“I love to be outside. I love animals. There’s nothing else I want to do.”
I first met Kurt Wentzel at a market. At that time, he was just one of many cheerful and helpful stallholders who always had abundant supplies of meat, fruit and vegetables. Kurt sold fresh lamb, beef, pork and, best of all, sausages. After many years living in the United Kingdom, my husband and I are rather particular about our sausages, and Kurt’s were the only ones that satisfied us. Then one day, Kurt had no sausages at all. His explanation? “The pigs didn’t want to get on the truck. I never force them.” It was then that I had an inkling there might be something very special about Kurt.
Some time later, he held an open house to celebrate the building of a new barn. It was substantial, with room for pigs on one side, sheep on the other and cattle in the centre. And he had built it (admittedly with some help) himself, including sawing all the wood except for the trusses. I was told there was cider being served in the house, so I went to look for it.
I don’t know what I expected to see. Perhaps a large white double-fronted building with a sweeping veranda? No such building was in sight. Kurt’s house, it turned out, was the small, snug wooden structure just across from the barn. You could easily fit 10 of these houses into the barn. Inside, it was economically and efficiently outfitted with a small wood stove for heating, a little electric stove for cooking, a fridge, a sofa, a small table with two chairs and sleeping accommodation in a loft above a bathroom. There was running water but no septic. What more could one want? There was indeed cider heating on the stove, and everything was as neat and cosy as one could wish. Still, it was clear where Kurt’s priorities lay: the animals’ dwelling was what he was showing off, not his own house.
The idea of life in the country—the pastoral—goes back to the Greeks (at least), and it has always been lurking at the back of our minds as an ideal way of living—an ideal way that’s frequently undercut by the brutal reality of country life. Shakespeare uses the idea in As You Like It when he has a number of the characters, who have left the court, sing these words:
Who doth ambition shun,
And loves to live i’ th’ sun,
Seeking the food he eats,
And pleas’d with what he gets,
Come hither, come hither, come hither;
Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather.
The idea is perfectly simple—life in the country is one of contentment. There may be some hard work involved, but your needs are simple and you are free from the corroding emotions of jealousy, status-seeking and rivalry that are present in the court—or, to translate into a modern idiom, the world of the town and city. As I learned more about Kurt, it seemed that, in a modern context, he fits many of these traditional ideals.
Kurt was born into farming. His father was a farmer and had a rather unusual herd of sheep that grazed on West Ironbound Island. In summer, the family stayed on the island in a small cottage they had built. In winter, they moved to the mainland, but the sheep stayed on the island. Every two years they brought a new ram to the island to father the increasing flock. This selective breeding produced a line of sheep that are extraordinarily hardy and resistant to parasites. “It’s been survival of the fittest since 1971,” Kurt remarked. “When it works, it’s called line-breeding; when it doesn’t work, it’s called inbreeding.” Although the island is now owned by the Kingsburg Coastal Conservancy, the sheep remain and are tended to this day by Kurt’s son. Some of the descendants of these sheep comprise Kurt’s own flock as well. Last year, all of his sheep were found to be completely parasite-free—truly remarkable for a flock that has been given no chemical wormer. “They said it couldn’t be done, and I said, ‘Dammit, I can do it!’”
After Kurt left school at the age of 17, he went to work for a year on a mixed farm in England. When he came back, he bought what he describes as a “rundown” farm and began to improve it. He soon discovered that he couldn’t make a living selling live animals, so, at 21, he took a meat-cutting course. From then on, the trajectory of his life was clear: He was a farmer who sometimes did other things to earn money to support his farming habit. These “other things” included two years working at Michelin, a partnership with a grocery store in Riverport that outfitted ships, and a shop in First South (just outside Lunenburg) that unfortunately burned down shortly after he took over. Somewhere in the midst of all this he fit two marriages and the birth of his son. But all these things were sidelines to the main venture—mixed farming.
Today Kurt owns a 30-acre farm in Lunenburg County and is in the process of buying a 90-acre piece of woodland adjoining this that he will gradually turn into farmland. In addition to this, he rents another 50-acre piece of land to pasture his cattle in the summer and a smaller piece for his sheep. Hens (both meat and laying) reside on the “home place” year-round, as do his pigs and Marty the bull.
The first thing I learned about Kurt—that he cares deeply about his animals and their welfare—has been reinforced by further acquaintance. His piglets are weaned at eight weeks rather than at three weeks as some farmers do. Indeed, I saw some chubby eight-week-olds still snuggled up to their mother, eating voraciously.
