Randy dogs, mutton and French country food

Ah, spring! It brings the lovely smell of the Viburnum in the morning. And neat rows of weed free cabbages, onions, garlic, lettuce, potatoes and kale in the garden. An image that I’ll need to remember after the inevitable weekend rains wreak havoc on my plans for order.

Baby chicks hatched out underneath one of our hens last night. And both of our English Shepherds are in heat, leaving me patrolling the boundary lines with my pellet rifle looking out for unwanted males. Looking, I’m sure, like either a member of the Michigan Militia or a father greeting his daughter’s prom date.

The past couple of days we spent in Asheville celebrating an anniversary by dining at the terrific Bouchon on Friday night and attending the Mother Earth News Fair the next morning. I sat in on a well-done workshop on butchering mature sheep (mutton). With overhead cameras in place, the presenter, Adam Danforth, broke down a whole carcass in an hour and half. The crowd was perhaps a bit over enthusiastic when he cleaved the skull and removed the brains. Meanwhile Cindy went to a workshop on turning household wastes, both kitchen and toilet, into usable gas.

After the workshops we visited the food trucks and then hit the main event: the vendor hall. A couple of hours later we left with more books than we will ever read, watched a portable sawmill in operation, ate some goats-milk ice cream, talked with some editors from various publishing houses and in general had a great time. I got Adam to sign his book: Butchering: poultry, rabbit, lamb, goat and pork: a photographic guide.

Harnessing Ginger to a stone-boat

Harnessing Ginger to a stone-boat

 

After getting home yesterday evening, completing our chores we turned in early after dinner. Today we will work Ginger on removing some downed trees. She is our Haflinger/Suffolk cross draft horse. After many years of fiddling about with different horses we think she will be the one to help us displace some of the fossil fuel we burn on this farm.

Already she has hauled fencing supplies to remote corners of the farm and will haul logs in our woodlot management program. Hard to convey how exciting it was, after many false starts over the years, to successfully have a horse haul a heavy load without pawing the sky above my head, wrapping the load around a tree or taking off for parts unknown.

So, spring is our season for hope. Whether a randy dog, hopeful gardener or budding teamster it embodies that annual wish to get it right, make a new start.

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Reading this weekend: Mushroom: a global history by Cynthia Bertelsen.

When Everything Falls Apart

Having just finished planting my sugar peas, I stepped back and mulled over topics for this weekend’s farm note. The peas are planted in a small bed in front of the potting shed, a sheltered area I’m hoping will stay cool enough to still yield a crop for the table in late May or early June. Fresh from plunging my hands in the dirt, I thought, perhaps I’ll write about the sense of touch?

Then I recalled a conversation with a friend this past week: “We know where to go when everything falls apart,” he said. I laughed for a couple of reasons. First, a recent blog I’d read had touched on that very comment. Second, if every friend or family member acted on that impulse, our small farm would quickly become overpopulated and over-used.

Now, people partly say that to express appreciation for the hard work we put into maintaining our farm. Perhaps, too, they say it to acknowledge the vague doubt that the system of global growth can continue forever. It is perhaps hardwired in our DNA to expect bad things to happen—a poor crop, a midnight raid on the village, the Black Death, a new religion and its accompanying war.

I’m not able to see into the future. But it is reasonable, based on human history, to expect periodic boom and bust cycles. And, I’m of the camp that believes that our increased ability to strip-mine the environment has led to a host of problems that may very well take the gloss off our shiny gadgets.

But here is some advice to everyone who wants to “bug out” to their friends’ or family’s farm in the event of the next depression, pandemic, or climatic catastrophe. Get to know your neighbors, wherever you live. Make that the start of your new community. Remember, community begins at home. Then learn to grow some food. Building community and producing your own food will do more to bring you security than hightailing it to the hinterlands.

By all means put some food aside for emergencies. But know this: it might be better to plant a few peas in that unused area by the garage, kale along the driveway, or potatoes over the dog’s grave.

You might find, as my cousin in Beaumont, Texas, has discovered, that you don’t need seventy acres of land to have a good amount of food security. In his small backyard he grows enough produce for his family, with plenty to spare for the weekly farmer’s market. And he has earned a place in the community from taking an active part in his town and church for many years.

So grow something and give it to the neighbors you just met. Those acts of growing and becoming part of your community are better security than any bug-out plan you might dream up.

Besides, our farm really doesn’t have room for all of you.

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Reading this weekend: The Mammoth Book of Best British Mysteries, because sometimes you just need a break.

A Pig Called Snowflake

We knew the time was near, even though we didn’t know the date. Early Monday morning I turned out to do the chores while Cindy headed off to work. I started with the feeder pigs behind the equipment shed, then the chickens and finally off to see Snowflake. Her farrowing date was at hand. She had lost her entire litter the summer before. Was it to do with the heat or some other factor we had not determined? Ultimately we decided to give her another chance.
 
