Dignity in the Barnyard

“If you want to know what the world looked like after the deluge, visit a barton (barnyard) in the winter.” From the book, “We Make a Garden” by Margery Fish. At least that is the quote as I remember it, because some (former!) friend has purloined my copy (or I’ve possibly mislaid it).

A couple of nights ago, after securing the sheep, I stepped out the front door of the barn to survey our modest kingdom. A couple of cold weeks, with heavy rains, had left a slurry of frozen mud and muck at the entrance. The laying down of straw helped the situation in the short term but made it worse in the long term. The straw served as a deceptive floating island on the sea of mire.

This island, I was instantly aware, while beginning the survey of said kingdom, would not support my modest two-hundred pound frame. A frame launched, “slipping the surly bonds,” for brief moments before gravity pulled it back to earth in a long slide, only a hay bale intervening to slow its progress.

Funny how dignity attempts to reinstate itself in the most unlikely of situations. There I was with a solid streak of mud caked on one side of body from ear to calf and I bound up out of the muck as if nothing had happened, I’m sure, for the benefit of the watching sheep and pigs.

Well there is nothing dignified about a grown man stripping down to his birthday suit on the front porch, temperature thirty-four degrees, before being allowed entry. But thanks to a capacious hot-water tank, this farmer was able to reemerge minutes later with an acceptable standard of hygiene.


Reading this weekend: Home Gardening in the South by H.C. Thompson, Farmers’ Bulletin 934, USDA, February, 1918.

Delores Visits the Country

It is both a joy and a curse to have a tin roof on the farmhouse. The slightest patter of rain, easily ignored on the now-conventional shingled roof, is instantly audible on the metal. There is usefulness in lying in bed and listening as the rain begins; you don’t need to tune in to the radio for the forecast, much less peer out the window, to know which way the wind blows.

The curse is that it serves as an unwanted alarm clock in the pre-dawn hours: a reminder that the barn jacket is still hanging on the fence post, that a favorite hand tool is in the back of the pickup, that you have a dozen things to complete, rain or shine, the next day. Once awake, you hear the dogs bark … and you start wondering if Delores has escaped her paddock, again. And so the day begins. The brain shifts into gear, and you roll out of bed, unwillingly, and get dressed. And as you make coffee and step out into the early morning, whatever rain you may have heard on that tin roof has moved on to other pastures. The day, when it dawns, will be with clear skies.

LambDelores 1-19-15 005

Twin sisters.

As I went about my chores this morning, I found that no new lambs had been born and the new hog, Delores, was still contained. The previous morning during feeding had revealed another ewe with brand-new healthy and active twins. The score for lambing season to date is 6 ewes:11 lambs; 9 ewe lambs:2 ram lambs; 14 more ewes to go. As with all new births, yesterday morning’s mom and babies were separated into a lambing pen, where they will stay for a day or two. The maternity ward gives us a chance to observe and a chance for the mother to adequately bond with her new offspring. Today or tomorrow, she will be turned out with the other new moms and their charges.

Delores considers dinner.

Delores considers dinner.

Yesterday, we spent the bulk of the morning reinforcing one of the pig paddocks near the gardens to receive an incoming pregnant gilt. We had not intended to get back into breeding stock, but a number of our local sources for feeder pigs have had troubles this winter and have nothing to show for their labors. That, rightfully, should be a warning to us as well. But we plunged ahead and made a bargain to purchase Delores instead. She should farrow for the first time around the beginning of March.

Delores, a yearling black pig of about 200 pounds, had heretofore been a pet. The woman selling her said she hadn’t realized how fast and large pigs grew. Cindy headed out late morning to pick up the hog. I, meanwhile, spent the time butchering and cleaning roosters. I was just finishing scrubbing down the equipment after packaging and freezing the birds when she returned, Delores in tow.

We had a quick late lunch and easily introduced Delores into her new, spacious digs. We secured her with the final bit of fencing, gave her fresh water and retired for our afternoon nap.

