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.


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

A Farm Toolbox: Mattocks

This addition to the toolbox includes a “threefer”, a garden mattock, a weeding mattock and a pick mattock. These tools are pulled out of the toolbox when you are serious about the job at hand. Dirt will fly, pigweed will die and clay and chirt will disappear. Just make sure to mind the eyes when swinging the pick mattock.

Our three mattocks posing on the carry-all.

Our three mattocks posing on the carry-all.


Pick Mattock: this mattock has an adze on one end and a pick on the other. The mattock sits on a squat three foot handle. We use this to help start or finish digging out large holes. It is also used to excavate trenches. Stand in a wide stance over the hole, raise the mattock to a 45 degree angle and bring it down with force. Good things will happen.

Weeding Mattock: this mattock has a four-inch adze on one end and a two-inch adze on the other. It is attached to a long slender handle. This mattock is perfect for weeding in an established garden, an elegant tool that allows one to reach in among plants with ease. And with that long handle and light business end, I find that it makes light work in the garden of grubbing out intruders.

Garden Mattock: An adze on one end and a cultivator on the other, mounted on a short 12 inch handle this is a one-handed tool. This is my favorite tool to use when doing a quick weeding of the herb garden. Or, one Cindy grabs to clean a flower garden. It has a real heft that allows the adze end to grub out serious taproots. And the cultivating end has tines that are strong enough to work in the toughest soils. A sweet tool made sweeter by the purchase cost of a couple of dollars on a clearance table.


Homestead Tip: a cider mill shreds cabbage. I took fifty pounds of freshly harvested cabbage, cut into quarters and ran it through our cider mill. It took about fifteen minutes. I then salted it and pressed it into the crock. It has been quietly fermenting away in the corner of the library. Pretty nifty!

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?


The Farm Toolbox: the Rock-Bar

Archimedes may have had a rock-bar in mind when he postulated “Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the earth with it.” It is a six-foot iron bar, weighing twenty pounds, with a round flat head on one end and a wedge on the other; a perfect combination of form and function.

A gift from Cindy, on our first Christmas at the farm in 1999, the rock-bar is an rock-bar 001absolute essential in the farm toolbox. If you want a quick means test to separate the men from the boys, put a rock bar in their hands and step back and observe. We have had a lot of people volunteer to help on the farm over the years. Your average musclebound gym rat lasts about thirty minutes with the rock bar and indeed most farm work. Whereas that skinny wiry farm kid can use it all day.

Cindy and I can both speak with some authority, having dug hundreds of post-holes, of the accuracy in naming such a tool. When you have dug down through two feet of clay, only to hit a rock, the rock-bar is the only tool to shift it. Raising it high in the air, wedge side down, you bring it down with force, repeatedly. Like practice for a Russian gulag, you break big rocks into smaller rocks. It is hard work but intensely satisfying.

Once your hole is dug and your post is set, flip the bar over to the round edge. As dirt is added to the hole use a rhythmic pounding action to compact the dirt. It requires short brutal strokes around all sides of the post-hole. No substitute tool or action is as effective in firmly seating a post.

When not pulverizing big rocks into little rocks, the rock-bar moonlights as a lever. Got a stock trailer that needs to be shifted or a boulder that needs rolling up hill? It will do it and with minimal effort on your part. Seldom does a day go by without resorting to the rock-bar.

Form, function and even beauty come together when used by the right hands.

A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet Book: “L”

L is for Lard

Fear of fat, fear of flavor has driven from our less enlightened contemporaries knowledge that the word larder originally meant where the lard was stored or bacon hung. Replaced in the mid-twentieth century from its rightful throne by such offensive mass produced products as margarine and vegetable oil, lard deserves to be reconsidered.   

Rendering pork fat into lard for kitchen use is simplicity itself. Low in polyunsaturated fats and high in goodness it is hard to imagine our larder without jars of various rendered fats to choose from when cooking or baking. Leaf fat is rendered into the purest lard for baking; lard made from fatback for any recipe calling for butter; high heat lard smelling of porky goodness for Mexican dishes or slices of lardo, cured and hanging under the stairs, used to dress up some fresh baked bread, all have their times and uses. All pay homage to the pig and ones efforts at nose to tail eating.

Just remember that the cure for any “lard ass” is not the fat you use but the activity you choose. Get up off that aforementioned body part and move.


Reading this weekend: Wildflowers of the Smokies by Peter White

A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet Book: “K”

K is for Kraut

Kraut, kimchi or kraut-chi: That simple alchemy of veggies and sea salt yields delicious and shelf stable nutritious food in a few short days, championed by Misters Price, Katz and Vaughn. Made from whatever is in season but always benefitting from the crunch of cabbage. Chop your veggies, mix with salt and stuff into a jar and you are off.

Since joining the Church of the Holy Fermented Veggie we usually have a jar or two or five bubbling away on the kitchen counter. Combine cabbage with celery and caraway seeds for a straight forward kraut. Or add in apples for a nice fall dish. Or consider turnips and greens, poblanos or Sriracha, ginger and fish sauce, tomatillos and even anchovies, kohlrabi, pears, garlic, onions or Brussels sprouts in any mad combination you wish. And you will have only begun to scratch the surface of possibilities.

All will be tasty and good in the end. We promise… if not feed the extra to your pig. He will thank you and return the favor. We know.


A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet Book: “G”

“G” is for Goose  

Guardian of the farm, savage frightener to children of all ages, centerpiece on the holiday table, loyal spouse and provider of a most excellent fat, this is the goose.

Its stately presence navigating the swathes of green grass is not unlike the pictures of a Spanish Galleon sailing the ocean. That noise from a flock, indicating a threat, whether coyote, pickup truck or child, inspires awe at high decibels. The roasted breast is as red and finely grained as the best beef. A confit of legs preserved in their fat is well served shredded over pureed green peas. These are the tastes of our holiday farm table.

And the final gift of a quart of fat from one bird, browning our roast potatoes for the next year, makes for an appreciative farmer.