Harvest Season

If there is a single harvest season, this is it. Exceptionally heavy rains in July have rejuvenated the pastures and put the garden on a course of steroids. The corn in neighboring fields seems to double in height weekly. Harvest time adds just one more layer of work to a busy diverse small farm.

On Saturday we had a father-son drive from an hour away to buy Sussex chicks. Our Speckled Sussex hens are likely to go broody anytime of the year but winter. And although we really shouldn’t be surprised after all this time, we’re still stopped in our tracks to see a hen walk from an outbuilding, chicks tumbling around her feet. Many weeks we have an ad out to sell chicks, pullets or cockerels. Both the birth and the selling of the chicks is a type of harvest.

Wendell Berry remarked that his dad’s farm advice was, “Sell something every week.” It’s a reminder that the farm constantly needs to be generating some income. Balancing the outgoing with the incoming is always a struggle. Our farm has its conventional income—selling meat from our hogs, cattle and sheep—and its self-sufficiency “income”—gardening, orchards, small fruits, poultry, firewood and lumber, and foraging and hunting.

It is a point of pride that we haven’t bought meat at a grocery store in 16 years. Providing for ourselves adds joy and confidence in ways that are hard to measure. Providing for customers is a way to pay the bills and to feel valued for the life we live. Don’t under estimate that latter, for without the steady stream of people raving about our pork, beef or mutton, the soul of the farm would drift away into a purgatory.

Throughout July, we have been selling lambs as breeding stock and marketing mutton; foraging wild mushrooms; harvesting tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, onions, and peppers; canning produce and cutting hay for the winter; and selling the odd batch of chicks.

We spent part of yesterday, the second time this season, canning tomatoes. Forty pints is the minimum to get us through winter. We have 36 on the shelves now and can easily double that amount in the next couple of weeks.

That is if one wants to avoid the shame of purchasing at the grocery store what could have provided by one’s own efforts. There is a point each winter when the hens fail to provide. That’s when I find myself in the grocery, skulking around like a man buying pornography, with a dozen eggs clutched close at hand. That perceived shame is the special preserve of the small farm.

Harvest continued today with honey from the hives, a small amount for our own use, about 30 pounds. That may seem like a lot, but between making mead and using honey for most of our sugar needs, it seems to disappear fast.Honey 3 001

We still call these months the harvest season. But if I approached the term with the right mindset, I would say that “harvest season” is really 12 months long. Even in the deep of winter, the land and the farm provide. Cutting and storing firewood, hammering plugs of oyster mushrooms into stumps, bringing in armloads of turnip greens on a cold December day—all are acts as surely a part of harvest as the plucking and eating of a ripe tomato in July.

Regardless of the “when,” a careful harvest, with work and planning, is renewable, an object lesson in resource use we would all be wise to learn and relearn.

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Reading this weekend: Peter May’s The Blackhouse and Todd Openheimer’s The Flickering Mind.

