The Meaning of a Local Table

Weather records kept on the farm are fairly casual. A semi-frequent journal entry documenting temperature or precipitation is about the best I manage. Those entries are usually prompted by one extreme or another: “too hot” or “too cold.” “Just right” seldom warrants an observation. Thankfully, other, more consistent individuals keep closer watch.Hubbards 002

The local weather keeper for Philadelphia, Tennessee, about 15 miles away, has so far recorded .15 inches for the month of May. My casual recordkeeping indicates closer to a half-inch. The average for the area for the month closes in on five inches.

How rain falls and how it is used is place based. How each farm uses the rain affects the productivity of the garden, the lives of the livestock, and the setting of the table. For maintaining an abundant garden, my preference is the slightly dry summer, as long as we have ample alternative sources to water the veggies, and our fairly extensive rain harvesting system meets that need in all but the most exceptional droughts.

But pastures need rain to be productive for a small livestock farm. Ample forage now for everyday needs and stored forage in the form of hay for the winter are essential. And both are at the mercy of the weather.

The frequency of our rotational grazing system for the sheep currently outpaces the slow growth of the forage: a typical week’s worth of grass is now being consumed in three short days, leaving us scanning the western ridge lines for the approach of rain.

Unless we get ample rain in the next couple of weeks, we will need to reevaluate the carrying capacity of our pastures. This decision will not affect our small cattle herd, for they are on fields ample enough to support their numbers. The grazing options of our sheep, because they require special predator-proof fencing, are much more limited.

So as it stands now, we will cull more sheep than we had previously intended, perhaps reducing the flock by a third, from around 45 to 25 or 30. We cull for a variety of reasons besides grass availability: age, susceptibility to parasites, poor mothering, problems lambing, or because a particular sheep is a simple pain in the ass. Ideally, we would market the ewes as mutton. Direct marketing allows us to get a better price than through the stock auction and rest more comfortably knowing the future of the selected animal.

Mutton has, however, been out of favor in this country for a number of years. Which is a shame. The meat has a mature flavor for a mature taste. It is the taste of a food tradition of place-based eating, a culinary table set with the dishes rooted in necessity and seasonal availability–two traits out of step with our collective national taste, that of a 12-year-old for whom tenderness and immediacy are prized over flavor and quality.

I used to joke that it took 24 months to make my chicken and sausage gumbo. Because it did take two full years to raise out the rooster for the pot. In the meantime, the old boy had plenty of time to be useful to the hens. That utility is the hallmark of the small farm: everything has a place in the overall productivity.

Which is why we continue to try and market the mutton each summer. And not just out of a necessity brought on by a lack of rain. It is the natural ebb and flow of the farmer, farm, and flock–the necessity of an annual cull creates availability of a unique meat for a local cuisine.

But these efforts remain unsuccessful because, although the buying habits of the consumer have changed, they are still predicated on buying for convenience. And as long as the small farm has to compete with corporate farming over convenience, the small farm (and the consumer) will lose. A truly sustainable farm needs a sustainable food tradition with which to partner, combining geography and a people.

In a truly local food system, it is the culture that adapts to the foods’ seasonal availability. The annual coq au vin made from the culled rooster in the fall, the slow-cooked leg of mutton from the culled ewe at the height of summer, both are simmered in a sauce made of freshly grown vegetables, herbs, and garlic. Both meals are place based, with a personal relationship with the farmer, pasture, and garden and seasoned by the utility of the ingredients.

It is this place-based cooking tradition that has the potential to nourish our lives, build resilient communities, and sustain the planet. It’s a local table that speaks about the people of that place, a people who today are scanning the ridge lines for a storm’s approach.

 

An Agrarian Life

“He lives the song he sings just as many of us sing the songs we don’t live.”

–Richard Taylor

 

It is a subject as old as the Roman poets: trying to live the song we sing. No doubt, as long as members of our race have felt consoled by the comforting embrace of empire, they have felt the snare grip their ankle as they tried to reclaim whatever was felt to them as an authentic life.

This blog is about farming, about the life of working the farm and the subtle ways that that life changes the participant. My farm life is a journey. A journey, if you will, about living those songs I sing. A journey that has taught me to live songs, often heard as if at a great distance, with muted lyrics, songs that once learned help loosen the grip of the snare.

Looking back over these 16 years of posts, certain themes regularly emerge: changes by a birth or death, the cycles of seasons, mistakes learned over and over again, the value of a willing partner, the companionship of friends and family, the rediscovery of the art of observing, the liberating value of work performed.

So too revelations of being more profoundly conservative and liberal than previously imagined. Not the conservative mindset of our chattering classes, with their mania of global commerce, their cavalier resource depletion, and their religious litmus tests. But instead, the timeless conservativism of careful consideration to structure, change, technology, land, and relationships. A growing awareness that progress and change, as needed on a farm, best proceed from thoughtful slowness.

And not the liberalism of our contemporary world, a cultural leveling to the lowest common denominator or the mire of identity politics–an effort to redress ills with broad strokes and imperial power–but a liberalism derived out of observation, of slowness, community, and responsibility, that by those acts, the world observed is seen with very different eyes. A narrowing of one’s focus, a localizing of compassion, can flower to encompass a wider realm.

Odd how this life has given this participant an active tolerance and intolerance concurrently: the former for the beauty and diversity of the natural world of which I am a part, the latter for the bad and boorish behavior of our own acts and the larger self-absorbed modernity.

