A Summer Walk

I enter the woods near the wet weather spring, the ground moist and spongy under foot. The air is cool, so different from the oven-like summer day left behind a few feet back. The lane as it curves up into the woods dips then rises gradually up the long slope of the ridge. Becky weaves back and forth in the brush following her own invisible road of smells and enticements.

Leaving the lane I begin my own weave in the woods, not her scent driven journey, but no less purposeful for that. Boletes and milk-caps carpet the floor, sprung into being after the rain. An act of creation as remote from the distant buzzing saws and trucks in the next valley where a man’s son’s clear-cut an inheritance left. A pact, I imagine, completed with the same quiet understanding and betrayal of the sons in the final pages of “The Good Earth.”

Looking for a flush of chanterelles, or at least enough to accompany dinner, I find only two. I am now in the middle of the woods where sounds entering are muted and filtered, sanitized of offence. A doe jumps and runs away with an exaggerated slowness. I know that dance. She has left a fawn in the brush and leads Becky far away before easily eluding. Looking nearby I see the bright red and white spots, no more than twenty pounds, of a fawn asleep, unaware of her mother’s exertions.

I have now come to the fence at the base of the ridge. Newly installed last year, a large branch has fallen crushing the wire to the ground. Shifting the branch, I repair the wire with my fence pliers, each strand crimped back into tight harmony with the whole. We walk the perimeter until we get to the gates between the upper pasture and the hopper field. I pull and latch the gates. I’ll move the cattle in a few days and have come on this walk to make the pasture secure.

We walk out of the shade across the pasture. Becky plunges into a pond to cool off sending a dozen bull frogs skittering from shore to the depths. I’m sweating as we reenter the woods. Seemingly less open to wonder, the details of the remaining to-do list begin to crowd in as we walk back down the lane. Becky, no longer chasing scents, senses the change and walks by my side.

The woods now seem a bit stifling as the mid-afternoon sun drives all thought of breeze away. We cross the pasture back to the barn. Becky dives for the shade under the chicken coop. I piddle around for a few minutes and then follow her example and head to the house for a nap.

Slow Farming

“These were all manufactured so that a man with a little common sense could repair them.” We were walking the rows of horse-drawn equipment at an estate auction in Dayton, Tennessee. The comment was made by a neatly dressed farmer from central Georgia. Horse-drawn equipment (and farm equipment in general), though frequently ingenious in design, is straightforward. As the man pointed out, “No need to call an IT center in India.”

I’m sure someone has used the phrase already. But I’d like to call what we do “slow farming.” Carlo Petrini launched the slow food movement some twenty years ago to fight the rising tide of industrial food processes and their damaging impact on dining and culture in Italy. That movement has blossomed across the globe. And, although subject to some well-placed criticism, on the whole it has benefited civilization—with an emphasis on seasonal produce, local food, preservation of heritage breeds, seeds and traditions, and, most important, a renewed sense of conviviality in our dining rituals.

It occurred to me last week that the label “slow farming” was an apt description of farms like ours. Productivity, efficiency, and moderate profitability are certainly ever-present in our minds. But they also serve the greater end of allowing us to enjoy, savor, care for, and stay on the land. Too often the agrarian mindset loses out to the modern paradigm of profits, extraction, and haste. Yet, like a good pot on simmer, those older impulses bubble slowly to the surface with encouraging frequency.

It should be said that we are no puritans in this movement, both of us still firmly burrowed into the bosom of our lemming-like culture, in its mad dash for the cliff of climate change and resource depletion. But it is possible, at times, to slow down and allow that rush to the cliff to sweep around you.

Here are three slow farm principles for your consideration:

  • Take a daily walk—not for exercise, but simply to be in the outdoors, listening to the far-off hoot of a barred owl and watching with friends as the fog rolls into the valley below. Between tasks on the farm, walk up in the woods and harvest some newly emerged chanterelle mushrooms, or blackberries growing free for the grasping, all yours because you made time to slow that mad surge forward.

