Whatever You Do, Don’t Fall Off The Truck

Anthropomorphizing farm animals is inevitable. We project personalities and our own foibles on the animals under our care. It is an act of giving voice and character to the individuals with whom we develop relationships through daily contact.

Piglets 5 weeks 013

Peggy: a gentle sow and good mother…except when you mess with her offspring.

As fellow omnivores, hogs fall into a category all their own. We view them quite literally as a source of food. We stand and admire the hams, the sides, the fatback, the hocks, and the jowls. It is a process that allows us to gain distance emotionally from an animal that can be quite personable one on one, responding to its name, waiting patiently for a back scratch and not so patiently for its dinner. On the whole, hogs are rather benign creatures … when raised singly or in pairs.

However, put four or five, ten or twenty, or several hundred together and those endearing individual qualities quickly morph into a mob mentality. Like attendees at a Trump rally baiting reporters, a pack of porcines want their red meat served raw and they want it now. No longer do they view you as the benevolent lord doling out favors and rewards. Instead, you are now a meal that has conveniently walked right up to the plate.

Yesterday I was feeding a group of hogs in the woods, four boys now grown to 125-plus pounds each. We still feed them by hand twice a day. But around this age — let us call it the teenage years — hogs are hungry all day and all night, a bottomless pit of insatiability. Wading through them to the trough with a feed bucket, their grasping mouths pulling on your pants, becomes an increasingly problematic exercise. One of those boys yesterday took a good long bite on my calf. It hurt. I booted his butt in retaliation, and he turned his attention away from me to an easier dinner at the trough, shoving his brothers out of the way. This happens every cycle in raising hogs. For us, it is the sign that it is time to fill up the self-feeder and let them eat as they want when they want.

The bite by the hog reminded me of a conversation with a local extension agent. Forty-some years ago, as a teenager, he had helped an old dairy farmer, doing odd and distasteful jobs as requested. This old farmer also raised a couple of hundred hogs, kept out in a large field.

One of the more unpleasant tasks of any livestock farmer is disposing of dead animals. Some bury them, others haul them into the woods for the scavengers to find, and some try their hand at mortality composting. On a large farm, death can be a weekly event. This dairyman (in a practice not practiced by our farm, I hasten to add) piled up any bodies of dead calves on a flatbed truck.

Each Saturday he took the truck to the hogs, the teenage boy on the bed. As they drove through the gates on the very first day, the teenager was instructed to start throwing the calves off the back, one at a time. The farmer then called his hogs, who came running. As the agent recalled, if you’ve never experienced a large sounder of hogs running at you, it is a fearsome sight and sound to behold.

About this time, the farmer slid open the back window of the truck and voiced these words of wisdom: “Whatever you do, don’t fall off the truck.” The hero of our story, standing on the slippery surface of the bed, grabbing the putrefying calves, began to heave them off into the mass of agitated hogs. Horrific sounds of bones crunching followed, haunting the extension agent, now nearing retirement, even to this day.

Which gives us this week’s teachable moment in farming and life: when dealing with a mob, whatever you do, don’t fall of the truck. It could ruin your day.

………………………………………………………………………………………………

Reading this weekend: Loosed Upon The World: an anthology of climate fiction. And, Small Is Beautiful: life in a local economy by Lyle Estill (not particularly well-written or relevant).

I’ve Done It Again

Time for a confession. Do not trust me with your pocket knife, for I have lost another one. It was a handy little French grafting knife from Opinel. Easily replaced and inexpensive. But it replaced a more expensive Le Theirs pocket knife, which replaced a German pocket knife, which replaced another in a long line of perfectly good knives….

Pocket knives

Pocket knives I have lost

Try an exciting thought experiment: Put yourself in the shoes of this farmer. Or make that a pair of rubber Wellingtons because it is raining or snowing or icing. You are driving the tractor. It is sliding this way and then that as you make your way up the hill pasture. Ahead the cattle are bawling, waiting for fresh hay.

In preparation for dropping off the hay, you first have to remove the baling string surrounding the round bale. You climb off the tractor, in the rain or whatever, and pull out your pocket knife, where it has been nestled securely in an overall pocket, under a barn jacket, under a raincoat. Reaching up, you cut the strings on the bale. And here is where it happens.

In the rain or whatever, as the cattle gather round impatiently, you do the following: Once you’ve pulled the various cut strings off the bale, you place the knife on the fender well of the tractor and you simply get back on the tractor and drive off. You will find this an extraordinarily effective means of losing a knife.

Then there’s a second option (my personal favorite). In this scenario, you fold up your knife and slide it into the raincoat pocket. And your knife vanishes immediately and forever. Because every farm raincoat has two fake pockets. These are the slits that allowed you to reach inside your raincoat, under your barn jacket, to access the overall pocket and remove the knife in the first place. By returning the knife to the raincoat pocket-slit, you have conveniently deposited it directly into the muck, snow, or whatever for eternal safekeeping.

