Discussion Topic: should we get out of bed in the morning

In this life it now seems increasingly likely to me that the gods know and track our weaknesses. Perhaps to better exploit them for their own merciless sense of humor. 

The Dodge truck had been running a bit slow and the a.c. not at all for the past three years. So we dropped it off at our local (10 miles away) mechanic for a tune-up and evaluation. Leaving me to spend a few days without transportation. Which, in the country, with the nearest public transportation forty miles away, is a pain. Although there are plenty of days when we do not leave the farm, knowing we can makes the difference.April Scrapbook 007

During my truck-less days consider the following: It would take three hours and twenty-one minutes to walk to the nearest gas station. That number was important when I ran out of gas for the ailing lawn mower. A mower that burns through oil, spark plugs and doesn’t start more often than not. Seven hours walking just to get the damn grass mowed? Nah. So I turned to our trusty Stihl weed-eater. It too was running a bit slow, so I took out the air-filter and cleaned it as best I could, spark-plug removed and scraped off the carbon, blew out the fuel filter and still no joy.

At this point in that day I’m really missing that truck so I make a quick call to the mechanic: tune-up complete and a.c. checked out. Good news is that the tune-up cost $125. Bad news is that the a.c. system is truly shot with holes in the compressor. Repair bill if I wish to proceed, just under $1000. Apparently this model requires removing most of the engine and dash to access the damaged parts. Geeze, don’t know if it is worth fixing the a.c. for that much money? Let me think about it, I say.

OK, he says. But here is the really bad news. That slight miss in the engine is due to some valve chatter. A complete valve job will be needed. The problem will get worse. Maybe, he says, with a hopeful note in his voice and bank account, the truck has six months. JESUS, how much is that going to cost? Well…, he says again, this model Ram is a real pain to work on…$4000 plus.

Cindy drove me in to Sweetwater to pick up the patient that evening. She headed on home and I to the farmer’s co-op and picked up a new $3 air filter for the weed-eater. While I was there I talked with one of the staff about it. He suggested removing the EPA mandated screen on the carburetor. Doesn’t do anything except keep the emissions down, he says. Or keep climate changing gasses out of the air, I thought. Leaving with the filter and with this dubious advice, I got the gas for the mower and drove home.

I pulled into the farm in time to see our second tractor be delivered. Also ailing, it had been at the tractor mechanic for some much needed work. Getting out of the truck I headed over to the mower and filled it up with fresh gas. Still the damn think wouldn’t start.

We resolve to bite the bullet and purchase another push mower. These mowers do get used pretty hard on a small farm. And five years seems to be the average life span for them.  We also decide to get the old one fixed but hold it as a reserve.

Now for the weed-eater, looking around to see if anyone is watching, I remove the little EPA screen. Tugging the cord to start it purrs like a dream. Damn those little screens, screw the environment, I’ve got work to get done. (Is it just me? Or is it getting hot in here?)

Cindy meanwhile hitches the newly fixed small tractor to the ailing finish mower and begins mowing the orchards. She finds me on the other tractor, where I’m bush-hogging lamb paddocks, a short ten minutes later. The finish-mower just burned up and is gone. Our old Mennonite mechanic had warned (ten years ago) that it could die anytime. I took my hat off in memory… kicked the hat and shook my fist at those cruel laughing gods.

Thank goodness we sold another four chicks for $18 dollars and that half mutton for $100. We only need to have 65 more weekends like this to catch up. No problem.

Staying Put

A couple of years ago, this week, my eldest sibling passed away. At the time of her passing and often since I’ve reflected on the power of staying put. Here is the piece I wrote at the time.

A few weeks ago I was home for the funeral of my oldest sister, aged fifty-six. The four days home saw a constant parade of neighbors and friends bringing platters of food each evening. It started a Monday evening after her death and continued through Friday on the day of her service. Each evening cars began to show up laden with casseroles, fried chicken, roast pork, boudin, banana puddings, salads and cakes of all descriptions. The parade of visitors stayed for only minutes, long enough to voice their condolences, a show of respect for a family that has stayed put for generations.Banana Pudding Republic 006

The groaning tables of food lightened the grief, made festive the gathering and allowed the extended family to have communion together over a shared meal. How often does it happen in our lives that the best memories are centered over a symbolic breaking of bread? An echo of our agrarian past, a statement that as long as we have food on the table we can weather any storm, that we can shelter in place until the danger is passed.

The average American moves 11.5 times in their life. My total was thirteen moves before settling on the farm at age thirty-seven. These past fourteen years of staying put have been an education in how to be part of a place. For me, anyway, the act of being a steward of this land has made me value those ties that bind us in life: community, neighbors, family and land. Hopefully that has made me a more thoughtful steward of those ties. I’ll leave that determination to those who know me best.

Each day when we plow through our long to-do lists each task binds us tighter to this place. Each task completed makes us more a part of this farm and value more our neighbors and distant family.  There are plenty of ways to fracture a community, neighbors, family.  But like the land they can be nourished back into productivity with a little water, manure, sunshine. Once again productive if lightly used they can be lightly harvested.

If nourished well they will thrive. If ignored and not cultivated they wither. We do give so that we can receive, that is part of the compact of a healthy society and healthy land.

And if we have done our part, our community will honor our survivors with food and honest sympathy. That the land we have worked will honor us by continuing to offer food to those who come after. And, hopefully, if the life has been lived well there will be a platter of banana pudding somewhere on the table.