 

  • Thrift is good for the soul. Creating a useful and tasty dish from a hog’s head may not be the most effective use of your time. Likewise, the long hours rendering lard and making lye soap. Building your own kitchen cabinets, milling your own lumber, tilling your own garden, drying herbs, curing meats, and using horse rather than diesel power—all are tasks an economist would suggest are wasteful to the GDP. But what do we care? What do they know?

 

  • Preside over a convivial table. The sheer pleasure of gathering with friends and family to share a dinner of mutton simmered in beef stock and wine, eggplant baked with tomatoes and oregano, and new potatoes with rosemary—every single ingredient from your farm—must surely give pause to our fellow lemmings and cause a few more to slow and turn against that tide.

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Reading this weekend: The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the meaning of food. By Adam Gopnik.

Late Spring Update: bungee cords break

Important tip for you gardeners and farmers out there: bungee cords don’t last. This may seem self-evident. And this lesson is one I learn repeatedly. But please remember that when using a bungee cord to secure a gate or fencing around your garden that it will eventually rot and fall away. That falling away of the cord can then be interpreted by thirty sheep as an invitation to brunch.

Waking after my afternoon siesta, a civilized practice that I have adhered to since kindergarten, and one I am fortunate to share with my mate, I heard our flock bleating what I took to be signs of distress. Upon examination of the source of this sound I found the whole damn flock in the spring and summer gardens. Magnificent kale, three feet in diameter, reduced to a nub. Onion tops nibbled down to the bulbs, potato plants trampled in their haste to get to the cucumber patch. And what I thought was sounds of distress were instead the sounds of delight from gluttons stampeding into a casino buffet.

I chased them out the open fence line, aimed a few well-placed kicks to the rear of the dawdlers and replaced the bungee cords with some wire ties. Surveying the damage and I realized that they had probably been in there less than thirty minutes. It could have been worse. At least I got them out before they hit the dessert bar and eaten the tomatoes plants.

This has been a vacation week, cutting hay, weeding the gardens, bush hogging fields, hauling hogs to market, canning pepper sauce and a hundred other small tasks. We have had two farm volunteers this past week from the state of Vermont, two women in their mid-twenties on a summer hiatus from the job of looking for careers, spending the next few months working gratis on farms across the country. We provided room and board and our charming company each evening over dinner. They helped work through the mountain of tasks that kept getting bumped to the back burner. This morning they hit the road for Alabama. They planned to stop in Dayton, TN to visit the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial, just a short 30 minutes away from our farm.

On other fronts we have new bees and are working on our sawmill shed. The shed is 30×20 feet. It will house a portable sawmill and have room for storing cut lumber. The footings have been poured and the support posts set. Once the shed is completed we will order that sawmill and move forward on our woodlot management plan.

Our new beehives are in place and both are active. We had to introduce a new queen in one hive. Tomorrow we will get into the hives to determine her status and when to add a new hive body to each. Clover is still in bloom, so they should be getting plenty of pollen and nectar. However, we will supplement those sources with sugar water over the summer.

Finally, for this update, we have been working with the state forester and local extension agents on a plan to develop a remote pasture into a nut orchard. We have a pasture of about 6-8 acres that is seldom used for cattle or hay. We had discussed using it to grow pines for a crop, harvestable in 16 years. But we’d prefer to use it for a food crop. Still in the exploratory stage, but excited about a new project. Because, we know nothing stays static on a farm.

Now why are those cattle bawling?

Bargaining with the rain gods  

OK, give us some rain, not too much, not too little, just enough and when convenient…for us. With crazy weather patterns becoming the norm I’m not sure what totem offerings to make to whomever is listening. But I’m willing to try. Just clue me in big guy.

The folks in the UK, I hear, could stand a dry spell. The good people of the Gulf coast could use a month or two to dry out from Noah like deluges, just not too long…. And we’ve been running low for the year. Not a drought, yet. But edging into the scary zone where you know what can happen. So when a major system kicked up and started firing moisture northwards from the Gulf of Mexico and along a frontal line, we were hopeful.

But after a misting over 24 hours and by yesterday afternoon a mere measly 10th of an inch was in the rain gauge. So late on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, with the skies having parted I was glued to the computer watching stray storms popping up; calculating wind directions, intensity and whether the gods were going to play fair.

