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July 11, 2020
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Maple Breeze Farm in Westbrook has long helped to preserve the heritage cow breed the American Milking Devon, and now Bonnie Hall is taking the next step by raising and training two calves, Logan and Morgan (shown here), to work the farm as a set of oxen.

Photo courtesy of Bonnie Hall

Maple Breeze Farm in Westbrook has long helped to preserve the heritage cow breed the American Milking Devon, and now Bonnie Hall is taking the next step by raising and training two calves, Logan and Morgan (shown here), to work the farm as a set of oxen. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Hall )

Bonnie Hall: Building a Future on Old-Fashioned Farming

Published June 17, 2020

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If things were different, Bonnie Hall would be a vegetarian.

A farmer for 23 years, Bonnie, with her husband, John, raises a rare heritage breed of cattle, American Milking Devons, as well as pigs. John’s ancestors established Maple Breeze Farm in Westbrook in the early 17th century and they sell beef, pork, eggs, and other products directly from the farm and through farmers’ markets.

“The big, huge slaughterhouses...they’ve had COVID go through,” she says. “And that’s why I would be a vegetarian if I didn’t eat our own meat.

“Because [the spread of the virus in large slaughterhouses among people who work there] tells you everything you need to know right there, when you look at how animals are raised and kept and how they’re killed and processed,” she continues. “Gross. I’d be a vegetarian.”

Bonnie’s great love for animals is clear to anyone who talks to her. While she never imagined she’d one day become a farmer, as a teenager growing up in Madison, she was thrilled to take care of a family friend’s horse.

“In exchange for taking care of her horse every day, I got to ride the horse,” she recalls. “I felt like I was the richest girl ever. I walked a mile every day, up and back, to take care of the horse, clean the horse, feed the horse. It was a dream.”

Years later, during her first marriage, she worked on a horse farm in New Hampshire, and as a single mom back in Connecticut, she volunteered at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme.

“There was such a peace about being outside, being with the animals and all of that,” she says. “I loved the horse farm and just smelling a horse.”

While cows are not horses, at Maple Breeze Bonnie found a new love in the Devons, their glistening chestnut-colored coats, the calves with their long, awkward legs and almond-shaped eyes.

“They’re the most gentle breed,” she says. “They’re very smart. They’re amazing.”

And that love isn’t abstract: It’s about ensuring that their cows live a happy, peaceful life; that they have healthy food to eat; and that calves are not pushed out of the barn before they’re ready.

“They enjoy their day,” she says. “On a beautiful day like this, they do whatever they want to do in the fields they’re in. Staying in the shade, laying in the sun...wading in the water.”

The New Hand

The first work Bonnie did on the farm was making hay. She was a single mom at the time, working full time in the Madison office of John’s water treatment company.

“He asked me if I would make hay, because he’s always looking for people to throw hay,” she said.

She hadn’t given hay a whole lot of thought before that.

“Working at the horse farm in New Hampshire, I handled hay every day, but I didn’t know how you made a bale of hay...I had no clue,” she says. “So I learned.”

Hay is grass that is allowed to grow tall, then cut, dried, and stored in bales for feeding animals.

“It takes three days of good weather,” Bonnie explains. “You’re constantly watching the weather...and you decide when you’re going to cut it because it has to dry.”

Once it’s cut it has to be flipped and spread out to allow it to dry in the sun. This is called tedding.

“John, when he was a little kid, did it with pitchforks,” Bonnie says. “That was the old school. You went out in the fields and flipped the hay over to dry...You ted it several times to make sure it’s nice and dry because it can combust when you pack it into a barn if you’ve got any wet hay.

“Many farmers over the years, their barns have just exploded because that hay will just sit in there and if it’s wet it will just do an internal fire,” she continues.

Wet hay can create a chemical reaction that builds heat, and the higher the haystack, the less cool air will reach it to offset the heat.

“That just scares the heart out of every farmer,” she says. “It brings terror to the heart to think of that. Our barn—we house our animals in there. So you’re very particular about your hay and keeping it completely dry...You go and you rake it, you’ve got to get it into your rows, and then you come along with a baler and you bale it up.”

Back in the 1990s, when Bonnie first learned how to make hay, she served as the kicker—the person who grabs the bale from the automated baler and stacks it on the wagon that’s trailing behind.

“John had a tractor, he had a baler, and the bale would be made and come out,” she says. She would have to be there at the right time “and reach way down...and hook that bale before it came out completely and fell on the ground,” or the bale would be run over by the wagon.