Basic Farm Lessons: Part 3

  • Caring for tools: A couple of hours each year of rubbing linseed oil onto wooden handles will keep tools at the ready for years to come.
  • Obtaining tools: Take a few hours twice a year to attend a farm auction. It is an inexpensive way to pick up tools you did not know you needed—three dollars for a tool to remove bark from a log.
  • Your copy of the Rural Weekly Informer: Take the time to talk with the neighbors. Whether hearing of a death, of a birth or just plain old-fashioned gossip, this may well be your only chance to gain valuable knowledge of your community.
  • Never gossip … well, never call it gossip: Control the smirk on your face as you work the latest gossip into a conversation. It is more seemly and manly to assume a mature visage, as if imparting this bit of news for a valid reason.
  • Beating the heat: Wake when it is first light, go to the garden and pull weeds. Reentering the house, remove the annoyingly smug look on your face upon finding your partner sucking on her first cup of coffee.
  • Beating the heat #2: Starting mid-July, take a late afternoon walk in the woods with the dogs. It is a smart thing to do. The weather is too hot for work under the sun, and the chanterelles are beginning to carpet the ground under the mixed hardwoods.
  • Dog races: Let the dogs run unrestrained after the bolting deer. They won’t catch them, and the chase takes them far from the fawns hidden in the brush.
  • Sound show: Use an approaching thunderstorm as an excuse to sit and watch the horizon, listen to thunder and drink a cold beer.
  • Dinner plans: While sipping that beer, mentally review the larder. Dinner should be based on what you have provided.
  • Reaping what you sow: Perfectly marbled ribeyes from a steer raised out on your land, potatoes dug minutes before baking, juicy tomatoes still warm from the sun—a fine homegrown meal is well worth the time and sweat. It’s an essential farm lesson that needs learning only once.photo (5)
  • Farm flexibility: Company showing up unexpected requires only extra place settings and the ability to not fuss about quantities in a recipe. A handful of this and a dash to the garden are all that is needed when friends sit at the table.
  • The purpose: A missing lamb takes priority, dinner can wait. Because without first being a good husband to the animals in your charge, the table would be bare.
  • Light show: Before sleep, walk to the top of the hill. Admire the lightning strikes in the tops of thunderheads near the Kentucky border. Pat the heads of your dogs, and walk back home in the dark.

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Reading this weekend: God Against the Gods: the history of the war between monotheism and polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch. 

Methane Plumes Vs. Root Beer Floats!

I took an accidental overdose of climate science writings this week. After wallowing in descriptions of positive feedback loops of methane gas, ocean acidification and general ways in which we have screwed the planet I reached a level requiring a detoxification program. A twelve-step program to restore balance, sometimes described as sticking ones head in the sand, was required.Mushrooms July 2015 004

So after a hard day’s work on Saturday we retired to a neighboring farm for a nice potluck of lasagna, salad, homemade bread, plenty of wine and abundant laughter. We watched one of our hosts ride her horse before turning him out for the night, admired healthy cattle, sipped bourbon and shook our heads at the plight of their tomatoes.

The two native Southerners (out of seven) made conversation about the recent flag controversy. Their significant others wisely refrained from voicing opinions and the conversation moved onto other topics of personal interest. As the summer sun set the dinner dishes were removed and dessert, coffee and that nice bourbon finished off the evening.

We left late, for us country folk, drove down the valley to our farm. We said goodnight to a friend who had ridden along to the dinner with us. And then retired to bed.

This morning we had an early breakfast, loaded up the kayaks and spent a pleasant hour paddling about the still waters of the Tennessee River. Trying not to recall the warnings not to eat fish from the river we admired the herons fishing. And glided past largemouth bass laying up in the shadows.

I fixed us root beer floats in early afternoon. Then after a much needed nap, a productive afternoon hunting chanterelle mushrooms was on the agenda, netting about a pound. I also harvested a nice batch of hen-of-the-woods. So a nice cream and mushroom sauce over a choice bit of lamb or mutton is on the menu sometime in the next few days.

I may still have a bit of sand in the ears. But it wasn’t a bad place to keep my head this weekend.

Death of a Neighbor

When death arrives in the country, the signs go up at the roadside — “Slow: Death in Family” on the front, funeral home name on the back, in case passersby want to send flowers or attend the funeral, or have an ailing relative who might soon need services of his own.

Sometimes we know a neighbor has passed away because of the large number of cars and trucks gathered in the driveway and people congregated on the porch and in the yard, dressed in their Sunday best.

Or, the phone rings and a neighbor who seldom calls lets us know another neighbor is in the hospital or has died.

Or there is new mound of dirt at the Cedar Fork Baptist cemetery.

Or there’s an obituary in the local paper.

This culture likes to think it’s more connected, “wired” in to the world. The reality is that the technology of the day distances us from what matters. That separation has been coming for a century or more, as village life and the interconnectedness of communities have unraveled.