For a couple of hours we watched what appeared to be a promising cell fire up on the Cumberland Plateau. An agonizing drift eastward at a glacial pace and it finally crested the ridge of our valley around 6 pm. A nice round ½ inch dropped into the gauge. We’ll take what was offered. Do I need to slaughter a lamb or offer burnt offerings?

So after the rain of yesterday I piddled about the farm today, did a bit of fishing, mainly as an excuse to smoke a cigar. And I mulled over an email we had received. Someone wanted advice on leading a more self-sufficient life. I disclaim any authority to answer adequately. But apparently I can’t seem to resist the siren call of thinking I have something to say (see below).

So, while I’ve been a bit useless today, Cindy has been her usual industrious self. She has been cleaning our hive bodies and getting frames ready for our two new bee nuc’s. These are ones to replace the four hives lost last year to bad weather and poor management.

5 Guidelines to greater self-sufficiency

Lesson #1: Garden

Start by getting your hands dirty. Plant a garden. Grow what you like to eat. Plunge your hands into the soil, make some notes of what you did and repeat next season. It is not hard. At the end of the season you have some fresh produce, don’t waste it. Eat it, save it or compost it.

Lesson #2: Livestock

Start small and raise for your own home consumption. Raise only what you like to eat. It doesn’t take a college degree or permaculture certification to raise a hog out for nine months, butcher it and eat well for the next year. Chickens or ducks, a hog or a lamb, can all be raised successfully on a small bit of land.

Lesson #3: Work

We all have more time than we realize. So, use it. You are going to feel better at the end of the year when you have some food in the freezer and in the pantry, I promise. Knowing you can produce food for your family is simply the best feeling.

Lesson #4: Killing and cooking

Get over your squeamishness. You got an extra rooster, learn to butcher. Do it cleanly and humanely and honor it with a really nice dinner with some sides of fresh vegetables you grew.

Lesson #5: Intelligence

Use your brain. Educate yourself on the best ways to do any of the above. Our ancestors have been providing for themselves for thousands of years. Hey, how hard can it be?

 

Respect Your Cuisine

Sir, Respect Your Dinner, Idolize it, enjoy it properly.

You will be many hours in a week, many weeks in the year, and many years in your life, happier if you do.

(William Makepeace Thackeray)

Odd, it seems Southern cooking is being celebrated everywhere but in the South. I’m a bit obsessive about cooking magazines, tending to pick them up whenever I’m in a store. And Southern cooking is always being touted and referenced as the touchstone of American cooking. And it is important, or it was at one time. But its importance does not survive in the glossy pages of a magazine or an upscale restaurant.

Don’t misunderstand me, there are great restaurants in the South. And there are great purveyors of food in the region. But good Southern cooking has always been a home-based cuisine. I tend to think of cooking styles like I do an indigenous music style, like bluegrass. Once it becomes precious, moves off the front porch into a regional music festival it is near death. Much like the ancient language that is down to nine elderly speakers; time to stick a fork in it, it is done. And Southern cuisine will soon be down to those last nine elderly practitioners.

I’ve always thought of Southern food as peasant food. After all, we have been an agrarian culture since Europeans and Africans settled these lands. We brought foods from our homes and we adopted from the locals. And we embraced the tomato, corn and pepper from points further south. There has always been a highbrow component to our cuisine, the cuisine of the planter class. But that was a food culture that, although flavored with local ingredients, aspired to be something else than what was native. A dinner plate designed to make them feel a superiority that could only be purchased.

The genesis, the glory of our food culture was in the garden, the hunt, the field all enjoyed in a warm temperate climate that allowed multiple crops and access to an unimaginable range of foods. My childhood was filled with gardens in the summer, catfish trotlines and duck hunting in the winter, speckled trout caught on the inter-coastal in the fall and Satsuma’s in season and eating so much shrimp that you were sick of seeing them on the table. Sprinkle in crab and crawfish harvests, venison sausage, gumbos, smoked goose, and pork in all its wonderfully varied uses and the Southern cuisine of my youth was worth celebrating.

