Ten reasons I’m thankful this Thanksgiving Day

  • That we had a fatted lamb to slaughter. And we had ten friends with whom to share our meal.
  • That I have spent another year on this planet without experiencing true want or hunger. I acknowledge that experience is an anomaly in human history.
  • That we still live in a global economy and good scotch is only a containership away. Hopefully the memories and skills to build clipper ships remain in the years to come.
  • That I had the help of Hannah and Caleb this year as we rebuilt fences on the farm. Without their help and younger backs I’d be further behind and the cattle would be roaming our valley.
  • That I had a chance to reconnect with my oldest sister these past five years. Now that she has passed away I am reminded once again of the fragility of our lifelines. Carpe Diem.
  • That I have lived in the epoch where antibiotics were discovered. A casual walk through the nearby church cemetery reminds one of the costs of their absence.
  • That a literate culture still thrives, that my library is well stocked, Wendell Berry lives and PG Wodehouse never died.
  • That my barn jacket, spattered with blood, cuffs ripped from barbed wire, reeking of honest sweat and manure from countless encounters…still keeps me warm after a dozen years.
  • That my family had the good sense to settle in Louisiana in the 1700’s. And, even if I left the motherland, the knowledge that everything begins with a roux is a good foundation in life.
  • And, that my partner is obsessive enough to bake bread, make yogurt and build cabinets and furniture in her spare time.

Everyone have a good Thanksgiving Day.

This Thanksgiving note is from the archives from last year. But the items listed remain consistently in the thankful column for this year.

A Farm Toolbox: Fence Pliers

Equipped with a beak like something evolved in the Mesozoic, the fence pliers are an essential tool in our toolbox. Never lonely for long, they are brought out several times a week. Even on a casual walk in the back forty to hunt rabbit, I’ll make room for a pair in a back pocket: sometimes, even the casual walk entails an unexpected spot of fence repair.

Fence Pliers in the Library, with....

Fence Pliers in the Library, with….

A classic tool designed for multiple uses, the fence pliers have beauty built into their design. The hinged head includes the beak on one side and a flat face on the other. The beak is perfect, using a hammer to strike the opposite face, for digging fence staples out of old wooden posts. The curvature allows the user to rock the pliers against the wood and ease out even the most stubborn of staples.

The toothed jaws are handy for crimping the wire in an old fence line. A crimp every couple of feet will tighten up the most sagging line. And that opposite end to the beak, the flat face, serves as a nifty hammer.

The handles, when pulled apart, expose a guillotine on the head that cuts barbed wire easily … if the user has purchased the correct pair. In the world of fence pliers, a standard cheap pair will cost about $12 and a lifetime of frustration. Splurge a little for a pair made by Diamond and you will thank me.

As our British cousins might say, fence pliers are a dead useful addition to any farm toolbox.

Priorities and Validation

It is not that we do not have any interesting projects to occupy our time;
We have new electric fencing to string for the sheep,
And hooves to treat to prevent the spread of hoof rot.

There are trees to harvest for firewood and lumber,
And that new small barn to house the new draft horses
will not build itself.

We have a barn full of winter squash to bake and preserve,
Fencing the lower pasture in woven wire,
And another cattle barn, small, to be designed and built in that pasture.

Yet, on a day where the temperature has not yet budged above forty,
And a cold drizzle pours down, our day has been spent inside,
Drinking hot tea and taking naps.

And… and wondering why Google Maps has not updated the satellite picture
Of our small farm.


As seen from space

As seen from space

Journey’s End

Fog has the wonderful feature of closing off the world. A good hour before sunrise I was walking to the barn. There was a light fog across the valley, heavy frost on the ground and trees, and the just-past-full moon competed with the dawn even as it began its exit. The fog and the light gave my world a feeling of seclusion, creating a private landscape for my own enjoyment.

