Don’t Make a Meal of It

We had finished hauling a half-dozen pine logs to the lumber yard. There were still a lot of small branches to pick up. So I told the kid to pick them up and pile them in a ravine and “don’t make a meal of it, come find me when you are done.” He said, sure, and got to work.

Told off since we were kids that a job is not worth doing unless it is done right has mislead generations, left them dithering at the crossroads of inaction A dear friend of ours often abused her husband for cleaning up the house less than perfect. She, being a perfectionist, never cleaned. Knowing in her heart of hearts it would never measure up.

Now sometimes doing the job thoroughly is important, such as heart surgery. But, and perhaps this is my Southern sensibility, I’m a 90% guy: Take care of 90% and the other 10% typically doesn’t matter. In fact, that last 10% can take 90% of your time. Sometimes, actually pretty darned often, not making a meal of it, instead of spending too much time on minor projects, is the appropriate amount to get done.

Learning the balance in completing work or spiraling down an anal retentive vortex of making nail cozies can be a fine line. It is a process we actively engage in each day on the farm, where the list of items increases minute by minute, wind storm by wind storm. Sometimes, even a half-assed completion is the spot-on-amount needed to accomplish the task. The skill and the talent of a good worker is determining when good is good-enough.

We pride ourselves on work well-done. But, we need to know when to move on and that every task fits in a larger framework.

Yesterday we pruned our new wine grapes to a central leader, put up the trellis wire and tied the vines off. I left undone the thorough weeding that was needed and an application of manure and mulch. It was time to move on and rake the hay in preparation for baling today.

Sometimes it is best to snack and not make a meal of it.

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Reading this weekend: The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. A fascinating look at the “intelligence” and social life of trees. The writing is a bit uninspiring, I was hoping for something both profound and beautiful.

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.

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

 

The Local Table

We are spending part of tomorrow helping a friend complete some fencing. So, in keeping with last week’s local theme, as well as not having written a new post… here is one from the archives.

We cook with lard

We were sitting around last night during the lightning storm. Our neighbor Tim was playing the banjo while we talked. We were eating bowls of chili verde and gently arguing the merits of what a local food culture means. There were six of us for our monthly discussion, as much a convivial outing as it was a chance to exercise the gray matter.

In an era of global food distribution what is a local cuisine? I remember the awkward first outing by the Knoxville Slow Food chapter when they hosted a kimchi workshop. One can certainly use local ingredients to make kimchi, and we do. But hosting that workshop highlighted the difficulty of defining a local cuisine in this global economy and era of global migration.

When the current epoch declines, as it surely will, and we are left to pick up the pieces, what will our local table look like? All the various peoples will certainly add a mixture to that table. But the table will be influenced by what is producible in the local food shed. Your post-global cooking culture will probably still have access to imported foods. But, if coming from any distance then they will be expensive and used more for special celebratory events.

Waverly Root, in his excellent The Food of France, organizes the culinary regions based on the fat used in cooking. Which I always thought was a marvelous way to view local cooking: butter, lard, goose fat or oil. It made sense to me. All of our cooking begins with the base fat used to add flavor. The fat used in non-global cuisines is a product of your land base. A nice Mediterranean climate and you will use olive oil in your cooking. A more mountainous land or one composed of poorer soils and you are more likely to use lard or goose fat, a land composed of rich pasture land and the cooking will be based on butter. The fat used in cooking seems as convenient a way as any to explore the local table.

But for many regions of this country what could be or what was a local table is now buried beneath so many Costco’s, Trader Jo’s and Walmart’s at the intersection of an interstate commerce. That table, if glimpsed, has a museum like quality.  Like a carefully curated exhibit of old cookbooks to remind us what our table may look like again in the future.

I’m fortunate to have come from a cuisine in south Louisiana that is still vibrant and has survived the global march, largely intact. But after thirty years in Tennessee I only catch rare sightings of what an indigenous cooking culture here would look like. But that table, when it does emerge, will consist of what we raise in this, our particular food-shed. My guess is that lard and butter will once again reign supreme and define the table. And olive oil will be a mere Mary Celeste of the imagination, ghosting along the coast in search of a port.

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Reading this weekend: the Oedipus plays.

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.

It’s Not the Grapes

In the John Sayles play “At the Anarchist Convention,” one of the old anarchists makes it a point to say that he refuses to eat grapes at the annual dinner. In a beautiful bit of back and forth with his comrades, he conflates the grapes on the plate with the famous 1970s grape boycott in support of striking farmworkers.