“So I’d quickly grab [the bale] with a hook, run back to the wagon and [stack it], and run back again before the next one fell off,” she remembers. “So I was in—oh my gosh—the best shape I’d ever been in. I loved, loved, loved that.”

Eventually, John and Bonnie got a baler with a built-in kicker, which propels the bale onto the wagon. It’s a huge effort- and time-saver, but the bales must still be taken off the wagon and stacked in the barn.

And as they’re stacked, “the higher you get, the harder it gets,” she says. “There’s less air in the barn, there’s all kinds of hay chaff that’s moving around when you’re throwing the bales, and if you’re sweating and you got that all stuck to you, you can’t breathe.”

It didn’t help that she’s allergic to poison ivy, which can grow low to the ground in pastures. Yellow jackets are another hazard, and she’s allergic to them, as well.

Yet somehow, but she’s made farming her life.

A Chance for Reflection

“[T]hrough this whole COVID thing, people say, ‘Well, what’s different about your life?’” she says. “Nothing. It’s so peaceful. We don’t have the worry that others do.”

Maple Breeze Farm consists of more than 200 acres of pasture, woods, and rocky outcropping.

“I [will] just sit in the field, almost like a shepherd sits with the sheep, watching them,” she continues. “You’re constantly counting how many you have in that one particular field you’re in and you make sure that nobody gets into trouble. And they come over to you, they want to be pet...There are certain ones that get right into your heart.”

Time freed up by the pandemic has given Bonnie a chance to do something she’s thought about for a long time: train a team of oxen.

“We had sold [oxen] teams over the years before we really got into meat selling,” she says. People come to the farm from all over the country “to buy oxen or buy little calves to make into a team of oxen.

“So I watched what they looked for, I just absorbed everything, and now it was my opportunity to look and see and figure out who I wanted to work with,” she continues. “It was really fun. It was really exciting. And then I had John’s guidance to help me. Because you have to train them right from the start.”

One of the most important—and most difficult—lessons for the calves is to stay put until they’re told to move. One day, as John was fixing the mower for cutting the hay, its enormous arm repeatedly crashed to the ground. Bonnie had the calves she was training nearby.

“I want them to stand there and not to react,” she explains.

The lesson is important to learn now, rather than later, when the oxen are huge.

“[T]hey’re not like [horses], thank goodness,” she says. “[A] horse freaks out, reacts to everything. The Devons are so laid back. They were chewing their cud.

“I bring them over to the chickens and the guinea hens and the ducks and let them see another animal making noise and living in their environment,” she continues. “My team will stand there until I release them, which has been a joy.”

The oxen team eventually will help demonstrate to the public how farms operated before automation.

“I want to have a day that we’ll be open to the public when we’re sugaring, making our maple syrup,” Bonnie says.

The team will pull a sleigh, if there’s snow on the ground, and bring it up the hill to the Sugar House. The idea is to educate people about the work that goes into creating the stuff they pour on their pancakes.

Syrup doesn’t just appear “in this lovely, beautifully packaged bottle that you purchase at the farmers’ market or at our farm or at a store,” Bonnie says. “There’s all this work that goes behind it.

“And before the use of tractors, and the conveniences we have today, farmers had to do it all by hand with the use of their team,” she continues. “And they had to have an amazing trust between the drover and his or her team.”

Her oxen, Morgan and Logan, will “live on the farm for their whole lives,” Bonnie says. “And I’m super excited about that.

“John never had a team,” she says. “When he was growing up, he would help train them with his father and then his father would sell. So I think he’s getting to live a little [of his] childhood through this.”

Willing to Wait

The pandemic has created a whole host of factors that have resulted in booked slaughterhouses. Getting appointments to bring animals in is difficult. To make matters worse, the family-run butcher that Maple Breeze used for more than a decade went out of business when the landlord sold the property.

“We knew how they treated the animals,” she says. “I watched. I needed to know everything because it was so new to me...I wanted to know how they were treated through the whole process.”

The Halls spent five months researching and visiting slaughterhouses and finally settled on one in upstate New York.

“They’re certified humane,” she says. “[T]hat means that they’ve got workers in the whole plant from when your animal gets dropped off. They’re not hurt in any way at all and they’re treated very kindly...[A]ll the way through the process there are eyes watching and that makes us really happy.”

Their customers are willing to wait.

“People know us,” she says. They know “they’re going to get the same meat that they tasted the last time they ate it. It’s not like we went to an auction and purchased any old animal and we’re trying to keep up with the demand. That’s not what Maple Breeze Farm is. It’s who we are and it has to be a Devon.

“People are willing to wait for that,” she says. “We won’t feed America, but we’ll feed our friends and neighbors.”


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