Rain, Music and Old Jackets

It has been a good week. A solid five inches of rain fell on our farm early in the week and we received another inch last night. Maybe not enough to break the drought. But it is enough to give us hope.barn-jacket

It was a week that also ended with an impromptu jam session, after dinner last night, at a neighboring farm. Our epic version of Ring of Fire was definitely one for the record books: with Cindy on the trap-set, Russ on the recorder and bongo, Tim leading on the guitar and harmonica, our northern Alberta volunteer, Stephanie, on banjo, and yours truly, anchoring it all with a steady beat on the wash-tub bass.

That night had capped a day of hard work hauling logs and repairing fencing. It was a cold day with all of us bundled up to stay warm. I wore my old barn jacket. A jacket that is now a veteran of 17 winters on this farm, witness to chicken and hog butcherings, the birth of calves and lambs, occasional falls in muck, and work in the worst weather.

It is not yet ready for retirement.


Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: the secret history and redemptive future of fig trees, by Mike Shanahan. 

The Places in Between

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another favored view on the farm

One of my favorite spots on our farm is not so much a destination as it is a place to pause along the way. Situated between the gates of the upper pasture and the hopper field, it’s the highest point on our land, a resting place where I can linger in the shade of a massive white oak and catch a cool breeze. There are many such places here, spots that collect and funnel the elements or provide an island of calm from the same. In this place, on a warm day, as the breeze blows up from the Shinn field through the hopper field, I’ll turn off the tractor, lean back in the seat, and take a rest

To my south, the upper pasture softly rises and falls across ten acres. At its center is a large dew pond that even in this severe drought remains deep. At the southern end lie the handsome fields of our neighbor Heidi, and far in the distance, on a clear day, the Appalachian Mountain chain is visible to the southeast.

Closer to home, I can see the massive roofs of a handful of McMansions towering above the old pine plantations of Bowater. When the pine monoculture grounded on the shoals of a beetle infestation in the early 2000s, the paper and pulp giant sold off the degraded land to the over-extended. Mainly couples who engaged in a bit of monoculture of their own and built their dream 6,000-square-foot homes-for-two. When the bottom fell through in 2007, many of the homes never got finished. And today, from the vantage point of my tractor seat, the roofs, like mushrooms after the rain, poke up from the dying pine forest, indicating the presence of a larger organism at work.

This restful spot is not only a collector of cool breezes; it’s also an auditory funnel. Sounds that float to me on a hot day archive the life of our valley. Lowell starts his tractor to the south, the Strickland brothers yell to each other as they repair a fence to the east, and Heidi calls out instructions to her daughter in the horse ring, all as roosters crow from every direction, mowers hum in a modern imitation of honeybees, and my dogs yip a sound that tells me a rabbit is giving its mortal best to avoiding an untimely end.

When I’ve taken my rest and am ready to start back to work, it once again occurs to me to erect a bench here, where the fences converge between the fields. My own personal retreat, a place I can visit and while away an hour or two. But I never do, instead opting by inaction to preserve this place as a simple haven for a few stolen moments. Like trying to recreate the magic of a well-remembered conversation, I seem intuitively to know that formalizing this special spot as a designated “peaceful destination” would undo the pleasure I find in a surprise rest from work.


Reading this weekend: A Forest Journey: the role of wood in the development of civilization, by John Perlin

Ten Reasons I’m Thankful This Thanksgiving


A few cisterns in happier times

I’m thankful this Thanksgiving that …

  • The severe drought has made us grateful for the water we have stored in our cisterns and has made us more thoughtful about our usage and plans for conservation.
  • Several years of culling to improve our flock of sheep has paid off. The market wethers are fat and healthy. The ewes are pregnant and lambing season is still a couple of months away.
  • Our hoop house is complete, loaded with greens, and warm on a cold day.
  • Cindy, as my partner, continues to inspire me with her energy, skills, and willingness to share this life.
  • My father, after suffering a stroke this year, is still with us at 89. He continues to find the time to volunteer each week at a local church helping feed the needy.
  • My mother’s eldest sister is still alive and well at 96, the last surviving stalk of that line. She reminds me through her continuing penchant for reading that one’s intellect is a gift to keep and nourish.
  • The Republic still stands even as those on the right and the left trumpet its demise.
  • My blogging friend Clem, with his insufferable positive outlook, reminds me to not herald the end of the world, just yet.
  • My friend Rayna harvested enough pawpaw fruit this year for Cindy to make pawpaw crème brûlée for Thanksgiving dinner.
  • My brothers and I (and a brother-in-law) managed to find the time for a recent get-together. A weekend in the north Louisiana woods eating good food and sitting by a fire is a wonderful tonic for the soul.


Reading this week: Southern Hunting in Black and White: nature, history and ritual in a Carolina community. By Stuart A. Marks.

Using The Odd Bits: Beef Cheek Pastrami

Beef-Cheek Pastrami: before smoking and steaming

Beef-Cheek Pastrami: before smoking and steaming

There is a distinct pleasure in eating well when using the odd-bits, the cast-off and forlorn bits. Those cuts, that when cooked with care and love, result in a sumptuous feast not just an adequate repast. A few years back, over a weekend, I was curing some pork jowls. That process got me to wondering about the cheeks or “jowls” of cattle. A little quick research turned up a recipe for beef-cheek pastrami.

