Basic Farm Lessons: continued

  • Sky watching: A barn roof on a clear night is the best vantage to watch the Perseid meteor shower.
  • Communication: “I wouldn’t care to” means in these parts “I’d be happy to” … which is, helpfully, less confusing when you hear it uttered in person.
  • Butchering: Scalding temperature for chickens is 140-145 degrees, ducks a bit higher. Temperature for scalding your skin is 140, so scald with care.
  • Service: The postman in the country will hand deliver a card or two to your neighbor, without a stamp.
  • Communication 2: When a neighbor refers to another neighbor as “useless as teats on a boar,” he is not paying a compliment. Typically uttered when referring to a man’s procreative abilities when compared with his working abilities.
  • Forget proposed spaceflights to Mars: The three-point hitch and the PTO (power takeoff) on a tractor represent the pinnacle of modern technology.
  • Communication 3: A direct question seldom receives a direct answer. Usually, a “some might do it that way” is the most definitive you get.
  • Department of nothing-new-under-the-sun: Newly emerged leaves on the sassafras tree taste just like Fruit Loops.
  • Manure: One winter. 49 sheep. Weekly bedding. Result: a pile of manure 16 by 16 feet and up to eight feet tall.

    Manure equals wealth

    Manure equals wealth

  • Butchering 2: One large pizza, 12 beers, a butcher saw, and an assortment of very sharp knives are all three men need to break down a hog carcass on the kitchen table. (OK, and help from two women with the butchering, but not the beer.)

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Reading this weekend (again): The Hour by DeVoto. What is not to love about a man who can write the following opening paragraph: “We are a pious people but a proud one too, aware of a noble lineage and a great literature. Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past, of which by far the worst is rum.”

A Weekend Miscellany

Dinner

  • Ham: cured under the stairs for 16 months. Two slices boiled for ten minutes, fried until crisp.
  • Turnip Greens: steamed in the ham water for a few minutes.
  • Corn: Cooked with honey from our hives.
  • Cornbread: Local cornmeal, eggs from our hens, fresh churned buttermilk from a local dairy.
  • Dessert: cornbread and butter, with Steen’s syrup for me and blackberry honey for Cindy.

 East Tennessee protocol for when to wave or honk

  • Women seldom wave while driving.
  • When standing alongside the road collecting mail or talking with a neighbor one always raises their hand in greeting to passing cars or trucks. But, one rarely looks up at the passing vehicle. Instead slightly incline your head in that direction and toss your whole hand up.
  • While driving your truck never wave at a car unless it is family or a neighbor. Car drivers do not wave.
  • When passing another truck on the road, grip the top of the steering wheel with your left hand and extend your forefinger to the horizontal. If you think you recognize the truck from your section of the valley then extend the forefinger finger to the 2 o’clock position. If it is a neighbor then toss up 2-3 fingers while still keeping your palm on the steering wheel.
  • Horn honking is reserved to two toots. Honking your horn when passing the person or persons by the road, when they have just casually thrown up their hand, says I’m your neighbor. Otherwise, a horizontal one fingered wave is appropriate after the honk, even though they are not looking.
  • Always toot twice when passing a tractor. People who honk once usually accompany the sound with a raised index finger. Be a good neighbor.

 

Top 3 signs your dog is coming into heat

  • The other dogs become aggressive.
  • The male dogs stop eating.
  • The male dog practices mounting Forsythia bushes, rocking chairs, bales of hay or if you are not careful….

 

Rural Rambles

I’ve been reading a curious work titled In Your Stride, a manifesto of sorts in favor of walking. Written in England in 1931 by A. B. Austin, it describes the rapid changes of the rural landscape to accommodate the automobile—the widening of rural lanes, the straightening of curves, the paving of surfaces—and the influx of weekend visitors to the country and accelerating trend of rural peoples leaving for the cities (A road in is a road out, after all). The author doesn’t offer much of a solution, other than urging his fellow Brits to get out and walk for their holidays. But underlying this urging is the fear that the auto is changing something fundamental about the British life.

Walking equipment

Walking equipment

It is an odd and thoroughly alien concept for us Americans, these 84 years later, that we could walk any real distance. Indeed, that we would wish to walk as a form of transportation is no longer in our modern DNA. Our landscape has been on the whole surrendered to our automobiles. And that is even truer here in the country, where the casual walker is the commuter who has run out of gas, the “eccentric” who picks up trash, or the unfortunate DUI relegated to walking after an arrest.

It is, I find, one of the supreme ironies of our age that people routinely pack up their cars and drive hours to state and national parks for the pleasure of walking. Our cities, towns, and countryside, for the pedestrian, are like medieval castles walled off from the plagues of the outside world, where one can only visit at speeds fast enough to prevent contamination by contact.

I have long wanted to launch a rural walking society in which neighbors could walk the roads together, a rural ramble whose goal would be to reclaim the pathways of our communities. The sad reality, however, is that there is nowhere to go. The scale of the world we have created is suited only to fast transport. Any proposed rural ramble would have to deal with the paradox that most participants must drive to the start location, like those weekend hikers to the public parks, burning up the fossil fuels to get their dose of authentic nature.