Still reading through the new book PawPaws this weekend in preparation for a “pawpaw picking party” next week.

The Blood on My Hands

I laid out my shotguns and deer rifle on a folding table outside the kitchen window. With fall around the corner, it was time to clean and oil the guns. It’s a methodical process that is satisfying to undertake on objects that are a beautiful marriage of design and utility. Using a kit made for the purpose, I rammed the cleaning rods through the barrels, oiled the working parts, and rubbed the wood stocks till they shone. I finished just as guests arrived for dinner, returning the guns to the cabinet as they walked up the drive.Guns 002

Growing up in Louisiana I, alongside my father and brother, hunted and fished year round. It was a rare week that did not find me crouching in a duck blind, running trot lines, crabbing, or catching crawfish. Game, fresh- and saltwater fish, shrimp, and oysters easily provided five dinner meals out of seven for our household. Staying up late at night cleaning and gutting fish, setting the alarm every two hours to run the trot-line, waking up at 3 a.m. to get to the duck blind or be on the open gulf by sunrise, all were part of the landscape of my childhood.

Mine was the hunting and fishing of providence, not of the trophy hunter. It was the experience of a profoundly masculine world. From the catching, shooting, and cleaning to, in many cases, the cooking, it was a culture of men putting food on the table for their families. It wasn’t needed in the middle class home of my father—he certainly could have provided all of our meat needs from the grocery store—but it was a lifestyle I shared with most of my friends growing up.

There was always an exhilaration in making a good shot or setting the hook on a large fish. It provided, and still does, a sense of accomplishment that is part evolutionary and large part tribal. The camaraderie of men in camp, the solitude of the hunt, being on the water by myself, or with my father, the rituals of killing and of eating, each shaped who I am as a person.

Perhaps it is counterintuitive, but killing another living creature can teach a person a lot about nature. Putting that act of killing in its “proper place” reminds us of where we came from and where we belong. And remembering our place in a natural order may be the best way to save this planet.

A detractor could argue against the killing, the male role in that culture, and I would listen and perhaps agree in part. But my defense is simple and straightforward: I prefer to be the one with blood on his hands. I believe it is a stance that makes me more, not less, sensitive to the value of life. It is the same reason I butcher poultry and livestock. It seems more honest.

Some may be shaking their heads right now. But as we collectively pile into our cars, while away our hours shopping, allow our kids to grow up without seeing the light of day as they game their way into perpetual adolescence, move from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned vehicle to air-conditioned home, with all that those actions entail to the planet, we might ask ourselves a hard question: who are we kidding?

Whether vegetarian or meat eater, just because we do not pull the trigger or set the hook, we are all culpable in the killing that our lifestyle requires.


Reading this weekend: The Art of Stillness: adventures in going nowhere by Pico Iyer. And, Journey of  the Universe by Swimme and Tucker.


The mowers across the valley hum with honey bee intensity. Mid-morning heat and the grass has parted ways with the dew after their nightly tryst. Hay is down in dozens of fields, signs of industry from the stewards of those lands. Other pastures are newly shorn and baled, revealing lines both stark and sensual. Round and square bales dot the landscape like chess pieces randomly scattered after play.hay making 6-5-15 001

Gathering my own pieces—a stirrup and a Dutch hoe, a pitchfork and a rake, a 50-gallon tub—I head into the vegetable garden. As I work, the sounds of lawnmowers combine with the nearby shout of a mother to a son, “Pick the green beans while you’re at it.” The sounds of scraping the soil, grunts of my own exertion, a ping as metal strikes rock, the thud of a rock casually tossed to the edge of the garden, where dozens more have gathered over the years.

The tub gradually fills with a spring mix of weeds, a buffet of flavors I tip over the adjoining fence for the sow and gilt, Delores and Petunia, to enjoy. They have been pacing the fence since I arrived, coated in mud from their wallow, grunting and squealing their impatience to begin dining. Another hour of weeding and culling and another tub filled: cabbages and turnips past their prime, leaves of chard and collards, all to be fed to the hogs in the woods later in the evening.

A retreat to the house and a lunch of the previous night’s dinner of grilled ribeyes, creamed chard, and new potatoes, then we catch up on our respective tasks. I read and finish a book before leaving to ted the hay in an upper field.

The grass cut only yesterday is already dry and ready to be baled, no tedding needed, its conversion to winter’s feed complete. Leaving the tractor behind, I enter on foot the sanctuary of the woods. Meaningful word “sanctuary,” both a refuge and a sacred place. Under the canopy of large oaks, poplars, and maples, the woods are still cool and sheltering from the blazing afternoon heat, and the word is both to me. The dogs drink from secret stumps water collected in recent rains. How many other animals know the same? Do they find these watering dishes by scent or instinct?

I walk along the winding lane and exit back into the sunlight. In a heat not yet marred by the humidity of late day, there is an oven-like comfort, like a woodstove in a cool house. At pasture’s edge, a new mother guards her calf, fiercely eyeing the dogs. White Oak 003We move on, past the pond, past the white oak, through the equipment yard. The dogs find shelter from the heat under the chicken coop; I find shelter indoors.

Closing the blinds, we lie down under the ceiling fan and take a midday nap. Sleep is refuge against a hot Tennessee summer day, a sacred state of renewal before the workday reconvenes.


Reading this weekend: Anatole France, “Revolt of the Angels”

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

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.


Reading this weekend: Ancient Herbs by Jeanne D’Andrea