Rural Rambles

I’ve been reading a curious work titled In Your Stride, a manifesto of sorts in favor of walking. Written in England in 1931 by A. B. Austin, it describes the rapid changes of the rural landscape to accommodate the automobile—the widening of rural lanes, the straightening of curves, the paving of surfaces—and the influx of weekend visitors to the country and accelerating trend of rural peoples leaving for the cities (A road in is a road out, after all). The author doesn’t offer much of a solution, other than urging his fellow Brits to get out and walk for their holidays. But underlying this urging is the fear that the auto is changing something fundamental about the British life.

Walking equipment

Walking equipment

It is an odd and thoroughly alien concept for us Americans, these 84 years later, that we could walk any real distance. Indeed, that we would wish to walk as a form of transportation is no longer in our modern DNA. Our landscape has been on the whole surrendered to our automobiles. And that is even truer here in the country, where the casual walker is the commuter who has run out of gas, the “eccentric” who picks up trash, or the unfortunate DUI relegated to walking after an arrest.

It is, I find, one of the supreme ironies of our age that people routinely pack up their cars and drive hours to state and national parks for the pleasure of walking. Our cities, towns, and countryside, for the pedestrian, are like medieval castles walled off from the plagues of the outside world, where one can only visit at speeds fast enough to prevent contamination by contact.

I have long wanted to launch a rural walking society in which neighbors could walk the roads together, a rural ramble whose goal would be to reclaim the pathways of our communities. The sad reality, however, is that there is nowhere to go. The scale of the world we have created is suited only to fast transport. Any proposed rural ramble would have to deal with the paradox that most participants must drive to the start location, like those weekend hikers to the public parks, burning up the fossil fuels to get their dose of authentic nature.

A gathering of my neighbors walking to the nearest pub for an evening social would take three hours and 24 minutes. Then there would be the walk home. A walk to our good friends at Kimberly Ann Farms would take two hours, 32 minutes. Definitely doable, but the direct route involves a long stretch of state highway, not conducive to either health or peace of mind. A more scenic route, the old roads first designed for horse and foot, would take a mere four hours, 15 minutes.

No wonder that our rural ancestors visited for days and weeks at a time. The distance, the scale of the landscape, was so vast and the countryside so thinly settled that the effort of travel was rewarded with extended hospitality. Yet, a case could be made that the automobile decreased our overall social interactions even as it made casual visits more available, much like the introduction of the phone cheapened the value of intimate correspondence, while greatly expanding the circle of those we could reach. (And God only knows what texting or tweeting has done to further these trends.)

Still, I hope there is some value to reclaiming the old roads and byways of our country. That the pace of walking, “the eyes to acres” of Berry and Jackson, allows us to see both the beauty and the scars (to appreciate the former and correct the latter). That that slower pace encourages a neighborly word instead of the short wave from a speeding car. That a regular excursion by foot might nurture our sense of civic space in both town and country. That it might not only slow the clocks but ultimately provide the courage to throw them away.

Then, if we are diligent and lucky, the distance between farms will not be measured in time but in anticipation of both the journey and friendship at journey’s end. And perhaps we will find that we have enlarged our world by the simple act of reducing its scale.

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Farewell to my cousin, Lynne Yeomans Craver. You were an elegant balance of joyful living and service to family, friends and community.

A Spring Grass Portrait

It is something we witness every spring, the sudden greening and explosion of growth. Yet I always remain in awe of the energy of the season. In just a few short weeks the pastures are transformed from a few adventurous and hesitant green shoots to deep and luxurious pastures.

We have grazed our sheep in the orchard the past few days. This morning we turned them out on a new paddock.

Here is a portrait of their contentment.

Contented sheep

Contented sheep and lambs on spring grass

Night Sounds

A midnight thunderstorm has its prelude an hour before arrival: a soft thud of feet from Becky, our English shepherd stockdog, on the front door signals thunder at a distance so remote as to disturb only her sleep. I trudge downstairs and put her on the back porch before returning to bed.

After the storm subsides, a steadier wind comes rattling down our small valley and shakes the windows. A cold front has arrived. Most of the night will pass before it manages to crowd out the warmth of the previous day.

Later, a more distant sound awakens me, the cattle cavorting and kicking up their heels in the hill pasture. The ruckus eventually awakens Teddy, too. An Aussie pup who typically prizes his sleep over our general welfare, he moves to the stone wall behind the house and begins a sporadic solo of barks. A few minutes pass and the cattle move on, and Teddy returns to his slumber. I get up and let Becky off the back porch.

Three in the morning and the sound of short, high-pitched yapping informs me that the dogs are on the trail of a small varmint. The barking follows its target in a rapid serpentine trail, first near the barn, then through the orchard, and finally, dear god, just beyond the bedroom window. Apparently cornered, the quarry resorts to its most effective defense: the acrid smell of the skunk lingers until long after sunrise. I return to my sleep.

