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.

Feeling a bit giddy….

Perhaps at this juncture in life I should know better, know that doom and disaster lurk in the wings or that the gods of olden days wait to punish those who exercise hubris or at the very least good humor. But, damn it, it was hard yesterday not to feel a bit giddy with life. A beautiful blue sky greeted the sunrise, a temperature of 31 degrees felt spring like and quickly soared ending the day around 60.

That morning over coffee, encouraged by the weather, we filled a legal pad with our “To Do” list. Heading out the door to complete the morning feeding I ran into our neighbor Shannon, who has been helping us out on the weekends, walking up the drive. She got started on the annual cleaning of the chicken coop. We use a deep litter system where straw is added to the base every month to cover the manure and cleaned out once a year. She put the litter in the compost bins and swept the floors and sprinkled diatomaceous earth on the wood floors to cut down on mites. After putting fresh straw down she was off to give the front porch its annual scrub.

Cindy had headed out, meanwhile, to the farmer’s co-op for some supplies and to the feed store for some fifty gallon drums. We have worked out an arrangement with an area restaurant for their vegetable kitchen waste (hence the need for the extra drums). That waste will be used to feed out our pigs and the rest will be composted for our gardens.

Among the three of us we knocked out an impressive list: cleaning the coop, the porch, repaired and greased the sliding barn door, cleaned the barn gutters, took down the hoop tunnels in a fit of optimism, tilled a garden, planted a sixty foot row of red onions (thank you Russ) and three rows of mustard greens. We moved cattle panels after selling off a part of the herd last week for much needed cash, treated new piglets for a troubling cough and the inevitable lice, scrubbed buckets and took down old fencing. Using the tractor’s boom pole we pulled out an old post, put the auger on and drilled a new post hole, put the boom pole back on and pulled out the auger that had gotten buried to its head in the soil, which doesn’t count as a disaster because we solved the problem….

After a short nap we headed out to a dinner party for our neighbor’s son on the occasion of his 27th birthday. Home and in bed by 10pm and ready for another day, we still have a lot left to do from that legal pad. But, curse it I still feel a bit giddy.

I’ll close this week’s missive by noting the passing of our cat Mickey. At fourteen years of age he failed to show up for his breakfast a week ago. We can only surmise that he went off to die. A good cat, he will be remembered for his heroic and extremely funny mad dash from the barn, a dash that finished with a flying leap into a pack of dogs. The dogs were fighting with a stray and Mickey just wanted to get his own licks in before the dog took off. Rest in peace, Mickey!


Reading this weekend: Not the Future We Ordered: peak oil, psychology and the myth of progress by John Michael Greer and The Cooking of Southwest France: recipes from France’s magnificent rustic cuisine by Paula Wolfert.

A Farm Weekend

Weekends on the farm: Attending a farm estate auction last weekend, picking up various tools and putting them back down, kicking the tires on a nice horse drawn buggy ($800), told by the estate operator “We can come down on anything you are interested in” and not really interested in anything enough to pay cash for, so we stood in the doorway to the barn and watched snow start to fall. An elderly man stood next to us as big heavy flakes drifted out of the sky. We talked about the weather for a few minutes.

After polite conversation he said cheerfully, “Since my wife died I can buy pretty much any damn thing I want.“ He went on to speak of the five tractors and bulldozer he had bought in just the last few months. “I could buy this whole estate if I just had room to put it.” Weather worsening, he then volunteered that he had to “go to the house” and we said the same.

This past Friday we both took some time off from work to attend a mule and draft horse equipment auction an hour and a half northeast. A cold rain fell in Mascot as the auctioneer ran through his high-speed pitch on the virtues of plows with broken handles and buggies with mismatched tires. A lot of items were selling for $5-10, a wagon sold for $75, with only about three bidders in the crowd of a couple hundred. We exercised restraint and headed toward home. That night we joined a group of other farmers to watch a documentary on creating an English forest garden. We ate our fill of BBQ and drank some deadly homemade Belgian ale (curse you Tim and Russ) before leaving with a beautiful mix of orange and purple carrots.

Saturday morning we were up before dawn doing the usual chores. Caleb and I cleaned out the barn, part of an annual spring cleaning. A few hours later,the barn now cleared of accumulated junk and the
truck bed full, I headed to the county landfill. From there,
I ran up onto the Cumberland Plateau to bring home our horse wagon from a farm where it had been being used.

By the time I returned Cindy and our neighbor Sara had butchered and processed nine roosters, cleaned up the mess and were moving on to other endeavors. The rest of Saturday I spent setting up a new germination room for the garden, tilling the late winter garden. (Today the low hoop tunnels will be set up for early crops of kale, mustard, spinach and cabbage.) Cindy spent the late afternoon light working our Haflinger in harness. Coffee, final chores and then our neighbor Adrienne joined us for dinner.

This morning, back up before dawn with the usual chores–then the last couple of hours spent trying to load hogs for market. Loading hogs, as you may recall, requires the patience of Job. One is loaded and three more to go. We can outwait if not actually outwit these hogs.

And there you go, a standard weekend on the farm: work, community and pleasure.


Reading this weekend: The Localization Reader: adapting to the coming downshift, edited by De Young and Princen and published by MIT. Well worth picking up.

A Gosling’s Demise

Two years ago our formerly large flock of Pomeranian geese had dwindled to one aged pair. The Pomeranians are not known for their success at setting, often abandoning the nest before the eggs hatch. Wanting to get some more goslings we took four eggs from their nest and hatched them out in the Brinsea. As geese age the eggs decrease both in fertility and viability. So, it was without real surprise when only one hatched fully and another peeped for a few days before dying.

We put the sole gosling in a makeshift brooder in the library. After a couple of days Cindy broke down and bought some Wyandotte and Partridge Rock chicks to keep the gawky gosling company. We named him Andre the Giant as he lumbered around with the tiny chicks. The chicks snuggled up to him at night for warmth.

After a week we moved them all to the brooder in the coop. After another two weeks we tried introducing the gosling to her parents. They first shunned and then drove it through a fence. We pulled the gosling out and put it back with the chicks.

The next weekend we tried it again. The gosling was now a few pounds and just feathering out. The parents responded with total indifference, which we saw as an improvement to attacking their offspring.

Later that same day Cindy saddled up her horse and I gathered the chainsaw, barbed wire and various tools. Some cattle had gotten out and an afternoon of repairs awaited us in the backfields. It took a little coordination between Cindy’s horsemanship and my gate opening before the cattle were back in our fields. Another hour or so and the fence was repaired. Cindy saddled up and headed home while I followed with the tractor.

Upon our return we discovered the gosling gone. A thorough search of the enclosed paddock and we were unable to find her. The fencing was strong and predator proof. Except, and this was a weakness that only then was glaringly apparent, the gate that led into the pig paddock. An inescapable truth, the gosling slipped into the paddock with four hungry hogs. Nothing remained.

Today only the goose remains, the gander having been killed by coyotes last year.