Awaking refreshed, we had our coffee before heading out to do our late-afternoon chores. Dinner guests would arrive within a couple of hours, and dinner would need to be prepared. We stopped by the pig paddock first. Spotting the hog panel thrown up at an odd angle, we knew immediately that “Houston, we have a problem.”

Delores, in the space of an hour and half, had escaped from her paddock through an unsecured hog panel, trundled down a ravine, been discovered in a neighbor’s front yard, enticed into a goat pen, escaped from that pen, and walked back up the hill into the ravine. And that is where we found her, 200 yards down a steep hill from where she had begun to explore the countryside. It should have ended in a catastrophe. But within five minutes she had followed Cindy, and a bucket of feed, back home. We spent the next 30 minutes reinforcing the fencing, then completing chores, before heading in to cook for our evening guests.

Which is undoubtedly why, this morning at 4 a.m., I awoke to the feather-light rain on the roof and wondered, “Where is Delores?”

Get Thee To A Pig

We spent yesterday rendering out fat into lard for the coming year; a product of our recently butchered family hog. It reminded me of an older blog post of mine

Headcheese: made from our hogs.

Headcheese: made from our hogs.

: King of the Southern Table.

“Mogul of appetite, lord of misrule, the king who must die”: John Thorne, a favorite quote from a favorite author. More pork is butchered each year per pound than beef, lamb, goats or chickens and any other competing livestock. That is more pork around the world. Scratch the billion plus Muslims, scratch the kosher adherents of Judaism, pork is still tops.

The pig has been our constant companion for over ten thousand years. A fellow omnivore, a perfect companion, a domestic vacuum cleaner or gleaner of all things left over. The pig converts food into pounds at a ratio of 33%; a sheep does the next best at 13%, and a steer at a measly 7%. The hog plunges out of the starting gate at a couple of pounds and ends the first year at an easy 300 pounds. Take that you squalling human infant!

I have no books on my shelves celebrating the sheep or goat (excluding the instructional), only one on the steer, a handful on chickens and an even two dozen celebrating the hog: Serious Pig, Pork and Sons, Pig: King of the Southern Table, The Whole Hog, Pig Perfect and Everything but the Squeal, to name but six.

Pig meat: nothing is more communal than a pig roast. Next to it beef is positively boring. Pig meat is accessible and democratic. We all eat “high on the hog” with pork because pork is easily raised by one and all. In Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson, she speaks of how little kids gather choice thistle and grasses during the day to feed to the family pig: A year-long family project to fatten the pig so that all could enjoy the sausage, flitches of bacon, salted hams, head cheese, chops, loin, blood puddings.

Pigs are the meat of choice for the sustainability crowd. We can survive, do for ourselves, a pig in a paddock proclaims. Pull up an overturned bucket, hunker down and watch a cow eat hay and you feel nothing. Watch a pig tuck into a trough of steamed zucchini, corn and stale bread and you shout Comrade!

Tonight we dined on what Cindy referred to as a keeper: Lacon Con Grelos, A Galician dinner that could be ripped from the pages of any decent Southern cookbook. We physically restrained ourselves from eating until sick. Fix this immediately and restore your soul, find a new center for well-being, toss out the yoga class, deliver up your Lipitor to the porcelain god. Better to check out a few years early than to squander those extra years deprived of good eats.

Lacon Con Grelos: as adapted from The Food and Wines of Spain by Penelope Casas.
• 1 ½ pounds of smoked or salted pork. We used left over smoked shoulder
• Salt and fresh ground pepper
• 1 pound collard greens, rinsed and roughly chopped
• ½ pound Andouille sausage or other piquant cased meat
• 4 new potatoes
Place pork in pot and cover with water. Add salt and pepper. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for one hour. Add greens and sausage and potatoes. Simmer for another hour. Serve.

This dish is so elemental that it blew us away in its complexity. Get thee to a pig!

Reading this weekend: The Empty Throne by Bernard Cornwell. The master novelist of manly historical fiction has done it again. If you aren’t prepared to stand in the shield wall alongside Uhtred, then you better pass. Also, just started The Emergent Agriculture: farming, sustainability and the return of the local economy by Gary Kleppel.


