The Meaning of a Local Table

Weather records kept on the farm are fairly casual. A semi-frequent journal entry documenting temperature or precipitation is about the best I manage. Those entries are usually prompted by one extreme or another: “too hot” or “too cold.” “Just right” seldom warrants an observation. Thankfully, other, more consistent individuals keep closer watch.Hubbards 002

The local weather keeper for Philadelphia, Tennessee, about 15 miles away, has so far recorded .15 inches for the month of May. My casual recordkeeping indicates closer to a half-inch. The average for the area for the month closes in on five inches.

How rain falls and how it is used is place based. How each farm uses the rain affects the productivity of the garden, the lives of the livestock, and the setting of the table. For maintaining an abundant garden, my preference is the slightly dry summer, as long as we have ample alternative sources to water the veggies, and our fairly extensive rain harvesting system meets that need in all but the most exceptional droughts.

But pastures need rain to be productive for a small livestock farm. Ample forage now for everyday needs and stored forage in the form of hay for the winter are essential. And both are at the mercy of the weather.

The frequency of our rotational grazing system for the sheep currently outpaces the slow growth of the forage: a typical week’s worth of grass is now being consumed in three short days, leaving us scanning the western ridge lines for the approach of rain.

Unless we get ample rain in the next couple of weeks, we will need to reevaluate the carrying capacity of our pastures. This decision will not affect our small cattle herd, for they are on fields ample enough to support their numbers. The grazing options of our sheep, because they require special predator-proof fencing, are much more limited.

So as it stands now, we will cull more sheep than we had previously intended, perhaps reducing the flock by a third, from around 45 to 25 or 30. We cull for a variety of reasons besides grass availability: age, susceptibility to parasites, poor mothering, problems lambing, or because a particular sheep is a simple pain in the ass. Ideally, we would market the ewes as mutton. Direct marketing allows us to get a better price than through the stock auction and rest more comfortably knowing the future of the selected animal.

Mutton has, however, been out of favor in this country for a number of years. Which is a shame. The meat has a mature flavor for a mature taste. It is the taste of a food tradition of place-based eating, a culinary table set with the dishes rooted in necessity and seasonal availability–two traits out of step with our collective national taste, that of a 12-year-old for whom tenderness and immediacy are prized over flavor and quality.

I used to joke that it took 24 months to make my chicken and sausage gumbo. Because it did take two full years to raise out the rooster for the pot. In the meantime, the old boy had plenty of time to be useful to the hens. That utility is the hallmark of the small farm: everything has a place in the overall productivity.

Which is why we continue to try and market the mutton each summer. And not just out of a necessity brought on by a lack of rain. It is the natural ebb and flow of the farmer, farm, and flock–the necessity of an annual cull creates availability of a unique meat for a local cuisine.

But these efforts remain unsuccessful because, although the buying habits of the consumer have changed, they are still predicated on buying for convenience. And as long as the small farm has to compete with corporate farming over convenience, the small farm (and the consumer) will lose. A truly sustainable farm needs a sustainable food tradition with which to partner, combining geography and a people.

In a truly local food system, it is the culture that adapts to the foods’ seasonal availability. The annual coq au vin made from the culled rooster in the fall, the slow-cooked leg of mutton from the culled ewe at the height of summer, both are simmered in a sauce made of freshly grown vegetables, herbs, and garlic. Both meals are place based, with a personal relationship with the farmer, pasture, and garden and seasoned by the utility of the ingredients.

It is this place-based cooking tradition that has the potential to nourish our lives, build resilient communities, and sustain the planet. It’s a local table that speaks about the people of that place, a people who today are scanning the ridge lines for a storm’s approach.

 

An Agrarian Life

“He lives the song he sings just as many of us sing the songs we don’t live.”

–Richard Taylor

 

It is a subject as old as the Roman poets: trying to live the song we sing. No doubt, as long as members of our race have felt consoled by the comforting embrace of empire, they have felt the snare grip their ankle as they tried to reclaim whatever was felt to them as an authentic life.

This blog is about farming, about the life of working the farm and the subtle ways that that life changes the participant. My farm life is a journey. A journey, if you will, about living those songs I sing. A journey that has taught me to live songs, often heard as if at a great distance, with muted lyrics, songs that once learned help loosen the grip of the snare.

Looking back over these 16 years of posts, certain themes regularly emerge: changes by a birth or death, the cycles of seasons, mistakes learned over and over again, the value of a willing partner, the companionship of friends and family, the rediscovery of the art of observing, the liberating value of work performed.

