Shoveling Poop and Liking It

My husband was sweating through his T-shirt on a snowy Saturday morning in December, pitchfork in hand, goats milling about, and Diane the Mule looking at him like this city slicker desk jockey had truly lost his way. The barn was smelling better, but there was still a lot more to clean out, maybe another hour’s worth of work ahead.

“This is my penance for being such a carnivore,” he said smiling and wiping his brow.

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We were volunteering that morning at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in Willow, New York, a pastoral village outside of Hippie Central, Woodstock, New York, home to the infamous 1969 concert, for those of you who weren’t born yet (I wasn’t either, for the record.) Six months before shoveling goat and duck poop, I read The New York Times travel section review of the farm sanctuary right about when my daughter was asking if we could hang out on a farm because, you know, the suburban animals that make our community feel like a scene from Snow White, all the deer, squirrels, wild parakeets and Sheila the raccoon, had lost their novelty. I figured we would go upstate, have a nice weekend, and drive home feeling awesome about ourselves for volunteering on a farm. Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary exceeded our expectations. We found ourselves humbled by its mission, its dedication, and its beauty. Whatever your personal politics on food, agriculture, and the right to willfully consume pink sludge, the farm’s message and the farm itself are worth a stop-and-think, or a stop-and-visit. A visit may result in questions or changes about your own consumption habits because this farm and its owner, cancer survivor and animal rights activist Jenny Brown, inspire.

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Our December visit proved to be so much fun and so rewarding that we went back again in February (more snow, more shoveling of poop) and signed up again for another visit in April to celebrate our daughter’s birthday and enjoy the farm and spring’s gentle touch, when tulips and daffodils add some color to land. For the non-outdoorsy type, explaining why shoveling poop and helping animals can be rewarding may seem difficult, but what Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary does very, very effectively is get you out of your head. What do I mean by that? You’re outside, doing a very linear task with tangible outcomes (sometimes unheard of in the office realm) and you have pigs, turkeys, mules, goats, chickens, ducks, cows, dogs, cats and sheep all very curious in who you are and what you’re doing. You’re not fretting or stressing or on an iPhone or Blackberry or wondering what you should be working on, avoiding, wearing, saying or not saying, or where you should be going or not-going. You just are. The farm is a Zen meditation in its way. Meanwhile, you’re the center of attention to the dozens of rescued animals that cross your path while you’re busy getting all Zen-like. They have no clue whether you crave steak or Daiya (vegan) cheese, whether you were ever mean to an animal when you were a kid or whether you dress your cat up in baby clothes (we’re guilty of putting funny hats on our cat). Many of these animals were abused or scheduled for slaughter, and yet they willfully approach you because it is an innate reaction to want to connect with other living things. I held Beatrice the Turkey and cuddled with a rooster whose name I didn’t catch. Anna bonded with goats and painted a portrait of Bertha the Pig. We were filthy and happy…all of us.

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At the farm, cats enjoy the right of way as does anyone pushing a wheelbarrow full of clean or dirty hay…

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Anna and ducks

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For New Yorkers looking for an easy weekend getaway, the farm is less than two hours by car. You can opt for rooms with a shared bathroom (with an awesome clawfoot bathtub) or get the two-bedroom suite with a private bathroom, which we do because I feel too old to share toilets with anyone anymore. Sorry, call me selfish. A vegan breakfast, usually consisting of granola, fruit and toast, is served for all guests. Those staying overnight have access to a full kitchen, so bring your own groceries and whip up some pasta and curl up with a bottle of wine on a cold night. Also bring some bananas–the goats love them!

The farm has a vegan-only food policy so cooking on the premises means no animal products or byproducts allowed. When we arrived in February, we were greeted with a plate of vegan chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven (I should’ve asked for the recipe). New York City comedian Jamie Kilstein recently visited Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary and stayed at the guest house. He dons the farm’s signature souvenir T-shirt in a recent United magazine profile if you’re looking for motivation to eat more kale or buy a souvenir.

After shoveling poop (and showering), head into downtown Woodstock for art, books, shopping, great restaurants, and earthy-hippie-coolness, like the painted electric guitars along the main road, reminiscent of the historical concert. Not to burst bubbles, but the actual concert took place 40 miles away from Woodstock in a farming community called Bethel because turnout was so huge, concert organizers needed more open space to accommodate. Nevertheless, Woodstock keeps the spirit of the 1960s alive. After connecting with farm animals, enjoy a vegetarian lunch at Garden Cafe on the Green or shop for Tibetan goods or buy some locally painted art or eat a cupcake called the Janis Joplin. Because in Woodstock, it’s all good.

Art is appreciated everywhere. There are sculptures, mosaics, and paintings (including one by my daughter) on the farm. Art abounds in downtown Woodstock too.

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A wall inside a restaurant bathroom…

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Handpainted electric guitars line the streets, ready for any air-guitar solo.

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Once you finish your chores, head into town. There’s great window shopping if you’re on a budget, as we always are.

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