A gathering of my neighbors walking to the nearest pub for an evening social would take three hours and 24 minutes. Then there would be the walk home. A walk to our good friends at Kimberly Ann Farms would take two hours, 32 minutes. Definitely doable, but the direct route involves a long stretch of state highway, not conducive to either health or peace of mind. A more scenic route, the old roads first designed for horse and foot, would take a mere four hours, 15 minutes.

No wonder that our rural ancestors visited for days and weeks at a time. The distance, the scale of the landscape, was so vast and the countryside so thinly settled that the effort of travel was rewarded with extended hospitality. Yet, a case could be made that the automobile decreased our overall social interactions even as it made casual visits more available, much like the introduction of the phone cheapened the value of intimate correspondence, while greatly expanding the circle of those we could reach. (And God only knows what texting or tweeting has done to further these trends.)

Still, I hope there is some value to reclaiming the old roads and byways of our country. That the pace of walking, “the eyes to acres” of Berry and Jackson, allows us to see both the beauty and the scars (to appreciate the former and correct the latter). That that slower pace encourages a neighborly word instead of the short wave from a speeding car. That a regular excursion by foot might nurture our sense of civic space in both town and country. That it might not only slow the clocks but ultimately provide the courage to throw them away.

Then, if we are diligent and lucky, the distance between farms will not be measured in time but in anticipation of both the journey and friendship at journey’s end. And perhaps we will find that we have enlarged our world by the simple act of reducing its scale.

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Farewell to my cousin, Lynne Yeomans Craver. You were an elegant balance of joyful living and service to family, friends and community.

A Spring Grass Portrait

It is something we witness every spring, the sudden greening and explosion of growth. Yet I always remain in awe of the energy of the season. In just a few short weeks the pastures are transformed from a few adventurous and hesitant green shoots to deep and luxurious pastures.

We have grazed our sheep in the orchard the past few days. This morning we turned them out on a new paddock.

Here is a portrait of their contentment.

Contented sheep

Contented sheep and lambs on spring grass

Night Sounds

A midnight thunderstorm has its prelude an hour before arrival: a soft thud of feet from Becky, our English shepherd stockdog, on the front door signals thunder at a distance so remote as to disturb only her sleep. I trudge downstairs and put her on the back porch before returning to bed.

After the storm subsides, a steadier wind comes rattling down our small valley and shakes the windows. A cold front has arrived. Most of the night will pass before it manages to crowd out the warmth of the previous day.

Later, a more distant sound awakens me, the cattle cavorting and kicking up their heels in the hill pasture. The ruckus eventually awakens Teddy, too. An Aussie pup who typically prizes his sleep over our general welfare, he moves to the stone wall behind the house and begins a sporadic solo of barks. A few minutes pass and the cattle move on, and Teddy returns to his slumber. I get up and let Becky off the back porch.

Three in the morning and the sound of short, high-pitched yapping informs me that the dogs are on the trail of a small varmint. The barking follows its target in a rapid serpentine trail, first near the barn, then through the orchard, and finally, dear god, just beyond the bedroom window. Apparently cornered, the quarry resorts to its most effective defense: the acrid smell of the skunk lingers until long after sunrise. I return to my sleep.

Near five o’clock, the rhythms of morning begin to edge out those of the night. I’m reminded that we forgot to close the coop last evening when one of our large Speckled Sussex roosters uses his improvised perch in the grapevines beyond the stone wall to challenge a sun that won’t arrive for another couple of hours.

Piglets moved and enjoying their new home

Piglets moved and enjoying their new home

My brain slips unbidden into wakefulness. In squawky images it starts to review the tasks of the day ahead: moving piglets to a new paddock away from their mom, shifting electric fence for the cattle to a new stretch of spring grass. Cleaning the gutters on the house and outbuildings, collecting for compost winter’s leftovers from the hay rings in the pastures.

Clearly, the time for rest is at an end. Coffee is to be ground and brewed, to-do lists to be finalized, and animals to be fed. The night disappears into the west. The new day is showing in the east over the ridge.

I get out of bed.

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Reading this weekend: The Edge of Extinction: travels with enduring peoples in vanishing lands by Jules Pretty. One of the better works I have read this year. The author focuses on the collapse of traditional communities and their ties to the land. 

An Economy of Satisfaction

Our language is shot through with sayings that originated in our agrarian past. “Don’t bet the farm” and “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” are two. Both have resonance for a small diversified farm such as ours.

 

Hogs in the woods

Hogs in the woods

This past week we have been working on our 12-month farm plan. No surprise to anyone, fencing does make its perennial appearance. But the biggest change, a turning of the wheel, brings us back to the first years of our farm: the presence of breeding stock. In those early years, we had Milking Devons, Berkshire hogs and a flock of Border Leicester sheep. But as the years progressed and our needs and the economy changed, we sold our breeding stock and focused instead on feeding out weanlings.