A January Scrapbook

The high temperature today, January 4th, is in the low sixties. Wednesday night the temperature is forecast to be 7 degrees. Such is the joy of an East Tennessee winter. We have been busy this week and weekend. The lower fencing was completed and the cattle moved for the winter. Hogs are going to market this week and so are last winter’s ram lambs. Our replacement pigs are due to be farrowed this week. And the ewes began lambing last Tuesday. That is as neat a cycle as one will experience on a farm. I leave you this week with some random shots of Winged Elm Farm taken today.

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Never enough equipment sheds

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Plenty of hay this year

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Coop Angles

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Roof lines

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A Dorper ready to lamb

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Lounging by the barn door

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Twins, born healthy

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This ewe had twins, one of which had to be put down

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Making honey before the temperature drops

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Our farmhouse

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stonewall and steps

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Dry-stack stonewall

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The last of the Pomeranians


It Feels Like Home

The rain is settling in again on the farm this Sunday morning. We have a full lineup of work ahead, and some of that will need to be postponed. Completing the predator-proof fencing for the lower pasture will need to wait for drier days; rolling out and stretching field fence in the rain would be no one’s idea of fun. But cutting firewood can be done with relative comfort and safety while deep in the woods. And this could be a good day to work on my bowl carving technique (currently just about nil).

Regardless of the task at hand, it must be said that living on a farm is endlessly challenging, rewarding, and stimulating. Living on and with the land, learning the strengths and weaknesses of this particular piece of landscape, watching the seasons come and go—all make it more of a home than anything I have experienced as an adult.

There are many who live in the country for the isolation or as a retreat, or as a place of recreation to ride horses or four-wheelers, or to hunt. And I would not dispute their assertion that their house is their home. But there is a tangible satisfaction in the process of working with the land to produce for oneself and those one loves, or for people in town or the city. It ties one to the land in ways that are still revealing themselves to me.

For me, the simplest way to describe it is that it feels like, it is, home.


This blog began 15 years ago as an occasional letter to friends and family. Three hundred and eight letters later, in January 2012, it emerged as a weekly post to observe that journey. In these posts, I’ve tried to document that process of “coming home”—of learning skills, enjoying exhilarating successes, and enduring spectacular failures—all while still leaving room for plenty of rants and observations.

This is a weekly exercise in which I seldom know what I’m going to write about until I open the laptop on Sunday morning. But like carrying out the work on the farm and producing the food for the table, I find the process and the sharing satisfying. They too feel like home. And, since you are part of that process, I welcome your input and ideas for the future of this exercise. You can reply here or email me at bmiller@wingedelmfarm.com.


Reading this week: Just Enough: lessons in living green from traditional Japan, by Azby Brown. An informative study of the sustainable cultural practices of the Edo Period in Japanese history. I have found it well worth the time spent reading it.


Why We Farm

A NIGHT IN DEEP JANUARY, I’m lying on my side in six inches of snow, the temperature at 3 degrees. I have a heat gun in my hand and have been trying for 30 minutes to thaw out the well pump. The little electric pump sits on top of the well shaft and pulls the water up and pushes it on to the house. The pipe has frozen at the juncture before it reenters the ground. The epiphany comes when the ice audibly breaks and the water flows. I lie back in the snow and think, What a lucky man.11-9-14 006

Riding through the woods on the tractor on an early spring morning, redbuds and dogwoods in bloom. Delicate wood sorrel and rustic little brown jugs scattered across the lane. I have eight hours of work with the chainsaw ahead of me. Lunch taken in the shade of the tractor. Both Lefty and Tip grovel at my feet, doggy grins displayed, hoping to be favored with yesterday’s pizza. I finish the day dragging felled trees to a central brush pile, then head home. Back through the woods, the evening light, as peaceful as the morning’s, signals a slowing down.