So too revelations of being more profoundly conservative and liberal than previously imagined. Not the conservative mindset of our chattering classes, with their mania of global commerce, their cavalier resource depletion, and their religious litmus tests. But instead, the timeless conservativism of careful consideration to structure, change, technology, land, and relationships. A growing awareness that progress and change, as needed on a farm, best proceed from thoughtful slowness.

And not the liberalism of our contemporary world, a cultural leveling to the lowest common denominator or the mire of identity politics–an effort to redress ills with broad strokes and imperial power–but a liberalism derived out of observation, of slowness, community, and responsibility, that by those acts, the world observed is seen with very different eyes. A narrowing of one’s focus, a localizing of compassion, can flower to encompass a wider realm.

Odd how this life has given this participant an active tolerance and intolerance concurrently: the former for the beauty and diversity of the natural world of which I am a part, the latter for the bad and boorish behavior of our own acts and the larger self-absorbed modernity.

How any of us loosens the snares that bind us is our own journey, our own song. It is, for me, the agrarian life, or at least my own approximation of how it should be lived, that continues to exercise a power to change. I still don’t know if I am living the song. But those lyrics, once muted, are now heard with greater clarity.

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Starting next week this blog will be split into two blogs. One, as yet unnamed, for these types of farm related musings. The second will be published under the farm name. It will address the specific farm life and business. More details to follow so you can decide which to “follow” as well.

Basic Farm Lessons: continued

  • Sky watching: A barn roof on a clear night is the best vantage to watch the Perseid meteor shower.
  • Communication: “I wouldn’t care to” means in these parts “I’d be happy to” … which is, helpfully, less confusing when you hear it uttered in person.
  • Butchering: Scalding temperature for chickens is 140-145 degrees, ducks a bit higher. Temperature for scalding your skin is 140, so scald with care.
  • Service: The postman in the country will hand deliver a card or two to your neighbor, without a stamp.
  • Communication 2: When a neighbor refers to another neighbor as “useless as teats on a boar,” he is not paying a compliment. Typically uttered when referring to a man’s procreative abilities when compared with his working abilities.
  • Forget proposed spaceflights to Mars: The three-point hitch and the PTO (power takeoff) on a tractor represent the pinnacle of modern technology.
  • Communication 3: A direct question seldom receives a direct answer. Usually, a “some might do it that way” is the most definitive you get.
  • Department of nothing-new-under-the-sun: Newly emerged leaves on the sassafras tree taste just like Fruit Loops.
  • Manure: One winter. 49 sheep. Weekly bedding. Result: a pile of manure 16 by 16 feet and up to eight feet tall.

    Manure equals wealth

    Manure equals wealth

  • Butchering 2: One large pizza, 12 beers, a butcher saw, and an assortment of very sharp knives are all three men need to break down a hog carcass on the kitchen table. (OK, and help from two women with the butchering, but not the beer.)

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Reading this weekend (again): The Hour by DeVoto. What is not to love about a man who can write the following opening paragraph: “We are a pious people but a proud one too, aware of a noble lineage and a great literature. Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past, of which by far the worst is rum.”

A Weekend Miscellany

Dinner

  • Ham: cured under the stairs for 16 months. Two slices boiled for ten minutes, fried until crisp.
  • Turnip Greens: steamed in the ham water for a few minutes.
  • Corn: Cooked with honey from our hives.
  • Cornbread: Local cornmeal, eggs from our hens, fresh churned buttermilk from a local dairy.
  • Dessert: cornbread and butter, with Steen’s syrup for me and blackberry honey for Cindy.

 East Tennessee protocol for when to wave or honk

  • Women seldom wave while driving.
  • When standing alongside the road collecting mail or talking with a neighbor one always raises their hand in greeting to passing cars or trucks. But, one rarely looks up at the passing vehicle. Instead slightly incline your head in that direction and toss your whole hand up.
  • While driving your truck never wave at a car unless it is family or a neighbor. Car drivers do not wave.
  • When passing another truck on the road, grip the top of the steering wheel with your left hand and extend your forefinger to the horizontal. If you think you recognize the truck from your section of the valley then extend the forefinger finger to the 2 o’clock position. If it is a neighbor then toss up 2-3 fingers while still keeping your palm on the steering wheel.
  • Horn honking is reserved to two toots. Honking your horn when passing the person or persons by the road, when they have just casually thrown up their hand, says I’m your neighbor. Otherwise, a horizontal one fingered wave is appropriate after the honk, even though they are not looking.
  • Always toot twice when passing a tractor. People who honk once usually accompany the sound with a raised index finger. Be a good neighbor.

 

Top 3 signs your dog is coming into heat

  • The other dogs become aggressive.
  • The male dogs stop eating.
  • The male dog practices mounting Forsythia bushes, rocking chairs, bales of hay or if you are not careful….

 

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.