The farmer of balance
By Richard Gaw
(Originally published in the Fall 2013 edition)
It is very early on a Sunday morning...that is, early by the standards of the tax-paying American citizen itching to get a few more weekend winks after a solid week of toil, but for Dr. Thomas Schaer of Meadowset Farm and Apiary, rising at what otherwise would be considered an ungodly hour is the very timepiece that measures his life's direction.
Folk music that sounds like it was made by a Swiss military band – a cheery blend of accordian, cello, contrabass and dulcimer – plays from some mysterious location near one barn, while in the other barn, sheep and ewes of all ages and sizes baa in chorus, piercing the sweet air of Post-Thanksgiving Winter. In further honor of his native country, Schaer wears a Loden Green Alpine hat, and there is generous slope along the outlying 30 acres, so there is enough here to imagine that yes, this could be in Switzerland, and there really could be a marching band in the far distance, even though there is not.
A close look at Schaer's hardscrabble hands reveals that they are rough from necessity, but they seem to soften every time he stops his chores to hold his daughters Alessandra and Julia, whose daintiness and innocence punctures the ruddy terrain. Max, a Bernese Mountain dog, barks at one of the 11 cats who sleek about the property, and in the distance, chickens and guinea fowl roam free near the family's 280-year-old farmhouse.
Sometimes, Schaer will lift his head from the work he's doing and admire the pastoral rolling hills of the farm he owns with his wife, Barbara. The scenery reminds him of his uncle's farm in Switzerland, where he lived as a child. Like his hands, the life Schaer has chosen to lead is filled with the residue of hard work. It is filled with early-morning milkings and working in the hot sun of a summer day, or in the evenings when he returns from his job as a large animal veterinarian. And yet, the life he leads, one where his daughters dance and sing beside him, is a perfect one.
"My wife and I, by the nature of what we do professionally, centers around animals in general," said Schaer of Barbara, who is also a veterinarian. "That was probably the commonality we had in purchasing the property originally in 2000. What we're doing now isn't something we decided when we first bought the farm, but eventually, we thought that we wanted to have a small plot of land, produce a small amount of food and have it be an asset to the community, as well as to teach our children how food is grown and harvested."
At Meadowset, the calendar runs according to the flock of East Friesland and Lacaune milksheep -- at last count, there are about 65 ewes and 70 lambs living on the farm. Lambing season begins in February, and soon after, Schaer holds his annual woolgathering festival, when the sheep are shorn to provide for the making of wool, sheepskins and fiber products like skirted raw fleeces, roving and batting.
In April, the dairy season begins, when the ewes are free to roam the many pastures of the farm, and are milked twice a day through the early Fall. Licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to manufacture farmestead cheese, Meadowset makes a Pecorino-style cheese using sheep milk, which is then aged between 6 and 24 months, and then sold at the farm's store on the property, at selected locations in Southern Chester County, and at the Kennett Square Farmer's Market.
Anthony Vietri, the owner of the Va La Winery in nearby Avondale, sells cheese from Meadowset in his tasting room. He said that it had been a dream of his and Schaer's to have the farm's cheese paired with Va La's wine, and now, it's not uncommon for a Va La visitor to occupy a table on the vineyard's back deck and sip from a Va La wine while sampling it with The Last Straw cheese from Meadowset. "Its exciting to have the twin feeling of our ventures working so well together," Vietri said. "During his whole process of building this dream, I was lucky to sample things along the way.
When Vietri first conceived of the idea of converting his grandfather's property in Avondale into a vineyard, the locals thought he was crazy. 'You can't grow grapes on Chester County soil,' they would tell him. Undeterred, he kept poking holes in the tough soil, where stakes would eventually hold up row after row of vines, and now, he's proven all of his naysayers wrong. When Vietri first met Schaer several years ago, he saw in him a fellow rebel, a visionary working from a similar blank palette of land. Vietri's family is from Italy and Schaer is from Switzerland, so their DNA was made and hardened by their respective ancestry. As a testament to their freindship, Vietri is the godfather to Alessandra.
"I would have to say that 'kindred spirits' is a good term to describe my friendship with Tom, because even though we're both cultivating different products, we're both doing it at a time when a lot of people doubted we could pull off what we're doing," Vietri said. "We both enjoy things from the old world of our family history, and wanted to create a little bit of that life here.
"Both of our backgrounds had a lot of food and wine, and we enjoyed those things. And yet, we both felt like that we were not able to get them so instead of giving up, we both developed a 'Do-It-Yourself' philosophy."
Meadowset's apiary features 30 colonies of honeybees on site that produce honey, pollen, propolis and beeswax, which is processed and also made available at the store and locally soon after harvest time in August.
The practice of modern meat processing has become one of mass quantity and convenience, but the flip-side of the production has been criticized by animal rights activists for its treatment of livestock raised for harvest. At Meadowset, sheep roam and graze freely, which not only protects the soil and ground water, but also supports the farm's mission to practice sustainability and humane lamb-raising practices.
"Our method is not the only way to feed the world," Schaer said. "The challenge to provide food in this day and age is increasingly difficult, and thinking that we can go back to a 17th-Century way of food production on a global scale is a pipe dream. The need for food exceeds what we can do in small patches, but every time you produce things in masses, you run into problems with sustainability."
Perhaps influenced by family farmers like him, Schaer is beginning to see a more focused eye on the impact of sustainability. "At every level of food production, people are looking to re-analyze their methods," he said. "From the local to the big corporate food manufacturers, they're recognizing that soil health and productivity is depending on more sustainable practices."
When Kaitlyn Ricketts graduated last year with a degree in agricultural sciences from the University of Delaware, she decided she did not want to attend veterinary school. Through a collaborative educational program between Meadowset and the University, Ricketts began her internship with Meadowset last April and has remained there ever since.
"Almost immediately, I fell in love with Tom and Barb's enthusiasm with running a sustainbale farm," she said. "It's infectious. Tom is an extremely dedicated and hard worker, but a lot of people are, and it doesn't ncessarily get them anywhere. The difference is that Tom is so focused on the quality of what he's doing on the farm, and is driven to makes things better and better.
"Tom has the sheep on the milking stand by 5 a.m., then goes off to work and often doesn't get home until 6:30 in the evening," Ricketts added. "Then he helps out with what needs to be done. On weekends, when mot people want to lounge around, he and Barb work on the farm all day. There is no vacation for them."
"It's a commitment to owning and maintaining this farm, but it's also a life lesson, and there's a balance that comes with it," Schaer said. "I feel responsibility in preserving this farm. I look at the fireplace in our home and realize that it was made by the hands of people who were alive at the time of Geroge Washington. The very identity of our nation is preserved through history. This farm is just a small corner of that history."
There is a moment for Schaer that seems to crystallize all that it means to own a farm. It happens, he said, at an hour when the rest of Landenberg is still fast asleep and he is in the barn milking the sheep. It is the time when he is exhausted and wants nothing more than to return to bed, when he wonders why he's breaking his back with all of this, when he questions what reasoning first led him to decide to own a farm. At that moment, he will turn from his duties and see Barbara standing there with two hot cups of coffee. He will take a break from his chores, and they will sit for a fee moments and admire the stillness of their decision -- all of those rolling pastures, breathtakingly silent.