Near five o’clock, the rhythms of morning begin to edge out those of the night. I’m reminded that we forgot to close the coop last evening when one of our large Speckled Sussex roosters uses his improvised perch in the grapevines beyond the stone wall to challenge a sun that won’t arrive for another couple of hours.

Piglets moved and enjoying their new home

Piglets moved and enjoying their new home

My brain slips unbidden into wakefulness. In squawky images it starts to review the tasks of the day ahead: moving piglets to a new paddock away from their mom, shifting electric fence for the cattle to a new stretch of spring grass. Cleaning the gutters on the house and outbuildings, collecting for compost winter’s leftovers from the hay rings in the pastures.

Clearly, the time for rest is at an end. Coffee is to be ground and brewed, to-do lists to be finalized, and animals to be fed. The night disappears into the west. The new day is showing in the east over the ridge.

I get out of bed.

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Reading this weekend: The Edge of Extinction: travels with enduring peoples in vanishing lands by Jules Pretty. One of the better works I have read this year. The author focuses on the collapse of traditional communities and their ties to the land. 

An Economy of Satisfaction

Our language is shot through with sayings that originated in our agrarian past. “Don’t bet the farm” and “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” are two. Both have resonance for a small diversified farm such as ours.

 

Hogs in the woods

Hogs in the woods

This past week we have been working on our 12-month farm plan. No surprise to anyone, fencing does make its perennial appearance. But the biggest change, a turning of the wheel, brings us back to the first years of our farm: the presence of breeding stock. In those early years, we had Milking Devons, Berkshire hogs and a flock of Border Leicester sheep. But as the years progressed and our needs and the economy changed, we sold our breeding stock and focused instead on feeding out weanlings.

Over these past 16 years, we have bought virtually no meat from the grocery. In that time our farm has supplied all the beef, pork, lamb, chicken and duck for our table and for dozens of other families’ tables as well. Sales of the first three helped us pay off the farm and house in 10 years. Making this small-farm market economy modestly successful has taken work and sacrifice.

That work produces a household economy of vegetables and fruits for the table. In spring, summer, and fall the gardens feed us, friends, and the pigs. Fruits from the orchards and honey from our bees are used to make various country wines and meads, jams and jellies, and … to feed our pigs. A household economy measured in quality and satisfaction: Only a fool would wonder about financial inputs and gains when enjoying fresh crowder peas or a ripe tomato plucked from the vine.

Alongside hard work a degree of luck factors in. We were lucky that both of us escaped the Great Recession relatively unscathed. We know from the experiences of most of our neighbors that our farm life could have gone completely off the rails. Lucky as well that Michael Pollan wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma and that the documentary “Food Inc.” were released when they were. Both helped create a larger audience and culture that valued the work we did in producing food.

But the market wheel continues to turn and we adapt. Maintaining breeding stock, for many years, paid off. Then one day it didn’t. That’s when it became more cost effective to buy feeder pigs, weanling steers, and lambs from local farmers. Then the wheel turned again. The cost for buying lambs doubled, then tripled. Our response was to buy a few ewes and a ram and ease back into the breeding business. That small investment had quick returns both financially and in flock numbers: what started out as a flock of five or six now consists of 20 ewes, a ram, and 26 lambs.

Red Poll Cattle

Red Poll Cattle

Our return to breeding stock in pigs proceeded from the same reasons. Replacement prices have risen in recent times, if feeder pigs are available at all. Hence, the purchase of our sow, Delores. Likewise, cattle prices have exploded, while the prices paid by consumers have increased more modestly. Years ago we could get 400-pound replacement steers for about $300 a head. Last fall the price was $1300. The wheel turned with a vengeance. So this week we took receipt of two bred Red Poll cows and two heifers. We plan to phase out our existing stock of steers in the coming two years and, hopefully, replace them with steers from our new Red Poll herd.

“Don’t bet the farm” and “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”—there is a reason those two adages are still in use. Flexibility, foresight, diversity, and a bit of luck are all important in the success of a small-farm economy and of the larger culture.

But without factoring in an economy of satisfaction, the investment would all be for naught.

It’s Rodeo Time: the dearth of farm vets

No sooner had the young vet climbed out of the cattle chute than our two farm dogs, Becky and Teddy, darted from the barn, each with a bull testicle dangling from its mouth. It’s a macabre sight, but one all too familiar to anyone spending time on a farm.

Home Vet Supplies

Home Vet Supplies

As I wrote out a check, Doc Beason stretched his shoulder to work out a kink where a 700-pound bull calf had kicked him. All in a day’s work, I thought. The rain was pouring down on the last day of winter, the barnyard was ankle deep in muck, yet the farm vet emerged with a grin on his face. No doubt he had chosen the right profession. I thought back to last year, when on a snowy January day he cheerfully came out one Sunday morning and put a prolapsed uterus back in a favored ewe.