Next morning, I head back out. Enjoy the sheer pleasure of turning out the cattle onto a pasture of rich spring grass. Another day, this time spent repairing the fencing the trees have dragged down. Lunch, again under the tractor, of leftover chicken, cooked to what my friend Jack refers to as “mahogany brown.” What we call burnt, and delicious whatever the nomenclature. I finish the new fencing. The cattle are content and well secured. Again, the fields, the lane through the woods, and I’m home.

A Better Spring: The delight in hearing that first peep under ruffled feathers. The goose telegraphs the event 24 hours prior by spreading out over the nest like a hovering angel. Hearing or feeling, she knows the time is near. Catching glimpses, I count six goslings. With long-sleeved shirts to protect from bites, Cindy gingerly pulls the goslings from underneath. We place them in the brooder.

Or, the drama of discovering a goose is laying her first egg, that quickly becomes a clutch of 12. The snake-like hiss of the goose on her nest. The gander aggressively signals your immigrant status in his world. Noting the calendar day that begins the 30-day march to goslings. The real sense of sadness as the hatch day passes and inexplicably nothing arrives. A note of betrayal in the goose’s voice as we shovel up her eggs and consign them to the burn barrel.

The gander—we call him Uncle—takes up a guarding position outside the cage. Regardless of parentage, he is the chosen sentinel. He will stay by the goslings’ side for the next three months. He has developed a style of fighting that would be quite effective against children, and is against dogs. Flapping his wings, he levitates off the ground. Hissing, stationary, he signals his determination to protect and serve.

Midnight skies, a flock of wild turkeys heard but not seen on the opposing ridge, the uncontrollable spread of wild mint, the loveliness of peach trees in bloom, the muscle ache from setting 30 fence posts. The giddy delight in admiring our equipment shed, the morning sun throwing a splash of color through the Victorian stained glass window in the tack room. Collecting persimmons from a wild tree to make beer, not knowing or caring what it will taste like. Breathing in the smell of hay drying in the field, gentling a rooster before butchering, approaching cautiously as I move an irascible bull. Buzzards in a tree dreamed up by Tim Burton, staring at me sweating in the garden in eager expectation. The barn at 3 in the morning as Daisy calves.

And still we get the question?

This Christmas note is from the archives in 2003.

What Have We Learned

The clouds yesterday, on the winter’s solstice, gave way just minutes before sunset allowing the light of the sun to give his farewell nod. We won’t notice the difference immediately but the days will begin to lengthen. So as a day, a week and a year ends, what have we learned?

  • That long about mid-February, here in our East Tennessee valley, the light will be long enough to germinate seeds.
  • That seed catalogs eventually give way to a garden plan that is part absolution and part salvation.
  • That not all timber is easy to cut on a portable sawmill. Black Walnut is too dense as Tim, Russ and I found out.
  • That leftover roasted Cornish hen can be turned into enough chicken salad to feed three hungry men in just a few minutes.
  • That log dogs can be moved on the lumber deck in the same amount of time it takes to fix a salad.
  • That some men who have experienced war know torture when they see or hear about it. And other men who received questionable deferments think it is ok.
  • That the rate of unemployment for men is three times the rate reported in the monthly jobs report. And that 33 percent of the adult men in our valley are unemployed.
  • That the stock market is at an all-time high.
  • That the Arctic is warming at three times the rate of the rest of the planet.
  • That my homeland of Louisiana will lose 30 percent of its southern parishes this century to the sea.
  • That I agree with Prince Charles, much to the chagrin of my ancestors, he is right, mutton tastes terrific.
  • That an adopted cousin who connected with his own biological family will remain my cousin.
  • That as older family passes away they remain present in our memories and our own flesh and blood.
  • That at least for the foreseeable future of the next few billion years, regardless of what we do, the sun will continue its journey.

And, I’ve also learned anew that fencing will remain on my to-do list as long as I remain above ground.


Reading this weekend: I’m rereading selected bits from William Targ’s three great anthologies for bibliophiles: Carrousel for Bibliophiles, Bouillabaisse for Bibliophiles and Bibliophile in the Nursery.