Going Rogue

We spent last evening having dinner with some friends, staying late at their farm, and enjoying some great home cooking. We followed up dinner with an excellent apple cake by our host and some of my muscadine port. That fact, combined with the need today to slaughter an injured pig, mill many trees loaded with apples and pears, leaves me leaving you with one from the archives.

Saturday morning: With no warning the steer turned in open field and charged head on at Cindy and her horse. It hit her Morgan squarely in the chest, throwing her backwards. Cindy went flying, making a rough landing on her back and neck. Stiff and sore all week, she was reminded why she wears a helmet.

The young steer, just 425 pounds, turned and ran down the hill, leapt a fence and disappeared into the woods. Cindy returned to the barn and took off the saddle. I put away the tack and returned Oksana to the field. We left the steer behind, wherever he had gone.

The night before: We had bought him, along with four other steers, the previous day. The farmer 20 miles to the south, with a large acreage devoted to purebred Angus. The old man introduced himself as “the “M” in L&M Motors” (a local auto dealership). He had a dozen or so calves to select from for our needs. We bought five of similar weight. While loading, one steer was spinning around, in mad desperation trying to escape. We gave it little thought.

We hauled the trailer back to our farm, and I backed it up to the outer corral. The outer corral is fenced with barbed wire, while the inner corral is oak slats. Cindy hopped out of the truck and opened the gates and the door to the trailer. The steers ran out. I pulled away and parked the trailer.

We typically leave new livestock up for a few days to make sure they settle down and have no health issues before releasing them onto pasture. As we walked back out to inspect our new steers, Cindy said, “I thought we bought five.” In the 15 minutes it had taken to close the gates and park and unhook the trailer, one steer had leapt the fence and was nowhere to be seen.

After watering and feeding the steers, we spent a few fruitless hours looking for the steer. He was not to be found anywhere on the property, pastures or woods. If he didn’t show up it would be a heavy financial loss.

Saturday morning. The next morning when we headed out to feed, the calf had reappeared in the upper pasture with the older steers. Cindy saddled Oksana and went to move the partial herd down to the barn with the new steers. The older steers turned toward the barn. The young steer threw his head back and ran for the woods.

Cindy took followed on horseback moving the steer along the fence. Cue the aggressive turn and the aforementioned collision.

We have dealt with many frightened cattle before. But this was the first truly aggressive, belligerent and dangerous one. When he knocked Cindy off the horse, leapt the fence and disappeared, we wished him Godspeed to the next county. We went ahead and let the other steers out to join the primary herd.

Sunday morning. Sunday dawned and I did the morning chores, once again counting an extra steer in the herd on the hill. He’s back. Cindy wanted him gone from the property. I, not having witnessed the previous day’s assault, was inclined to let him settle down. After all, we had had wild livestock before that had grown docile.

Cindy was adamant. Later in the day I noticed a group of steers heading to the barn… The rogue steer was among them. We closed the gate to the inner corral. With Cindy at the gate, I began to move the other steers out. Cindy would swing the gate open and closed as needed. Meanwhile I kept a close eye on the crazy one. He was running wildly around the corral, head thrown back, tail swishing, looking for a way to escape. The other steers were docile and filed out, leaving him alone. I exited the inner corral.

Even though the wooden corral fence was high, we were both concerned he would go back over and once again take to the hills. So when he ran into the barn, I swung the gate closed quickly behind him. Snorting like a bull in the matador arena, he turned on a dime and charged full force at me, bouncing off the metal gate. I instantly became a believer: away with him to the stockyard.

But how to load the little bugger? We dropped a water trough over the gate and I began filling it. It only agitated him more, and he began to charge at everything in his vision–the floor-to-ceiling metal barn door, the walls, and the trough. I gave him some hay, thinking that might calm him down. He swished his tail, looked me in the eye and resumed the charge.

About this time friends arrived for dinner, on their way back from a sustainable farming conference in North Carolina, headed to their farm outside of Nashville. We showed them the rogue steer–he greeted them by climbing the walls.

Monday morning. Monday morning broke, Cindy went off to work, and I worked from home on the computer. As soon as Cindy got home, she called the stockyard in Athens. They were taking cattle until 8 in the evening for the Tuesday noon sale. I was still hoping the steer would magically disappear. She insisted we try to load him.

