and over again. I wasn’t surprised, at all, that they came. But the strength of the force was shocking. It seemed like the entire Sheriff’s office and even a couple of State Troopers. Many didn’t stay long. Maybe they were expecting a shoot out or some resistance on my part. But I just stood there in stunned silence trying to piece together the events that led up to this and praying their “visit” would be short. Of course, that wasn’t to be. They arrived sometime after 3 PM.
We had literally just gotten home from a feed run and were sitting in the driveway planning out a temporary solution to the pasture fencing issue when they came screeching up the driveway, a dozen cars blocking us. Armed with a search warrant based on the assurance from someone (my neighbor) that there was criminal neglect here and (coincidentally) my neighbor’s veterinarian, they demanded to see the horses and to collect any and all records I have of their care. There were, of course, some goats in the yard, so they drew attention too. According to them, nothing was right. The horses were all grazing on fresh grass – but there was no hay. Their water bucket was low (it was the usual time to fill it), but they insisted it was empty and upside down. Three escape artist goats who took advantage of the flood-damaged fence to go on a trek down the road (fortunately across the front of our property) had been locked in a small holding pen so we could safely run those errands. Eryn had gone down and cut trees down for the goats and brought some branches up for the escapees to hold them over. There was water in their pen. Everything was muddy. It had been raining now for days with extensive flooding at the outset. Our brand new goat momma and her two kids (one adopted) were wandering the yard grazing as well.
The investigator, neighbor’s vet and a few deputies marched into the yard, demanded halters and leads and started looking over the horses. The remaining deputies hung back and kept an eye on us. The goats in immediate proximity were next, then the rest. They left the deputy holding Midnight (who was hard to catch) – for the entire visit, knowing that they were intending all along to seize the animals. They then went on a search of the property. Of course, they found our mulch pile – dubbed affectionately by them as the “bone yard.” Which is how they relayed it to Commonwealth’s attorney who immediately shrieked over the radio at the horror and insisted they seize all animals on the property so loudly we could all hear it. It was, of course, the expected and intended outcome. They knew this was going to happen and came prepared. They already had the trucks and trailers on standby nearby.
The whole thing was a setup. They came locked and loaded. Ready for a fight. Ready to seize. Before they ever set eyes on anything.
Sadly, this event was a year and a half in the making and it’s a long story all on its own. I’ll try to condense it.
We moved here in January 2018, with the dream of starting a farm school. A dream of helping teens prepare better for life and escape the drudgery of learning disconnected facts while sitting at a desk. And we moved during one of the coldest, wettest Januarys on record. Charles City’s weather was even worse than Culpeper’s. And, January was the only month we had to pull it off – moving a household and a farm. We made the 2-hour trek every day, each way. Loaded 7,000+ lbs on our big trailer, drove, unloaded (sometimes in the middle of the night), slept a couple of hours and did it all again. Every. Single. Day. A couple of times, we made the trip twice.
Towards the end of the month, we had to take some time on the new farm to get ready for the animals. There was no fencing on this property, but we did have a great big barn and we set up separate temporary corrals with barn access – one for the sheep and goats and one for the horses. The chickens had a coop to move into. We were as ready as we could be. We brought the animals down and got everyone settled in. Of course, while we were back at the old house, loading the trailer, one of the horses found a weakness in the paddock and led an escape—the whole herd visited the neighbor. He and our new fence guy corralled them. They both called us. Chris jumped in the car and drove two hours to deal with things. A neighbor said they’d be good in the corral until we got home. Chris drove back to Culpeper to help me finish loading the trailer. We lost over 5 hours of precious loading time. Wen we got home with the trailer, it was 3 AM and we were beyond exhausted. We crashed for a few hours and then went to get the horses and repair the damaged fence, unload the trailer and head north. A few days later, during a break in moving, I left a thank you note on the neighbor’s door. He responded with a two-page letter, stamped and mailed, explaining what a disappointment I was to him. I had bigger issues to worry about – like moving, unpacking, re-starting an entire farm.