But today we have given up that rich heritage of the locally harvested for a faux cuisine that has become the precious heritage of food magazines, suburbanites and Brooklyn-ites. The real food of our culture comes from the soil and dirt under your hands. It comes from the muscle ache in your back from working oyster tongs all day and shucking oysters deep into the night. It is the numbness of your hands on a December night as you pull wriggling catfish into the jon-boat. It is figuring out a way to cook okra because it exists.

It is a DIY food culture of butchering pigs and using everything but the squeal. It is staying up late to salt all your cabbage for kraut before it goes to waste. It is a real old-fashioned church supper with 200 competing dishes handed down from mother to daughter and you with only one stomach to tackle it all.

It is not found in a Walmart, a fast food chain, a high-end restaurant or, god forbid, Garden and Gun magazine. It is found on a dinner table with a family connected to the land and enjoyed with a homemade biscuit in one hand and a plate of love in front of you.

We are getting close to knowing those last elderly nine. Get your hands dirty, practice the language.

A Pig Called Snowflake

We knew the time was near, even though we didn’t know the date. Early Monday morning I turned out to do the chores while Cindy headed off to work. I started with the feeder pigs behind the equipment shed, then the chickens and finally off to see Snowflake. Her farrowing date was at hand. She had lost her entire litter the summer before. Was it to do with the heat or some other factor we had not determined? Ultimately we decided to give her another chance.
 
She had been showing a heavy belly for the past few weeks. But her appetite remained healthy. Sometime on Saturday she began gathering sticks and bringing them into her shelter to create an uncomfortable-looking nest. I removed the sticks and brought her more straw bedding, taking the time, as always, to pat her and chat for a few moments.
 
Strolling down into the woods, calling her name, I knew it had begun. No answering snorts to my call, her 350-plus-pound bulk nestled in the hay. I opened the gate. As I approached, Snowflake was on her side groaning, in heavy labor. One small and very active piglet dashed around her. I knelt down to examine her. No distress, so I rearranged the hay and went back to the house to work.
 
I checked on her every hour. By eleven o’clock in the morning, no additional piglets had been born. A hasty call to Cindy and we both agreed to call the vet. As bad luck would have it our vet was at a rodeo in Oklahoma City. He called back on his cell phone and gave me the number of several vets in the area: I left a message with all.
 
A vet in Riceville, 30 miles away, called me back. Typical of a Monday morning, he was covered up in emergency calls. He advised me to put my hand up her birth canal and check to see if there was a piglet blocking the path. If that was the case, I was to remove it and let her get on with the farrowing. He was concerned that she might not have the energy to deliver the rest of the piglets and gave me instructions that included feeding dog food, peanut butter and tums tablets (for calcium). Additionally, I was to give her a shot of oxytocin to induce contractions if she did not deliver another piglet.

OK, I’ve seen All Creatures Great and Small, so how difficult could this be? With some trepidation, I gathered up the Vaseline, scrubbed my arm and went back out to the paddock. Snowflake had meanwhile shifted her body so her butt end was against the back wall. I slathered on the Vaseline and inserted first my fingers then my hand up to the forearm. I could feel the piglet blocking the birth canal, head back. Snowflake howled with pain. After a few fruitless minutes I extracted my hand.
 
Back in the house I called Cindy and asked her to come on home. Before agreeing, she said, “I thought you had watched all of those James Herriot TV shows!” I went back out to put my TV vet knowledge into practice. This time I pushed all the way to my elbow. I pushed with the tips of my fingers on the small body blocking the cervical opening to the birth canal. After a few minutes I was able to snag a leg and begin the process of pulling the piglet out. It was dead, as expected. I left Snowflake in hopes that she would get on with the job.
 
Meanwhile Cindy arrived home and I brought her up to speed. We checked on Snowflake and found that no more piglets had arrived. Cindy called our dog vet to see if we could get a shot of oxytocin to induce contractions. The officious gatekeeper at the counter told her, “WE DON’T TREAT PIGS!” “We are not asking you to treat pigs—we are asking for a shot of oxytocin.” “Miss, we can’t hand out injectable drugs to the public.” Cindy: “This pig could die”. The gatekeeper: “Your human doctor wouldn’t give out drugs over the phone.” Cindy hung up.
 
