The Butcher’s Bill

The obligatory cute lamb picture

This mid-winter morning, the mercury hovers around 10, the ground is lightly covered with brittle snow, and, as the prospect of another week in the deep freeze settles into my chilled bones, my thoughts are dark. I spent most of yesterday avoiding outdoor projects on the farm. Time that could have been employed constructively was devoted instead to a post comparing our cushy fossil-fueled lives to a 19th century slaveholder economy. Eventually I shelved it. “Too bleak,” Cindy said. “I want to hear about the lambs.”

Heck, I too would rather hear about lambs than read yet another rant about our fatal addiction to consumption. Which, I admit, is just one more pile of sand in which I bury my head. My competing impulses create a quandary. When a young person talks to me about his dreams for a good life, my first instinct is to interrupt, to tell him the planet has determined that our good life is no longer viable, dreams or not. Instead, I tell him about lambs. The promise of birth and death and birth again. I believe in both narratives, and I don’t want to burst his bubble, so I tell only the one story.

Which is why I love farming. It is a great place for a short-term optimist/long-term pessimist like myself. The old joke about the farmer who won a million bucks perfectly encapsulates my outlook: “So what are you going to do with that million dollars?” “I guess I’ll keep farming until it runs out.” Well, I too will keep on farming, enjoying and embracing it for however long it lasts, even as I remain convinced that the planet is preparing to reboot. If I could just find my pipe and supply of hope-ium seed, then just maybe I could help extend that optimistic vision out another generation.

My own inclination for a favorable construct, meanwhile, continues to be fed by lots of new pigs, a new pregnant sow, baby lambs hitting the ground daily, an ongoing diet of learning new skills, dreams of a better garden, and good friends in the community. Two of the latter stopped by last night with a gift one of them had worked on for the better part of a year. A beautiful rustic bench adorned with a seat back that spelled out “Winged Elm,” it was handmade of wood from both theirs and our farm. We invited them in to share some homemade chicken and dumplings. The chicken itself was a gift from two young farmers in exchange for the use of our chicken plucker. So, despair not, gentle reader, for your scribe. I’ll always enjoy a convivial evening and the miracles of everyday life.

Well, the sun isn’t up, but in this frigid dawn light I see the ram lambs. They are gathered at the hay barn, trying to magic their feed down onto their dining room table. I must leave you — thinking of cute lambs, not about the butcher’s bill that inevitably comes due.

……………………………………………………………………

Lanterns On The Levee: recollections of a Planter’s son, by William Alexander Percy. A beautifully written memoir of the Mississippi Delta, that also manages to be both offensively racist and full of class snobbery. 

Landfall

Approaching storm

Growing up on the Gulf Coast, where life was measured by the big storms, your given name could serve as a handy marker of your age. Post-1957, Audrey disappeared from the lists of incoming elementary pupils almost entirely. After ’69, no one named their child Camille.

In the hallway of our home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, hung a map. On it we plotted the latitude and longitude of each new disturbance as it sprang to life off the African coast or in Mexico’s Gulf of Campeche. My older brother, always a bit of a weather nut, actively tracked the storms. He would often plot an apocalyptic path to our door, then erase the hoped-for trajectory with a “there is always next year” shrug when the storm petered out or went off to blight someone else’s life. It’s not that he ever wished harm on anyone. There’s just something seductive about the destructive power of a hurricane. It’s like watching a Powerball lottery grow, except that the payoff is something that no one really wishes to win.

This past week it was my extended family in Beaumont and Houston who won that lottery, and recipients of the winning tickets will still be dealing with the aftermath in years to come. Harvey is just one in a long list of tropical storms and hurricanes that have recently resulted in 500-to-1,000-year floods in the South: Houston (2010, 2015), Baton Rouge (2016), Columbia, South Carolina (2015), the Carolinas (2016). Sadly, epic floods account for only a handful of the extreme events now occurring with increasing frequency across the globe, and it looks as if this nasty-weather lottery will only keep building to a stronger payout with each daily contribution made to the fund of planetary climate change.

As the waves of Harvey hit the Texas shoreline, likewise a predictable wave of finger-pointing washed ashore. Seems that a certain segment of the population confused the larger community of devastated coastal residents with the lesser community that had voted for Donald Trump, and proceeded to say that they had gotten what they deserved —blaming the whole of Gomorrah on just its naughty residents.

This holier-than-thou attitude rankles me. Because, let’s face it, whether we fall into the camp of climate-change deniers, with their heads buried firmly in the sand, or climate-change acknowledgers, staring in awe as the storm approaches, virtually none of us is doing anything significant to change the planet’s trajectory of catastrophe or to prepare for its impact.

