Mud Season

The front wheels are angled perfectly for the eight-foot gate opening between the barn and the corral. A round bale of hay dangles from the front spear. In spring, summer, and fall, the tractor turns smartly, with clearance on both sides. But this is not spring, summer, or fall. The tractor takes on a mind of its own and begins sliding off to the left, back tires pushing forward, front tires mired lug-nut deep in mud, until, rudderless in the late winter slurry, it skids to a halt against the gate post.

Mud season in East Tennessee is well underway. The weather is never quite warm enough to dry out the ground; the green grass is still a month away. Every surface stays in a stalled-out state between slop and frozen. Margery Fish, in her book “We Made a Garden,” says if you want to know what the world looked like after the great deluge, visit a barnyard in winter. We say, if you want to visit our farm, wait until spring. Sad sheep paths and nasty pig sties look to those unlearned in the ways of the farm to be the product of gross inattention. Hell, they look the same to me, and I know better.

Each slippery step I take leaves a rut in its wake, the dead grass sloughing off like a snakeskin with my passing boot. It’s as if the world has taken a giant gulp and held its breath until its skin has become soft and spongy.

The sow peers out of her shelter when I approach, her bulk blocking her piglets from the great outdoors: “Not today, kids, you’ll just track it all back inside.” The hens scouring the barnyard take great shuddering leaps to clear the mire and get to higher ground and fresh bugs. Eggs collected in the season of mud are all imprinted with spidery claw prints.

Every year ’tis the same complaint. Then, every year the mid-March miracle occurs. All in a matter of a week, two at the most, emerald hairs of grass explode from below. The sponge squeezes and even the ruts from the tractor fill in, seemingly overnight. The trees on the opposite ridge wear their first hint of green, and the rose-purple redbuds begin to work their understory magic in the deep woods. Demeter comes out of her funk as her daughter returns.

But for now, early spring growth is just a memory and a promise. The tractor tires still mutiny against my commands. They go left when I order right. The mud offers no purchase to my boots. The sheep reproach me with yellow eyes as they leave the barn single file on a high path out of the mire.

I back up and try for the gate again, and the rain begins to fall, merging sky with muck.

A Mid-Winter Scrapbook

The old Cook’s Mill, across from the farm, is clearly not much to look at. Until, that is, you begin examining how much skill went into the building and the old stone flume channel across the creek. Here was an appropriately scaled technology for a small self-sustaining valley.

 

 

 

 

 

File under: I know the feeling. The larger hogs in the woods are hard to rouse for breakfast, when the temperature is ten degrees.

A friend gifted us one of his few remaining North Georgia Candy Roasters (a winter squash) from the fall garden. Which we used as the foundation for a delicious sweet stew on a cold night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The year-old ram lambs on a sunny six-degree morning, always hungry.

The sun just peaking over the eastern ridge, reveals beauty in unexpected places (the chicken coop and a maple tree).

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, even in a drab winter landscape, the cardinal is easy to spot and always welcome. The first of the new crop of lambs, confident and healthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, finally, yesterday as the temps rose to 59 degrees, the girls took advantage of the warm weather to take a cleansing flight.

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Reading this weekend: Grey Seas Under, by Farley Mowat. An exceptional book about ordinary heroism. It is the history of a salvage and rescue tug on the North Atlantic.

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.

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

Farm Postcard: Calving Season

New calf 004The moms voice a quiet lowing to their calves, “stay close, be at ease”. We walk a bit closer to snap a photo and check that all is well. They turn their massive heads in our direction, “I’m watching you”. We answer back in soft reassuring tones, “hey, pretty mamma”, and, “it’s ok”. They turn back to their calves and to the grass and ignore us.New calf 008

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Reading this weekend: Hillbilly Elegy: a memoir of a family and a culture in crisis, by J. D. Vance

Valley Photo Album: Chickens

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A stylish coop that would make any hen proud.

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Our friend Sara playing the pied piper to her flock of chickens.

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A typical variety of home-flock chickens.

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Watering systems vary from home to home.

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You are correct. There is a goat in the picture.

Guess that every third home in the valley keeps a flock of chickens and you would be close. If you were to take a casual drive around they might seem even more common, darting across the road for reasons of their own or scratching in front yards.

 

 

 

In addition to chickens you will see guinea fowl, ducks, turkeys (wild and domestic), geese, and the occasional peafowl.

 

 

 

 

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A typical set-up for those who still fight cocks for sport.

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A neat and well organized chicken run.

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Our Speckled Sussex rooster.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some flocks are composed, as ours is, of only one breed. But most are varied collections, freely allowed to breed and mix at will. The vast majority raise the birds to supply household eggs. A few have signs on the road indicating eggs for sale, with a standard price of $2-3 on average.

 

 

Many raise chickens for the table and the pot. A few, like Heidi over the hill, offer sanctuary to the birds for their natural lives or until a fox intervenes.

 

 

 

 

And there are some dozens of homes South of the River with the tell-tale pitched roof housing fighting cocks in the front yard or out back.

 

 

 

 

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One of our hens setting on a clutch of eggs.

 

 

 

 

But there are no commercial egg or broiler operations in this region of self-sufficiency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The birds are housed in traditional coops, makeshift pens or no enclosure at all. But most are let out for the day to peck and live as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. A true partner in the lives of our species.

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Reading this weekend: a fascinating work on sustainable agriculture, dealing with depleted soils and combating poor farming practices that threaten the stability of the country and the government. Of course I’m speaking of the 2000 year-old, 12 volume study of Roman agriculture by Columella.

Farm Postcard: Earth Day

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A pin oak fronts two silver maples, all planted twelve years ago.

Plant trees: It is our constant and perhaps best advice to would-be-farmers. The old Chinese adage is true. “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Our farm was evenly split between large woods and open pastures when we moved here in 1999. In order to provide shade for the house, barns and outbuildings that we built, fruit and native trees were planted in abundance. Dozens of fast growing maples and tulip poplars and slower growing oaks dot what was an open landscape. Several winged elms, transplanted from the woods, are set apart giving a living shape to the name of the farm. Two orchards, one now sixteen years old and a newer orchard still being planted are located in front and to the side of the house. The sawmill is located between the two, next to a hay barn sided with oak from our older trees. Additionally we have a couple of dozen pecan and pawpaw trees potted and ready to go into the ground. On this Earth Day we suggest that every day should be Arbor Day.

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Reading this weekend: Miraculous Abundance: one quarter acre, two French farmers and enough food to feed the world, by Herve’-Gruyer.

Farm Postcard: March 27th

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Our New Holland manure spreader

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Manure Spreader: As long as our race has farmed we have struggled to return fertility to the land. Knowing our own part in that long history, we had our old manure spreader out of the equipment shed yesterday in an effort to regenerate a small field. Loaded multiple times from our carefully built manure pile, the spreader flung a large rooster-tail of rich compost out onto the land.  A pile that often attracts a sinful and covetous eye from knowledgeable visitors to the farm. But only the ignorant, the morally corrupt or the brave of that crowd ask if they can have a truck load.

For it was born on this land and will be spread on this land.

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Reading this weekend: Perusing my newly acquired, 3600 page, three volume set of The Cyclopedia of Horticulture, by Liberty Hyde Bailey.