A Crow Perspective

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.


Reading this weekend: Distant Neighbors: the selected letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. And, Larding The Lean Earth: soil and society in nineteenth-century America by Steven Stoll

The Taste of Fall

This Farm Note is from the archives, 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.”

The first hint of fall shows in the valley with slightly cooler nighttime temperatures, lower humidity. The days have shortened and the leaves on the Tulip poplar begin to turn.

The rhythms of our day change to match the dying summer. The final beans are harvested and stored in buckets waiting on Cindy and me to find the time to shell. The wire trellis supporting the beans, cucumbers and squash are rolled up. When the vines dry we will burn the trellises free and store for next year. The tomatoes are past their peak productivity. If nursed along we should be able to glean a few stunted fruit well into early October.

The muscadine vines are ripening signaling wine and jam making ahead in our future. The pear tree is weighed down, each branch holding an impossible large weight on slender support.

I planted the first of the fall garden last week, white egg turnips. That will be followed by kale and mustard. Greens are what we will crave when the mercury heads towards the bottom of the glass.

The weather continues a dry pattern leaving the pastures dry and brittle, the dirt blooms powder puffs as the hoe hits the ground. Only sporadic rain this summer leaves uncertain about how many cattle to carry over the winter months. Hay prices will rise.

Our friends, Melanie and Sara, were over last night for dinner: we provided the country fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy. They brought squash casserole, crowder peas and some delicious blueberry crepes. It is a tired theme of these notes but all four of us delighted in eating a meal largely produced from our two farms.


Reading this weekend: A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm by Edwin Way Teale

Our Local Table

We were sitting around last night during the lightning storm. Our neighbor Tim was playing the banjo while we talked. We were eating bowls of chili verde and gently arguing the merits of what a local food culture means. There were six of us for our monthly discussion, as much a convivial outing as it was a chance to exercise the gray matter.

In an era of global food distribution what is a local cuisine? I remember the awkward first outing by the Knoxville Slow Food chapter when they hosted a kimchi workshop. One can certainly use local ingredients to make kimchi, and we do. But hosting that workshop highlighted the difficulty of defining a local cuisine in this global economy and era of global migration.

When the current epoch declines, as it surely will, and we are left to pick up the pieces, what will our local table look like? All the various peoples will certainly add a mixture to that table. But the table will be influenced by what is producible in the local food shed. Your post-global cooking culture will probably still have access to imported foods. But, if coming from any distance then they will be expensive and used more for special celebratory events.

Waverly Root, in his excellent The Food of France, organizes the culinary regions based on the fat used in cooking. Which I always thought was a marvelous way to view local cooking: butter, lard, goose fat or oil. It made sense to me. All of our cooking begins with the base fat used to add flavor. The fat used in non-global cuisines is a product of your land base. A nice Mediterranean climate and you will use olive oil in your cooking. A more mountainous land or one composed of poorer soils and you are more likely to use lard or goose fat, a land composed of rich pasture land and the cooking will be based on butter. The fat used in cooking seems as convenient a way as any to explore the local table.

But for many regions of this country what could be or what was a local table is now buried beneath so many Costco’s, Trader Jo’s and Walmart’s at the intersection of an interstate commerce. That table, if glimpsed, has a museum like quality.  Like a carefully curated exhibit of old cookbooks to remind us what our table may look like again in the future.

I’m fortunate to have come from a cuisine in south Louisiana that is still vibrant and has survived the global march, largely intact. But after thirty years in Tennessee I only catch rare sightings of what an indigenous cooking culture here would look like. But that table, when it does emerge, will consist of what we raise in this, our particular food-shed. My guess is that lard and butter will once again reign supreme and define the table. And olive oil will be a mere Mary Celeste of the imagination, ghosting along the coast in search of a port.

A Farm Toolbox: A Spinning Jenny

The spinning jenny is not a perfect tool. Nor is it a beautiful tool. But it is a tool that is a delight to use if you value your back as much as I value mine.

Our spinning jenny is admired by one and all.

Our spinning jenny is admired by one and all.


The problem with starting farming at age 37 (15 years ago now) is that all of the common sense things you’ve learned to date are no longer useful. Things like the best walking route through the neighborhood to get to Bill Meyer stadium for an evening baseball game, or the best time to get a seat at Harold’s Kosher Deli on Saturday morning…. All were now useless. All new knowledge was hard won.