Both camps, by and large, are still active participants in the consumer-industrial machine. Unless we have gone Amish or medieval, we depend on the people of the Gulf Coast for our cushy life. Our great collective illusion of progress is that we can continue to enjoy our current lifestyle simply by making the correct purchasing choices or pulling a lever in the voting booth, that we can use magic or tweak our way out of this mess. We can’t. That life is no longer sustainable.

According to that map hanging in the world’s hallway, the potentially cataclysmic future — for earth and, consequently, for humanity — has now passed the Leeward Islands and is picking up speed and strength. No wiping the grease board when a fantasy destructive track changes its course.

We all have bought into this lottery, and we all are at risk of winning it. So, if there is to be finger-pointing, let’s do it facing the mirror. And in the meantime, fill your bathtub with water, stock your larder, and prepare for landfall.

Listening to Bees

A frame of capped honey

The smallest livestock on our farm are also the most fascinating to observe, from their daily diligence and complexity of social organization to the extraordinary “waggle dance” they use to communicate the location of nectar and new homes. Today, as we prepare to harvest the last of this year’s honey, I’m reminded that the bees have a lot to teach us. We only have to listen.

  • Work together today to provide for tomorrow. Winter is coming and those food stores don’t harvest themselves.
  • Expect your responsibilities to grow as you mature. Clean your room as a kid; be prepared to run the farm as an adult.
  • Be vigilant. A weak line of defense invites invasion, disease, and death.
  • Communicate. Use your best waggle dance to share critical information with those you care about.
  • Socialize. Nothing beats hanging out on the porch with your neighbors at the end of a busy summer’s day.
  • Don’t sting unless it’s absolutely necessary. Fight when the future depends on it, then fight with selfless fury.
  • Remember that you’re a member of the community. No matter how self-sufficient you imagine yourself, you can’t make all of the honey.
  • Don’t move into a mansion when a cottage will do. Live within your means, and learn to recognize, and heed, when enough is enough. A too-big house is harder to heat and cool, harder to clean, and much harder to protect.
  • Build a strong foundation. Be it bridges or buildings or banking systems, a shaky infrastructure puts the whole community at peril.
  • Render unto Caesar. Be prepared to yield an appropriate honey tax. And, be prepared for a revolution if the powers demand too much.

And one final lesson:

The canary in the coal mine. Tennessee bee losses last year were estimated to be as high as 80 percent, attributable only in part to the extreme drought. This catastrophic statistic is set against the background of increasing colony losses across the globe in recent decades. If we listen, the message these tiny, exquisite social creatures are sending us will be clear: the mine has become dangerous. And the fault — and the solution — lies at yours and my collective doorstep.

A Small Storm of No Consequence

Massive Old Man of the Woods

Perhaps, when compared to all the dancers on the world’s stage on that particular day, it was of little import. But­ on our farm, last week’s mini-blast nonetheless cut a deadly rug through the woods.

This has been the spring of many odd and intense storms: The recent eruption that dropped an inch of rain here and seven inches less than a dozen miles away. The storm whose gusts knocked out power in 800 residences in nearby Kingston, yet hardly sent a breeze down Paint Rock way.

The storm last week was a whirling dervish that came through with such force that the windows and walls shuddered, the trees swayed, and at least one neighbor was left looking for the roof of his barn. It arrived as an unexpected guest, late last Saturday night. Rain blowing at the horizontal wetted the front porch wall to the five-foot mark. Our lights flickered and went out for a few hours.

The storm, spending its energy in a fury, moved through the valley in less than an hour and then petered out over the eastern ridge. The following morning’s blue skies revealed no damage but a few small branches down around the house and a porch swept clean of chairs and rug. Only did my walk through the back forty to forage for mushrooms later that day tell the true tale.

Up the lane, in the heart of the wood, four modest oaks, each approaching their century celebration, lay in a tangle across the roadbed. Two reds and two whites, branches intertwined as if clutching at each other for support in their last moments.

Further into the wood, on a west-sloping ridge, lay a giant white oak. Assessing age by diameter is difficult, since trees can stay small for many decades before exploding in growth when the opportunity arises, often at the death of a parent weakened by age or illness. But this oak was twice the diameter of the other trees, fully mature, now laid low by this localized event, this small storm of no consequence.

Giant old Red Oak

Across a fence into the upper pasture, on opposite sides of a field, two of the most ancient oaks on the farm lay toppled, majestic sentinels of the wood now sprawled like drunks on a bar floor. One red and one white, both already anchoring their communities at the nation’s founding, they somehow looked out of place, prone instead of upright, in their slow death.

