Waiting On Rain

Waiting on rain. In my humble estimation, it’s all about reciprocity. After all, I’ve done the hard work of getting the gardens ready, dozens of new trees planted, the manure spread, and the grass seed scattered. Now it is up to the old man to simply cut loose and let it pour. But nothing falls from the sky this dry spring — we are already down 75 percent for the year — leaving me to wonder if it is time to channel our inner Assyrian and slaughter a goat.Sunday  4-10-16 005

Instead of tackling the endless to-do list and fretting about no rain, yesterday we headed to town in the truck. The master gardeners of Roane County had their annual plant sale, and we went as much for the fellowship as for the plants.

Several hours later, good conversations with friends (Tim, Russ, Summer, and Maureen) under our belts and a handful of ornamentals in the truck bed, we headed for home. When we crossed over the Tennessee River, we reentered our side of the county, South of the River. Winding down Highway 72, we pulled off on a gravel drive in Paint Rock at Aaron and Michelle’s small farm, a tidy place with goats, pigs, chickens, and gardens. Aaron broke from hoeing his garden long enough to give me a flat of heirloom pipe and cigar tobacco plants he had successfully started. I’m anxious to try my hand at curing my own blend this fall.

As we said our goodbyes, a few hopeful raindrops fell onto the pollen-coated truck windows. Here it comes, I pronounced as the skies darkened. We drove toward the farm, winding down and around the curves of Sweetwater Road as fast as the old truck would safely carry us. We arrived just as a steady drizzle began to fall … and then stopped.

A few hours later, after a few more fits and starts, we had accumulated a tenth of an inch of rain. Now, I’m a man to appreciate the small things in life as well as the big. But, come on….

So it was, that as late-afternoon guests pulled up the drive, I was in the midst of dragging the goat toward the sacrificial altar. Considering this a sign from a higher power for a temporary pardon, I postponed my attempt to appease the gods for a little while longer. We greeted and conducted our visitors on a tour of the farm for a couple of hours, a fairly common experience for us and, we hope, enjoyable and educational for them.

After their departure it was time for chores and dinner. Cindy fed the livestock, and I prepared a chicken paprikash with an old rooster, accompanied by a simple tomato tart and a cucumber salad. We read until bedtime, when the rains finally began to fall.

A little more than an inch fell overnight. And this morning the smell of burnt offerings is scarcely noticeable in our valley.

Farm Postcard: Earth Day

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A pin oak fronts two silver maples, all planted twelve years ago.

Plant trees: It is our constant and perhaps best advice to would-be-farmers. The old Chinese adage is true. “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Our farm was evenly split between large woods and open pastures when we moved here in 1999. In order to provide shade for the house, barns and outbuildings that we built, fruit and native trees were planted in abundance. Dozens of fast growing maples and tulip poplars and slower growing oaks dot what was an open landscape. Several winged elms, transplanted from the woods, are set apart giving a living shape to the name of the farm. Two orchards, one now sixteen years old and a newer orchard still being planted are located in front and to the side of the house. The sawmill is located between the two, next to a hay barn sided with oak from our older trees. Additionally we have a couple of dozen pecan and pawpaw trees potted and ready to go into the ground. On this Earth Day we suggest that every day should be Arbor Day.


Reading this weekend: Miraculous Abundance: one quarter acre, two French farmers and enough food to feed the world, by Herve’-Gruyer.

Habitat Loss

Here is another post from the archives. A topic that continues to preoccupy me each spring. And this loss of cultural habitat continues…100_0954 (2)

What happens to us as a people when the sources of knowledge are only to be found outside of our communities? When we ask the internet for gardening advice on a plot of land between Paint Rock Valley and Big Sandy instead of the farmer who has lived those conditions for eighty years? When our education is served up by the likes of the University of Phoenix instead of the slightly eccentric teacher living down the street? When childhood summers consist of structured play and digital devices instead of pirates and adventures?

Is the human spirit so easily channeled and contained? Is the knowledge needed to live so easily reduced and boxed up for our consuming pleasure and sold to us at Wal-Mart? Where does the “person” exist in that world?

I’ve been experiencing loss this last week for something only known to me for fifteen years and no doubt making a bit more of it than needed. But I have an old fashioned conservative streak running through my bones that hates change. So when the Sweetwater Fruit Market closed their doors a couple of weeks ago after thirty years I began to tally what was lost not just to me but to our community.