Calling another vet clinic, she explained the circumstance again. This time, they immediately said that they would have the injection at the counter waiting. I headed out for Crossville, an hour away, to meet two customers picking up our beef at the processor. Cindy headed half an hour the opposite direction to the vet.
 
Returning home two hours later, I found her in the house. She had given the injection and contractions began, but still no delivery. She had to repeat the Vaseline procedure and hand remove all of the piglets. Snowflake ended up delivering four more, each one dead.
 
Here we were again. A sow on her second chance with what we, and our farm vet, felt was some congenital defect preventing a successful farrowing. What do we do?
 
I left on Tuesday morning for a work trip, the one remaining piglet doing ok—but, Snowflake not moving or eating. Upon my return Wednesday evening, the lone piglet had died. Now we were faced with the decision: We can’t sell her for breeding stock. We can’t keep her as a pet. We can’t afford to give her a second chance. And, we don’t have a customer for the meat. We made our decision.
 
Thursday morning, after Cindy left for work, I went to see our sow and brought my Winchester 30/30. She was in her hut. I knelt down and talked to her while I stroked her massive head. Standing up quickly, I raised the rifle and fired one shot aimed directly between her eyes. She died instantly.
 
Livestock serves a real purpose of providing protein in a convenient package. I am comfortable with the choice of being an omnivore. And, I’m equally comfortable with the decision to put her down. Still, she was a beautiful pig called Snowflake.

This Farm Note from the archives was written in April 2011. This is before I began to regularly post on the blog. The Farm Notes began in 1999 and were shared for those years with a group of friends and family. Over the coming year I will post periodically from those archived Notes.

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Reading this weekend: An Island in Time: the biography of a village by Geert Mak. A well written work examining the decline of a specific village in the Netherlands; and the larger decline of village life globally.

A Good Day

Even the knowledge that the cardboard box I had just thrown on a roaring fire in the burn barrel contained 200 onion sets could not diminish the joy of a beautiful Saturday morning on the farm. These late winter days, with frost on the ground at daybreak, but whose clear skies promise warm temperatures by late morning, are pure gold.

Cindy was off early to catch a flight to Florida leaving me to my own devices. So Caleb and I spent the morning knocking off items on the to-do list. Principle among them were to move about ten cubic yards of compost from the pile to the spring garden. Once that was done I tilled the space and we put in two hundred feet of potatoes and onions (I had run out and bought replacements), and some kale and turnips. It was a good start for the season.

A good to-do list needs to be slightly ambitious, with more than one can easily do in the allotted time. But not so much more that you are discouraged by the tasks undone. It should also contain small items that are easily accomplished so that you feel that satisfaction from checking them off the list. And, it should contain larger projects that may not be completed in one day. But, by at least making a start, you will be closer to their completion.

A good day on the farm, for me, begins with the practical completion of the to-do list. But it always includes good companionship from Cindy, neighbors and friends. A shared cup of coffee or a meal and good conversation adds depth to the good work of the day. Our former farm volunteer, Hannah, came by last evening for that shared cup of coffee and a good conversation. She had been out hiking with a mutual friend and had that healthy glow and exuberance one experiences at twenty-one.

But a good day should also include solitude, perhaps a bit of reading, maybe a good cigar and a walk. So I dropped all of those into the afternoon by rereading Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History and smoking that cigar while checking on the cattle.

After Hannah left, I fixed myself a small lamb roast, an onion and chard tart and had a few glasses of wine before an early night. I’d have to rank the day pretty high on the satisfaction scale.

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Reading this weekend: The Sixth Extinction: an unnatural history by Elizabeth Kolbert. Equal parts fascinating and truly depressing, she focuses on the current sixth wave of extinction in the history of our planet. It is principally caused by that widely spread bipedal weed, and that fact alone should leave us feeling ashamed.  Is it an act of cognitive dissonance to derive so much pleasure from your days and yet know that one’s actions collectively are causing so much destruction?