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.

New Sawmill

A rare midweek post: here are some pictures of our new sawmill operation.

Sleep Walking

Another nice evening with our South Roane reading circle/supper club, starting around six it lasted until long after dark. We have gathered once a month for the past two years to read and discuss climate change and peak resources and how they might affect farming here in our county. We rotate the gatherings between our farm and Kimberly Ann farm a couple of valleys and ten miles away.

Usually about ten area farmers or residents gather, bring food, homemade wine or beer. Invariably we spend time walking around the gardens and barnyards, before or after eating, chatting about the weather, our successes and failures. After a couple of hours we settle in to discuss the topic for the night. The readings have ranged from Wendell Berry to new works on permaculture.

Last night we read a governmental assessment on the Knoxville Food-shed, covering the 11 counties bordering Knox. It was a fairly benign piece that surveyed the state of agriculture in the region, what the region was capable of producing and what it was currently producing. It was fairly ambitious in tone, yet like so many such documents it walked a bland bureaucratic line, offering some substance tempered by the language of restraint and institutional structure.

It outlined three recommendations for the food-shed: USDA slaughterhouses, food corridors and food hubs. As the evening progressed, between the wonderful spread of food, a few pints of the local brew and the stimulating conversation I realized that our current cultural vocabulary was inadequate to explain or anticipate the future.

We lack, in this age of abundance, the vocabulary of the past. Our knowledge of the cycles of history has been reconstructed into ever ascending cycles plateauing into greatness. Knowledge of dark forces in the past, of the ebb and flow of empires and stability, has no place in our vocabulary of the present. Even as the current generation of twenty-somethings matriculate in their parents’ homes or on friends’ couches; as the drought ridden Imperial Valley begins to resemble more and more its southern cousin, the Death Valley, or as the planet racks up another hottest year on record and another species goes extinct as you read these words, we still cannot conjure a language of need.

It is not that we need to learn the words of despair. But we desperately need to learn the language of limitations. A Sysco selling local produce is not going to change our global trajectory or solve either climate change or peak resources. One of these days, whether in ten years or a hundred, one of the children of this culture will once again be able to write convincingly these words written by Kathryn Anne Porter, “I am a grandchild of a lost war, and I have blood knowledge of what life can be in a defeated country on the bare bones of privation.”

A Farm Toolbox: The Pitchfork

Often the weapon of choice by angry peasants and fathers chasing away a daughter’s suitor, the pitchfork is part of our collective farm image. Picture Grant Wood’s American Gothic and you know the tool we speak of today. With a pitchfork in hand work will happen. And if you have chosen the right fork the work will happen more efficiently.

The pitchfork typically ranges from three-five prongs, with many exceptions. We have four pitchforks: one each for hay, manure, compost and a useless horse-stall fork.

Lounging by the coop.

Lounging by the coop.

The hay-fork: a slender three prong fork with tines spaced a couple of inches apart. This is for moving loose dry hay. Amazing how much hay can be lifted and tossed with this fork. One of my favorites, I use it frequently in the barn. We keep a round bale of hay in one of the stalls. Once or twice a week, using the fork, I tear hay from the bale and spread it around the barn for fresh bedding.

The manure-fork: Each spring we clean out a years’ worth of bedding and manure. It is layered in the barn to a depth of about twelve inches. What the front-end loader cannot get, the four prong manure-fork gets the rest. Not elegant, like the hay-fork, but it gets the job done. The extra tines give it more surface area for lifting bedding and manure.

The compost-fork: very similar to the manure-fork but it has five tines. The design allows you to shovel into a compost pile with ease and turn it with minimal effort. Just remember to lift with the knees. The more tines on the pitchfork, the greater the load; and the greater the load the more risk to ones back.

The stall-fork: designed for hoity-toity horse barns with paved surfaces, it has a dozen plastic tines and is near useless for real work. We bought it our first week on the farm. It leads a lonely life in the back of the tool shed.

Auctions and antique stores usually have well-made pitchforks for bargain prices. Pick one up, use it on your farm. Or save it for the next suitor or politician who knocks on your door.


Rereading this weekend: Travels With a Donkey, by Robert Louis Stevenson. One of the greatest travel works of all time.