Meanwhile, someone reached out through our school facebook page. A person that had lived here many years, who was part of a local Facebook group, alerted us to an alarming situation. Apparently, folks heard we were moving here to start a school and went ballistic. They sent me screenshots of their angry conversations (with names covered up) and accusations. These were my new neighbors. They never met me, never talked to me, never asked me questions directly. Just made a whole bunch of assumptions and were immediately enraged by them. It was amusing and quite sad, all at the same time. How dare I? When the Supervisor of our district informed them I was doing everything legally, I became a problem they had to solve in other ways. I ignored it. There were real life things to do and worry about.
We had hired a fellow who answered our ad to begin installing the fences and purchased all the posts and gates for the entire perimeter. He worked slowly, oh so slowly, and as it was turning out, poorly. February turned out to be just as wet. The animals were stressed. The fencing project drug on. The area around the barn turned into a muddy moat. The goats were showing signs of stress. They abhor rain and fall ill easily in extreme wet weather, especially when crowded together. A well-meaning person delivered a load of hay that we purchased when we were not home and kindly put some out for the goats. It was bad hay. Moldy. He thought it was fine to feed moldy hay to goats. Listeriosis swept through the herd like a wildfire. We managed to save about 15% of those infected. We worked around the clock and watched in horror as our friends began to die. Animals that had been part of our lives – our family – for 8 to 10 years, almost as long as my youngest child was old, including his best friend and pack goat of 7 years. As we got that under control, the parasites took hold. Resistant to much of what we threw at them, and then random cases of coccidiosis, goat polio, and meningeal cropped up as March, April, May, and June continued to be wet. So wet, that in one afternoon of heavy rains our several acre empty ponds filled and overflowed in a matter of hours. Hay and grain costs became exorbitant and ate up the remaining fencing funds.
By this time, only a small section of fence posts was ever installed by the paid help so we fenced our 6-acre field with grass up to our knees in electric tape to allow the horses to get some fresh, green, badly needed grass and real vitamins. We had also taken the time ourselves to finish fencing in about 10 acres of the property with permanent wire fencing. The goats and sheep enjoyed the freedom and all of the fresh browse. We set up a temporary shelter and sorting/handling center at the top of the hill near our house to get the goats out of the muddy bottom area where the barn was. The ruminant losses slowed to a trickle and were mostly due to parasite issues. After a few months, we extended the browsing area for the goats again with additional temporary fencing. Even though it was still very wet, with new, dry housing well up on a hill and lots of browse things turned around. The horses were on a light grain regimen with Omega added along with many hours each day on fresh grass and they started gaining weight back. Through it all, we had the occasional equine break out of the temporary fencing. They seemed to sense whenever the electricity was out. Always to visit the same neighbor.
The wet continued through the fall and into this past winter. Long term stress had settled in coupled with low-quality hay – the only hay available at high-quality prices – and persistent poor weather conditions. My 22-year-old mare didn’t make it through this past winter. We had to put her down. She hadn’t been holding weight for quite some time and the stress of moving and confinement and poor quality hay through the winter caused everyone to struggle and to exasperate her own problems despite the blanket, senior feed, and Omega supplement. She had been my equine companion since she was two years old.
Then we got a load of hay that was loaded with foxtail and it brought our operations to its knees – again – and as we headed into winter. PJ, a friend’s horse who was staying here was impacted the worst. She alerted us to the issue when she met us at the gate one day with blood pouring out of her mouth. Her entire mouth was not only ulcerated, but bits of the foxtail seeds and hay were embedded in the wounds. It was horrific. We checked and the others were all affected, to varying degrees. We brought in alfalfa hay to help clean out the stuck particles and give a protein boost, did some cleaning of the ulcers ourselves and made a spray to help with soothing and healing. Interestingly, we had been putting fresh, collected pumpkins out every day and those animals that ate it were not nearly as affected by the foxtail. The horses were especially hard to hit and lost more weight. We changed hay providers – again. We were aghast at the nonchalant way the local hay producers shrugged off the foxtail and its effects and rejoiced at the early spring grasses when we could get the horses back on the pasture.