We lost a great source for fruit and vegetables sourced locally and regionally long before that became trendy. They were carrying heirlooms when they were still just the old-fashioned varieties everyone always grew. I grieve over the loss of their seed selection. The store carried twenty varieties of cowpeas alone, not to mention a couple of dozen varieties of sweet corn. They knew the best variety of potato for our clay soils (Kennebec’s) and when to plant. Do you think the Lowes garden department will match that knowledge or localized selection?

Theirs was a typical small town business that carried too many items with too small margins of profit. A place that dispensed advice built on their local knowledge and from local farmers. It was a business that any small town community supported easily before the era of big-box stores. The ripple effect of this closing will extend beyond the owners and the customers. It extends from the small farm providing collards and beets to the pig farmer who weekly collected the spoiled produce. And it extends to who we are as a people and what we expect from our community.

It is another in a long line of essential businesses rendered not essential by those who can’t be bothered to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart or its ilk. How many times do you hear someone bemoan the lack of civility, the loss of community? Yet their weekly shopping habits adds to that misery and increases that loss of community and civility from not knowing or being responsible to ones neighbors, supporting them so that they may in turn support you.

Our communities are suffering from what I see as a habitat loss as real as the loss in the natural environment. We collectively strip those habitats, both natural and social, of resources we cherish. And then express our disgust and amazement at their loss. No doubt I’m making too much of this small loss to our community. But it seems a symptom of something larger that does make one wonder what we truly value.


Reading this weekend: Greens by Thomas Head (a new entry in the Savor the South series by UNC press). And Afoot in England by the excellent W. H. Hudson.

Time To Get To It

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Spring lambs, spring grass

It is still a couple of hours before sunrise, the birds are chattering in the crape myrtle as the sky begins to lighten over the eastern ridge. Our rooster has been offering up his dawn greeting for at least two hours. And Becky just killed a large raccoon at the garbage can. In other words it is another morning on our farm in east Tennessee.

We have a full couple of days ahead planting grapevines, a new nut orchard, adding to the pawpaw grove, finishing the new raised beds for the strawberries and stretching a hundred yards of new fence. There will be a hard freeze tonight and preparations will be needed to protect the figs which are fruiting. And I am smoking a whole lamb today for a few friends who will dine with us this evening.

The work load on the farm at this time of year is over the top. In addition to all of the usual chores and ongoing infrastructure projects the seasonal tasks of mowing, gardening, mulching, pasture renovations and the annual barn cleaning just keep stacking up. Just the prospect of getting off the farm for an hour sends us in to a tail spin, feeling that we just got that much further behind.

But for all that work and the carping about it, we love this life. Mostly, the sheer loveliness of spring in Tennessee, the excitement of waiting for Petunia to farrow and being able to share with friends the bounty of the farm are ample compensations.

Time to get to it.


Reading this weekend: The Dream of the Earth, by Thomas Berry

Whatever You Do, Don’t Fall Off The Truck

Anthropomorphizing farm animals is inevitable. We project personalities and our own foibles on the animals under our care. It is an act of giving voice and character to the individuals with whom we develop relationships through daily contact.

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Peggy: a gentle sow and good mother…except when you mess with her offspring.

As fellow omnivores, hogs fall into a category all their own. We view them quite literally as a source of food. We stand and admire the hams, the sides, the fatback, the hocks, and the jowls. It is a process that allows us to gain distance emotionally from an animal that can be quite personable one on one, responding to its name, waiting patiently for a back scratch and not so patiently for its dinner. On the whole, hogs are rather benign creatures … when raised singly or in pairs.

However, put four or five, ten or twenty, or several hundred together and those endearing individual qualities quickly morph into a mob mentality. Like attendees at a Trump rally baiting reporters, a pack of porcines want their red meat served raw and they want it now. No longer do they view you as the benevolent lord doling out favors and rewards. Instead, you are now a meal that has conveniently walked right up to the plate.

