Life and death in a rearview mirror

St. Patrick’s Day 2012 and our guests were arriving in the next hour for an annual dinner of corned pork. We corn a pork shoulder and cook it with cabbage and potatoes from the garden and larder. Invited friends come out, less for any shared heritage and more for a convivial evening of good food, drink, and conversation.

While final preparation moved forward, one of the yearling Katahdin ewes had been trying to lamb. She had been walking around in the pasture showing all the usual signs, and those signs eventually included a very large head protruding from her back end. We left her alone hoping she would get on with the job. Half an hour later, with no signs of progress, we moved her into a lambing pen in the barn.

We were both dressed for the get-together, not fancy duds, but nevertheless cleaned up with fresh clothes. Another half-hour went by and the ewe had made no further progress. We decided it was time to intervene. As I held the ewe, Cindy put her hand in the birth canal and extracted the forelegs. The head protruding showed no sign of life, and it looked grotesquely swollen. Applying pressure in sync with the ewe’s contractions, Cindy gradually pulled the lifeless lamb out. She then began swinging it by all four legs, then handed it to me to continue the exercise.

I grasped the slippery legs and swung, without any conviction that there would be any life in the limp body. But after a few minutes I saw the lamb begin to breathe. Cindy had meanwhile cleaned up the mother and filled up a fresh water pail. The lamb was a striking golden red and huge, at least 10 pounds. She looked exactly like a Hereford calf.

We emerged from the barn spattered with gore to find our guests beginning to pull up in their cars and trucks. We welcomed them, went back out to show them the mother and baby. The lamb was already on its feet nursing and seemed no worse for the long afternoon.

The vivid memory came back in detail this week as I drove my truck to the slaughterhouse. That golden red lamb, now grown with two lambings of her own, had reached the end of her time on our farm. We had decided to cull her. Her mother, as a Katahdin, is a hair breed, but her father was a woolly red Tunis. The cross resulted in a lamb with a thick red wool coat. We do not have any interest in wool or the time or equipment to shear those with wool coats. So, as this past season progressed, we culled all of the crosses.

It struck me how unusual the experience: to be both the giver of life and the deliverer to the executioner. This young ewe was a beautiful creature, noble even, as I viewed her standing in the truck bed in the rearview mirror.

A rearview mirror seemed an appropriate method for considering my role in her life and death: It conveys a vanishing landscape that with a few more turns of the road or an averted gaze recedes and disappears. It is an act of removal.

I pulled up at Morgan’s, turned over the ewe to the care of the man who would kill and butcher her. After concluding my business in the front office, I pulled back onto the highway. A last look in the mirror and nothing remained but the memory and a new view.

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Reading this weekend: A History of the Future, by James Howard Kunstler. The third in the “World Made By Hand” series. A weak and disappointing offering.

Pasture renewal, guns and boar semen

This Farm Note is from the archives, 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.”

Last Saturday, early, I hooked up the disc harrow and headed to the lower fields. It was time to reseed the lower pastures. The lower field, our primary hay field, is about six acres. There is an additional smaller field of about an acre, enclosed with woven wire, on which we intend to finish out lambs this spring and summer. Both were in need of reseeding. As I finished the smaller field I spied our neighbor trudging up the drive to visit.

He, of the paranoid fantasies about little Chinese men wanting his property, had not been seen much this long cold winter. We had both kept an eye on his chimney: as long as there was smoke we assumed he was okay.

Quite the character, about six foot, burly with a beard down to his belly that he keeps tied like a pony tail, usually stoned and a conversational style to match. As he approached he began to use his own personal semaphore code to direct the landing of my tractor. I signaled back that I needed three minutes to finish and I’d meet him at the barn.

Pulling through the gate I turned off the engine. “Hey man, how are you doing”, I said. “Since you are the landowner I’m required by Tennessee law to notify you that I’m carrying a loaded weapon onto your land”, he replied.

Shit, just what I want, a paranoid depressive with a loaded gun. It reminded me of the upstairs neighbors we had back on Morgan Ave in Knoxville: when they weren’t rattling our china in lovemaking they were rattling the china in fistfights with each other. One night Butch stormed down and banged on our door. Standing there wild eyed and waving a pistol he said, “I couldn’t start my car this morning, last night I saw a man who looked just liked you monkeying under the hood of my car. I him here to tell you if I see him again, I’ll start shooting”. “Butch”, I said. “Put your glasses on first”, and shut the door.

Well, as I stood there last Saturday with our neighbor, who informed me he hadn’t had a bath in two weeks (I had noticed, even in the stiff breeze), he kept reaching in his overalls under his arm like he was holding something. I thought that this could be a silly way to check out of life as he moaned about people driving new pick-ups that cost more than he had ever earned in his life.

I definitely did not like the turn of conversation. So, I invited him out to see our pigs. He likes pigs. He once worked on a large hog farm in North Carolina helping gather boar sperm. As we talked pigs he returned gradually to earth and left me with this priceless gem while he gazed fondly at our hogs: “I have had more boar semen on my left arm on a Saturday afternoon than most people shake salad dressing out on their salads all week”.

As he shambled back off down the drive I laughed long and hard. This was a better anecdote to share than the headline in the local paper that morning about the cops being called to the First Baptist Church of Rockwood to break up a fistfight between the pastor, who had just been fired, and his parishioners.

Ah, life in the country.

New Sawmill

A rare midweek post: here are some pictures of our new sawmill operation.

Sleep Walking

Another nice evening with our South Roane reading circle/supper club, starting around six it lasted until long after dark. We have gathered once a month for the past two years to read and discuss climate change and peak resources and how they might affect farming here in our county. We rotate the gatherings between our farm and Kimberly Ann farm a couple of valleys and ten miles away.

Usually about ten area farmers or residents gather, bring food, homemade wine or beer. Invariably we spend time walking around the gardens and barnyards, before or after eating, chatting about the weather, our successes and failures. After a couple of hours we settle in to discuss the topic for the night. The readings have ranged from Wendell Berry to new works on permaculture.

Last night we read a governmental assessment on the Knoxville Food-shed, covering the 11 counties bordering Knox. It was a fairly benign piece that surveyed the state of agriculture in the region, what the region was capable of producing and what it was currently producing. It was fairly ambitious in tone, yet like so many such documents it walked a bland bureaucratic line, offering some substance tempered by the language of restraint and institutional structure.

It outlined three recommendations for the food-shed: USDA slaughterhouses, food corridors and food hubs. As the evening progressed, between the wonderful spread of food, a few pints of the local brew and the stimulating conversation I realized that our current cultural vocabulary was inadequate to explain or anticipate the future.

We lack, in this age of abundance, the vocabulary of the past. Our knowledge of the cycles of history has been reconstructed into ever ascending cycles plateauing into greatness. Knowledge of dark forces in the past, of the ebb and flow of empires and stability, has no place in our vocabulary of the present. Even as the current generation of twenty-somethings matriculate in their parents’ homes or on friends’ couches; as the drought ridden Imperial Valley begins to resemble more and more its southern cousin, the Death Valley, or as the planet racks up another hottest year on record and another species goes extinct as you read these words, we still cannot conjure a language of need.

It is not that we need to learn the words of despair. But we desperately need to learn the language of limitations. A Sysco selling local produce is not going to change our global trajectory or solve either climate change or peak resources. One of these days, whether in ten years or a hundred, one of the children of this culture will once again be able to write convincingly these words written by Kathryn Anne Porter, “I am a grandchild of a lost war, and I have blood knowledge of what life can be in a defeated country on the bare bones of privation.”

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?