Very late the next afternoon, during one of our pasture checks, we noticed Mountain Dew standing down by the pond. He stayed there in the shade for a long time – too long. We went to check on him and found that he was wobbly, disoriented and weak. Eryn walked him, very slowly, to the yard where we made a makeshift corral, gave him hay and water and monitored him. It was late in the evening now and I decided to call a vet first thing in the morning. I checked on him during the night. He was eating hay and seemed weak buy okay. By daybreak, he was acting colicky. We treated him for colic but noticed his gums and tongue were a pale blueish/white color. He seemed to struggle with urinating then finally peed a stream of what looked like pure blood. His symptoms now looked exactly like our old dog who just died (under vet care) of the tick-borne disease, ehrlichiosis or anaplasmosis. I headed in to grab the phone to leave a message with a vet. But, turned around when he moaned, laid down, convulsed and died. I stood there, staring in disbelief. Dew was born on our farm in 2002. He was 17 years old.
In a panic, I woke Eryn and we checked the other horses. Everyone seemed fine. No signs of weakness or issues. For weeks now, we check throughout the day not just for fencing breakouts, but for any signs at all of acting off. Nothing. Midnight wasn’t gaining weight like the others and Stormy wasn’t shedding properly. She would probably need another deworming. Midnight needed bloodwork. I had met an agricultural lab at a conference and ordered some of their shipping boxes for bloodwork.
That brings us to where we are now. Twice last week, one of the horses crossed the hot wire in the pasture. Both times after the sunset, but prior to their usual call in time. Both times, passersby would stop in and let us know she was out. I checked the fence, found the short and fixed it. For several days, there were no escapes. On Friday we had severe flash flooding and some of the fencing was damaged, some are still under water. We unplugged it and put the horses out hoping the trouble maker would remember that it was hot. Nope. A sheriff deputy stopped by in the evening to tell us our horse was out and the neighbor had her. When I went to retrieve her, he greeted me with understandable frustration and let me know that this would be ending.
The grass in the yard was tall and needed mowing so we rotated our pasture routine to the yard. A couple of goats found a way out through the flood-damaged wire fence and wandered down in front of our house. We saw them when putting the horses in the yard. They were collected and put in a pen temporarily. Eryn cut some trees for the ruminants in the field for breakfast and brought some up to the escapees, then we headed to town to make our feed run. Intending to come home, unload, check on everyone and take the trailer to get hay. In lieu of putting the horses back on the pasture with fencing issues, we also ordered some round bales at the time to hold the horses over while we reconfigured the fences and repaired the flood damage. Little did I know that a search and seizure warrant was filed for and granted the day after my neighbor encounter. The day after that (yesterday) they descended on our property to take the animals, arriving shortly after we got home with the grain.
Problem solved. It was nearly 9 PM when they pulled out with the last load of animals. In one fell swoop, the nuisance animals are gone and my reputation damaged enough so the school should no longer be an issue. Next week, at a hearing, we have to figure out how to show the Judge that all the time, energy, money, tears, and effort that we pour into the farm on a daily basis just doesn’t add up to willful criminal negligence. After all these struggles, to be so close to getting things worked out and settled, only to have the rug pulled out is beyond heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking to see the kids lose everything they worked for most of their lives. To be rewarded for sleepless nights taking care of sick animals, hard work repairing damage caused by negligent farmers, and diligence of the typical farm kid by calling them or their parent criminally negligent and stealing the creatures under their care. It would be one thing if we didn’t work so hard every single day to fix the mess that moving here and weather have made.
We will stand strong and regardless of the outcome of this particular mess, we will keep working on this farm. Week by week, we have made small improvements and will continue to do so. Our goal is to turn it into a showplace of woodland grazing and proper pasture-raised livestock. It will continue to take a lot of work but is a goal well-worth the effort.