These old ones now await, in a condition of helpless indignity, men who will scramble up their sides, hack off limbs, and saw up their trunks, before carting the bits off for the beneficiaries’ own purposes — the oaks’ final will and testament ignored, that they may lay in the ground they lived on and with for so long, their utility reduced into so many cords of firewood and saw logs and days of labor.

No one will miss them but I and the other residents of the backwoods. I, for their solid, reassuring presence as I pull up my tractor into their shade for a midday lunch. The squirrels, for the mast harvest of massive proportions, a feast epic in tales to be told through the generations.

They were only seven oaks of varied age on a small farm in a small valley, located in the lower end of one of the 95 counties of one of the 50 states of one country on this planet. And now they are gone.

………………………………………………………………………………………

Reading this weekend: Meditations on Hunting, by Jose Ortega y Gasset

 

Peak Local

Doing the sexy work of farming

We were sexy once, back in the heady days of 2009. Courted by all, admired, imitated, and flattered. Yes, we were your local small farmers. Tho­se were the days of Food, Inc.; Omnivore’s Dilemma; Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, all released in a three-year span, exploding the world’s interest in all things small-farmy. We were, for a brief moment, in the zeitgeist.

That was the moment when the American consumers got it, realized that their health and their economy could be shaped for the better, and that they could make it happen. That was the moment when a friend in Nashville could sell all the $7-a-dozen eggs his hens could produce. Farmer’s markets were the place to be on Saturday mornings. The great recession provided a steady stream of new customers and people learning to do for themselves. In a fragile world economy, local was the anchor. Local had become hip.

But, Mr. Zeitgeist is both a capricious master and himself a servant to larger forces. If anyone thinks farming is hard work, try being an American consumer. A la Bakunin-turned-beer brand, capitalism was quick to pick up on a good thing: small farms became the darling for ad campaigns, commodified, eye candy for the machine. And social media played their role. The iphone, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram were all loosed on the land between 2004 and 2010, and all began carving a chunk out of our mental landscape. Instead of “eyes to acres,” we lost the battle to “eyes to screens.”

Sure, there were an expanding number of farmer markets, where friends could sit all day on a Saturday to sell $25 worth of peppers. But, the real question, behind the hype of buying local and keeping your dollar in the community, was: how much of that average dollar spent on food was truly spent on locally grown meat and produce? Precious little (at most, maybe 5 percent, according to the little research out there). It is just not culturally relevant, expedient, or, most important, convenient in our global economy for most Americans to think outside the grocery box-store.

Already, the voices of protest rise up against this message that local has lost the battle for the consumer. “Why, just last week, Huffington Post had a series on a local farm,” you say. “My mother and I went to a farmer’s market on vacation.” “Here is an article on restaurants supporting local farms.” “I like my favorite farms on Facebook.” “My ‘Where is a farmer’s market?’ app works great when I visit New York City.”

It is that very clutter of modern life that works against our efforts. We are irrelevant, not because of what we do but because we are a small, tinny voice, lost in the great Babel of the running of a great machine. Yes, we small farms still have our loyal customers who go out of their way to support us, and we thank them for their unwavering support. And yes, the press, social media, and even advertisers have made the education of the customer easy, allowing we small farmers to partially pay our way in this life we have chosen.

But that good press allows us collectively to think inside a bubble. We see the Tweet, the post, the like, the ad, the book, the movie, and we assume that there is a major change underway. Yet, the average grocery bill has an ever-diminishing content of locally produced food. The decline has been going on for a very long time: Even a short 40 years ago, many grocery stores still routinely bought the bulk of their produce from area and regional farms. Farm stands and farmers selling from their cars and trucks along the roadside were commonplace. The resurgence of local today is merely an upward blip on a declining trend line that mirrors another rising line, one of global supply chains.

So, it should not surprise my readers that I am not sanguine about the success of the local food movement. Yes, I support it, work in it, and encourage everyone to do the same. Because by doing so we preserve a functioning framework of what was and could be again. Yet, I have come to believe that a truly successful local food movement will come at the expense of the collapse of the global.

Local is the obverse of global. It’s not just a good soundbite to say that we cannot have both a dominant global economy and a thriving local economy. For one is the master and the other the servant. And this master doesn’t give a shit about the local. It is a destroyer of worlds, and it won’t stop until the fuel, both metaphorically and literally, runs out.

When that happens, if we are all very, very lucky, we will get the local economy we need to survive. And, we will all be sexy again.

The Good Tenant

I look on as the last of our Red Poll herd clambers aboard the trailer, bound for a farm in Southern Illinois. One lone steer remains behind, with nothing but ewes and lambs for company. Around the corner, the Barred Rocks and Brown Leghorns scratch for bugs, totally indifferent to the leaving. The pigs in their paddocks, still sleeping off their dinner repast, are oblivious to all but dreams of breakfast.

