Basic Farm Lessons: Part 4


Short Lessons

  • Magic Wild Turkey Tricks: I have a magic flock of wild turkeys on the farm. Each evening, between the hours of 4 and 6, they reliably cross the lane and graze on our hill pasture. Yet if I stand quiet in the shadows with my shotgun at the appointed time, they magically never appear. How do they do that?
  • Learning to Panic: Living on a farm provides plenty of opportunities in learning to panic. Owning Grainger, a 70-pound adolescent Carolina Dog who still considers chickens chew toys, gives me multiple moments of anxiety each day. Yesterday, I walked around a corner of the barn to find the door to the brooder left open and all 25 4-week-old Barred Rocks scattering to the wind.
  • Water Conservation, Part 1: (A timely lesson as our county slips into extreme drought.) Question: If I turn on the water for the hogs in the woods at 8 a.m., at what time will Cindy come in the house to inquire after the length of time the water has been filling the hog trough? Answer: 5 p.m.
  • Water Conservation, Part 2: In an effort to redeem myself, I hustle outside and fill up the sheep’s water trough. When it is full, I leave the hose in the trough and carefully disconnect the hose from its source. Doing so allows the hose to act as a siphon … slowly pulling all of the water back out of the trough and onto the parched ground. Later, over dinner, Cindy asks, “I thought you were going to fill up the sheep’s watering trough?” I feign deafness.

The Longer Lesson

Timing Is Everything: One of our nearer neighbors owns six or so dogs, an unruly mix of mutts big and small. The largest are kept penned, bored and alone, and bark morning and evening. Although a good third of a mile from our house, they can still be heard clearly through the windows and walls of my study. Not quite loud enough to disrupt my slumber, they nevertheless disturb my early morning reading and correspondence.

I’d been looking for a way to gently approach the neighbors with the question, “How in the hell can you live with such racket?!” Since their son works on our farm on Saturdays, I decided that would give me a perfect opportunity for a conversation. And, more important, a demonstration of how we manage to be good, quiet neighbors by keeping our animals firmly in check.

Yesterday, after he’d arrived and we’d exchanged a few minutes of pleasantries, the time had come to diplomatically broach the barking dogs.

Having first made a point of disciplining Grainger as he repeatedly lunged at a chicken on the other side of a fence, I began, “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask …”

Alas, it was at that very moment that the sheep chose to begin their morning cacophony, drowning out my words, “… about your barking dogs.” Their bleating was immediately overwhelmed by the cattle in the lower pasture as they began bawling lustily for fresh hay. The sounds echoed off the ridges and continued for the next 15 minutes, disturbing the peace of everyone within a mile.

Half an hour later, our farm helper reminded me politely that I had wanted to ask him something. “Never mind,” I said. “We can talk about it another time.”


Reading this weekend: The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman. A re-reading of this modern classic to prepare us to use our new hoop house.

A Farm Postcard: The Hunter’s Moon

The Hunter's Moon

The Hunter’s Moon

Ah, to be steeped in rural wisdom and the ancient ways, waxing on about the significance of the Hunter’s Moon last night… but, alas, I cannot. But it did serve up a beautiful light over the dinner table that we shared with friends. We dined on a dish of roast pork cooked in fresh milk, mashed potatoes, and newly fermented kraut. With a couple of beers and a glass of wine to wash the meal down, we capped a rather full day on the farm. A day that began with helping these friends with an improvised bull-castration, ended with them helping stretch the final fabric on the ends of our greenhouse.

Our guests headed home after dinner, while we went upstairs to our bed, each guided by the Old Man and his nightlight on our respective journeys.


Reading this weekend: Puck of Pook’s Hill by Kipling, a favorite since I was a kid.

Speaking of Death Speaks of Us

I was­ sitting in a large tent at a sustainable agriculture fair, watching a butcher demonstrate how to section a lamb into primal cuts. After effectively and efficiently dismembering the freshly killed animal, he asked the crowd if we wanted him to cleave the skull and remove the brain. A tableful of women up front cheered and chanted to proceed with the cleaving. Their response discomfited me, the hooting as if at a sporting event. It was an example of how we have come to deal with death, like in a funhouse mirror, through a distorted lens.

Our companions in this landscape

Killing gracefully. How we approach the act, if not with reverence, at least with mercy, appears to have gone on an extended vacation. Our race has always butchered. Vegetarians and omnivores, organic farms and CAFOs alike — all are sustained on a pile of corpses.

But while I do accept butchery as the blood price of living on this planet, I do not accept that we should pay with a callous heart. As a farmer, I have butchered sheep, pigs, and chickens and ended the life of damaged and dying creatures. And as a sometime hunter, I have pulled the trigger. But never as a grown man, after kneeling on the ground with a yearling lamb cradled in my left hand and slicing the jugular with the knife in my right, have I jumped to my feet and offered a victorious high-five.

