North Country Voices: Anna Knapp-Peck
Anna Knapp-Peck lives in DeKalb with her husband and two children. Originally from Vermont, she settled in the North Country after moving from Washington County with her family in 2007. They now reside on 90 acres of land that they call Zion Farm, surrounded by ducks, turkeys, dogs, cats, goats, chickens, horses, and Anna’s favorite – oxen. Her animals have been on America's Got Talent, in Capital One commercials, and in award winning movies. Nature Up North intern, Lizz Muller, visited Zion Farm one morning and caught up with Anna while she did her chores. Nip, her 9 year old ox that stands taller than she does, and Sam, the 2 month old calf that she is just starting to train, joined them for the interview. But before Lizz could even turn the tape recorder on, Anna opened up her scrapbook and started pointing to pictures that she’s been collecting for the past fifteen years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anna Knapp-Peck: These are just show cattle, they’re all just pretty, they don’t do a lot. They look good [she points to picture of her first team, and they do look good], they walk around. All they essentially do is just stand around and walk, and then you have the pulling cattle, [points to picture of her with another team] and all they do is pull weight. There’s no useful oxen. So that’s what I’ve tried to recapture. [Purple, her daughter’s ox, moos from the barn] Hi Purple! Purple is mad…They just pull these weights, so they get all beefed up and that’s what they do, they go and pull. But none of them do like work, real work.
Nature Up North: In comparison, it seems like there are so many places that do work with horses.
AKP: Oxen are catching on, especially in market gardening, because they are really good in light tillage, they are really good to cultivate with. And for somebody who’s starting out, horses can be really intimidating. If you start out with a guy like Sam and you grow up with him, it’s not so much. It’s much more, I don’t know, you build your confidence with the animals.
NUN: That’s a beautiful thing, that you can build your confidence with the animals.
AKP: Well its true, so I’ve decided that the show steers are pretty, the pulling steers are powerful. I wanna find a bridge between it and I just want useful. If you can be pretty and powerful too, that’s great, but useful is my ultimate goal…
NUN: Is this the kind of lifestyle that you grew up in?
AKP: [With a smile] No, not really.
NUN: How did you know that you wanted this kind of lifestyle?
AKP: Well, my parents had a dairy farm. They farmed over there [she points across the road] and my grandfather trained Morgan horses in Vermont. And Vermont is very much more local food. I graduated from high school in 2003, so I mean I was really in high school during a lot of the local food movement. It was really kinda like the upstart of organic farming in that area and people having their gardens and produce and I don’t know, I just have always been involved with farming. But I really like the animal-human relationship, and I mean I like cows, I just genuinely like cows. And I showed dairy, but the dairy cows, you train them until they’re milking, and then that’s it. You can’t do any more…
In Washington County Fair in New York, they had an ox show, and I thought, oh, I’d like to try that, and I started and then because I lived in Vermont, there was a 4H program with oxen and I showed them in local shows for a chance to compete in the Eastern States Exposition. And I never did make it to Big E, but I had a lot of fun, and I really like doing it. And then I had my kids young, I had one at 19 and one at 20, which is not the best thing to do [she laughs], but I was still a kid, so a lot of my interests I pursued but I just kinda took them along so really they’ve grown up in the lifestyle. Where I’ve kinda tried to figure it out, they’ve got the advantage of already knowing.
NUN: Do you think its something that they connect with? Are they enjoying it?
AKP: I do, in different ways. Like my son had oxen, he had a team until, right up until last month, and he sold them. He said you know, this isn’t something I’m really enjoying, it’s not really want I want to do. He has that black horse [she points to the neighboring pasture, where two horses stand], and he’s gotten into mounted shooting, which is like um, it’s a new sport, and they ride the horse around balloons and they shoot a 45 colt with blanks, and they have to pop the balloons. But it takes a lot, you have to be – there’s a lot of speed and precision – so you gotta be fast, you gotta stay on the horse, and you gotta be coordinated enough to shoot those balloons and keep the horse going too.
NUN: That sounds really hard…
AKP: It is! But he really likes it…[Her attention turns back to Nip] Here, we’ll get him in a harness and we’ll some haul water. That’s what I do to keep him in shape, [Sam starts happily hopping around in the grass] Hi Sammy! I haul water to the horses, because there’s no water on their side and there’s a stream over here.
NUN: It seems like this is a good way to spend a lot of time outside for you, and for your kids.
AKP: Yeah, and it gets the chores done… Everything has a purpose. I’m training the ox, I’m watering the horses, everything kind of… it all goes together. I was doing market gardening and we used the oxen a lot in that, but its so time consuming and its really hard to sell vegetables up here, because you can’t really compete with the Amish. So I’m just selling eggs now. And we go on the Fridays I don’t work, because the kids really like it. They have made a lot of friends at the market, so we’re like yeah, we can go.
NUN: Can you tell me about the harness that you are using?