To run a small diversified farm is to live within the wheel. It turns for the seasons, for the markets, for the climate. We have spent these many years planning, building, and repairing the infrastructure to support multiple endeavors, to make the farm resilient, to create and sustain a place where the absence of one species simply indicates another cycle, unremarked in the larger scheme.

Livestock live their lives out here, with their offspring raised, fattened, and slaughtered. Crops are planted, watered, and harvested. Dinners are planned, cooked, and enjoyed. The refuse is gathered, emptied, and composted. Wheels within wheels, seasons within seasons, years within years. Everything is done within a scale that is appropriate to our abilities, our infrastructure, our needs.

Some wondered, with the sale of the cattle, if we were scaling back, down, in retreat. They deconstructed the act, examined the entrails, to discover more than was presented. But if they had taken a closer look and a broader view, they would have seen a panorama painted over seventeen years, and one that continues to unfurl.

In that big picture, the beautiful snow in winter becomes a distant dream come the dry, hot summer and chicks in the spring lead to a convivial table in the fall. A herd of cattle is followed by a flock of sheep; a harvest of potatoes is replaced by manure and then a crop of beans. The one true constant in all is the turning wheel that brings the careful observer into active participation.

The small farm is itself a participant workshop of opportunities and dreams. It’s a place that, if we will read the cycles, does not scale up or down, but in a circle. A place where the new becomes the old becomes the new again, all within a framework of what is reusable, possible, and desirable.

Yet, as well as we live within the wheel, we are but fleeting stewards. The farm belongs not to us but to a much more demanding landlady, one who insists on her share of the successes and who is unforgiving of our failures. The panorama she paints is of billions of years, not a mere seventeen. And while capricious in her communications — railing one minute and calm the next — she is nonetheless predictable to a degree. Our challenge is to watch out for her moods and scale appropriate to what she will allow, knowing that when we are done the tenancy of our land reverts back to her.

………………………………………………………………………..

Reading this weekend: The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland, by John Lewis-Stempel.

 

A Great Divide

In this country we have a long tradition of alternatively praising the work of the farmer and disparaging his lifestyle, the latter often accompanied by the epithet “hick” or “hillbilly.”

I was reminded of this these past few weeks with the ascension of the Tweeter in Chief, when a new broadside of vitriol was being fired at rural America. At a recent march, one speaker actually said, “We are tired of these people living out in the middle of nowhere telling us how to run our government.” On his Inauguration Day late-night show, Bill Maher referred to voters in the rural state of West Virginia as “pillbillies.” Closer to home, my own doctor condemned complaints by rural Tennesseans about lack of services by saying, “Who needs rural America anyway?” My answer: “Anyone who wants to eat.”

To say that basic respect has broken down between the cities and the interior seems at this juncture in the Republic an understatement at best. Any attempt to find a middle ground gets shot down by the left and the right as a defense of the other side. “Communication” is now a cracked landscape of carefully parsed conversations, tweets, and blog posts, all looking for hints of a wrongward tilt.

Example: An economist being interviewed recently on NPR suggested to his host that to better understand the anxiety in the country, the interviewer drive 45 minutes out of DC to see firsthand the economic dissolution of the rest of America. The interviewer glossed over what seemed a reasonable suggestion and, instead, asked the economist to explain why rural America has failed to endorse a laundry list of popular cultural agendas — a connection whose relevance I failed to comprehend.  

Our farm is located in Appalachia, an area that has long been the subject of scorn and mockery. The region’s people, although poor in ways that matter to a money economy, have traditionally been rich in independence, resilience, and self-sufficiency. It now seems that the language used to denigrate this area historically is to be applied across the land to anyone outside the belt of the bright lights.

And that is a mistake. First, because as the wealth of this country dwindles, as the climate becomes increasingly unstable, as the resources that provided this amazing historical interlude run out, we may very well be looking to the hicks and hillbillies to teach us the skills that have long sustained their culture.

Second, because history has shown that it’s imprudent to rile an armed and downtrodden population. Fully 86 percent of our military is drawn from rural and small-town America, and following policies that erode rural families and communities and ignore skyrocketing permanent unemployment, culturally mocking that same population as “pillbillies,” is a recipe for revolt.

As the economist on NPR said, it might be wise for the elitist policy and cultural trend makers to visit the hinterlands and have a non-condescending conversation with the inhabitants. But I don’t hold out much hope for that to happen. Instead, the hard work of dialog will be left to us — town and country, middle America and the coasts — to create anew a language of respect and understanding.