Now, for the past three years, home-cured pastrami is on the menu when we have a steer butchered. That this version is made from a cut typically thrown away is a bonus. And, to my way of thinking, the odd-bits more fully honor our relationship with an animal we have nurtured from birth to death.

This recipe uses a wet-cure process to create the pastrami. It does not create a shelf-stable cured meat. Then again, who would know? With fresh pastrami in the house it doesn’t linger long enough to meet the shelf-stable test.

(My apologies to whomever I originally cribbed this recipe.)

The Brine: bring your brine to a boil and allow to cool. Pour over the beef-cheeks. Cover and store in the fridge.

  • 3 quarts of water
  • 1 cup of kosher salt
  • A few tablespoons of pickling spice
  • 4 teaspoons of pink salt (cure #1)

The Soak: after four days, rinse off the meat and soak in cool water for 8 hours. This will reduce the salt content in the final pastrami.

The Rub: coat the cheeks heavily in the dry rub at least 24-48 hours before smoking. Return to fridge.

  • Several tablespoons of black pepper
  • Several tablespoons of ground coriander seeds
  • A couple tablespoons of paprika

The Smoke: I use a Brinkman smoker, easy and cheap. Smoke for about three hours.

The Steam: Put the cheeks in a small roasting pan and pour a beer around the meat. Cover with foil and put in the oven at 250 degrees for three hours.

The Eating: Do you really need advice? OK. Slice thin and pile high.


Reading this weekend: The Severans: the changed Roman Empire by Michael Grant. A history that examines a period of poor leadership, a bloated government and military, and an overly complex empire.

A Fever In The Night

There’s no measurable rain in the forecast through the end of the year, and a pall of smoke hangs over the valley from wildfires. Firefighters have been flying in from all over the country to help overloaded volunteer fire departments cope with the size and number of blazes flaring up.

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Round bales of hay stored on our farm

I spent much of yesterday hauling and stacking square bales of hay purchased from a farmer two valleys over. With each bend in the road coming and going,­ another dry pond, dead pasture, or dying hardwood came into view. There is a bit of the post-apocalyptic look to this land. The verdant Southeast has been laid low by two years of below normal rainfall. Wells are beginning to run dry; farmers are selling off livestock. The pasture rootstock is at or beyond any quick recovery.

The tried-and-true strategies of rotation, permaculture, and old-fashioned conservation help mitigate the worst effects. Or perhaps “mitigate” isn’t the right word. Defer? Yes, the tried-and-true strategies help defer the worst effects. Mid-south agriculture is based on, depends on, plentiful rainfall, not irrigation — the result of a cornucopia of happy geographic coordinates.

Is this drought a direct result of climate change? It’s impossible to know for sure. Grazing and growing practices are based on the faith that things will continue long term much as they always have. But will our happy coordinates no longer contribute to our abundance? With exceptional droughts and 1,000-year deluges occurring with the regularity of the rising sun, I’m inclined to sound the ram’s horn. I’ve discussed with other area farmers how to prepare for a warmer climate. But what has only become clear in the past few years is that we have to prepare for an unstable climate.

For those who live in the city and buy their meat and veggies at the grocery store or at The Olive Garden, drought and heavy rain are an inconvenience. For those who produce a measure of food for the public, climate instability can be ruinous. For the average rural household of South Roane County, which earns a paltry third of the income of East and West coast city dwellers (low-$20,000s vs. $60,000s), the ability to grow at least some of their own food can mean the difference in surviving and not.

My concerns for the future lie in the intersection of community and self-sufficiency. Thinking of all the rural communities devastated this year by floods in places like the Carolinas and Louisiana, I wonder if those communities will ever come back: the foundations of neighborliness foundering on economic dissolution and post-growth politics. My gut tells me that no one left or right in the political elites really gives a shit. Which in the past has been okay because the rural folks traditionally have made do.

That is, they were able to make do based on the old model. It is this new climate model about which I’m not so sanguine. Sure, we can stockpile our hay, pull our livestock off sensitive hill pastures, nurse our orchards, vines, and gardens with a careful tonic of water (provided it is not stolen by cities at war with us and each other over water stocks). We can make these changes for the short term. But those are actions based on a hope that this is just an aberration, that things won’t get really bad, that the worst imaginings of our mind are like a fever in the night that passes before waking.

My worst imaginings are for uncertainties for which you can’t model an outcome.

Decision Time

A week ago last Thursday I heard what sounded like the hiss of a fire. I sprinted from the kitchen in alarm, only to realize that a hard rain was falling on our metal roof. It ended a short 10 minutes later, giving us a meager two-tenths of an inch, qualifying as the only precipitation in the month of October. Add to it one rainfall in September and another the first of August and we have slipped into extreme drought this early November.January 2015 021

The fields on our farm are rock hard and parched from the topsoil on down. This week we planted our annual garlic crop in a four-inch layer of dust. On a trip to Georgia last Monday, we drove through an hour and half of smoke from the mountains; the newspapers report that north Georgia and Alabama are on fire.