It took only a few minutes to hitch up the trailer and back it to the corral gate. By now it was dark. The steer thundered around in the barn. We turned the corral and barn lights on and began to set up the corral panels, interlocking 16-foot metal panels used to create a chute to drive docile animals into the trailer.

Nerve wracking it was to have him snorting and charging up the chute, and then back to the barn, only the panels separating us, but after about five runs, he finally ran into the trailer. Cindy, who had been in the barn, on the opposite side of a gate, waving her arms trying to move him out, sprinted to the trailer at my hoarse yelling of “HE’S IN, HE’S IN!” and slid the trailer door closed. Surprisingly, the whole operation went fairly smooth. We were both nonetheless sweating.

We made good time to the stockyard, ran the gauntlet of pin hookers. A pin hooker is an old-fashioned term for men who buy cattle at cut-rate prices. The name was given to Yankees after the Civil War who came down and preyed on a defeated country, offering low prices to people who had no other recourse but to sell. It is still used for people who buy and sell on the cheap. As I drove the trailer up to the gates, they gathered on both sides.

“What do you want him for him?” “What do think he will bring?” “I hear you, but what do you really want to get for him?” “Well, you won’t get that much. I’ll take him right now.” “What do you think he weighs, and how much per pound do you want? I’ll give you $200.”

Cindy and I resisted their not-so-enticing offers and put him in the auction for the following day. The check came in the mail on Friday, and we barely made back the money we’d put into him. Last night we walked up among our peaceful herd, grazing and paying us no mind.

As it should be….

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Reading this weekend: Hot Earth Dreams: what if severe climate change happens, and humans survive? by Frank Landis

South of the River Revisited: Thoughts on Rural Resilience

My bookishness, my Louisiana childhood, my habit of looking at a rooster at the end of his procreational contributions and seeing a pot of coq au vin — sometimes I feel the odd duck in this Tennessee valley. But what I and my neighbors do share is a respect for the land, work, and community and the pleasure that comes from doing for yourself.

The homes in this valley are often unattractive, built piecemeal, their landscapes strewn with the debris of a wasteful industrial world. But one man’s junk is indeed another man’s treasure. Tell a neighbor that a weld broke on your bushhog and he immediately rummages around in the weeds before emerging with a stack of metal bars from an old bedframe he salvaged from a scrap heap 10 years earlier. “These should do the trick,” he says, then helps you weld the bushhog back together.

This is a poor but resilient rural landscape, a land inhabitated by multi-generation hardscrabblers seeking only privacy and independence. Chickens, a pig, maybe a cow are common even on an acre or two, and often a well-tended garden of tomatoes, okra, and pole beans sits alongside the house or barn.

In our valley, neighbors seldom call a specialist to fix the plumbing or dig out a clogged septic line. They repair tractors, mend fences, wire a barn, butcher chickens, cure hams, make wine, deal with an intruder (With wandering dogs, one old neighbor adheres to the three S’s: shoot, shovel, and shut up), or any of the thousands of other skills essential to living a rural life. They do it all themselves or shout over the barbed-wire fence for help.

A neighbor may help you run the sawmill for an afternoon, accepting payment in a few beers, conversation, and the side rounds from the logs for firewood. When you step into their hot summer kitchen, you may find them hovering over the stove canning endless jars of garden produce. Sometimes you’ll come home to find homemade loaves of bread, a jar of jam, a bottle of fruit wine, or a basket of vegetables leaning against the front door.

For better or worse, our neighbors have a yeoman’s obstinacy to rules and regulations and change. Even after a couple of hundred years (or maybe because of it), they still do not take to outside government intervention with enthusiasm. They prefer to be left alone to live in a manner that has been repeated down through the generations.

And this valley is certainly not unique. Across the continent rural values of community, cooperation, and resilience, while battered, still have life. Perhaps we are fortunate that while the urban centers still glow pink-cheeked with wealth, these rustics have more or less been abandoned to muddle along and do for themselves. It’s that abandonment that has preserved and nurtured self-reliance and partnership.

Definitely not an Eden, theirs is a resourcefulness often born of poverty. But it is one model, of sorts, that offers an emergency escape plan for the hard times to come: a poor people without the necessary capital resources to stripmine the future for their benefit — a gift that this planet might appreciate at this particular juncture in its 4.5 billion years.

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Reading this weekend: various winemaking books. This is the season of country wines. We have a plum mead and elderberry wine bubbling away merrily. 