My purpose at this early hour was singular: to hook the trailer to the truck and haul a steer to the butcher. It’s a task now routine, having been performed so many times these past 15 years. The butchery I have done, but it’s a job I usually leave to more capable hands. The delivery of the steer was itself uneventful, and on my return home, my enclosed, private world had vanished with the fog.

Turning to the work of the day, I counted a full slate of tasks—14 to be exact. I finished the morning, instead, having accomplished only one: the futile search for a sick calf. Over the span of several days, we had been trying to pen the calf for treatment. We have always taken husbandry of our animals seriously, often without regard to the cost or benefit to the financial life of the farm. But, with the price of replacement steers these days equivalent to a small mortgage, every calf has acquired a make-or-break status to the bottom line.11-9-14 006

The morning’s work ended with all the steers up in the barn, except the one we wanted. Fears that he lay dead in a brush patch were pushed aside; we had a houseful of guests arriving in a couple of hours, friends we had not seen in 20 years and a dinner to be prepared.

My take-away from the morning was a frustration that bordered on anger at not completing my list and not solving the problem of getting up a sick calf. Later that evening, after our friends had settled in, we pressed-ganged all seven into a search party. In short order we found the calf, very much alive, and moved him back through three fields and into the inner corral.

We have already started our ministrations and will continue to keep him in a pen in the barn for the next week. Once he shows clear signs of recovery, he will be turned back out with the herd. Hopefully, a trouble-free 24 months lie ahead before he makes the inevitable journey, a couple of years for him to enjoy his own private landscape without interruption.


Reading this weekend: Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the spectacular rise and fall of the railroad that crossed an ocean. By Les Standiford.

Miserable Weather and Work

The temperature today rose to a chilly 40 degrees, made much colder by a strong wind and overcast skies—reminding me that the hornets this past summer made many more nests than we have ever before witnessed, the majority of them on the ground, which may turn out to be the best barometer of the winter ahead. We hope that neither hornets nor frigid temps are a harbinger of what’s to come, and we pushed on with some major projects regardless.

A sign of things to come?

A sign of things to come?

Over the past week we have begun clearing a couple of hundred yards of an old fence line along the front of our farm. This is in preparation for putting up woven wire around the perimeter of the hayfield. Having that 5-7 acres fully enclosed in field fence will allow us to graze cattle and sheep more securely, and both will help increase the soil fertility and the hay yields in summer.

Installing woven wire is part of a larger pasture rotation system in the works for the past couple of years. Implementing the master plan started with new fencing for the back 40 acres, a project that is 75 percent complete. The lower 30 is primarily home, gardens, orchards, hayfield, barnyard, and pastures. Although reasonably well fenced, it previously lacked enough cross-fencing to allow us to rotate our cattle and sheep more intensively.

So we have invested, with a grant from the National Resources Conservation Service, in a substantial electric fencing system that will allow us to subdivide the farm into multiple paddocks of either electric wire or netting. Tomorrow, with the temperature projected to reach 50, we will install the charger and first cross-fence in one of the larger sheep paddocks.

As a compliment to that fencing, and with other NRCS funding, we are finishing up a 1,500-foot field watering system tied into our well that, when complete, will give us seven watering stations across the 12-acre pasture behind the house and the four-acre pasture north of the barn. The process involves first using a riding trencher to dig a two-foot-deep channel, then going back and installing PVC water lines. The trenching is now complete. Tomorrow, with the help of a neighbor, the lines will be installed. Another 24 hours to “cure” the connections and we will turn on the water.

If all is successful, what remains is the fun job of back-filling the 1,500-foot-long trench. Fortunately, we have an 18-year-old neighbor with a strong back, time on his unemployed hands, and an eagerness to earn some cold, hard cash.

This evening, as I write, the wind is still blowing hard and the temperature has begun to drop. And, with what I hope is a far better barometer of things to come than hornets or cold blustery days, Cindy is in the kitchen baking more shortbread cookies.