Over these past 16 years, we have bought virtually no meat from the grocery. In that time our farm has supplied all the beef, pork, lamb, chicken and duck for our table and for dozens of other families’ tables as well. Sales of the first three helped us pay off the farm and house in 10 years. Making this small-farm market economy modestly successful has taken work and sacrifice.

That work produces a household economy of vegetables and fruits for the table. In spring, summer, and fall the gardens feed us, friends, and the pigs. Fruits from the orchards and honey from our bees are used to make various country wines and meads, jams and jellies, and … to feed our pigs. A household economy measured in quality and satisfaction: Only a fool would wonder about financial inputs and gains when enjoying fresh crowder peas or a ripe tomato plucked from the vine.

Alongside hard work a degree of luck factors in. We were lucky that both of us escaped the Great Recession relatively unscathed. We know from the experiences of most of our neighbors that our farm life could have gone completely off the rails. Lucky as well that Michael Pollan wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma and that the documentary “Food Inc.” were released when they were. Both helped create a larger audience and culture that valued the work we did in producing food.

But the market wheel continues to turn and we adapt. Maintaining breeding stock, for many years, paid off. Then one day it didn’t. That’s when it became more cost effective to buy feeder pigs, weanling steers, and lambs from local farmers. Then the wheel turned again. The cost for buying lambs doubled, then tripled. Our response was to buy a few ewes and a ram and ease back into the breeding business. That small investment had quick returns both financially and in flock numbers: what started out as a flock of five or six now consists of 20 ewes, a ram, and 26 lambs.

Red Poll Cattle

Red Poll Cattle

Our return to breeding stock in pigs proceeded from the same reasons. Replacement prices have risen in recent times, if feeder pigs are available at all. Hence, the purchase of our sow, Delores. Likewise, cattle prices have exploded, while the prices paid by consumers have increased more modestly. Years ago we could get 400-pound replacement steers for about $300 a head. Last fall the price was $1300. The wheel turned with a vengeance. So this week we took receipt of two bred Red Poll cows and two heifers. We plan to phase out our existing stock of steers in the coming two years and, hopefully, replace them with steers from our new Red Poll herd.

“Don’t bet the farm” and “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”—there is a reason those two adages are still in use. Flexibility, foresight, diversity, and a bit of luck are all important in the success of a small-farm economy and of the larger culture.

But without factoring in an economy of satisfaction, the investment would all be for naught.

It’s Rodeo Time: the dearth of farm vets

No sooner had the young vet climbed out of the cattle chute than our two farm dogs, Becky and Teddy, darted from the barn, each with a bull testicle dangling from its mouth. It’s a macabre sight, but one all too familiar to anyone spending time on a farm.

Home Vet Supplies

Home Vet Supplies

As I wrote out a check, Doc Beason stretched his shoulder to work out a kink where a 700-pound bull calf had kicked him. All in a day’s work, I thought. The rain was pouring down on the last day of winter, the barnyard was ankle deep in muck, yet the farm vet emerged with a grin on his face. No doubt he had chosen the right profession. I thought back to last year, when on a snowy January day he cheerfully came out one Sunday morning and put a prolapsed uterus back in a favored ewe.

Beason’s predecessor, Doc McCampbell, sported the same demeanor: cheerful, whether working in rain or sun. A similar day had the elder vet castrating a long line of weanling bull calves. He jumped into the chute, exclaiming, “Let the rodeo begin!” and was promptly stomped and kicked for his enthusiasm.

These are unusual days in the large-animal vet field. Nationally, 80% of all graduates from vet school are women. Now, women can certainly do large-animal work, but most choose not to. The few who do, choose the more lucrative equine field. Being a farm vet isn’t as well paid as small-animal or equine. As poet-vet Baxter Black points out, “there is no anthropomorphological attachment as exists in the pet world.” In other words, why spend $100 on a ewe that may only bring $110 at the stockyard?

Traditionally, most large-animal vets were men who came from a farming background. As the number of family farms and farm families plummeted, so too did the number of young men who valued that life. Valuing the farm life seems an essential to anyone, man or woman, who contemplates such a robust career as a large-animal vet. And combining a love for the physical demands of the farm vet with the educational drive to get through vet school reduces the number of prospective farm vets even further.

The dearth of farm vets, coupled with economics, means that those of us who farm livestock learn to do much of the doctoring ourselves. And Cindy and I do most of the castrating, worming, vaccinating, assisting with births, and other nonsurgical doctoring. Still, not having trained professionals available for that prolapsed uterus, cow that eats a nail, or any of the other seemingly endless ways in which an animal’s health can be imperiled is worrisome.

Watching our youthful vet jump back in his truck, wave, and drive off to his next round, I’m relieved that in spite of the shortage of farm vets across rural America, our needs appear to be met for some time to come.

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Reading this weekend: Ancient Herbs by Jeanne D’Andrea