What Are You Reading

I love books, always have. I grew up in a family that made plenty of space for reading, in a home where the TV was not allowed on after the nightly news. Books were a prominent part of our physical landscape, from the shelf of books in our bedrooms to the bookcase in the living room that was filled with history books.

Fence Pliers in the Library, with....

Visits to the Lake Charles Carnegie Library a couple of times a week during the summer were supplemented by gifts from my grandmother, a librarian, of books deaccessioned from the Acadia Parish Library. And each birthday or Christmas included at least one book as a present. The question “What are you reading?” was raised in each phone call from a relative. Books were then, still are, central to how I understand and experience the world.

As a youth, they took me on adventures and exploration. I sailed on voyages aboard clipper ships, Viking ships, sailing warships. I explored the Rockies with the Mountain Men. I was kidnapped by pirates and later by Indians. I learned to raise a raccoon with Rascal and to navigate the Mississippi with Tom Sawyer. I became a 1930s vet in the Yorkshire Dales and rode with Paul Revere as he raised the alarm to the British invasion.

As an adult, books still provide a bookend to my farm life: a few chapters before sunrise and a bit more before sleep. Visiting others, I’ll gravitate to the bookshelf (or, special joy, bookcase), that semi-public form of autobiography, a map of character, if you will, where the knowledge that a friend has a collection of P.G. Wodehouse means he can be relied on in tough times.

Our culture has changed and people do read books less, sometimes not at all. But it is still a wonderful question to ask, one that teaches if we listen to the answer: What are you reading?

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Reading this weekend: G.K. Chesterton’s biography of William Cobbett

Farm Postcard: busy as, well, bees

Sixty pounds of goodness

Sixty pounds of goodness

We spent a productive morning and afternoon robbing one of the four hives. Sixty pounds of honey later and we are that much sweeter.

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Reading this weekend: A New Green History of the World: the environment and the collapse of nations by Clive Ponting. Seems to be a nice companion piece to Dirt by Montgomery.

The Doldrums of Summer

Heat and sweat 005

Your dear farmer looking for the end of his tether

There is a moment that comes every year, usually about this time, when the heat and humidity kills all ambition on the farm. We stage a coward’s retreat to the inside, where the air conditioning wages war with the mighty forces beyond the walls.

The humid furnace outside is best experienced with quick forays and small bursts of committed energy. Our own response to the heat is mirrored by that of the pets and livestock. The cattle emerge from the woods just long enough to traverse the pasture for a much-needed drink in the pond. There, the catfish have given up emerging from the cool bottom muck until the seasons change.

Upon hearing the door to the house open, Becky, our farmdog, leaves the cool concrete in the workshop to stare out the door and assess. Do they need me? She clearly would rather stay put. But should I be an Englishman who ventures out into the midday sun, she will gladly be my mad dog and join in the folly.

The hogs, even the ones in the woods, spend their days lying on the cooler dirt under trees or in the wallows. Mud coated, they seldom arise even when we come bearing buckets of feed. A snort of acknowledgment, a shrug of massive shoulders, and they burrow deeper into the mud with a reasonable confidence that the feed will still be there when the sun goes down.

Confined at night, the sheep have little choice but to graze during daylight hours. But gone are their enthusiastic bursts from the barn in the mornings. Instead, they cluster in cliques at the door as I open gates to fresh grass. “After you, no, after you” they bleat before grudgingly crossing the corral to the pasture. Once there they feed in brief gorgings before falling back in a controlled withdrawal to the shaded sanctuary of the barn. Their pantings, like so many muffled drums: humph, humph, humph, humph, are steady and insistent and do not subside until long into the evening.

Heat-sapped hens, with parted beaks, panting, stand in the shade of the maple. They mirror most closely how we feel, their wings held out from their sides, much like we would flap a sweaty garment to stay cool. The rooster, his heart not really in his job, makes a few obligatory attempts at coupling. No doubt firing more blanks than bullets in the heat, he finds few partners willing to submit to his brief embrace.

Meanwhile, in a clever adaptation to this misery, the red fox in the nearby woods has taken the opportunity to pluck an unsuspecting young chicken from the pasture in broad daylight. Armed with the instinctual knowledge that all domestic life is locked in a listless stupor, the fox takes advantage of the situation and provides a nice meal for its kits. A minute later, my obligatory dash from the house with shotgun in hand ends with a random desultory blast into the undergrowth, the fox no doubt long gone.