So for the first couple of years farming we built fencing the old-fashioned way: with sheer brute strength, mostly mine. I’d pick up a 50-pound-plus roll of barbed wire to chest height and begin walking backwards. Hundreds of yards of the stuff, up and down hills, through woods and across sunny pastures, lift, step back and back, until the strand was stretched.

One day, talking with an old farmer, I pondered that it sure would be nice if there were some tool you could use to unspool barbed wire. He suggested I purchase a spinning jenny. I did that afternoon, for about $10. And that, as they say, has made all the difference.

Fencing is still hard work. But a spinning jenny makes the job easier, and that is what a good tool is supposed to do.


Reading this weekend: Conspirata by Robert Harris. The second of his historical novels on the life of Cicero. 

A Late Summer Scrapbook

Been a busy few days, days that I hoped would include cutting hay. But a trip out of town and a short three day window for cutting, curing and baling left me deciding to postpone. So, we’ve turned our attention to smaller tasks.

The author Simon Fairlie, in his excellent work Meat: a benign extravagance, makes a brief tantalizing reference to the Japanese method of fermenting their pig slops. I couldn’t find anything else on the subject. But armed with my imagination, a fair understanding of The Art of Fermentation, (an essential work by Sandor Katz) and a fifty-gallon plastic garbage can, I went to work.

I drilled a quarter-inch hole in the top of the garbage can lid and inserted a fermentation lock with a gasket. A friend had come over last Saturday and used our cider press. In payment for the use he left me with fifty pounds of pressed apple “cake”. I added the “cake” to the can, alternating with hundred pounds of hog meal. This mix was finished off with a ½ cup of kosher salt and enough water to just cover the meal. It was then covered and left to ferment for five days.

Our latest crop of pigs, of which we only have three, have been a bit stand-offish. They have grown slowly and showed little interest in feed. Let me tell you this new feed system has made all the difference. The first day they caught wind of the sweet fermented smell and came running. They have doubled their daily intake of feed. The first pictures are of the fermentation system and the next of some happy pigs.

Fermenting hog slops

Happy pigs




Earlier this summer I had been reading an “idea” opener of a book, The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier. He uses a tarp system on his gardens to suppress weeds. It is quite simple and effective. I tried it out on two garden areas. The pictures below show the dramatic change.

This garden had been used to raise greens and turnips last winter. Since that time I have over sown it with seven-top turnips twice, cutting down the greens before they developed seeds. After the second cutting I covered the area with a 30’x50’ hay tarp and left it for four weeks. After uncovering and tilling lightly, the area was planted in turnips, kale, rutabagas and lettuce.



Uncovering garden

Uncovering garden

Saturday Morning 025


Preparing the winter garden

Well amended soil


Produce 001

A daily harvest

These late summer days are also focused on domestic harvest and preservation. We have been making jelly, chutney and wine most weekends and canning tomatoes. Today we will do more of the same. But we will also fire up the smoker and dry the Anaheim and jalapeno peppers.

That is all from the farm this week.


Life and death in a rearview mirror

St. Patrick’s Day 2012 and our guests were arriving in the next hour for an annual dinner of corned pork. We corn a pork shoulder and cook it with cabbage and potatoes from the garden and larder. Invited friends come out, less for any shared heritage and more for a convivial evening of good food, drink, and conversation.

While final preparation moved forward, one of the yearling Katahdin ewes had been trying to lamb. She had been walking around in the pasture showing all the usual signs, and those signs eventually included a very large head protruding from her back end. We left her alone hoping she would get on with the job. Half an hour later, with no signs of progress, we moved her into a lambing pen in the barn.

We were both dressed for the get-together, not fancy duds, but nevertheless cleaned up with fresh clothes. Another half-hour went by and the ewe had made no further progress. We decided it was time to intervene. As I held the ewe, Cindy put her hand in the birth canal and extracted the forelegs. The head protruding showed no sign of life, and it looked grotesquely swollen. Applying pressure in sync with the ewe’s contractions, Cindy gradually pulled the lifeless lamb out. She then began swinging it by all four legs, then handed it to me to continue the exercise.