It’s a process accelerated by the arrival of the automobile. A highly impersonal mode of transportation, cheap, motorized travel allowed us to drive away from our community obligations and connections. And now, today’s digital world is putting an end to the daily arrival of the community newspaper, a place where people could peruse the high school football scores, learn who was arrested for drunk driving, read the tedious notes from the county commission, and find out who died.

Our subscription to the local paper lapsed many years ago. Of course, we could still go online to read. That ritual, however, is not the same as sitting down and digesting the local paper over coffee. And for many complex reasons, our new online rituals seldom inform as to the kith part of “kith and kin.” We instead are more current on what Kaitlyn Jenner is wearing or the latest cute cat picture on Facebook.

With the collapse of face-to-face community and the readership of the local paper, so too collapses our local knowledge of the people sharing our surroundings. Sometimes the “Slow: Death in Family” signs don’t go up and we discover the loss weeks or months later, leaving the deceased’s family to wonder why no one grieved with them or offered condolences.

A horrible accident a mile away from our home this week brought home that tragic point. Two cars collided. Three people were airlifted to a hospital and one to the morgue. While speaking with one neighbor about the tragedy, Cindy heard of the sudden passing of another neighbor’s daughter a month ago.

No signs, no gathering of cars, no call, and no dirt in the local cemetery alerted us — a neighbor who lives directly across from our farm allowed to grieve thinking his neighbor callous or indifferent. True, we were not close, but that would not preclude the courtesy of a condolence.

Odd that, as the world gets smaller, our neighbors get further away.

The South is a Neolithic Fort

It was in a Steak ‘n Shake in Georgia, standing in a swirl of moderns, with their faux tribal tattoos and piercings, that a small girl protectively held the weathered fingers of her grandfather. He stood erect in his worn overalls, both hands slightly curled, as if gripping the wooden handles of a plow, looking out of place.

The image struck me that all of the people, the building, and the parking lot were intruders and interlopers, a mirage. That the old man was standing in the same pose, in the same place in a tobacco plot, hands gripped just so around the plow handles, two mules out front and a granddaughter by his side.Plow handles 001

The South is like this. Sometimes it is a Neolithic fort in the landscape. A slight rise in the ground indicating the presence of a past for those who can read it. A place full of relics and behaviors that are deemed out of place in a culture easily bored and distracted. It is not a landscape easily read by the digital world or understood by soundbite.

It has a people, black and white, who are looked down on and discarded because they have not adapted quickly enough. Modest people who don’t know that a paved parking lot has more value than a small field of their own. It has an agrarian soul and a heart that still beats.

This South is a run-down home, chickens scratching around the yard. Its roosters crow at all hours, riling the neighbor from up north who built a McMansion next door, an outsider who did not know pigs can stink. It is a make-do world where fences get built out of scaffolding discarded by a now defunct warehouse, a world often stubbornly ignorant of the rewards of nine to five and cultures bought and traded on Netflix.

It is a world that doesn’t easily discard anything, even the burdens of the past. A world easily mocked with sitcom humor, by a world in which advanced degrees in identity politics measure a culture to the failed standard of a “New Man” emerging.

Drive down the backroads of our valley and find gatherings of men sitting on shaded porches in the midday heat. Surrounded by well-tended gardens, with chickens scratching and kids in the dirt, they talk sedition and plot the downfall of the moderns. An elaborate plan called Waiting Them Out. Meanwhile, they buy nothing new, grow their own food, slaughter their own chickens, hunt their own game, and grip the handles of the plow.

Join them if you wish … or not, they don’t care.

 

John Muir the full moon (and the wallow)

Farm in May 033I have family visiting this weekend. And with forecast highs of 97 degrees we may all take our cues from Delores and find a nice wallow. So, I leave you with this older post on John Muir and our full moon.