You never notice its absence immediately. You assume it is in another coat, in a different pair of jeans, on the kitchen counter. But after days turn into weeks, the reality becomes clear: “I’ve done it again.”

Anyone want to loan me their knife?

…………………………………………………………..

Reading this weekend: The Classical Tradition in Western European Farming by G. E. Fussell. A dry but interesting work on the impact of classical farming literature on actual Medieval farming practices. Books create innovation!

A Farmer’s Guide to the Senses

Hearing: When the fog comes into the valley, the cattle bawl a fearful alarm at the loss of any horizon. It’s a sound that raises an ancient fear of the husbandman worried for his stock. You cock your head, desperate to locate the sound. Is this the bawl of your own cattle, now escaped and on the highway? An experience lived once stays forever.

Red Poll Cattle

Red Poll Cattle

Smell: Walking out at midnight among the cattle on a hot night, you take in the sweet rich aroma of sweat and foraged dung rising from the earth. Not unlike the smell of yeast and dough working together in a bowl under a heavy cloth. Both are promises in the dark, a womb-like gift of fertility for those capable of interpreting and understanding their uses.

Touch: While the ewe is still expelling the afterbirth, you cradle her newborn lamb. That gaze, that softness, delivers in an instant the totality of life, what the world offers. This, a mere moment between birth and death, for the joy and the living, for all of us.

Sight: The blood will come quickly, more than you expect. With a merciful cut across the jugular, the yearling ram-lamb will bleed bright on the winter grass. You carry his dead weight across the barnyard and hoist him up by the gambrel tendons to a singletree dangling from the front end loader. You execute the evisceration quickly, then place the carcass in the cooler.

Taste: You place a bit of smoked pork in your mouth. The fruit of your land, it is simply seasoned with salt and pepper, stuffed with garlic from the garden. The fat is rendered out during a long summer day spent in the smoker, then the meat is pulled, chopped, and doused with a vinegar sauce. You serve it on a plate alongside crowder pea salad. You wash it down with homemade mead and wine, sitting around the long table with friends as the day becomes evening. This is farming.

…………………………………………………………..

Re-reading this weekend: The Localization Reader: adapting to the coming downshift. A collection of essays, this is the designated reading over the next six months for our farmer’s reading group.

South of the River

Our farm is located south of the Tennessee River, in an area composed largely of Roane County, but with portions of Loudon, Monroe, Meigs, and McMinn. It is bordered by the river on the north and west, Interstate 75 to the east, and State Highway 68 to the south. It is called South of the River, or simply by its initials, SOR.Roane County

John Muir walked these valleys on his way to points farther south in the 1860s. Eventually, he ended his journey in a still-wild Florida, many lifetimes before modern souls touched down in the Orlando airport for their annual blowout at Magic Kingdom.

At approximately 150 square miles, South of the River is crossed by a few broad and fertile valleys that run northeast to southwest. The valley of Ten Mile, cut down the middle by SR 58, which carries travelers from Oak Ridge to downtown Chattanooga, is the largest and most developed. But Paint Rock Valley, much of its large landholding concentrated historically in a few families, is the more pastoral and picturesque.

The western border of South of the River is inhabited by a small population of exiles of the upper middle class, now living large in retirement on the river in grandish houses with speedboats out back. Pushing in on them from the surrounding ridges and small valleys and hollers is the majority of the population, much of it brought together by the 2.5 churches per square mile that call SOR home.

That area is where we live, a vast community of smaller farms like our own, family-operated dairies, and one-to-two-acre hardscrabble homesteads. There is very little commercial life, aside from the occasional general store, in South of the River, and no incorporated towns. There are lots of gardens, pigs, cattle, chickens, and multipurpose workshops.

The designation “South of the River” is often used derogatorily by residents north of the river. It’s a wrong-side-of-the-tracks designation. But to those who live South of the River, it’s a place where boys still learn to stick-weld and girls still put up produce with their grandmothers, a hinterland of self-reliance, affordable enough for working people to own a modest piece of land, though never to grow rich from the same.

Twenty-first century South of the River is still, much of it, a tight-knit land of multigenerational families living next to each other. Like Roane County at large, SOR until 10 years ago had no building codes, leaving the architecture and site location eccentrically random. This area always has been, and probably always will be, a make-do landscape — a mix of modest homes with well-tended gardens and pieced-together trailers that repurpose abandoned schoolbuses to house goats.

My guess is that South of the River, which has never enjoyed wealth, will maintain a resilience long after more prosperous and less resourceful communities fall into crisis. That you can’t miss what you never had might just be the proud motto of the ridges and valleys of SOR. That reality might also be the area’s greatest strength.

Small Town Resilience

Last week a colleague spent three hours advancing 15 miles in the cancerous landscape of Atlanta.

Around the same time, I was commuting in central Missouri down a two-lane highway through a largely depopulated land of corn and beef cattle ornamented with the occasional red-brick one-room schoolhouse sitting in a grove of trees. The schoolhouses, long empty, were universally well kept, no broken windows, grass mowed—buildings cared for symbolic of the hope or expectation that they might once again serve a purpose.