I grasped the slippery legs and swung, without any conviction that there would be any life in the limp body. But after a few minutes I saw the lamb begin to breathe. Cindy had meanwhile cleaned up the mother and filled up a fresh water pail. The lamb was a striking golden red and huge, at least 10 pounds. She looked exactly like a Hereford calf.

We emerged from the barn spattered with gore to find our guests beginning to pull up in their cars and trucks. We welcomed them, went back out to show them the mother and baby. The lamb was already on its feet nursing and seemed no worse for the long afternoon.

The vivid memory came back in detail this week as I drove my truck to the slaughterhouse. That golden red lamb, now grown with two lambings of her own, had reached the end of her time on our farm. We had decided to cull her. Her mother, as a Katahdin, is a hair breed, but her father was a woolly red Tunis. The cross resulted in a lamb with a thick red wool coat. We do not have any interest in wool or the time or equipment to shear those with wool coats. So, as this past season progressed, we culled all of the crosses.

It struck me how unusual the experience: to be both the giver of life and the deliverer to the executioner. This young ewe was a beautiful creature, noble even, as I viewed her standing in the truck bed in the rearview mirror.

A rearview mirror seemed an appropriate method for considering my role in her life and death: It conveys a vanishing landscape that with a few more turns of the road or an averted gaze recedes and disappears. It is an act of removal.

I pulled up at Morgan’s, turned over the ewe to the care of the man who would kill and butcher her. After concluding my business in the front office, I pulled back onto the highway. A last look in the mirror and nothing remained but the memory and a new view.


Reading this weekend: A History of the Future, by James Howard Kunstler. The third in the “World Made By Hand” series. A weak and disappointing offering.

Pasture renewal, guns and boar semen

This Farm Note is from the archives, 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.”

Last Saturday, early, I hooked up the disc harrow and headed to the lower fields. It was time to reseed the lower pastures. The lower field, our primary hay field, is about six acres. There is an additional smaller field of about an acre, enclosed with woven wire, on which we intend to finish out lambs this spring and summer. Both were in need of reseeding. As I finished the smaller field I spied our neighbor trudging up the drive to visit.

He, of the paranoid fantasies about little Chinese men wanting his property, had not been seen much this long cold winter. We had both kept an eye on his chimney: as long as there was smoke we assumed he was okay.

Quite the character, about six foot, burly with a beard down to his belly that he keeps tied like a pony tail, usually stoned and a conversational style to match. As he approached he began to use his own personal semaphore code to direct the landing of my tractor. I signaled back that I needed three minutes to finish and I’d meet him at the barn.

Pulling through the gate I turned off the engine. “Hey man, how are you doing”, I said. “Since you are the landowner I’m required by Tennessee law to notify you that I’m carrying a loaded weapon onto your land”, he replied.

Shit, just what I want, a paranoid depressive with a loaded gun. It reminded me of the upstairs neighbors we had back on Morgan Ave in Knoxville: when they weren’t rattling our china in lovemaking they were rattling the china in fistfights with each other. One night Butch stormed down and banged on our door. Standing there wild eyed and waving a pistol he said, “I couldn’t start my car this morning, last night I saw a man who looked just liked you monkeying under the hood of my car. I him here to tell you if I see him again, I’ll start shooting”. “Butch”, I said. “Put your glasses on first”, and shut the door.

Well, as I stood there last Saturday with our neighbor, who informed me he hadn’t had a bath in two weeks (I had noticed, even in the stiff breeze), he kept reaching in his overalls under his arm like he was holding something. I thought that this could be a silly way to check out of life as he moaned about people driving new pick-ups that cost more than he had ever earned in his life.

I definitely did not like the turn of conversation. So, I invited him out to see our pigs. He likes pigs. He once worked on a large hog farm in North Carolina helping gather boar sperm. As we talked pigs he returned gradually to earth and left me with this priceless gem while he gazed fondly at our hogs: “I have had more boar semen on my left arm on a Saturday afternoon than most people shake salad dressing out on their salads all week”.

As he shambled back off down the drive I laughed long and hard. This was a better anecdote to share than the headline in the local paper that morning about the cops being called to the First Baptist Church of Rockwood to break up a fistfight between the pastor, who had just been fired, and his parishioners.

Ah, life in the country.