The old Morris chair celebrates Christmas

In the darkness, a couple of hours before sunrise, the wind has come up. I dress quietly, find my way downstairs. After making coffee, I take a seat in the old Adirondack chair on the front porch. The warm blast in advance of the cold front, roaring in like heavy surf at night, rolls over the wooded ridge and across the valley in waves. Becky, our aging stockdog, takes up point behind the chair, in easy reach of a comforting hand. Obstreperous bulls and boars are as nothing before her snarl, but a bit of rain, a rifle shot, or a clap of thunder sends her from the field in a cower.

Something has shaken loose out by the haybarn, prompting me to mutter a hope that it isn’t anything significant. As Christmas draws near, it is not visions of sugarplums, but rather vast sheets of plastic blowing off hoop-houses that dance in my head. Meanwhile, the yearling lambs bleat in protest at being woken up. I should tell them that with a month left on this earth, they’d best be up and enjoying the early morning. The butcher waits for no one.

Perhaps the great thread-spinners prompted me to do the same this morning — one never knows when death will arrive. On the eve of the winter solstice this year, we hosted the daughter of a best friend from college. Only 2 when her father unexpectedly passed away 22 years ago, she was now beginning a quest to visit his friends, to answer the unknowns of self and place.

It had been more than 33 years since I had shot pool and drunk Dixie beer in the Bayou with her father. I could hear him clearly in her voice and laugh, reminding me that we only think we are masters of our individual selves. A step back reveals context, threads connecting us as part of a larger and lovelier tapestry. Like the wind hurtling over the ridge, which began over the flat prairie, which began over the cold oceans, we have origins within origins rolling back, back, to the beginning and the before.

On the morning of the solstice we put my friend’s daughter in her car. She headed south to a Louisiana home she had never visited, a motherland that had nurtured generations of her father’s family. We wished her well and waved goodbye.

And now, this early morning, my coffee finished, the storm moving closer, I stand up and bring Becky into the house. She heads directly to hide behind the venerable Morris chair — a relic of a wedding suite belonging to my great-grandparents, bought in Boston on their honeymoon, brought home to Crowley, Louisiana, before journeying north to Tennessee, a century later, to this farm of their great-grandson.

I return to the wind and begin my morning chores, my first stop making sure the hoop-house is indeed intact. The pregnant ewes in the main barn let me know with familiar bleats that they wish to be fed and turned out into the fields. The ewes are only days from the start of lambing season, bellies hanging low, udders engorged, the struggles of birthing and raising last year’s offspring forgotten in this year’s discomfort of waiting for the new generation, fresh threads on life’s ancient tapestry.


Reading this weekend:  Small is Beautiful, by E. F. Schumacher. Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands: a book of the rural arts, by Allen H. Eaton. American Fantastic Tales, the two volume collection from the Library of America.

Decision Time

A week ago last Thursday I heard what sounded like the hiss of a fire. I sprinted from the kitchen in alarm, only to realize that a hard rain was falling on our metal roof. It ended a short 10 minutes later, giving us a meager two-tenths of an inch, qualifying as the only precipitation in the month of October. Add to it one rainfall in September and another the first of August and we have slipped into extreme drought this early November.January 2015 021

The fields on our farm are rock hard and parched from the topsoil on down. This week we planted our annual garlic crop in a four-inch layer of dust. On a trip to Georgia last Monday, we drove through an hour and half of smoke from the mountains; the newspapers report that north Georgia and Alabama are on fire.

Farming requires an optimism that good times will return sooner than later. But it also requires a pessimism, a conservatism that leads us to prepare for the worst, to be resilient. So we hoard our water supply (when cisterns and well-house spigots are not left on and forgotten absentmindedly). We stockpile hay, we mulch, we sell unused and unneeded equipment, and we cull old, ornery, and unproductive livestock.

Last year also began in drought. A slim first hay cutting forced us to cut our flock of Katahdins by half. Eventually the rains returned, rejuvenating our pastures and restoring our confidence in the number of mouths we could afford to feed through winter and lambing. The 2016 winter-spring lambing season rewarded us with a hefty crop of lambs, and we were able to sell off many of our weanlings, some to customers stocking their own freezers, some to individuals wanting to begin flocks of their own. It’s an annual event that brings in needed farm income and hedges our bets against the future.

In this period of extreme drought, it was with some surprise to us that we purchased another eight ewes and a yearling ram a week ago. The decision was based on simple economics: the ewes were all bred and offered at a price we couldn’t pass up, the owner having sold out because of the drought. We have an adequate stock of hay on hand and assurances to purchase more at pre-drought prices, and with that as security, we made the decision to carry an expanded flock through winter.

Yesterday, after a morning spent castrating piglets, we spent the afternoon working the sheep. We trimmed hooves, wormed a couple, and separated out the rams and market wethers from the ewes. With the ewes beginning lambing season in January, pulling the boys will help the females maintain condition and prevent a late lambing. The males are segregated in another paddock, where the rams will recondition after servicing the ewes and this year’s wethers will continue to grow out before being butchered in February.