Talk with you next week,

Brian

 

In 1867 naturalist John Muir walked from Indianapolis, IN to Key West, FL. He crossed into Tennessee through the Cumberland Mountains, almost getting robbed by former soldiers as he walked towards Kingston, our county seat. The account of that trek is absorbing reading for both his natural observations and those of a walk through a defeated land. From Kingston to Philadelphia, TN his walk took him through narrow slanting valleys. There are only a couple of narrow slanting valleys that would get you from Kingston to Philadelphia. So it is a good bet that 145 years ago John Muir walked by our farm.

Muir popped into my head this morning, as once again, I watched the sun light up our land. On Thanksgiving morning I woke early and walked to the top of the hill. As the pilots say, “above the clouds the sun is always shining”. At the top of the hill the sun was indeed up and striking the tops of the trees. Over the next hour the light gradually filtered down into the valley. Not fully illuminating our farm until half-past eight, almost exactly one hour from sunrise. It was another thirty minutes before the sun struck the creek bottoms giving light to our nearest neighbors.

Watching that sunrise reminded me of the pleasure we get out of a full moon. On the night of a full moon we walk to the top of the hill, sit in our folding chairs and watch that spotlight come over the hill. You know that great illusion, the one where the size is magnified by its relation to the horizon. As soon as the size diminishes, about ten minutes after rising, we walk back to our home. Where we set the chairs up and watch the moon rise again. Once it diminishes in size we jump in the truck and drive to the bottom pasture where we get to watch it rise for a third time within an hour. Actually, we think, this is a pretty cool trick for our nearest satellite, as well as cheap entertainment for the rustics.

Hopefully Muir enjoyed the same show as he walked through our valley.

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Reading this weekend: Waking Up To The Dark: ancient wisdom for a sleepless age by Clark Strand (2015). A quick read, of some interest to me, about the impact of light on our nature. Ultimately it was more than a bit too new-agey for my tastes.

Apex of Evolution

Looking down at a long row of spiny pigweed intercropped with my crowder peas, a minor cousin of weltschmerz washes over me. Seemingly sprung to life overnight, the pigweed’s thorny presence towers above the peas planted six weeks ago. A clear challenge to my abilities, perhaps even to my character.

But what is this I’m feeling? What form of cowardice is this to shrink back from the world because a weed persists in an unwelcome spot? Did we rise up out of the dust of the Cretaceous for me now to recoil from this foe? Will I accept defeat?

I throw down my warrior’s implements, grab a beer, and retreat to the hammock. Perhaps after the next extinction event runs its course the spiny amaranth will develop consciousness and proceed to do better than we have with this poor planet.

Battling prickly foe hadn’t been the first challenge of the day. Earlier, I had tried to caponize a cockerel for the first time. The procedure entails cutting between the second and third rib of a young bird, extracting the male internal reproductive gland, then allowing the skin to snap back. A caponizing kit laid neatly on the table—rib spreaders, probe, scalpel, another instrument not listed in any inventory—I strapped the cockerel down with cord. Gripping the how-to pamphlet in my left hand, I picked the pin feathers away with my right.

Instructed by the pamphlet to follow the hip bone and find the ribs, I swabbed the designated section with rubbing alcohol and probed with my index finger, counting: one rib, two ribs. Rib spreaders standing by, I grabbed the scalpel and made ready to make the incision.

But where did the ribs go? They had seemed so clearly in evidence only a second before. The scalpel hung like Damocles’ sword over the little bird. “Make the cut anyway; you’ll figure it out,” I told myself. I hovered, the bird passively awaiting his fate.

Loosening the cord, I picked up the cockerel and released him back, unscathed, into the population of would-be gumbos and coq au vins blithely scratching about the farm. The capon of Christmas future will be created by a different surgeon, one of courage and surer anatomical knowledge.

I retreated to the garden, certain at least of my competence in that department. The eyes of 10,000 years of agriculture followed my movements with intimate nods of confidence.

Ah, for the simple joy of the hammock. This I can do.

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Reading this week: Lesser Beasts: a snout to tail history of the humble pig, by Mark Essig. Another nice addition to bookshelf on the rich history of the pig.