How any of us loosens the snares that bind us is our own journey, our own song. It is, for me, the agrarian life, or at least my own approximation of how it should be lived, that continues to exercise a power to change. I still don’t know if I am living the song. But those lyrics, once muted, are now heard with greater clarity.

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Starting next week this blog will be split into two blogs. One, as yet unnamed, for these types of farm related musings. The second will be published under the farm name. It will address the specific farm life and business. More details to follow so you can decide which to “follow” as well.

Basic Farm Lessons: continued

  • Sky watching: A barn roof on a clear night is the best vantage to watch the Perseid meteor shower.
  • Communication: “I wouldn’t care to” means in these parts “I’d be happy to” … which is, helpfully, less confusing when you hear it uttered in person.
  • Butchering: Scalding temperature for chickens is 140-145 degrees, ducks a bit higher. Temperature for scalding your skin is 140, so scald with care.
  • Service: The postman in the country will hand deliver a card or two to your neighbor, without a stamp.
  • Communication 2: When a neighbor refers to another neighbor as “useless as teats on a boar,” he is not paying a compliment. Typically uttered when referring to a man’s procreative abilities when compared with his working abilities.
  • Forget proposed spaceflights to Mars: The three-point hitch and the PTO (power takeoff) on a tractor represent the pinnacle of modern technology.
  • Communication 3: A direct question seldom receives a direct answer. Usually, a “some might do it that way” is the most definitive you get.
  • Department of nothing-new-under-the-sun: Newly emerged leaves on the sassafras tree taste just like Fruit Loops.
  • Manure: One winter. 49 sheep. Weekly bedding. Result: a pile of manure 16 by 16 feet and up to eight feet tall.

    Manure equals wealth

    Manure equals wealth

  • Butchering 2: One large pizza, 12 beers, a butcher saw, and an assortment of very sharp knives are all three men need to break down a hog carcass on the kitchen table. (OK, and help from two women with the butchering, but not the beer.)

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Reading this weekend (again): The Hour by DeVoto. What is not to love about a man who can write the following opening paragraph: “We are a pious people but a proud one too, aware of a noble lineage and a great literature. Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past, of which by far the worst is rum.”

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

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.

Priorities and Validation

It is not that we do not have any interesting projects to occupy our time;
We have new electric fencing to string for the sheep,
And hooves to treat to prevent the spread of hoof rot.

There are trees to harvest for firewood and lumber,
And that new small barn to house the new draft horses
will not build itself.

We have a barn full of winter squash to bake and preserve,
Fencing the lower pasture in woven wire,
And another cattle barn, small, to be designed and built in that pasture.

Yet, on a day where the temperature has not yet budged above forty,
And a cold drizzle pours down, our day has been spent inside,
Drinking hot tea and taking naps.

And… and wondering why Google Maps has not updated the satellite picture
Of our small farm.

 

As seen from space

As seen from space

A Crow Perspective

The wind has been up and blowing hard in the high crowns of the oaks since dawn. The crows seem to love these times, their caws to each other in the trees having only recently returned to the soundscape—a clear indication that fall is near. The crows radiate intelligence and even nobility, black shrouds of solemnity observing the change of the season.

The maple leaves are turning backwards, a prelude to dying in a burst of color in another month or two. The woods are dense with an undergrowth of seedlings and brush. Rabbits seem to occupy the corner of every glance, as does the telltale flag of the deer bounding just out of sight. The high today of 72 is welcome after the recent late-summer blast of 90 degrees.

Last Monday evening Cindy and I were both involved in the type of farming accident that is always lurking in the background. We emerged cut, bloodied, bruised, battered and clothes in tatters. Fortunately neither of us ended up in the hospital, or worse, but for a few minutes that evening, it certainly could have gone either way. The cawing of the crows to each other overhead as we made our way back into the house relayed the news the old-fashioned way.

I left the next morning and caught a flight to my homeland of south Louisiana. It’s a place where the honorific “Mr.” or “Miss” still precedes the first name of an elder when addressed by someone younger. Walking with my dad, now 87, I watched with admiration as he was greeted repeatedly with a friendly “Hello, Mr. Bill.” At a farmer’s market, children approached my sister Kathryn with a respectful “Miss Kat.” At a fast food chain, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the same salutation was used with customers: “Mr. Brian” and I was handed my breakfast.

No crows heralded my arrival or departure from my ancestral home. But none were needed to convey the shades of change coming in the not-too-distant future. Life is, as they say, terminal, and unlike the ancient Romans, we do not need to consult the entrails of a slaughtered bullock to recognize the inevitable change and cycle in life. With my family in the evening, in a house full of laughter, I watched my dad, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The next morning, he was still hale and hearty as we two stood in the graveyard. The tombstones of my mother, sister, and brother and my dad’s mother, aunt, and father stood in front of us. Without sadness, my dad pointed out where he and my stepmother would be buried when their time comes.

Farming, as we do, fine tunes an appreciation of the inevitable cycles of life: butchering a rooster and hearing the peep of newly emerging chicks, delivering a ewe to the slaughterhouse and assisting in the birth of a lamb; helping our old dog as she struggles to rise from stiff slumber and savoring the first tomato of the season, grieving the death of a sister and sharing a glass of wine with her daughter.

The seasons change, the wheel moves, and the crows always return.

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Reading this weekend: Distant Neighbors: the selected letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. And, Larding The Lean Earth: soil and society in nineteenth-century America by Steven Stoll