The task of separating rams and wethers is always a bit of a rodeo. First we enclose them in a pen, with Cindy working the gate while I wade into the flock. She points and I grab, lifting the chosen one off his front legs. At between 125 pounds for the wethers and 175 for the older ram, the boys give me a workout. Once I have a firm grip, Cindy opens gates and I haul the sheep out to the corral. Then our English shepherd, Becky, moves them to another paddock as the ewes cluster around the gates for the farewell.

Such is the recipe for our farming decisions: pragmatic optimism, seasoned with conservative management of resources; ample hard work; choices made based on what is possible. Ah, that our political leaders adhered to the same.


Reading this weekend: Alternative Agriculture: a history from the Black Death to the present day. By Joan Thirsk

Where does the time go

The lambs can see the light on in my study. One does wonder what goes on in their not-too bright brains. But clearly the connection is made that the master or possibly their slave is up and should be attending to their needs. Those bleats in turn raise the hopes of the sheep in the barn. Which signal to the hens to clamber off perches and wait for the door to open. There are bugs to catch, my good man, get to it!

After tending to their endless needs we spent some time helping a neighbor dig twelve post-holes. They are in the process of installing a new solar array for their farm. Working the auger always takes a few practice holes to get in the swing. But we were in fine form after four were dug. It was on the fifth hole that our luck changed as we buried the auger in the ground. After squandering an hour trying to get it out of the ground we regrouped. Our neighbor hit upon an easy solution. We removed one of two bolts holding the auger onto the head assembly, ran a piece of rebar through the hole and spun it counter-clockwise. A miracle!

Green tomatoes

Green tomatoes ready to be pickled

Returning back home for a well-earned nap I awoke to find the season of salvage continuing with a session of making dilled green tomatoes. After harvesting about ten pounds of small green tomatoes, Cindy cleaned, halved and quartered them in preparation for canning. Adding a bit of garlic, dill, coriander seeds to the mix we quickly knocked out six pints and two quarts. I salted down the rest into a crock and put them in a corner of the study with a half-dozen demijohns of wine and perry. All were bubbling away merrily by morning.

We finished up our weekend with a two hour excursion up to Hancock County. A wild, beautiful and very isolated county of only 7000 souls. Cindy wanted to view and possibly purchase a new draft pony as companion to Caesar. After crossing the Clinch Mountain, with innumerable switchbacks up and down, we finally arrived at our destination. But only after a long drive down a one lane road, where an oncoming car backed a quarter mile to allow us to pass.

Cindy viewed and she purchased and we returned home. The whole of the weekend passing quickly. Leaving me with that feeling that somehow I haven’t measured up, was not productive. And to cap it off where I started, the lambs are now bleating for dinner.


Reading this weekend: Marcus Cato’s “On Agriculture”.

A Season of Salvage

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Muscadine and scuppernong grapes

There is a day each year. A day when you find yourself in the kitchen slicing the last of the season’s ripe tomatoes, a moment you have lived before, knew was in the cards. A day when the vines are still heavy with green tomatoes. A shortened day in which those green tomatoes will never fully ripen, destined instead for frying or making chowchow. How did that unstoppable summer deluge become a trickle and then a drought?

So begins fall, a chance to cherish what is passing before the weather turns to ice and snow — both too soon to dream of the fallow winter, when the cold months spoon next to the season of rebirth, that bare season, stark in its absence of greenery, when our native imagination colors in the palette of the riches to come, and too late to partake of the fresh bounty of the summer season just passed. The in-between season.

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A killing cone for chickens.

Fall is the season of salvage, of scouring the fields and paddocks for useful leftovers. In modern parlance, it is the sustainable season. A rush to harvest the last of the fruit to preserve in jams, jellies, chutneys, and wines. A time to take stock with some soul searching of Aesop’s Fables significance: Do we have enough firewood? Did we use our time well last winter, spring, summer in preparation for the next year? It is a time of movement, cattle to new pastures and forage to shelter. A time to glean the excess hens and roosters, butchering for hours to stock the larder for the gumbo and chicken and dumplings that will get us through the cold months to come.

Fall is a time of hog fattening. The cruel reward for an ability to gain 300 pounds in nine months comes with a knife wielded the week after Halloween. The bounty is delivered to us in sides of bacon, salted hams, corned shoulders, butcher’s wife pork chops, hand-seasoned breakfast sausages, headcheese, pates, and bowls of beans with ham hocks.

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Assorted lambs for winter customers.

Fall is also sheep-breeding time. As the days and nights cool, the ram has his pleasurable work cut out for him, making sure all ewes are bred. We, servant-like, make sure the ewes are conditioned for lambing, in good health, hooves trimmed, attending to their every need. Meanwhile, last winter’s lambs are grazing in their own pasture, fattening before they fall under the butcher’s sword in the remaining months of the year.

Fall is the season of coming face to face with imminent and unavoidable death. It is the fever of the dying year, the mumbled words from the patient in the bed trying to get his affairs in order, to make amends. So much to do and so little time.