She had been showing a heavy belly for the past few weeks. But her appetite remained healthy. Sometime on Saturday she began gathering sticks and bringing them into her shelter to create an uncomfortable-looking nest. I removed the sticks and brought her more straw bedding, taking the time, as always, to pat her and chat for a few moments.
 
Strolling down into the woods, calling her name, I knew it had begun. No answering snorts to my call, her 350-plus-pound bulk nestled in the hay. I opened the gate. As I approached, Snowflake was on her side groaning, in heavy labor. One small and very active piglet dashed around her. I knelt down to examine her. No distress, so I rearranged the hay and went back to the house to work.
 
I checked on her every hour. By eleven o’clock in the morning, no additional piglets had been born. A hasty call to Cindy and we both agreed to call the vet. As bad luck would have it our vet was at a rodeo in Oklahoma City. He called back on his cell phone and gave me the number of several vets in the area: I left a message with all.
 
A vet in Riceville, 30 miles away, called me back. Typical of a Monday morning, he was covered up in emergency calls. He advised me to put my hand up her birth canal and check to see if there was a piglet blocking the path. If that was the case, I was to remove it and let her get on with the farrowing. He was concerned that she might not have the energy to deliver the rest of the piglets and gave me instructions that included feeding dog food, peanut butter and tums tablets (for calcium). Additionally, I was to give her a shot of oxytocin to induce contractions if she did not deliver another piglet.

OK, I’ve seen All Creatures Great and Small, so how difficult could this be? With some trepidation, I gathered up the Vaseline, scrubbed my arm and went back out to the paddock. Snowflake had meanwhile shifted her body so her butt end was against the back wall. I slathered on the Vaseline and inserted first my fingers then my hand up to the forearm. I could feel the piglet blocking the birth canal, head back. Snowflake howled with pain. After a few fruitless minutes I extracted my hand.
 
Back in the house I called Cindy and asked her to come on home. Before agreeing, she said, “I thought you had watched all of those James Herriot TV shows!” I went back out to put my TV vet knowledge into practice. This time I pushed all the way to my elbow. I pushed with the tips of my fingers on the small body blocking the cervical opening to the birth canal. After a few minutes I was able to snag a leg and begin the process of pulling the piglet out. It was dead, as expected. I left Snowflake in hopes that she would get on with the job.
 
Meanwhile Cindy arrived home and I brought her up to speed. We checked on Snowflake and found that no more piglets had arrived. Cindy called our dog vet to see if we could get a shot of oxytocin to induce contractions. The officious gatekeeper at the counter told her, “WE DON’T TREAT PIGS!” “We are not asking you to treat pigs—we are asking for a shot of oxytocin.” “Miss, we can’t hand out injectable drugs to the public.” Cindy: “This pig could die”. The gatekeeper: “Your human doctor wouldn’t give out drugs over the phone.” Cindy hung up.
 
Calling another vet clinic, she explained the circumstance again. This time, they immediately said that they would have the injection at the counter waiting. I headed out for Crossville, an hour away, to meet two customers picking up our beef at the processor. Cindy headed half an hour the opposite direction to the vet.
 
Returning home two hours later, I found her in the house. She had given the injection and contractions began, but still no delivery. She had to repeat the Vaseline procedure and hand remove all of the piglets. Snowflake ended up delivering four more, each one dead.
 
Here we were again. A sow on her second chance with what we, and our farm vet, felt was some congenital defect preventing a successful farrowing. What do we do?
 
I left on Tuesday morning for a work trip, the one remaining piglet doing ok—but, Snowflake not moving or eating. Upon my return Wednesday evening, the lone piglet had died. Now we were faced with the decision: We can’t sell her for breeding stock. We can’t keep her as a pet. We can’t afford to give her a second chance. And, we don’t have a customer for the meat. We made our decision.
 
Thursday morning, after Cindy left for work, I went to see our sow and brought my Winchester 30/30. She was in her hut. I knelt down and talked to her while I stroked her massive head. Standing up quickly, I raised the rifle and fired one shot aimed directly between her eyes. She died instantly.
 
Livestock serves a real purpose of providing protein in a convenient package. I am comfortable with the choice of being an omnivore. And, I’m equally comfortable with the decision to put her down. Still, she was a beautiful pig called Snowflake.

This Farm Note from the archives was written in April 2011. This is before I began to regularly post on the blog. The Farm Notes began in 1999 and were shared for those years with a group of friends and family. Over the coming year I will post periodically from those archived Notes.

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Reading this weekend: An Island in Time: the biography of a village by Geert Mak. A well written work examining the decline of a specific village in the Netherlands; and the larger decline of village life globally.