Beason’s predecessor, Doc McCampbell, sported the same demeanor: cheerful, whether working in rain or sun. A similar day had the elder vet castrating a long line of weanling bull calves. He jumped into the chute, exclaiming, “Let the rodeo begin!” and was promptly stomped and kicked for his enthusiasm.

These are unusual days in the large-animal vet field. Nationally, 80% of all graduates from vet school are women. Now, women can certainly do large-animal work, but most choose not to. The few who do, choose the more lucrative equine field. Being a farm vet isn’t as well paid as small-animal or equine. As poet-vet Baxter Black points out, “there is no anthropomorphological attachment as exists in the pet world.” In other words, why spend $100 on a ewe that may only bring $110 at the stockyard?

Traditionally, most large-animal vets were men who came from a farming background. As the number of family farms and farm families plummeted, so too did the number of young men who valued that life. Valuing the farm life seems an essential to anyone, man or woman, who contemplates such a robust career as a large-animal vet. And combining a love for the physical demands of the farm vet with the educational drive to get through vet school reduces the number of prospective farm vets even further.

The dearth of farm vets, coupled with economics, means that those of us who farm livestock learn to do much of the doctoring ourselves. And Cindy and I do most of the castrating, worming, vaccinating, assisting with births, and other nonsurgical doctoring. Still, not having trained professionals available for that prolapsed uterus, cow that eats a nail, or any of the other seemingly endless ways in which an animal’s health can be imperiled is worrisome.

Watching our youthful vet jump back in his truck, wave, and drive off to his next round, I’m relieved that in spite of the shortage of farm vets across rural America, our needs appear to be met for some time to come.

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Reading this weekend: Ancient Herbs by Jeanne D’Andrea

Basic Farm Lessons

The Lessons:

  1. Hogs: After you have been face down in the muck with pigs thundering over your body, check for broken bones first, launch temper tantrum second.
  2. To-do lists: Whatever I did with my time in the city, my farm to-do list makes that former “active” life seem downright sedentary.
  3. Phone calls: “Are you missing any cattle?” This question usually translates into, “You are missing cattle. And they are on the highway (or in my front yard or garden).”
  4. Fencing: First, it is never done. Second, even a secure fence means nothing to a hungry steer or a horny bull. I’ve watched steers clear a five-foot-high fence flat-footed and bulls uproot a 10-foot-wide gate from its hinges to enjoy the company of a cow in heat.
  5. Deer hunters: They routinely cut fencing, nail slats up trees for steps, leave behind deer stands, screw peanut butter jars onto trees, disturb the quiet and take a one-time permission to hunt as license to spend the winter in your woods. That said, if the sheer number of deer in the landscape is any indication … they are mostly lousy shots.
  6. Closing gates: The injunction to close the gate behind you means it should also be latched. Just pulling it closed doesn’t count. Trust me.
  7. Number of muscles: Most folks have no idea how many muscles are contained in the body. But I know, because over the past 16 years each has hurt at one time or another.
  8. Bad weather: When the temperature is in the 20s and the wind is blowing with gale force and you’re facing the elements as snow and sleet slants sideways, you tuck your head and keep working. Because the sow that needs shelter for farrowing can’t build it herself.
  9. Life and death: Wendell Berry’s “The Mad Farmer” says: “Listen to carrion—put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs to come.” The cycles of life, just barely understood when I lived in the city, are an intimate presence of each day on the farm.
  10. Watch the skies: A circle of vultures over the back pasture is the signal that there is a newborn calf or a dead yearling steer.
  11. Farm life: No one ever reminisces about summers spent with Grandma in her suburban rancher. Our race memories are of the land, and the land is where we return.

Mercy and Democracy: a mid-week musing

An interaction and an incident yesterday, one that I will not elaborate on in these pages, had me thinking about both mercy and democracy. Mercy is certainly not the sole providence of small farms. But Victor Hanson, in his excellent history, The Other Greeks, makes a persuasive case that Greek democracy developed out of the small farm culture of ancient Greece. That the nature of agrarian interactions, of modest finances and the need to accomplish the work with few hands led to an independence of culture and the martial willingness to defend it. Which led me back to wondering if mercy has some roots in an agrarian past? Whether mercy, in the end, is the ability to act decisively and also with compassion, all informed by the daily practice of intimate familiarity? And whether democracy without an informed exercise of mercy can thrive?

From my Winged Elm Farm Alphabet:

M is for Mercy

Mr. Blake says that “mercy has a human heart.” As a quality based on compassion for those in one’s care, mercy on a farm gets a lot of experience. It is frequently exercised in dispatching an animal when butchering, mercifully killing an injured duck whose leg has been pulled off by a turtle or any of the other seemingly endless ways of dying or being injured on a farm. Farming expands with a clear-eyed view the means and ways of compassion, strips the sentiment and leaves you with choices that cannot be put off on anyone else.