It is a season of contrasts, when we eat a ripe tomato while composting the vine it grew on, feed a pregnant ewe while fattening for slaughter her year-old offspring, crush grapes and pears while sipping the wine made last year. Past, present, and future are jumbled in this most hopeful season, when we weigh the year to come to see what is left in the balance.

Like a culture that prepares for a future generation, this work is undertaken for a year not yet born.

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.


Delores Visits the Country

It is both a joy and a curse to have a tin roof on the farmhouse. The slightest patter of rain, easily ignored on the now-conventional shingled roof, is instantly audible on the metal. There is usefulness in lying in bed and listening as the rain begins; you don’t need to tune in to the radio for the forecast, much less peer out the window, to know which way the wind blows.

The curse is that it serves as an unwanted alarm clock in the pre-dawn hours: a reminder that the barn jacket is still hanging on the fence post, that a favorite hand tool is in the back of the pickup, that you have a dozen things to complete, rain or shine, the next day. Once awake, you hear the dogs bark … and you start wondering if Delores has escaped her paddock, again. And so the day begins. The brain shifts into gear, and you roll out of bed, unwillingly, and get dressed. And as you make coffee and step out into the early morning, whatever rain you may have heard on that tin roof has moved on to other pastures. The day, when it dawns, will be with clear skies.

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Twin sisters.

As I went about my chores this morning, I found that no new lambs had been born and the new hog, Delores, was still contained. The previous morning during feeding had revealed another ewe with brand-new healthy and active twins. The score for lambing season to date is 6 ewes:11 lambs; 9 ewe lambs:2 ram lambs; 14 more ewes to go. As with all new births, yesterday morning’s mom and babies were separated into a lambing pen, where they will stay for a day or two. The maternity ward gives us a chance to observe and a chance for the mother to adequately bond with her new offspring. Today or tomorrow, she will be turned out with the other new moms and their charges.

Delores considers dinner.

Delores considers dinner.

Yesterday, we spent the bulk of the morning reinforcing one of the pig paddocks near the gardens to receive an incoming pregnant gilt. We had not intended to get back into breeding stock, but a number of our local sources for feeder pigs have had troubles this winter and have nothing to show for their labors. That, rightfully, should be a warning to us as well. But we plunged ahead and made a bargain to purchase Delores instead. She should farrow for the first time around the beginning of March.

Delores, a yearling black pig of about 200 pounds, had heretofore been a pet. The woman selling her said she hadn’t realized how fast and large pigs grew. Cindy headed out late morning to pick up the hog. I, meanwhile, spent the time butchering and cleaning roosters. I was just finishing scrubbing down the equipment after packaging and freezing the birds when she returned, Delores in tow.

We had a quick late lunch and easily introduced Delores into her new, spacious digs. We secured her with the final bit of fencing, gave her fresh water and retired for our afternoon nap.

Awaking refreshed, we had our coffee before heading out to do our late-afternoon chores. Dinner guests would arrive within a couple of hours, and dinner would need to be prepared. We stopped by the pig paddock first. Spotting the hog panel thrown up at an odd angle, we knew immediately that “Houston, we have a problem.”

Delores, in the space of an hour and half, had escaped from her paddock through an unsecured hog panel, trundled down a ravine, been discovered in a neighbor’s front yard, enticed into a goat pen, escaped from that pen, and walked back up the hill into the ravine. And that is where we found her, 200 yards down a steep hill from where she had begun to explore the countryside. It should have ended in a catastrophe. But within five minutes she had followed Cindy, and a bucket of feed, back home. We spent the next 30 minutes reinforcing the fencing, then completing chores, before heading in to cook for our evening guests.

Which is undoubtedly why, this morning at 4 a.m., I awoke to the feather-light rain on the roof and wondered, “Where is Delores?”

Ten reasons I’m thankful this Thanksgiving Day

  • That we had a fatted lamb to slaughter. And we have ten friends with whom to share our meal.
  • That I have spent another year on this planet without experiencing true want or hunger. I acknowledge that experience is an anomaly in human history.
  • That we still live in a global economy and good scotch is only a containership away. Hopefully the memories and skills to build clipper ships remain in the years to come.
  • That I had the help of Hannah and Caleb this year as we rebuilt fences on the farm. Without their help and younger backs I’d be further behind and the cattle would be roaming our valley.
  • That I had a chance to reconnect with my older sister Cynthia these past five years. Now that she has passed away I am reminded once again of the fragility of our lifelines. Carpe Diem.
  • That I have lived in the epoch where antibiotics were discovered. A casual walk through the nearby church cemetery reminds one of the costs of their absence.
  • That a literate culture still thrives, that my library is well stocked, Wendell Berry lives and PG Wodehouse never died.
  • That my barn jacket, spattered with blood, cuffs ripped from barbed wire, reeking of honest sweat and manure from countless encounters…still keeps me warm after a dozen years.
  • That my family had the good sense to settle in Louisiana in the 1700’s. And, even if I left the motherland, the knowledge that everything begins with a roux is a good foundation in life.
  • And, that my partner is obsessive enough to bake bread, make yogurt and build cabinets and furniture in her spare time.

Everyone have a good Thanksgiving.