Local Honey

We are, by nature, a peripatetic people, ever since we walked out of Africa, many millennia ago. But, considering our countless generations of mass migrations as peoples, we remain devoted to the idea of home. We aspire to be part of something, as Wes Jackson would say, “native to this place.”

Yesterday, after an extended morning of physical toil, we took an afternoon drive to Spring City. We left our farm for a relatively short drive of 24 miles. Passing the dam on the Tennessee River, in the shadows of the cooling towers at the Watts Bar nuclear power plant, we arrived in Spring City in mid-afternoon.

Word had reached our farm that our beloved Sweetwater vegetable market had reopened, or perhaps always had had, another store in this town. Indeed, it was tucked away on a small back street, with a modest early-spring assortment of plants, seeds and vegetables. I was looking for a local source for a couple of pounds of turnip seed. Cindy was looking for some forsythia. We came away with a flat of 25-50 Red Acre cabbage starts, a few forsythias and a jar of honey.

Last fall, we lost all four hives of bees. We first felt the loss as a failure on our part. And we still do, but the recrimination has been lessened by hearing of countless losses by other beekeepers in our area the past year. Not having bees at the moment has left us without any of our own honey, so we asked the Spring City proprietors if they had any local honey. Sadly they shook their heads, pointing to what they did have to offer, resting on a shelf.

I picked up a jar of honey­–gathered by a beekeeper in Sweetwater, Tennessee, 25 miles away across the valley. In an era of global trade, on our vast continent, in one of our 50 states, in the eastern part, in a large valley, the distance between two small towns that are in essence neighbors, this jar of honey was deemed “not local.” Some might consider that parochial; I consider it hopeful.

In the vast scheme of time, our movements have covered the globe. But our view is still constrained by the horizon and our lifespan. Our needs remain personal and consistent, native to our own place in that history of migrations.

And maybe that is enough.

A Farm Toolbox: the T-Post Driver

When reaching for the t-post driver one knows they are in for a workout. A two-foot cast iron pipe, capped on one end, with handles on each side, it is used to drive a t-post into the ground. It weighs 25 pounds. A t-post is a steel post, typically six feet in length, used to support fencing such as barbed wire. Slip the driver over the post, level the post in all directions, then raise the driver up and bring it down with force. Repeat until the post is buried a foot in the ground.

T-post driver 2 001Its design is simple, primitive and highly effective. Brute energy directed on a single point accomplishes the task in short order. We have set over a thousand t-posts with the driver on our farm. Unlike its cousin the rock-bar, the driver has no other function. It hangs in the barn on its lonely hook for months at a time.

Many have been the day when, with the driver in one hand and several t-posts in the other, I’ve hiked a half-mile to a back fence. There to retire an old wooden post or two that had finally rotted away into mush. Or, other days, setting a new row of fifty posts, Cindy and I take turn pounding them into the dirt.

The act itself, the methodical raising and hammering down, is thoroughly satisfying. A release of accumulated aggressions into a constructive channel; where the ache between your shoulders the following day is an echo of work well done. And a sturdy fence, well made, is a reminder of the value in physical toil.

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Reading this weekend: In Ruins by Christopher Woodward. A hard to characterize book, it is part travel writing and part meditation on the attraction of ruins. Think Ozymandias meets Haunts of the Black Masseur and you might be close.

A Good Day

Even the knowledge that the cardboard box I had just thrown on a roaring fire in the burn barrel contained 200 onion sets could not diminish the joy of a beautiful Saturday morning on the farm. These late winter days, with frost on the ground at daybreak, but whose clear skies promise warm temperatures by late morning, are pure gold.

Cindy was off early to catch a flight to Florida leaving me to my own devices. So Caleb and I spent the morning knocking off items on the to-do list. Principle among them were to move about ten cubic yards of compost from the pile to the spring garden. Once that was done I tilled the space and we put in two hundred feet of potatoes and onions (I had run out and bought replacements), and some kale and turnips. It was a good start for the season.

A good to-do list needs to be slightly ambitious, with more than one can easily do in the allotted time. But not so much more that you are discouraged by the tasks undone. It should also contain small items that are easily accomplished so that you feel that satisfaction from checking them off the list. And, it should contain larger projects that may not be completed in one day. But, by at least making a start, you will be closer to their completion.

A good day on the farm, for me, begins with the practical completion of the to-do list. But it always includes good companionship from Cindy, neighbors and friends. A shared cup of coffee or a meal and good conversation adds depth to the good work of the day. Our former farm volunteer, Hannah, came by last evening for that shared cup of coffee and a good conversation. She had been out hiking with a mutual friend and had that healthy glow and exuberance one experiences at twenty-one.

But a good day should also include solitude, perhaps a bit of reading, maybe a good cigar and a walk. So I dropped all of those into the afternoon by rereading Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History and smoking that cigar while checking on the cattle.