AKP: Nobody really uses a harness [instead of a yoke], but I’ve found that for animal comfort, it’s just so much better. I don’t wanna run a marathon in poor fitting shoes, so I don’t wanna ask them to pull a lot of stuff and do a lot of work in something that doesn’t feel good…Single oxen are uncommon. Single oxen in harnesses are even less common, and women doing oxen at all is not a lot, so you kind of make it up as you go. I have people calling me for questions, and some things I can answer, some things I can’t. But I’ve only been doing this for, I don’t know, since I was fifteen so fifteen years. But in another then, I’d have more to offer. You just have to know a little bit more than the person ahead of you.
It saves me fuel, and it’s low impact. And there’s a lot of ridges here [she points to the back of the property, behind the pasture], like those ledges, and you can’t get in there with a tractor to cut firewood. And we burn wood, so the ox can get wood out where we couldn’t cut otherwise. And they’ll go through, and if I can walk a path, Nip can skid a log that, just a person’s width, and two months later you’ll walk through there and it’ll look like a deer trail. You can’t even tell he’s been in there. So it doesn’t tear up the land like a log skidder or you know, heavy traction equipment. If I was gonna sell wood commercially, it would not be the fastest way to get it out, but just for our situation its perfect and it doesn’t cost anything. We’re utilizing our resources, you know?
NUN: Yeah, it seems very smart, very efficient.
AKP: And I like to do it. I mean, that’s the whole thing. I like to do it, so I try to find ways to do it more. And if you can incorporate it in work you’re doing anyway, it’s that much easier.
NUN: Do you think that it ties you to this land, and does it help you to know the environment that you’re in a lot more?
AKP: Oh definitely, because you have to watch. You have to keep an eye on things all the time…quality of grass, you don’t wanna overgraze it, and – this is actually overgrazed, but it’s the only place I have to put them that’s not muddy – and I’m constantly out here. So I’m more in tune with what’s going on. Like, I had a pileated woodpecker eating or pecking at our fence post this morning. We have a heron that nests – we have a little pond over there – that nests over there. A group of mallards, and like, three or four muskrats. We’ve built this place and we’ve fenced around the waterways, so we have left the natural habitat, and then we can utilize it to farm but we’re not taking away from it. Because I really like, I like those things. That’s, you know, why I maintain it.
And the thing with the tractor, if you’re going out with a tractor, you’re more apt to scare off the wildlife. When you’re working with him [she points to Nip], minus the bell, you know, they’ll come right out. They don’t care. And it’s very relaxing. I mean, there’s something about working with an animal that is a satisfaction that you don’t get from a tractor or a four wheeler, because you’re doing something that you, you’ve watched them progress, and it’s a personal accomplishment, even. I mean it’s a personal thing. It’s like when you’re running and you’re a runner and you make that marathon. It’s like, I had you as a calf and now you’re pulling like so much wood and you’re heating my home. Its just, it’s a lot of personal goals that are met by doing this, I guess.
[Anna smiles and waves at her neighbors, who go by in their horse and buggy.]
AKP: The Amish think I’m weird. They’re like, why would you do that with a cow? They use horses, they’re faster…
NUN: You kinda touched on this, but again, what do you enjoy most about working with the oxen?
AKP: It keeps me grounded. See, I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been published by a national magazine, called Rural Heritage. I’ve trained for an animal acting company in California. My cat was in a movie. And my oxen were in a commercial, and I was out there in 2011 and I did America’s Got Talent, with the dog. I’ve done a lot. But, sometimes when you do a lot like that, you get this false sense of importance, and [the oxen] don’t care. They don’t care if I’ve done a commercial and they don’t care if I’ve been in a movie. They don’t care how many articles I’ve had published. They’re just happy if I feed them. And when I’m not paying attention, they will be bad. It’s kept me, it’s kept me a real person, and – halt Nip! – and I think it keeps reminding me what’s really important.
And a lot of times, for a while there, I would do anything. They would call me for a movie and I would drop everything and just go. And I didn’t realize the toll that it was taking on my family, and my marriage really. And so, I quit doing it. Because it was great! I had money. But you can’t replace things like your family, and if you lose sight of that you don’t get it back. So the oxen have kept me real, because like I said, they just keep you humble. So now, what I do is I work at a library. It’s very not gratifying, but it’s a job, and I’m home most of the time when the kids get home, or I can take them off for concerts and stuff…
…So I do still do some of what I was doing, but I realize that I’m not the best, and you know, something could happen to them and if they die then I’m outta business, because what good is talking about oxen if you don’t have an ox? But I think really that’s what I’ve appreciated the most about them. They keep reminding me what I enjoy in life. And I really enjoy being out here, and spending time with them, and seeing them do a good job at something as simple as pulling water. And I really like walking Sam up and down the road. It’s better than Zumba, because I don’t look stupid, and its not just pointless like I’m going for a walk – I have a purpose. And I just really enjoy the time with them, its very quiet and peaceful and when life gets really crazy, I take five minutes out and go walk my steers and I’m like, I got this, you know? …To me, having a good time is as important as making money. Which is not a good business philosophy.
NUN: But it’s a good life philosophy.
AKP: Exactly. And if it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right!