When I was a child, the excitement of a good hunt or fishing trip always engendered good-natured bragging and boasting. But never once did my father or anyone else in the party point at a dead deer and say, “Who’s laughing now, suckah?” To me, such over-the-top gloating is unseemly, unmanly. Yet it’s a behavior that seems all too prevalent on today’s social media, where a hunting victory results in a jokey post on Facebook before the blood has cooled on the autumn leaves.

Such gratuitous exulting seems an outgrowth of our urbanized world, a place peopled by inhabitants increasingly removed from the costs of their existence. A place where finding the respect and compassion seem to have gone wanting, where too many have wandered too far from the honorable path.

Finding the appropriate note in discussing death, particularly as it relates to farm animals, is difficult. Guests to the farm tend either to focus on the pastoral elements, divorced from the end results, or, like the women pounding the table for a good head-cleaving, engage in coarse talk that cheapens the lives we care for daily (“Ooh, look, bacon!”).

Both responses fit nicely into our world of industrialization. A world of factory farms and factory-like educational systems, work, and purchases; a world in which life is lived on an assembly line of experiences that flicker past for our amusement, detached from the blood and sinew of our animal selves.

Farming has always been an intimate exercise in finding and maintaining a path to where we own the acts that sustain our lives — a path where killing (rather than thrilling) humbles and strengthens a respect for the fragility and value of life.


Reading this weekend: The Shepherd’s Life: modern dispatches from an ancient landscape.

The Small Moments of the Early Morning

peggy-15It is a cool 48 degrees as I step off the back porch. The sun is below the eastern ridge, a heavy dew hangs on the grass, and a light mist floats in the orchard. The crabapple, looking like a carefully decorated Christmas tree, is heavy with fruit. There are still figs ripening on the fig trees, and as I bring feed to Peggy, I part the curtains of leaves and look for fruit, flicking softly each ripened fig to dislodge other guests. I pop a soft plum-colored fig into my mouth, then open the gate to feed our sow.

Peggy is up quickly, a sure sign that after a difficult week her appetite has returned. She follows me to the feeding trough, submitting to a quick back scratch as I present her grain-and-slop breakfast. Her piglets burrow down in the hay awaiting her return.

The farrowing began the previous Sunday evening with one piglet and then a long, anxious hour of nothing. Around 5:30, we hit the panic button and called the vet. Nearly four hours later, our sow (and vet) had delivered 15 active piglets. In the ensuing days, Peggy lost a few by crushing them. Typically a very careful mother, the pain and swelling from the prolonged assisted delivery undoubtedly made her less attentive.

I exit the side gate next to the newly erected greenhouse. It is only 7:30 a.m. and the winds are still quiet. In just a few hours a group of friends will arrive to help stretch the plastic over the metal-and-wood skeleton. The completed 24-by-50-foot high tunnel is earmarked to house our winter crops, and soon I’ll be hustling to get the ground prepared and greens planted for fall.

Entering the inner corral, I open another gate. It squeaks too loudly and alerts the inhabitants of the barn of my arrival. Out pours our flock of sheep, all 18 ewes and offspring, and one very jealous ram. The ram’s recent arrival has made what was formerly a peaceful walk among the flock an occasion for high drama. He emerges from the barn like a gunslinger, to face me down on the dusty barnyard. His head shakes, he grunts, and he takes a few quick steps in my direction. Sidestepping, I slip past him and hurriedly fling open the gate to the pasture.

The cattle catch sight from the lower fields, and their bellows echo off the surrounding hills. Taking the racket as its cue, the sun emerges over the ridge and illumines all of the valley. I turn and walk back to the barn and fill up a bucket of feed for the cattle. It is not needed, but feeding them every few days keeps them docile and eager to come when called. A measure of control that will be rewarded should they ever escape onto our busy highway.

A gesture to Grainger and he jumps in the truck for the ride down the drive. With four muddy feet, he plants his mark across the entire span of the truck seat. At the gate to the lower pasture, I climb out, bucket in hand. Opening the gate is always a bit of a trick, with 1,500-pound cows crowding ‘round on the other side. I manage to squeeze through and fill the trough with feed, spending a few minutes watching the calves dart in for milk while moms are otherwise engaged.

Back in the truck and up the long drive, I pull up to the barn. Grainger tumbles gracelessly out in all of his late-puppy glory. The chickens, meanwhile, have come off the roosts, so I toss them some scratch. The newly hatched chicks are huddled under the heat lamp and barely acknowledge my presence.

One last chore, I walk out to the woods and fill more buckets of feed for the waiting market hogs. They average 225 pounds now and have another six weeks before slaughter. But I do not speak of such things as I turn the buckets into the trough. And they seem unconcerned that their desire to eat until stuffed might impact the course of their lives.

I leave them fat and content and go back to the house to join Cindy in a cup of coffee. We discuss the upcoming day, and, after feeding myself, I head back outside.greenhouse-011


Reading this weekend: Guilds In The Middle Ages, by Georges Renard.