Farming requires an optimism that good times will return sooner than later. But it also requires a pessimism, a conservatism that leads us to prepare for the worst, to be resilient. So we hoard our water supply (when cisterns and well-house spigots are not left on and forgotten absentmindedly). We stockpile hay, we mulch, we sell unused and unneeded equipment, and we cull old, ornery, and unproductive livestock.

Last year also began in drought. A slim first hay cutting forced us to cut our flock of Katahdins by half. Eventually the rains returned, rejuvenating our pastures and restoring our confidence in the number of mouths we could afford to feed through winter and lambing. The 2016 winter-spring lambing season rewarded us with a hefty crop of lambs, and we were able to sell off many of our weanlings, some to customers stocking their own freezers, some to individuals wanting to begin flocks of their own. It’s an annual event that brings in needed farm income and hedges our bets against the future.

In this period of extreme drought, it was with some surprise to us that we purchased another eight ewes and a yearling ram a week ago. The decision was based on simple economics: the ewes were all bred and offered at a price we couldn’t pass up, the owner having sold out because of the drought. We have an adequate stock of hay on hand and assurances to purchase more at pre-drought prices, and with that as security, we made the decision to carry an expanded flock through winter.

Yesterday, after a morning spent castrating piglets, we spent the afternoon working the sheep. We trimmed hooves, wormed a couple, and separated out the rams and market wethers from the ewes. With the ewes beginning lambing season in January, pulling the boys will help the females maintain condition and prevent a late lambing. The males are segregated in another paddock, where the rams will recondition after servicing the ewes and this year’s wethers will continue to grow out before being butchered in February.

The task of separating rams and wethers is always a bit of a rodeo. First we enclose them in a pen, with Cindy working the gate while I wade into the flock. She points and I grab, lifting the chosen one off his front legs. At between 125 pounds for the wethers and 175 for the older ram, the boys give me a workout. Once I have a firm grip, Cindy opens gates and I haul the sheep out to the corral. Then our English shepherd, Becky, moves them to another paddock as the ewes cluster around the gates for the farewell.

Such is the recipe for our farming decisions: pragmatic optimism, seasoned with conservative management of resources; ample hard work; choices made based on what is possible. Ah, that our political leaders adhered to the same.


Reading this weekend: Alternative Agriculture: a history from the Black Death to the present day. By Joan Thirsk

A Crow Perspective: revisited

I have been spending a few days in Louisiana visiting. First with family in Lake Charles and then enjoying a weekend with my brothers and a brother-in-law in a cabin. So, I’ll leave you with this post from the archives on family, mortality and being part of a community.

The wind has been up and blowing hard in the high crowns of the oaks since dawn. The crows seem to love these times, their caws to each other in the trees having only recently returned to the soundscape—a clear indication that fall is near. The crows radiate intelligence and even nobility, black shrouds of solemnity observing the change of the season.

The maple leaves are turning backwards, a prelude to dying in a burst of color in another month or two. The woods are dense with an undergrowth of seedlings and brush. Rabbits seem to occupy the corner of every glance, as does the telltale flag of the deer bounding just out of sight. The high today of 72 is welcome after the recent late-summer blast of 90 degrees.

Last Monday evening Cindy and I were both involved in the type of farming accident that is always lurking in the background. We emerged cut, bloodied, bruised, battered and clothes in tatters. Fortunately neither of us ended up in the hospital, or worse, but for a few minutes that evening, it certainly could have gone either way. The cawing of the crows to each other overhead as we made our way back into the house relayed the news the old-fashioned way.

I left the next morning and caught a flight to my homeland of south Louisiana. It’s a place where the honorific “Mr.” or “Miss” still precedes the first name of an elder when addressed by someone younger. Walking with my dad, now 87, I watched with admiration as he was greeted repeatedly with a friendly “Hello, Mr. Bill.” At a farmer’s market, children approached my sister Kathryn with a respectful “Miss Kat.” At a fast food chain, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the same salutation was used with customers: “Mr. Brian” and I was handed my breakfast.

No crows heralded my arrival or departure from my ancestral home. But none were needed to convey the shades of change coming in the not-too-distant future. Life is, as they say, terminal, and unlike the ancient Romans, we do not need to consult the entrails of a slaughtered bullock to recognize the inevitable change and cycle in life. With my family in the evening, in a house full of laughter, I watched my dad, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The next morning, he was still hale and hearty as we two stood in the graveyard. The tombstones of my mother, sister, and brother and my dad’s mother, aunt, and father stood in front of us. Without sadness, my dad pointed out where he and my stepmother would be buried when their time comes.

Farming, as we do, fine tunes an appreciation of the inevitable cycles of life: butchering a rooster and hearing the peep of newly emerging chicks, delivering a ewe to the slaughterhouse and assisting in the birth of a lamb; helping our old dog as she struggles to rise from stiff slumber and savoring the first tomato of the season, grieving the death of a sister and sharing a glass of wine with her daughter.

The seasons change, the wheel moves, and the crows always return.