The Good Tenant

I look on as the last of our Red Poll herd clambers aboard the trailer, bound for a farm in Southern Illinois. One lone steer remains behind, with nothing but ewes and lambs for company. Around the corner, the Barred Rocks and Brown Leghorns scratch for bugs, totally indifferent to the leaving. The pigs in their paddocks, still sleeping off their dinner repast, are oblivious to all but dreams of breakfast.

To run a small diversified farm is to live within the wheel. It turns for the seasons, for the markets, for the climate. We have spent these many years planning, building, and repairing the infrastructure to support multiple endeavors, to make the farm resilient, to create and sustain a place where the absence of one species simply indicates another cycle, unremarked in the larger scheme.

Livestock live their lives out here, with their offspring raised, fattened, and slaughtered. Crops are planted, watered, and harvested. Dinners are planned, cooked, and enjoyed. The refuse is gathered, emptied, and composted. Wheels within wheels, seasons within seasons, years within years. Everything is done within a scale that is appropriate to our abilities, our infrastructure, our needs.

Some wondered, with the sale of the cattle, if we were scaling back, down, in retreat. They deconstructed the act, examined the entrails, to discover more than was presented. But if they had taken a closer look and a broader view, they would have seen a panorama painted over seventeen years, and one that continues to unfurl.

In that big picture, the beautiful snow in winter becomes a distant dream come the dry, hot summer and chicks in the spring lead to a convivial table in the fall. A herd of cattle is followed by a flock of sheep; a harvest of potatoes is replaced by manure and then a crop of beans. The one true constant in all is the turning wheel that brings the careful observer into active participation.

The small farm is itself a participant workshop of opportunities and dreams. It’s a place that, if we will read the cycles, does not scale up or down, but in a circle. A place where the new becomes the old becomes the new again, all within a framework of what is reusable, possible, and desirable.

Yet, as well as we live within the wheel, we are but fleeting stewards. The farm belongs not to us but to a much more demanding landlady, one who insists on her share of the successes and who is unforgiving of our failures. The panorama she paints is of billions of years, not a mere seventeen. And while capricious in her communications — railing one minute and calm the next — she is nonetheless predictable to a degree. Our challenge is to watch out for her moods and scale appropriate to what she will allow, knowing that when we are done the tenancy of our land reverts back to her.


Reading this weekend: The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland, by John Lewis-Stempel.


16 thoughts on “The Good Tenant

      • By all means – put a Cbus dinner on your social calendar.

        Pulled up a review of The Running Hare – and do imagine it worth a couple pounds… and for that matter there may be another by Lewis-Stempel worth a peek… the reviewer in The Guardian mentioned his previous effort: Meadowland – the private life of an English Field. This looks nice as well.

        One scratches the noggin’ wondering whether a two book set could be picked up at a local Book Warehouse for a good price. Now if I only knew someone who might actually be able to answer that pondering.

        Maybe Max would know.

        Oh – and Noble, IL is just down the road a piece, west of Olney which is the white squirrel capital. I just met a young man from Olney back in December. We were in Chicago and it blew him away that anyone might know where Olney is. [but true confession time… I did have to look up Noble – but now I know where it is as well]

        • Well, Clem, Cindy has family from both Noble and Olney. So, I know my white squirrels. I picked up Meadowlands at the same time as Running Hare. It came out first but I started on the second one first. Unfortunately, they have not been published in the US. So I had to order from the UK. Otherwise I thank you for your nod to your starving bookseller.

          • Ah, the Guardian – all things to many people!
            “Too many platitudes, but the right honourable gentleman is at least somewhat successful in quoting the right people.”

            I almost developed RSI reading Peterken’s ‘Meadows’; maybe I should go for something lighter this time…

            Will white squirrels ever make an appearance on the Squirrel Hunter Channel?

          • Brian:
            Thanks for the Olney link… they really are counting their blessings!
            One has to wonder if a white squirrel has ever been eaten and compared to the gray or red versions. If they just happened to taste better then I can imagine efforts to domesticate them. Once domesticated there’d be much less concern for them going extinct (though some livestock breeds have had their issues).

            Maybe I should rethink that strategy. Right now Olney trades on their white squirrel population. If they were domesticated they wouldn’t be so rare and folks likely wouldn’t travel to Olney to see them. Fewer tourists, hotel stays, restaurant visits, etc. Then Olney would be endangered. Wow, talk about your slippery slopes!

            Ok then, nothing to see here. Move along.

            Have a nice day.

  1. Brian,

    As a fellow cattleman, may I ask what drove the decision to sell the cows? Was it the drought last year? Three years ago we almost sold our herd when during a severe drought round bales were going for 100$/each and cows were going for $1500/each. We would have had 800 round bales to sell. You can’t go back, but as it turns out it looks like we will never be able to recover that possibly I time windfall. We decided it was a better move to keep the rotations and cycle in place. Smart decision? We may never know.

    Beautiful cattle, by the way.


    • Don,
      Behind the decision, in this cycle, were a combination of factors. The drought certainly sharpened our focus and contributed to the selling. The second, more influential, was an awareness over the years that our small hill farm was not well suited to such large animals. Cattle have a bigger impact on the land, fencing, etc. Running a hungry herd down steep lanes to new pastures can be an exciting way to live. And, finally, the price was right at this time for the decision. We will probably continue to keep a steer or two for our own needs and those of friends. I might reconsider if we were able to lease some nearby flat-ish land. And I’m envious of that hay haul. 

  2. Cousin Brian, My daddy, your Uncle Clay, used to say “Ya can’t be an expert on everything, son, so find what ya kin do best and do it.”…
    I love your last sentence, “Our challenge is to watch out for her moods and scale appropriate to what she will allow, knowing that when we are done the tenancy of our land reverts back to her.” This is the true understanding that the Native Americans held for thousands of years until more “civilized” folk came taking everything they could without regard to any sense of stewardship for the future.

  3. Someone over at GP recently asked me about pasture resilience. He seemed liked an honorable sort. I talked about lespedeza.

    Now I’ve run across another possible source of pasture improvement – this time from the grass angle. The link leads to an article on tropical pastures – so while your farm is closer to tropical than mine, you might still be wanting to see whether winter hardiness would be an issue for the species mentioned. All in all its an interesting piece even if you’re not able to go with their grass. Dan Charles is the author, and I’ve covered some of his writing at GP. So here:

    Let’s keep the fact that I listen to/read NPR to ourselves, ok? The buds at Breitbart might take away my right wing credentials if they suspected.

  4. Pingback: The Loved and The Unloved | The South Roane Agrarian

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