Yesterday I was feeding a group of hogs in the woods, four boys now grown to 125-plus pounds each. We still feed them by hand twice a day. But around this age — let us call it the teenage years — hogs are hungry all day and all night, a bottomless pit of insatiability. Wading through them to the trough with a feed bucket, their grasping mouths pulling on your pants, becomes an increasingly problematic exercise. One of those boys yesterday took a good long bite on my calf. It hurt. I booted his butt in retaliation, and he turned his attention away from me to an easier dinner at the trough, shoving his brothers out of the way. This happens every cycle in raising hogs. For us, it is the sign that it is time to fill up the self-feeder and let them eat as they want when they want.

The bite by the hog reminded me of a conversation with a local extension agent. Forty-some years ago, as a teenager, he had helped an old dairy farmer, doing odd and distasteful jobs as requested. This old farmer also raised a couple of hundred hogs, kept out in a large field.

One of the more unpleasant tasks of any livestock farmer is disposing of dead animals. Some bury them, others haul them into the woods for the scavengers to find, and some try their hand at mortality composting. On a large farm, death can be a weekly event. This dairyman (in a practice not practiced by our farm, I hasten to add) piled up any bodies of dead calves on a flatbed truck.

Each Saturday he took the truck to the hogs, the teenage boy on the bed. As they drove through the gates on the very first day, the teenager was instructed to start throwing the calves off the back, one at a time. The farmer then called his hogs, who came running. As the agent recalled, if you’ve never experienced a large sounder of hogs running at you, it is a fearsome sight and sound to behold.

About this time, the farmer slid open the back window of the truck and voiced these words of wisdom: “Whatever you do, don’t fall off the truck.” The hero of our story, standing on the slippery surface of the bed, grabbing the putrefying calves, began to heave them off into the mass of agitated hogs. Horrific sounds of bones crunching followed, haunting the extension agent, now nearing retirement, even to this day.

Which gives us this week’s teachable moment in farming and life: when dealing with a mob, whatever you do, don’t fall of the truck. It could ruin your day.


Reading this weekend: Loosed Upon The World: an anthology of climate fiction. And, Small Is Beautiful: life in a local economy by Lyle Estill (not particularly well-written or relevant).

Farm Postcard: March 27th

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Our New Holland manure spreader










The Manure Spreader: As long as our race has farmed we have struggled to return fertility to the land. Knowing our own part in that long history, we had our old manure spreader out of the equipment shed yesterday in an effort to regenerate a small field. Loaded multiple times from our carefully built manure pile, the spreader flung a large rooster-tail of rich compost out onto the land.  A pile that often attracts a sinful and covetous eye from knowledgeable visitors to the farm. But only the ignorant, the morally corrupt or the brave of that crowd ask if they can have a truck load.

For it was born on this land and will be spread on this land.


Reading this weekend: Perusing my newly acquired, 3600 page, three volume set of The Cyclopedia of Horticulture, by Liberty Hyde Bailey.

An Ode to the Meat and Three

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One assumes the stewed apples are stage right in this photo

Oh, how I yearn for the return of the meat and three. The simple joy of knowing that with a quick turn off the highway, any small town in the South yielded a diner that served up the sacred trifecta — that assurance brought comfort to restless, dark nights.

The daily break for lunch, the communion with one’s people. They have given way to the blight of Hardees and its ilk, the shuffling herd inching forward at the drive-through, devouring at the wheel, afterward pitching leftover hamburger wrappers out the windows. Our collective soul has been starved, even as our collective waistline has expanded.

We were a people of the garden once, the content of our favorite diner’s lunch fare reflecting the abundance of the seasons. Served in modest portions that allowed us to eat healthy, but not to excess or somnolence, the choices were varied and yet consistent: two or three meats, perhaps six or more vegetables. The daily decision was made while waiting for the iced tea to arrive.

The chicken was a smaller bird, the cuts done to maximize the number of servings. Each breast was cut in half, and when it was served on a small plate, it did not dwarf the other choices. The meatloaf was divvied into small squares, the country ham shaved in modest slices, the vegetables simply prepared with minimal seasoning.Meat and three 2

“Yes, ma’am, we are ready to order. Hmm, I will get the chicken today, dark meat, please. And let me have the okra and stewed tomatoes (which still counted as one side), turnip greens, and the crowder peas. Roll or cornbread? Cornbread, of course. Yes, ma’am, that is all today, no dessert for me. Peanut butter pie? Oh, that’s tempting, but, no.”

Y’all have a good day. We’ll see you tomorrow.