As a small-farm farmer, I often think of this play and how we, as a society, are prone to confusing the thing (the grape) with the process (the strike). For example, we disparage any grain feeding of livestock, when what we’re really protesting are the practices of the industrial feedlots and the monocultural production of millions of acres of commodity corn. Now this is not to say, Mr. Pollan, that raising livestock exclusively on grain hasn’t got its own set of problems, whether on an industrial or a small farm. But addressing appropriate process, scale, and humane treatment can help us frame a better question that yields a better answer than simply blaming the thing.

Yesterday, we butchered a couple of dozen Cornish X White Rock chickens. The day-old chicks we purchased a mere 8.5 weeks ago had grown out to produce an astounding 4.5-pound carcass. (Think of a Rottweiler and a Chihuahua side by side, and you’ll have an idea of how fast the cross grows compared to the traditional farm variety.) As a super-fast-growing bird, the Cornish-Rock has several issues of concern from the small-producer standpoint — weak limbs and lack of hardiness, to name two. But the bird, in and of itself, is not the crux of the problem.

The real problem is its role in the agri-industrial system. This commercial cross was bred specifically and exclusively for industrial exploitation: The Cornish-Rock cross is an ideal partner for the vertical factory model — a model in which bird, agribusinessman, and illegal immigrant plant worker are tightly bound in the same machine that spits out soylent green parts for consumption by the masses. The model that provides cheap protein, provides cheap veggies, provides cheap clothing, provides a cheapened life….

The grapes ain’t the problem, folks. It’s the process by which the grapes got to your table.

Reading This Weekend

Our little farm is humming along as we enter spring. From the green grass and ample rains, to the large flock of sheep and expanding poultry yard, the farm looks more prosperous this year than last; when the onset of what was an extreme drought began to color the land brown. That the orchards and all of the new plantings survived and are now thriving, we remark on daily as a miracle (thank you, Mr. Dionysus, for keeping the new wine grape plantings alive).  

Between tending the animals and the gardens, I still try to find time to maintain an active reading life, a balance that is important to my mental health. And Mr. Cobbett is always a good tonic to put things in perspective. Reading (again) portions of his Rural Rides, volumes 1 &2. This work is now close to its bicentennial and still full of timely information. Example: beware of visiting clergy, particularly the Methodist variety, they keep a keen ear for hog butchering days and consequently time their visits for the dinner hour.

Also, reading the new work by Jeffrey Roberts, Salted & Cured: savoring the culture, heritage, and flavor of America’s preserved meats. It is equal parts travelogue and history, and an interesting account of cured meats as they exist today in our land. A bit awkwardly written with a confusing narrative but it still has me interested in continuing our own curing experiments.

The 2015 title, Collards: A Southern tradition from seed to table, published by the University of Alabama, and written by Davis and Morgan, is well worth seeking out by any lover of greens. Personally, I’m more of a turnip or mustard greens man, having grown up outside of the core collard-belt. But this book is a well-written and enthusiastic account of the cultural importance of greens, a food group I always will celebrate.

What are you reading?

A Farm Breviary: Compline

The final office, and I’m seated in the doorway of the hoop-house. Behind me the compline bell rings with each shake of the ram’s head. The flock is bedded in the barn for the night, but still restless. Through the far door of the greenhouse, in the dimming light, the pigs gather as hungry penitents, hoping to be favored by an overgrown turnip or some other toothsome gift. Mere feet away, a rabbit munches a cabbage leaf, unconcerned by my presence.

The hour of compline begins with the restless, the hungry, and the insolent, which seems to be a certain commentary on something, if I could but grasp it. Meanwhile, in the blue-black sky above, a late jet catches up to the sun’s light at 40,000 feet and reflects the granted glory of a temporary membership among the celestial.

That too seems to me a lesson: mistaking reflected light as a sign of glory or evidence of mastery. Our literature as a species, outside of this current epoch of assumed progressive godhead, is replete with warnings of a fall and our inevitable irrelevance. We forget the lesson of the Roman triumph, where the servant stood at the conquering general’s ear and whispered the message of mortality, or the caution of the young Shelley, that the Ozymandian stature of our achievements was petty compared to the cosmos, or even to a tree, a bee, or a rock.

Perhaps we seek too high for that reflected illumination. Once, I had resolved to be as the moon, steadfast in her journey. Now I’m thinking I should be a cabbage. It seems not to care whether rabbit or human eats its leaves; it thrives in that short arc before becoming fodder for whatever destiny.

I laugh out loud at my absurd ruminations, startling the ram out of his own observance. He nervously rings the bell on his collar to close off the hour. Still no closer to an understanding, with this final office now observed, I pick up my chair and turn to leave. The rabbit casts a wary eye, then resumes its predations on my garden.

A final gaze at the night sky before I enter the house finds the familiar winking semaphore still sending its eternal dispatch — which I suspect, if I could just hear, would be whispering in my ear: remember, you are only a man, nothing more.