The housing stock was older, yet well cared for and solid. But it was a lonely landscape of older couples and few children. I drove past the occasional activity of men in distant fields loading hay onto trailers using tractors built to accomplish much, the work done with such little effort as would have stunned even their grandfathers. Little effort and fewer people, freeing up the children and grandchildren to follow the classic road to town and city, a well-worn path since the ancient world, but one accelerated by our fossil-fueled innovations.

I stopped for the night in Boonville, Missouri, on the banks of the Missouri River. Boonville is not a prosperous town. Its trail of empty strip mall architecture dribbles from the outer fringe of the town’s core to the interstate, signaling a raising of the drawbridge, a calculated retreat against a yet unacknowledged enemy. But the core is still vibrant with neighborhoods, small-town hardware and furniture stores, plumbing and electrical businesses, an elegant restored hotel, a diner, and a bar and grill.vfiles38877

That evening I walked from the old hotel to the bar and grill, a place called Maggie’s, for dinner. The Midwest small-town bar and grill is unique. It is the genuine third place Ray Oldenburg spoke about. Warm and friendly, with people of all ages and classes: farmers, workers and professionals, town and country, producer and consumer. These gathering spots are spread across the agricultural heartland. They are the glue to the community, providing face-to-face time between neighbors. Time not gained in a traffic jam.

I am not naively asserting a rural idyll, without strife, tension, unemployment, severed families and the ills of too much idle time. Yet the small town is fundamentally more resilient, resilient because of its smallness and its proximity to productive land. Rural communities, with their face-to-face interactions, have provided the template for human existence for the past thousands of years.

Communities within a megacity are a mere echo of that life. They can nourish and sustain in the ascendancy, but their larger host survives only as wealth is pumped in from the outside world. When the pump is turned off, the decline is inevitable and rapid. Consider Rome, from a city of a million to a village of thousands in the space of mere generations. Or the specter of Detroit, reduced by half in one generation.

Perhaps these Boonvilles, these freshly painted one-room schoolhouses, these Midwestern pubs are the starter-cultures for the wort, the yeast for the fermentation required to restart the small farm, small-town life, a way to redirect the human trajectory from the cancerous growth to the healthy organism, from the complex to the comprehensible?

The cities like Atlanta in our landscape offer nothing but a promise of continued sprawl, congestion, and three hours and 15 miles stalled in the present. And if history is the judge, they offer us nothing in their inevitable decline.

For all the problems in that rural Missouri landscape, it is still one of latent hope. The problems it faces are fundamentally local and scalable. And if the survival of our future allowed bets, mine would be on the Boonvilles and rural counties in this land.

 

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.

Basic Farm Lessons: Part 3

  • Caring for tools: A couple of hours each year of rubbing linseed oil onto wooden handles will keep tools at the ready for years to come.
  • Obtaining tools: Take a few hours twice a year to attend a farm auction. It is an inexpensive way to pick up tools you did not know you needed—three dollars for a tool to remove bark from a log.
  • Your copy of the Rural Weekly Informer: Take the time to talk with the neighbors. Whether hearing of a death, of a birth or just plain old-fashioned gossip, this may well be your only chance to gain valuable knowledge of your community.
  • Never gossip … well, never call it gossip: Control the smirk on your face as you work the latest gossip into a conversation. It is more seemly and manly to assume a mature visage, as if imparting this bit of news for a valid reason.
  • Beating the heat: Wake when it is first light, go to the garden and pull weeds. Reentering the house, remove the annoyingly smug look on your face upon finding your partner sucking on her first cup of coffee.
  • Beating the heat #2: Starting mid-July, take a late afternoon walk in the woods with the dogs. It is a smart thing to do. The weather is too hot for work under the sun, and the chanterelles are beginning to carpet the ground under the mixed hardwoods.
  • Dog races: Let the dogs run unrestrained after the bolting deer. They won’t catch them, and the chase takes them far from the fawns hidden in the brush.
  • Sound show: Use an approaching thunderstorm as an excuse to sit and watch the horizon, listen to thunder and drink a cold beer.
  • Dinner plans: While sipping that beer, mentally review the larder. Dinner should be based on what you have provided.
  • Reaping what you sow: Perfectly marbled ribeyes from a steer raised out on your land, potatoes dug minutes before baking, juicy tomatoes still warm from the sun—a fine homegrown meal is well worth the time and sweat. It’s an essential farm lesson that needs learning only once.photo (5)
  • Farm flexibility: Company showing up unexpected requires only extra place settings and the ability to not fuss about quantities in a recipe. A handful of this and a dash to the garden are all that is needed when friends sit at the table.
  • The purpose: A missing lamb takes priority, dinner can wait. Because without first being a good husband to the animals in your charge, the table would be bare.
  • Light show: Before sleep, walk to the top of the hill. Admire the lightning strikes in the tops of thunderheads near the Kentucky border. Pat the heads of your dogs, and walk back home in the dark.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Reading this weekend: God Against the Gods: the history of the war between monotheism and polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch.