Sanctuary

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.

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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.

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Reading this weekend: Ancient Herbs by Jeanne D’Andrea

The Master Comes Home

The initial thrill that comes with an ice storm and a loss of power faded a bit the morning the temperature bottomed out at 3 degrees. Delores the sow had dragged the heater out of her water trough for the fifth time, the pond ice for the cattle and horse had to be broken every few hours, and a young ewe and her newborn had to be rescued after lambing in a far corner of the wind-blown sheep pasture and relocated to the shelter of a barn stall. Still, the domestic pleasure of coming into a cozy house heated by a woodstove to sip a hot cup of tea is not to be dismissed.

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A walk back to the house and barns.

Traditionally we built our houses to meet the demands of our climates, a grass hut if you lived on a tropical isle or a house with connected barn if you lived in New England. Older houses in Louisiana, when I was growing up, were typically built a couple of feet off the ground. It was a good model for a warm climate. The open space underneath kept the house cooler in the warmer months (most of the year), and the elevation protected against the occasional flooding. Freezes, like the big one in 1940 my dad recalled, were rare. And given that most plumbing was limited to the kitchen, freeze damage to the house was minimal.

Infrastructure was on my mind this past week here in East Tennessee. After a week of temperatures barely budging above freezing, we had an ice storm. The storm caused our farm to lose power. Then the temperatures plummeted to low single digits. Thankfully, we had a generator to run the refrigerator, well pump and a few essential electrical circuits. A Jotul woodstove helped keep the house a comfortable 60 degrees. Another generator at the barn kept a variety of water tanks heated for the sheep, chickens, goose, cattle and horse.

Today, our houses are designed to accommodate the additional “essentials” that just a generation ago were not needed nor even available. The electricity to keep the modern house functioning is a relatively new concept in human culture. The boundary line of what is essential has shifted. Shelter, heat, food and water now share demand with internet, smartphone, cable TV and microwave.

Older forms of infrastructure had built-in resilience: barns carefully constructed to hold heat, with hay mows above to ease the feeding of livestock in poor weather; deep in-ground cisterns to provide fresh water for the farm; houses designed to facilitate warmth in the winter or coolness in the summer—smart, low-tech designs that we have pushed aside with the assumption that the power grid will now take care of us.

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Muscadines coated in a half inch of ice.

Over the years Cindy and I have discussed converting our farm to an off-the-grid power system. Each time, though, we found the costs to be prohibitive. But this week, after a few days without power, as we scrambled to keep up with our needs, it occurred to me: off-the-grid is easy; it is our modern needs that are complicated, the prohibitive factor, the stumbling block, the real expense.

Those old houses in south Louisiana worked year in, year out because they had very little modern infrastructure to protect. Working under the house insulating each individual pipe before the ice storm, I was overwhelmed by how much plumbing is needed in our small house just to furnish us water on demand. Hot and cold pipes to the kitchen and the two bathrooms, the hot water heater and the washer/dryer—a complexity of plumbing requiring protection from the elements, so that it might protect us from the elements.

Driving into town late in the week, I saw dozens of downed trees, limbs still balancing on utility lines, brush pushed to the edges of the road. As I looked at the miles of power lines and telephone lines, our true vulnerability was evident. It was not the loss of electrical power that we feared but the loss of a certain status that comes with our modern life, a status of predictability.

Off-the-grid literature is typically geared towards finding ways around the commercial power source, yet retaining the modern conveniences. As we watered and fed our sheep, as lambs were born this week without regard to the temperature or the state of our utilities, I thought about the Amish. While many of us were without power, were they concerned with an inability to update their Facebook pages, charge their cell phones, keep their freezers going, stay warm with their electric furnaces? Did they feel powerless? Somehow I doubt it.

The complexity of this modern life, the infrastructure that maintains it, is hardwired for disruption. Our system and our expectations for what it must provide are such that losing power is a form of powerlessness. That in itself seems a form of slavery. Which is why there is, for me, always that bit of anarchic joy in an emergency, an unshackling from the system. Though that uncertain joy is accompanied by relief when the master comes home and power is restored.

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Reading this weekend: Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley

A January Scrapbook

The high temperature today, January 4th, is in the low sixties. Wednesday night the temperature is forecast to be 7 degrees. Such is the joy of an East Tennessee winter. We have been busy this week and weekend. The lower fencing was completed and the cattle moved for the winter. Hogs are going to market this week and so are last winter’s ram lambs. Our replacement pigs are due to be farrowed this week. And the ewes began lambing last Tuesday. That is as neat a cycle as one will experience on a farm. I leave you this week with some random shots of Winged Elm Farm taken today.

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Never enough equipment sheds

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Plenty of hay this year

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Coop Angles

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Roof lines

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A Dorper ready to lamb

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Lounging by the barn door

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Twins, born healthy

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This ewe had twins, one of which had to be put down

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Making honey before the temperature drops

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Well-house

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Our farmhouse

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stonewall and steps

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Dry-stack stonewall

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The last of the Pomeranians

 

Geegaw Nation

’Tis the season: for plastic, for wrapping, for quantity, for abundance. It is a funny word, abundance. My 1901 dictionary defines it as “ample sufficiency.” Today’s Webster’s defines it as “more than sufficient quantity.” The former points to an appreciation of what we have; the latter speaks to our current state of overconsumption. The former indicates an abundance secured against future want; the latter, merely a quantity in excess of what is needed for the present, just stuff, all of it the same.tacky-christmas-decorations

Our local discussion group is reading the wonderful book Larding the Lean Earth by Steven Stoll. Stoll discusses at some length a topic that has troubled me for years. Has the sheer abundance of our continent ultimately conspired to corrupt our better angels? Or were we doomed by some inner corruption, some genetic predisposition to be the bipedal locusts hoovering up all in their path?

Has this abundance destroyed our sense of wonder and beauty? William Cobbett in his curious and judgmental work The American Gardener (1817) wrote of assessing the morality of a man by how he kept his garden. George Marsh (congressman from Vermont), when he took the floor in 1848 to argue against the Mexican War, made the unusual argument that what we already had was enough for any civilization, that to grasp for more, we would risk losing the sense of what was best about where we lived. It’s an argument that seems out of place with where we journeyed and where we have ended up.

Where we have ended up is as the spoiled kid on Christmas morning, surrounded by new geegaws and already bored. Why take care of the presents when he’s been given so much and expects more? Our consumer ethic, molded by abundance, has stunted our hearts: why take care of a home when it is only a “starter” home, a spouse, land, or neighbors when they can so easily be replaced?

Cursed by an abundance of land and resources, we have fouled our nest and moved on so often that our internal landscape now mirrors our external. The sheer ugliness of our daily landscape has a corrosive effect on our spiritual and political selves. Do all the geegaws we purchase this holiday season give us any more sense of well-being?

Maybe the true act of love for our planet, our home, is to repaint, tidy the garden, repair the torn pants, patch the jacket, sweep the sidewalk, bake some bread and give it to the neighbors. Maybe less can still be more. Maybe less is still abundance.