After Hannah left, I fixed myself a small lamb roast, an onion and chard tart and had a few glasses of wine before an early night. I’d have to rank the day pretty high on the satisfaction scale.

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Reading this weekend: The Sixth Extinction: an unnatural history by Elizabeth Kolbert. Equal parts fascinating and truly depressing, she focuses on the current sixth wave of extinction in the history of our planet. It is principally caused by that widely spread bipedal weed, and that fact alone should leave us feeling ashamed.  Is it an act of cognitive dissonance to derive so much pleasure from your days and yet know that one’s actions collectively are causing so much destruction?

Loading Hogs

I’ve fallen in the pig paddock, face first and full on my chest. Three inches of muck, ice, snow, and manure cover me and my brand new Carhartt vest; a stampede of 300-pound hogs thunders past and over me. Standing up and trying to sling off the mud, it occurs to me that there must be a better way to spend one’s leisure time.

Nine days earlier we had a heavy snow, followed by a week of below freezing temperatures. The first few days are idyllic, pristine white landscape, the road quiet at the bottom of our hill. Then a week goes by with my truck parked at the base of our gravel drive: three-tenths of a mile of snow-covered ice and my four-wheel isn’t working.

Meanwhile, we have three hogs destined for market. During lunch one day, I go outside and set a four-square of T-posts around the feeder and the gate into the wooded pig paddock. I then hoist through the snow and mud four corral panels, each 14 feet long. Lashing the panels to the T-posts creates a makeshift holding pen with the gate on one end and an opening into the paddock on the other.

The plan is to entice the three hogs into the pen—somehow keeping the other nine out—open up the gate, and let the anointed amble into the stock trailer. What could go wrong?

I back the trailer near the paddock gate, set up another panel between it and the gate, and swing the trailer door open to create a neat second enclosure for the chosen three. I go back in the house to work until Cindy gets home.

Around 5, we head out to the paddock with a bucket of corn and two dozen eggs. Pigs are curious creatures and soon a crowd is gathered ’round. The first hiccup becomes quickly apparent. Even though the electric fence has been disconnected, they all give the open gate a wide berth.

Then the second flaw: With all of the snow, much of it now melted, the area around the feeder is inches deep in muck. Each time we toss an egg, it promptly sinks from view. And the third: How does one entice a passel of pigs with a bucket of grain when they already have mounds available in the free-choice feeder?

It becomes a dance, albeit a frustrating one of two left feet. Get one or two pigs in the enclosure, close the outer panel, watch them panic and, using their snouts, toss the panels aside. This goes on for close to an hour, with Cindy and I both becoming increasingly ill-humored and mud-spattered. Finally, we manage to get one hog into the trailer and closed off in the front compartment. We have three eggs left to entice the remaining two hogs. At this point, my hands are cut and my sleeves are caked to the elbows in mud.

It is at this juncture that an opportunity presents itself, when two hogs step over the invisible line and lumber toward the trailer. Cindy is before them, dropping the last eggs to lure them on. I’m in the rear, unlashing a panel to slide in behind them and block their escape.

I guess it’s the racket of the panels and the trailer, but about the time I make to slide the panel behind them, they break for cover. They spook all the other pigs, and together they take down all four panels and run to the other side of the wooded paddock. That is when I fall into the muck—my fall being temporarily broken by a spike of metal that rips through the seat of my pants, my boxers, and my buttock.

I stand up, pants tattered, the cold wind whipping through the fabric onto my bleeding cheek, determined to prove my superiority. I began to hurl the panels about in a tantrum. Cindy suggests we break for coffee.

After stripping on the porch and having my wounds attended to, I sit down with Cindy to regroup. A new plan emerges: an extra panel, more chains to hold them together, extra eggs from the coop to entice the two hogs, a couple of wheelbarrows of hay. We march back out with new confidence.

We toss hay in front of the trailer to give the illusion of comfortable bedding and create easier purchase into the trailer. Perching our eggs on the edge of the trailer within easy reach, we chain the panels tight and call the hogs. They come running. In fairly short order, we manage to get one into the trailer. We call it quits. Two hogs in the trailer does indeed beat 10 in the bush.

Meanwhile, the truck to pull the trailer is still halfway down the drive. I had last tried to move it mid-afternoon. Tossing the keys to Cindy, I sit down on the stoop of the potting shed to watch her attempt. Success! Another 30 minutes and we have the trailer hooked up, have all the chores done, and are in the house at 8 p.m. Is it any wonder we work two full-time jobs to pay for this kind of leisure activity?

And the damnedest thing? We get to do this again tomorrow evening with another group of hogs going to market.

This Farm Note from the archives was written in January 2011. This is before I began to regularly post on the blog. The Farm Notes began in 1999 and were shared for those years with a group of friends and family. Over the coming year I will post periodically from those archived Notes.