As for his cows, they are bred from the stalwart but surprisingly docile-looking bull named Marty. (No artificial insemination here!) Marty is a smaller bull than many farmers today breed from, so the cows have their calves naturally, without difficulty. In the 90-acre field where he pastures them, we found some new calves, as well as cows still waiting to give birth. Kurt told me horror stories of calves bred from large bulls to maximize meat content—they have to be pulled from their mother with a block and tackle. “It’s cruel,” he says. This year, all of his calves have been born naturally without needing any help from him.
Kurt has devised a clever system whereby the cows have a fresh pasture every day. His rented field is divided into 92 sections so the cows can move on to a different section every day. This, he tells me, is a more economical use of pasture land because otherwise they would roam indiscriminately and use up the land much more quickly. They don’t like to continue to feed where they’ve been the day before. “It’s soiled,” Kurt explains. And, indeed, why should they eat where they have defecated the day before? Tidy cows are happy cows!
Rotating animals around various fields is also a means of protecting them against parasite infections. These parasites are livestock-specific, so Kurt will put a friend’s horses in a field previously grazed by cattle or sheep. The horses are a dead-end host for the parasites that the cattle or sheep have inevitably left on the grass, so in this way the parasites are not perpetuated. He learned from sheep breeding on West Ironbound that it is possible to have sheep that are parasite-free without the heavy use of drugs, and he is now trying to replicate this situation in all of his animals.
The sheep know him and run up when he appears, hoping for something special. Even the piglets are given some entertainment. This summer, they are in a central enclosure in the big barn, which was occupied by cattle in the winter. Towards the end of the cattle’s stay, Kurt scattered corn in the enclosure, which was trampled in by the cows, and now the pigs are having fun rooting for it.
Of course, none of this can disguise the fact that the end of all these animals (with the exception of laying hens and some of the cows kept for breeding) will be sold for meat. And if you are a fervent vegetarian, you won’t like any of what goes on here. But even the slaughtering process is done as humanely as possible. “It’s always difficult,” he says, “but it’s part of life. They have a good, happy, healthy life on the farm, and then we eat them.” Kurt does not kill his own animals, which are sold commercially and therefore are slaughtered in a government-approved facility, but he does sometimes assist a neighbour with slaughtering some of her sheep.“ It’s never a happy day when you are killing animals,” she says, “but having Kurt there makes it a lot better than it would be otherwise. He does it with such respect.”
He has government-inspected premises where he cuts and packages his meat for sale; and where he makes his superb sausages. He has a young college student to help during the summer months. Otherwise he does everything—the care of the animals, the gathering of the eggs from the hens, the cutting and packaging of the meat—himself.
In addition to this, he does all the carpentry work on the farm. He is proud of the fact that the boards in his new barn were sawed by himself, some from trees that he felled on his own land. His house, modest though it may be, is also his own handiwork.
Farming is hard work. And the way Kurt does it is, I suspect, harder work than it would be if he were solely interested in making money. He is up by five in the morning, and by six he is in the fields, checking the cows and the sheep. Then he may go to the butcher shop to cut and package meat and make sausage. Later in the day, he may make or mend fences or do some carpentry work. He will not stop working until dusk, which in summer means a very long day. Two mornings a week he is at markets in Lunenburg and Liverpool.
In winter evenings, he reads (farming or history books) and sometimes watches movies on his television screen—no Internet and no live television but the ability to play DVDs. Does he ever take time off? “Well,” he replies, “I try to take off Sunday afternoon.” And what does he typically do with his time off? He goes for a walk on a nature trail with a friend.
Apart from the classical pastoral, the other literary figure Kurt may remind one of is Thoreau, voluntarily living by Walden Pond. But Kurt is no Thoreau trying out a rural idyll as an intellectual exercise. He is in this world, making his living by it. And as far as I can tell, he is happy. He says he is happy, and I believe him. One of the great virtues of the traditional pastoral was being content. Here, the shepherd was not striving to be anything more than he was. Sitting with his pan pipes under a tree, watching his flock and occasionally running off to chase a beautiful shepherdess, he was “pleas’d with what he [got].”
I haven’t noticed any pan pipes in Kurt’s house—and whether there is anyone in his life is not my business—but I am convinced he is “pleased with what he gets.” He says: “The only thing I need is more land. I don’t need a big house; I don’t need fancy vehicles. I’m not vehicle proud; I’m not house proud. I have a beautiful barn, my dream barn. As long as my animals can be happy and healthy and I’ve got a roof over my head, that’s all I need.”
Kurt indeed has “No enemy,/But winter and rough weather.” He says: “I love to be outside; I love animals. There’s nothing else I want to do.”