Cold winter, be damned.



The Archaic Arts & Skills

Beyond the brilliant red on the maple outside my study, the shots of hunters at both daybreak and sundown indicate fall has well and truly arrived.

Saturday morning was spent in the usual pursuit of running both errands and clearing the slate of farm chores and tasks. Success was not fully achieved in either category. Afternoon found me bushhogging a large pasture of 12 acres. A soothing act as the cut grass reveals the sensual curve of the landscape, it is also a meditative activity, one that allows time for the mind to float along unexpected paths. As I finished in the early evening, the crack of firearms in the distance pulled me back from any reverie. The cattle looked up, muttered something to the equivalent of “humans,” and went back to grazing.cropped-red-horned-steer.jpg

I entered the house for our evening coffee to find that Cindy had baked a platter of freshly made shortbread cookies. For some reason this had me thinking about the pursuit of what in our global consumer culture have been dismissed as the archaic arts. These are arts not clearly connected with the culture of global commerce—which is not to say that they are not connected with commerce, of course.

I have spent my adult life in the mines of the book industry, an art-form-turned-business-model locked in classic overshoot, where the issuance of new works has not yet registered the collapse of readership, where the vein we have followed of new readers has petered and faltered and is near to playing out, where a kid of a nearby farm, 18 years of age, told me recently, without embarrassment, that he had never read a book by choice.

During a short visit with a sister in Arkansas this week, I found her pursuing a similar arc, teaching classical European ballet. She has run a vibrant and popular dance academy for many years, yet she faces the difficulty of capturing an audience for an art form that doesn’t come with tweets and likes. She has the dedicated dancers of the discipline. But in our 24/7 world of digital and visual distractions, where is the audience that can discern an aplomb from an arabesque?

Global culture is a consumer culture. Its goal is growth on a finite planet: a car for everyone in China and India, farmed shrimp from Indonesia on every Iowa farmer’s plate. It is fundamentally a disposable culture: disposable products, people and planet. It has little use for the arts of an enduring culture. The dance that requires long study, the book written a hundred years ago, the technique of preserving soil fertility organically—all are archaic: they don’t require a container ship to deliver them to our door.

There are still niches for the archaic arts. And it is our job to help preserve them, to help them endure through the cacophony and clutter of the modern world. While the era of mass literacy and the literature it spawned may be coming to an end, it doesn’t mean that literacy and the written word are also going to be lost. Audiences for disciplined and focused dance may be in retreat, but the participants are still queuing up to learn.

We on a small farm are learning the archaic arts—harvesting manure to build soil fertility, constructing secure fences that do indeed make good neighbors, planting vegetables that, when they mature, will feed us for a month, creating a plate of shortbread cookies that nourishes the soul—and all connect us with long past practitioners of these arts in ways that Facebook and Walmart never can and never will.

These are the arts that make us more fully a community, a culture, a people.


Reading this weekend: Summer Doorways by W.S. Merwin. And, Simple Living In History: pioneers of the deep future, edited by Alexander and McLeod. 

Ends and Beginnings: a scrapbook

Pickled green tomatoes with garlic and dill.

Pickled green tomatoes with garlic and dill.

Fall wines: perry and crabapple.

Fall wines: perry and crabapple.

Final peppers of the season

Final peppers of the season

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The last of the dill in the herb garden

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Winter squash is done

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Winter squash curing

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The season of the greens begins

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Young cockerels, soon to be coq au vin

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Steers on winter pasture

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The fig survived, barely, the polar vortex and has thrived this season

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The sheep graze

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The sheep expect

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Small hay barn is packed

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Fresh composted manure for all of the fruit and nut trees. Here is a load for a two year old hazelenut

This time of year is filled with completing chores from the last season and beginning the ones for the new season. Whether pickling the last of the green tomatoes or fattening the lambs for December holiday plates we are busy. Hope you are all taking time to enjoy this beautiful fall.