Like the catfish retreating to the muck, I return to my cool study, where, with all ambition withered, I check the calendar, willing it to be any month later than July. I close the shades and lay my head on the desk, and resolve to hibernate until fall.

Farm Postcard: a sigh heard ’round the farm

First tomatoes 002

The first tomatoes of the season, scattered drops before the deluge

“When your first tomato is ripe, take salt and pepper to the garden. Pluck the fruit from the vine. Cut into quarters, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and pop it, a quarter at a time into your mouth. I shall be listening to your sigh of contentment.” Angelo M. Pellegrini

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Reading this weekend: White Goats and Black Bees by Donald Grant, a classic farming memoir set in rural Ireland during the 1950’s and ’60’s.

Thank you, James, Siegfried, and Tristan, Part Two

Our meandering drives in Grainger and Union counties in search of land continued for a year or more before we branched out and ventured into the rural counties west and southwest of Knox County. The west part of Knoxville is an area of seemingly endless suburbs and strip malls that stretch their covetous grip over formerly pristine farmland. It’s a cityscape in which historical markers that record massacres of early Europeans and reprisal massacres of Native Americans hide in plain sight in front of Starbucks and gas stations, made effectively invisible by five lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Biblio throw-down 002Before our exodus, our home, community, and friends were in the north part of the old city. It was a district of neighborhoods with sidewalks, residents relaxing on front porches, and a short bicycle ride to Harold’s Kosher Deli on Saturday mornings. On summer evenings, we’d stroll a few blocks to the old Bill Meyer Stadium to catch a baseball game with friends. The Smokies’ stadium used the adjoining Standard Knitting Mill as the left-field wall. During smoke breaks, the workers would hang out the windows and catch an inning before heading back to the looms.

On our forays into Roane County, we discovered a landscape of small farms and modest homes. Where a hundred grand would buy five acres and a barn in parts of Grainger, the same amount in rural Roane would purchase 70 acres, with a barn, a well, and a garage.

Nonetheless, stumbling blocks abounded before we found just what we were looking for: We looked at and decided to pass on a small farm in North Roane County. There was a reason the lane it was on was called Seed Tick Road. Next, we put a deposit on 50 acres. Between the road and the rest of the property lay 10 acres of rich bottomland. Bottomland that lay in a hundred-year floodplain. Land that had, unfortunately, flooded from road to hill the next time we visited. The neighbors down the road said, “Hundred years? Nah, it happens every three.” We forfeited the deposit and continued our search.

A couple of months more and we stopped one day to look at a parcel on Paint Rock Road. Cindy insisted on knocking on a neighbor’s door to inquire about the price. (I must digress and point out a significant personality difference between Cindy and myself. Knocking uninvited on a door is, in my book, akin to staring at someone with a disability: an invasion of privacy. Cindy sees it through different eyes. She is practical, never met a stranger. If there is information to be gained, she goes to the source. Which is why one night she spent a pleasant while chatting with Wendell Berry on the phone about Red Poll cattle. But that is a story for another day.)

She went up to the door. I stayed in the truck and tried to look apologetic. Cindy stood at the door chatting with the owners; they laughed and invited her in. She disappeared inside, presumably for a Sunday lunch, before coming back out and climbing into the truck. She waved, they waved, and we drove off.

The acreage for sale next to their house was too expensive. But the neighbors steered us down the road, past the Paint Rock Fire Station and Galyon’s General Store, to a 70-acre farm that was in our price range. It had a long drive up a sloping hill to a level area of about five acres, beyond which was a large pasture rising up to the top of the ridge to the east. We got out of the truck and walked the property. It had a barn, a well, and a three-car garage. The former owner had never gotten around to building a house.

The next few weeks moved fast, and by the end of the month we owned a farm with broken-down perimeter fencing, a mortgage, and no farming tools or equipment, and we were living in a garage on concrete floors. And we owned one very pregnant horse for our troubles.

Now it has been close to 17 years, and Cindy still jumps out of the truck to knock on doors, gets invited inside, while I still urge restraint. But we’ve built a house, barns, and numerous other outbuildings. We’ve put up and repaired more fencing than any sensible person would in a lifetime, acquired enough equipment and tools to keep an estate auction hopping for days, and long since paid off the mortgage.

We still go for Sunday drives and still drive past the farm that might have been. And after heavy rains, it still floods road to ridge on that hundred-year floodplain.

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Reading this weekend: Landskipping: painters, ploughmen and places by Anna Pavord