Farm Postcard: The Pork-Scrap Terrine


In all of its glistening glory

Use it all and make it good: pork loin, seasoned fat from a homemade porchetta, pork liver, figs, almonds, rum, parsley, red pepper flakes, garlic, spices, and reserved pork stock made from hocks. Chop and mix by hand, bake for two hours (in water bath), place weight on top, and cure for a day in the fridge. Serve cold with mustard and pickles, a glass of homemade beer or wine. Enjoy.

A Mid-September Weekend


We may be feeding hay by the end of the month.

Cresting the hill on my tractor on a Saturday evening of bushhogging, I was followed by a long, dry cloud of chaff and dust. Ahead of me, a few hundred yards of brown fields extended to the woods. It has been a dry year, technically, a moderate drought, that has gripped our valley. A claim that, in this year of extraordinary heavy rains or continual rains in many areas of the country, seems oddly boastful.

Making the final turn at the bottom of the hill, the south end of the field, in the shelter of the oaks, I found my green pasture. Like the last of the snow left in the shade of a tree, here lay a swath of grass, no more than five yards across, still exhibiting the trademark signs of life.

As a kid in Louisiana, I saw my first snow at the age of four — a remarkable day in which the white stuff melted almost as fast as it fell. I ran around our yard, gathering snow from underneath the trees, trying to collect enough to make a snowball. Eventually, I brought a golf ball-size ice ball inside to proudly show off. That is what I felt like doing yesterday upon spying the patch of green. “Look, Cindy,” I’d say, “green grass. Quick, get a vase before it loses its color.”

Friday night we drove to the next valley over to another farm. Turning down a small road, we passed the spot where one enterprising local farmer raises fighting cocks for that lucrative blood sport. Hundreds of wooden huts, each housing a single, tethered rooster, are positioned in neat grids up and down the well-manicured hill.

A bit further down the road we arrived, across a small bridge over a diminished stream, at our friends’ farm, where the next several hours were spent deconstructing four sides of hogs into usable cuts of meat for the two brothers’ freezer. In a slightly chaotic assembly line, I focused on removing the ribs and sides (bacon) and deboning the hams. One of the brothers removed the loins and cut the Boston butt from the picnic shoulder roasts. Cindy and the other brother took on the job of vacuum packing the massive piles of meat. Meanwhile, our hosts’ mother kept busy presenting trays of snacks and penning content descriptions on the sealed bags of cuts. We eventually headed home after capping off the butchering session with a late-night dinner and glass of wine.

Saturday afternoon we headed back up our dry valley to another farm, where we joined a hundred or so guests for a pig-pickin’ party. The 200-pound pig was from our farm, bought by a neighbor just that week, then killed, scalded and slow roasted for 13 hours. The resulting meat was something any Southern boy would have been proud of producing. That it was prepared by a native New Yorker showed that the art of the slow-roast pork is not defined by the geography of one’s birth.

After a few hours of conversation and food we returned home. Up the long, dusty drive we went, past the dying fields and drying ponds, where the cattle and their newborn calves kicked up their heels over some pleasure unseen by us.


Reading this weekend: Surviving the Future: culture, carnival, and capital in the aftermath of the market economy by David Fleming.

The Great Tear-Down


Well maintained farm structures

Perhaps it is barn envy. This farm has never had enough barns or sheds for the equipment, animals, forage, and tools to meet our needs, despite our ongoing efforts. Seventeen years of building hay sheds, equipment sheds, chicken coops, and well houses has provided me with a fair sense of the work, skill, material resources, and neighborly assistance needed to construct those larger hay barns that dot our landscape.

So I feel a particular sadness watching old barns fall into disuse or being torn down before their time, the wood destined to deck a second home on the lake or, more often, simply bulldozed and burned.


This large barn may have been ignored too long

Often this tear-down is done by new owners seeking the “country life.” The country life is a consumer choice, bought and sold. It’s quite distinct from the agrarian life, which is a life of work and provision. In the past five years, we have watched two different neighbors tear down perfectly good barns and burn the lumber. One neighbor bulldozed a two-story hay and tobacco barn and replaced it with a poorly constructed lean-to for lawnmowers and weedeaters and leaf blowers. The other leveled a barn built of chestnut and oak so he could have more room to practice his golf swings.

A recent conversation with an extension agent about fencing revealed a similar pattern. According to his statistics, more than 50 percent of fencing in our county has been torn out in the past 20 years.


This hay barn was overgrown and falling down three years ago. They replaced the rotting wood and support beams and extended the usefulness for another generation.

The destruction of an infrastructure that is often still perfectly suited for the continued productive use of these East Tennessee valley farms is concrete evidence of the demise of a formerly vibrant community of neighbors and family that worked together. From the tobacco barn and smokehouse to the chicken coop and milking parlor, all helped to explain who went before and what worked on this land.

Although not necessarily wed to our predecessors’ choices, we’d be wise to not wholly ignore them either by tearing down the evidence of their accomplishments. That evidence is a blueprint linking the past to a possible future. Because far deeper than the grain in the wood is the pattern to sustain life and community.


Reading this weekend: Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hoschschild. An interesting new sociology of the American right that focuses on my home town of Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish.